back in the valley

Amherst, MA
a.k.a. The Happy Valley

It is cool for summer. In fact, the chill at night feels more like autumn. Otherwise the lush, bright greens (of trees, grass, cultivated crops and wild bush), sky and mountain blues, and varying tones of white in the clouds are as they ever were. I got out on the bike trail yesterday, smelling freshly mown hay and listening to birdsong . . . aaahhhhhhhhh.


Although re-entry is relatively painless, I have noticed slight and subtle differences in the US now compared with when I left nearly a year ago. CNN has a news program, Black in America. Susan told me that standardized test scores for young African-Americans are improving in a crucial way: historically if students were asked to identify their racial demographics at the beginning of a standardized test their scores would be lower than if they were asked to provide this info at the end. Now this gap is decreasing! In other words, flagging racial identity used to work “against” confidence/competence for some black youth; now – after Obama – this internalized self-perception is being transformed.
I was startled, the first day back, when strangers addressed me in English (instead of Flemish or French). Riding in a taxi from the airport to a temporary destination in DC brought me in visual contact with a familiar landscape. I found it comforting to be closed in by tree-covered rolling hills instead of looking out on the centuries-tilled farmland of Belgium – which always somehow conveyed the hint of battle. Not that history is pristine, here. The namesake of this university town in western Massachusetts is infamous for having provided smallpox-infected blankets to the local Indians. Most of the original peoples from the East Coast were decimated in the colonial invasion, although some tribes managed to survive and even establish authenticity in the eyes of federal law (which is deliberately designed to make such claims as difficult as possible while appearing to be fair).
Whiffs of cow manure are occasionally overwhelming.
It’s been windy since I arrived, but Ambarish assures me it is not always like this. I had been quite aware of the wind in Belgium, and it had crossed my mind that this might be a sign of global warming: as the planet’s atmosphere heats up, there might be more likelihood of “weather”. I wondered if, some day in the future, a still day when there is no wind might be a rarity, a phenomenon only remembered by the very old . . .

photo from August 2008 (see more: High Summer)
Lord Amherst and Smallpox
Black in America: The Black Woman and Family
Ombama poster in my apartment

We are all guilty here

online discussion forum

Language is a force.
Language names, and by naming, it calls into being. This is how social reality is constructed and maintained. I think it is an effect of quantum mechanics, but smarter minds than mine are needed to make the connections in a compelling scientific manner.
Last fall I wrote a post on some dynamics of dialogue and discourse, in which I engaged with ideas of a discursive psychologist, Michel Billig.

The core of the argument laid out by Michael Billig (in the articles from Discourse and Society 2008, Vol. 19, Issue 6) is that we who think in terms of critical discourse analysis (CDA) need to be acutely aware of our own uses of language, lest we repeat some of the very elements of language use that we critique in others. Billig’s concern is with social scientific language in general; he selects CDA for heuristic and practical purposes: “It should be a major issue for analysts who stress the pivotal role of language in the reproduction of ideology, inequality and power” (p. 784).

In particular, Billig goes after the academic/theoretical use of nominalization, which is a shorthand way of condensing a particular dynamical concept (something with a lot of parts) into a single term. Debate over costs and benefits of using nominalization seem to swing on the temporal grounding of interlocutors. I’m thinking at the mundane level as well as at level of ideological reproduction. For instance, does saying something about (i.e., naming) tensions in a friendship necessarily make them worse or can it provide a means to shift footings? At the precise moment of making the utterance, there may be a spike in bad feelings – all that tension concentrated and released in the acts of speaking and hearing. But I think that it is what comes next (at least, so I hope) that becomes determinative for the subsequent unfolding. When nominalization is at play, Billig argues there is a tendency to depersonalize behavior or action such that individual contributions to whatever unfolds are lost to perception. So the pattern of tensions enacted when one or another party to the tension actually says something directly about the presence or evidence of tension becomes bigger than the minute social interactions that compose it. The pattern itself becomes “the thing”, and individuals are simply swept up in it, all agency erased.
The question is, when things are not going the way one wishes, what next? I watched an interesting video on the synthesis of happiness this morning (20 minutes long) which argues that if we assume irretrievability, then we enhance our capacity to choose happiness. I’m wondering if this basic precept – that’s what done is done and can’t be changed – could guide many other choices, including the ways we respond when we find ourselves seemingly trapped in a discourse that we don’t necessarily want. I believe it is the element of acknowledgment that I am finding most attractive. Perhaps my general communicative strategy is to reduce uncertainty (see What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous) in order to make choices clear.


Year One, Second Half
Geneva (Perle du Lac)

A year ago, I marked a confluence of transitions. How many times, I continue to wonder, can one bounce back from failure? I also consider, if failure (however conceived) has lead me here . . .


I am full of reflections and anticipations.

So what if the museum is closed on Tuesday? (Familiar.) I think I’m gonna have to order “The Lives of Einstein.”
I got enough of a buzz from the outdoor displays. Auguste de la Rive’s ideas about the Aurora Borealis, for instance, were half correct: they do result from a combination of magnetism (strongest at the earth’s poles) and electricity. He was only wrong about the origins of the involved electricity – not terrestrial, but from the larger cosmos. Marc-Auguste Pictet was involved in negotiations concerning the establishment of the prime meridian, and Jean-Robert Chovet (unlike yours truly) was known for his diplomatic skill and (similar to yours truly) believed “more weight should be given to lay people in the management of the Academy” (emphasis added, and – in addition to esteemed institutions of higher learning, many domains could be substituted in place of the organizational forebear of the University of Geneva). (Time, by the way, to read Descartes: Discourse on the Method. And do you think it is remotely possible for a person to function like a gnomon?)
As it turned out, I did not travel by water taxi across the lake to the Jardin Anglais to see the flower clock or the Musee de l’Horlogerie (which may or may not have been open). I did, however, wander through the Jardin Botanique spying all manner of flower, plant, and tree, not to mention several varieties of parrot, swans, geese, flamingos, and ducks, including some fantastically-plumaged Mandarin Ducks and Indian Peafowl. For spice, there were also Hermann’s Tortoises and Fallow Deer.
In case there was any danger of not living up to full nerdist credentials, I spent several hours writing (a book review, hopefully coming soon), during which I fielded delightful communiques from dearest friends and family. Whatever shadows thought to threaten the day were readily banished and I’ve just got the feeling that the coming second year after the cutting will proceed in more-or-less similar fashion as this one just passed.
At any rate, here’s hoping!

Dear Carole,

I don’t want your departure to hurt so much, but it does.
Silly, I know. I’m watching the wind blow lush spring foliage like currents in the sea, swirling in multiply-rippled design – now unfurling a wide swath then cutting back against itself, sweeping into new unpredictable configurations and keeping me guessing, waiting, eager for the next sussuration. I envision your spirit – free and unconfined, stretching luxuriously in a slow rush into each nook and every new cranny available to your expansive perception.
Life with you was like that. Fun, adventurous – serious with plenty of irreverence and mischief to keep everything in balance.
You figure prominently in so many significant experiences of my life: co-chairing the BiBi Committee at Austine, corralling some wild women into a spirituality group, modeling motherhood – so proud and respectful of your daughter, she of the best name-sign in the world! All those talks and walks and meals in Vermont, the summer of our Saturday mornings at the Farmer’s Market. The trip to Hawai’i. Our friendship crested and ebbed like breathing as we experienced stretches of intimacy, distance, renewed closeness, and then this long, quiet goodbye.
I remember when you told me they’d found a lump in your breast. You minimized it, sure that it was nothing really, just a bit of lingering karmic energy that you would dissolve in no time. I believed you. You whose consciousness encompassed more spacetime than anyone else I know – probably more than all of us put together! – it just did not occur to me that you might be wrong. Even as the illness got worse and you left work, moving to a safe and quiet place for deep and wholesome healing, I never doubted that you would be back: that your laugh would ring out, your gaze question my grip on reality, your compassion pour out in my presence.
It will have to wait for the next incarnation, now, won’t it? Maybe I’ll have caught up a bit by then.

wink added 8 May 2009
after the shock wore off

barefoot on Belgian soil


The park is magical. As are all the public, cultivated spaces here: I’m given the sense of a holodeck – programmed to appear wild but the evidence of human design remains.

06 lamppost.jpg
Doesn’t that remind you of the lamppost on the other side of the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? (I have refrained from watching the movie, so this is my imaginary correspondence from a reading many years ago.)
We picnicked and talked about the seasons. Liesbet looked at me with incredulity when I said it is a fairly recent phenomena for me to actually consciously register the duration of seasons. (She thinks I’m a treehugger!) I mean, yea, of course I always knew the seasons change, but to have that deep embodied awareness that one season follows the next . . .

and each lasts about so long . . .

Yea, that’s a perceptual kind of awareness I’ve been growing only since the last five years or so. I’m always pleased when spring arrives, but I never trusted the end of summer. Fall, for nearly all my life, seemed to hurtle into winter. When autumn started slowing down – meaning, when I realized there would be some months of fall between the first cold night and the onslaught of snow – is when the reality of the seasons as a cycle dawned.
I know. How is it possible to have been so clueless for so long?
I was raised among people who weren’t noticing those things. Or, if they were, it was a private matter, not discussed. Education was abstracted, even hands-on activities. (Not that I recall very many – which isn’t saying so much, as I don’t remember much of the first half of my life…) Reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, sheds a certain kind of strange light on my own childhood. I realize that there was a singular focus that bounded most of my family’s doings… no wonder I still struggle to spread perceptual awareness as broadly as necessary, and so often get lost in the resulting complexity!
03 shoes.jpg
Anyway, we took off our shoes and spread our toes in the cool grass, comparing seasons in Egypt, Belgium, and various climes in the U.S. 001 synchrony.jpg There is no twilight in Egypt, for instance, only a day/night transition lasting less than half-an-hour. You feel the seasons there by the temperature. Here in Belgium, as in the US, I tend to smell the season first. There is also a quality of air – probably a function of humidity? – but it seems secondary to me, whereas in Egypt (so says Mahmoud) the feel of the air comes before the nose detects a difference.
There are American sayings about the seasons….I have a vague recollection…”April showers bring May flowers” is the only one that comes to mind. Appropriate! In Dutch there is a saying about the moodiness of the weather, apparently Arabic has one as well, but for a different month… correspondence, but not an exact alignment: synchronicity is variable, huh? 🙂

“Triangles” and twilight

written (mostly) at the time
was waiting to upload photos!

Most of the Middle Eastern Spirituality and Peace Festival is over, there were only two events that lingered past my arrival Sunday [15 March] – I chose to add them to my tourist itinerary as prep for the Dialogue Under Occupation conference that I dash to next.
I spent some time Monday afternoon [16 March] sitting under a wood-cut and linocut (2/8, 1996) by Angela Lemaire. No photographs were allowed, but the text underneath a citysprawl intercut by yellow triangles reads:

Triangles: LIGHT IN THE CITY. Triangles is a service activity for men and women who believe in the power of thought. Working in groups of three, they establish right human relationships by creating a world-wide network of light and goodwill.

Earlier, I gazed upon the castle and walked some of The Royal Mile . . .
The cabbie who brought me from the airport had suggested that I get where I can watch the light fade – he was right. I couldn’t absorb all of the running commentary so late last night when I arrived but he did a terrific job extolling the glories of the city; I wish I had more time!
19 gloaming.jpg
Tuesday evening, I wanted to watch twilight fall on the water . . . anyplace high where I could get a beer with a view? The chap at the storyteller’s place whom I asked for a recommendation mused, “That’s the thing with Scotland, if you want comfort we go to ground.” His statement totally reframed my take on the basement room in the bed and breakfast where I was staying! I was given the lead to King’s Wark . . . it wasn’t as “on” the water as I had in mind, so I wandered around for awhile.
Leith 21 Leith harbor.jpg
is homey in comparison to the glamour of the Royal Mile. After trying The Granery, and getting turned around looking for The Waterline on another recommendation, I wound up back at King’s Wark, where I had a cask-conditioned Caledonian 80 with clams & mussels for what might have been a third of the in-town price.
Most of my time revolved around preparing the talks. I nearly always operate in the last minute like this. The base idea circulates for a long time, but the final preparations are best kept as near as possible to the moment in real time. Perhaps this is why the gentleman I met at the Scottish Storyteller’s Centre suggested I stay in touch?
The best stories feel spontaneous – the labor of laying down the framework remains unseen.

18 Scottish Storyteller's Place.jpg

“Try your enemies!”


Anne said this last Friday: she was teasing me that none of my friends collected the in-class paperwork for me. My Dutch continues to limp along…
Walking to the tram later that afternoon, I noticed someone had lain flowers at the foot of a statue that I had not paid attention to before. A bouquet on this regular day seemed incongruous, so I took a closer look.

gandhi w flowers.jpg

Systems are composed and maintained by tensions of all kinds. With some skill – and a whole lot of luck – the thrust of these forces can be reconfigured with minimal violence. There may not be so many examples, but there are some.

Random constructions of meaning (something stinks!)


Fill in the blank:

    “What are you doing ___________(here)?”
    in Belgium
    at the European Parliament
    in Europe
    on the planet

It always sounds a bit pompous to respond factually, “doing research for my dissertation,” or, alternatively, “trying to contribute to a more peaceable world.” One needs regular doses of humor to balance out the serious nature of both motivations.
Fortunately I have friends who regularly remind me of the wide range of sensible and insensible interpretations people can draw from particular actions, both recognizing and teasing me simultaneously. For instance, just Friday I received a joke about self-referential interpretation, and was informed that my sudden bursts of energy are like air being released from a balloon. Not bad, I thought, imagining the rapid diffusion of air into the atmosphere as the spread of ‘good stuff’. But no, she was referring to the propulsive effect on the balloon itself careening unpredictably in the manner of a ricochet on unseen updrafts, low-hanging fruit, unexpected corners and sudden potholes! (For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction?)
In social situations, I sometimes exaggerate the fact that people usually impose their own meanings on communicative behavior. If I want to join a conversation that is underway (or return to one from which I zoned out temporarily), I’ll listen briefly for a few key words and then make something up, as if I know exactly what they’re talking about but which I’m sure is rather far from what they actually mean. People who know me well will realize that I’m poking fun, whereas the responses of new acquaintances varies: some catch the joke, most clarify with an explanation, and a few give me a look suggesting they think I am off my rocker. (Always a possibility!)
I’ve heard it attributed to Freud that we tend to assume that other people understand what we say because we understand ourselves; a nice bit of projection that I often observe. Sometimes I even catch myself – the clue for me is when I have an emotional response that clearly does not match the circumstance, such as being asked for clarification, or when I interpret that the response indicates non-comprehension (wasn’t I just perfectly clear?!) or otherwise going in a direction which I did not anticipate (Huh? How does that follow?!). That little emotional buzz is a cue to pay more attention to the meaning-making process. Most of the time I have no problem with being asked for clarification, and most of the time I am not discombobulated by a response that falls outside of expectation (or desire). These interlocutory phenomena keep life interesting and demonstrate the substance of what I study: that communication itself is a fluid process, with meanings in perpetual motion because of real differences between individuals and our respective orientations to the moment(s) of interaction.
The range of factors composing a person’s “orientation” to a given communicative action or event is probably finite, but they can never be completely categorized – there are so many influences interacting with consciousness, habit, and perception. For instance:

You are on the tram when you suddenly realize
… you need to fart.

The music is really loud, so you time your farts with the beat.
After a couple of songs,
you start to feel better as you approach your stop.

As you are leaving the tram,
people are really staring you down, and that’s when you remember:
you’ve been listening to your ipod.

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

Soul Inn
Delft, Holland

who is writing who?.jpg

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.

16 light.jpg

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)?
Escher Puddle (1952).jpg
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.
19 chandelier in mirrors.jpg

“unfailing, uninterrupted life”

Soul Inn
Delft, Holland

It is this sunlight,
endlessly refreshed, that allows the grass to grow,
the birds to sing — and you to live. The Sun’s
energy flows through your breakfast cereal, your morning coffee,
your veins and your mind.
It animates you
as it has animated almost all the Earth’s life for billions of years.

Oliver Morton is referring to galactic history, but the sentiment explains my desire for ceremony concerning the annual return of light. Over the last five years, I have intentionally cultivated this religious impulse into a celebration of human diversity: the need for solar nurturance is universal, encompassing all modes of spiritual practice and transcending every form of social and institutional division.
We human beings alive today live on the verge of the future – as this wonderful video demonstrates, “we live in exponential times.” What we accomplish, and what we fail to accomplish, will set the limits for succeeding generations. A verge is “something that borders, limits, or bounds.” The verge is a measurement in time.
The iconicity of the Earthrise photograph, taken by astronaut Bill Anders in 1968 (when I was five) as a proof of technological prowess and singular human interconnectedness, competes in the modern age with old, established ideologies. Our visual and visceral senses are immersed in strategic and incidental ways to inspire the gamut of human emotion. Mundane hopes, grand visions, and primal fears are inspired to motivate daily participation in the increasingly complex structures of interconnected global societies. The contemporary class values of intellectual and creative freedom require deep investment in the construction of social infrastructures that enable strong human ties across the many diversities which compose human experience and inform human wisdom.
The trick is how to institutionalize systems that enact the precious balance between control (by which I mean reliability of the system actually doing what it is directly intended to do) and democracy (by which I mean the actual freedom of individuals to pursue activities they value – see Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom).
The crucial tension, it seems to me, is a certain level of unlearning our confidence in prediction so that we develop a few more risk-taking skills. In Wouter’s words from earlier today:

“We think if we turn left we know exactly what will happen.
We don’t know s^*t.”

In everyday life, we generally do know what will happen if we turn left – we arrive at our intended destination – unless something happens, and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of an adventure we never intended and do not necessarily want. Institutions are designed to eliminate – or at least minimize – such unexpected happenings. But by ruling out the spontaneous and sporadic, institutions also instill modes of conformity that threaten to mold us into compliant complacency. Then we – taken in aggregate as masses of indistinguishable people – are easily provoked into outrageous mobilizations including the co-production of horrifying violence – be it formal war or stealth co-optation of resources driving others to despair.
As Tumbleweed explained it the other day, we have the accumulated knowledge to predict how discourses play out over time if they are not interrupted immediately:

“First people say, ‘They own the bakeries and the banks.’ Then you have Kristallnacht and next thing you know we’re liberating the Jews from Auschwitz.”

But how does one intervene in such discourses without falling into another kind of fascism?
03 windmill BEST.JPG.jpg

Merely regulating what people can/cannot say is hardly an answer; the repressed attitudes simply work themselves out in another way. Rather, we need a few mechanisms which routinely, habitually embrace the discrepancies of our differences as a matter of course. Olivia Judson argues playfully for “The Ten Days of Newton” to “embrace the discrepancy” of Newton’s actual birthdate (which is different pending which calendar one uses), posing this as a new holiday to encompass all the variations currently celebrated at this time of year around the globe. She names Newton’s foundational role in terms of the way we now understand our place in the universe, highlighting (among other achievements) his work with prisms. Newton proved that

“The prism doesn’t create colors, it reveals them.”

The point is that we have the incredible decision-making power to invent systems composed from the vast array of imaginative potential in combination with increasing predictive competence. The question is whether we deal deeply with revealed knowledge or insist on creating new prisms (or keeping old ones) to distract us from what we already know is there. The desire for security binds the individual to institutional control, but safety (perceived and real) constantly fluxes with the organic compulsion to grow.
How many times can a person reinvent themselves? As often as necessary – if

  • confidence in the relative security of life is guaranteed, the
  • skills of reading the immediate for future implications are cultivated, and
  • responding inter/co/pro-actively is modeled and implemented.

(I’m not promising its gonna be easy!)