Saturday, January 24, 2009

Three Men on a Bus

On Wednesday last I went to my ancient texts class as usual. Now that it starts at noon, it has burst all restraint and tends to last about five hours. For me it requires a significant amount of psychological preparation merely to face a five-hour long class, but I managed to sit it out this time at least.

An interesting thing happened while I was on my way there, though. I was at the Garfield red line stop, and crossing the street to the bus stop. It's a bit of a sketchy place, so I always extra alert to those around me whenever I pass through there. That's why I noticed three men drinking Monster energy drinks, crossing the street ahead of me. Their movements and physical bearing seemed somehow very violent, though they didn't do anything out of the ordinary. They just seemed... thuggish. Like there was some wild energy in them just on the point of bursting out. I would have been more nervous except that they were a mixed race group, two white men and a black man. For some reason, it's easy to see being mugged by all black men or by all white men, but not by a mixture of the two, not sure why. Also, it was only 11 AM, and there were lots of other people around. Anyway, I kept my eye on them as we all waited for the bus.

When the bus came, it was reasonably crowded. The three men were sitting near the back, and it happened that the only empty seat was in the back too. So I sat there, staring at the window, thinking of nothing. I was tired. I was gearing up for five hours of paleography.

One of the men leaned over and said to me: "Is there a college around here or something?" I owned that there was. He said, "How is it that I just took one look at you and knew there was a college around here somewhere?"

I laughed. He had a kind of rough working class way of talking but I actually got no bad vibe from him, just that odd suppressed energy. I said, "It's probably because I've been in college for half my life."

He nodded, impressed. "It will surely pay off," he said.

"We'll see," I said. "Hasn't yet."

"It will," he said. "I chose not to go to school myself. And now here I am going to the museum when I should be working."

"Is that so?" I said. "Which museum?"

"Science and Industry," he said.

"That's a fun one," I said. "Very hands on. It's not just looking at stuff in cases. There are things for you to do."

"I like that," one of the other guys said. He looked a lot like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.

"...So do you guys all work together?" I asked, trying to envision museum-going as--some kind of corporate field-trip?

They laughed in an awkward way. It turned out that they were in AA together. They were going to the museum to "better themselves." To think about things they could do for fun while staying sober. The Monster drinks were, I inferred, to fill part of the psychological need or habit associated with drinking. Like non-nicotine cigarettes when you're trying to quit smoking. The two who were talking seemed slightly defiant (the African-American guy was listening to his I-pod in the corner, totally withdrawn), a thin cover over a world of insecurity. As for me, I felt pleased and satisfied, because now their thuggish energy made perfect sense. You're approaching a potentially hostile world in a whole new way, without the false confidence of your life-destroying addiction. Of course you are wary and hyper-prepared for trouble.

I wasn't sure about the proper things to say in such a situation, but I was extra-motivated to continue the conversation, given that they had gone out on a limb to tell me. So I said something to the effect that I thought what they were doing was great and really hoped it worked out for them, and they told me about some of the things that were really hard about not drinking--like that it was hard to interact with people sober when your courage used to have an artificial source. I said I could totally see it, which I can, being pretty nervous about certain types of social interactions myself.

We talked for some time, also about other museums around, and the Shedd Aquarium. "They have a komodo dragon," I said, and, rather carried away by enthusiasm, told them how komodo dragons have a nasty germy slime dripping from their mouth and take down their prey by biting them and waiting until they die of infection. The one guy had seen something about it on TV; the Matt Damon guy was pretty impressed. I thought how the world is big and full of interesting things.

When I got off the bus, I told them I hoped that they had great time at the museum, and the guy who had first talked to me said with great sincerity that he hoped I would have a good day. I am not sure if I said the right kinds of things but I hope so. The interaction left me feeling extremely optimistic somehow. And I felt like I'd made someone's day better just by taking the time to chat a little. In itself not so meaningful, but maybe it would help give them more confidence the next time they faced a social interaction. Maybe it would help in some way. I wonder how they are doing and if they did have an okay time at the museum and if they're still on the wagon. I hope so. Also I realized that they made my day better by taking the time to chat with me. Life can be so interesting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rough Draft Butterfly

I suddenly realized this afternoon that a lot of the restless dissatisfied feeling I've been having lately is the desire to make art. Artistic impulses are something I usually try to discourage or at least minimize in myself these days. If I missed a calling as an artist, I accept the fact that I did just that--missed it. Fiddling around with art is absorbing and fun, but really distracting. I try to think of my dissertation as the real creative endeavor, and funnel my energy into that. But face it, there are times when a dissertation just isn't art. There are times when it can be of course. But not all the time. There's just some part of me that is left totally unsatisfied by it right now.

I know, I know. The desire to make art is itself probably just a displaced message from my biological clock, telling me to reproduce. It's all a tangle. But what makes it simpler is origami butterflies. I made an origami butterfly on plain white paper and then unfolded and painted the parts I thought would show. Then I folded it back up again. This is just a rough draft; I used ordinary printer paper. This is bad for origami, which wants something thicker, and also for watercolor, which wants something thinner. I know the perfect solution, which is moistened rice paper. But I wanted to try it out and see how it would work and whether I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed doing it A LOT. So next time I'll try with rice paper.

A butterfly's wings are an appealing combination of copying from nature and improvisation. I can look at National Geographic pictures to get ideas, but in mapping it onto the disconnected segments of folded butterfly wing, of course there is a great deal of artistic license involved. Next time I will paint the whole paper on both sides (using a paper that reacts more happily to water) so that there won't be white edges showing. Still, the rough draft butterfly looks very jaunty and pleasing from across the room.

By the way, new entry on Book Draft here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Nostril-Chunking Cold

It's about 8 below right now, and it's been "bitterly cold" all day. A good day to stay home in pajamas, which is pretty much what I did. According to weather reports, it's the coldest it's been here since 1999. Although our apartment is well-heated, even in here I can feel the cold creeping unless I'm sitting very close to one of the radiators or am very bundled up. It's scary when the forecast for tomorrow is "MUCH WARMER": high of 7, low of 5. Yeah. Much warmer. By my calculations, tomorrow will still be "nostril-chunking cold," which means that when you breath in your nose hairs start to freeze into chunks of ice. It tends to happen anytime the temperature is in the single digits or lower.

Pocket of Bolts is out of town this weekend and I've been even more sluggish than I usually am when he's gone. Not even any of my little projects appeal to me, let alone my work. I did manage to put in a couple hours on the dissertation over the course of the day, write an e-mail or two, but not a whole lot of progress. Mostly I want to sit around and watch movies online, or read novels. I really have to shake off this lassitude. Maybe tomorrow.

I did make it out to the gym, though I almost froze my buns off. And note, the gym is right next door, less than five minutes walk. I decided I wasn't up for going to the grocery store to get anything special for dinner, so made do with what we had: fried up some diced yukon gold potatoes in olive oil, with coarse salt and pepper; sauteed peppers and onions to put over a boca burger, melted cheese on top. Sort of like a burger and fries, but healthier. Actually, it felt like a rather princely feast--I mean, as far as cooking for one is concerned.

Keep meaning to write a bit about my most recent trip to the East Coast, and about the Book of Changes, but it hasn't been happening. Yeah, again, maybe tomorrow.

Monday, January 12, 2009

My Barbarian Husband

I have a fondness for Portmeirion botanic garden dishes. It's something that Pocket of Bolts indulges me in. I can't say I really approve of myself in this regard; I'm not even sure I approve of the design. But there's something about each different dish having a different picture--and anyway I'm really fond of botanical prints, which is their style. Naturally the dishes are a bit girly but Pocket of Bolts consents to use them (we have a set of two of most basic things); he says botanical prints cross out of the realm of TOO girly.

Now PoB usually drinks his morning coffee from a Starbucks Chicago mug, but that was unavailable for some reason. So he grabbed a Portmeirion daisy coffee mug to go with his dog rose plate (picture at right). Sitting at the breakfast table with him I had to giggle. "You look like such a big barbarian, eating with those dainty flowery dishes," I said.

He laughed too and lifted up his big fist over the plate. "Oog, bee, smash!" he said in caveman intonations. (I guess the bee is kind of prominent.) Pocket of Bolts is fun. There is a lot of stress and uncertainty right now, but we still manage to have our good times.


Yesterday for no reason at all, I woke up with the craziest bedhead. I mean, I didn't go to sleep with wet hair or anything. It just happened that half my hair was sticking straight up and all the hair in the back was totally matted. I had done a lot of cooking the night before, so maybe somehow my hair had gotten a bit greasy and I tossed while I slept or something. Who knows. Anyway, I thought I'd share it with you all!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Changes: January 1

I am much behind in blogging, which I regret. The last week has been much-needed recovery time, during which I have made gestures at trying to work, but have mostly had a lot of down time and recreating (re-creating). It works too. The creative energy is returning, but slowly.

Although I am playing catch-up, I think I'm still going to go with my new idea about using the Book of Changes. I have decided to continue my study of the Changes by casting one every day, and studying both the original text and a Han dynasty elaboration on it called Master Jiao's Forest of Changes. Master Jiao's Forest of Changes has never been translated, though there are some hobbyists on little fjord of the world wide web who are interested in the project. I'm doing my own thing though. Master Jiao's principle is this: for each potential hexagram, and for each potential change from one hexagram to another, he wrote a little poem. Yes, that's 4096 poems, though there are some repeats. I don't find them quite as uncannily enlightening as the actual hexagram and line statements, but they are interesting in their own right as part of Han dynasty intellectual activity. Maybe I'll get paper out of it someday, but for now it's fun to just dabble.

Without further ado, then, I will give the hexagrams that I encountered (coin toss method), the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the hexagram and line statements (which I got from here), and the Forest of Changes poem with commentary. Eventually I'll catch up but for now I'm starting with:

January 1, 2009
Bi / Holding Together [Union]

The Judgment
HOLDING TOGETHER brings good fortune.
Inquire of the oracle once again
Whether you possess sublimity, constancy, and perseverance;
Then there is no blame.
Those who are uncertain gradually join.
Whoever come too late
Meets with misfortune.

The Image
On the earth is water:
Thus the kings of antiquity
Bestowed the different states as fiefs
And cultivated friendly relations
With the feudal lords.

Fifth line
Nine in the fifth place means:
Manifestation of holding together.
In the hunt the king uses beaters on three sides only
And forgoes game that runs off in front.
The citizens need no warning.
Good fortune.

Kun / The Receptive

The Judgment
THE RECEPTIVE brings about sublime success,
Furthering through the perseverance of a mare.
If the superior man undertakes something and tries to lead,
He goes astray;
But if he follows, he finds guidance.
It is favorable to find friends in the west and south,
To forego friends in the east and north.
Quiet perseverance brings good fortune.

The Image
The earth's condition is receptive devotion.
Thus the superior man who has breadth of character
Carries the outer world.

Master Jiao's Forest of Changes (my translation)

Holding Together Changing to The Receptive
A unicorn filly, a fledgling phoenix cock
Born and reared in a fine state,
Their spirit in harmony with where they reside,
Healthy and happy in the warmth of benevolence.
The country has many wise men.

Commentary (by Shang Binghe, my translation):
Kun is pattern (wen), the female unicorn and the phoenix, the state, and the country. When encountering the hexagram "Holding Together": Kan [Water, the Abysmal, the upper trigram of "Holding Together"] is harmony and enlightened wisdom; Gen (Mountain, Keeping Still, the first inner trigram] is fiery and thus it says "the warmth of benevolence." For "the warmth of benevolence", I rely on the Song and Yuan editions. The Jigu edition has it as "without cares."

My comments:
It is an oracle not just for the day but for the year. As such, it has its appropriateness. Holding together with Pocket of Bolts--at least this is what I would hope. Being receptive to whatever happens. The changing line image of some game getting away could easily refer to the job market where there are always missed opportunities, but there is nothing wrong in this.

I should add the obligatory note that I am not a believer in any supernatural power of the Changes. The Changes are a mirror of the mind, as a long-ago Chinese scholar once said. It's an interpretive exercise which sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails. You see if you can make meaning of something. To what end? Perhaps I will gain some insight from the practice. Anyway, a fun experiment.

Master Jiao's poem about the unicorn and the phoenix was particularly delightful to me. I like to think of myself and Pocket of Bolts in this way, healthy and happy, well-liked, and surrounded by wise people (philosophers). Most of the poems are much darker.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The First Day

Hello 2009. New Years day is usually a holiday I'm rather fond of. I try to make it a model day, usually, the sort of day I'd want to have all year. This year though--well, I'm leaving again very early tomorrow morning. All this traveling reminds me of the time when I was a consultant... I'm even bringing along a suit, although this time it's purely an interview suit.

I've spent most of the day in preparations, or avoiding preparations. It's really hard putting together syllabi, but I really am doing the best I can. The dissertation spiel is even harder. I finally raised the courage to perform it in front of Pocket of Bolts, which did help.

We threw the Yijing today. I got 比之坤, "Holding Together" changing to "The Receptive." I stick with my man and take what he gives me? Or I become a professor but maintain a humble attitude? The Yijing is merely a mirror of the mind; it knows no more than I do, and I am in profound ignorance about the future. Pocket of Bolts got 升之蠱, "Pushing Upward" changing to "Work on What Has Been Spoiled." His is more obviously interpretable than mine: he is ambitious and has a lot of work ahead of him, but mustn't expend effort blindly, and must repair past damage.

There is more I could write but there's still much left to do before I sleep so I'll sign off for now. Happy New Year everyone.