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.