Friday, December 12, 2008

My Perfect Moment with Wallace Shawn

For some reason, last night, I found myself thinking about Wallace Shawn. Sometime back in the early 90s, I had to walk across campus to pick up some software. I was strolling down the sidewalk, headed west on Iowa Avenue by the English-Philosophy building. It was spring or fall, a bit crisp, maybe a breeze now and then. Someone was walking along the sidewalk toward me. I was enjoying the fresh air and the sunshine, not really paying attention to whoever it might be, when suddenly, I realized I knew who this guy was. It was Wallace Shawn.

I'd seen Wallace Shawn in movies and TV shows, among them The Princess Bride and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
I enjoyed his quirky characterizations, the zaniness he always brought to his roles. I remembered him most from My Dinner with Andre, one of my favorite movies. I admired the courage it must have taken to write and star in a movie about two men talking over dinner, and the talent it took to make a great movie about a conversation between two people, with no action, no change of scene, no other characters. This was not just some U of I student or professor walking toward me. This was Wallace Shawn!

As the distance between us decreased, I could feel my mouth curling into a little smile. The Grand Nagus Zek! Vizzini! Right here, in front of me! Headed toward me! Looking at me! My face broke into a huge grin. And as Wallace Shawn saw the smile on my face grow and grow, a small smile sprouted on his face, and as we approached each other, it too enlarged, until we were two smiles walking toward each other on the sidewalk by Iowa Avenue.

And suddenly, he was beside me, and then we kept on walking, him eastward, me westward. I took a few more steps, maybe twenty feet more, and stopped and turned. And there was Wallace Shawn, who also had stopped and turned. We looked at each other for a moment, each of us grinning ear to ear. Maybe I nodded, maybe he gave me a short wave.

And then I turned again and walked on.

I've always thought about this moment. I've had a few other brushes with celebrity or near-celebrity. I was waiting for the bus one winter day when Al McGuire and Billy Packer, the college basketball announcers, walked by. McGuire was relaxed, smiling, approachable, comfortable with the looks he was drawing from everyone. But Packer had this nasty glare that seemed to have "restraining order" written all over it. Once, at a party, I got a beer for Linus Torvalds, the guy who developed Linux.

But this moment with Wallace Shawn was different, pregnant, ripe. I sometimes wonder, what if I had walked back toward him? What if I had said something? Whole universes germinate and grow from this soil: Wallace Shawn inviting me to dinner. Wallace Shawn asking me to read something he's writing. Wallace Shawn inviting me to New York. Wallace Shawn mentioning me on a talk show.

But there was something about that moment that was perfect, just as it was, just as it always will be. My perfect moment with Wallace Shawn.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Summer Pictures

I've uploaded several photos from the vacation Di and I took in July.

I've also uploaded a few of the flowers and garden spiders around the yard. Fran said she'd like to see them.

The spiders are
Argiope aurantia, completely harmless to humans.

It's been pretty quiet here, after the flood receded. Much of the campus is still off limits while disaster crews clean up the buildings and utility tunnels. A couple buildings are reopening just in time for the start of fall term.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Odds and Ends from the Trip

Happy Birthday Shirt

Di wore a red top a couple of days, and we learned that when a Filipino sees someone wearing a red shirt, they will tell you "Happy Birthday." No one seems to know when or how or why this custom began.

Fresh Fruit

We bought fresh mangos and bananas a couple of times at the markets in Tabaco and Legaspi. They were delicious! The bananas had a more intense flavor than the bananas we buy here in the States, and the mangos were wonderfully juicy and tasty.


Kalamansi are small green citrus fruit and are served instead of lemons and limes, with iced tea, for example. I ordered a lemonade at one restaurant and got kalamansi-ade. It was all right, different from lemonade, not what I expected.

Traveler's Tummy

None of us came down with traveler's tummy on the trip, even though we weren't completely conscientious about trying to avoid it. For example, we used tap water when brushing our teeth. American food did give me a little stomach trouble for a day or two after we returned.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Home Again, Home Again

Monday, June 23--This is our last full day in the Philippines. I feel much better, but I don't push my luck. I stay at the Pepperland while Di, Fran and Ed hike up Lignon Hill, a high hill at the outskirts of Legaspi, with a great view of the city and the area.

In the afternoon, Fran takes Di and I for a massage at a place Lance recommends. Aaaaaaahhhhh!!! Then we all meet Helga and Leo downtown for a good-bye meal. The restaurant that Fran wanted to go to is not open yet, so we dine at the Jollibee, the Filipino version of an American burger chain. It's an emotional good-bye. Helga and Leo give us a bag full of gifts--pili nut candy, shoes, some key chains. And when Di admires Helga's bracelet--hand-made by Helga's sister--Helga takes it off and gives it to Di to keep.

Tuesday, June 24--Fran goes with us to the Legaspi airport. We've had a great trip, and we're sad to say good-bye. Soon, though, we're in the air, headed for Manila. Navigating security and immigration at the Manila airport is a real adventure, but eventually, we're flying into the night across the Pacific.

After 12 hours in the air, another layover in Vancouver, and a much shorter hop south, we're in the arid 104-degree heat of Las Vegas--and it's still June 24. The ways of the International Dateline are mysterious.

Our flight home doesn't leave until next morning. We've booked a night at the McCarran Best Western. The hotel van doesn't show up, and when we're finally in our room and order a room-service pizza, it's half an hour late. Says Ed, "Isn't it great to be back in the U.S., where everything works?"

Note: All the pictures from our trip are available here.

Missed It By That Much

Saturday, June 21--In the morning, we learn that typhoon Frank veered westward overnight. The main part of the storm misses us. We did get some wind and rain, but nothing damaging.

We're determined to go to Rizal Beach. We've heard it's one of the nicer beaches in the Bicol region, which is not a touristy area and is not known for its beaches. We walk downtown, trike to the jeepney terminal, and take a jeepney to Gubat, where we get on another trike and head out of town for the ocean.

At the beach, we rent a cabana for a couple hours. The cabana has bamboo walls, a dirt floor, a shower, a comfort room (the Filipino term for bathroom), and even a little sink and wood stove. We take a long walk up the deserted beach. I've been spoiled by south Florida, and the trip is finally catching up with me and I feel exhausted, so I just hang out in the cabana while Di and Fran and Ed go for another walk and wade in the surf.

Then we head back to Sorsogon and rent another van and driver. We head back to the Villa Isabel, load our stuff, and motor up to Legaspi. We check into the Pepperland Hotel, the most luxurious hotel of our entire stay: huge rooms, bathtubs, and they even take Visa.

We watch CNN International and learn that typhoon Frank capsized an interisland ferry, and scores of people are missing and presumed drowned. We'd been watching CNN occasionally all trip--the flooding in Iowa has been headline news, even here. It was strange, seeing our hometown on the tube halfway around the world. But even with all its damage, the flood did not kill anywhere near the number of people that Frank has.

Sunday, June 22--As Di and Ed and I eat breakfast, Fran walks into the Pepperland with Marcus, a Peace Corps volunteer who lives in Legaspi and Fran's close friend. We all have breakfast, and then Marcus leaves and the rest of us head downtown for some shopping. The people in Legaspi apparently are used to seeing Anglos, and we don't get the stares and the "Hey, Joe" that we did in Tabaco and Sorsogon.

This is my worst day of the trip. I'm exhausted, and my throat is raw, either from the jet lag, or the trike and jeepney fumes, or both. I trike back to the Pepperland alone and hang out in the room. But I rally in time for dinner. We meet Marcus and his roommate, Lance, at the Small Talk Cafe and have a great time. The food is excellent, kind of a Bicol-American fusion.

The Coming Storm

Thursday, June 19--We check out of the Gardenia Hotel. Our plan is to spend a couple days in Sorsogon, a town down the coast from Tabaco, and spend a day at Rizal Beach, near Gubat, a smaller town near Sorsogon. We've had a nice stay in Tabaco, but it will be good to get Fran away for awhile. She's been trying to please not only us, but also her host family and her principal. Away from Tabaco, we'll have her all to ourselves.

Fran gets us a van and driver, and we head for Sorsogon. It's some ride! In the Philippines, lines on the road and signs by the highway are just suggestions. Our driver passes vehicles even on blind uphill curves and uses his horn at every opportunity. Slower vehicles--jeepneys and trikes--scoot over and allow us to pass. The two-lane road becomes a three-laner at times. People--men, women and little children--walk on the shoulder, right next to the highway, as we zip by just inches from them.

In Sorsogon, we check into the Villa Isabel, a beautiful hotel on a back street. We have lunch and finally sample some San Migs--San Miguel beer, made in the Philippines. It's pretty good, especially on a hot day, and every day is hot here.

We walk downtown. A pili nut festival is going on. We've had pili nut candy before, sugar-glazed pili nuts. They're yummy. As we walk along the street, I look down into the gutter--a small water-filled ditch, actually. I see a thick electrical cable snaking through the water, and I wonder about the average life expectancy of Filipino electricians.

Friday, June 20--Fran has been texting busily. The Peace Corps has told her a typhoon is in the area. It's named Fengshen by the international body that keeps track of these storms, but it's Frank in the Philippines. Originally, it was supposed to scoot along off the coast, east of the Philippines. Now, we're told it's heading straight for us. But no one seems concerned. Many typhoons hit the Philippines each year, and unless the storm is especially potent, they're not a big deal--to Filipinos, anyway. Fran doesn't seem too concerned, either. So, instead of a day at the beach, we just plan for a day of hanging around the hotel, maybe taking a walk into Sorsogon, too.

The breakfast menu at Villa Isabel includes scrambled eggs and bacon, ham or sausage--and pancakes. Fran cautions us not to get our hopes up about the pancakes. She says we'll almost certainly be served corn syrup, not maple syrup. But, surprise! The waiter sets a small cup of maple syrup on the table. Fran is impressed!

In the evening, Fran and Ed go to a pizza place with Aaron and Whitney, two Peace Corps volunteers that live near here. Di and I go to bed and hope that the approaching typhoon is not too nasty.

A Walk in the Sun

Wednesday, June 18--I get up and throw on some clothes and head out of the Gardenia Hotel on my own, on a mission to get some donuts and some fresh-brewed coffee. Di has been drinking instant so far this trip, but I'd spotted a Mr. Donut on Fran's map of Tabaco City. Determined to brave the streets on my own, I plunge out the door of the hotel and into the pounding heat and humidity.

I walk past the food market and make my way to the main street--Ziga Avenue, by Fran's map. A parade is inching its way down the street. I stop and watch one of the many marching bands. The bands are like any U.S. high school marching band, and for a second, it's easy to forget I'm in the Philippines.

I've been disoriented in Tabaco. There's something about the streets that makes me lose my sense of direction here, and even with Fran's map, I have to backtrack several times before I find my way to the Mr. Donut. Inside, it's like any convenience-store donut shop in the U.S., but staffed with Filipinas. I buy a dozen donuts and some coffee, and I head back.

Today, we take a jeepney to Malilipot and then walk up a country road to Busay Falls. As we walk past several homes, Fran points to the rebar sticking up from the concrete walls. Many Filipinos build this way so that they can add a second floor later when they have the money. Fran also points out that few of the houses are painted. Exterior paint is a mark of wealth.

We walk under the beating sun past rice paddies and into a cool, shaded valley. Busay Falls pours down into a shallow pool, cooling the air. We spend an hour or so enjoying the break from the heat.

After heading back to town and cleaning up, we go to Helga and Leo's again for a good-bye meal. Helga serves up a feast--baked fish; curried chicken; Bicol Express, a pepper, coconut and pork dish; a fruit salad; and several other tasty dishes. Afterward, we say our good-byes. Fran flags down a trike. Di, Fran and Ed climb aboard, but I have to step onto a tiny platform on the back of the sidecar, lean over the top, and hang onto a couple of rails on the roof. It's a fun ride back into Tabaco.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Halo-halo Time

Tuesday morning, we groggily crawl out of bed and use our shower. The shower has an electrical flash water heater and a handset-type shower head. There's no enclosure--the entire bathroom is the shower stall. I just have to be careful where I aim. I take a stingy shower, soaping with the water turned off. As I adjust the water heater while rinsing, I wonder whether this is a wise thing to do, and for the first of many times this trip, I speculate about Filipino building codes.

After a light breakfast, Fran shows up. We all head out on foot and trek past the open market. We're greeted with "Hey, Joe!" from all sides. Filipinos still call Americans Joe, after GI Joe, from World War II. We walk to the Tabaco City LCC department store. The store has everything, and great service. We're continually surrounded by eager salespeople. We buy laundry detergent--a small brick of solid Tide; drinking water; and a few snack items. Then we go to the ChinaBank and use the ATM.

Back at the Gardenia, we unload our loot and hand-wash some laundry. We traveled light, with no checked-in baggage, so laundry becomes part of our daily routine, along with finding drinking water and a usable ATM--everyone wants pesos; no one takes credit cards. We also become used to taking multiple showers each day. Between the showers and the laundry, much of our hotel time is centered around the bathroom.

We go to Fran's favorite restaurant in Tabaco City for lunch, Solamente. It's an open-sided roof, basically, with a kitchen. They serve us a fish dish--fish "cooked" in citric juice--and a regional chicken dish. It's all very tasty.

Then we head to the San Lorenzo National High School, Fran's place of employment. We meet her principal, Rose, a very pleasant person who leaves no doubt as to who is in charge at her school. She treats us to colas and batter-fried bananas. Then Fran's co-teacher guides us on a tour of the school.

Fran leads us into a couple classrooms, where we say hello to the students and answer questions.
For the girls, Ed is the center of attention. Apparently, it's the dream of many young Filipinas to marry an American. Ed is greeted with much giggling. One of the girls brazenly asks how old he is, and when Fran asks her how old she is, she replies, "Sweet sixteen!"

After the tour, Rose and Jai, her assistant, take us to a place in Tabaco City for merienda. We have pancit again, and then Rose orders halo-halo for each of us. We're each served a dessert bowl filled with shaved ice and topped with a glob of purple goo and grated cheese. There's a layer of syrupy-looking liquid in the bottom of the bowl, with some unidentifiable stuff floating in it. We each mix our halo-halo together with a long spoon--that's what halo-halo means in Tagalog, mix-mix. Then we eat. It's surprisingly good, very refreshing in the heat. I taste the cheese, a sweet coconutty syrup, and occasionally, peas and corn, maybe, and gummy candies.

After our good-byes, we head back to the Gardenia and off to bed.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Into the Soup

Flying into Legaspi, we get some good views of Mount Mayon, a perfectly cone-shaped volcano that is a major attraction for the Bicol region. When the plane lands and we step off, the heat and humidity immediately hammer us. It's intense! We see Fran and run to hug her. It's early in the morning, Monday, June 16. Weird.

We all pile into a van Fran has rented to take us to Tabaco City. The ride to Tabaco is our initiation into Filipino traffic. As we pass vehicles on blind curves, it becomes apparent that signs and lines are suggestions, that the horn is the most vital part of the van, and that what seems like two lanes really are three or even four, in practice.

In Tabaco, the van creeps through a crowded market and delivers us to our hotel, the Gardenia Hotel. The Gardenia seems small and cramped from the outside, and the elevator is tiny, but the rooms are spacious and clean, and the bathrooms have Western-style flush toilets.

We rest awhile, and then Fran tells us it's time to visit her host family for merienda, the afternoon snack. We trike or jeepney out to her host family's compound and are greeted by Helga and Leo (pronounced Lay-oh) and their extended family. Helga and Leo both look much younger than their ages. Leo has just come back to the Philippines after working several years at Diego Garcia.

Helga serves us pancit, a noodle dish; batter-fried bananas; rice cooked in sweet coconut milk, almost like rice pudding; and coconut milk. Then Leo and Nair, one of the adult men who live here, give us a tour of the compound. Nair shows me the place he built for him and his wife after typhoon Reming (typhoon Durian) destroyed the house he used to live
in. Their new home is open-sided and has a beautifully thatched roof and a loft. Nair tells me he loves the simple life. He asks me whether there's any place in the U.S. where people live as simply. I can't think of any.

We walk down the road to the San Lorenzo beach. Then it's back to the Gardenia and off to bed. I didn't realize that in the tropics, it always gets dark around 6:30 pm.

Don't Have to Live Like a Refugee

Di and Ed and I are home from the Philippines. The short version: Our trip was a success, we had a great time, we saw Fran and met her host family and co-workers, and the whole experience was amazing. So now, I'm going to blog the long version, beginning where I left off with my previous post.

We'd booked a room at the Country Inn and Suites near the Eastern Iowa Airport for June13--Friday the 13th--in case we'd have to drive up early to avoid bridge closings. By Friday, rumors were flying about the bridge to the airport. We left work early, and as we hurriedly packed, Channel 9 News was reporting that the I-380 bridge over the Coralville Reservoir was closed. If the bridge were closed, we'd have to drive 5 hours out of our way to get to the airport. I began trying to plot a more direct route along the back roads.

Thankfully, we never had to try my alternate route. As we pulled out of the garage at 3:30 pm, I turned on KXIC, which reported that the bridge was still open but would close at 6:00 pm.Getting out of Iowa City was an adventure in itself. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on some streets, everyone trying to find a way across the Iowa River. We finally made it to I-80 and then onto I-380.

Water was lapping at the shoulders of the approach to the bridge over the Coralville Reservoir, but the bridge was still open, and we made it across. The bridge closed just an hour or two later. On the other side of the bridge, we were stuck in traffic for two hours, among people trying to cross the only bridge open across the Cedar River, the I-380 bridge in downtown Cedar Rapids. But we eventually made it to the hotel, checked in, and settled in for the night.

The next day, everything went smoothly. At the airport, I overheard someone talking about a wild taxi ride that morning along gravel roads from Iowa City to the airport--my alternate route. But we were glad we'd come up the night before.

Our flights to Las Vegas through O'Hare departed and arrived on time. At McCarran, we got our first taste of the Philippines at the Philippine Airlines (PAL) ticket counter. The counter didn't open until two hours before the flight was scheduled to take off. There was a long line, with many balikbayans (returning Filipinos) pushing carts loaded with big boxes full of goods. We waited patiently, the counter opened, the line moved smoothly, and soon, we had our PAL boarding passes.

I'd read horror stories about PAL, such as "PAL stands for Plane Always Late." But the flight to Manila via Vancouver was better than any flight I've had via a domestic carrier in a long time. We flew Fiesta (economy) class, but the legroom was good and the service was excellent. The seats may have been designed for someone shorter than me, but with a pillow behind my back, they were comfy.

The stopover in Vancouver was odd. We all had to deplane and bring our carry-on baggage with us. We were kept in a comfortable holding area, a little bit of nonCanadian territory, while the flight crew changed and the plane was serviced, and then we reboarded.

Back on board, we were given a pillow, a blanket, and an overnight kit--a blindfold, some socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste. We were served several tasty meals throughout the night, the best airline food I'd had in a long time, at no extra charge. With the excellent service and some sleep courtesy of a little lorazepam my doctor had prescribed for the flight, the 12-hour trip from Vancouver to Manila was not the ordeal I had feared.

We landed in Manila on the morning of June 16, two days after we'd left, due to having crossed the International Date Line. Ninoy Aquino International Airport has three separate terminals, and shuttling among them can be a nuisance. Booking our flight to Legaspi straight through via PAL, we stayed in Terminal 2, which simplified our trip. We still had to go through immigration and customs, and we had to exchange some dollars for Philippine pesos to pay the airport fee. The immigration official laughed at my virginal passport--"It's about time!" he said as he stamped it.

Soon enough, we were at the gate for the flight to Legaspi, the last leg of our trip by air. Aboard the plane, we knew we weren't in Iowa anymore when the cold air from the air conditioning condensed the humid Filipino air into rolls of mist.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Little Water Over the Bridge

Everything around me right now seems normal. It's just another day here at work, in my cubicle. But I know that down the hill, water is steadily creeping up the street by the Memorial Union. Rumors are flying. We're expecting that we're going to have to shut down all equipment here in MacLean Hall. We may be able to bring core services up at another site, but we might not.

Oh, and my wife and son and I are flying to the Philippines tomorrow.

Di and Ed and I tried traveling to the Philippines in March, but we had to abandon our trip when a delayed flight destroyed our tight schedule. We've been planning this second attempt since we came home. We padded our schedule, gave ourselves more time, more flexibility in case we had to rebook. Everything looked good. Now, though, we're wondering whether we'll get to the airport. Bridges are being closed, power is going out, drinking water is a concern.

I am caught between wanting to help, wanting to do something to keep services running, on the one hand, and wanting to get ready for the trip, on the other. We haven't seen Fran, our daughter, in more than a year. Our friends and neighbors and co-workers are laboring to hold back the flood, to keep power and water available.

Our own home is safe, far from the river. Even so, if and when we do make it to the airport and fly away tomorrow, my heart will be in three places at once--here, in the middle of the flood; on the plane, with my wife and son; and on an island on the other side of the world, where my daughter lives.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I Need a Fix

I attended a Brugh Joy workshop over the weekend, a wonderful experience. It was my first Brugh Do. Working with Brugh and the group incubated a series of huge dreams for me Saturday night, which we worked with in group Sunday morning. I left the workshop with many new insights and a load of material to work with.

The first evening, Thursday, Brugh asked us to introduce ourselves and maybe mention something about the process that had drawn us to his workshop. I happened to be the person he picked to begin the introductions. I was new to Brugh's work and didn't know more than two of the other participants, and much of what I've been experiencing over the past couple of years has been physical and difficult to put into words, so I was not very forthcoming.

As the introductions wound around the room, some people would bring up some pretty big issues in their lives at the moment, and Brugh would work with them a bit, along with the group. They all seemed to be old Brugh hands, people he knew. For one person in particular, Brugh jokingly said he was going to have to hit her over the head.

Friday night, I had the following dream: I'm in a mall, vacant except for myself and a young man in black clothes. He seemed to be a high-school athlete. We stood beside a large pile of shipping cartons. I knew that each contained a large, black, soft, overstuffed toy, bats and boxing gloves, mainly. The man told me I had to donate a few thousand dollars to him, to buy the whole pile. He then would distribute all the toys among the townspeople, and they would hit me with them.

When I woke up, the dream didn't seem to make much sense. Saturday morning in group, Brugh asked who'd had dreams. As he began working with people's dreams, I leafed through my dream journal, looking for what I thought would be something deeper. But Brugh made it clear that he wanted only dreams from the night before. As he worked his way around the room, it began to dawn on me what my dream was about, so that by the time he got to me, the meaning was unmistakeable. As I related my dream to the group, everyone laughed, and I said, "And I know it's all about the fact that I need to share my process with the group"--which, in fact, was the whole point of the dream.

I did share with the group my struggle with chronic pain over the past couple of years, how it had drawn me into my body, and how that seemed very alien to me. And the sharing seemed to trigger a night filled with dreams, many of them very vivid and insightful and nearly self-interpretive, so that the next morning in group, when I related one of the dreams and Brugh and the group worked with it, I knew exactly what was going on.

One of the biggest insights I received was that in order to resolve the chronic pain, I'd had to move my mind out of the way. My body had had to heal on its own terms. It did not want to be diagnosed and fixed; it had to come into wholeness via its own internal wisdom. The pain condition was in one sense a teaching for me, that there are some things that are not resolvable mentally, and that throughout my life, in such situations, my mind had been more of an obstacle than a help. Thought can be seductive and addictive, but like all addictions, it creates more problems than it solves. This is maybe the largest and most difficult nugget I extracted from the workshop.

So, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Karl, and I am a thoughtaholic...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Neither Here Nor There

A week ago last Friday, my wife and son and I started out on our big, adventurous trip to visit our daughter, Fran. Fran is teaching English in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. We haven't seen her since last May. Our son, Ed, has been overseas twice, to Spain, but my wife and I have never been out of the country, except for short stays just over the border in Canada. As we got ready for the day, the excitement built. I checked the weather one last time--everything looked good along the entire route, Cedar Rapids to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Manila.

But when we walked into the Eastern Iowa Airport and checked the departure monitor, we were greeted with the word "delayed" next to our flight. The ticket agents told us the plane hadn't made it down from the Twin Cities yet. One of them said we'd definitely miss our flight to Manila; the other said we might just make it. By the time our airplane arrived and we boarded, we were sure we'd miss the next flight. But we hoped we could reassemble our trip once we got to Minneapolis International.

In Minneapolis, the gate agent told us that the earliest we could get on a flight to Manila would be in two days. Worse, we learned that all flights from Manila to the airport near where Fran lives were booked for the first several days of the week. It was Holy Week in the Philippines, a time when the many balikbayans--Filipinos who work overseas--return home. If and when we ever did arrive in Manila, the best we'd be able to do would be an overnight 12-hour bus trip. The ticket agents offered to rebook our return trip on flights two days later, but that wouldn't work for Ed. So, reluctantly, we asked for a flight home, and we started the refund process.

We flew back to Cedar Rapids and got in our car and drove home. Pulling up to the house, we saw the lights on and cars in the driveway. Our house sitter was having a dinner party for a couple of friends. We felt very odd, ringing the door of our own home so as not to startle the sitter. We felt even stranger, trying to stay out of the way as the sitter and her friends cleaned up and cleared out.

We've been dealing with the travel agent and the airline, and it looks like we'll get a full refund. We're going to try again soon, and next time, we'll know a little more about the process. We won't book a connecting flight with a short layover, we'll go at a time when we can add more flexibility to our itinerary in case problems occur, we'll find a time when there should be less of a demand for seats.

The whole experience was a good opportunity to practice mindfulness, mindfully being present with all the big emotions and odd happenings of the week, the anger, the frustration, the sadness, the feeling of being a guest in my own home, of being a visitor in my own workplace. Being present didn't fix things, didn't magically pop me through the ether and into the Philippines, didn't smooth out my sleep or ease my stomach, didn't make me less upset or less sad. But it did help create more emotional intimacy with my wife, by staying with the emotions, instead of acting them out or suppressing them.

The entire past week felt surreal. Every so often, I'd find myself thinking about where we would have been at that moment, if we'd made the flight to Manila. Even though we never left good old Central Daylight Time, my wife and I both experienced sleep disruption and even stomach trouble, as if our bodies were trying to give us the whole international travel experience. We both went back to work the last half of the week. I couldn't bring myself to cancel the vacation autoresponder or change my voicemail message. I felt like I was in some odd half-world, not really here, but definitely not gone.

It's been strange, being present with the feeling of not being present. I'm reminded of what one of my favorite authors, Pema Chodron, talks about, the sensation of having the rug pulled out from under you. It's that helpless pit-of-your-stomach feeling that happens when things go wrong. But if i can be present and let go of the anxious train of thought, I can sink into a sense of great space and peace. I've been gradually returning from this non-trip, gradually feeling more and more here, more and more involved with what is going on around me at work and at home. Maybe the whole fiasco has been good practice for the real trip that still lies ahead.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Idiotes and Idiocracy

I recently finished reading Peter Green's The Hellenistic Age: A Short History. Peter is my neighbor, and I could hear his voice as I read. Even though I have little background in ancient history, the book was very accessible, while also providing references to further study. The history of the ancient world post-Alexander and pre-Roman Empire has always been one of those muddled-to-blank spots in my own understanding of the past, which Peter's book helped fill in.

One interesting tidbit I learned is that idiot is derived from the Greek idiotes, which originally referred to a person who did not participate in the political or public life of the polis, or Greek city-state--in other words, someone who lived an individual life, unconcerned with larger affairs. Apparently, the Greeks looked back at the classical era as a golden age in which people were involved in civic affairs, and they viewed the development of the individual as decadent. In The Hellenistic Age, Peter speculates as to a possible link between the development of literature and the development of the individual.

Some time ago, I watched Idiocracy, a movie by Mike Judge. In the movie, the citizens of the United States have devolved into idiocy in the modern sense--the average IQ has plummeted. Perhaps self-referentially, the movie seems to associate this devolution with the rise of interactive, omnipresent, commercial entertainment and its penetration into every aspect of life. In the world of Idiocracy, the citizen is very involved in public life via something like our current representational democracy, unlike the idiote of the Hellenistic Age. But it's a very simple-minded, game show or reality TV type of involvement.

It's an interesting and maybe frightening exercise to compare Idiocracy to the current state of affairs in the U.S., where political talk shows more closely resemble pro-wrestling theatrics than real debate. Every issue is presented in terms of two very simplified, opposing points of view. You simply find out which team supports which point of view, and then you root for your team. News media, entertainment, politics and commercialism all seem to be converging, and I wonder how long it will be before our elected officials wear the labels of their big-money sponsors, like NASCAR drivers.

Ironically, anyone who does not participate in the two-party system is seen as at least eccentric or odd. Independents are fickle, the fans who root for whoever is ahead. Third parties are spoilers, the non-BCS teams in the bowl playoff system of big-time politics. Those who don't vote at all--the majority of the electorate--are lazy, unpatriotic, uncaring--modern-day idiotes. But maybe we're beginning to reach the point where a thoughtful person might suspect that the current two-party, megamoney political bloodsport leaves little room for intelligent participation. Maybe the idiotes of today are not idiots, after all.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Safety in Numbers

This morning, on the way into the building where I work, I glanced up at the black tags above each door of the two-door entrance. I've worked here for, hmmm... 16 years now. Let's see... 16 years times, let's say, 47 work weeks a year (gotta love working for the U--five weeks of vacation a year!) would be 752 work weeks, times 5 days a week gives 3,760 work days, minus a fudge factor of, oh, 160 sick days would be 3,600 days worked, times 2 for walking through the entrance twice a day, would be a grand total of 7,200 times I've walked through those doors.

And that's while I've worked here. I also took several courses here while working on my computer science degree, so, let's add another, hmmm... say, 5 years times 2 terms a year times 3 months a term times 4 weeks a month times, say, 3 class days a week would be... 360 more times, as a student. So, a grand total of about 7,560 times I've passed through those doors. Rounding down, let's say, 7,500 times.

So, about 7,500 times I've walked through those doors, and every once in awhile, I happen to glance up at the black tags with white characters, above the doors: "Ent 2" and "Ent 3." Today, as I read these plates, a number of questions arose in my mind. Where is Ent 1? How many Ents are there in the building? And, most importantly, why on earth would anyone number the doors to a building? And, why number each door of a double-door entrance?

Granted, I work in the building that houses the departments of mathematics and computer science. Numbers are our business, and enumeration of any kind is probably good for business. In fact, maybe mathematicians and statisticians and computer scientists should think about some kind of marketing scheme, urging people to enumerate more things. Maybe we should be trying to get people to put little black tags with white characters above the doors of their homes. And windows--that's a completely unexplored, undeveloped market for enumeration. Windows--that's the future!

But I doubt that the doors were numbered at the request of the people who teach numbers here on campus. If the mathematicians here cared at all about the entrances, they'd be trying to do weird topological transformations of them. The computer science profs would be researching an algorithm to provide congestion control and prevent deadlocks at the doorways. Simply numbering the doors, that's a bit low-brow--except, maybe, for the people in the remedial math lab.

No, there must be some bureaucratic reason for those little Ent tags. Something like inventory, or public safety, or some such thing. Homeland security. "The terrorists have egressed the building via Ent 3! Not Ent 2! Ent 3!" Yes, that must be it. Somewhere on campus, there must be a Director of Entrance Numerology, I'd guess, with a big staff--there are lots of doors on campus! There must be a large entrance database. People probably have to have years of training and have to pass several licensure and certification examinations before they can be entrusted with the huge responsibility of enumerating doors. I hope so, anyway.

The thought of some highly educated and well-trained Director of Entrance Numerology managing a large staff of door enumerators gives me great comfort. I will sleep better tonight, knowing that all doors have been tagged, numbered, and recorded in some great doorway database here on campus. And if, after all, I can't sleep, I can always try counting doors.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


I've always loved this Neil Young song. My wife and I saw Away from Her recently, and I loved K. D. Lang's version, too, which is on the soundtrack. The song speaks to me about the human condition, my condition, about how we like to feel we're in charge of our lives, of life, we like to feel in control, but in reality, we aren't, and there is beauty in that, along with the pain. The movie seems to be about all that, too, about having to face our own mortality, our own helplessness. The movie is about an extremely heart-wrenching, painful situation, a man having to come to terms with the fact of his wife's Alzheimer's disease. And in showing the painful truth, the movie is simultaneously heartbreaking and beautiful. I've titled this blog Helpless, because I like the song, and because that's how I feel, and it feels all right, it feels alive, to be aware that I am helpless.