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Minnesota Winter

22 February 2014 Leave a comment

It’s been a tough press of a term so far. This week saw three overnighters (as contrasted with true all-nighters in that I did get to sleep some in the day), but with those items in, and with my tri-class day conquered, I’ve had a good Friday afternoon: laundry, exercise, short stories, and Obsidian Stout.

The short stories in question are from Neil Gaiman’s first collection, Smoke and Mirrors. It’s been uneven, but almost all of them get under your skin. Two in the last stretch did more than that, and quite appropriately they were the least fantastic. ‘Foreign Parts’ was about a very ordinary person who changes, and ‘Mouse’ was about the odd forest sounds not being very much comfort in a tricky time; I feel these might be terrible descriptions, but I estimate (or hope) that they might at least have the virtue of not detracting from the reading experience, if you should come to read them.

I’d picked up the short story collection in uptown Minneapolis two weekends ago. While at the store, I was also fortunate to here a wonderful story about the time the author walked in, not too long ago. More on that when my posts about the trip up to the Twin Cities come up, but I feel no compunction in relating the best detail now (best to me, anyway), which was that he’d purchased a large stack of books on mythology.

I had a good weekend in the city, but, alas, it was also partly the reason for the tough grind of catch-up recently. Taking three days off rather than the allotted one (mid-term break was technically only the Monday) meant that I found myself having to run extra hard to get back on top of my four classes this term; the usual is three (I overloaded), and I go for eleven classes a week – which is wonderful, really, but there’s work for almost everything.

One compounding factor is my new-ness to computer science. I elected to do the class (really a class about discrete mathematics) out of what I would most truthfully describe as wanting to acquire new capabilities and add new dimensions to existing ones. A good friend of mine described it as ‘indulging my inner geek’, and that’s not really very far off either. I’ve mostly gotten my wish: I had to learn LaTeX in my first week for the class, I picked up some very basic Python over a weekend to render the solution to one particular homework problem, and, some time over the Chinese New Year, I was reading about the basics of graph theory in a book about the mathematics of chess in order to solve yet another problem. Said problem involved proving the Knight through all the squares on boards of certain sizes at least once (yes, it is solvable on the standard 8×8), and (or so I thought) no more than once (it turned out I’d been attempting to prove something harder than I needed to – but no matter). So it was that I spent a few nights and many hours over the first few days of the Year of the Horse chasing a horse around various chess-grids.

The other classes have also been fun, and there’s been a great deal of confluence in the courses. The formal logical manipulations that I was doing in the CS class come up often in the class on the philosophy of language, which is, broadly speaking, about semantics and pragmatics, which bleeds into both my syntax class and sociolinguistics class. At some point I even gave a just-about spontaneous presentation about what LaTeX was like for me as a beginner to a linguistics class (it’s useful for drawing syntax trees and the like).

I feel like I’m about to bust the nerd meter, but over and above the Neil Gaiman stuff I picked up in Minneapolis, the books I’d picked up over the winter break and from the library have also been wonderful. I picked up William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition in New York, and enjoyed it thoroughly. When I got back to Carleton, I picked up Neuromancer from the library, and that was a crazy ride. Lots of the other Sci-Fi stuff I’d gotten into over the summer and fall term has been amazingly complementary to the ideas we’re dealing with in class, which is mainly because as language, the Mind, and The Math were central themes: China Mieville’s Embassytown, and two from Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Anathem).

This post has been as breathless as this term has often made me feel, mainly because of the overloading. At the same time it’s not all been books and consoles; one thing I’ve realized is that what was before only the informed anticipation that I’d miss the College and the people here has become something like resignation, if that’s something that can be done in advance – ‘resigned’ implies helpless, but really it’s more that I’m putting it aside, knowing that I only have the few months and weeks to live here as I have come to live, so as not to miss it before it’s gone.

This post has also been breathless because the home stretch of the term is ahead, and I anticipate I won’t be doing a catch-up post like this for a while. I do have a few drafts that I’ll continue to peck away at from time to time (all those over-late winter travel posts, etc.), so those might come up.

In the mean-time, we’re bracing for Polar Vortex III. Last night the ice and the fierce wind frosted all the trees and leaves and branches. But this will probably be the last time this season they’ll be iced like that.

frost_tree

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When the Cold Wind Blows

13 January 2014 1 comment

I arrived back from winter break into scarily cold temperatures in Minnesota. It went down to about -34 degrees Celsius, and about -48 wind chill. There was good news — my friend who lives in Faribault (which is right by Northfield) told me that this was about rock-bottom, as far as temperatures go.

I arrived back late on Saturday afternoon, and spent a slow Sunday on laundry, emails, and prepping for classes.

My first class of the term was on Monday, at the Weitz Center for Creativity. The Weitz Center is, unfortunately, some blocks away from most of the campus buildings, the misfortune in this case being the cold and the wind. It wasn’t that I found myself miserably cursing at the cold under my scarf — I’d actually been feeling quite optimistic at the prospect of starting classes again — but I did find myself, quite without any directed intention, singing out a half-forgotten tune to myself into my scarf.

In the early morning march
With a field-pack on my back,
With an aching in my arms
And my body full of sweat.

I’m a long, long way from home,
And I miss my lover so.
In the early morning march,
When the cold wind blows.

(Refrain.)

I remember genuinely enjoying the music of this old army song on a few occasions. The refrain consists of repeating the line at the end of the verse four times (which, when sung in the usual call-and-echo context, turns into eight). Each instance varies in melodic contour, and each arc fills the whole line, such that the lines bleed into each other if you hold the notes to their full value. Lyric-wise, too, it’s a nice song; simple but evocative.

While the wind at 0530 on Pulau Tekong can be quite chilly, the cold wind blowing in Minnesota is something else. Before braving the wind that morning, knowing that any exposed area of skin would be an invitation to frostbite, I’d had a proper plan for my layers and under-layers of clothes, made sure the hats, collars, sleeve-ends etc. matched up, and had laced up my boots army-tight for ankle support and water-proofing in the ice and snow. Perhaps it was the thought of these preparations with my head down against the wind that brought the marching song to mind.

I am dramatizing a bit — I fortunately wasn’t in any serious danger on my walk to or from class. It was cold, though, and cold enough to be dangerous to someone who didn’t know to respect it, but I’d been well warned and so sufficiently armored.

Monday and Tuesday were rock-bottom days, temperature-wise, but it’s been getting warmer since, so much so that it was a degree above freezing tonight and you hear the people in town saying, “It’s so nice out.”

During the week, though, my mind was mainly on class and registration matters. I had exciting first classes, and registration’s been smooth so far, with three solid classes for this term (three being the norm). I’ve also managed to prepare an appeal to overload a fourth class in computer science.

It was for this computer science class that I found myself self-administering a crash course in LaTeX. Week One was most clearly marked by the hours in front of computer screens looking up LaTeX tutorials and trying to code tables in it. The learning curve made my first two days with it pretty intense, but I feel pretty good about learning the skill in a pretty short amount of time. While I’m somewhat pleasantly surprised at my ability to sit for hours at a time in front of computer screens while trying to scratch out the right answers to my problem sets in exactly the right format, I’m not sure this borderline obsessive work-pattern has been entirely healthy for me; the rest of my week in school feels somewhat lost in the glare.

The weekend was also slightly surreal. On Saturday night I found myself betrayed by my wish for a quiet drink. I found myself joined at my table by a party of friends (a band and friends of the band), some of whom had been playing at a restaurant in town earlier in the night. When the first few of them sat down I was quite happy to share the space and converse, but I didn’t realize how large the party was, or how animated they would be once they were all settled in — it got to sing-alongs and some table-perching. They were very friendly, though, and I was mostly not uncomfortable, but it all felt slightly surreal.

At some point, I decided I’d take a quick look outside. I hadn’t realized that they’d set up an ice bar, and that most of the deck area had been decorated with ice sculptures. I realized that this weekend it was warm enough (perverse, I know) for the ice bar. In addition to the actual bar and the sculptures, the shots were served in ice too, and there’s an area for you to throw the ice-glass after you take the shot. Encountering all this also felt rather surreal, but something I appreciated was meeting the sculptor and talking about the stuff.

It’s Minnesota-warm, at the end of this week of Winter 2014.

Edit: Something I omitted the first time round: among the sculptures on the deck was an ice bear. I didn’t actually see the ice bear, because it had been mysteriously smashed, most probably by someone who had walked by. I only heard about it from the sculptor, in the course of his explaining some kind of spiritual significance of the bear sculpture, which was related to a very sad story about his son’s death, presumably on military duties. The sculptor wasn’t emotional during the telling, but from what he said, what he seemed to feel most strongly about was how the callous action of the passer-by who’d happened to smash that one particular sculpture was, ultimately, without a sensible explanation.

Categories: Vagaries Tags: , ,

Gossamer

17 November 2013 Leave a comment

Coming to the end of Week 9 at Carleton, I just want to record that feeling of gratefulness for having two beautiful fall days at this season-turning juncture. To be reminded of late summer after the previous week’s snow is one of the things that has been accorded some sort of significance in this life.

I have an essay to write, so I’m not going to begin the attempt to spin out the web of things which seem to signify, but this is one of the threads:

c.1300, “spider threads spun in fields of stubble in late fall,” apparently from gos “goose” + sumer “summer” (cf. Swedish sommertrad “summer thread”). The reference might be to a fancied resemblance of the silk to goose down, or because geese are in season then. The German equivalent mädchensommer (literally “girls’ summer”) also has a sense of “Indian summer,” and the English word originally may have referred to a warm spell in autumn before being transferred to a phenomenon especially noticable then. Cf. obsolete Scottish go-summer “period of summer-like weather in late autumn.” Meaning “anything light or flimsy” is from c.1400. The adjective sense “filmy” is attested from 1802.

(Source: Online Etymology Dictionary)

Categories: Vagaries Tags: , ,

Cool Exchange Activities List

3 November 2013 Leave a comment

I have a life! Really! Not just of the mind!

But October has been a fun month, even though (as I’ve said elsewhere) that might not be my strong suit.

Some Notable Moments

1. Watching Jeffrey Zeigler play cello at the Concert Hall on a Friday night. The last song was composed by Glenn Kotche (yes, FROM WILCO), and it was magical.

2. Going for Carleton’s TEDx that same weekend. There were a number of impressive talks about anything from the inspiration of yoghurt and the co-op model, to some really exciting cancer research

TEDx Carleton College

3. Watching my second ever sketch comedy show, this one of the work of David Ives.

4. Weekend in St. Paul! I saw the banks of the Mississippi in autumn, took a walk down some of the nicest avenues and houses in the country, had some good coffee and a good pretzel bun, had a fantastic coffee stout, and saw the first tiny dusting of snow for the winter on the morning I left. I also visited Macalester College (where my host studies), and saw a bit of St. Thomas University.

Bell's Java Stout

5. Caught my first movie in the States at AMC Theaters in Roseville (Don Jon).

6, Attended the Q&A session moderated by my erstwhile English Prof. with Salman Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie Q&A

7. And finally, this hour-longer weekend, I watched Ender’s Game in Lakeville and saw the Second City All-Stars improv comedy troupe at Carleton.

*

This weekend also saw the release of Darkness, a Russian Imperial Stout from Surly Brewing Co. in Minnesota. I was lucky enough to catch it on tap at the pub in town. There have been other beer-ventures.

As I am already most of the way done with presuming your interest, I might as well finish strongly.

Northfield’s been a really good place to find a different rhythm. I’ve been walking a lot around the river and the town, and around the College too. I’ve been enjoying just worrying about classes and homework and stuff. It leaves space to think.

Classes have been good. I feel like it’s been no trouble at all getting into the swing of syntax or phon-phon (as my syntax prof put it). Credit, certainly, to passionate teachers.

More recently I’ve been working on my cases for the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl. It’s kinda like a debate, except there’s no for/against, and we don’t know the specific question we’re arguing until we’re in the room. What it looks like I’m aiming for at the moment is demonstrating why the questions I identify are the central ones, rather than some other potentially misleading questions. If anyone’s interested to take a look at the team’s occasional notes and discussions, drop me a note and I’ll send an invite.

To wrap it up, Skype, postcards, FB chat, and eating spicy food (including a really nice Mexican salsa) are some of the ways I remember home.

Categories: Events Tags: ,