Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interior spaces

We had just moved in, and most of our attention had been on the getting the living room, office, and bedroom set up. When I woke up I wondered that we were sharing a one-bedroom, even a spacious one carved out of a older house. The house was built as a series of rooms that opened into each other; the bedroom had no privacy in any case. My roommate Beth had gone out, and I went to explore the kitchen.

The door was set into a small closet off the kitchen we had not opened previously. A plastic plaque read "BASEMENT CHAPEL," and I tried the knob of the miniature door sure that it would not open. Our lease listed the extent of our apartment, and we would have noticed a chapel on there. But the door turned, and I hesitated, sure I was trespassing. Before crouching low and stepping in I propped the door with a pair of old rubber boots, having read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe enough times to know to never to lock myself into an unknown space, even a non-magical one.

The room I stepped into was spacious, with 12-foot ceilings and no windows in the three walls, although it was well-lit by a wall of windows in the office that stood on the fourth side. It was clearly not in a basement, not was it a chapel of the traditional sort. Floor-to-ceiling the walls were covered by black-and white photos taken and arranged by someone with a wonderful eye, many in round frames. One was of three young men sticking their heads through flanged iron collars mounted on a wall that was otherwise covered in doorknobs. Their haircuts suggested the 1940s and they had irrepressible grins. Next to it was a close-up of the flesh of a tomato scored with knotted ropes. Around the walls were what would be called knick-knacks in a lesser space; bushel baskets of some small ordinance from the world wars (the baskets each labeled "WWI" and "WWII"); an ancient relief silver figure of about six inches high, either Etruscan or Norse, of what looked like a pleasantly impish warrior.

The floor was taken up with two double-sized beds with crisp white sheets and olive wool blankets, simple and practical. They didn't catch the eye among everything else, but the sheets of one were tossed back. I assumed they had been thrown back one morning decades ago, an impression that grew stronger as I wandered into the office. It was equally busy, but clearly a working space, with the metal furniture of the 1950s, neat stacks of manila file folders and papers, and well-built pencil sharpeners and protractors.

I heard Beth in the kitchen behind me, calling my name. I didn't want her to share this space with me, but I knew she would find it.

"In here," I said.

She came in and glanced around.

"Huh. Interesting." She seemed to find it more of a curiosity than a wonderment.

The office led into another darker room, and I was about to look in when we heard the unmistakable sound of a key in a lock. We could not see a door, but it sounded as if it were coming from the very apartment we were in.

"Shit," Beth said, turning back to our own door.

I debated hiding under the bed briefly. Instead we scrambled back through the little door, shutting it behind us and in turn shutting the closet door.

Our friend Bobby was in the kitchen, starting some kind of soup at the stove, not registering our scrambling.

"Oh hi," he said. "How are you doing?"

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lower Cane Loop at Fall Creek Falls

Rest break
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
On Saturday, I led a 12.4-mile hike at Fall Creek Falls. This particular hike is mostly flat, aside from a dip down into Cane Creek Gorge: At 3 miles, you go down 800 feet in a mile, and then back up 800 feet in the next mile. The photo is of Cane Creek at the bottom of the gorge.

Unfortunately, one of my friends sprained his ankle on the way up, and he had to hike about three more miles before we could get him out. He was a real trooper about it, though. This also meant we didn't get to spend as much time checking out waterfalls and overlooks, as getting everyone out safely became my first priority.

Last time I was at FCF, we were attacked by angry hornets and then waylaid by a copperhead. Maybe next time?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Choosing a college

This article on "why students want to go to Harvard" is interesting, but the headline is misleading; the research contrasts the 71 schools characterized as "most competitive" by Barron's with those labeled "competitive." There are two levels in between, "very" and "highly" competitive." In other words, it's not why-Harvard-and-not-Duke; it's why-Centre-and-why-not-U-Tennessee.

I assume the author didn't write his own headline, of course. But this struck a chord with something I've been thinking about lately. I'm at Vanderbilt, which US News considers to be 17th in the nation. It's not even in contention to beat Harvard, but nevertheless it is an excellent university. My alma mater, by contrast, is now ranked #41. (Which is lower than when I was there, something no alumni want to see.)

Some of the differences between the school are superficial (more pearls and magnolias at Vanderbilt; it's the South, after all), and some are more significant but don't affect the quality of education (Vandy has a larger undergraduate student body). In fact, I dare say there aren't any significant differences in the quality of education at all. At that point in the university rankings, you have really bright students being taught by really bright profs with gobs of research money, and learning is going to occur.

There is one major difference between the two institutions, though, and that's the social and cultural capital in the student body. At Vandy, the students are constantly forming their own nonprofits, even their own for-profits. Later on the young alumni become entrepreneurs or get jobs in consulting or the fashion industry.

I don't see this at my alma mater. It's not just the time lag - undergrads everywhere are a lot more obsessed with internships now than they were over a dozen years ago - because the news I hear from alma mater isn't all that different from when I was there.

Students at both schools who go on to enter highly meritocratic (especially formally meritocratic) endeavors do equally well. That is, graduates who go into TFA, academia, or med school, for example, are generally successful. Students who want to do something where there isn't a formal plan, however, don't have the same kind of success. Oh, sure, alumni are living happy, productive lives and they are generally making a decent living, but they aren't able to tap into some of the same kinds of resources to propel themselves to stardom.

There is a huge cultural capital component to college, and we ignore this at our own peril. "Everyone" knows that going to college will get you a Good Job. The middle class knows that a Good College will get you a Better Life. The upper class knows that going to a Top College will let you do whatever you want to do. Why do more students want to go to Harvard today? Because more people are becoming aware of the advantages the elite schools confer, advantages that have nothing to do with their quality of education per se.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Snow, day 2

After the long walk home Wednesday, I had to take the bus in Thursday. (That's not entirely true, I guess - I could have walked again.) While the temps were well below freezing, it was a sunny day, and the plowed roads dried out comparatively fast. The unplowed side roads, like the one I live on, were still packed with snow. This was not true at the other end of my commute, at Vanderbilt, which has a lot of money and a snow-removal plan. You can see the difference in these photos; the first shows the streets in my neighborhood - not arterials. The second shows a plowed and melting Shelby Avenue.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Winter hike

Pedestrian Bridge
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
At 3:15 the snow started, with large and fast flakes, and I decided it was time to cancel class for the evening. Several students who live in outlying areas had already told me they weren’t going to be able to make it. It looked as if everyone else might be able to make it to class, only to find themselves trapped in a Hotel California type of situation.

I brushed off the car and headed for home – along with the rest of the Greater Nashville area. The roads were actually still eminently drivable, although “driving” is a word that could only loosely be applied to our endeavor: Traffic was at a standstill. After 25 minutes, I had made it from Peabody all the way to Demonbreun and Roy Acuff. I was afraid I’d get a repetitive strain injury in my clutch ankle at the rate we were going, so I decided to pack it in. If I was going to sit in traffic, at least I could do so in a bus.

After finding a terrific parking spot, I headed for the bus stop at 21st and Edgehill, where I realized that I wouldn’t be seeing a bus anytime soon. Cars were completely gridlocked. Forget the car, forget the bus – I know how to walk, even if I was wearing high-heeled boots – much more comfortable than you might think, by the way. I could always catch a bus if things cleared out. I grabbed my umbrella as a snow shield. Even though people look ridiculous carrying umbrellas in the snow, not looking ridiculous wasn’t close to the top of my to-do list at the moment.

I passed by my salon and ducked in to cancel my appointment for the next morning. My stylist half-joked that she might have to spend the night there. (I hope she made it out.)

At the corner where Broadway and West End split, a driver with a green light angrily honked at the cars blocking the intersection. They, of course, could not move, and getting apoplexy wasn’t going to help anyone, even if people shouldn’t be idiots and block intersections.

I passed over I-65, which wasn’t moving. I marveled at how few pedestrians were out. Two women who had been walking in my direction decided to get on a bus. It may have been warmer inside, but it wasn’t going anywhere.

As I went by the Frist, thinking I really should go see the Vishnu exhibit, I noticed a wallet lying on the sidewalk. Now I’m a good enough person not to rifle through it for cash, but I wasn’t feeling up to tracking down the rightful owner. Luckily, there is a post office right there, so I brought the wallet in and gave it to an employee. Hey, if you can’t trust a representative of the federal government, who can you trust? (Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.)

At the Convention Center I turned right to take the pedestrian bridge: I didn’t want some crazy driver tearing along at 3 mph to slide into me. Hilton employees were showing a reckless disregard for Southern folkways and shoveling their sidewalks.

I had been meaning to check out the pedestrian bridge for a while, as I hadn’t been there since the flood. Aside from a cyclist, sensibly not riding, I had it to myself. I was pleased to note traffic on the Shelby Bridge was actually moving faster than I was, and I entertained the possibility of taking the Shelby bus the rest of the way. Since I wasn’t sure of how often they ran, I didn’t want to wait at a stop, which turned out to be wise – I never did see one.

East Nashville is hilly, and cars were having trouble making it up the hill between 9th and 10th Streets. From there it was downhill again, and the roads were visibly bad. I didn’t see evidence of salt anywhere, aside from on the sidewalks outside a few civic-minded businesses, and the plows – I saw one – were as trapped in traffic as everyone else.

I turned down 14th because it has sidewalks, and passed a couple of teenagers not so much playing as being sullen. It still surprised me how few people were out, even granted that some folks have commutes far too long to walk. Surely some people lived within walking distance.

From there it was a few short blocks home. I had wondered in the past about the feasibility of walking to campus, and now I had empirical evidence it was doable. 4.3 miles took me 1 ½ hours. It would undoubtedly be faster in better shoes with less snow.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I don't feel like dancing

The other weekend I was at a batizado in Knoxville for Fundo da Mata, a group under Mestre Acordeon, with fellow capoeristas from Capoeira Angola Palmares Nashville. On Saturday we were supposed to do a samba and maculele workshop; I was disappointed that there ended up not being time for the maculele portion.

Samba is danced in two ways. The first is in groups, like the parades of Carnival. It's a parade, of course, so the dancers are moving forward as they dance, and they are unpartnered. The second is in the samba de roda, which is where two dancers are in a circle, and others cut in. Our lesson was focused on the samba de roda.

There are basically three components to the samba. One is the arms, which are quite simple: If you're really stuck, you don't have to do anything with them, really. The second is the footwork, which starts off with a fairly simple step, although one can get much more complicated. The third is the hips, which move with each step, but always in the same way. That doesn't mean the hips are easy, though; it's sort of like bellydancing, where there is a certain knack to getting it.

I stuck with the class for about ten minutes before sitting it out to watch. The teacher was moving at a rather fast pace for me; when I stopped being able to see what it was I was supposed to do with my feet, there was no way I could reproduce it. Moreover, I couldn't get the hips at all.

I'm sure someone is thinking, "Just go with it. No one cares if you get it right away." That's the sort of thing naturally gifted dancers always say. Of course, half the group was talking about One Person's dancing after the class - "I was really surprised to see O.P. dancing - I was trying so hard not to laugh." That's the sort of thing lots of naturally gifted dancers also do, and then they wonder why we get discouraged!

But the truth is, I don't have any interest in mastering the samba. Samba de roda is the kind of thing that would give me nightmares, if I actually ever had them. It pretty much combines everything that makes me cringe inside: Being watched while dancing. Spontaneous physicality. Exaggerated flirting. If you watched the video above past the portion where the little kids are dancing, you can see what I mean.

It's not that I'm opposed to those things in a moral or objective way - they just are so, so, so not me. Consider the following tidbit from a description of my Meyers-Briggs type: "This can make personal relationships difficult, particularly romantic ones that require flirtation.  Coyness and indirectness are not strong points for INTJs*, innocuous play is not at all meaningful and comes across as being stilted." Basically, I feel stupid, and feeling awkward and stupid strongly inhibits sambaing.

If I ever decided there was a reason I ought to samba, I would spend a damn long time in the privacy of my own home, not to mention getting private instruction, before I ever took it out for a twirl in the roda. Yet I doubt I would ever master the art of it, even if I got my hips to do the right thing. I have a hard enough time with the concept of malandragem in capoeira, which basically is a kind of trickery; why not just play straight-forwardly? Keeping your moves open until the last second, so your partner can't anticipate you, makes a kind of sense, but feinting and teasing - ugh.

This is clearly a limitation for me, but at this point in my game I am willing to let certain limitations lie, because there are so many other things to learn that are closer at hand.

* In point of fact, I'm right on the E/I border. Extrovert's "can't not lead" and I's are "socially clueless," neither of which quite describes me - like an Introvert, I will lead where there is a vacuum, but I'm not nearly as Asperger's as the description of INTJ sounds.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Crossing the stream

Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
We took advantage of the beautiful weather Sunday to hike to Snow Falls for some light maintenance. The weather was truly amazing, and the hike was even more fun because half of the group had never been there before.

Near the end of the trail is a stream you have to cross. Last time I was there, it was summer, so the water was warm and a little bit lower; even so, the crossing is very slick. This time it was downright chilly. On the way to the falls, two folks fell in - yes, one of them was me. (No one was hurt.) One of the hikers did quite a spectacular pratfall without dropping the beagle in his arms!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dissertation: Practitioner check

I had lunch today with a professor who is a board member herself at an institution very similar to the ones I used in my case studies - a small, co-educational liberal arts college in the Southeast. She isn't in higher education research (although she is familiar with some of it) but was interested in my findings as a trustee.

Most of what I found was validated by her own experience. Most the things that weren't were idiosyncratic to the institutions I studied - for example, I did not expect that the college that required trustee attendance at a lot of campus events was typical.

It was a nice validity check to compare my results against someone who has an academic understanding of the field and practitioner experience.