Monday, January 28, 2008

Eduardo for Presidente is watching me

Somebody put these signs up recently. One looks directly into all my front windows. In the kitchen, Eduardo is there. In the living room, Eduardo is there. Who are you, Eduardo? What do you want to be presidente of? I'm already an Obama man, Eduardo!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lily of the Valley

The Lily of the Valley is not technically a lily, but it is of the Valley, in at least the same sense that I am. By that I mean that we can both be found, or could, in the Fox River Valley, toward the middle of Wisconsin. There again, the Fox Valley may not technically be a valley at all. An adult once tried to explain to me that the land is depressed some handful of feet over many miles of farmland specked with forest, so that by the time you come to the the suburban metropolis where the mighty Fox River joins Lake Winnebago, you can hardly expect to observe directly the characteristics typical of valleys. I never had this on better than say-so.

My family lived, and still does live, just exactly where the Fox is in the business of joining the Winnebago, or vice versa. Two short winding arms connect Lake Winnebago with Little Lake Butte des Morts, which is not technically a lake at all since it is really just a wide, slow part of the Fox River. Nestled in this freshwater embrace is Doty Island, where my family has lived in two different houses. In both houses I think we speculated that Doty Island may not technically be an island, being simply bordered by an excess of river on the shore of a lake, rather than isolated out in the middle of anything. It's easy to think that, with everything built up so much that roads hop rivers on unobtrusive bridges and factories lean out over shallows on tidy concrete pylons.

In grade school I remember we learned all about land-forms, most memorable in their oddity the plateau and the isthmus. What a load of malarky!

Our old house was surrounded by a pleasant land-form called a yard. I understand now that the British call the yard of a house its garden, even if it isn't a garden at all. This would have been confusing at my family's home, since we had distinct gardens inside of the yard.

My mother tended a triangular flower garden bordered with old brick in a front corner of the yard, opposite the driveway. Along that driveway was a neighborly row of hosta that led back to a tall neighborly fence. Along the fence back there was a narrow plot of flowers, sometimes magnificent and sometimes fallow. The opposite edge of the yard, back from the brick triangle, was edged thick with lilac bushes, tall and woody, under which sometimes mysterious flowers would appear. As with the crocus and violets that appeared here and there in the lawn now and again, my mother would generally just smile when we noticed, if she took credit at all. The yard was allowed to be miraculous.

Hosta, incidentally, is like Lily of the Valley in that it was once classified as a lily, but is not any longer. The botanists must have their reasons.

The yard was backed by another fence, this one older, shorter, and grayer than the other. Square in the middle of the rectangular back yard so enclosed was a rectangular vegetable garden with a wire fence to keep out the rabbits, closed up with a homemade gate. It could have been a full acre to a bunch of kids, and for the amount of work it was to keep properly tended. There was always a lot of rhubarb. We kids had our own little plots in there to putter around with too. Mine was right by the gate. One summer I just dug a hole where my plot was and buried a time capsule, which was a plastic tennis ball canister containing such memorable items as a pair of black dress socks.

The yard had trees as well, big sturdy Maples that gave us presents through the year: sugary sap, helicopter seed pods, and colorful leaves overhead and underfoot. The trees were old, old, old, like the neighbors, like the neighborhood. Their young cousins in sprawling developments are easy to pity, easy to mock. One day those too will be dignified matriarchs, the landmarks of an old area, providing nearly as much shade as they allow sun.

A last garden lay along the side of the brown-painted garage. It was a raised bed of rich soil, sweetened with compost and mulched with fresh grass clippings. It was held up on one side by the old garage wall and on the other three sides by moisture-cracked railroad ties. If you followed the ties back past mint and chives to the limit of the yard, near the raspberry brier, there was a quiet space between the rotting fence and the garage. It was a passage.

I had, and perhaps I still have, only an introvert boldness. I will do it, try it, explore it - as long as it doesn't involve interacting with people. This tended to make me respect the borders of our yard more judiciously than the family dog, and without any need for a remote-control electrocution collar. There could be neighbors in the neighbors' yards, after all. There were fences. The adults must have their reasons.

So it was only ever carefully that I ventured out behind the garage where the neighbor’s yard melded with ours. The trees there were more sprawling, more clutching. Their joined canopies swaddled hard moist ground in a relative darkness and grass grew only here and there, struggling.

That unfriendly expanse was a kind of barren sea, and the strip of shore behind our garage was more alive than all of it. It was there that grew the Lily of the Valley, and neither of us would venture farther afield. This was a real bed of flowers, ankle to knee height, too dense to walk through, with leaves of rich green parchment curving around delicate stems that tentatively raised up bashful bells so white and pure, so impossibly small.

The fragrance of the Lily of the Valley is a wonder of the world. If you crouch and put your nose to those constellations of dainty flowers, your eyes will widen with the power and beauty of it. They smell exactly like Eve.

Standing there with them, there was no reason to step out into any other place.

I tried to dig up that tennis ball time capsule I buried, years before I had really planned to, but I couldn’t find it. The family moved since then, and I don’t think I’ll ever have another attempt. It’s gone.

I don’t know if there are Lily of the Valley behind that old garage any more. I tried to find some at flower shops much later. I found out they’re difficult to be had. Sometimes they can be special-ordered, usually for weddings, for a few weeks in the spring. When I want flowers, I tend to get Stargazer Lilies, true lilies, huge and flashy, pungent enough to fill a whole room with their sweet scent. Stargazer Lilies were bred by someone in California. Everyone can agree about flower eugenics.

I was looking for Stargazer Lilies just the other day at Whole Foods Market, underground at Columbus Circle in New York City. They didn’t have any. I examined a White Hyacinthus instead, put my nose to it. The delicate sensation was like a vision of a lost time. It reminded me of the Lily of the Valley.

It reminded me that perhaps lilies are things we call lilies and valleys are things we call valleys, and that will have to do.

Strange but True

I went to Mitsuwa, a Japanese supermarket in New Jersey, with Momo and Han today. New Jersey's Bergen County forbids the sale of home appliances on Sundays. No toaster for you, Momo! Pretty tasty food though, and a whole aisle of Pocky. They even have Pocky for Men!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Philosophy Works: Week Two

I got to my second Saturday class at the School of Practical Philosophy a little earlier, so I sat in the back room, which is decorated in what I'm inclined to call a Victorian style, all white and ornate. On Saturdays the two rooms on the second floor are both full, and two tutors lead two sections simultaneously.

The tutor for today's section was a good deal more of a rambler. I was less fond of him. I was also more tired, grumpier and caffeinated, so it may not have been entirely to do with him. I additionally entertained hostile thoughts for the gleefully talkative older members of this room's audience. How dare they not share my cynicism?

The main content for the day was contained in two simple diagrams called "triads". The first one is composed of external stimuli, desire, and action. This is described as a mechanical cycle, or "the picture of a limited life". The second triad has essential desires, habitual desired, and effort. The word effort was broken down to mean "from strength". These diagrams were supposed to explain something, I guess.

The tutor also led the group twice through "The Exercise" awareness meditation, and there were a few parables or fables involving animals. Self knowledge and observation were themes, but the whole session seemed to lack coherence. It couldn't have helped that I was in a kind of fog myself. Fog or not, I feel I have growing criticisms of the philosophy as such that I will have to expand later.

After class I explored the neighborhood a little. I had an expensive sandwich called "The Spa" with avocado and sun-dried tomatoes and drank fresh-pressed juice from carrots, bananas, and apples. Walking toward the Met, I found that across the street from the School of Practical Philosophy is the first Waldorf school in the United States. Some of its eighth-graders were advertising a fund-raising sale on the sidewalk out front. They had knit hats, among other things. I happen to know a little about Waldorf schools because they're in the same class of alternative educational schemes as Montessori schools, which I was and am interested in. I wished them luck and walked into the Met, but decided I didn't really care to wander around inside for a suggested contribution of $20. On my way to the subway on Lexington, I discovered that All Souls, the Unitarian church mentioned earlier, is within two blocks of the School of Practical Philosophy. This whole region seems to somehow be a hotbed of upper class mysticism, a suit-wearing hippy land.

Subway Philosophy
Week One
Week Two
Week Three

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The march of time

About two months fit on a sheet of poster paper. With four of them on my bedroom wall I have a map far enough into 2008 to show the way full through the second semester and into the fabled summer break. It may be a difficult journey. Much depends on the work of speculative cartography done now...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Subway Philosophy

A friend used to comment as we walked the ad-saturated streets of New York that I seem unduly influenced by advertisements. Maybe so.

One ubiquitous ad is the subway car campaign of The School of Practical Philosophy. It describes the school as "chartered by the Regents of the State of New York", which means nearly nothing as far as I can tell, and certainly doesn't indicate a relationship between The School of Practical Philosophy and any public institution of education such as the New York State or City colleges.

Curious, and seeking a convenient opportunity to be a student again rather than a teacher, I credited $175 to sign up for the ten-week "Philosophy Works" class they advertise. This is, it turns out, a first and introductory course in a long sequence.

The class is not an academic survey of philosophy, although some people might not realize this from the ads. The philosophy taught is one presented implicitly as the distilled truth of the universe, what they call "perennial philosophy". In this way it seems like a sort of academic Godless religion, like an Eastern version of Unitarian Universalism in classrooms. To be sure, however, they make no effort to present it in this way.

This is all a bit weird and cultish, but my curiosity leads me to continue wondering if it might not be just what I'm looking for. A couple months ago I was playing with the idea of visiting New York's "All Souls" Unitarian Universalist congregation. I read a sermon on their site that I agreed with. The thesis of the sermon was that it's hard to feel committed to a religion that says basically nothing of its own. So I didn't go.

Whether it's philosophy or surrogate for religion, I went to my first class this past Saturday. The building, a converted row house under a block from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is plush in the old style of dark woodwork and glass, giving the impression of gilt surfaces without actually flashing metal. They also run Philosophy Day School there, for kids through fourth grade or so. Large pictures of active kids adorn the walls in the stairwells.

There was not a lot of content as such in the 2.5-hour session. The volunteer "tutor" spent considerable time soliciting individuals' reasons for coming to study philosophy. He eventually gave us etymology of "philosophy" to mean "the love of wisdom". Wisdom was defined as "the knowledge to enable life to be lived truly and happily". He had the class suggest characteristics of a wise man or woman. Our first "homework" (not called that explicitly) was to consider "What would a wise man or woman do in this situation?" through the next week.

At the beginning of the class our tutor described some of the other and ongoing classes offered, and mentioned that meditation is offered beginning in the second year of study. In fact, The Exercise that we closed the first session of the introductory class with is a form of simple meditation. I believe I recall from the web site that the later meditation involves a mantra. It was recommended that we practice The Exercise (always capitalized) twice a day through the coming week. It amounts to sitting quietly and being casually aware of yourself and your surroundings.

One of the big claims seems to be that wisdom is innate, but needs drawing out. In a sense, it's a very constructivist system, at least on the surface. That was really about it for the first class. I am withholding judgment for now. In fact, that's a major directive at this school: "Don't accept and don't reject; try it out in practice." You can interpret that as either unthinkingly acceptive or thoroughly experimental. We'll see. A British writer has a piece about his experience with the originating organization in the UK, called the School of Economic Science there. His piece is called "Course or Cult?" and he leans toward cult. I haven't experienced anything as strange as what he reports yet, but my eyes will be wide open looking for it. If nothing else, it should be an interesting experience.

Subway Philosophy
Week One
Week Two
Week Three

Friday, January 18, 2008

Free-standing newspaper and tape structures

I've taken to writing brief letters to members of my immediate family on the occasions of their birthdays. When Noelle was turning six, I fleshed out the letter beyond "Happy birthday" by challenging her to make the tallest free-standing structure she could using only newspaper and tape.

My letter was lost in Menasha for some time, but then this week I got a reply in the mail, with a picture from Noelle and a message scribed by my mom. I was pleased that Noelle had actually attempted the task, and if her results were unspectacular, perhaps it was not such a bad effort for a six-year-old.

Having been challenged by a six-year-old, however, I had little choice but to develop an answer to the little engineer's question: "How big is yours?"

I used an issue of The New York Times and Scotch tape. With no limits on the amounts of these materials, you can really do a lot. I elected to transform full newspaper pages into tubes of fairly small diameter and base my construction on these elements. You can get a very small diameter if you wrap the paper around a pencil initially, which makes for a fairly rigid beam. I only made one in this way, however. The other eleven were slightly looser.

I think construction from thin tubes in this way is a pretty good approach, although there may be others. The particular constraints and possibilities of the problem as a whole make for a nice and easily implemented design activity. I think it could be used easily in schools at a wide range of levels, for problem solving, engineering, team building, or even mathematics.

My initial idea was to tape the tubes as the edges of a triangular prism. I somehow didn't realize that this structure is not rigid and that taping the corners would be difficult. Next I tried a tetrahedron, which is rigid but does not easily suggest a lot of height. Investigating how best to join the corners of a tetrahedron, I hit upon the design I settled on, made from components of three tubes joined at their centers like three-dimensional Cartesian axes, and then stacked. Four of these components, for a total of 12 page-tubes, reached 4' 10". I am confident considerably more impressive results could be had from more refined efforts.

How big is yours?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dinosaur Comics lead to prior home via Timequake

This is a whole chain of events. It begins with procrastinating last week, when I decided to look into Dinosaur Comics. I instantly adored T-Rex and friends, and was unable to do any grading whatsoever until I had read every Dinosaur Comic online. There are over eleven hundred of them.

The subject matter of Dinosaur Comics varies as much as the visuals don't, but it's consistently great, and sort of in the same spirit as xkcd. It got big points with me for a particular comic done in the style of several authors in turn, including personal hero Kurt Vonnegut.

After two days, I ran out of comics and entered withdrawal. At some point, it seemed like a good idea to run a Google search on the following: "Dinosaur Comics great".

What I found there in the first page of results was an interview with Dinosaur Comics' creator Ryan North. It's from The Webcomics Examiner. So "webcomics" is not only no longer a neoligism requiring explanation, in the company of "blog", but it also has its own review. The motto of The Webcomics Examiner is "Discerning criticism of an evolving artform".

In the interview, North says in one place "Poo-tee-weet", which is the sound of a bird at the end of Slaughterhouse-Five. When the interviwer recognizes the Vonnegut reference, North expands on his admiration for the master Humanist author and mentions inparticular his 1997 novel Timequake.

I had never read Timequake, so I went to the Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center and got a copy. I read it over the weekend, and here's the thing: the main setting of the fictional action is my old block!

From December 2006 through August 2007, I lived at 788 Riverside Dr 9C, New York, NY 10032, between 155th and 156th streets. Most of the action in Timequake takes place in and around a complex whose location Vonnegut describes as "way-the-hell-and-gone up on West 155th Street in Manhattan," but which could also be described as "right by where I used to live!"

This is a real complex, including The American Academy of Arts and Letters and the former National Museum of the American Indian, and which surrounds The Audubon Terrace. I never knew exactly what it all was when I lived there. Never noticed it all properly, I suppose. But my kitchen window back then had line of sight with The Audubon Terrace. I got a view in the other direction for the first time when I went back this past Sunday.

In the book, the former National Museum of the American Indian was a homeless shelter. For all I know, it may have been, in 1997. Now it's Boricua College.


I had just one experience with the American Academy of Arts and Letters while I was living so near to it, and I had it without even realizing. When I was moving in to that apartment, I drove in all my belongings from Poughkeepsie to NYC in the champagne PT Cruiser I had then. I parked along 155th street, like so many other cars. I did not suspect that I was blocking the driveway of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, because the curb looked just like it did everywhere else, and I was not familiar with the custom that New York City driveways have of leading straight into the middle of buildings through doors not much bigger than those meant for people.

I left the car there for some three days. I was just moving in, and I was not about to try to find another parking spot in the city, even that way-the-hell-and-gone up in Manhattan.

I finally came to my senses and went to check on the car. It was not there. Oh no! My car was stolen in crime-ridden New York!

Of course it hadn't been, and I managed to get in touch with the nice folks inside the building, and they helped me call the cops or towing company or whatever and track down the car, all without my really knowing what organization's phone I was on.

The helpful employees told me that they had waited as long as they could before calling for a tow. The car had been there up until an hour or two before I came around. It took well into that night and a lot of subway riding to get it back.


This past Sunday I walked about 14 blocks down Broadway from my current apartment to the complex. I don't even remember ever seeing the gates to the terrace open before, but they were on this day. There was a lot there for those who troubled to look. Beaux-arts buildings with ornate doors, a classical sculpture garden, and even signage here and there explaining everything.

The buildings and entryways were frequently inscribed with important-sounding messages. A few examples: "Great men are they who see that thoughts rule the world." "By the gates of art we enter the temple of happiness." "All passes, art alone untiring stays." "Dedicated to the memory of of Mary Wilkins Freeman and the women writers of America." "The National Museum of the American Indian has relocated to George Gustav Heye Center in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green in lower Manhattan."

I think I could have explored some galleries inside the buildings, but that was not my interest. I took some pictures and savored the twin experiences of walking the setting of Vonnegut's novel, where he himself surely walked, and becoming aware of what had been the background of my life for half a year. God does such a good job with the backgrounds. They're so detailed!


One of the adaptable signs listing occupants of the complex


Sculptures celebrating the conquest of the Americas?


The Hispanic Society is also in this complex


Looking South from The Audubon Terrace over 155th Street and into Trinity Cemetery


The garage entrance that I blocked


The 155th Street entrance to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I walked past this so many times, but I don't have any memory of noticing such a huge decorative entrance at all.