Monday, March 30, 2009

Is a Sad Clown Still Funny?

"It is a poor sort of memory that only works backwards."
-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

I mentioned in this blog's inaugural post that I would likely write about "synchronistic events in my own life," and in the two months or so since I first started blogging, I haven't explored this topic yet. This is partially because I feel like I've had more interesting things to discuss, but also partially because over the course of the past four or five years since I first experienced synchronicity, the phenomena has occurred less and less in my life. I experienced a rather interesting event yesterday that I'd like to share, but first, for the uninitiated, a brief explanation of synchronicity.

Synchronicity is, to use Jung's own terminology, "a temporal[ly] coincident occur
rence of acausal events." Although the current of thought from which the idea of synchronicity sprang goes back rather far into Jung's career (and arguably, well before Jung was even born. . . .more on that later) it was not given its proper exploration until 1952 when Jung, then in his seventies, published the paper "On Synchronicity" (and included later in Vol. 8: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche of his Collected Works) which detailed what he believed to be a springboard into the study of the interrelatedness of the human mind and universe at large. A decent paragraph from the wikipedia article on the topic reads:

Jung coined the word to describe what he called "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." Jung variously described synchronicity as an "acausal connecting principle", "meaningful coincidence" and "acausal parallelism". Jung introduced the concept as early as the 1920s but only gave a full statement of it in 1951 in an Eranos lecture and in 1952, published a paper, Synchronicity — An Acausal Connecting Principle, in a volume with a related study by the physicist (and Nobel laureate) Wolfgang Pauli.
What differentiates synchronicity from mere coincidence, according to Jung, is the presence of subjective meaning for the individual experiencing the event. That is, if I run into the same person on the street three times in a single day, but this has no context within my own life, then it is only coincident; but, if I run into the person, and they say "Looks like it's going to rain" and then run into them again later in the day just as it begins to rain, then I could conceivably say there was something meaningful about these "chance" encounters. Jung is often a very misunderstood thinker, and occasionally this stems from Jung's own dense and jargon-laden prose, but synchronicity is often misinterpreted as some sort of metaphysical phenomenon that occurs because the stars are aligned in some way or because the universe itself is imbued with some sort of purposiveness that manifests itself in these seemingly random events. To be sure, some have in fact interpreted synchronicity in this manner - the aforementioned physicist Wolfgang Pauli believed it validated certain concepts related to quantum mechanics and some who currently subscribe to the theory of the universe as a hologram, such as physicist F. David Peat of Queens University of Canada, author of Synchronicity: The Bridge between Mind and Matter, believe synchronicity to be a "flaw in the fabric of reality" that could one day yield important knowledge about the link between consciousness and the material universe. However, these are few and far between. Jung, despite his vast exploration of the implications of the theory, did not mean for synchronicity to fulfill any metaphysical objective truths. In fact, even after delineating the similarities between astrological horoscopy and marriage, the relationship between the I-Ching and the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz, and the quantum physics of acausality ("...either the psyche cannot be localized in space, or space is relative to the psyche..."), Jung conceded that synchronicity was a subjective psychological experience, though he seems to have remained fairly agnostic as to what the theory may satisfy in the future - physical, metaphysical, or otherwise.

The traditional personal example of a synchronisitic experience for Jung occurred while treating a patient. She was a particularly closed off patient whom he seemed incapable of helping. She was rational to a fault and his attempts to get her to embrace her humanity were futile. On the verge of giving up, the patient told Jung that she
had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me her dream, I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to the golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetoaia urata) which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience. (Jung, "On Synchronicity")

I honestly don't remember my first synchronistic experience, but I do remember the most vivid one. It was about three years ago, and I was working on a paper to submit as a graduate writing sample. The paper was on the differences between legal standards of witchcraft and astrology in Late Medieval Europe despite the similarity in many of the details of their practices. I had been working on it off and on for months and felt like I had everything except for an effective conclusion. The closing section of the paper described the cultural reflections of the two practices in Elizabethan drama (and Shakespeare in particular) and I was looking for just the right quote to tie it all together, to explain exactly what it was that saved astrology among secular authorities but condemned witchcraft. As I was driving down the road, on my way home from work, I saw a Kentucky license plate number JNG-122, and for some reason this number struck me and I had the sudden notion that it was telling me something. Of course, seeing JNG immediately made me think of Jung (the name without the vowel) and I had, only the weekend before, purchased a book on Jungian psychology by Gustav Jahoda entitled The Psychology of Superstition. When I arrived at home, I was compelled to turn to page 122, though I had yet to read page 1 of that book. And, in the middle of the page, was the quote I had been looking for:
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, all in line of order;
And therefore in the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron'd and spher'd
Amidst the other, whose med'cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of the planets evil,
And posts, like the commandments of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of the earth,
Commotion o fthe winds! Frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate,
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from this fixture! O, when degree is shak'd,
Which is the ladder to high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in school, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place.
(William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.85-110)

These lines are considered to be among the penultimate in describing the Elizabethan wordlview of universal order and typifies the concept of the macrocosm-microcosm relationship, which the Elizabethans inherited from medieval and ancient philosophers. Needless to say, it was the perfect quote to tie my paper together.

So, after all that, here's the most recent moment of synchronicity I experienced just yesterday. I have two jobs. I substitute teach during the day and work part time at a coffee shop at night (OK, not every day or every night, but as often as I can). Monday, I subbed for an English class that was reading To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite novels. We read chapter 22 in class, which occurs just after the courtroom scene (*SPOILER ALERT*). The kids are discussing the guilty verdict, and their faith in justice is badly shaken despite the fact that Atticus, despondent though he may be, considers the fact that the jury was out for two hours "progress." One line that I hadn't ever really thought about before, but which resonated with me as I read it yesterday is as follows:

"I think I'll be a clown when I get grown," said Dill. "Yes, sir, a clown.... There ain't one thing in this world I can do about folks except laugh, so I'm gonna join the circus and laugh my head off." "You got it backwards, Dill," said Jem. "Clowns are sad, it's folks that laugh at them." "Well, I'm gonna be a new kind of clown. I'm gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks."
That night, at the coffee shop, I had a customer come to the counter and order a drink. At the store where I work, we have "frequency cards" where customers can accumulate points and receive free drinks after a certain amount of purchases. The card is also interactive, and customers can register them online and get even more deals emailed to them. Most customers register the card under their name, but they don't have to, and occasionally some will write quirky or witty things. When we swipe the cards, the registration "name" pops up on our computer screen. As I swiped this man's card, his registration name came up: "Is a Sad Clown Still Funny?"

I think Dill's is.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Graduate School Ahead: Taking Stock - A Short Intellectual History of How I Got Where I Am Now

As of today, I have officially accepted the offer of a graduate assistantship in the History Master's program at Clemson University. This is, obviously, a big step for me. Part of the reason I chose the school was the opportunity they are giving me to be a graduate assistant and although their department's strengths aren't quite where I imagine my focus will eventually lie, their diversity as a program as well as the fact that, as a school with only an MA program, I'll be able to work more closely with professors who have an excellent record of getting students into good PhD granting programs, helped me make my decision. And, of course, with these tough economic times, it doesn't hurt that their financial package was the most generous of the five schools to which I was accepted. It really was a tough decision, and I was rather meticulous about it. I was also accepted to Western Michigan University and St. Louis University, both of which have extremely well-renowned medieval history programs, and although neither offered me a financial package, it took a lot of gumption to turn them down. I don't think I'm rationalizing, trying to make it all about the money, because I do honestly like the fact that at Clemson I still have several options of study. Medieval Studies is certainly where my heart lies, but I'm also interested in Late Antiquity and the Early Modern era as well as the history and philosophy of science, and the fact that I'm basically being given two more years to really hone the craft and pin down a more focused area of study is nice. I'm aware of the fact that graduate studies entails an intensive focus, especially for the dissertation, but I really hope that I can avoid was historian Norman Davies lamented about scholars knowing "more and more about less and less." Essentially, I am hoping to avoid this:
Plus, a graduate assistantship will, presumably, look pretty good on a PhD application. And the PhD is where a greater "fit" in university will mean even more - so a more medieval focus may lead me to a place like Fordham or Toronto whereas a history and philosophy of science focus could take me some place like Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, or one of the University of California schools.

When I sit back and take stock, I sometimes can't believe that I am where I am. I don't mean that I don't believe in myself or that I think I'm being given more than I'm due. It's just that over the course of my lifetime, I have been enamored by various areas of study and sometimes I feel like it was simply happenstance that I got into history in sort of the right place at the right time, so to speak. Briefly, here is my intellectual background from birth to now:

As a young child I was always known as "the science kid" by my parents and relatives because of my interests in dinosaurs and astronomy. I was interested in other things that nerdy kids were into as well: animals (especially sea creatures and insects), the space program, cool things like volcanoes and earthquakes. For a very long time I assumed I was going to go to college and become a paleontologist or astronomer or biologist or chemist (though, interestingly, I never particularly wanted to be an astronaut). This continued well into middle school and the first couple of years of high school, though my interests certainly broadened. I always loved maps as a kid and was always fairly good at geography. I developed into a pretty great reader and really got into science fiction when I was 11 or 12. And I started playing drums, was pretty good at that too, and had even more on my plate because of it. Still, science was always the focus. Even as late as sophomore year of high school, when I went to a college visit at IU, Bloomington, I enrolled in the "physical sciences" focus and got tours of the Chemistry building and went to several lectures given by astrophysicists and cosmologists. But, in the reality of high school, I ran into one major problem: math. I was great at math as a kid, but somewhere around junior year, the limits of my abilities seemed to catch up with me, and I slowly and painfully realized that I probably wasn't really cut out for the rigors of a scientific career. So where did that leave me. I was still playing drums, and my parents, and especially my guitar-playing former rock-band member father, were beginning to coax me towards a career in music. As much as I loved playing, I knew even as an adolescent that that was not the life for me (how many kids have that experience? parents want you to be a musician, but you don't?). I began to fall into writing. I'd been writing since I was little kid, stories, plays, poems, lots of science fiction (mirroring my interest in the literature), and it began to seem a natural extension of my interests: science led to science fiction, reading science fiction led to writing science fiction, writing leads to. . . journalism! I started as a journalism major in college and almost immediately regretted it. One problem I found as I took journalism courses in college was that I felt like I was being taught in a "how-to" manner without having the requisite knowledge to make anything out of that. Plus, when you learn to write newspaper articles, you're taught to dumb your writing down to sixth grade level, and it was just awful to write that way. Several friends, and even an advisor or two, suggested that I switch to English since it offered a similar degree (many newspapermen came out of English programs) and I would be able to read (which I loved), write more than simplified prose, and gain a more knowledge based education as opposed to a "how-to" one. Yet, even in English, I felt I was missing something, and I discovered that I enjoyed the historical context of the literature more than I enjoyed the literature itself, especially medieval and early modern literature. One of the reasons history seemed to make the most sense for me, once I was a few years into college, is because it seemed to be the most all-encompassing of any of the courses of study I took. History is, obviously such a broad topic, and my focus eventually centered, as I mentioned before (and if you've ever read anything on this blog you probably already know) on the Middle Ages and the history of science. For those of you keeping score, that goes: science --> science fiction reading --> science fiction writing --> writing in general --> journalism writing --> English literature --> History --> science.

And we've come full circle. . . and it really does feel kind of like I'm a kid again.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New York Trip: Days 4-6

So, it's over a week late, but here's the blog about the rest of the week in New York. It would have come earlier, but I've been busy and most of my free time has been spent watching basketball. It's a little long, seeing as it's three days in one blog, so I hope at least some people will read all of it.

Day 4

The fourth day in NYC was probably the most tourist-heavy day of all. We spent essentially the entire day in Lower Manhattan and the Financial District and definitely spent most of the day on our feet. We took the subway all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge stop and one emerges from the underground literally right where the bridge crosses the river. Kirsten and I took a quick jaunt around the City Hall/Pace University and then took to crossing the bridge. The bridge itself is pretty impressive, having been designed and built in the 1860s and 70s and undergoing only one renovation in the 1950s or 60s. There are some pretty cool plaques as you walk across pedestrian platform showing how the skyline of Lower Manhattan has changed over the years. The most recent one is pre-9/11, so the Towers are still on the newest one, although someone took it upon themselves to try to scratch them out and wrote R.I.P. I wasn't sure if I felt offended or touched. After the bridge, we walked around on Wall Street. I wanted to see it even though there isn't much to see - just buildings and guys in suits walking around. Tourists, of course, aren't actually allowed on the trading floor or even in the buildings, and little black fences surround the entrances. Kirsten said that when she was in New York shortly after 9/11, there were soldiers with semi-automatics all up and down Wall Street. It's nice to know that our priorities are straight...

Some other fun sites in lower Manhattan included the old churches, many of them dating to the early 18th century. Trinity, on Wall street, was a gorgeous building that had a really large courtyard and cemetery. Considering how valuable real estate is down there, it's nice to see the preservation the city has taken care of. Down the street from Trinity is Federal Hall , the spot where George Washington took the oath of office. This sits diagonally across the street from the New York Stock Exchange. Space is much tighter down here than in the other neighborhoods of the island. St. Paul's, which stands directly across from the WTC site, was especially moving. Not only was it where George Washington stopped to pray following his inauguration, but it has a special history now tied with 9/11. The building isn't much further than a football field away from where the towers fell, yet not only only was the building unharmed,
not a single window was broken on the that day. The only damage was to a large tree in the courtyard that feel. It's remnants now sit in front of the church's entrance. We also took a trip down to Battery Park, where we saw a really great pillar depicting some of the most celebrated historical irony in existence. In 1626, Dutchman Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan island from the Caranasee Indians (who did not even live on the island - that would be the Weckquaesgeeks) for sixty guilders worth of trading goods. Following this, we took the ferry across to Staten island, where you can get the best look at the Statue of Liberty. I decided it wasn't necessary to actually go to Ellis Island or Liberty Island, so Kirsten and I contented ourselves with the ferry and we stayed on the back deck to watch as it went by and to get some good views of the downtown skyline. It took less than an hour.

We also met some really cool people on this day. Jonathan's roommate Mina hosts couch-surfers fairly regularly and we had two extra roommates, Dominik and Tanja, from Germany. Dominik plays guitar for a couple of bands, mostly of the hardcore variety, and and Tanja is a journalism graduate student at Memphis University with a background in American history and culture. So, it was fun as someone with a background in European history to share knowledge. I feel like we each taught something to the other about their own homelands.

Day 5

Friday was the most packed day of all. We got out fairly early and we spent nearly the entirety of the day at the Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ugly Betty finally left and we got to go the fourth floor to see the prehistoric fossil collection. It's extremely well-organized to give a chronological evolutionary history of all life on earth. Four large rooms circle the center of the floor, beginning with the "vertebrate origins" sections followed by the Saurischian dinosaurs, Ornithischian dinosaurs, and then Cenozoic Era creatures that are also extinct. Seeing the biggest skeletons of the apatosaurs, triceratops, and tyrannosaurs were impressive, but one of the most impressive things for me was the archaeopteryx fossil. It is certainly one of the most famous and most scrutinized transition fossils - indeed any fossil - of all time, and seeing it in person was a real treat. I wasn't even aware that it was in the Natural History Museum and here it was tucked away in an out of the way nook of the Ornithischian sections. Very cool. We spent a few hours here and then headed for the last major museum on our New York visit, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This was the biggest of all of the museums we visited while in Manhattan. We saw all of the MoMA and nearly all of the Natural History Museum, but after nearly 5 hours at the Met, we had seen far less than half of what it had to offer. We spent a fair amount of time especially in the Greco-Roman collection, which has an especially impressive array of Hellenistic sculpture and pottery as well as transitional artifacts from the Late Empire. You can almost see the decline of paganism, the rise of Christianity, and the brief flourishing of the mystery religions in the artwork. The Early Modern sculpture was pretty wonderful too, and the hall of sculptures was probably the most impressive single room in all of the museum. The centerpiece was Antonio Canova's Perseus with the head of gorgon Medusa, quite an impressive structure. My favorite, though, was probably the sculpture of Ugolino and his sons, by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Anyone who has attended IU, Bloomington, has probably seen a replica of this sculpture in the student union at the entrance to the Whittenberger Auditorium. In 13th century Pisa, amidst a riot due to rising food prices, Ugolino, a local noble, inadvertently killed the nephew of the archbishop. He was imprisoned, along with other rioters, for treason on charges of inciting and leading the riot, and the unforgiving archbishop literally threw away the key and left the prisoners to starve. According to Dante, who had written about Ugolino in the Divine Comedy, his sons, inconsolable about his inevitable demise, offered their own bodies for him to eat, but Ugolino refused, and died. The museum also house a thorough display of pre-modern arms and armaments, from both Europe and Asia, though as a medievalist, I was a little disappointed that most of the armor was from post-1550. It was still extremely interesting, especially the detail to be found in the helmets, sword hilts, and gauntlets. We also spent considerable time in the European paintings section, and this was some of the oldest art we saw on our trip since the MoMA only had paintings dating back to 1800. There were some interesting things in there, including the portrait of Benjamin Franklin upon which the hundred dollar bill is based, as well as several impressive oils by Carvaggio, Raphael, and Holbein. Much like the lack of Kahlos in the MoMA, however, I was a bit disappointed that only a few Holbeins were represented. He's also one of my favorites, and there were but a few. I honestly don't know that much about art, and there were very few paintings in the gallery that I recognized, but it was all very impressive nonetheless. We would have hit the ancient Egyptian and the Asian sections as well, but our dogs were barking (howling, really), and we left after a few hours. Another good reason to come back again... We ended the night at a college bar in the NYU are watching the UofL-Syracuse Big East championship. We were decidedly outnumbered by Syracuse fans but that added to the fun.

Day 6

Considering that we walked probably twelve or thirteen miles over the previous five days, we tried to take it a bit easier on our last day. Since it was Saturday, Jonathan actually got to spend the day with us instead of just the evening. We started at the farmers' market in Union Square Park and got some delicious organic chocolate milk, but not much else. Not too much is in season in New York this time of year, but there were a ton of apples and some nice looking greens were starting to come in, but we didn't get anything else. It was extraordinarily crowded, and we didn't spend too much time there. The park is just a few blocks from The Strand, so we went back there for some more browsing. I actually bought something this time after some agonizing minutes of indecision amidst seventeen miles of books. I ended up going with some cheap new copies of a few books that have been on my "to read" list for a while: Marcus Aurelius' second century Stoic manifesto Meditations, Procopius' scandalous and unflattering portrayal of the Byzantine emperor and empress Justinian and Theodora The Secret History, and one of the many Joseph and Frances Gies' works on medieval history, Women in the Middle Ages. I've already read most of Meditations and a fair amount of The Secret History. We ate dinner at a live food restaurant, Caravan of Dream, which serves vegetarian cuisine and specializes in "live food", or food that is uncooked, unprocessed, and organic. It was fresh and delicious. I had a hummus platter and salad with flax seed chips and guacamole, and Kirsten, Jonathan, and I shared a bottle of Kosher wine from Israel. Usually, my biggest problem with vegetarian food is that I get hungry again an hour or two after I eat it, but this left me full for the rest of the day. We finished the day off watching basketball at Jonathan's apartment. It was another lazy, loungy day. We left the next morning, saddened to leave, but proud of ourselves for packing about two weeks of activities into six days time.

Final Impressions

In a sense, New York didn't really surprise me much. I've spent a fair amount of time in Chicago, and even though New York is several times bigger, they are fairly comparable. The big difference, as Jonathan pointed out, is that Chicago is a metropolis but it's also distinctly a Midwestern city, and I'd agree with that. New York doesn't have a typically Northeastern feel; it is, in fact, a truly international city. I've spent plenty of time on college campuses and heard a multitude of foreign languages, but I heard far more in New York (especially French and German - apparently, Western Europeans love New York). New York has a neighborhood for nearly every ethnicity and every nation. It is a multicultural wonderland, and representative of what's best about America. It's also, unfortunately, an exemplar of the problem of poverty in the most advanced nation on earth. An exhibit at the MoMA showed a map of where the prison population in New York comes from as well as where those under the poverty level live (nearly 70%). It's hard to walk through New York and not see a homeless person on nearly every street corner. But it's not just those on the street. Project housing has created what Jonathan called "concentrated poverty" which, while providing a cheaper place to live for the city's many poor residents, has not really solved the problem. However, overall, the city is quite nice, especially when it come to this things in which I am most interested: history, culture, art, science. It was fantastic, and with the many great schools in the area, I will surely keep it in mind when I'm applying to PhD programs in two years. In short, it seems like not just a wonderful place to visit but a wonderful place to live. But I don't think I'd want to make a life there. Jonathan called the city oppressive and I believe it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New York Trip: Day 3

Wednesday was a much more homogeneous day than Monday and Tuesday. We only made two major stops - to the Museum of Natural History and Central Park. It was a much later start than we had originally wanted despite waking up earlier than we had on the first two days. We woke up at around 8:30 but still strained to make it into the city before noon. The subway trip seemed really long Wednesday for some reason. I think I'm already feeling the rhythm of the city in some ways. The gentle rocking and swaying of the subway on the tracks is enough to lull one to sleep even at 11AM after four shots of espresso. The subway stops directly at the Museum so that was a plus. Truth be told, much of my childhood was spent on an unhealthy obsession with dinosaurs and the major draw of the Natural History museum for me was the collection of prehistoric fossils (not just dinosaurs, but Cenozoic era creatures that are also long extinct). Unfortunately, this being New York, there is always something going on and peons like myself are not necessarily privy to the privileges we often believe to be rights. The entirety of the prehistoric fossil collection is on the fourth floor, which of course was closed because Ugly Betty was filming here. Fucking Ugly Betty. If it were a show I liked perhaps I'd have been more forgiving but this was irksome to no end. Damn you, Ugly Betty, you will not deprive me of seeing what I have dreamt of seeing since the time of my intellectual Eden!!!! will. But if I don't get to go back before we leave on Sunday, it will be mightily upsetting. One upside to this: the way the museum is set up, there is a "suggested donation" but it is not a fixed price, so event though they want you to give $20 to enter, you don't have to, but you get a real guilt trip if you don't give the suggested price. The guy at the front desk felt so bad that we couldn't see the fourth floor that he basically told us to pay a buck or two to enter. So we did.

We saw almost all of the museum but
dwelled especially on the Hayden Planetarium along with the cosmology/astronomy section and the human evolution section, which contains an incredible array of early hominid fossils. The Hayden planetarium was especially interesting for its "scales of the universe" exhibit, which depicts the different scales of objects in the universe, beginning with the entire observable universe (represented by the planetarium itself) and descending in scale exponentially as you circumnavigate the sphere (here is a fair approximation of the scales). As you enter the exhibit, the planetarium represents the "observable universe" while a tiny football-shaped structure in front of you represents a cluster of galaxies within which our own cluster of galaxies is found. This scale is 1026 meters and it descends through 25th power, 24th, and so on. Each time, the Hayden planetarium "becomes" the size of the previous object, so in the next scale, the Hayden planetarium becomes the cluster of the cluster or galaxies, and in the next scale it is the local group, and in the next it is the galaxy, and on and on until we get to actual scale (in this scale planetarium represents itself and the smaller object is a human brain). Then it will continue till we get to cells, and atoms, and subatomic particles, and quarks, etc. It was pretty spectacular. I have to say that honestly, I am more impressed with how small things get at the quantum level than how large they are at the galactic...

Central Park was nice, though I can certainly tell that it is much nicer in the spring, summer, or fall. Kirsten tells me that when the vegetation is thicker, the noises of the city sort of melt away and it feels a bit like a nature preserve, or something like what the island must have been like before the settlement began 400 years ago. This is the blink of an eye. How many great world cities were already population powers by then? But now this island is the center of the human universe, bustling with all our little human material needs, cash flow and credit emanating from here. How the people in suits do so resemble ants following the pheromone trail to the food source.

The food has been so good. We've eaten pizza or falafel/gyros (or both) almost every day and I couldn't be happier. We've gotten street-side vendors, step-in cafes, and sit-down restaurants, and they're pretty much all delicious. I went to New Orleans about five years ago, and after about two days there discovered that the food was the number one reason to go there: the boiled crawfish, po-boys, and endless varieties of jambalaya, red beans and rice, and gumbo was enough to keep you there a week. New York has more to do than food, but I think the multi-culturalism and cosmopolitanism of the city lends itself to such a wide plethora of foods, than one would be a fool not to take advantage. As I said, we've taken on plenty of pizza, in several neighborhoods, all great paper-thin slices of pepperoni, various veggie pizzas, and some fantastic specialties (I especially like the "white" pizzas, which have an alfredo base and several cheese toppings). The gyros have been the best on the street where they tend to put the most shaved lamb on them. I've hit almost every continent food-wise in just a few days.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New York Trip: Day 2

The weather was much more cooperative today. It was overcast early on, but the sun came out while we were walking around and it actually warmed up into the 40s. I feel pretty lazy. Kirsten and I set our alarm for 8:00 AM, but didn't actually get up till around 9:45. The neighborhood traffic is fairly noisy so the fact that we've been getting good sleep at all is a plus. Jonathan has an espresso machine so we spent a good part of the morning after waking up playing around with it. Since I work part time at a coffee shop, I took the initiative to make the morning lattes, but after using an absurdly expensive machine at work, this one felt like a toy, but a fun one. The drinks weren't bad.

We finally got into the city a bit before noon. Today was mostly a walking day, and we spent far more time on the street than actually in any shops or buildings. We started at Grand Central Station, which was even larger than I expected. The most interesting thing was the ceiling: a perfectly rendered approximation of the ecliptic across the night sky, complete with all the constellations and stars. It was really beautiful. We walked around 42nd Street and that area for a while, stopping next at the New York public library. For a tourist like myself, the library wasn't terribly impressive since we went into the non-lending main research branch. There's no browsing there, and that's how I usually prefer to look for books. The interior of the building is pretty wonderful though and we did get to look at several exhibits: a display of photography in Afghanistan since 1993, a large room of murals depicting important scenes from the history of book making and printing, and another room with some interesting early 19th century portraits, presumably of people important to the library. We popped into one of the reading rooms, but again, since we weren't there for research, there was really little reason to stay long. Next, we found ourselves walking around Times Square, an outdoor temple to capitalism and corporatism if ever there was one, and it wore thin pretty quickly. However, we did get to see the naked cowboy. How weird. After a few stores - the M&M store, Virgin Records (which is going out of business) and a few others - we got out of there. We took the subway down to Canal Street and bummed around Chinatown for a while. Kirsten took me to this really great Chinese place called the Shanghai Cafe. She goes there every time she's here, and it was worth it. I got a really great spicy beef and noodle soup and some fried dumplings and stole a hefty portion of Kirsten's lo mien. We then met up with Jonathan at his school again, hit a really hipster coffee bar (that nevertheless had some great books lining their shelves), went to a few bars and came home early. We're going to try to actually get to sleep early tonight so we can get a reasonable start tomorrow.

The tentative plan is to traverse Central Park and then end up at Natural History Museum. That should take the whole day, after which we'll probably drop by Jonathan's school and maybe go downtown. By the way, we do have a camera and have taken some pictures. I'll be sure to get some up here and on Facebook as soon as possible. More posts to come!

New York Trip: Day 1

I thought I'd go ahead and write some quick blogs about the trip to New York City. It's my first time here, so I have some serious New York virginity going on. Kirsten's brother Jonathan lives here and had lived here for a few years, so we're not complete tourists here but actual travelers and visitors. In fact, I'm pretty proud that I haven't opened a map on the street or on the subway since we've arrived. When I was a kid, and even now, I was really into maps of any sort and I remember I had this great National Geographic map of Manhattan. Some of it has honestly come back to me as we've been walking around - remembering what street crosses what other street and how many blocks it is to another street. I still have so little sense of direction in general, and have been lost a few times but every time the direction comes back to me, I feel a little invigorated. I've never been here in my life but actually know my way around occasionally.

No surprises so far, to tell you the truth. The enormity of the city didn't really leave much of an impression on me at first. We came in at night into northern Manhattan and quickly crossed the George Washington Bridge into the Bronx (where Jonathan lives) and the towering Manhattan skyline seemed quite distant. I didn't really feel the true force of its presence until we took the subway this morning into Manhattan. It was the mass of humanity and not the mass of buildings that truly awed me. A few stereotypes are appropriate: people do walk very fast here, but I already have a very fast walking pace, so I didn't ever feel really out of place. People honk all the time on the street; I think it's just like a regular "hello, excuse me please" noise, but this is odd when you live somewhere where the horn is reserved for "Holy crap, I'm about to run into you!" Also, there is garbage all over the street. I suppose that's just what happens when you put 17 million people into a few square miles.

We got through some touristy stuff today. The first thing we did as the late morning yawned into the early afternoon was head to the Museum of Modern Art, of which Jonathan is a member. This helped as we paid a very reduced fee to enter. The day itself was cloudy and gray, misty at best and rainy at worst, though the temperatures were rather cooperative, hovering around the upper 40s - a great change from the 20s and 30s we've been experiencing for the past month in Michigan. Kirsten and I bought a week's worth of Metro travel and headed from the South Bronx (the birth of hip hop! as Jonathan has told us several times) to mid-town Manhattan where we walked a few blocks to the museum. We spent about three hours there. Modern art isn't really my thing, and some of that feeling bore out in this visit. I'm almost always interested in it, but rarely find it good. However, there were some surprises. I was certainly awed by the Picassos and the Monets and the Van Goghs and the Klimts. The colors in the Picassos were especially refreshing. They were much brighter than the prints I've seen. I really wish there had been more Frida Kahlos. She's one of my favorite artists and there were only two small self-portraits. The biggest surprises, however, were the Jackson Pollocks. I definitely have never been a Pollack fan and have shunned and occasionally berated his works when I've seen them in art books or in TV specials about "great American art." But, I didn't realize how much his art is like opera: it loses an incredible amount in the recording. Being in the presence of his most famous and enduring abstract works was, quite frankly, incredible. The power conveyed by these seemingly simple compositions is amazing. By lacking a focal point, or even any immediately discernible structure, Pollock has made his paintings literally difficult to look at. This is evident especially in the largest ones because once they fill your entire vision, your eyes begin to play tricks on you. Your brain looks for patterns, looks for an actual picture, and nearly tricks you into thinking something is there. There isn't. It is patternless; it is purposeless; it is meaningless. It is modernity. As Kirsten said, "You've just been Pollocked."

After the MoMA, we got some pizza (real New York thin crust, greasy and foldable) in the Village and though Jonathan said it was from a less than reputable place, we went in because we were starving and it smelled delicious. We then got some coffee, to help overcome the exhaustion of all the walking, and hopped over to some books stores. We went to a small local one at first, but it didn'thave much. We then popped into the Strand, which I think is the second largest bookstore in the country, and browsed their collections for a couple of hours. It was pretty great, but I didn't really see anything there that I couldn't get for cheaper online or at the bookstores in Lansing. Except for the rare top floor book collection, but I can't afford any of them any where. We met up with Jonathan at his school around 5:30, helped him set up for a round of science experiments tomorrow, and then went to get some dinner. We ate at a tapas place on 12th Street with great Spanish pork kababs and even better wine from the Jumilla region of Spain. It was a pretty relaxing end to a great day.

I'll try to blog a bit more as the week goes on. We are planning on hitting the Natural History Museum, the Metropolitan Art Museum, Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Times Square, the New York Public Library, (OK, fine, I'm a tourist!) and fa ew more places before we leave, so if anyone has any more suggestions of places to go, feel free to comment. More to come!!!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Oh, the Humanities!!!

"...medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
-John Keating, Dead Poet's Society

I recently read this extraordinarily depressing article from the New York Times describing the state of humanities and liberal arts in higher education and the general decline that is occurring or will occur soon as budget cuts, hiring freezes, and the overall lessening of the value placed upon non-math or science related topics becomes the norm in college curricula across the country. The information in the essay isn't really new. Studies of literature, art, history, philosophy, and other related fields have been declining since at least the early 80s and are especially susceptible to decline during tough economic times and wars - as Arthur Miller wrote during the Vietnam War, "When the guns boom, the arts die." Today is no exception and in many ways our age is an exemplar of this state of affairs. I was advised by a former professor upon informing him of my decision to pursue graduate studies in history to diversify as much as possible and to focus on topics that are "in vogue" in academia. In terms of pre-modern European history, which, as broadly as I can, describes my interests in geographic and chronological terms, that means things like the Crusades, Western/Islamic relations, women and gender, socio-economics, etc. Fortunately for me, I am interested in these things. It also seems likely that getting some type of minor in global studies or world history is in my best interests. Perhaps, as a friend who recently completed a master's program (albeit in a science field) told me recently, I should simply be content with the fact that I am being offered any funding at all in my pursuit of a humanities degree.

Laurie: "...I've decided to major in philosophy."
Eric: "That's good because they just opened up that big philosophy factory in Green Bay."

-That '70s Show

As someone who is about to enter graduate school in history, the state of humanities higher education is obviously troubling to me. I have no doubt that historical studies will continue to be an integral part of the college experience, but the shrinking size of college endowments in general and departments in the arts and humanities in particular have placed something of a "burden of proof" on these departments. This is unfortunate. Professors in these fields are tacitly being told by their administrators and board members that to remain pertinent, they must explain why they are as important as, say, engineering or biology. Well, the truth is, in a practical way, they aren't. Or, I should say, at least not in an obvious way. Knowing the ins and outs of St. Anselm's ontological argument won't help you build a bridge and understanding the mimetic theory of pre-modern literature is not going to put a satellite into orbit. This much is obvious. Teachers in the humanities have been arguing for years, and rightfully so, however, that learning critical thinking skills, argumentative skills, analytical writing and reasoning skills, are extremely important for the overall education of a student. Afterall, how can you convince the federal government to fund your scientific research if you can't coherently argue in writing why it's so important? Or, going beyond that, as the article mentions, how do you weigh the moral implications of stem cell research or recombinant DNA or the human genome project without a firm grounding in the last 3000 years or so of Western history and philosophy? These intellectual quests give us reason to keep building bridges and sending up satellites. Perhaps the future of humanities, or perhaps most academic studies, will be further syntheses of seemingly disparate discourses. If humanities cannot survive on their own, perhaps being married to more scientific fields will help: the history of science and the relationships amongst science, philosophy, theology, and religion seem necessary to fostering better understanding in the future. Humanities professors shouldn't have to "prove" their worth to anyone: one step inside an art museum, one page turned of Shakespeare, one note from Beethoven, should be enough to convince us of the merits of a liberal arts education.
"There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live. Surely these should never be confused in the mind of any man who has the slightest inkling of what culture is. For most of us it is essential that we should make a living...In the complications of modern life and with our increased accumulation of knowledge, it doubtless helps greatly to compress some years of experience into far fewer years by studying for a particular trace or profession in an institution; but that fact should not blind us to another—namely, that in so doing we are learning a trade or a profession, but are not getting a liberal education as human beings."
-James Truslow Adams