Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Fire and Ice

Now and then, I catch myself bragging about setting a 'personal best' when camping. Last week the temperature inside the camper hit 27 F. 

Of course I have a heater, but refuse to use it. Usually I try to joke my way out of it. A better explanation would be to point at the movie, "The Red Violin." 

Chilly dry air, in contrast with sunlight at sunrise, seems like perfection to me. With a Platonic and pseudo-religious attitude, I pop my trailer door open to the east, and let the glorious sun come into the trailer. It feels warmer instantly, and irresistibly cheerful. If there is a better way to start a day, let me know what it is.


Nevertheless, consider this an exception to the rule. You will not have to read many advertisements for 'the ideal' or 'perfection' on this blog. Experience has taught me that the enemy of the Good is not the Bad, as you would expect. The enemy of the Good is the Ideal.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Natasha Dances for the American Deep State

How nice that I have managed to appreciate art in 'this lifetime.' Although music and comedy were two forms of art that were easy to appreciate, the visual arts left me yawning, in the past.

I refer to "art" in the Tolstoyan sense. This is quite different from Beauty, which most people confuse with "art."  Tolstoy thought that art was anything that transferred emotional experiences from the artist to the viewer/reader/listener, by means of words, pictures, sounds, or stories. Beauty is a another matter, according to Tolstoy.

Movies should be good at providing "artful" experiences in this sense of the word, and, one would think, the Russian movie version of "War and Peace" should be good at it, too.

I watched the first third of the three-disc movie, and couldn't make up my mind if I liked it. The star of the second third of the movie was "Natasha," the young Russian noble-girl who came of age during the lead-up to Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia.

It became easier to notice how graceful her movements. Well of course! Look at her: she has "ballet dancer" written all over her. And thank heavens they chose a young actress to play this role, instead of taking the BBC approach of using a 30-year-old actress to portray an adolescent.

Tolstoy uses the behavior of Natasha's family at a wolf hunt to foreshadow the upcoming big-battle-scene. Gone are the genteel French manners. Natasha's family starts acting like Russians. But what exactly does that mean? Napoleon is about to find out.

I wasn't prepared for what came just after the wolf hunt, at the evening meal at her bachelor-uncle's hunting lodge. Natasha hears some Russian folk music being played on a balalaika, a traditional instrument. They tell her to dance, although she doesn't quite know how to dance to uncivilized Russian folk music.

But she plays along, and improvises, haltingly, almost reluctantly. Somehow she connects with something, and finally cuts loose, while the voice-over and subtitle repeats Tolstoy's words:
Where...how...when had this young countess absorbed the spirit of this dance from the Russian air she breathed? Dressed in silk and velvet, educated by a French emigrée governess, how had she acquired these movements; yet these movements were the very ones, inimitable, unteachable, Russian, which her uncle expected of her. How well she understood all that was in...

Let's be playful with an anachronism, and imagine ol' Bonie in the slow lane on St. Helena. Since he has lots of time on his hands, he pops the movie into the machine one night. What would he really think of the wolf hunt and Natasha's dance? "Art" or merde.

Perhaps modern neo-cons, Democrats, and Deep-Staters might get something out of Natasha's dance, as well, before they try to force Russia to surrender Crimea.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Someone Should Write History

I should probably offer an excuse for talking about a book about the French Revolution, lest somebody say, "Yea but how is that, like, relevant, man?"  The answer is that much of what we call political news and "current events" is really just fighting the French Revolution all over again.

Details. Do I ever hate details in history books. Consider a book on the causes of the French Revolution: the author could grind through the legal system, economic conditions, etc. All very important of course. But what a tedious bore!

Consider the rather different approach used by Simon Schama, in "Citizens," A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Old-regime France had been no stranger to public ceremonies and spectacles. But your place near the viewing stand was controlled by the aristocratic pecking order.

Then, in the 1780s, public spectacles saw a radical change. Balloons became the high-tech rage. Once they were in the air, it all viewers had the same view.
In other words, [the balloonists] succeeded in establishing a direct and unmediated relationship of comradeship with enormous multitudes of people.
...As a spectacle it was unpredictable; its crowds were incoherent, spontaneous and viscerally roused...
The sense that they were witnessing a liberating event--and augury of a free-floating future--gave them a kind of temporary fellowship in the open air...

...it exemplified the philosopher's vision of a festival of freedom: uplifting glimpses of the Sublime in which the experience, not the audience, was noble.
What a gorgeous metaphor! I will always think of it first when reading about any kind of revolution.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Connecting With the Cosmos

Well, here I am again after a hiatus of a couple years -- back in a favorite camping area. The special attraction here is the 'alignment of the stars.' Just kidding.

'Sleeping under the stars' is both romantic and phony. How many times have you done it, literally? I did it once, as a lad, above tree-line in Colorado -- quite an adventure for a lad from the flatlands. But I was too uncomfortable to sleep much.

A camper could sleep out under the stars anytime he saw fit: a nice cot, air mattress, and sleeping bag should do the trick. A tent would ruin it. So why don't I do it? There are unpleasant practicalities, of course. Perhaps I don't really think the stars are all that interesting to look at. Maybe the shallowness of mere looking is the problem.

But let's return to the nightly spectacle of 'alignment' here. I love the alignment of the setting sun with a certain topographic feature, near the equinox. Currently it is about a month away from the equinox, so the alignment is not as good as the last time I was here.


The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Baboquivari, the noblest peak in this area. 


As you approach the equinox you can watch the setting sun approach the peak. You can hold up a couple fingers at arm's length, and measure the progress of the season. Or you could walk a certain distance along a transverse road to adjust the alignment a certain amount.

Day by day you look forward to perfect alignment. The immensity of the earth and solar system no longer seem so vast that they bore you. You have anthropomorphized them, and made them interesting.

Mt. "Babo" was supposed to be 'sacred to the native Americans.' That cliché usually makes me roll my eyes. But camping here, living here, and wrestling with it every night makes it quite plausible to see the mountain as a moody and mysterious god.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Great Chapter of Life Ends

A title like that sounds like a traveler who is announcing that they are going to hang up the keys, or at least, close their blog. Nothing quite so drastic. 

I came back from the bicycle shop sniffling and whimpering, like a puppy with an ouchie stuck in his paw. But my friend in Mayberry-for-Hippies just laughed at my silliness. I was halfway serious though. A big chapter in my life has been closed: I sold my road bicycle. Now I am down to one bike, a mountain bike. Earlier in my career I traveled with four and a half bikes in my van.

It has been a wonderful part of life: road cycling, that is. I built my annual travel schedule around it. Most of my friends were bicyclists. I felt happier road cycling than at any other time. 

With an advertisement like that, why give it up? Primarily because of safety and better agreement between backwoods camping and mountain biking. You need to camp in town to be a road biker. 

As a help for anyone taking up road bicycling, note that there are more off-street recreational trails than before. That is the good news. But there are more cars, and half the drivers are more concerned with playing with their electronic gadgets than looking out the windshield.  So if you must ride on roads, do yourself a big favor and ride with a club or at least a small group of riders. I always did; perhaps that is why I have never been seriously injured on a bike, despite doing it most of my adult life.

When readying the road bicycle for sale, I was reminded of all the silly fads that bicyclists have been suckers for. Don't worry: I will spare the reader any standard stump speeches. Suffice it to say that this was the last time I will be bothered by hard-to-mount skinny tires and those damned Presta valves.

Thinking back, I have known so many other bicyclists who were admirable on at least some level. But they weren't perfect either. In any group of voluntary association, one always comes away feeling, "I can't live with 'em, and I can't live without 'em." That sounds bittersweet on paper, but tonight it feels more sweet than bitter.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

When Is It Time to Renounce Folly?

I've had thousands of chances to drive off, after a bicycle ride, and forget something -- like a front wheel. And yet I never did so until recently. Although I knew the spot where I left the front wheel, it wasn't lying there when I returned two days later. Infuriating!

Add this wheel to other casualties over the years, such as the $120 hiking poles I left behind, once.

After this incident I have started to put the front wheel in the van first, since forgetting the rest of bike is less likely. How much thinking was required to make this trivial improvement? And yet, it takes a surprising amount of persistence to form a new habit.

So why didn't I think of this 40 years ago? When my grandfather was in his seventies, he once told me, 'A young man just lets things happen to him. He doesn't think about the consequences of what he does.'

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I own several pricey cylindrical flashlights. They were purchased after a great deal of 'deep thought' about the best flashlight to buy.  Apparently I was impressed by the advertising slogan of "aerospace grade aluminum" or something. 

Duh. Why does that matter? Have you ever owned a flashlight whose aluminum failed? They fail because of a cheapie plastic switch or spring.

Recently I saw a selection of flashlights in an outdoor equipment store. It's a wonder that it doesn't take a license to buy one of these things! They are dangerous. But they can't wait to tell you how many lumens of retina-blasting power they have. One of them has the batteries installed, and a little sign invites you to "try me."

Of course they repress how quickly the two or three AAA batteries wear down. 

Now really, does it take deep thinking to realize that cylindrical flashlights are a nuisance? Forty years of being a middle class consumer should be good for something, shouldn't it? They roll around as you try to use them.  So you end up running out of hands, by carrying it. Or you stick it in your mouth and chip a tooth on the "high grade aerospace aluminum."

Duh. Wouldn't the ideal shape of a flashlight be rectangular and roll-free? After all these years I have finally switched to $5 rectangular flashlights, as opposed to the $25 roll-around-the-trailer jobs.

Perhaps all flashlight marketing is done by Sigmund Freud.
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It is so easy to mouth platitudes about 'living like it is the last day in your life.' But it is difficult to put an end to incompetent shopping habits that have been allowed to endure far too long.