Friday, February 25, 2005

The Crux

Calling all my fellow philosophers! (And, much to my delight, there are a good many of you who read this blog regularly and on whom I know I can rely for your individual insights on the matter to be raised below.) I know that out there we have materialists and dualists, theists and atheists, egoists and altruists, determinists and proponents of free will. And it is about this last matter that I'd like your contributions, if you can spare the mind and moment to post them up. Because, in my philosophical conversations and subsequent solitary ponderings, I have hit at long last what seems to me to be the central crux of the question of free will. Or if not, at least the farthest I've ever got along in the examination of the idea.

This crux, as I'm calling it, has nothing to do with the question of whether free will is physically possible. That's going to depends on your metaphysics, and whether you believe that non-physical substances can exist and can have interactions with physical things. So set that question aside for just a moment, because in order for free will to be physically possible, it must first of all be shown to be logically possible. So to examine the question of its logical possibility, let's just assume for the moment that it could be physically possible (an assumption, never fear, my materialist friends, to which I will not hold you outside of this consideration).

Ok, so, assuming free will is physically possible, how can it actually exist, logically, in the form in which we perceive it to exist? Because, all right, let's look at an individual moment of decision. In that moment, say you have to make the choice between two actions, A and B (for instance, saving a drowning person or running away from the flooding river). And you have a number of inclinations which might lead you to choose A (compassion, affection, desire for praise), and others that might lead you to choose B (self-preservation, fear, anger at the person because just before they fell into the river they insulted your mother). So what you're really choosing is which of those inclinations to follow and which to ignore or at least outweigh. But then you must have certain criteria or beliefs based on which you will make that decision--a belief that helping others is more morally good or socially beneficial or evolutionarily sensible than looking after yourself, or vice versa. And you can continue to work yourself back and back, but eventually you will reach a point at which whatever basic principles you hold will dictate one choice to be more rational than the other. And ok, which basic principles you hold at bottom might be dictated by entirely physical causes--what your parents have taught you, what your personality is more inclined towards, etc. But it's the point between deciding which choice is rational based on this combination of principles, beliefs, inclinations, and facts, and deciding to make that choice, that I'm interested in at the moment. Because here, perhaps, lies the possibility of free will.

See, the tricky thing about free will, assuming it's physically possible, is that it still always seems like, whatever point you're at in the decision-making process, you're always making choices either based on certain reasons, which then means the choice is dictated by those reasons and not really a free choice, or based on no reasons, in the which case it's a totally random decision with no reasons, which also does not seem like free will. But if the only way to make a decision is based on reasons or based on no reasons, and neither of these seems to involve anything that resembles our concept of free will, then it seems like free will cannot logically be possible, because there's no situation in which it could come into use.

But this is where I go back to the moment of decision between recognizing which is the rational choice, and deciding to follow the rational choice. This is the moment of choosing whether to act rationally or irrationally. And how do we make this decision? To make it based on reasons would be to beg the question and presuppose that we should make decisions rationally. Before we have decided whether to act according to rationality or not according to rationality, we can't use either rationality or irrationality as the criterion for making that choice. It is just as logical to say it would be irrational to act irrationally, and so we should, as it would be to say it would be rational to act rationally, and so we should. And somehow, this seems to me to resemble the logical paradox of free will--we cannot make the decision based on reasons. Do we then decide between rationality and irrationality entirely randomly? Or does something else exist behind rationality and reasons, upon which this decision can be in some way (although of course not rationally) based? Does this make sense? I hope so. Anyway, this is the point I have reached, so I'd welcome all insights into the different directions one might go from here. What do you all think about this moment of decision between rationality and irrationality, assuming such a decision could be made? Is it possible? Upon what would the decision be based? Or how would it be made? And, if you can discover, conceive, approximate, or otherwise consider this process, can it used to be applied to the possibility of free will?

I look forward to your replies!

A British Bus Adventure

I think one of the benefits of being in another country is that even the experiences of deepest inconvenience and annoyance can be viewed as some combination of adventure and cultural experience. Case in point: Today I decided to take the bus to ASDA (the British Walmart) which is the local grocery store of choice. The trip should take about 40 minutes--twenty minutes to get to the transfer point, ten minutes waiting around for the second bus, and ten minutes to pop up the road to ASDA. Well, I had completed the first two legs relatively successfully (I must admit I did miss my first stop, but I saw it as we passed and fortunately the next stop was not far down the road), and managed to board the second bus, confident that I was now nearing the end of my journey and would have plenty of shopping time before my Metaphysics lecture that afternoon.

I had not, of course, wagered on the possibility that it would be the bus driver's first day, which it was, nor that she would miss her turn, which she did. And then, as luck would have it, as she attempted to return to the place where she lost the route in order to get back on track, she found herself driving along right behind a bus of the same line travelling the opposite direction (away from ASDA and towards the town centre). And the driver of the other bus, seeing her right behind him and assuming, I guess, that he was behind schedule and she was supposed to be on this return route, continued past the huddle of people waiting to get into town, gesturing back towards our approaching bus. When our busdriver stopped to let a passenger off, this crowd, who were, admittedly and most unfortunately, standing out in the sleet and having been just passed by the bus they were supposed to be taking, wanted to know how they would now make it to town. After quite some time of conference over phones and walkie talkies, the crowd got on the bus and, without any clear indication of what was now going on, we continued down the road. After a few turns it became apparent that we were headed in quite the opposite direction of the ASDA, the bus having apparently suddenly reversed its route. As I began to consider whether I should stay on the bus until it got to the city centre and turned back around towards my desired destination, or get off at an upcoming stop and try to find a bus going the proper direction, an official-looking man boarded the bus and, a few stops later after further walkie talkie communications, asked how many people on the bus had been planning to go to ASDA. Four of us raised our hands, and he told us we should get off the bus there, and cross the street to transfer to another line, which would take us in the right direction. So eventually, we did manage to make it there. And really, I saw parts of Brighton I might otherwise never have seen, and got a good story out of it to boot. So although the journey did end up taking about twice the time, I suppose in the end it wasn't a total waste after all.

So that was my main adventure of the day. I also watched two movies--the Stargate movie (Toby has all the Stargate episodes (this is a sci-fi TV series about a wormhole to other planets, which is actually quite interesting) on DVD, so I occassionally join him, Ben, and Jay in their process of watching them all) and Justin's philosophical Waking Life, which was a very interesting, artistic, and intellectual movie, so if you like that sort of thing, I definitely recommend it. It touches on a lot of philosophical questions, with a focus on dreaming and reality and communication. And then afterwards Justin and I got into a discussion of free will and whether or not one should believe we actually have it. No real resolution yet, but we're working our way towards one, perhaps, and it's an interesting conversation in the meantime. Then I returned home to fashion a dinner of veggies and soy mince, which is actually quite tasty! Anyway, those were my adventures of the day. Not Stratford or anything, but I think the little experiences are just as important as the big ones in cultural experience. Don't you?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Freedom & Flurries, Collaboration & Cooking

Well, what with essays and major homework projects done until May and the latest bit of travelling properly recorded in photo, blog, and journal formats, and all my reading for the week done, things are looking almost eerily quiet here on the not-quite-homefront. Never in the past two years at least have I descended so far on my to-do list--I've even got books on there to read for my own personal enjoyment! Yes, this is definitely a part of why I came here--to isolate myself from the wonderful madness I would otherwise be joyfully but hopelessly drowning myself in at the moment. It's not that I have nothing to do. I just don't think I'm the type. But I finally have time to do all the things I always wish I could, but never quite have the time for. So I'm looking forward to a few weeks of that, at least.

In other news, the snow has continued in fits and flurries here, much to my chilly delight. It's just so fascinating to wake up, glance out my bedroom window, and see frosty flakes of whiteness meandering through the sky. It never sticks around long, but we do get a little while of powdered dusting before the sun comes along again to melt it all away. I took a walk in the stuff yesterday, which was quite fantastic.

Today I had a meeting with my group for Creative Drama. We're working on our main project for the class, a performance of about ten minutes we are to write and then perform at the end of the course. I'm really excited about the project, although it's definitely a challenge. We got into groups pretty randomly, which I don't think was the best way to go about such a long-term project. Really, I think, we should have each shared what kind of work we were interested in doing with the whole class, and then people could have joined up with others with compatible goals. Because really, you all have to be passionate and invested in the direction your piece is going, or else you'll never get anywhere. At least, that's my analysis of the situation after the first week of working on the project. We had an interesting starting point (looking at old photographs and finding the stories they suggested/inspired) but without any real idea of where we wanted to go from there, what we wanted our work to do, and why we were concerned with photographs or stories, we were basically getting stuck.

So at today's meeting we talked about our own personal opinions, passions, and beliefs regarding the purpose of theatre and the kinds of questions we would want audience members to come away asking themselves. It was a very helpful process, and I feel like I really clarified to myself why exactly I'm going into theatre and what I want out of the theatre I make. The trouble is, although the three of us in the group have a lot in common in terms of goals and beliefs, we also have some fundamental differences. For instance, while I feel the whole point of theatre is to encourage audience members to form their own definitive opinions, one of the other girls in the group doesn't really have or seem to believe it's important to have strong opinions. Which, as those of you who've known me for more than a good five minutes can probably attest, are the only kind of opinions I have. So that seems to be a perhaps insurmountable conflict. The one possible solution I can forsee would be to examine the very opinion about whether or not you should form strong opinions, by looking at a couple different people with different approaches to opinion-forming. Which could be very interesting. We ran out of time today, so we'll have to meet again on Saturday to clarify our plan of attack and work out something to show the class for Monday. But I think we made a good start today. And really, it was worth it for the insight I gained into my own beliefs and goals even if none of it ends up in the group project.

Also had a lovely dinner with the Skeptics folk tonight. Tomorrow I venture out to the grocery store to gather supplies for some culinary experiments, including a quiche complete with crust from scratch, and possibly a vegetable lasagna. (Any tips/suggestions, Mim?) Which should be a welcome change from the rather monotonous and makeshift diet composed mainly of tortillas, rice, beans, cheese and scrambled eggs in varying combinations to which I've been driven by the lack of time for a trip to ASDA the past few weeks. Then I've got a Metaphysics seminar, and tomorrow evening I'm meeting Justin to watch Waking Life, his favorite philosophical movie. Should be fun. May love and joy rain (or even snow!) upon you, now and always.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

To Sing About Tourist-y Things

It’s been rather a tourist-y weekend indeed! But I think every once in a while, even in the midst of trying to spend a semester here so as to blend in with the natives and experience authentic British culture, one has to embrace one’s tourist status and see that side of things as well. Accordingly, I have spent the past weekend in the very throes of tourism. The result—excitement, exhaustion, a few new friends, about a billion new photos, and an even greater appreciation for this country I am spending the semester wandering through.

It all began last Friday with a trip into London to see the philosopher Hilary Putnam speak on "The Epistemology of Just Warfare." Although the talk wasn’t until 5:45, the megabus necessitated that we leave at 12:30 that afternoon, to arrive two hours later and a good three hours prior to the talk. My travelling companion, a fellow American student of Metaphysics named Justin Horn, and I passed the hours on the bus discussing Aristotle’s theory of virtue and the relative merits of rationalism and religion.

Upon arrival we decided to spend some time exploring until it was time for the talk, and I proposed a walk along the Thames to the Globe Theatre, which I was interested in viewing close-up. Along the way we also passed Westminster Cathedral, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament. It was a lengthier walk than I expected from the map to reach the Globe, and when we arrived it turned out you had to pay a rather hefty admission fee to even enter the theatre, so I figured I’d wait to pay about the same price for a theatre ticket and actually get to see a show there, and simply took a few photos of the outside.

We now had only a short time until we had to head across town to find the lecture, but as the Tate Modern museum was right next door, and had free admission, we decided to pop over for a quick peek. The building was intimidatingly huge. We wandered about for a bit poking gentle fun at the authoritative nonsense printed on the descriptive wall tags, but just as I had begun to contemplate the artistic merits of the guard seated in a chair against one wall of the gallery, it was time to head out.

Past time, in fact, since we had realized too late that I had failed to bring my map of London or the address of the place where the lecture would be held. So we had only our combined hazy memories leading us to Euston Station, Gordon (?) Square, and Something Williams (?) Library. This all being halfway across downtown London, it might have been wise to leave ourselves more then half an hour to get there. Things were tight as we arrived at the proper underground station with only the vaguest sense of which direction we needed to proceed in. Fortunately a friendly law enforcement officer let us glance over his map. Still, without the address or precise name of the venue, and with only five minutes to spare, things didn’t look promising. Especially when every building on the appropriate street resembled a library. But when we finally found the proper building, and discovered that the talk had in fact been moved to another building several blocks away, still we did not despair, but, sprinting through the darkening streets, made it to the correct lecture hall just as Mr. Putnam began to speak.

The talk itself was rather interesting. Putnam’s proposed criteria for a just war basically involved (1) the knowledge that war would be the only effective means to stop a certain bad event, and (2) the knowledge that war would be successful in stopping that thing without replacing it with an equal or greater bad thing. Which seem like pretty sensible criteria, although they raise the question of what bad things are worth going to war over. If nothing else, the philosophical atmosphere and collection of characters had definite theatrical potential.

When the lecture concluded, we had another megabus-enforced period of several hours’ wandering about London. Fearing another mad dash, we decided to do our wandering near to and with constant locational awareness of the megabus station. Hungry, we sought out a place to eat dinner and pass the time, and managed to find an Indian restaurant which seemed harmless enough from the outside. The interior contained several amusing aspects, however, one of which being its rather absurd resemblance to the gaudily decorated cafe described as the Valentine’s Day meeting place of Cho Chang and Harry Potter in the Goblet of Fire. Also, the waiters were a rather forceful breed, subtly but constantly urging you to order more food, while trying to remove what they’ve already served you as quickly as possible. When we decided to keep our half-eaten appetizer even after they had delivered our main courses, I think every waiter in the restaurant came to our table on at least two separate occasions each to try to remove it.

We managed to pass quite a bit of our evening under those waiters’ watchful eyes, but finally we had to depart, and, after another half-hour in another bar/restaurant nearby, we caught our ride home. On the bus, as we continued our discussion of materialism and the concept of free will, a random fellow passenger popped up from the front of the bus to deliver a brief lecture on the non-determinist nature of quantum physics. Wonderful!

We returned to the University around 1:00 that night, and I returned to my flat to pack for the next morning’s early departure. I met the coach the next day at 9am, to discover several acquaintances would also be taking the trip, including Linda and Miriam from my theatre class and Savannah from the Skeptics/Nuthurst group. I read and dozed on the three hour trip to Stratford. When we arrived, we were first taken to the cottage of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, and given a tour of the interior. On the way there, we were given a general overview of the life of a guide! ... who invariably spoke! ... all his sentences! ... in spaced intervals! ... of three words! ... And each phrase! ... was delivered! ... as if it were! ... the most exciting! ... information imaginable! Quite, quite amusing.

We then drove into the town centre for a walking tour, which passed by Shakespeare’s birthplace, school, church of burial, and the houses his daughters lived in. We also saw the theatres of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and walked along the banks of the Avon River. We then had several hours to wander about by ourselves, so I explored the town a bit, then sought a late lunch of vegetable pasty (in a cafe playing Man, I Feel Like A Woman—the official song of travelling and adventure!) and triple toffee ice cream. That night we grabbed dinner in The Dirty Duck, one of the pubs the RSC actors frequent after their shows, and then saw an incredible production of Julius Caesar at the Swan. We spent the night in a nearby youth hostel—quite a nice one, in fact—sleeping in bunk beds in those fun little sheet-sleeping bags.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hostel—an amazing buffet with very British repast, including baked beans in tomato sauce, which is a common breakfast food here, which I find a bit odd. On the other hand, they looked at me like I was crazy for eating my beans with RICE and a tortilla I had melted CHEESE inside of—what madness!

We then headed over to Warwick Castle, a very well-preserved castle complete with armor, torture devices, furniture, wax figurines courtesy of Madame Tussaud, and live actors playing medieval characters. Ooh, and a haunted tower! It was a really neat (albeit majorly tourist-y) site, with lots of historical facts and exhibits. My favorite parts were the mill, tucked away on a lovely spot by the side of the river, and the ramparts, from which you could see miles of surrounding countryside.

After Warwick we traveled a few more hours to Oxford, where we were dumped with a map of the town and two and a half hours in which to explore. I wandered around with Savannah in a circling path to see as many of the more notable colleges as we could. Many of them were closed to visitors, with rather grumpy old men standing guard to fend off the tourists, which was unfortunate. We peeked into Magdalen College, which seemed to live up to its name as one of the prettiest. We found a few we could actually look around in, visited Blackwells, the biggest bookstore in England (or something—3 miles of books, supposedly), and finished things off by paying three pounds fifty for admission to Christ Church College, which was well worth it, as you’ll see if you check out the photos. Overall, Oxford was a very darling town, especially once you got off the main road. An intriguingly eclectic mixture of architecture spanning a millennium at least makes for a very unique atmosphere. And Savannah got excited whenever we saw someone around our age: "Look! A real live Oxford student!"

Well, that was essentially my weekend. It was mainly one of spending a few short hours in a bunch of places I could have spent an entire day exploring—very whirlwind. But at least I have a conception of the various places now, and if I ever get a chance to return I’ll know my way around. And I definitely got plenty of photos, which you can view by clicking on the link on the sidebar or here.

Tonight I completed and printed off all my essays for the week, which means, except for reading, I’m done until May. Hooray! This means, hopefully, I’ll have some more time over the next few weeks for exploring, experiencing, and planning trips for the Easter holiday. Today’s snow flurry was very exciting, since this part of England gets snow only rarely. Some snow still remains on the grass, cars, and tree branches, and additional flurries of reinforcements fall periodically. The air feels so crisp and smells so fresh! It’s glorious. Ok, anyway, unfortunately I’ve rambled rather mercilessly long, so I’ll cut things short for now. My love as always!

Monday, February 21, 2005

It's Snowing!

Not merely tiny snowflakes drifting from the sky and vanishing on contact with the earth, as has occurred several times since I've arrived here, but huge clumps of snow falling thick and fast and rapidly forming a downy white blanket to cover the earth. Glorious! Just wanted to let you know that, and that a detailed description of my exciting weekend just past is imminent in appearance on this blog (probably by tomorrow). In the meantime, if you simply can't wait that long, you can at least view the photos by clicking on My Photos over to the right.

Off to watch the snow fall!

Monday, February 14, 2005

Phil Me With Osophy!

As the title suggests, the time between the last post and this one has been overwhelmingly philosophical in nature. Which, by my standards, is an invariably positive situation. The main reason for this philosophic theme has been the Metaphysics essay I've been diligently working on over the past few days. It's not due until a week from next Thursday, but as I have another essay due that week as well, plans to go out of town the preceeding weekend, and no clue what the expectations are in this country and how they might differ from those to which I'm accustomed, I figured getting the thing done early would be a highly beneficial accomplishment.

So, much of my spare time has been spent in reading for and pondering the essay (which is on George Berkeley's theory of empirical idealism (the theory that matter doesn't exist, all that really exists are minds and ideas, and that what we call material objects are really just ideas in the mind of God) and why it presents just as skeptical a picture of reality as does materialism). All yesterday I locked myself in my room to read commentaries on Berkeley's theory and type up my essay, my only glimpses of the outside world consisting of periodic glances out the window to admire the fantastic and ever-changing sky through my window (and a two-hour respite in the evening for some student-produced musical stylings in the Meeting House). At the end of the day I had 2800 words of a 2000 word essay. So this evening (after a lovely, relaxing morning of church, lunch, a GLORIOUS walk through Stamner Park, and a cup of tea) was spent cutting and reorganizing the essay to fit the limit. Which it now just about does. So now I just have to find someone who knows how they grade ("mark") these things and get them to read through it for me and make sure it's ok.

But that's only the tip of the philosophical (and metaphorical) iceburg. In addition, there was a Skeptics Anonymous discussion of reincarnation which continued over into a nearby cafe and a conversation on free will's requirement of a supernatural aspect of reality. I also attended this week's meeting of the Philosophy Society, which was on the qualities inherent to an Infinite Being. And there was the Friday discussion group on the meaning of the verse "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me" (which is, admittedly, veering over into theology), and of course, the meeting of my Metaphysics seminar on Thursday afternoon.

I even went to see a theatrical production at the Arts Centre on campus which was arguably philosophical in nature. It was called Disembodied, by the David Glass Ensemble, and was one of those "darned modern productions" you hear so many complaints about by the more conventional theatregoers of today, with no discernable plot, periodic interludes of music and disjointed sound effects, a public restroom as a central location, bits of the set constantly falling to pieces, stylistic movements, and frequent repetition. But it was cleverly done, the physicality was fantastic (the main actor had extensive training in mime and dance), and there was a post-show discussion that cleared up a lot of the ambiguities. So overall, it was a pretty interesting experience.

But perhaps the most exciting development in my philosophical activities was the formation of a plan to go to London next Friday to hear Hilary Putnam (one of the most famous philosophers of our time, as I can only assume you're aware) speak on The Epistemology of Just Warfare. I'll be accompanied by a fellow student of philosophy, another American in my Metaphysics class, and one of the few (sometimes the only), besides myself who regularly contributes to class discussion. We'll be taking the megabus, which is cheaper than the train but takes longer and is less frequent, meaning that we'll actually end up arriving in London a few hours before the talk and staying in town a few hours after it's done, providing time for some exploration around town, which should be really fun. Quite looking forward to that excursion.

The weather gets ever warmer, the days longer, and the first daffodils peeked out their golden curious heads this morning. I hope spring is similarly revealing itself in your own locality, and I wish you a victorious Valentines Day. A bientot!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Shrove Tuesday

Well, I was introduced to another central part of British culture today which I thought I would pass on to my loyal readers. In fact, it's so central, my flatmates were pretty shocked to discover that the rest of the world has never heard of such a thing as: Pancake Day. Yes, while we celebrate Mardi Gras with a carnival of disguises and reckless abandon, the British spend their last hours of freedom before the spartan days of Lent feasting in near-sinful decadence upon that most nefarious of luxuries, the pancake. The purpose of this tradition, which apparently goes back hundreds of years, is to use up all the "rich foods" in the house, such as, apparently, eggs, milk, butter, and flour. Which seem to me more like staple baking supplies rather than dangerous tempting substances. But maybe that's just my overindulged American mindset. Anyway, I prefer this type of tradition to drunkenness and debauchery any day of the week (especially Tuesday), so more power to the British, I say!

To initiate me into this apparently universal tradition, I was invited to a pancake party at the home of Sara (fantastic Scottish woman from Skeptics--see Nuthurst photos for a visual), who lives on campus in Lewes Court, in an amazing room with a stove and oven right there in the bedroom. Crazy! A bunch of the folks from last weekend gathered. Apparently no one quite knew the proper proportions for pancakes, by which they really mean a thin, large, crepe-like disc made with flour, milk, and eggs, and topped with lemon juice and sugar in liberal proportions. These are meant to be not turned by spatula, but flipped at great peril by an abrupt upwards jerk of the pan, as seen mainly, in my experience, in books and humorous movies. A rather disastrous but hilarious enterprise therefore ensued, with rather deformed, rubbery, and partly blackened results which were nevertheless quite tasty, if not the most aesthetically pleasing foods I've ever consumed.

I had to leave this gathering early to head off to Bible study, but when that finished I got one more taste (ha, no pun intended!) of the festivities as we all headed down the hall to the center of the Christian Union's pancake delivery project, which allowed students to phone up and order free, freshly-made pancakes delivered right to their doorstep. So I spent another hour praying over and delivering pancakes. Am seriously considering exporting this fantastic tradition to the States. Anyone interested in helping me? Try it--thanks to the time difference, if you read this in time you still have the chance to be the vanguard of the American Pancake Day Movement! Spread the pancake love to your friends and family. Happy Lent to all, and to all a good night!

Monday, February 07, 2005

Nuthurst, or, Paradise: A Precursor

I find myself lacking the words to adequately describe the amazing experience that was this past weekend at the Micklepage Farmhouse in the tiny countryside village of Nuthurst. And lacking words is a situation I do not often find myself in. Of course, I'm sure there will be words aplenty in this post whatever I say. But they shall not do the experience justice, that I know already.

Basically, seventeen pilgrims spent the weekend living in simplicity, peace, and fellowship in an old(e) country farmhouse, separating ourselves from the responsibilities and hecticness of life to live in communal bliss we'd each end up wishing, by the end, we never had to abandon. The weekend was led by Gavin, the University chaplain, who also brought his darling 6 1/2 year old daughter, Emily. Meals were provided by Gudrun, the other chaperone-type, and were absolutely and universally delicious, from the salad (iceburg lettuce dressed with olive oil, garlic, and salt) to the pudding (their word for dessert, and including such delicacies as fruit pie and treacle tart). Speaking of food consumption and introduction to British delicacies, I also consumed my first crumpets for breakfast on Saturday morning. Quite tasty little sponge-bread things. Mmm...

Friday evening after dinner we all sat around reading one another our favorite poems (I read "Sea of Faith" and "The Midnight Tennis Match"). We then had some prayer, and then people busted out keyboards, guitars, and even a flute and we sang the night away. The next morning after breakfast we read each other the prayer that most spoke to us from a packet of them we had been given the night before. The prayer I chose:

"For giving me desire,
An eager thirst, a burning ardent fire,
A virgin infant flame,
A love with which into the world I came,
An inward hidden heavenly love,
Which in my soul did work and move,
And ever ever me inflame
With restless longing heavenly avarice
That did incessantly a Paradise
Unknown suggest, and something undescribed
Discern, and bear me to it; be
Thy name forever praised by me."
(Thomas Traherne)

My other choice had already been taken by the time my turn arrived, but I'll share it here, too, because you, dear reader, are central to its meaning for me:

"I thank you for anything which happened to me which made me feel that life is really and truly worth living.
I thank you for all the laughter which was in today.
I thank you, too, for any moment in which I saw the seriousness and meaning of life.
I thank you very specially for those I love, and for those who love me,
And for all the difference it has made to me to know them, and for all the happiness it brings to me to be with them.
Through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen."
(William Barclay)

You can't get much more apt than that, for my blessed life.

After reading our prayers, we headed down the road to the local pub, where I was introduced to the wonderful world of actually playing chess with strategy, rather than reckless abandon. In other words, I was introduced to the wonderful world of losing miserably. But it was fun, and quite enlightening. A conversation about the philosophy of quantum physics which began on the walk back continued into lunch and touched on the timelessness of God, dimensions of infinity, and tetrachromatism and ultrared perception as a metaphor for sensing the presence of God.

After lunch a rather intense but fascinating conversation regarding judgement versus acceptance on the part of Christians developed, and eventually had to be forestalled by a walk through the countryside before the darkness descended. When we returned, dinner was nearly ready, which was followed by further conversation, and then Four Weddings And A Funeral was played in one room while a poker game started up in the kitchen. Once again, the fun and fellowship continued until late into the night for those who chose to remain.

The next morning Gavin and Emily baked a giant batch of communion bread, with plenty left over for breakfast, after which Emily and I played a card game and a few rounds of hide and go seek. We had a quiet church service in the barn nearby, with Taize chants, rereadings of our selected prayers, and sharing of our experiences of God, which we had written down earlier so we could read one another's aloud. Then we had some time to frolick and play outside, swinging on the swing and chopping wood. I sat and reflected for a bit in my journal, and then we had our lunch on the picnic table outside, cleaned up, and headed back to the University.

In case you haven't been keeping precise score: time to relax and reflect + good food + a little girl to play with + being surrounded by people who think and question + poetry readings + singing + prayer + amazing conversations + exploring the countryside + sitting by the fire + plenty of dishes to wash + a weekend of simple but devoted focus on God + lots of laughter + getting to know people one on one + incredible insights shared + playing in the outdoors + freedom of schedule and activity + a group of amazing, kind, loving people living together in harmony = just about the most ideal situation I can imagine. So when I say I could have spent a year there, at least, you can believe I'm not exagerrating in the slightest.

Hope that all gives you at least an idea of what the weekend was like. For a more visual representation, you can click over to My Photos for some pictorial documentation.

I wish each of you the opportunity to experience the conjunction of so many of your own personal sources of profound joy sometime in the near future. Thank you for being the loved ones for whom I thank God every day.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Triumphs and Travels

Triumphs include:

  • Successful completion of my first assignment, the Science Fiction presentation, which went, much to my delight, extraordinarily well. I managed to stay within the time limit, appear relatively knowledgable, and was even able to answer all the questions at the end of the presentation. Fortunately, they mostly concerned the short stories by Asimov, which I had actually read and could describe in detail, rather than the sunsequent stories by other writers, most of which I had been unable to get ahold of myself, forcing me to rely on the notoriously dubious authority of internet synopses. As I closed up my laptop and went back to my seat, the tutor remarked: "That was a very good presentation." So all in all, success, I believe.
  • Completion of a first and satisfying draft of the proposal for a summer research grant I was nominated to apply for, much to my initial concern, as I had no ideas for a topic to research nor foreseeable time in which to complete the proposal. Duty-bound, however, I was unable to shrug it off, and so it has hung over my head since I learned about it in October, nary a moment to spend on it from then until now. Until two nights ago, actually, when I finally decided to set aside a day and just get the bloody thing overwith so I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. Consequently I did a bunch of research, wrote a personal statement and proposal for use, and was much relieved to indeed complete a respectable draft by the end of the day. Sent it off for approval and suggestions to my advisor and others, and am actually excited a bit by the prospect of the project now that I have it all planned out, although it would mean much less time at home this summer, which would be unfortunate. So really, I'll be happy if I get it, and happy if I don't, which is probably the best situation to be in. The basic plan would be to research Fringe Festivals in EUrope, Canada, and the U.S. in order to formulate some kind of report about the process through which they allow people to produce new and experimental work. So we'll see where that goes...
  • Decided for certain my living arrangements for next year--or at least, where I'll apply to live, hoping my application is accepted. I had two options of off-campus houses, both enticing for different reasons, but I eventually decided that while one would probably be a more ideal situation for my personality on a long-term timescale, the other would provide a unique and strengthening situation that I might never have the opportunity to experience again, and was thereby the best choice for my senior year of college. So yet another long-hanging weight lifted this week.
  • Also finished my presentation on the work of a practicing theatre artist (I chose Caryl Churchill, mostly because I preferred a single playwright to a collaborative group, and I've read a few of her plays and knew I could find plenty of information on her, although she turned out to be a very interesting choice, because there's a lot about her situation and style that I found very similar to my own (although of course there are also some major differences)) But anyway, that's another thing I've known I'd have to do for a while, and have finally been able to check off the list.

As for the travels, they're coming up--I leave for Nuthurst in about half an hour. Am looking forward to it mightily, but I should go and pack now, so I shall leave you until my return, when I'm sure I shall have numerous tales of adventure to share. Until then, a wonderful weekend to all!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Bits and Bobs

A classic British term to describe the anticipated collection of random updates and observations to be included in today's post. (Incidentally, for the benefit of you in the States, as well, apparently, as the entertainment and edification of my British colleagues, I have begun compiling a list of British terminology unfamiliar to us Americans, which I shall share once I have got it into a somewhat complete state (so perhaps not until towards the completion of my surveillance I mean stay here).)

Hm, well, first of all, I spent the major part of my weekend holed up in my room working away on such projects as posting the pictures described in the previous post, responding to e-mail, and researching for and compiling my first assessed assignment here in the United Kingdom--an oral presentation for my Science Fiction class, to be delivered tomorrow morning at 9am. Fortunately, I have the benefit of having watched my classmates make similar attempts in the previous two class sessions, so I have some idea of what is expected of me. Nevertheless, it's a daunting consideration, not knowing precisely what they expect over here and in what unanticipated ways it might differ from what I'm used to back home. But the presentation (on Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics and their impact on subsequent science fiction) is now complete, and has been thoroughly organized and rehearsed, which means, hopefully, that by this time tomorrow that will be one down, ten to go in terms of graded coursework for the term.

Having barely finished my presentation, I headed down to the Christian Union tonight to have inspiration not just strike, but veritably avalanche upon me. The vision of a play I got is tenuous enough to be difficult to describe just yet, but is clear enough to me for some serious work the next time I have a moment. It basically involves an ensemble piece composed of a collection of poetic and visually metaphoric vignettes depicting a spiritual journey with God. If that makes sense. It does to me, which is really all that matters at this point. The poetic quality is very different from anything I've attempted before, which is both intimidating and exciting. So I'm looking forward to starting work on that.

Coming up this weekend is a retreat with the Skeptics Anonymous group to a country farmhouse, for conversation, prayer, walks, drinks in a local pub, movies by the fire, homecooked meals, and more. Very exciting! Hopefully from this weekend, in addition to solidified friendships, philosophical insights, and spiritual growth, will emerge more photographs to be posted on the neighboring blog, including, as per request, more countryside, as well as proof of both my presence in this faraway land and the existence of these ethereal Skeptics. Oh, man, though, if you want countryside, just wait until I take my camera on a walk or two around the area. Can't wait to share with you all the glory of Stamner Park, Falmer Village, and of course, the South Downs. Brilliant!

Other minor updates: I don't think I mentioned before my attendance of the International Student film screening of "L'Auberge Espagnole", a French film with the English title "Pot Luck," about a French university student who spends a year studying abroad in Spain and living in an apartment with flatmates from Spain, Italy, Germany, England, and America. A great film--highly amusing and almost painfully accurate, at many points, in its depiction of the study abroad experience, in everything from the bureaucracy of the application process to the joys of transporting your entire life in duffel bags to the complexity of the shared, multicultural living space. Of course, there's the usual movification of things, but it's a good enough film that I recommend it to any of you who can get your hands on it, and I trust you can jusge for yourselves which parts of it apply eerily to my own experience, and which are utterly irrelevant.

I think that's all for the moment. I cooked myself some curry last night to last me the next few dinners, and it turned out to be a pretty rousing success. All in all, getting the hang of this living situation. The best to all of you, as always. Keep up the e-mails and comments. My love pours back to the States and gets all over your brand new beanie cap.