Friday, December 30, 2011

Ways to categorize Olympic sports

  • Individual vs. team
    (Weightlifting vs. rowing)
  • Direct competition vs. parallel competition vs. non-simultaneous scoring
    (Judo vs. track vs. ice skating)
  • Professional leagues vs. totally amateur
    (Basketball vs. fencing)
  • Winter vs. summer
    (Skiing vs. rowing)
  • Wide vs. narrow sponsorships
    (Cycling vs. biathlon)
  • Spectated for artistry vs. spectated for outcome (vs. no spectators?)
    (Gymnastics vs. triathlon)
  • Everyday familiarity vs. "If it's on it must be the Olympics"
    (Golf vs. pentathlon)
  • Athletes earn money by doing sport vs. teaching sport vs. sponsorships vs. being heirs vs. working at Home Depot
    (Football vs. judo vs. swimming vs. dressage vs. luge)
  • Sports Americans make fun of vs. those they don't
    (Table tennis vs. ice hockey)
  • Sports that involve sitting vs. those that don't
    (Bobsleigh vs. archery)
  • Ranged from least to most equipment
    (Running to sailing)
The one time of year I wish I had a TV is when the Olympics are on. Which is obviously not right now, so never mind why I was thinking about them. Anyway, I started wondering, in which sport would a potential Olympic participant be competing with the most vs. least other aspirants?

I imagine running would have to be up there. It's popular all over the world; it's relatively affordable; and you can't make a living doing it any other way, so the Olympics are where every serious young runner is headed. Something like basketball is popular and almost as affordable, plus you can make a living at it, so it's popular - although the would-be players aren't in it for Olympic glory but for professional teams.

The thing about running, rather like golf or shooting or weightlifting, is that lots of people do these activities, but the vast majority do so without aspiring to Olympic heights. We can't consider 45-year-old 5k first-timers to be part of the would-be Olympic runner's competition. On the other hand, I bet most 8-year-old gymnasts have at least fleeting dreams of Olympic gold, and there aren't a lot of folks who take it up at my age.

I'm guessing something like pentathlon has fewer aspirants, because it requires mastery of several disparate, expensive sports. Other sports, like trampoline, are obscure. Then there are sports like the luge - does anyone who isn't in the Olympics do them? Are there a lot of weekend lugers out there, other than as a one-time experience when visiting Calgary?

Really, what I guess I am wondering is, if everyone on the planet started trying to excel at [any particular sport], how much would elite performance improve? I don't think there is a great well of untapped running talent out there, the way there probably is in badminton.

It's not a question that matters, nor do I think it means that running is somehow "better" than badminton. It's pure idle speculation. How would we even go about figuring this out in a rigorous way?

Monday, December 26, 2011

What I'm reading in 2012, part III

I can see that I'm going to need some help.

Now, if you take a look at my Amazon wishlist, you'll see that there are enough books by women to get me well into 2012. The trouble is, they're on my Amazon wishlist and not on my bookshelf. What if I need a book right now?

I was in the Dallas airport the other day, worried (justifiably) I was going to finish Wizard of the Crow before I got home, so I took a spin around Simply Books. As airport bookstores go, it was reasonably sized, although no Powell's. It was the kind of bookstore devoted to the reader of bestsellers. Technically, I could have read any book I wanted, since it's still 2011, but I couldn't help but noticing the selection.

First off, everything in the "science fiction" (understood to include all speculative fiction) by women was straight-up urban fantasy. Vampires, werewolves, and demon-hunters, oh my! No, I know it's not all crap, but it's not generally my thing. Where were the Elizabeth Bears, Vonda McIntyres, and Joan D. Vinges? It turns out there was one Bear, on the "new fiction" shelf.

Second, all the books by African-Americans were in African-American fiction. Not in "classics" or "famous authors," where I would put Sapphire or Toni Morrison, but right next to the Hoodwives books. "Famous authors" is reserved for white guys writing thrillers and white women writing mysteries (plus Carl Hiassen and Ncholas Sparks). Hasn't this pissed enough people off yet?

Third, those people who argue that spec fic readers have an advantage over mundanes because they're comfortable exploring new ideas and worlds, and might therefore handle the apocalypse better, have clearly not looked at what's not the shelves lately: It's all the zillionth tale in the Dune or Wheel of Time or Star Trek sagas. Whatever their entertainment or literary value, these books are not going to make your head explode with novelty.

Clearly, most of what I'm looking for is out in the long tail, except for A Visit from the Goon Squad and romance novels. Literature, at least the most visible, is still gendered: Female authors have a strong showing in the mystery, romance, urban fantasy, young adult, and Moving Family Saga areas. Male authors have a strong showing in the science fiction, thrillers, westerns, horror, and Real Literature areas (with a respectable tally in mysteries).

So, are the books I want to read not being written by women, not being accepted by publishers, or not being mass marketed? Because, let's be entirely fair - 19 out of the 90 books I gave five stars to on Goodreads are written by men, even though my reading is about 50/50. Moi may be part of the problem.

My conclusion is that I need more ideas of what to read; going to Book Culture and judging books by their covers may actually be effective, but it is not efficient. Are there books I'm dismissing as Moving Family Sagas I might really like? Is Brian Sanderson actually the pen name of a woman? (That's a rhetorical question, folks.)

So what do you suggest? Keep in mind, I need books by women. Also, please don't suggest The Help or The Hunger Games. I don't live under a rock, and if a book is hyper-famous, I've probably already decided whether or not I want to read it.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Best novels I read in 2011

The awkward title of this post refers to the fact that, as usual, this isn't a "best books published this year" list, just a "best stuff I read this year" list. Yeah, I'm behind on my reading, what can I say? Only one of these has a 2011 release date.
  • Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Do you like absurdist novels of communist dissent such as Master and Margarita or The Golden Calf? Read this. Interesting fact: The author did his own English translation.
  • The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunque. Do you like books with long titles about young men whose names start with O such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Read this. Interesting fact: I tripped across this book online when doing research about neighborhoods in Manhattan.
  • Pym by Mat Johnson: Do you like novels about academe or conspiracies? Read this. Interesting fact: You really don't have to read Poe's novel first.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Do you like smart YA literature or keeping up with the books everyone else is reading? Read this. Interesting fact: Suzanne Collins is not the same person as Jacqueline Suzanne or Jackie Collins.
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. Do you like "The Yellow Wallpaper"? Read this. Interesting fact: Pairs well with Donna Haraway.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts. Do you like nonfiction about how the brain works such as The User Illusion? Read this. Interesting fact: You know about Peter Watts getting knocked around by US border agents, right?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 in photos

Lamp and pillars

Rest break

Shore thing

Campfire girls

Coming down the Pinch-In

Cummins Falls

Cool flower



Grupo Capoeria Angola Palmares



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What I'm reading in 2012, part II

There is a never-ending conversation in sci-fi circles about gender. A few months ago, it was flaring up again. Charlie Stross had asked his blog readers to name the best novels of the last decade; then in his next post, he asked for the best novels by women.

The number of people who said, "I haven't read anything by women lately," or, "It just happens that all the writers I like are men," was astounding.

The "just so happens" argument is pure bullshit. None of us "just happen" to like any art form. Our tastes are influenced by what we are familiar with, by what we are told is valuable, and by what we have learned enough about to appreciate. It's like that canard that, "I like all music except rap and country." Which means, "I want you to know I have an open mind, but not so open as to enjoy music associated with the lower classes." Also, "Randomly, I have the exact same taste as every other pseudo-intellectual white boy. What a weird coincidence!"

About ten years ago I stumbled across a list of ten books by African-Americans that everyone should have read (published, of course, for Black History Month). I took a look at my bookshelves and realized almost every book on them was by a white person. I had read maybe one book on the list, so I sat down and read the rest. (And in the process, discovered Samuel Delany, now one of favorite writers.)

About three years ago I read an article about how little translated fiction Americans read compared to the rest of the world. So I found Three Percent's short list of translated fiction for the year, and I tried to read it all. One book, I couldn't make it through. But it was through their lists that I discovered 2666 and Brandao.

Now before you throw your laptop across the room because I'm being insufferable,* I'd like to point out that a glance at what I read shows it's still mostly white people, mostly Americans with some Brits thrown in. It isn't representative of the demographics of America, and certainly not the world. I could be trying a lot harder. My point is, that if you go out of your way to start learning about something and to take it on its own terms, three-quarters of the time you'll develop some appreciation for it. (Because, contrary to what I said earlier, there is some "just so happens" at work. It's just much less than we like to believe.) I could make a concerted effort to start reading Westerns, for example - my experience pretty much begins and ends with Lonesome Dove - and I'd probably expand my horizons considerably.

Now, I'm not going to tell anyone else they can't just read what they're comfortable with. If all you like are cooking-themed mysteries, do what makes you happy. I just don't want to hear your long, involved explanation of how it's "natural" for you to like them best and go on with some long, highbrow-sounding defense of your taste. Admit you're remaining in your comfort zone, and, more importantly, that you actually have no idea whether or not you'd like the stuff you haven't touched. How could you possibly know?

So, how does this relate to what I'm reading next year? True, I read a lot of novels by women. But a lot of these are romance novels or other brain candy. (Yes, I know the romance can offer serious social critique or other digestive fiber. But does the average mass-market romance do this? No.) With the exception of Jennifer Crusie, my favorite novelists are all male. As a feminist who reads lots of women, I'm still undervaluing literature by women.

My hypothesis to be tested is that there are women out there writing things I would be crazy about. And it is falsifiable. (Eg.: The lover of spy thrillers would have a harder time finding great books by women that the lover of moving multigenerational sagas.) Because, in the end, merely reading books by women doesn't put me too far ahead of the "boys only" readers if I consider all those books second-rate.

*I mean, is showing off, ooh, ooh, I'm so multicultural, any more virtuous than being anti-country and -rap? The Stuff White People Like post virtually writes itself.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What I'm reading in 2012, part I

It started when I read two books in a row that I like. One I enjoyed, one I really loved, which is why I'm not going to call them out by name. Both books featured mostly male casts of characters. In one, the only female character was the love interest. (Literally one other woman had any lines; her role was the equivalent of Clerk #3.) The other novel had three speaking roles - again the love interest, and the other two defined by their sexual relationships with male characters.

And I thought to myself, I'm tired of this.

I can't condemn any one book for failing the Bechdel test, or for being about Teh Menz. Sometimes you just want to write a book set in a monastery or a boys school. Sometimes I want to read those books.

The problem is, and this is the Cliff Notes version of Sociology 101, that individual choices are influenced by society, and when you add everything up, that finger-weight of pressure means a huge tilt in that direction. In the aggregate, fiction suffers from a serious case of The Smurfette Problem, aka the Princess Leia Problem, aka Trinity, aka Lt. Uhura ... you know, the there's a a bunch of dudes, and one dudette. Other times, there are lots of chicks - because all the main characters have love interests.

Of course, there are both men and women out there writing fiction with fantastic female characters. But there aren't enough of them (either writers or characters), and sometimes I find it a little wearying. I also wonder, how much of this is the authors I seek out? How much of it is the publishing industry? How much of it is society? How much of it is biology?

So, I wondered, what would it be like to read only female authors? How would the experience be different - how would gender be represented? What else would be different? Well, I thought I'd find out.

That's right: In 2012, I'm only going to read novels by women.

A few quick parameters: I do specify novels rather than "books" because my job requires me to keep up with academic literature regardless of the author's gender. And I haven't yet figured out if I'm going to be strict about short stories. I won't, for example, seek out a "year's best spy stories" anthology, but if Tor's free online story of the week is by a man, what then? I mean, hey, free!

In a way, this is just a stunt, no different from supersizing myself or living Biblically for a year, although not as likely to lead to a book deal. Reading all women doesn't necessarily mean feminist books (1970s-era bodice rippers, anyone?); better quality books; or even stronger, more realistic depictions of women. What will it mean? Stay tuned in 2012.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dharma Mittra, final thoughts

I've spent the last three months doing yoga at Dharma Mittra, which I gave a preliminary review to earlier. Now, after three months, I can give it a more final assessment.

Most of the studios I've practiced at have been fairly eclectic in approach. Because Dharma's studio is guru-driven, the other teachers don't have much in the way of individual styles. That's not to say they are interchangeable - there is one, for no good reason, that I find annoying, and some are more advanced in their own practice than others - but there isn't a noticeable difference in their sequencing, whether they like to chant or read inspirational quotes, or whether they demo or adjust.

The classes are very sequenced, although not as much as strict ashtanga. They do have a good mix of poses, generally held for a while, and I like that they encourage everyone to work on inversions such as headstand and scorpion, even in level II classes. (Classes are levels I-IV, but they offer a lot more at the lower two levels.) This sequencing means you can make real progress on poses if you're going regularly. Only a few weeks in, I got scorpion for the first time and was making huge progress on forearm balances. The downside is that some poses get left out; I haven't done eagle in three months.

Now, one thing you may know about me is that I'm not a very spiritual person. You know how people say they are "spiritual but not religious"? You could say I am religious but not spiritual. OK, I jest a little, but the studio is far more spiritual than I am. They unironically capitalize more Abstract Concepts than a smartass like myself can fully get behind. I am comfortable in studios that emphasize the mental and/or spiritual benefits of yoga, rather than just the physical, but Dharma Mittra believes things I don't, and they are important to embracing his practice fully, I think.

In other words, I already find myself challenged by the notion of having a capoeira "mestre"; having a guru is too much for me.

Ultimately, I think it's a good studio, and if, for example, you were going to visit New York for a yoga tour, you'd be remiss to leave it out. (I'd still like to try his two-hour master practice myself.) But it's not going to be my yoga home.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Half-bucket list

The other day, I was googling something and came across the 30 Before 30 project and was kind of inspired.

Well, obviously it's a little late for me to accomplish anything before I turn 30. Also, the list of things I'd like to accomplish in the next few years isn't that long. 40 is a nice round number to get to, but I had no desire to make up random items just to check off.

What I came up with was The Half-Bucket List. That is, by the time I'm 40 I'll be statistically halfway (really, slightly past) to kicking said bucket, so what do I want to have accomplished by then? I've spent the last six years of my life getting a PhD and a real job ... so what now?

A couple of words about what's on the list. First, it isn't about career accomplishments. So you won't see Get Tenure or Get Published in the Journal of Higher Ed on the list. Second, I tried to avoid goals that require the cooperation of either another party - no Date George Clooney. (I violated this second rule slightly on one or two, as you will see.) Third, no goals that require a benevolent universe; all of these only require that that the apocalypse doesn't happen next week, that the universe is at least non-malevolent, but that is a gamble I am willing to take. But there's nothing on there like Win the Lottery.

Without further ado, by the time I am 40, I hope to have achieved all of the following:
  1. Be able to walk across a slackline
  2. Do macaco
  3. Be fluent in Portuguese
  4. Travel to Brazil
  5. Have a novel published
  6. Do the Annapurna Circuit
  7. Hold a handstand for a minute unaided
  8. Successfully traverse the swing-a-ring
These items will require different resources to accomplish. Brazil and Annapurna are really a matter of money. Others require practice, but I am totally confident that they are doable - I can improve my Portuguese substantially. Others are more of a challenge: Can I master macaco, which is essentially a backflip in capoeira? Sure I have five years, but I'll be getting older every day of them!

So stay tuned for the next five (really four and a half) years.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ask again later

Today and tomorrow is a short conference at The New School on "The Future of Higher Education." Tonight was part one, when four talking heads and a moderator shared their thought on what universities ought to look like in 20 to 30 years.

One of the pontificators was the chancellor of the CUNY system. Now I should mention that I know practically nothing about the current CUNY situation, other than that it has been particularly hard hit by the budget woes that all of public higher education has been facing. I say that not because I'm proud of my ignorance, but towards the point that I don't have a dog in this fight.

A group of (presumably) CUNY students had come out for the occasion ready for battle. When the chancellor was introduced, there was rise in the amount of sneezing and coughing that was statistically unlikely to be coincidental. They also did three or four "fact check" chants that interrupted proceedings. This was a little frustrating for those of us that weren't there for a referendum on CUNY.

They also undermined their own demands for answers (the Q&A session involved almost no actual Q) by asking, twice, why the panel had no women on it. It was a perfectly legitimate question; the entire conference is overwhelmingly male, even granted the demographics of America's Top Administrators. But when the conference organizer rose to answer the question, the protesters interrupted with a fact check that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. I, for one, would have like to hear her answer.

The upshot was that I don't think the CUNY crowd gained any new supporters. But before you feel too sorry for the poor beleaguered administrators, a couple of things struck me.

One, I came away with no idea of what they thought higher ed would look like in 20 or 30 years. There was more lamentation of current problems than proposed solutions. The solutions I did hear were things like "innovation." Okaaaaay … or as the kids used to say, back when I was one, "No shit, Sherlock." None of the presenters tried to operationalize that; none suggested anything concrete. No one said, "Here is what it ought to be like," or "Unfortunately, I expect this is what it will be like."

Two, the CUNY chancellor's answers were remarkably tone-deaf. The man has a tough job, I am sure; being a system head of a troubled system means everyone wants answers but you don't build personal relations with any of your constituents. But his answers never entirely addressed the questions, and they were in vague administrator-speak. (The exception to this was his answer to a "fact check" about faculty health insurance, which was specific and clear.) I have no idea if the man has helped or hurt CUNY during his tenure, or if anyone else would have done better or worse. But from a PR perspective, a leader for troubled times needs to be able to code-switch out of bureaucratese and talk frankly and straight (or seem to).

I very much came away with the sense that, whatever the future of higher ed was going to look like, these guys were not going to be its architects.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Holiday travels

Greetings from Philadelphia, where I am hanging out for the weekend. I stayed in New York for Thanksgiving, although my parents came out to visit. Before that I was in Charlotte for the conference. And, yes, I'll be heading out to Oregon for some Christmas festivities.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Whether you celebrate the holiday or not, whether you're with all your extended family or volunteering in a soup kitchen, whether there's a turkey or the table or not, I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

ASHE 2011

Proof I was there by TheTurducken
Proof I was there, a photo by TheTurducken on Flickr.
So, it's time for the requisite post-conference wrap-up. ASHE was in Charlotte this year, but ASHE is pretty much the same no matter where it is. It's always nice to catch up with colleagues from all over the country and to take a break from the usual round of work (although I did bring some grading with me). I went to quite a few good sessions - there were none on philanthropy - and picked up a couple of books. It's always rather invigorating.

It was my first conference as a faculty member rather than a student. I hadn't thought about that making any difference before I attended, but it sure beat telling everyone, "Yeah, I'm looking for a job," and having to summarize my dissertation again and again.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Inwood Hill Park

I did something today I bet you thought you wouldn't see here again - I went hiking. Yeah, hiking in Manhattan hasn't been easy, and I've only been "real" hiking once. Part of it is the haul - the only unpaved trails longer than a mile in the city are in Staten Island, and it takes two hours to get there on public transit. But today I - well, I kind of hiked.

See, my definition of a "hike" is that it is unpaved. I do recognize exceptions for the occasional paved wheelchair-accessible and boardwalk trails (heck, I spent time building one back in Nashville), so already it's not a hard-and-fast standard, but generally greenways != trails. But that was before I visited Inwood Hill Park.

Inwood is the northern tip of Manhattan, and nearly all the trails are paved. On the northeast corner, where the ballfields are, it could be any city park. But once you get up into the hills, suddenly you're in an actual forest. An actual forest with giant trees:
Another big tree
No matter what the surface was, it felt like hiking, so I'm calling it hiking.

The park has a network of trails. I guess there's a map, but ignore it. The trails are too complicated and unsigned. At the same time, it's impossible to get lost. Just remember, the ballfields are at the north, the Henry Hudson toll road is on the west, and if it's flat, you're on the eastern strip. The middle of the park is, as advertised, a big hill, one that's impossible to get a photo of. You can get photos from the top, however:
The Bronx
Like any New York park, there are random, delightful moments that make you glad to live in this place:
As I got there, a middle-aged white d00d was perorating tiresomely about how this was a "classic symptom of OCD." Or maybe it was just a creative soul making a site-specific installation with the materials available at hand - outside outsider art.

At one point, a man with his son asked me if this was "the way to the secret staircase," and I had to tell him I had no idea. I had seen several staircases, and I didn't know which one was supposed to be secret. It could have been this one:
As wild as the park feels, there are reminders that you are in the city. There's the occasional view of Marble Hill and the Bronx, as well as the noise from the highway on the western side. Then there are things like this:
It's also my understanding that it's not a great place to be after dark, and I can see why. I turned a corner and saw a fabulous lamppost that would have made a great photo, but loitering under it were six teenage boys smoking pot. I couldn't care less about the marijuana, but they were a bit too "friendly" - probably in part defensive about being caught. I didn't stick around for the photograph.

But the park has almost everything. Vertical elevation: check. Woods: check. Water: check. Surprises: check. Fire rings: check. Caves: check. Wildlife:

Check. OK, no waterfalls, but I guess a park can't have everything.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Batizado time

This weekend Grupo Capoeira Angola Palmares (New York) had training, a batizado, and a graduation. We had a mestre from Florianopolis in town as well as a contra-mestre and instructor from London, and students from Nashville, Baton Rouge, Denver, and Portland.

Technically, it's only a "baptism" for your first cord, and a "graduation" for the rest. So we trained all week long, and then on Saturday we held the baptism/graduation. Seven of us adults were earning our first cord, which was actually the second cord -dark green. Other people were graduating to dark green/dark yellow and other higher cords. A few students received their capoeira apelidos, and so now I have to get used to calling them by new names.

We learned a few new sequences, which included a few twists on moves I hadn't seen before. It was both inspiring and frustrating to be in a class with so many advanced students!

I also managed to string my berimbau for the first time. Then, later, I also managed to string it tight enough. Later that evening, my first arame snapped, so now I need to learn how to replace it.

My friends have departed for their homes, so it's nice not to have four people sleeping on my floor, but it's also sad that the training is over.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Getting from signifier to signified

It was a lesson I should have learned when my IT was giving me issues: The location of pain isn't necessarily the source of it.

And my first clue should have been my teachers telling me that I "ought" to be able to do things that I was finding impossible, like navasana or tucking up into handstand. I was strong enough, they said; it must be mind over matter.

No, the first clue was that my lower back starting hurting.

The second clue should have been that the recommended remedies, such as forward folds, didn't do anything for relief. Neither did "tucking my pelvis" to take the arch out of my back.

At least I picked up on one clue: My slouchy posture was indicative of … something.

It wasn't until I randomly did a side stretch one day and found it to be a near-miracle cure that I realized that my lower back wasn't actually the problem. Then there was "pull up in your chest," which did a lot more for my posture than any amount of tucking.

I still don't know their name. Is it my obliques? My intercostals? My lats? Does it matter? I just know that I'm retraining a set of muscles that have somehow gone to sleep on me.

They're improving. They still have a long way to go; I still can't tuck up into handstand. But the difference is amazing - even if the amount of muscle gained is small, knowing where to focus my efforts has improved my handstand notably. It's also helped with other things along the way. The other day, I managed to get into lotus while in tripod headstand. It wasn't elegant, but doing it without falling over should earn me a cookie anyway.

It's exciting to have a breakthrough like that, even though I think, "Why didn't I know this ages ago?" Also exciting: No back pain.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Yoga in NYC: On Dharma Mittra, preliminary

It's only a month into my three-month trial, so I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions as to whether or not it's for me, but I can still tell you a little bit about the studio.

Dharma Mittra actually has two locations. The West location is newer and it's where Dharma himself teaches. However, it's almost all meditation and other mental classes; the physical classes are mostly over at the older East studio. The studio has a very comfortable feel. It's not modern or sleek; instead, it resembles someone's den, or a summer cabin that has never been interior decorated in the proper sense; things have simply accumulated over the years. (The place it's most like is Joao Grande's academy, but you likely haven't been there.)

The only thing I don't like about the space is that the practice area is carpeted. It's low-pile, but I've noticed it still affects my balance, as I'm used to hardwood.

The interpersonal dynamic at the studio is a little different. Most places, students chat before class (or at least an "in" clique does). Here, they actively encourage silence. The teachers don't even make a particular effort to introduce themselves to new students before class or ask about injuries. This doesn't prevent a community from forming, as Dharma's students seem to be very loyal. In only my second class, I recognized several folks from my first.

And one interesting thing about the students - when is the last time you went to a yoga class, particularly an advanced one, and didn't see any tattoos? It took me most of my first class to put my finger on what felt so strange, but there it was. This is not a hipster haven. What you will find is a lot of men - nearly half the students in many classes - which is an anomaly.

I haven't had the chance yet to take class with Dharma Mittra; the three-month membership includes three classes at Dharma West, which I definitely plan to take advantage of. And to file under "useless trivia" - he is Brazilian, making this the second of the three studios I've tried that have Brazilian owners.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Commute time

Man, I spend a lot of time on the subway.

It's about a half hour to work in the morning - that's not bad. By comparison, it took me half that time to get to campus in Nashville, only because I went at off hours. During rush hour, it would have been close to a half hour.

But in Nashville, yoga was just a few blocks from campus, and capoeira was about 20 minutes away.

Here, it takes me about 20 minutes to get from work to get to yoga. That's not too outrageous. Getting to capoeira from work, though, is close to an hour, and so is getting to my handstand class. (I have to take four trains from Midtown to Brooklyn to get to handstands. Four!)

So here is a story problem for you: If it takes Turducken 30 minutes to get from home to work, and at least 45 minutes to get from work to capoeira, how long does it take her to get from capoeira back home? Does it change your answer if you know that, geometrically, the three points are the vertices of a right triangle, making the trip home the hypotenuse as the eagle flies? Does it further change your answer if you realize that she is not an eagle, and, because of where the subway lines run, she actually has to go farther out of her way to get home?

The answer: Home-work-capoeira is 75 minutes or so. Capoeira-home covers more miles and takes 45 minutes. This is why I always travel with a book.

Theoretically, I could move close to work. But dropping that commute wouldn't make up for living in Midtown. Or I could stop going to capoeira and handstands, but despite the diversity of the city, there are no perfect substitutes (in the economic sense of the term) for either.

I don't particularly mind the commute, since I can read, except for the handstand one - all that train changing is seriously annoying. However, people seem to be impressed. "You go all the way to Astoria for capoeira?" Seriously, I don't think they'd be any more impressed if I actually went down to Rio every Saturday. (You know, that would only take five hours via Concorde...)

The thing is, my commute time adds up to about two hours on days I go to work and capoeira. The people who are impressed live outside the city and spend an hour each way just going home-work. You do the math.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Small things

I mentally map each city I live in to the places I have lived before. Here in New York, Manhattan’s Riverside Park is the equivalent of Nashville’s Shelby Park and Indianapolis’ Monon Trail: the close-to-home greenway. It’s more than a neighborhood playground, but not the city’s crown jewel, and to non-New Yorkers all that matters is that Riverside is Not Central Park and therefore irrelevant.

In my time in Nashville, I found that my neighbors treated Shelby Park like an outpost of a chain gym: a place good for exercise, if short on the finer amenities such as juice bars. Tired of walking on unshaded pavement, I sought out the spaces beyond the paved greenway and the baseball fields, looking for little gems that had disappeared from the maps and contributed little to the park’s efficiency. There was the short path that ran from the dog park past the roadside pagoda to the manmade grotto, a treasure in its own right, even if the water running from it was more often than not fetid. Another path of crumbling pavement was only ¼ mile in length and connected nothing to nothing else.

These were hard-fought discoveries, valuable because of their rarity, even if in truth they weren’t difficult to find. Not many were looking.

In Riverside Park, these prizes are everywhere, yet somehow no less thrilling for their ubiquity. Some of them are obvious – the hippopotami and dinosaurs on the playgrounds are known to every dog-walker and jogger. I love dinosaurs as much as the next six-year-old-at-heart, but my real weakness is for the abandoned and forbidden spots: the cordoned-off stairs leading down to a small patio with grass growing up between the flagstones, the glimpses of the Freedom Tunnel running under Riverside Avenue, or the cracks in Employee Only doors.

Best of all are the smallest of discoveries and the happy accidents. The way the light hits the ceiling of some of the tunnels between levels of the park, reflecting off the peeling paint or through the metal grate. The subtle differences in each iron fence and stone wall. And then, on a narrow dirt path running parallel to one of the park’s promenades, there is a brass arrow embedded in the ground like a physical map of pirate booty. Yet it points no place in particular, making it the treasure rather than the map, for anyone paying attention.

This density of discovery is what I love about New York. There are more interesting things in any modest east-west residential block in Manhattan than in a square mile in most cities, and that’s without looking at the, as the cliché has it, “colorful people.”

To say these are “discoveries” is not to suggest they were heretofore unknown; at best, I get to play Columbus, discovering a land the inhabitants knew was there all along. Certainly there are history buffs, explorers, and even keen-eyed children who know all of these places better than I; many of them have websites to document their finds. Looking at these sites overwhelms me, like trying to decide what to eat a dessert buffet, or flipping through a ludicrously expensive catalog. It’s not just that my eyes are bigger than my stomach; I see their photos and think, that’s not how I would have taken it. I’m no ace photographer, but no one else’s eyes see the world quite the same as your own do. When people encounter something for the first time, without having been taught how to see it before, they’ll bring to it a diversity of interpretations that is impossible at major tourist attractions. (Try taking a novel photo of the Statue of Liberty!)

No, these are discoveries only in that I found them on my own rather than reading about them in a guidebook first. It’s hard to see Grand Central Station except through the lens of a hundred movies. Perhaps the child who grows up passing through the station sees it with fresh eyes – at the cost of being too young to remember that wonder later on. These places that live in our collective imaginations feel familiar, and thus disappointing, but they allow us to agree on rough outlines of the world we inhabit. Everything else, we find on our own, and these personal maps are what make spaces meaningful to us.

Thus while my Riverside Park shares some names and coordinates of each other person’s Riverside Park, giving us a common universe, we are on very different journeys through it.

I get to pretend I’m the only one here, that this is an undiscovered country. I get to pretend that this city, the living creation of millions of people, is a natural phenomenon. It’s not used, “pre-owned,” or, Strunk and White forbid, “pre-loved.” I can pretend I have a right to it even though the wheels on my luggage have barely stopped spinning.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Om and om

The second place I gave a shot was Om Factory - I was enticed by their $100 for a month of yoga deal. The location is also not inconvenient, as it's in the vicinity of Times Square, and thus easy to get to after work.

The space itself is very nice; they have three studios, one dedicated to aerial. The teachers are all highly competent, and I actually quite like the Forrest Yoga class. Long-term, though, it's not the studio for me.

First, they have a lot of fusion classes. Aerial yoga. Acroyoga. Fight Club (which is actually a mash-up, strictly speaking, and not fusion - you do some yoga, then you do some kickboxing, with no integration.*) These could be interesting, but they all seem to run at strictly a beginner level. I went to an open level aerial class and quickly realized my (limited) experience back in Nashville meant I should be in the intermediate class - which as of September they're no longer offering. The acro class doesn't build sequentially, which makes sense as there are few regular students. As a result, in all these fusion classes we spend as much time listening to instruction as doing. I don't want every class to be a workshop; I want to flow!

Second, most of the their vinyasa classes are only an hour. I found two that were an hour fifteen. One was Mike's Monday night class. While I was only able to make it once, I highly recommend it. The other class I tried, I felt as if we weren't getting enough adjustments.

Fact is, between the fusion classes and the one-hour classes, I'm simply not getting enough exercise at Om. It's not burning calories. And, more importantly, the lack of flow means I'm not mentally getting out of yoga what I need. Right now, I need all the sanity I can get.

So the next place I'm going to try comes highly recommended. They are offering special deals for either a month or three, and I need to decide if I want to commit to three months at a place I've never been before.

* This was a good class, but I quickly realized that going to it was confusing me the same way studying Portuguese is confusing my Spanish. One martial art at a time ...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Speaking the language

Part of learning capoeira is learning Portuguese. One picks up some from classes, particularly the songs, but I've also had some quasi-formal instruction. That is, we had some lessons from a Spanish professor who is a friend of the Nashville group, and I've done some Pimsleur. The formal instruction is useful, of course. But it's hard for me to make myself study as consistently as a formal, graded course would. So most of what I know I've learned through informal interaction in the capoeira classroom and talking to other capoeristas.

Learning Portuguese through capoeira is not a bad way to do it; language immersion is an effective method, of course, and there are a lot of context clues. In that respect it's like learning Sanskrit from yoga (asana is "pose"; ardha is "half"), although instead of just getting nouns and adjectives you also get commands. And even when you're speaking with native speakers, they realize your command of the language is weak.

The songs are helpful because they give me a bigger vocabulary, and I can pick up new phrases. For example, I recently learned the words to "Marinheiro sou." (Marinheiro means "sailor," which I can remember thanks to the Spanish lyrics in "Louie Louie.") One line is "Quem te ensinou a nadar?" I'm not likely to need to ask anyone, "Who taught you how to swim?" specifically, but "Who taught you?" seems practical, and now I know the verb ensinar. After all, if I aprendo, someone must ensina me.

On the down side, a lot of the nouns you learn aren't particularly practical for modern life or tourism. I don't know how to ask where the train station is ("Onde fica … o choo-choo?") is or how to tell a waiter I'm a vegetarian. I can, however, point out the following to you at a zoo: Owls, ostriches, swallows, bulls, lizards, eagles, doves, shrimp, hawks, cheetahs, scorpions, and monkeys. Definitely words all native speakers would know, but it would be a lot more helpful if I could say "dog" or "cat."

I would like to make faster progress; I've thought about taking an extension class. One great thing about New York is, of course, that with so many universities you can find some place to study almost any language at an affordable price. Still, I don't have the time for it right now. So I just muddle along, picking up what I can.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I can haz furniture

I just paid out some serious cash to the folks at Ikea. It's going to be a couple of weeks, but theoretically, this purchase will finally give the stuff in my remaining boxes a home. Woot.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

No, I haven't fallen off a cliff. Or been eaten by a pack of roving zombie zebras. Or been trapped underground by a little-known sect of fanatically religious dwarves.

No, I'm just your standard first-year professor trying to get all her work done. It's only the third week of class, and yet I found myself writing my first exam today. And I'm behind on grading for another class.

I might be a bit scarce in these parts in upcoming weeks. However, my plan is to ruin this weekend by having as little fun as possible, thereby giving myself a little breathing room. We'll see how that works.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The physical requirements of various sporting activities

I went down to the swing-a-ring this morning to play on it, and I was as terrible as I expected to be. It looks like one needs three things:
  1. Chalk. The advice on how to swing says you should chalk your hands, but I didn't have any. (Even when indoor climbing, I never used it.) I simply couldn't get a one-handed grip without chalk.
  2. Arm strength. Many people who haven't rock climbed assume you need a lot of upper-body strength, but most of your power actually comes from your legs. Oh, sure, I wouldn't want to climb with both arms in casts, but it's less about the arms than you expect. Well. This is not rock climbing. Your legs are dangling in the air, practically no use at all; your entire body weight is hanging from one arm.
  3. Core strength. Your arms are holding you up, but it's your abs on down that are swinging you. I probably have enough of this already, although it would likely take time to figure out how to channel it.

  4. Oh yeah and one more thing: Lots and lots of practice.

    But I bet that if I got strong enough to do the rings, I would have a killer handstand.

    Speaking of handstands, this was about the time we were supposed to be down in Brazil, and I wanted to be able to get into a handstand from a cartwheel. Well, can I? No. Not that I haven't been practicing my handstands. I can tell they're getting better - and for that matter, so are my cartwheels - but I'm not there yet.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Forrest Yoga

I hate Forrest Yoga.

Let's back up a minute. Recently one of my friends was trying to convince me that I should add Iyengar to my practice, and I told him no, I hated it. Too much fussing around with props - it's so slow and yet it's not meditative - and there's no reason you can't get alignment in a faster-paced class, like anusara. Still, I gave it another shot and found that I still didn't like Iyengar. At. All.

So when I signed up for a cheap month at Om Factory, I went to a Forrest class without knowing what I was getting into. I knew it was created by Ana Forrest and it went on a little bit too much about spirituality for my taste. If I had known more, I never would have bothered going. In fact, if I had read that people cried, I probably would have moved to Jersey just to be safe.

For a class that is slow-paced, doesn't contain a lot of advanced poses, and is more static than flowing, Forrest is incredibly hard. Iyengar bores me; in Forrest, I wonder when the suffering is going to end. (For the record, I've seen some descriptions of Forrest as "vinyasa-style," but that does not mesh at all with my experience. You don't flow between most poses, and you hold every pose for many breaths.) It's more meditative than Iyengar, too - at least, there's room for some oms between the ows.

Lately, I've been having some discomfort in my low-low back, around my sacrum. While it hasn't stopped me from doing anything, it has bothered me. After all, I've always been of the arrogant opinion that anyone with back issues either had been in some kind of accident or just didn't take care of themselves, and I haven't been in an accident. When I told Emilia, Om's Forrest teacher, that a pose was bothering my back, she poked and prodded at me and then had me modify it - not to make the pain go away, but to start fixing the problem - and not just in that pose, but for the rest of the class. I'm afraid to tell her that my right ankle bothers me at times for fear she'll fix that, too.

In short, a Forrest class is an hour and a half of pure suffering. It's comprised of nearly everything I'm not looking for in a yoga class. Go back to crescent pose instead of warrior I? Embarrassing. Not even begin to bend backwards in camel because I can't keep my pubic bone on the wall when I do? LAME. I'd rather be doing vinyasa. I'd rather be reading. Honestly, I'd rather be cleaning the bathroom. I'd rather be cleaning someone else's bathroom. And yet I went home after my first class and immediately signed up for that class every week for the duration of my trial period, because my back already felt like I was holding it differently.

I hate Forrest because it takes almost nothing for me to break a sweat. I hate it because it shatters my illusions about how advanced a yogi I am. I hate it because I can't get away with any kind of shortcut. I hate that I come out of it more sore than after an ashtanga class. I hate that it's exactly what I need.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On not doing ashtanga

After the first ashtanga class I ever took, I went home and took a three-hour nap, and then my arms felt like useless t-rex arms for about a week. Or maybe two. But I like the discipline, as well as being able to compare your practice over time. Not that I could handle a strict diet of ashtanga, being one of those undisciplined Westerners used to having my monkey-mind catered to.

But here in Manhattan, what you get is a diet of strict ashtanga. Ashtanga studios are serious about it, and if you take ashtanga seriously there are a lot of rules to follow. All classes are mysore (that means, you better have memorized the sequence, and, uh, I have to admit I haven't. Not completely). They don't offer classes on moon days (look that one up yourself.) So maybe what I like is Gillian teaching ashtanga, which isn't quite the same thing as liking ashtanga.

Not that I'll be able to find out for sure. Literally every ashtanga studio in Manhattan, and there are a bunch, does it during the day. The morning classes run until past 8, and the very latest classes start before 5. Who is doing all this ashtanga? Is there another rule I didn't know about, one that requires you to be a bartender, student, or housewife? Even if I went to mysore at 6:30, and I am not a morning person, I might be done by 8, but then I'd still have to go home, shower, and go to work. That's not super-cool where I work, and I'm not even an accountant or something at a staid, 8-5, conservative firm.

It does seem that with half a dozen ashtanga studios in Manhattan alone, someone could cater to the 8-to-5 crowd. Maybe that's how I'll make my millions.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

NY Loves Yoga, but I just want to be friends

Rant: What's with people on Yelp saying, "I've been doing yoga for six months, and only at this place, but I am confident it is the best yoga in the city"? Not that newbies can't have useful opinions ("The students were welcoming but their basics classes aren't basic enough"), but if you'd only ever eaten at one restaurant in your life, would you proclaim that it was the best ever?

Maybe you would. I saw a review for The Popover Cafe that complained that they'd never had a popover before, but the one they had there was far too eggy. Mayhaps they should have looked into what a popover was before trying one. End rant.

So, anyway, I'm looking for a studio here in Manhattan. My friends back in Nashville gave me some good recommendations, and of course there are about a million options here, so the task is a little daunting. (Especially if a studio has a ton of different teachers, "trying it" doesn't mean going to just one class.)

The first studio I tried was not mentioned to me by anyone, but it is conveniently located on the UWS. (It seems like all the suggested studios are downtown, which is a serious commute.) NY Loves Yoga is very new, although it rose from the ashes of another studio in the same location, which may be one reason its name didn't come up.

In its favor, the space is nice, and the studio isn't too crowded - none of the mat-to-mat stuff you hear about in the celebrity studios. In fact, the vibe and class size are similar to what you'd find back in Nashville. The owner is a really nice guy, too. Most of the teachers seem pretty good, making corrections, giving students individual attention, and acting like nice human beings.

The studio itself seems to have a heavy Iyengar influence - every class seems to ask you to grab several blankets, a couple of blocks, a strap, and maybe a bolster. Iyengar isn't really my thing, though. And I've found that most the classes are more beginner-oriented than I would like, even those labeled level 2-3 (out of 3 levels). I'm really a vinyasa girl, and most of their vinyasa classes are at lunch (which doesn't work with my teaching schedule) and only an hour long. What this means is that while I think this is a good studio, I don't think it's really my flavor; I like my yoga a little crazier. However, I would definitely recommend it to folks as a good studio that offers quality yoga without hassles.

Next up? A studio offering $100 for a month of all-you-can-eat yoga. I don't think they know yet what a fiscal disaster that's going to be for them.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Living in someone else's New York

Those of us who didn't grow up in New York have had our images of it shaped by the media we consume: Friends. Seinfeld. Sex and the City. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. For me, my formative images of New York came from reading a lot of Madeleine L'Engle as a child. Much of her adult fiction and non-fiction is set in the city, primarily Morningside Heights and Greenwich Village, but the book I knew the best was The Young Unicorns. In the novel, the small-town Austin family moves to New York for a year and discovers the dangers of the city are very close to home. The book introduced me the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which I now find myself living very near.

In fact, I am wondering if my choice of Manhattan Valley for a neighborhood wasn't so much the result of a rational balance of choices (distance, cost) leavened by personal predilections for certain charms and amenities as much as was an instinctive gravitation to what my subconscious defines as "really New York." Human beings haven't evolved that far from baby ducks.

When I realized how close I was to the events of the book, I naturally did the nerdcore thing and mapped it out here. Some of the events occur at real places, such as the Cathedral. Others occur at renamed but real places, such as the childrens' school. Some appear not to actually exist but simply are plausible for the neighborhood, such as the home the Austins relocate to. (Alarmingly, the only buildings that it might actually be are frighteningly close to my apartment.) I am most disappointed that the synagogue, Adath Shomai-el, appears to be utterly fictional; I'd love to see someone prove me wrong on that.

Now, excuse me, I have to go walk my dog in Riverside Park, enjoying the fog and watching the lights of New Jersey.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

We need to talk

I'm not 100 percent moved in - the tough stuff to unpack is still in boxes on the floor - but I'm trying to plunge right in to my new life. I'm working, of course, and I've been going to yoga (more on that in a later post). I've also been going to capoeira.

Our group back in Nashville was rather small, so I got rather used to playing with the same few people. Sure, new people showed up occasionally, or we saw out-of-town friends once or twice a year at events, but in the general run of things, I knew what to anticipate from my friends in the roda. I had a sense of people's style, of who would be aggressive, of who would kick my ass (which is not the same as who could).

But most of the people I have played with here are new to me. Playing with strangers, even in your own school, is more challenging, since you never know what they're going to do. However, some people are more challenging than others.

The hardest, actually, are those who are brand-new. Not new like I am, but in their first month or two: They have little idea what they're doing and are thus almost dangerously unpredictable. Even if they're timid instead of aggressive, it is difficult to have a conversation with them in the roda. Someone who is really advanced, like a mestre, is easier in some ways; not that they won't utterly defeat you, but they are more likely to leave you feeling humiliated than injured. It often ends up being a conversation where you keep saying, "What? What?" over and over again as they repeat themselves with increasing impatience.

In the middle ground, though, I've noticed that some people are a lot easier to play with than others, and it's not necessarily about skill level. Some people are more attuned to the nature of capoeira as a dance or conversation; others seem to be out there to score points. Ironically, if they want to play it that way, it can be easier to "get" them in return - they're so focused on what they're doing that they can get blindsided. Or when we have small rodas after class, some students are much better at practicing the moves and sequences we just went over. You keep giving someone the opening move of a sequence your teacher asked to see, and they keep ignoring it.

But of course, it's important to play with everyone. You have to learn to deal with capoeristas who are unpredictable or hard to read, not just your friends who you screw around with all the time or even your teachers, who slowly but steadily challenge you. So it's a good thing for me to train with strangers, even if I miss my peeps back in Nashville.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Welcome to the neighborhood

So, I'm in a neighborhood called Manhattan Valley, which is not some new designation made up by realtors, but no one has heard of it anyway. Technically, it's what is in-between the Upper West Side (ends at 96th St.) and Morningside Heights (starts at 110th). I can walk to almost anything you could imagine, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Hungarian Pastry Shop, or Tom's Diner. There are three parks within spitting distance - Riverside, Central, and a cute little triangular park for sitting in the shade. The laundromat is three doors down, and the local grocery store is half a block away.

(A word about the grocery store. It's smallish, but it makes Whole Foods look positively downscale. It has an olive bar, and three kinds of Rogue Creamery cheese. Also, butter costs $4.99 on sale. There are two more similarly upscale grocery shops within three blocks. It looks as if I'll have to go to Whole Foods when I want to save money.)

Within a block or two are a hardware store and a decent bagelry - that is, "bagels" that aren't just round squooshy pieces of bread. The subway is three blocks away, and the bus to LaGuardia is a block and a half. Indian food is perilously close, but so far I've resisted the siren song - I do have a budget, after all.

In other words, I'm basically living the dream. My neighborhood is terrific, New York is awesome, and I love my apartment. I'm writing this from my little tiny balcony, with a view of trees and other brownstones on a quiet side street (not to mention the cars of people foolish enough to drive in the city). I'm not quite naive enough to think everything is totally perfect - I can already see that finding a yoga studio is going to be a bigger challenge than I thought - and I recognize that all of this comes at a price, a quite literal monetary cost. But I'm lucky enough to have a job that allows me to afford it, if not opulently, so I am able to pay it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The move

Shooting a deer by TheTurducken
Shooting a deer, a photo by TheTurducken on Flickr.
Saturday morning, two friends came over to help me load the truck. As we began, the skies opened up and a monsoon came down. It was the kind of rain that soaks you in seconds, so we just made the best of it. Naturally, it cleared up after we loaded!

Uncle Minion, my driving companion - or perhaps I should say "driver," since he drove all the way - and I set out east on I-40 after stopping for lunch. About an hour out, I realized I left some boxes in my back closet. I want to see my Christmas ornaments, sewing machine, and diploma again, so I called my landlord. I asked him to ship them to me, no hurry, and take it out of my deposit. Shipping on a sewing machine is going to be pricy, but it beat going back.

In the northeastern corner of Tennessee, we turned north up through Virginia. We spent the first night in Wyethville (which, the brochure informed us, was "more than just a stop on the interstate). We both turned up our noses at EconoLodge's pathetic "continental" breakfast - no continent would be willing to claim it - and headed out. We had a long haul in Virginia, and we made it longer by spending some time on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah Skyline. There we saw several deer up close, as well as a bear in the road. It ran off as we approached; it was the first time I've seen a bear run.

Then, in short succession, we made our way through West Virginia and Maryland, spending the night in North Plainfield, New Jersey, a rather unpleasant town with no left turns, either at lights or into commercial establishments. Our pace slowed considerably as we hit the Lincoln Tunnel, but our timing ended up being perfect; we got to my apartment just as parking was switching from the left to the right because of street sweeping, which meant we actually were able to park right in front of Chez Turducken. I got the keys and we unloaded - although Uncle Minion did a lot of the heavy lifting.

My apartment actually resembles habitability now, despite several boxes of stuff that I have nowhere else to put. I actually do have some available storage space, but I don't want to put socks in a cupboard! But I'll save the features of my apartment for another post.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thanks for all the fish

As I get closer to moving, I'm getting crankier, and for that, I apologize right now. Some of it may simply be the juggling of everything I need to get done before I leave, but that's not a very good excuse, since I've had a long time to prepare for the move. (Too long, actually; my friends have been trying to tell me goodbye for weeks.)

While I am very much looking forward to my new position, my new apartment, and my new city, I'm also conflicted about leaving Nashville. Some of this is natural healthy: Six years has been long enough to make me a part of a community, as I realized the other day when I was in the bank and I actually ran into someone I knew. I'm going to miss Steadfast and True Yoga (question: Does Gillian St. Clair and the Steadies sound like a band to anyone else?), Capoeira Angola Palmares Nashville and the local capoeira community, the Nashville Hiking Meetup, and my friends at Vanderbilt (not to mention the tremendous resources its endowment provides). Even if we remain in touch, it's not the same as being here with you.

But it's also a time for second-guessing the choices I've made, or, as to quote Barriss Mills,
Gone forever,
like the girls I never kissed,
and the places I never visited -
the lost lives I never lived.

The mistakes I've made, the chances I didn't take, the opportunities I walked by - these are all starting to show up in my rearview mirror. And my tendency is, as always, to assume that these things would have been fabulous if only I had done them. I recognize the dubiousness of that assumption, of course; I just don't feel it.

Unlike the mirrors on a car, though, these objects are farther than they appear. There is no going back. The only benefit to reconsidering them is to learn from my mistakes, but at a certain point it stops being useful and becomes poisonous regret. I am pretty sure I'm at that point.

So Nashville and Nashvillians, yes, I'll miss some of you, but I probably won't tell you that again. This is your last goodbye.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This is my apartment

I've found a design inspiration for my apartment. My place is very similar in layout (well, it's a mirror image): Tall ceilings with a far wall of mostly windows, a fireplace on one side with room for a couple of shelves behind it, and a narrowish space. The biggest difference is that where they have a couch, I have to have more bookshelves.

It gives me a good idea, though, for use of space, and it has a similar period feel built-in. My decor is parametered by not only the unit's moldings and the rather impressive fireplace but also by the mix of woods (birch accessories from Ikea, oak floors, and a dark fireplace with gilt trim). I don't have the choice of minimalism (which, in Manhattan is a form of conspicuous consumption, as it signals that your laptop and your holiday decor and your suitcases are all stored somewhere else). The room shown manages to use a variety of colors and designs without looking busy, which is what I'm most worried about.

These are not the pillows you are looking for

I need to decorate my new place, but a quick tour of Etsy didn't turn up what I was looking for. Instead I found:

Monday, July 11, 2011

I have a new apartment

Last week was exhausting; I spent four days in New York, mostly apartment hunting. Walking all over the city in the middle of summer is not fun; by contrast, the morning I spent filling out HR paperwork was a breeze. But it was worth it, because after seeing several places I concluded would do okay, I found a place I really loved.

I knew it was likely I was going to have to make tradeoffs, and indeed I did. The big one is that there is no laundry in the building. The second is that the unit has less closet space than other apartments I was looking at. It has a fair number of cupboards, but not so many places to put, say, a box of Christmas ornaments.

It also ended up with a couple of features I wasn't keen on. One is a non-working fireplace, as it takes up valuable wall space, but this was definitely one of the nicest-looking ones I saw. The other is parquet flooring. Not a big fan in general, but this floor was very cool. (Besides, "no parquet" was really far down my list of wants.)

So what did it have? It is in the right neighborhood. It has a breakfast bar, nice kitchen, and sleeping loft. It was the only place I saw where the a/c wasn't in the window. It has a little tiny balcony, lots of light from the south, and high ceilings. It actually feels like a place to live, not a white shell. In fact, the walls are green, but they're going to be repainted cream.

Yes, I'm excited about this place.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Very Special Death March

You are here by TheTurducken
You are here, a photo by TheTurducken on Flickr.
Last weekend I led my last hike with Nashville Hiking Meetup, my final death march. The goal was to do as large a loop as possible at Frozen Head State Park. The plan was to go up the Cumberland Trail from the volleyball courts, join Bird Mountain, turn onto North Bird Mountain, follow it out to Coffin Springs, then head south to the lookout tower at the top of Frozen Head, and take Chimney Top down. I wasn't able to get a clear answer on the condition of North Bird Mountain, though, so I warned people to be flexible. Also, there would be several opportunities for people to change their minds if it proved too tough.

The first part of the hike was the toughest; we gained then lost 1000 feet before reaching the point indicated in the photo. Then the trail hauled back up another hill to the top of Jury Ridge. I should mention that the Bird Mountain trail was actually in worse shape than North Bird Mountain. NBM started off bad - waist-high weeds for at least half of mile - but then it opened up and was well-maintained. Still, after lunch we slowed down, and we elected to cut off a corner of the hike and head up to Frozen Head.

There's an intersection where some the trails up Frozen Head meet, and a good chunk of our group elected to head down to camp. We were left with 5 of our original 12. As we headed up to the top of Frozen Head, thunder started rumbling and a few isolated raindrops fell, but the storm passed us. Good thing, because we weren't going to climb the metal lookout tower in a thunderstorm!

After, we were pushing it on time, so we took South Old Mac, the shortest trail back to camp. When we came off the trail, we still had a mile roadwalk, but it was our lucky day - Ranger Mike was in the parking lot, and he gave us a lift back to camp.

All told, it was about 15 miles, with a ton of elevation change.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Disappearing middle class

This: "We’re trying to generate a middle class for a country that no longer really wants one."

I have noticed a real strain of this in our discussions about work and life. Read any article of career advice online, and then read the comments. There will be a heavy dose of, "Well, if you don't like working 80 hours a week, you should't have gone into x. And if you aren't working 80 hours at it, you deserve to be fired." There's some merit to the base form of the argument (i.e, you should know that some fields require more of you than others.), but it gets applied to anything that's a Career rather than a Job. Are you a professor? Accountant? Graphic designer? Electrical engineer? Kindergarten teacher? You didn't expect putting food on the table would be easy, did you?

When someone confesses that, really, they went to college expecting to find a job they like moderately well, but more importantly can make a middle-class living at working 40 hours a week, they're jumped on like "welfare queens" of a previous political generation. You're lazy; your job deserves to be taken away by someone who works more; it's attitudes like yours that are going to make America lose to competition from hard-working Chinese.

Never mind that the reward for devoting everything may be a pitiful teacher's salary, or a pink slip from general downsizing, or a career that disappears in the face or technological and economic change; if you can't invest your entire self in it, go get a job at McDonald's and be poor. Go big or go home.

It's all very Ayn Randian, although I'm pretty sure most the general zeitgeist is being expressed by a lot of folks who haven't even read Atlas Shrugged. It also seems to be part of the anti-sociological thinking in this country. I don't mean that everyone should have read Talcott Parsons, but that the solution to any problem, even if it affects 95 percent of a population, is, "Individuals should work harder." There's no acknowledgement of structural forces shaping society. Attempts to changes the structure are met with cries of, "You're taking away people's freedom to choose," as if our choices aren't already shaped and constrained by our current structure. And failure and success are de facto proof that one deserved to succeed or fail, because, hey, you should have known the rules.

No, the middle class is for lazy folks, those who want a house and job security, who think that four years of college is enough, or if it isn't it's their company's responsibility to provide further training, who think maybe we should have unions and federal regulations intervening in the market, who want to have time to live some very modest version of the American dream after work and on the weekends. We don't need that here: This is America.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Looking for a neighborhood

I've spent the last several months wrapping my head around the weird real estate world that is New York City. I've been learning the city's strange logistics (brokers for renting and the enormous amounts of cash you need up front) as well as trying to figure out what neighborhood I want to live in. Now, I think I've finally decided: I have one first-choice neighborhood and four back-up choices.

How did I narrow it down? First, I had two non-negotiable requirements:
  1. I have to be able to afford an apartment, even if it's tiny (and they're all tiny); and
  2. It has to be a commute of less than 30 minutes via subway to my job, which is in Midtown Manhattan.
So, for example, there is literally nothing in my price range in Tribeca or Soho. Brooklyn, Staten Island, large parts of Queens, the Bronx, and the northernmost parts of Manhattan (Inwood/Washington Heights) are all out due to distance. And I reluctantly discarded Morningside Heights for a special reason of its own: Trying to move into a college neighborhood for August 1 is destined to end in heartbreak.

That still leaves a lot of Manhattan and parts of Queens, so that's where a second tier of considerations came into play. One, it has to be reasonably safe. I'm not paranoid, but I am a single female. (That said, distinguishing reports of real crime issues from "I don't feel safe around black and brown people" kind of comments is more work than it should be in 2011.)

Two, I want Stuff in the neighborhood. Grocery shops, coffee shops, that kind of thing. In my job, I don't always have to work on campus, so I want to be able to pop down the street and look busy at my laptop while eavesdropping on conversations about Sartre. (Kidding. Not a fan of Sartre.)

Third, I wanted ethnic and racial diversity. I'm not moving to NYC to live in a 88 percent white neighborhood, for crying out loud. But as recent images show, Manhattan is extremely segregated. Of course, income still tracks far too strongly with race in this country, so the more expensive the neighborhood gets, the whiter it also tends to be. And neighborhoods that are primarily non-white aren't necessarily diverse - witness Chinatown.

And therein lies the Hipster Trap (not to be confused with the art installation that made the rounds of the Internet recently). You want to live somewhere affordable with diversity, local institutions, personality, charming old buildings … and up-to-date-appliances, ready access to a Whole Foods, and a subway line. That way lies gentrification, and the loudest complainers about it are the very ones causing it. Oh, sure, the folks who got displaced complain too, but they don't get column space in the NYT to write about it.*

Which is to say, I wasn't sure there was a neighborhood that could give me everything I want, because I want to live a hip, post-racial, slightly socialized fantasy.

The thing is - I think I've found it. The runners-up all came close: One isn't in Manhattan, one offers terrible value for the money, another doesn't have very many residents and closes up shop at night. But this neighborhood, I think, can give me everything I'm looking for.

I'm afraid to actually say here what it is, as if that'll jinx it. I will say it is not a neighborhood anyone has suggested to me, as much as I appreciated everyone's suggestions. (Some more on target than others, of course.)

Now, I just have to get up there and see apartments in real life and convince a landlord to let me in.

*To be sure, this isn't as bad as government attempts at gentrification, as have happened in parts of Harlem, where municipally-incentivized developers hope that "if you build it they will come." They come - and take taxis home in fear after nights out in hipper neighborhoods, while complaining about the poor people and lack of Whole Foods.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Creativity for academics

Read an interesting article in the penultimate Review of Higher Education that links "absorptive capacity" to scholarly productivity. Absorptive capacity was not a concept I was familiar with, but it refers to the ability to absorb new ideas. It depends on a lot of things, one being subject knowledge (which, one hopes, all faculty have). Scholars have different levels of "potential absorptive capacity," which they defined as ideas for research. This comes from exposure to others' ideas, as in when I go to an academic conference and come away with at least one research idea generated by reflecting on someone else's research, as well as personal factors (creativity, hard work). Then, various factors affect what they called "realized absorptive capacity" - i.e., productivity, but a big factor is organizational support. No surprise there, either; research funding and teaching load affect how many of those ideas one can make use of.

I should note here that this article only sets up a model; it does not test it. It sets up a series of predictions, many of which are unsurprising, i.e., institutional policies affect output.

The problem I see is that, in my experience, creativity has nothing to do with research output.

Yup, nothing. Scholars who publish a lot are very smart, very hard-working, and usually have institutional and personal support - but their approach to research is iterative and formulaic. In other words, they have standard operating procedures; the negative connotations of "formulaic" are unintended here. They have one standard methodology and use it to "mine" an area until that approach is exhausted in that area, then move on.

Real-life examples: A scholar who finds datasets and applies a particular econometric technique to variables that have been ignored in the past. A scholar who has a system for being the synthesizer of findings; once he/she has written the book on it, well, that's the book. A scholar who has honed a particular survey and analysis methodology and applies it to a series of related questions.

To put it another way - I'm allowed to use management-speak now, right? - they are hedgehogs that know one thing well, not foxes. Scholars who move across methods or topics (even closely related ones) don't publish as much. A hedgehog's first idea may have been highly creative, certainly, but the subsequent applications aren't. Once we've come up with the idea of a blind taste-test to determine consumer preferences for brands of strawberry jam, it's not creative to do the same thing with raspberry jam. It's not creative even if you move on to grape jelly after hearing the world's top tastebud scholar talk about grape jelly.

Simply, not all idea generation is creative.

Quick, make a list of things one can do on a date. Creativity will play a big role in how many different ideas you can come up with. But I'm betting that the number of dates you go on (or - even second dates) has little to do with how creative they are. As long as you can think of, "OK, coffee, dinner and a movie, and, um, dinner and drinks," you're doing fine.

Ergo: Take two scholars at the same institution and department, rendering the institutional variables irrelevant. Both have supportive spouses and no children. They have the same IQ and graduated from the same PhD program; both work hard. All that differs is their ability to come up with new research questions. I argue the more creative one will not publish any more than his or her colleague - because idea generation occurs much, much faster than follow-up. The minimum level of creativity necessary is met by practically every professor; more than that is irrelevant …

… except, perhaps, that too much might hurt your productivity. Spend a lot of time exploring new ideas or questioning things, and you're butting into the time required to research efficiently publishable ideas. A little creativity goes a long way: Too much, and you end up being Thorstein Veblen or China Mieville.*

Overall, I thought the model was interesting and probably useful; I just don't think creativity belongs in it.

* Given the choice, I would recommend "successful novelist" over "unable to hold an academic job," but your mileage may vary.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Nothing much here

Cummins Falls by TheTurducken
Cummins Falls, a photo by TheTurducken on Flickr.
I've been busy this week with a lot of work. But here's a pretty photo of Cummins Falls from last weekend. Long in private hands, Cummins Falls was sold to a developer - but when the housing bubble popped, his loss was our gain. Nearly enough money has been raised to pay to make the property a new Tennessee state park - find out more here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Not a linkdump

"A.C. Grayling’s decision to open a private liberal-arts college in London reveals higher education as a strictly luxury good." Puh-lease. Consider the following sentences and then tell me whether it would have even been worth my time to follow the link the article:

"Percy Bongelmorton III's decision to open a mink-only fur store in New York reveals coats as a strictly luxury good."

"Tawny Rodriguez's decision to open a Lotus dealership in Hollywood reveals cars as a strictly luxury good."

"Pat Green's decision to open a Whole Foods in Peoria reveals food as a strictly luxury good."

Sorry, syllogism FAIL.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New look

After a long wait, our capoeira uniforms are finally in. (Here I am cheesing it up on command.) Having a uniform at long last makes me feel somehow more official. On the other hand, the physical reality of is taking some getting used to.

The pants, for example, don't quite stay up on the hips; I'm working on getting the drawstring tight enough, but I'm afraid it will induce bruises if I pull any farther. What I really need is a cordao to hold it up. You don't just go out and buy one of those, though, and I suspect a nice leather belt would get me laughed out of class. The pants don't fit perfectly - then again, no pants really fit me, aside from the occasional yoga pants. How is it possible for apparel to grip the buttocks tightly enough to cause panty lines while simultaneously sliding down the hips? Mind you, the panty lines wouldn't be there if I hadn't put a few more pounds on just in time for bikini season.

They aren't sliding that far, though; we're not talking about sagging here. Once I hem the pants, it won't be an issue. And it's eminently reasonable for the pants to be longish, because hemming is easier than the reverse.

The t-shirt is slightly bigger than I usually wear - I have to thank my mestre for talking me out of a medium and into a small - and while this isn't exactly an existential crisis, I do need to get used to it falling down slightly and sticking to my lip balm when I'm upside down. That, or tuck it in. Tuck it in? Do people still do that?

But the part about feeling more official - mostly, I just feel more guilty for any deficiencies. My butt needs to be lower in meia lua de compasso? But I'm representing Mestre Gulliver and Capoeira Angola Palmares! It says so right here on my shirt! Mestre No is probably feeling anti-axe from my sloppy form all the way down in Brazil. Giving your mestre indigestion is undoubtedly the sort of thing that lands you in The Other Place after death.

Which means I have to practice, and to hem my pants.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sequels that thankfully were never written

For every amusing, high-quality sequel (think Gormeghast), there's a sequel the author should have backed slowly away from (think Little Men). On the bright side, it could be much worse - the following sequels could have been written. Thank goodness they weren't.

Paradise on Proteus: A Straightforward Heterotopia (Samuel R. Delany)
Nolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
The Yiddish Policeman's Union Scab (Michael Chabon)
Lonesome Duck (Larry McMurtry)
The Next Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
The Sit (Stephen King)
Anna Banana Fo Fanna (Leo Tolstoy)
The Pinkest Eye (Toni Morrison)
Tiffany of the D'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)
The Condo of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)
A Boxing Day Carol (Charles Dickens)
Hey I Found One More Mohican (James Fenimore Cooper)
To Revive a Mockingbid (Harper Lee)
Riddley Jogger (Russell Hoban)

Hiking up Table Rock

Top of Table Rock a video by TheTurducken on Flickr.
As promised, here is the story of our hike up Table Rock.

Table Rock is a flat-topped mountain on the opposite side of the gorge where we were staying. There is only one bridge across the gorge; at some seasons, it's crossable in other places, but the water was still too high for us to try. That wasn't a big deal, though, as the bridge starts the Spence Ridge Trail, which affords relatively easy access to Table Rock.

We started off by packing up and moving camp less than a mile north. After setting up, we put our much lighter packs on and went further north on the Linville Gorge trail until we reached the bridge that starts Spence Ridge. The Linville Gorge trail, by the way, was by far the worst-maintained trail we encountered, even though it had been worked on only a few months ago. This didn't make going up and down along the shore any easier. By contrast, the Spence Ridge trail was wide and smooth - albeit seriously uphill.

We had to hike out of the gorge in order to reach Table Rock, some 1800 feet. Once we were close to the top, we would be faced with a choice; continue on Spence Ridge, hit the Mountains-to-Sea trail, and then access Table Rock via a final, short, access trail. Or we could take the much more challenging Little Table Rock trail to that same access trail. We did not plan to do the latter.

However, the terrible signage in the gorge proved to be our undoing. We reached a three-way junction where the only sign indicated the trail we had just come from was Spence Ridge (or "S Ridge," a poor abbreviation). We concluded therefore that the left fork would take us to the Chimneys, while the right would lead to Table Rock. We began to wonder what was going on when we reached first one junction and then a second that didn't seem to correspond to our maps - not that any of the three different ones we had agreed. There are an unfortunate number of "unofficial" trails in the area, and we had no way to tell what the trails we encountered were.

It became clear, finally, that we had ended up on the Little Table Rock trail, with all its unnecessary elevation gain and loss. We were beat by the time we reached the top of the mountain.

On the way down, we turned off the access trail onto the Mountains-to-Sea trail, which was clearly marked, and it dumped us out at the top of the Spence Ridge trail. We finally found where we had gone wrong. Remember the "S Ridge" sign? Spence Ridge actually continued as a left turn, while the right went to Little Table Rock. The sign is therefore only useful for folks coming from the top, not from those coming up.

Still, Table Rock was worth it, as you can see from the video.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Linville Gorge backpack

Pinch-In Panorama
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
This past weekend I crossed two goals off my list - do a multiple-night backpack and see Linville Gorge. Maybe I shouldn't have tried to combine the two, especially when the summer heat finally decided to come out, but why aim low?

Friday night we camped at the rim of the gorge, around 3,600 feet. We kicked around and looked at the waterfall, "hiking" maybe a mile. The next day we packed up, left the car, and headed down the Pinch-In Trail to the bottom of the gorge, around 1,800 feet. The Pinch-In trail is steep, but I liked it because it had spectacular views most of the way down, something the Spence Ridge and Conley Cove trails lack. We wandered south on the Linville Gorge trail for a bit before heading north.

We set up camp (next to these guys).

On day two we headed up to Table Rock, which I think deserves its own post, after moving camp about a mile north. (We wanted to get past some yellowjackets and be closer to the trail we'd hike out with on day three.) Our new site had terrific swimming hole access, but more garbage than any wilderness area ought to. People, don't be pigs: Pack it in, pack it out.

On our last day, we headed up Conley Cove until we reached a choice: Head down the Rock Jock trail, which came out on the road fairly close to our car, or continue up a little ways and hike about three miles on the road. At that point, we were all suffering - or, rather, three of us were; our fourth is indefatigable - from carrying packs on steep terrain for three days plus, even more importantly, hiking in the heat and humidity. The body needs to acclimate to working in the heat, and mine sure hadn't. We unanimously elected to take the easier road hike. It was relatively pleasant for a road hike, as it was a dirt road with shade and little traffic, but the uphill still seemed endless. Seeing the jeep in the parking lot was a really exciting moment, but not quite as exciting as eating dinner in a restaurant, and that was not quite as exciting as getting to take a shower.

A final note: We ate at Famous Louise's in Linville Falls, and we didn't see what the fuss was about. I didn't expect (or find) many vegetarian options, but my omnivorous friends declared their food mediocre at best. Cute atmosphere, though.