Thursday, August 2, 2012

olympic madness

If I've been neglectful at all of my blog the last couple of weeks, it's because of the OLYMPICS. I mean, honestly, it's the coolest thing to be in London for the Olympics, and I'll tell you why (and it will be 85% relevant to field studies, I promise):

1. Melting-pot mayhem: There are already 300 languages spoken in London on a regular basis (seriously, look it up), but the Olympics attracts athletes and fans from about 200 different countries so, as you can imagine, things are a little loco here (but it's nothing that this city can't handle [so far], and all of the naysayers who were predicting massive transportation issues have hopefully been impressed with the way things have unfolded up to this point). One of the things I love about London is that you don't just get a single cultural experience; rather, you constantly find yourself in the middle of a hundred different cultures, like a giant kaleidoscope where every pattern represents fractured pieces of different countries and heritages dancing around each other in fragile harmony. And yes, the Olympics heightens this cultural tension, but cultural influence is something this city does better than anywhere else. And if the influx of athletes and fans from all over the world means that I have a better chance of meeting a hot foreign swimmer, so be it (although with Lochte and Phelps in the pool, who needs foreign?)

2. British commentators: So, I've been a fan of the Olympics since I was a wee little bairn, so I'm really used to my American commentators with their phrases and quirks, and I never realized how much of a difference the British commentators would be. Honestly, I shouldn't be surprised, but it's really quite fun to hear the different vocabulary and pet phrases that the commentators here use. I've heard of gymnastics routines described as "scrabbly," "scrappy," "scruffy," and they refer to people as "nice chap," and "good lad," and say things like, "now, that's the ticket, isn't it just?" It's quite comical. And it also brings me to my next point:

3. British lens: It's been quite interesting to see the British people view their own athletes. The British commentators are so proud of their athletes, and their national pride is infectious. For example, the British men's gymnastics team won the bronze medal in the team finals, and apparently it was an unexpected win, so the commentators were just busting with pride. They were as eager to praise their athletes as we are to praise ours––sometimes even more so, perhaps, because Team USA always sends so many athletes that sometimes we can forget how truly cool it is to come from behind and win the almost-out-of-reach gold medal. With that said, they still recognize and respect athletes no matter where they come from, and when Michael Phelps won his 19th  Olympic medal, the commentators remarked that every single person in the arena stood and cheered for him, knowing what an incredible accomplishment he had achieved and not caring where he was from. It has also been infinitely fascinating to see how they view American athletes––and how many of the American stereotypes, like enthusiasm and team spirit, sometimes hold up in comparison to the other athletes. I've noticed coaches from different countries ignore an athlete after he/she has performed poorly, and American coaches seem encouraging and sympathetic even in those cases––and it's hard to say which method works the best. I'm inclined to think that at times athletes need a tougher hand, but maybe we just don't see that on TV. It's just a different way of responding to performance that could just be chalked up to different coaching styles, but the consistency of the coaching styles across different cultures is telling, because it shows that some cultures value personal achievement over self-esteem, and some value self-esteem over personal achievement.

Anyway, that may or may not make any sense, but there it is.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

writer's block

it's been a few weeks since i've posted here or on my personal blog and, to tell you the truth, i haven't written much of anything in those weeks.

not that i haven't been productive. i've gotten so much reading done, it's amazing. but that's only one part of my project. reading from the large pool of classical essayists has been delightful and instructive, but at the same time, i wonder if it's all the reading i've done that has stopped my writing––in more than one way. the time that i've spent reading has, of course, taken away from time that i could have been writing, true. but on top of that, it seems like the more i read, the less i am confident in my ability as a writer. sometimes the little voice of self-doubt comes as i'm reading robert louis stevenson or alexander smith or charles lamb or whoever, making myself wonder if i could ever presume to write when so much wonderful literature has already been written. also, i doubt my ability to create anything that comes close to the quality of literature i've been reading.

and of course, self-doubt is the archenemy of creativity. so i'm stuck in a rut, yes. every time i think of an idea, i try to put it down to paper or sort it out further in my mind, and end up disregarding it as rubbish. i really should just set aside the drama and just write, for heaven's sake, but that's easier said than done. so i continue reading.

i also wonder if part of the reason why i'm struggling to write is that i miss being around people who love and are passionate about writing. my first year as a master's student has spoiled me, i guess, because i've been around so many people who share many of the same doubts and ambitions as i do. we created a great little support network, trying to get through our first years, and i'm looking forward to returning to that network. because, truth be told, i'm not sure i'm ready to work and be productive as a writer without a similar support network of people who encourage me and know what i'm going through because they themselves are on the same path. i miss writing for an audience, i think, and knowing that my peers will look at my work with a critical eye, telling me what i can improve while encouraging me by complimenting my successes. and i do miss people who love essays as much as i do, who understand why i'm doing what i'm doing instead of merely putting up with my enthusiasm. although i'm a person who enjoys alone time, i think i'm the type of person who needs to share my passions and excitements with other people, people who will sit and glory with me in the beauty of a perfect sentence, or at least listen attentively when i tell them about it. i'm a passionate person––i am positively in love with so much of what's around me. i love being able to see van gogh's sunflowers in the national gallery, love seeing a play in shakespeare's globe, love all the massive bookstores in london, love the food and the parks and i'll even put up with the rain to enjoy all of that. but that enthusiasm can be dampened when it's only laughed at or patronized. it's those times when i really do miss my family and miss my friends back home, because i know they'd be as enthusiastic about these things as i am. i haven't been affected by much homesickness, probably because i've spent enough time away from home that i know distance doesn't affect that my family loves me and i love my family. but i do miss their enthusiasm.

i might need to change myself a bit, and develop the ability to be creative and productive without validation. i read an alexander smith essay the other day that he wrote on christmas, a christmas he was alone for. i've never been completely alone for christmas, and it breaks my heart to think about him sitting by a fire on christmas eve alone––but what really impressed me was that his essay wasn't depressed or overly melancholy. it had twinges of melancholy, yes, but overall was reflective and celebratory and beautiful, and i have to ask myself, would i be brave enough to write beautifully when there wasn't anyone around me to validate my efforts? because i know that, in the end, i have to write because i love it, and not because i want to please other people. i should write with an audience in mind, as i tell my students, but if i write only to please other people, i'll likely lose why i loved it in the first place. if i'm ever to be a writer, i know that i will have to steel myself against disappointment, and hope and pray for the determination and confidence to work hard in the face of rejection and apathy. and i have to work not to lose enthusiasm for the things i love even if they're not shared by people around me.

so there's a bit of writing. i'm not completely lost after all.

Monday, June 18, 2012

in defense of pigeons

Ahem. It has come to my attention that I am part of a small minority when I say I like pigeons; and, in fact, many people hate the creatures, to the extent that committing crimes against them has become acceptable. I myself have laughed at how easily the nervous creatures panic and take flight, and how a small stamp of the foot sends them into a frenzy, but for one to kick them as a cur would kick a dog, or rejoice to see a dead pigeon––my conscience compels me to intervene on behalf of these birds. I must say, it seems rather unfair to me the merciless vendetta that some people have against this poor species. That one should take pleasure in giving them pain is horrifying indeed. What have they done to merit such loathing? And why, in this blessed world so full of wickedness and crime, would one waste hatred on so unassuming a species? 

Pigeons are actually smart little birds––and, you know, there may be a thing or two one could learn from these good fowls. For one, I was interested to learn that pigeons, those feral creatures scattered about London and other cities, actually mate for life. There is always something tender I feel whenever I hear of another species in the animal kingdom that mates for life. Emperor penguins, for example: while the husbands sit freezing in the arctic winds, warming the egg containing penguin junior, they wait faithfully for mum to return home from the great hunt. Such loyal creatures! Pigeon fathers also share the nesting duties, taking turns warming and protecting the nest from harm, so maybe shared fatherly duties comes hand-in-hand with mating-for-life-ness. Mating for life is a characteristic that seems to have fallen out of fashion with humanity. As people go through spouses like milk (keep it till it sours, then throw it out!), we really should turn to the birds and learn from their faithfulness. I can't imagine a pair of pigeons filing for divorce; they don't seem to suffer from humanity's current marital disease: irreconcilable differences. No leaving Jennifer Anniston when Angelina Jolie is hotter––pigeons have infinitely better sense than Brad Pitt. They are clever, really, and resourceful, I might add. City pigeons know exactly where to swarm to––the heavily trafficked touristy spots where a person is likely to leave a crumb or two of crumpets and cake for the birds to snatch up. They gladly accept what humanity discards.

Now many distrust city pigeons because they are mistaken for disease-carrying pests. In all actuality, pigeons have very good immune systems and aren't liable to transmit bird flu or other such diseases because they themselves don't carry the diseases. There are one or two diseases that one may contract from handling pigeons, but mostly from their dropppings (which, let's face it, we don't exactly scrape off the pavement and use as ice-cream toppers). As far as disease-carrying goes, you're one hundred times MORE likely to contract a disease from human contact than you are from pigeon contact. Think about the thousands of diseases which we pass around in our shaking hands and hugging and kissing––we thoughtlessly and shamelessly spread our germs, while shrieking at the sight of a pigeon, who is in reality a safer companion than another human. You might as well walk around with a surgical mask and gloves, for all you're concerned, and that would be no way to live.

But if you persist in arguing against the birds, yes, I do concede that there are pigeon populations in some big cities, leading to property damage and pollution from their droppings. But you can hardly blame them for that––they're only in cities in such great numbers because of us! Yes, the truth of the matter is that city pigeons are just descendants from domesticated pigeons gone feral. If we hadn't domesticated pigeons, the little problems they cause would never have existed. But doesn't a decent population of cooing, twittering pigeons just make a city? Think of a large city––London, or New York––and imagine it without pigeons. Wouldn't the streets be too solemn, too dull without our feathered friends?

But back to what we can learn from pigeons. Pigeons have an undeniably incredible sense of direction. Pigeons could fly thousands of miles and always be able to fly home. Drop a pigeon in the middle of the pacific blindfolded and it would know exactly where to go to get back home. We can't explain it, but we accept it and certainly trust it, which is why pigeons we have used them throughout time as carriers. Our militaries have trusted pigeons with vital information across enemy lines, and they have consistently fulfilled their duties and saved human lives with their faithfulness. G.I. Joe, for example, was a carrier pigeon who saved thousands of soldiers during WWII. In October 1943, the British were making advances on Colvi Veccia, a German-held Italian town. The Brits ordered an aerial attack of the town but were soon afterwards able to break through German lines and take up positions in the city. With a half-hour until the aerial attack, the soldiers in the city hurriedly tied a message to G.I. Joe's leg, telling headquarters to call off the attack to prevent thousands of British troops in the city from being killed by their own bombers. G.I. Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes and they were able to cancel the attack just as the bombers were taxiing up the runways.  Cher Ami was another heroic pigeon, during WWI, and delivered another life-saving mission despite being shot out of the sky by German troops. The bird arrived having been shot through the breast, blinded, and with a leg hanging by a tendon, but he delivered his message.

So for their loyalty and faithfulness, I appeal to your humanity and ask you to reconsider your opinion of these our feathered friends, and next time you go to kick a pigeon, remember how many lives its ancestor saved, and spare the poor bird a bit of pain. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

about the queen and other things

 Question: Who in the world would stand outside in the drizzling rain and freezing cold for hours on end to see the Queen of England float by on a big boat? First of all, me, that's who, along with thousands and THOUSANDS of British people braving the weather to celebrate their Queen. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee was quite the affair, so naturally a 1,000-boat flotilla was necessary. My friends and I arrived hours early, and still were barely able to see for the crowds of delighted drunk people waving the Union Jack as they awaited Her Majesty. Smiles and drinks were passed around freely as the crowd cheered, and momentarily everyone forgot how cold and rainy it was when the royal family passed by (emphasis on momentarily, though).

This is one of the only clear shots I got during the flotilla. I had to elbow a few nice old ladies out of the way and step on some toes, but all in the name of a good photo, right? (I think I must have gotten a drop of water or something on my camera lens, as you can tell from the dot in the middle of the picture. Or maybe it was just an overenthusiastic grey cloud.) Anyway, I have to say that I'm glad I went to the flotilla because I can check that off my list of "things to do once and never again." It was neat to see all the boats and neat to see how much the British really love Queen Elizabeth.

 This was the grand boat of the royal family, and if you squint really hard you can see the Queen (she's the cream-colored dot on top). (Oh, and don't mind the grey-haired ponytail man. He's in several of my pictures.) At this point in the flotilla, I had been standing for several hours in the cold, and I thought, "this is really what I came here to see? A cream-colored dot on top a red boat?" It was a bit of a disillusioning moment, but I'm sure it was due to the weather more than it was to the view.

But on to my favorite part of the Diamond Jubilee celebration: a tea party hosted by my ward's Relief Society. We drank cinnamon apple tea and ate delicious treats like scones, tarts, little cakes and sandwiches. We sang all five verses of God Save the Queen (I didn't know there were five. It's a long one!) The British sisters sang the national anthem, and two older ladies who remembered the coronation told us about the grand event. Actually, one old lady stood up and recited the history of the kings and queens of England (an abridged version––took about 15 minutes), ending with the coronation of Elizabeth II, where she went into great detail about the ceremony. It was quite impressive (her memory, that is).

To top it all off, we took a quiz about Her Royal Majesty, which I promptly failed. But I wrote down the answers, so for your pleasure, here's a list of facts you will never need to know about Queen Elizabeth:

  1. She acceded to the throne in February of 1952
  2. She was in Kenya when she heard about her father's death (the King)
  3. She was thirteen when she first met the Duke of Edinburgh (Phillip), who was later to be her husband
  4. She and Phillip have been married 64 years
  5. His nickname for her is "cabbage"
  6. The Queen's official birthday is in June, but her real birthday is in April
  7. Her first corgi's name was Susan
  8. Willow, Holly, and Monty are the names of the Queen's current corgis
  9. Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister when she was coronated
  10. She wore Victoria's diamond necklace for her coronation
  11. She has nine thrones
  12. She's the fortieth monarch since William the Conquerer
  13. She wears black while visiting the Vatican
  14. She wears the Diamond Diadem to and from the State Opening of Parliament
  15. She has her ears pierced
  16. She wears blue more than any other color
  17. She has eight grandchildren
  18. She's 5'4"
  19. She has never worn jeans (crazy, right??)
  20. She doesn't carry any form of personal identification

Friday, June 1, 2012

week three: memorializing and remembering

One of the purposes of my field study has been to not only study the words of London essayists but to see how they interacted with the city, and to see how the city remembers and memorializes them. I've more than enjoyed reading their essays (I've finished with two of Lamb's essay collections and am in the middle of Hazlitt's), and have tried to explore the city through an essayist's eye. I want to spend time looking for memorials to these authors, because I think it's interesting to see how London remembers these writers. I had read of a few sites in London associated with Lamb and Hazlitt, and I've gone to see a couple of them (there are some outside of London a bit, so I'll need to travel probably an hour or so one day to see them). Anyway, the picture below is a fountain dedicated to Charles Lamb, and is situated in the Inner Temple Gardens right off of Crown Row Lane, which is where Lamb was born. The fountain, flanked by the statue of a small boy, is––as you can see––very understated less than grandiose. There is no plaque dedicating the fountain to Lamb, but the boy is carrying a book with the quote, "Lawyers I suppose were children once," inscribed on it (one of Lamb's more well-known quotes). In the park there were a lot of people in business suits eating lunch and chatting, but they trickled out as the lunch hour came to a close. There were people sitting on benches around the fountain, but no one paid heed to the fountain or statue itself; I wondered, how many of these people know that this fountain is actually dedicated to Lamb? how many of these people know who Charles Lamb is? There are many more popular writers, like Charles Dickens, whose names are widely recognized and remembered with larger statues and museums and graves in Westminster. Lamb might not have achieved the fame and success during his lifetime as many of these great writers, but still it seemed sad to me that he is less remembered and memorialized. 

But fame doesn't always mean genius, and while we celebrate writers like Wordsworth and Shelley–and rightly so–we miss out on so many writers that might not have been as published or recognized in their time, thus not standing the test of time. Still, we judge great literary works by how they stand the test of time, but how much we might miss! How many beautiful sentences sat on a desk, unpublished, in their time and were thrown away after the unknown writer died? We put so much trust in publishers to filter and sift through literature, but how much certainly must slip through the cracks, to stay sitting in the slush pile while other essays or poems or novels are published. 

It's kind of a dizzying thought. 

Maybe my point is that it doesn't really matter that Charles Lamb or William Hazlitt don't have grand statues or graves in Westminister because it doesn't really change how much I enjoye and learn from their writing. One thing my project is teaching me is that public memorials matter less than the writing itself, that the words of the essayists I'm studying are more important than how they are remembered (or forgotten) by others.  

This is Lamb's memorial in the Inner Temple Gardens

And this is the church, St. Andrews, where Hazlitt was married with Lamb acting as best man. St Andrews was a Christopher Wren church, but was unfortunately bombed and gutted in WWII, and all that remained were the outer walls and tower. The public, however, decided to restore it to its original state. It's in the middle of busy London, sandwiched in between new buildings and thousands of businessmen and women rushing to and from work. The inside was, despite its central location, quiet and nearly empty. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

best reading spots in london (so far)

*These posts, along with many others, can also be found on my personal blog:

When I read for long periods of time, I tend to get tired of reading in the same spot, so I bounce around every hour or so (or if I'm really fidgety, every 30 minutes or so) and find new spots to settle down in. Now when I'm in Provo, this usually means I go from the couch to the floor to my bed and maybe to campus (where I'll go from the carrels to right outside the carrels to the JFSB etc etc). In London, I've decided to create a master list of the best places to read, so I can bounce around the city and see all there is to see with a book in my hand.

With the blustery, cold, rainy, and altogether uncooperative weather in London thus far, I've had to find indoor locations and save the parks and gardens for later on in the summer (when it will hopefully warm up a bit). [aside: the side of me that loves sunshine and weather above 90 degrees is wilting away.] Anyway, here's a start to my list:

1. Notes Music Coffee is a small coffee shop just off Trafalgar Square. I'd read online that it was a good spot to go, and because of the cold weather I'm determined to find the best cup of hot chocolate in London. So coffee shops it is. Notes Music Coffee makes a mean cup of hot chocolate: it's frothy, not too sweet, and comes out with a lovely design drizzled into the foam. I don't know how they do it; all I know is that it looked as good as it tasted. They also have a fantastic fruit scone. But the food, though important, was not the primary reason I was there. I was there for about 45 minutes, leisurely sipping hot chocolate eating my fruit scone with blueberry jam, and reading Charles Lamb. NMC isn't the quietest place to read, but sometimes I like to read in a semi-noisy place to read because it forces me to concentrate on what I'm reading. There were a couple of people who were, like me, reading, but many of the people there were chatting with friends. They were playing Ella Fitzgerald in the background, and had a fantastic light fixture hanging above the long wooden slab tables. I can only handle reading in a noisy crowd for so long, so I skipped off to find another spot.

Assessment: great place to read if you don't mind the crowd. I was there during lunch hour, though, so I might try again at a not-so-busy time of day. Good hot chocolate, good scones, good music.

2. I didn't have to go very far to find a quiet spot. St Martin's in the Fields church is almost next door to Notes Music Coffee, and as I passed by, I realized that a church would probably be a perfect place to settle down for a bit. I was right. Architecturally speaking, St Martin's is an impressive structure, especially from the outside. The inside is more understated, though, and except for the carved, vaulted ceilings, it's quite simple and plain. Also, the windows are very interesting: there's no stained glass, only paneled glass. The east window, behind the altar, is the same simple paneled glass, but it's designed to look like the image of a cross reflected on the water, so the steel framework is warped and bent around in the shape of a cross, but more of an understated cross. It's very unusual, and I really loved it. I didn't want to be disrespectfully snapping pictures, but you should look it up online.

That's all aside from the point. I was there to read, so I sat down and pulled out my book. There was a string quartet in the church rehearsing for an upcoming Vivaldi concert (it was actually that evening), so I read whilst basking in the glorious silence of the crowd and the glorious music of the instruments. It was perfect, and I took a moment to thank heaven for beautiful music, beautiful churches, and beautiful reverence. I read there for almost two hours, and when I left I was reluctant to get up.

So far, those have been my two favorite spots. Maybe another day I'll tell you about my worst spot. But today, only the best.

culture shock on the london underground

I have to say, the public transportation system is one of my favorite things about London. Is that strange? I love that each tube stop is different, from the colorful mosaic tiles in the Tottenham Court Road station to the thousands of tiny Sherlocks in the Baker Street station to the sleek grey simplicity of the Westminster station. I love that you can find the stylish business types sitting next to the goths, or the hipsters, or the ever-present tourists. I don't always love them individually, but collectively they really are fascinating; they remind me that no matter who you are–rich, poor, whatever–you still need to get around somehow. And the overwhelming number of people who choose the tube to get from point A to point B makes the ride interesting.

Of course, when you have that many people coming together, there are bound to be tiffs. Take today, for example, when Ari and I were coming home from Southampton, and at the very last leg of our hourandahalf journey back to London, a disturbance threw a wrench in the typically eventless tube ride. We were technically in the London overground, not the underground, but it's pretty much the same thing.  Anyway, allow me to relate the experience:

Our train was at a routine stop, and a large crowd was still trying to get in when the doors started closing. Enter The Jerk. The Jerk was a tall man in a business suit, with a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. He was probably around 6'3", with pale skin, almost-black hair, high cheekbones, and a sardonic smile. He entered the train, narrowly missing the closing doors, and yelled at the Tired Train Operator to not close the doors so quickly, as there was still a number of people coming on board. Tired Train Operator was a black man, medium build, probably 5'10", his hair braided into cornrowsHe looked worn out. After The Jerk yelled at him, the two men had some sort of heated verbal exchange that I only heard bits of. It ended with The Jerk accusing TTO of abusive behavior and TTO demanding that TJ leave the train so they could sort the problem out so the train could proceed on its journey. They were at a standstill: TJ refusing to get off the train, and TTO refusing to start the train until he did. Enter Level-Headed Man. I didn't get a good look at LHM, but I remember that he was also in a business suit and had a neatly-trimmed beard. He started talking to TJ, calmly saying that everyone was tired and anxious after a long day's work, and that everyone should let the matter drop so the train could move on its way. The standstill continued for a while, as TJ continued to argue with TTO, and TTO stubbornly but calmly waiting for the man to get off the train. LHM finally got out of the train and spoke to TTO, and I heard nothing of their exchange. By this time, the other passengers onboard started to murmur and a few called out to TJ to get off the train already. Enter Autistic Child, who was in the train and starting to get angry with his mother, nervously and anxiously proclaiming that they should NOT have taken the tube. AC's mother called out to the men, saying that she had an autistic child who didn't handle waiting very well. He was getting really upset, and everyone around TJ started to urge him off the train, and he finally stepped off, spoke with TTO for a brief moment, got back on the train, and in less than a minute, the doors closed and the train squealed as it picked up speed, and we moved away from the platform. No one in our car said a word, and silence hung awkwardly, heavily, and oppressively in the air, until the next stop, when Ari and I exited the train, wide-eyed and relieved.

As I reflected back on the incident, I realized that I found it both funny and disturbing at the same time. I mentioned above that the Tube is one of my favorite things about London, but at the same time, the mix of people on the Tube can obviously be problematic–volatile, even. And getting on the Tube during afternoon rush hour can be frustrating because people are never as understanding or happy after a hard day's work. Even morning rush hour can be awkward, especially when you're getting on the Tube with a hundred well-dressed businessmen who all seem to be subject to morning grouchiness, and at times I feel like I need a business suit to fit in on the Tube in the early morning. So I can say that the Tube has been the cause of culture shock, and sometimes it helps to slip in my earbuds, listen to music, read Charles Lamb, and ignore the grouchy businessmen or creepy guys staring unabashedly or hundreds of French school children who don't understand the meaning of the phrase "silence is golden." So yes, I have experienced a little bit of hostility towards the gente in the Tube, but overall it has been a positive experience, especially when I pass talented buskers or the occasional handsome stranger. Love when that happens.