a pet American?!

Berchem
(last weekend)

When Valére mentioned locking me in the cellar I knew it was really time to leave!
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We spent a couple of hours walking through the Middelheim Sculpture Park, talking mostly about history. In Europe, this involves talking about (and sometimes re-living) elements, aspects, fallout, and memories of war. The abstract violence that I had some dim peripheral knowledge of from early education grows in palpability the longer I stay here and the more people I meet.
Frankly, at a visceral level, I am creeped out by the immanent presence, tribality, and viciousness of violence in Europe.
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This is in contrast to the US – where we only went at each other once, long enough ago that re-enactments of the Civil War are a game (which is not to deny the political fallout of the past century and a half). Violence in the US, after the genocide of American Indians, has been at the fringes of legitimacy. Yes, for terrible decades, lynchings of Black Americans were social events supported by local authorities, but anonymity and secrecy (of the KKK, for instance) was – and remains – evidence of impermissability. Yes, we have outrageous statistics of random violence – murders, for instance, but we have not drafted up our youth to go killing each other generation after generation after generation…
This history makes the project of the European Union particularly special. Europhiles know it, Euroskeptics doubt it. While my own research is not focused on the content of the debate between these forces, I have gleaned that the anti-Europeanists are skeptical not only because they perceive human behavior in Hobbesian terms, but because they sense another version of overarching fascist control. They may be right, and so the Europhiles need to generate real mechanisms of democracy that can be participated in by citizens in their day-to-day life. Only deeply-grounded practices of shared culture are capable of competing with the ideologies being implemented by local and national governments – regardless of whether their policies are in concert or competition with the EU’s larger aims.
After our long, leisurely stroll, in which we noticed the preponderance of statues of women posed in domestic and sensual splendour interspersed by some statues of men portraying engagement in “something important” (such as thinking or proselytizing), we settled down for a delicious meal.
Our talk turned to language.
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Happy Obama Year!

Antwerpen

Smog threatened to conceal our twelfth floor view of fireworks. Missing the bitter cold wind of winter was not something I expected to feel! I have toughened up a bit by now – thankfully – just in time for real winter. I’m able to be outside for brief periods without wrapping myself like a mummy in seventeen layers. (Emphasis on “a bit,” “brief,” and outdoors: inside, when I’m not moving, chill still gets me quick.)
The atmosphere of the gathering was plenty warm. Preparations had taken days; all unfolded seamlessly.
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Guests arrived, mingling and nibbling commenced. Conversations scurried along in Flemish and English (to accommodate yours truly), marked by the casual inter- and cross-flowing of old friends. I listened to words I could not understand, reading mood and intonation, basking in the ambiance as an emotional voyeur: while usually unable to conjure content, the sense of pleasure was pervasive. Slowly, comfortably, we shifted from scattered pairs and trios to the table, devouring fish and salad, washed down with Cava, Sangria, sherry or red wine, as you wish. Next came the scampi.
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We were treated to two courses, in fact: the second serving of angel-hair pasta drowned in coconut milk outdoing – surprise! – the deliciousness of the first serving. Yum! Then, cheese.
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Suddenly there were fireworks! Midnight already? We didn’t believe it, so immersed had we been in each other’s fine company. Some slight wind must have come up, our view was not obscured, although veterans from last year say the air was not completely clear. Nonetheless, guests flocked to the balcony and windows to gaze upon the spectacle. Here we go – the first Obama Year! Let each of us endeavor to prove sufficient to the enormous tasks which lie ahead.
Dessert came next. Wow. One taste treat after another! And so much laughter. “Do you understand?” I was asked a few times. No, I had to confess, but giggles, chuckles, and guffaws are contagious: they convey meaning enough. ๐Ÿ™‚
As gently as they came, departures ensued.
Today, the spirit of generosity lingers.

lessons in patience (“so many kinds of mirrors”)

Soul Inn
Delft, Holland

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It occurs to me that I have an occasionally-troubled relationship with time. The patience of the Dutch impresses me: the decades and generations, for instance, of carefully reclaiming land from the sea. The paintings of Johannes Vermeer and the woodcuts and lithographs by M.C. Escher, bespeak a lifetime of deeply-responsive and engaged living. Vermeer, we are told, shows us not what he saw, but what he wants us to see, while Escher displays a full range of perception, from the mystic to the gory. Meanwhile, in contemporary cultural Holland, one is to walk with averted eyes past each other’s open windows. Apparently there is nothing to hide, and equally nothing to display. Or (?) if there is, one must pointedly not look in order not to see.
I could hardly have chosen two more counterposed artists to see in one day. Vermeer is sensual, smooth, projecting pure tranquility. Escher seems stoned, depicting fantastical images worthy of hallucinogens (and the curators seem to agree). Yet each man is obviously the product of his times – offering up images that refract the psychosocial dynamics of their era according to their respective sensibilities. Vermeer (1632-1675) spends his entire life in Delft, leaving no traces except his paintings. Guesswork fills in details, the critic’s gaze and audience’s imagination craving the lush life his paintings portray.
Pondering the post-war psychological commentary about the “View of Delft,” painted six years after the explosion of 1654, I hopped on the tram to Scheveningen. Vermeer, argue the curators, presented the life he wished, obscuring all unpleasant details.

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01 path to the sea.JPG.jpgMusing on the forces that brought me to Holland (personal, biographic), I enjoyed seeing the sea. The interlude was necessary (it seems, in retrospect) to enable some distance from the calm vision of Vermeer to the disruptive designs of Escher. The light streaming in the window onto the photography of Thijs Tuurenhout in the upper gallery of the Vermeer Centrum also turned out to be a kind of prelude. 20 upper gallery.jpg
Maurits Cornelis Escher’s choices (1898-1972) are distinctly different than Vermeer’s. Escher draws on Moorish imagery, Christian mythology, biology, and warfare. Good and evil, light and dark are pitted in constant competition. The primal contest of living with its everpresent companion death is represented starkly, without reserve, and disturbingly balanced: who knows which side will prevail?
I was startled by his range: mathematical precision in rigorous interaction with inspirational and indigenous knowledges. Some work reminds me of the art of American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, others of the hints and whispers of Goddess-worshipping pagans. The psychological entwines with the institutional . . . did he know how much the Swans (1956) begin to resemble the double helix? Could he have imagined that Magic Mirror (1946) evokes the quantum mechanics discovery of wave-particle duality? I imagine the powerful representations of war and violence in Escher’s work have been well mined, but what about his prescience about the environment, as seen in Puddle (1952)?
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I did not take many pictures of (what I react to as) the creepy stuff. It occurred to me that maybe this is a difference between liberals and conservatives in the U.S.? Liberals want everything to be happy, and conservatives know it just ain’t so. Too simplistic, of course, but it was a new lens (for me) on that divide. Can you see the skull in the center of this eye?

“Where does the beginning end?
Where does the end begin?”

Hurled at the audience in mockery of our mortality, these questions form part of the text of the three-dimensional “Virtual Reality” video of Escher’s work (by Wennekes Multimedia 2007, too bad I can’t find it online). Escher played knowledge against perception, daring us not to fear the miscegenation. Somehow, he managed to merge these modes into coherent art. Each single piece captures an aspect of universal complexity, while the oeuvre illustrates a purposeful trajectory.
Me? I get caught between trying to catch the essential qualities of lived moments and the progression toward a larger, cumulative contribution. The insight with which I opened this blogpost involved the spirit of my parents’ lives as I was growing up: their ambition to be part of the class-conscious carnival with its exaggerated pleasures and lapses of ennui between episodes of spectacle. This may explain a deep kind of patterned cycle that I find occasionally interrupting otherwise steady progress towards my own longterm goals.
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Winterzonnewende: great and peaceful

Antwerpen

Reflexivity got scooped! Alyssa describes her experience of last night’s Winter Solstice event:

“every ethnomusicological molecule in my body was buzzing.”

My molecules are still buzzing today. ๐Ÿ™‚ Talk about an infusion of goodwill and high spirits to draw back the sun! Mahtab expresses exactly how I feel:

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Alyssa’s summary is terrific – read hers first (why not?!); she gives context for the following details . . .
FOOD:

  • Ugandan smoked salmon salad
  • Czech potato salad (special for christmas)
  • American macaroni-and-cheese (thanks Ruth!)
  • mangoo and fried salami from the Dominican Republic
  • very special Iranian rice
  • mini-chicken curry puff pockets (homemade dough, too!)
  • and was that Trinidadian chicken?!
  • not to mention Nigerian popcorn (!)
  • and various fresh veggies with dips,
  • assorted chips, nuts, cheeses and
  • desserts galore.

PERFORMANCES:

  • Patricia – Phantom of the Opera (a capela, English)
  • Jose & Annmarie – a cop and two crows (see poem below): the poor guy probably doesn’t have a clue what hit him! (Flemish & English)
  • Steph – Life, Love & Laughter by Donovan; Come Along by Titiyo; and Miles From Nowhere by Cat Stevens (courtesy of iTunes; American Sign Language)
  • Marse – the Czech National Anthem (a capela, Czech) and a large photography book of Czech natural beauty.
  • Annmarie & Steph – poetry by Leonard Peltier, My Life is My Sundance, and “Some Days You Get the Bear” MariJo Moore (Dutch, English, and American Sign Language)
  • Tolu – inspiring us all to dance to Gongo Aso (Igbo)
  • Gen – boldly leading a communal drumming circle (stools, tabletops, silverware, bowls and beerglasses)
  • Mahmoud & Bouchra – drumming and belly dancing (Egyptian & Moroccan)
  • Katelijn, Anneleen, & Oriana – a sonata (Trio in F Major) by Telemann, two lengthy improvisations, and a smattering of playfulness (cello, bass clarinet, flute)
  • Alyssa, Anneleen, & Oriana – improvisation (cello, bass clarinet, flute)
  • last, but not least, Steven’s photography: next time he’ll have to manage to arrive a little earlier! (black-and-white with occasional bursts of color).

I agree completely with Alyssa that the best part of the closing performance was the improvisation. This was the first time these three women have played together – which makes the perception of Alyssa’s trained ear even more significant: they sounded as if they have played together for years. The trio sounded just as good when Alyssa was on cello, too!

Annmarie joined in spontaneously with more poetry from MariJo Moore. Annmarie’s strong speaking voice merged seamlessly with the voices of string, reed, and wind. I felt the power in the moment; now, remembering and reflecting, I wonder if part of the poignancy of that moment was the way the chosen lines added punctuation, providing (perhaps, in some way) an embodiment of the interpretation I had finally decided upon for the trickiest line in Titiyo’s song: “lets be the thorn in the rose.” After a week (literally) of thinking about meaning and context, I chose to sign: “accept beauty and still critique.”

when a nest has been empty for too long
take it apart and build a new one

~ ~ ~

when you see a circle of crows
you know you are not alone

Alyssa and Marse added vocalizations at various points along the way. Everyone’s lightheartedness made the music all the more sweet: sharing with each other the full range of humor and talent made “the sphere [of our gathering],” as Jose said, “great and peaceful.”
Finally, during the last beautiful improvisation, Annmarie offered up an original:

When the dogs are silent
the trees ask to listen to their barks

At that point, I had joined the ‘circle of crows’ to interpret. On first hearing Annmarie’s poem, I could only attend to the prominent (dominant?) sense of “sound,” missing the homonym and Annmarie’s intentional double meaning. She has been working on that one for five years, so we figure I may be able to generate an adequate ASL interpretation by approximately 2013.
Until then, all my gratitude for this a once-in-a-lifetime composition of kindred spirits, and

Keep Riding the Curve!

Het verbazen!

“Mahmoud is een wonder!” Anne teased him at the moment when comprehension dawned: the lightbulb went off and Mahmoud got it: heel goed! I can tell you that I need a few more miracles if I am going to pass de examen in Januari.
I agree with Amin, who said “remembering” when we were discussing our various challenges with learning Nederlands last week:

“Heb ben jullie problemen?”
“Amin hebt een probleem speciale!”

“He’s so young for Alzheimer’s!”
Maar Amin is niet alleen.
Me too. :-/

Marinela answers questions on my behalf when I am too confused! (Even though a few weeks ago she was, like, uh, “How many different ways are there to say the time?!”) Bouchra lets me look at her huiswerk. Excellent examples of teamwork! Topi is my role model: she thinks for awhile to see if she can figure out what Anne is asking, then she asks, “Wablieft?” Come again? Yea, and if you repeat what you said about zeven times maybe I will get it. Misschein. (sigh)
The propaganda about America and the European Parliament that I distributed for fun is obviously not enough. Papa Obama or not: ik weet het niet = nul! And I’m referring only to the vocabulary – the grammar is totally guesswork as anyone with a smattering of Nederlands is painfully aware. :-/
Marsi – even though she abandoned us to jump to level 1.4 (!) – has dropped in twice: once with candy from Sint Niklaas and just before the break (eergisteren) with cookies she says she baked herself. Uh huh. (Mahmoud had to be convinced to share them with the rest of us . . . ) Meanwhile, Tolu tells me I look like a teenager (?!) and Patricia says, “Steph is a teenager.” The nerve! ๐Ÿ™‚
My accent is also awful. Tim had to ask me, “Wat?!” after nearly everything I tried to say in Nederlands. “You think I can jump that high?” I asked him. “I hope so,” he replied, fervently. Jammer! I did give Susan a double take when I pronounced “Daag” properly – a feat I am not sure how I accomplished and probably cannot repeat. Marsi will never let me live down that I said smakelijk is the opposite of moeilijk. (The right answer is gemakkelijk.) [You understand why she is amused: easy, not tasty, is the opposite of difficult.]
The three days I was absent hurt. Gewledig! Big time problem. Although I did realize our infamous soap opera was poking fun at Amerikanen, even before Anne reminded everyone that I’m American. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Neemt u mij niet kwalijk! We’re not all bad! Then the soap turns and makes fun of itself, touching on very politically incorrect topics with the kind of humor that would not find its way into most language classes in the United States. The videoprogramma generates a special voor buitenlanders (that’s us in this level one course: strangers from another land) to address kultuurimperialisme and profile the karacter op de Belg.

positief karacteriesteken op de Belg:

  • diplomatic talent
  • anti-authoritarianism
  • respect for privacy

with accompanying negatief karacteriesteken op de Belg:

  • indirect communication (niet zo open)
  • separated (individualistic rather than communal)

All of this talk of stereotypen led our conversation back to kultuurshok. I realize part of my trouble with the trams and trains is that I am used to driving – which requires paying attention. When someone else is ‘driving,’ my mind goes elsewhere – with a book, writing, or daydreaming – then whooooooooooooooosh those stops just fly right on by! I’m amused by the supremely ordered traffic lights – specifically designated signals for automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians – which nearly everyone obeys! There is no “language of klaxons” as Mahmoud labeled the incessant honking he, Amin, and Patricia miss from Egypt, Iraq, and the Dominican Republic. The food, we agree, is good and (!) – nearly everyone has a dish or several that they miss from home. Except for Bouchra. No kultuurshok. Grrl got it all together.
๐Ÿ™‚

“it must be unforgettable!”

on the train from Luxembourg-Brussels
9 December 2008

Fog shrouded my arrival in Luxembourg, persisting through the first day. The second morning dawned grey but sparkling.

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What a treat to listen through headphones to an interpretation into English of Professor Joanna Nowicki‘s talk on intercultural communication, or – as she prefers to label it – intercultural mediation. Her critique of ‘the American way [of teaching about] intercultural communication” was quite sharp: it “becomes one dimensional very fast.” She generalized about management programs that simply direct their students: “with people of this nationality, do that, with people of that nationality, do this.” I am not convinced that my friends in the School of Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst are receiving so stark a reduction, but I am familiar with trends in my department (Communication) that could lend themselves to such simplistic categorizations. No doubt Professor Nowicki’s critique applies in general, if not to every case. She also describes “the American way” as “very pragmatic,” explaining that, for Americans, the results of research must be useful.

Research and the real world
Personally, I am inclined to agree with the goal of research needing to have practical use: theory alone is dancing in air. Beautiful, yes. And exclusive. Again, however, it is unclear to me how generally this categorization applies to all American research, as there is only one official pragmatist in the UMass Communication Department and the critical emphasis leans strongly toward the theoretical. Application to the real (not abstract) world receives rather short shrift. Perhaps I am a bit more European in style, as I conceptualize theory and practice as blended in actual experience. Where Professor Nowicki did nail me in my American-ness was with her characterization of American researchers of intercultural communication moving quickly to “giving advice.”

Hoe spel je dat?

During our third Flemish class, Marsi found out how old I am. “My mother is one year younger than you,” she told me. “Next year – funeral or what?” she continued. “What kind of flowers do you like?” Possibly all of the women in class besides me are here because they are married or engaged to a Belgian. Today there was talk of bridal showers and tea parties . . . I suppose I should be glad someone was thinking of any kind of celebration for me? Dank u wel!

Mijn voornaam is Steph. Ik ben Amerikaan. Ik kom uit de Verenigde Staten. Ik woon in Antwerpen. Hoe heet je?


The class is amazing. Anne is an excellent teacher, full immersion with a steady but reasonable pace. Of course it feels overwhelming, but we are getting used to speaking and hearing the words for basic introductions. Ik ben doventolk en ook leraar.
My classmates are from all over the world: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Egypt, India, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, and Uganda. There is no common language known by everyone in the class. Many do know English, but not everyone. Pictures, gestures, and mime supplement the curriculum and our conversations. The lingua franca will be Dutch: the official Nederlands and the common langauge, Vlaams (Flemish) spoken here in Flanders.
Dat is interesante. Nederlands shares common linguistic roots with English, while some of the Latin bits send my mind to Spanish. I got away with Que tal spreek jij with Patricia (also known as wonderwoman) before remembering the proper target language: Welke taal spreek jij? A bunch of my classmates are bi- or trilingual. The number of languages in the room is truly impressive: American Sign Language, Arabic, Berber, Bulgarian, Czech, English, Farsi, Flemish, French, Hindi, Russian, Spanish, Telugu, Turkish, Unsoka, and Yoruba. I am sure this list is not complete. At least I remember my own languages! Mahmoud got stuck on how to say “beroep” in Arabic. ๐Ÿ˜‰
This class after the weekend was rough. After struggling with buitenlanders and vreemdelingen and none of us wonen in dezelfde gemeente, it is no wonder talk turned to food and socializing. Anne announced, “there are no tourists here!” – then promptly took us on a tour of the Leopoldus Lyceum. We went op de trap and af de trap, links en rechts, through all of the gelijkvloers and eerst verdieping. Anne is quite flexible. On the first day of class, she assigned a dialogue role to me but started to take it away when she realized the geslacht didn’t match. “We can’t have a girl reading a boy’s part,” she said, but I shrugged and said, “Why not?” So she let me. What do you think will happen when they find out?
Hey! My friend Anneleen won an award from the European Commission for her educational work with young people! I think it’s pretty cool. ๐Ÿ™‚

Wablieft?
Da’s niks.
Graag gedaan!

a chance for change

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23:30 pm, November 4: My colleagues (ahem) made up in a single evening, all the time that I’ve been late to events so far this year. It was nice that most of them eventually did arrive! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Volunteering at the American Club‘s election eve event was the way to go; at least we were guaranteed entrance! In 2004, somewhere between 900-1200 people attended. This year, more than 2000 tickets were sold before the doors were essentially closed – well before polling ended on the East Coast and prior to a single projection! I enjoyed selling tickets at the main entrance, but checking those precious wristbands at the side door was not as much fun. One drunk guy didn’t miss a moment all night to glare at me for turning away friends he tried to usher in without having paid.
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After a month and a half in Belgium, attending a half-dozen more-or-less official events, the expat crowd begins to seem familiar. Faces seem recognizable, even if the names blur. I keep seeing look-alikes of several friends who I know are State-side; biology turns up similarities even across oceans! At this moment, the roar in the ballroom is near deafening. Some blokes on stage are shouting in debate at each other, critiquing the truthfulness factor in claims made by candidate’s advertising. CNN is on projection screens stationed at intervals throughout the first floor of the Renaissance Hotel, without audio so far. A rock band, The Wanderers, has been playing covers at intervals throughout the evening. 93% of the people who have so far filled out the lottery form have selected Barack Obama as the deliverer of this quote:

“The United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone.
We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies.”

Only seven percent imagined that John McCain could have said this, including me and Alyssa. (We were correct.)
01:30 am, November 5: The women’s bathroom is extremely entertaining. Earlier, there was a woman on her cell phone frantically scheming to get a friend without a ticket inside. Just now, an international trio including “a Swedish girl and a Canadian girl” (so they self-identified, if I recall accurately) were discussing whether a guy who looks pretty must be bi. “He has a pretty nose!” I really could not weigh in, although I did venture that “gay” is a cultural construction that may not apply uniformly in all parts of the world. This shifted us to a discussion of learning English via Michael Jackson and Madonna in Bulgaria.
In general, the crowd has thinned to half or even a third. A noticeable reduction occurred as soon as the band stopped. The buzz, however, is still achingly loud. It is hard to know if we’re getting down to only the diehards. Cheers go up each time numbers are posted showing an Obama lead (even if its only on 1% of polls reporting). The Republican table was unstaffed, although a few staunch supporters were undeniably present.
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02:40 am: CNN just called Pennsylvania for Obama. The crowd here burst into its loudest and most sustained applause yet. (I confess; I teared up.) Alyssa and I are hanging out at our back corner table with its questionable views – she’s studying Flemish in-between updates and I’ve been reading The Bulletin. Folks keep dropping by to buy food tickets and ask questions, but we only look official (we know nothing!) Chris, however, scored a set of campaign set buttons, and proceeded to explain a project, “mindset” and its “zero interest group” platform.
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03:27 am: I finished reading the current edition of Flanders Today. The chatter is still loud. People have taken to the floors, sitting in small groups, although most of the remaining crowd (several hundred) remains standing. Wolf Blitzer just teased us with “a big projection coming up.”
03:35 am: Ohio! An eruption of cheers, upraised arms, flying objects, hoots and hollers. “No Republican has won the Presidency without Ohio.
03:50 am: New Mexico! Way to go, mom! ๐Ÿ™‚
Dead heat in the popular vote at the moment; would like to see a wider margin. Meanwhile, they dimmed the lights here at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels a few minutes after the projection of Ohio. They don’t expect us to leave, do they?!
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04:43 am: Folks have been slowly drifting out; the crowd is noticeable thinner as the night turns toward morning. There’s still over 200 people hanging in, waiting for the speeches. Did I mention popping out my contact lens in favor of old-fashioned spectacles?
05:06 am: They did kick us out of the main ballroom; fortunately we were all re-situated in the lobby when CNN announced

The din echoed off the ceiling for no short time; some groups further back in the hotel bar carried on for several minutes in hearty rendition of an Oktoberfest tune. Now, again, the constant chatter continues, and we wait . . .
05:29 am: McCain did alright with his concession speech. Three quarters of the stalwarts listened . . .
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. . . and continued to listen carefully, while a handful kept trying to shush persistent chatterers in the background.
Finally – Obama’s turn.
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09:00 am: I am a wee bit tired. ๐Ÿ™‚ We lingered for some time after President-Elect Obama’s acceptance speech, basking in the relative quiet (finally! after the noise of the night and the entire election). Then, Alyssa and I walked in the pre-dawn mist toward the U.S. Embassy’s breakfast affair. At one point, ducking into a virtually empty metro station to confirm our destination and relative whereabouts, we were embraced by Queen. As we walked the quietly-stirring city streets, office lights glowing as if suspended in the ether without structures, the topic of fear arose. Michelle Obama explained some time ago the role of fear in the family decision that Barack would run for President. I agree with her wholeheartedly.
I should have snapped a photo of the BMW showroom gleaming brightly with red and white balloons before we entered; the cops wouldn’t let me later! (I thought he was pulling my leg, he was so friendly about it. “You’re kidding?” I exclaimed. “Please comprehend,” he asked. Sigh.)
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U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox (to Belgium), U.S. Ambassador Kristen Silverberg (to the EU), and Rep. Kurt Volker (NATO) gave upbeat speeches.

“As an American, I have never been so proud of my country.”

Ambassador Fox extolled the election of Barack Obama, emphasizing the “peaceful transition of power,” and guaranteeing the continuation of strong trading relations. (BMW, Ambassador Fox informed us, manufactures cars in Alabama.) These themes were echoed by Ambassador Silverberg and Rep. Volker.

Prior to the three speeches, I was interviewed.

Twice.

Who knows what fool I made of me!

13:59 pm: On three hours sleep (!), I recall the loudest cheer during President-Elect Obama’s acceptance speech. He said,

“…the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals…”

and the people roared. At least half a dozen times our soon-to-be forty-fourth President of the United States of America was drowned out by spontaneous cheers in the cozy hotel lobby. It wasn’t until a second listen at the US Embassy reception that I heard the list of ideals:

democracy,
liberty,
opportunity,
and unyielding hope.”

expressing the inexpressible

Trevize is grumpy as hell that he’s chosen Gaia – a superorganism – instead of either the technologically-superior First Foundation or the “mentalic” (psychosocial scientifically advanced) Second Foundation as the future of humankind.

The moment of coincidence took my breath away. I opened Isaac Asimov’s fifth book in The Foundation Series, thinking I would start to read it for a few minutes to shift my mind toward sleep, having just finished watching Maya’s extraordinary documentary on Toekomsten 02068. A futurologist, Maya interviewed people who attended the 01958 World’s Fair in Brussels, inquiring as to their experiences then, their reflections on how society has changed – or not – since then, and their projections another fifty years into the future. Jose interpreted the Flemish for me, gesturing occasionally to supplement the English.

The film confirms and goes beyond the fiftieth anniversary retrospective exhibition at The Atomium, Between Utopia and Reality. I spent an afternoon there last week: incredible. Honestly, walking out of the tram station and catching my first full view of this massive structure was awe-inspiring; it felt alien. As I approached, that impression only intensified. This architectural wonder representing an iron crystal looms into the atmosphere. I wondered if my fear of heights would hamper exploration.

I detailed my enthusiasm about the exhibit to a gang of potential troublemakers, carrying on about how well the exhibit presented the spirit of achievement and optimism of attendees while posing the critical questions indicated by evident contradictions in design and implementation. Specifically, how the constructed sensibility of a joined and shared humanness across fifty-two countries and widely-disparate cultures highlighted the public demise of colonialism and the threatening battle between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The witnesses/participants in Maya’s film confirm the dominance of the Fair’s spectacle over its overt theme,”A World View, A New Humanism,” critiquing the Fair’s overt display of technological prowess and power. Mirroring the implicit message of the Fair itself, the insidious face of nationalism remains largely unnamed by the film’s participants although it is clearly recognized. One man laughs as he recalls the positioning of the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s pavilions with the Church in-between. The visual production of the film is superb: the subjects speak conversationally in 02008 against backdrops of scenes from the Fair in 01958. The imagery is fantastic: a science fiction tableau that, while sometimes quaint, in other respects still appears futuristic today.

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Listening to the film’s participants muse about what has changed or not over the last half-century is sobering. Almost universally, the bouyant hope that they experienced at the World’s Fair has faded to a grim concern. The most poignant evidence for me involved language. Many of the participants described worsening conditions of today’s society, or at least that there have been no substantive changes, certainly no improvement, since 01958. While recognizing achievements and differences between these two times, the underlying international dynamics remain essentially the same. A man who worked as a translator at the 01958 Fair spoke of how the speed of communication would increase because of all the innovations (e.g., the telephone); while telecommunications may indeed be the single driving factor in the vast transformations of globalization, the apparent need for speed unifies the present with the past.

The impetus for acceleration is accompanied with a selfishness that was variously described by participants in terms of money (for us)/peanuts (for them), abundance/lack, even suggesting hoarding/poverty. A young person of today wondered why we – who have so much – cannot share more with those who have so little? I felt the most telling clue to these dynamics was an instance when a participant shifted from Dutch to English. He was describing the insistent accumulation of “us” (he may have meant Belgians specifically but my sense was the broader white west) in contrast with inequities in Africa (in particular, although again he may have meant the broader underdeveloped world). In the midst of his impassioned speech he described what he perceives as the dominant, individual attitude, abruptly codeswitching to English:

“I don’t care!”

Admittedly, it is a challenge to care about people and places removed from one’s intimate, social, and professional circles. Sometimes it is difficult to care even within these microcosms. I am not sure when, during viewing, that I began thinking of Gaia. Probably at the point of temporal shift in focus, as participants shifted their gaze from reflecting on the past to imagining the future. I recalled the lecture at the University of Massachusetts last year by Dr. Lynn Margulis concerning her theory of endosymbiosis, a variation of the Gaia hypothesis. There is a commonsense-ness to this concept that adheres to the basic scientific principle of simplicity; I am astonished at the resistance in the scientific community to grant much credibility to the hypothesis. Indeed, at the lecture I attended there was not a single question from the audience – a phenomena which occurred only this one time during an entire year’s series of lectures. Of course, the common sense can be wrong, but often intellectual absolutisms are also proven false, or at least contingent. For instance, this incredible notion of “being an individual” as if no interdependence facilitates existence.

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Jose summarized the overall gist of people’s articulations in the film. The older people, she explained, can attribute some meaning, some vision to the future, while the young people in the film are at a loss. Perhaps, she mused, when you are young you have not yet accumulated enough experience to be able to project ahead. Reflecting on her own life, she said the hype and hope of the 01958 World’s Fair lasted until 1965, and then something changed. “You could feel it in the air,” she said. “Maybe things were not going to be ok.

Returning to Asimov, Trevize has decided he must re-discover Earth. Twenty thousand years into the future, Asimov imagines a universe in which the planetary origin of humanity has become lost in antiquity. “How is it possible,” Trevize wonders, “that we have all forgotten?

Memory depends on what we say and don’t say, which stories we tell, and how we tell them. Perhaps the future does, too.

Near the end of the 02068 documentary, reflecting on its message and projecting its potential meaningfulness, is a quote by Fred Polak about an emerging sustainable vision for the future. He qualifies: “our images of this future are still very fuzzy, very poorly defined” (translated into English, 1961, The image of the future). I found info on Polak from Merrill Findlay, On the fluttering of butterfly wings, a member of an organization called Imagine the Future Inc.

Findlay describes Polak as

“a Dutch sociologist who, in the late ’40s, wrote a book about how we humans simultaneously live in the present and that Other place, the future. About how we imagine that mythic Other Place to explain our present and how our images of that place, the future, then ‘act as magnets on our behaviour in the present’ to precipitate social change.”

I’ll adapt Findlay’s question (posed in 1994) to the narratives in Maya’s film, encompassing the challenges left by the shifts in attitude from a pervasive belief, a mere five decades ago, that ‘things will get better’ to today’s stark pessimism that ‘we may not even make it.’

What sort of future are these words and images drawing us toward?

The thing is, we can use language to remember what we need – not just what we want. We can use words and stories to motivate and propel trajectories that lead us to the sustainable future so many of us believe is possible.
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transdisciplinary micro-macrology

The Fulbright Commission celebrated sixty years in Belgium and Luxembourg with a prestigious academic panel at the Palais de Academie in Bruxelles. I got to tag along with the more recent Schumann-Fulbright program that sponsors study of European Union institutions.
Professor Francis Balace complemented the education I gleaned a few days earlier at the Atomium’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition by describing the dearth of practical knowledge about the U.S. that most Belgians had until after the second world war when, he repeated several times, Belgium was “a good pupil” by negotiating specific policies regarding education in order to be included in the Marshall Plan. Two comments in particular caught my attention, both in the nature of an aside: one regarding the linguistic divide and another about war graves.
In the heat of WWII, and on the basis of prior history, no Belgians expected to be rescued by Americans; it was an article of faith that the British would prevail against the Nazis on Belgian soil. For whatever military and political reasons, part of Belgium was eventually freed by the U.S. and the line distinguishing those parts rescued by Britain and those by the U.S. “corresponds exactly,” Professor Balace emphasized., “with the Belgian linguistic division” of today. This is a matter of curiosity to me, as are the reasons why the Flemish Deaf Community dispensed with an umbrella label for all regional varieties of sign languages in Belgium that were once recognized as distinct from Dutch Sign Language, now describing a (supposedly) distinct Flemish Sign Language. Are the language politics of signed language communities being dictated by the language conflicts of spoken language communities? I do not know enough except to express sadness if this is the case. (See the last two paragraphs of this brief history by an external, non-deaf researcher.)
Someone in the audience felt it necessary, during the question-and-answer session, to expound upon Belgian reverence at U.S. military cemeteries – a theme that has been repeated at every official event I’ve attended since arriving here last month. The discussion that followed introduced some nuances, such as differences in memory and sentiment according to generation. The historical tidbit Professor Balace contributed was the fact of the United States government’s purchase (near the close of WWII) of “an extra five hundred graves in preparation for the next war.” This confirms the critique I offered of the U.S. Embassy film, An Invisible Bridge, of an underlying attitude of nationalistic preparation for institutional violence that might also be fed by the pomp of standing for both country’s national anthems. I did stand, of course, but uneasily. Such ceremonial prelude for an academic session felt awkward. (I find it similarly so at U.S. domestic sporting events.)
Professor Luc Reychler‘s topic echoed Minister of State Herman de Croo‘s introductory veneration of “fundamental connections” generated by the vision of J. William Fulbright, whose scholarships have enabled academics to reach high levels of influence in diverse communities across the globe. Professor Reychler described the network of 600,000 Fulbright scholars as an international brain trust, whose collective wisdom is needed to extract us from “the media crisis,” which, among other faults, promotes a counterproductive division between politicians and academics. The basis of Professor Reychler’s presentation concerning the present was a critique of the “unadaptive responses” of the U.S. government to a series of shocks since 2000. (9/11, evidence of our rich lifestyles adversely affecting the rest of the world, and the “inconvenient truth” of climate change – no doubt he used that phrase deliberately.) He summarized the cumulative effect as a “negative synergy” but sought to counter the inevitable gloominess of current global dynamics as “an unprecedented challenge” which can be successfully engaged.
Professor Reychler’s basic prescription includes a number of specific initiatives aimed collectively at improving relations and collaboration between academics and politicians. The usual dichotomy cannot be allowed to persist, regardless of whatever seeds of truth there may be in politician’s accusation that academics lack practical experience and academics tendency to cloister in the realms of teaching and research. (Just for the record, I’m adding a bit of emphasis to this critique of the academy, probably because I am operating right at that wall Professor Reychler described as the “talk about” transdisciplinary research and the effort to achieve it.)
Specifically, Professor Reychler described the 85:1 ratio of investment in military research versus peace-oriented research. Eighty-five to one!Peace building,” he explained, “requires a combination of multiple, coordinated initiatives.” Not unincidentally, Professor Reychler noted declines in academic freedom, a trend that is apparently not even being tracked. (Although it is certainly a topic of conversation in my graduate program and others, where graduate students are coached to adapt our actual interests to the narrow parameters established by funders in their attempt to guarantee that research results generate profitability and/or contribute adequately to their own predetermined purposes.)
The final panelist, Professor Alison Woodward, spoke with an eye toward the future, describing the juxtaposition of migration with our so-historically-recent ability to maintain intimate connections with family and friends in geographically distant places. Drawing upon work in the sociology of intimacy, Professor Woodward noted how emotions are entering the realm of political discourse: even in the formal academic setting of this talk (attended by U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox) “love” had already been mentioned. This “rediscovery of the personal” is interwoven and interactive with the new age of migration that is in radical contrast with migrations of the past in which intimate ties were necessarily cut.
Others are also showing ways in which communication networks challenge international politics, matters of citizenship, and “the larger political economy of design,” simply put by Saskia Sassen as “the work of making“. Professor Woodward argues,

Globalization is not only a macroproduct,
it reaches down to the level of bonds

– among families in particular, and (I would add) between friends. What so many feel as a threat of interdependency need not be perceived as an ill, rather, the increasing ability to keep bonds and forge bridges (the two types of interpersonal networks that compose society, as defined by Robert Putnam) bodes well for international relations.
The first question of the open Q-and-A session concerned the problem of dragging publics into policies before they understand them. The speaker was critical of European organization, describing it (presumedly the EU) as “weak and disorganized,” with “the European population 20-30 years behind events,” a condition which forces progress to be made “ad hoc without popular support.” I would characterize the phenomenon of knowledge lag as, at least partially, an element of the media crisis that Professor Reychler named. I am not a technological utopianist (however much I tend to come across as one), and there are problems with blaming social ills on the media, however the rituals we engage concerning what is produced, seen, heard, and distributed – whether as entertainment, advertising, infotainment, documentary, or incisive fact-based and contextualized journalism – are problematic. Surely we can do better than we are.