Friday, December 31, 2010

A literary Odyssey


I've begun my greatest literary undertaking. I'm reading Ulysses. It's often listed as one of or the greatest novel ever written. I wouldn't exactly consider it pleasure reading. It's more something I'm forcing myself to do. A resolution. A relic of college work ethic. Some unfinished English major duty. Whatever, I'm reading it. I tried once, but I cast it aside after 70 pages. I even sold my copy to a used bookstore to underscore my refusal to read it. But here I am, two years later, with renewed fervor to read the damn thing cover to cover.

I'm being thorough this time. I did my homework by reading Homer's The Odyssey first, which Ulysses roughly parallels. I also have a reader's guide, and an audiobook version, because I've heard that some chapters are better heard than read. I'm already on page 100 or so, and I definitely need all that help I can get. Some chapters are so dense with stream of thought and references that even the reader's guide is hard to read. I need a reader's guide for the reader's guide. I'll share my reaction when I eventually slay the beast.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My favorite spot (in the universe)


There is a spot in Boulder I call the "rock sofa." I call it that, because it's literally a semi-circular seat of piled sandstone overlooking the city. I'm quite fond of this spot. In fact, It's my favorite spot in Boulder, and Boulder is probably my favorite place in the world, so you see what I'm getting at? In all the vastness of the universe, this spot is dearest to me. It's just a short hike above Boulder and I've gone there many times. The strange thing is that there is NEVER anybody there. I think there has only been one occasion when I came up to the sofa and found it occupied. I think the reason is that it lies off a main trail on a dead-end trail, and people seem partial to trails that make round trips, not dead ends. (Who can blame them, really? A dead end is a powerful metaphor.) I can't remember how I found it myself. I guess I've just been in Boulder so damn long that there are few places I haven't discovered.

A short digression: When I studied abroad in France, my favorite place for passing idle time was in cathedrals. The streets of Paris were cold, busy, noisy and windy; the insides of cathedrals were precisely the opposite. Their stillness was surreal, and I found much tranquility there for writing, or just sitting. That's what I find when I go up to the rock sofa. I recently read through my journals during my last year of college, and I was shocked at how hard a time I had, but I always found solace up at my spot.

December 24, '08: "This is becoming my spot for perspective. I come up here, above the city and above the life I lead there, to think--or not think. I come up here as a paragraph break to whatever is going on in my life below."

February 7, '09: "I'm at the rock sofa. I haven't come here for awhile. I haven't had the time. School is tough, but I need to stop being so tragic about it. I'm feeling fine now--this spot always makes me feel fine."

I don't have much to escape from these days, but it still gives me a different, more removed perspective on things. I'm a bit protective over the sanctity of this spot, so forgive me if I don't post a google map or anything. If you're interested, just let me know, and I'll take you there myself.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

With my own two hands


For many, building is a commonplace and reliable profession. Kids may learn how to wire, plumb, fix, or build from family or friends, and instead of going to college, they work at what the already know. For me, building is a novelty. I have a mostly academic background, and so I'm entering the realm of building like an academic. I wax philosophic on the satisfaction of working with my hands and having a tangible result at the end of the day. In college, all I did was work with abstractions, pushing ideas around, borrowing from and adding to man's pregnant body of knowledge. I enjoyed it, and grew from it, but I also tired of it to the point where building is a breath of fresh air. Ideas are pliable, forgiving things, but building is ruthless in its exactness. It might be called "manual" labor, but it's just as much intellectual labor too. To complete any simple task, spatial awareness, geometry, and precise measuring are crucial. There are only guidelines for how things are to be done, so if you come to a problem, it's up to you to figure out a solution, and if it works, it works; if it doesn't, it doesn't. There's no ambiguity. Your wall is either plumb or not; your layout is either square or it isn't. These things exist in reality, and they have objective measurements. And through precision, the fruits of your labor aren't abstract notions, but a building--a home, the ultimate in usefulness.

I'm not alone in seeing the novelty of building. When regulars at the coffee shop ask where I've been and I tell them I've been building a house, they say something like, "Really. That's awesome," and they mean it. They get a faraway look in their eye as they walk back to their laptops. On the other hand, if I said I was just starting grad school, I might not get a hint of genuine interest. That's what everyone does in a town like this. Saying you're going back to school is like saying your heart's beating, or that you're breathing oxygen. Of course you're going back to school! The interest people show in building makes me think it's rooted in our genes. A life in academia is noble and respected, yet the urge to build, to work with one's hands, calls out to people. It called out to me, and I can't put my finger on the fullness of why. I try to figure it out, but it doesn't really matter. They're just ideas.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Annals of Meditation

I got back from another meditation retreat the other day. Meditation seems like a practice of the privileged. If you don’t have a roof over your head and food on the table, you’re probably not going to allocate any time to sit and do essentially nothing. In fact, in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, meditation seems like the pinnacle of self-actualization. It goes beyond trying to fulfill oneself through or education and aims at the ultimate goal of fulfilment from and acceptance of what already is. It’s also an interesting result of evolution: humans are a species that supports groups to remove themselves from productive society for days or weeks to just sit still and come back with nothing tangible to show for it. It’s not an obvious strategy for survival.

I feel very fortunate and privileged to be a self-actualized human being who can practice meditation. It started with a vague interest and curiosity, then experimentation, and then I saw that it was actually changing me. In short, it makes life easier and better. That’s what keeps me doing it, pure and simple, and I encourage every other self-actualizing human being to do the same.

One short experience from the retreat:
By day five I was starting to get pretty settled in and experiencing some interesting things. One thing that would happen is that my mind would produce an endless stream of images. They weren’t thoughts, but more like avant-garde film projected in the background of my mind that I could chose whether or not to watch. One time, when I was rather deep within my mind, I was trying to turn my observer (that nebulous awareness in my head) back in on itself. I wanted to observe my observer, so I thought, “What would it look like if it looked in a mirror?” Just then, my mental stream of images produced a mirror that swung into view. My observer looked in and in the reflection was another mirror reflecting back to the first mirror, which mirrored back and forth, on and on all the way to a tiny dot of infinity. I was so taken aback by this clever and almost devious rebuttal to my probing, that I lost my concentration and couldn’t probe any further. Someday…