31 October 2010

Hobbiton, The Finale

This is the third and final post of the critically-acclaimed Hobbiton series.  Click here to see Parts One and Two.

The trail bottomed out, ending abruptly at a small stream that wound through the clearing.  On the other side of the stream, a slowly disintegrating Smaug terrorized the lake town of Dale, its plywood ramparts collapsing or collapsed.    

Off to the right, however, was true desolation.  A massive mudslide had laid waste to the hillside, erasing all traces of the towering forest surrounding it.  Where travelers would have once encountered a stand of redwoods wholly enveloped in ferns, only a lumpy, cracked crust of mud remained.  It was as if the Smooze had been unleashed on Hobbiton (for those of you unfamiliar with My Little Pony films, think of a mud tsunami), barely fended off by the crumbling concrete dragon.

The mudslide was rimmed on one side by a cascade of boulders, creating a series of small pools and waterfalls as the stream struggled its way through the rocky chaos.  There is something enthralling about moving water; it is a kind of siren song, especially for a river-person like Star.  A succession of waterfalls? Inescapable.  We started climbing…

An hour later, we had still not reached the top of the boulder slide.  Several times we had been waylaid by clusters of spiders, their tangled webs barring any route upward and forward.  In true Hobbit fashion, Star spotted a particularly dagger-ly (dagger-ish? dagger-esque?) stick, promptly named it “Sting”, and vanquished the arachnid menace.  Sadly, any further burgling was cut short by the deepening shadows which served as a reminder that our trip was nearing its end.

We quietly returned to the trail and traced it back to car, stopping only to console Bard, the legendary archer, who stood with arrow forever knocked but never flying.  It was a fitting denouement to our journey—like every great story, Hobbiton USA had conjured feelings and memories that I just didn’t want to let go of.
As we reached the gated exit, a sign overhead invited visitors (even our unexpected party) “There and Back Again.”  I can only hope. 

Fear the Beard!!

30 October 2010

A Local Haunt

I'm pretty sure that Star lives down the street from a legitimately haunted house.  It exhibits all the classic signs of a haunted house--that is to say, it was once luxuriously beautiful, but has descended into a foreboding disrepair.  It is secluded and desolate, mysterious and ominous.  It is the House of Usher, transplanted to Utah. 

I have spent a fair portion of this evening unsuccessfully attempting to adequately describe the house, at last deciding to turn to a description from one of my favorite spooky books, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables.  This book just seeps Gothic gloom, perhaps never more pronounced than in the author's portrayal of the title property:
Halfway down a by-street stands a rusty wooden house... a little withdrawn from the line of the street, but in pride, not modesty.… Its white-oak frame, and its boards, shingles, and crumbling plaster, and even the huge, clustered chimney in the midst, seemed to constitute only the least and meanest part of its reality. So much of mankind's varied experience had passed there,--so much had been suffered, and something, too, enjoyed,--that the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart. It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and sombre reminiscences.
Needless to say, I am enthralled.  I want to know who lived there, why they no longer do, and what sort of murder/witchcraft/poltergeist drove them off.  I want to know if the ancient fence (with its bewitching person-sized gap) is for protecting the property from me or vice-versa.  I want to know what the fine for trespassing really is.

Amityville has nothing on American Fork.

Hopefully more to come...

28 October 2010

Of llamas and lotuses...

This is an article I wrote a few years back, but I thought it deserved a post.  It's a bit lengthy, but one of my best pieces of writing.

“So, I hear this place’s got llamas,” I said to my friend as we approached the cream-colored, domed building seated atop the hill.  This less-than-astute statement represented the entire extent of my knowledge regarding the Krishna Lotus Temple, its adherents, and the religion which they practiced there—all of which were to be my course of study for the afternoon.  Sure enough, as I walked past a sign reading “DAILY TOURS: 10 AM-7 PM” and began my ascent to the temple, I was greeted by the indifferent, wooly stares of at least a dozen llamas.  It was the last of my preconceptions that would prove accurate.
The gravel road led up to the temple’s front doors— dark, heavy wood engraved with pictures that appeared as if they were copied straight from an illuminated Hindu text.  Indeed, the whole temple looked like it had been transplanted directly from India (and for good reason, too, as I later learned that it was modeled after an Indian devotional palace).  The doors were incongruently bracketed by a pair of metal shoe racks, where after a moment’s consideration I placed our shoes and timidly entered the temple.
When my eyes had adjusted from the bright afternoon sunlight, I observed that the first floor of the temple was in fact part-information desk, part-curio shop, and part-restaurant.  A wall of instructive posters divided several dining tables from a throng of saris, shawls, statues, and peacock plumes.  It was all things Indian jammed into one space, and the sheer enormity of that country, with its culture and its religion, created a crowded feeling in even this large room.
In at least one sense, however, the room was empty—there was not a single person to be found.  I peeked and poked around this first-floor commercial hub of the Utah Krishnas, but to no avail.  Even my hesitating calls for assistance elicited no response.  I deliberated on whether checking upstairs, in the temple precinct itself, would be inappropriate, decided it was not, and had started climbing the stairs when three men came into view. 
Asking for a tour, I was introduced to the youngest of the three, a smiling devotee named Blake.  Now, I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting Krishnas to look like, but Blake was certainly not it.  A far cry from the turbaned and wizened swami I had imagined in my mind, Blake was tall, scruffy, and extremely friendly.  His head was shaved, except for a circle of hair on the crown of his head that hung down and brushed his neck.  He wore a long sleeve shirt and a robe girded around his legs.  Perhaps most surprising to my ignorant self, Blake was white (excepting, of course, a yellow streak of paint beginning at the middle of his forehead and running down the bridge of his nose).      
As it turned out, our linen-clad tour guide was a local, a native of Payson who had devoted himself to the Krishna faith a few years prior.  His recent conversion was a source of great enthusiasm for him, an enthusiasm which became quite contagious as he led us around the second story of the temple, explaining the various points of interest.  There was the bell at the temple’s entrance, its deep resounding ‘ohm’ providing the centering tone for the mantras to come; the lotus-motifs found on the tiled floor and vaulted ceiling, waxy flowers symbolizing a soul unaffected by external strains; the temple deities figuratively and literally central to the unique Krishna worship service.
Throughout the tour, Blake spoke fervently, almost feverishly.  In his excitement he would speak for several minutes at a time, hardly pausing to take a breath, clarifying the Krishna beliefs of reincarnation, meditation, vegetarianism.  Never, however, was he more animated than when he began telling us about the musical instruments used in their worship services.  His eyes took on that look peculiar to musicians talking about their craft, both fiery and dreamy at the same time. Moving rapidly from the double-sided mrdanga drum to the harmonium and thence to the kartals, or hand cymbals, Blake interlaced his monologue with Hare Krishna chants of varying tunes and tempos.  At other times, his obvious love for the Krishna music would overflow, and he would replicate the sounds of all the instruments—drum, harmonium, kartals, and chanting— using only his strong, clear voice.
The impromptu concert being the culmination of my tour, Blake relinquished the floor to any questions I might have.  This opened the floodgates.  How many devotees does the temple have?  What are worship services like?  Are the temple and its adherents accepted by the community? And most of all, how did a Krishna temple come to call that semi-rural Utah community home?
If Blake’s concert was the most impassioned performance of the afternoon, his response to this rapid-fire string of questions was the most inspirational.  The story of Spanish Fork’s Lotus Temple, he explained, began in 1965 with an elderly man named Prabhupada, an impoverished Krishna who had renounced his former life and taken a vow of total devotion to his faith.  Following the advice of his spiritual leader, the sixty-nine year old swami came to America to spread the Krishna religion, begging a ticket on a steam liner bound for New York.  He arrived two months later—suffering two heart attacks en route—with the equivalent of $7.00 in his pocket.  Equipped with only a whittling knife and his mantras, Prabhupada found a space beneath a city park tree and began to chant and preach.  Among the first initiates to embrace Prabhupada’s teachings of chastity, temperance, and vegetarianism were the hippies with whom he shared his park.
Among these early converts were Caru Das and Vaibhavi Devi, a young couple who took Prabhupada’s teachings back to California, where they established a Krishna-centered radio station.  The outrageous expenses of running a radio station in Southern California eventually impelled the couple to seek out less expensive alternatives.  At this, Blake nodded out one of the temple’s pointed windows, where a large radio tower could be seen against the greening background of the Wasatch front.  Near the base of the tower was a wooden building, the original home of Utah Krishnas.
The current temple, Blake continued, was built out of more hard work than I could imagine.  Some even called it the “cookie temple.”  Responding to my confused look, Blake told of how Caru Das would travel from town to town for months at a time, selling cookies in front of supermarkets in order to raise funds for the temple.  I immediately gained a deeper appreciation for the building, from its marble floor to its newly-domed ceiling.  I also better understood why the first floor was partly a store, and why a latent commercialism seemed to filter through the temple.
From this humble beginning, the temple had continued to grow.  There were now thirty devotees that attended Sunday services each week, eight full-time temple caretakers, and even two celibate Krishna monks who lived on the grounds.  For the first time, Blake’s smile faded.  He wished he could do this full-time, he explained, waving his hand around in a circle for explanation, but his father had died last year and he needed to support his mom.  Soon, she would be able to take care of things, and then….  He trailed off, but the smile had returned.
The tour ended with an invitation to stroll the grounds.  Walking out those heavy front doors and collecting my shoes, I gazed out over the slope where thousands of people had gathered three weeks before for the annual Festival of Colors.  This event had actually been my impetus for coming to the temple; the huge rock concert-esque event was heavily marketed to BYU and UVSC students, who turned out in droves.  I was intrigued to find out what they had experienced there—whether it was just a commercial venture or a true attempt at reaching out to the prevailing culture of the community. 
Reflecting on my short time at the Lotus Temple, I decided that I had discovered far more commonalities than differences between my faith and that of the Krishnas.  They were extremely welcoming and accepting, and I hoped that they had been and would continue to be greeted and treated as hospitably as I had.  I found myself sincerely hoping for their success, excited about the new dome that was to be hoisted onto the structure later this year, admiring the three sacred cows that ambled up to me hoping for a carrot or two. 
I walked down the llama-laden road back to my car, listening to the peacocks boastfully ruffle their iridescent tail feathers.  In the sound, coupled with the breeze that had arisen since my arrival, I thought I could distinguish a faint ‘ohm.’

27 October 2010

Candy. Costumes. Comedy.

Today in class we introduced our friends from Hong Kong and Australia to the finer points of Halloween.  It reminded me of this:

26 October 2010

Hobbiton, Part Two

This is the second installment in a trilogy (what else?).  For Part One, click here.

We pulled off the highway and into an empty parking lot boasting an empty restaurant, empty gift shop, and “The Amazing Chimney Tree” (also empty).   Checking my map to be sure that this was indeed the site of Hobbiton USA, it finally dawned on me: this place was deserted, and judging by the looks of things, had been for some time. 

I looked around me and spotted the now-barred entrance into Hobbiton.  Well, not exactly barred.  The sagging wooden gate may have warded off less worthy interlopers, but we were on a quest.  Debating what was to be done, I noticed a small gap in the fence; not quite the knocking of the thrush, but it would have to do.  “Speak friend and enter,” I quipped.  Star rolled her eyes as she squeezed through the make-shift entrance.

The dusty footpath led uphill, gradually switchbacking in front of a row of brightly colored, circular doors.  Star and I took turns picking out future real estate investments, should we find it necessary to relocate to the Shire.  At the end of the row was Bag End, where a statue of Gandalf himself stood knocking, concrete fingers crumbling in leprous glory.  The door had already been flung open, however, Bilbo’s home having been visited by what I can only assume was a group of squatters with a penchant for Bud Lite.  Dismayed by such disregard for Halfling hospitality, we continued up the hill.

A little further up the path we found the ghost town of Bree, where once-bright signs announced a now-abandoned Inn of the Prancing Pony.  In its heyday, this would have been an outpost of rest and refreshment, but not in this 4th age of man.  Tepid water trickled from a rusting fountain.  An empty porch, by-gone symbol of hospitality, loomed ominously over Bree’s empty square.   We hurried on.

Just outside the city gates, the dusty path crested and transformed; a rich, earthy trail ran down the other side of the hill.  Winding through the towering redwoods—now in sunlight, now in shadow—the journey took on an ethereal quality, grounded only by the concrete figures interspaced every fifty yards or so. 

Just off the trail, Gollum crouched in a dog house-sized cave, looking more like a green, bug-eyed space alien than Peter Jackson’s CGI creation, or even better, the image conjured in my head by my mother’s hissing vocalization.

Further on, discolored wargs had treed a group of tattered cloth dwarves, whose stuffing hung down like second beards.  Birds commiserated with the hapless party by chirping from nearby branches, but I was hearing songs from the 1977 animated film.

The greatest desolation, however, was yet to come…   

Read the epic conclusion!

On this day in history...

Today—October 26th, 2010—marks 25 years since a certain Mr. Marty McFly, under the tutelage of one Dr. Emmett Brown (who bears a striking resemblance to my accounting professor), became the first man to travel through time via sports car.  Driving a DeLorean DMC-12 outfitted with a 1.21 gigawatt Flux Capacitor, McFly attained the necessary 88 mph while attempting to escape “the Libyans”, and disappeared into a set of flaming tire tread marks.  

On the same date one week later (a paradox?!), McFly and Brown, accompanied by the lovely Miss Jennifer Parker, would once again break the bonds of time.  Piloting the modified DeLorean—now flying and powered not by plutonium, but by garbage—the intrepid explorers voyaged thirty years into the future, to 2015.

It is my fervent hope that five years hence, I may have the privilege of meeting said chronavigators.  Then I can demand, “Where’s my power-lacing Nikes, holographic Pepsi, and 3-second Pizza Hut?!  And Star wants a Mr. Fusion hoverboard!”  (At least we’ve make progress in movie product placement.)

24 October 2010

In the Halloween Spirit

One week until All Hollow's Eve!  With apologies to The Nightmare Before Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!, my all-time favorite Halloween cartoon is Disney's "Lonesome Ghosts."  So sit back and enjoy a cartoon as great today as it was when it premiered 73 years ago.  (Man, cartoons used to have great musical scores.)

Also, my mom says that she remembers watching this cartoon at her kindergarten Halloween party.

Viva Los Gigantes!

Today marks one of those rare moments when being an avid sports fan actually results in joy.  I have been a San Francisco Giants fan for my entire life.  I was raised on Giants baseball from before I can remember.  A few facts:
  • The Giants have won more games than any other professional sports franchise (10,000+).
  • My first favorite player was Will "The Thrill" Clark. Other all-time favorites include Matty Williams, Woody Reuter, Andres the Giant, and Dave Dravecky (I think I cried when his arm was amputated after his bout with cancer). 
  • The Giants were originally known as the New York Gothams, but their name changed "after one particularly satisfying victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, [the team's manager] stormed into the dressing room and exclaimed, 'My big fellows! My giants!'" (Wikipedia)
  • The NFL's New York Giants are named after the baseball team, who subsequently relocated to San Fran.  For a short time, both teams played at the Polo Grounds.
  • There are more Giants in the baseball Hall of Fame than any other franchise.
I love that this year's team is a collection of cast-offs and misfits.  Here's hoping for the Giant's first World Series title since moving to San Francisco.  

Hummm baby!! Fear the beard!

**Update: One more fact to add to the list.  The Giants have been to and lost three World Series since moving out West--in '69, '89, and '02.  My dad has attended games in all three Series, including 1962's devastating Game 7 loss on McCovey's liner.  Yes, there is a lot of pent-up baseball angst in my family...

23 October 2010

I hate the mall, but not THIS much...

So I arrived back in my hometown yesterday, and was immediately informed that some nut job had burned down the local mall.

Some background:  I live in what must be the consumer capitol of the world; a sort of mecca for anyone shopping for anything.  You name any national chain of stores, and I guarantee that there is one within ten minute's drive.  It is kind of sad, really; I used to live in a small-ish suburb, but now there is a giant string of a retail centers bulging out like a commercial cancer.  You can just smell the capitalism (good) and materialism (bad) in the air.

Or maybe that's the smoke.  You see, some idiot decided he was going burn down the biggest mall in the area (after semi-successfully setting a local Wal-Mart ablaze the night before).  Walking into GameStop, he claimed to be armed with both a handgun and a bomb.  Everyone evacuated, and he promptly set fire to the whole place.  Nobody hurt, but plenty of damage done ($6.5MM at latest estimate).

All of this begs the question:  If you had to set fire to a mall, where would you start?  I decided I would start in Build-a-Bear, for psychological effects.  My friend Phil brilliantly argues in favor of Yankee Candle Co. or Mrs. Field's Cookies, because how good would that smell?!!

Any prospective arsonists want to chime in on this one?

21 October 2010

Sitting in a chair... in the sky!

Because the themes for my trip to Seattle have been technology and flying:

**Update:  I posted this immediately before boarding a flight to Sacramento.  A few moments later, sitting next to a few unusually talkative neighbors I overheard the following comment:

Lady: "Yeah, I was on a plane that had WiFi, but it was wasn't working.  I was like, c'mon, are you serious?"

In my head, what I heard was: "Oh, what happened then?  Did you participate in the miracle of human flight?!!"

20 October 2010

The Lost City of Z

In honor of today's trip to Amazon, I wanted to post about an intriguing book I read over the summer: David Grann's The Lost City of Z.  Grann tells the true story of Percy Fawcett, a last-of-his-kind explorer whose goal of tracking the Amazon river to its course deteriorated into a fixation with a fabled city hidden in the jungle.  After several failed excursions, Fawcett eventually disappeared into the Amazon forever, accompanied by his son and friend.

To risk sounding like a movie promo, this was a story of incredible courage and resolve, but also stubbornness of bordering on madness.  Reading it was like going on Disney's Jungle Cruise, but without the corny jokes: complete with cannibalistic natives, killer animals (in this case, man-eating worms devouring explorers inside out), and an unfathomable amount of muddy water.

While this book was strictly about the Amazon, it made me think about exploration in general.  When I taught modern American history, we always started with the closing of the frontier.  In 1893, a famous paper was written, essentially saying that since there was no longer any unsettled frontier left in the United States, that we as a people would become soft and "go gently into that great night."  No pioneers= all pansies.

At any rate, it makes me wonder: what is our frontier now?  Under the ocean? The human genome? The human psyche? Technology? Or, dare I suggest, the final frontier? 

19 October 2010

Head In the Cloud

Spent the day at Microsoft, meeting with folks and touring their campus.  I just thought I'd log today as the day that I've been convinced that the cloud is taking the world... well, by storm.

Also, for the heck of it, here is a cloud-related song from a cloud-related indie band:

Why So Commonplace?

Naming things can be incomprehensibly difficult, as anyone with a new pet, child, garage band, or blog can attest.  A quality name, we believe, can be that small but vital push towards glory, laud, and honor —while a poor name can doom the recipient to failure or even worse: outright mediocrity.  (Freakonomics contains a fascinating chapter on literally “poor” names. Excerpt.)

I have decided to rename this blog The Commonplace.  Three notes on why I chose this title:

1.)  When I was teaching high school, I was introduced to the concept of commonplace books.  I quickly became a staunch believer.  From Wikipedia:
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator's particular interests.

And a further description from Robert Darnton’s article "Extraordinary Commonplaces:"
Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life.… [Ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke] broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. (The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000)
 The modern blog is simply the commonplace book revisited.
2.)  I think there is value in telling the story of the small, everyday moments and interactions that make up the bulk of our existence.  A few quotes about taking commonplace events and making them unusual, and unusual events commonplace:
"In my plays I want to look at life - at the commonplace of existence-as if we had just turned a corner and run into it for the first time.
Christopher Fry
"Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet's job."
Jean Cocteau
"I'm saying look, here they come, pay attention. Let your eyes transform what appears ordinary, commonplace, into what it is, a moment in time, an observed fragment of eternity."
Philip Levine
"Let us dig our furrow in the fields of the commonplace."
Jean Henri Fabre

3.) Finally, I would like to think that this blog will eventually become a forum where people gather; a virtual commons.  And in our discourse, when we disagree, it is my hope that we do so from a common place.

17 October 2010

Filling The Empty Page

"You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study.  He applied to the academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings?  Neither have I.  Resistance beat him.  Call it an overstatement but I’ll say it anyway:  It was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square canvas.”                                                                                         -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
I find writing to be daunting.  Well, not writing itself as much as starting to write.  As an undergrad, whenever I had to begin a new essay, I couldn’t face the white emptiness of a blank computer screen.  I would begin to write on an unlined piece of paper, folded in half portrait-style (that’s “hot dog” for those of you counting at home) because it cut down on the empty space.  I would write in pencil, rather than pen, because it made the initial free-flow of ideas seem less permanent, more open to change.  And I would write outside—at the park or on the balcony—because it just seemed to work better that way.

In her book The Habit of Creativity legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp spoke of this process of beginning something new:

To some people, this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying; the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful and satisfying. It's no different for a writer rolling a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter (or more likely firing up the blank screen on his computer), or a painter confronting a virginal canvas, a sculptor staring at a raw chunk of stone, a composer at the piano with his fingers hovering just above the keys. Some people find this moment-the moment before creativity begins-so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house. They procrastinate. In its most extreme form, this terror totally paralyzes people.

She goes on to say that the best way to counteract the paralysis inherent in new ventures is to form a routine or habit (hence the title) around the activity.  

And so... I’ve decided to take this writing thing seriously.   I am committing to writing something every day, be it prose or verse, inane or serious, proprietary or from something that has influenced me.  When I’m at my computer, I’ll post it here.  While not everything will be worth your time, it is worth mine, and I hope you occasionally find things to enjoy.