Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ride This

Yesterday I went to Kings Island amusement park with friends. It's been a long while since I was last there, and I surprised myself this time by being braver than in the past. I'm not addicted to adrenaline; you're more likely most days to find me reading Jane Austen and sipping tea than tumbling head over heels on something called Invertigo. Some of my friends, though, turned out to be bigger thrill seekers than I had expected, so I ended up on rides that I'm sure I would have bypassed if I'd been in more sedate company.

I realized at some point yesterday that when I'm faced with 130-foot drops and G forces of 5, my attitude these days is fairly philosophical. Why? I attribute it to life experience. In three years, I commuted by plane 30 times to school on the West Coast without ever once crashing. I stood up in front of my classmates numerous times without bombing, though I used to think public speaking was one of my worst nightmares. I have been through fires and earthquake. I survived a wild ride down an alleged "road" on an Idaho butte in my brother's truck with a storm on the horizon. I've seen a grizzly bear. I've worked with lawyers for 12 years. I have driven the L.A. freeways. I've chased the Minotaur.

Things like that harden you up a bit, though I have to admit I balked at the sight of the Diamondback, Kings Island's newest and tallest roller coaster. It was just a little too vertical for someone who hadn't ridden in a while, and if you've studied Greek mythology at all, its sky-climbing aggressiveness summons up instant thoughts of the hubris that brought people like Phaeton and Icarus to such a spectacular end. So I sat out the Diamondback and let someone else tell me about it, though I felt a little sorry afterwards that I had missed it.

Later on, we found ourselves at the Vortex just as it reopened after being shut down for maintenance. Although its having "had a problem" of an unspecified nature raised a sense of mild alarm, I was determined to ride it since I had done so in the past. So we all jumped on, and two loops, one corkscrew, a boomerang, a helix, and much head-banging later, we arrived back at the station in one piece. You feel proud of yourself after something like that; it's sort of like threading a labyrinth that has fallen apart in the air. One friend told me that if I could handle that, I could handle the Diamondback, which, aside from the first drop, she said, was less intense in some ways than the Vortex. OK, maybe next time?

After that, it was thrill rides all the way, though the Racer and Adventure Express involved perhaps more bumping and bruising than fear. We got on something called Delirium that even at this moment I have trouble believing I did. It looks like a giant potato masher with a disk that spins at the end of the handle, and it swings 12 stories up in the air while you rotate on the disk, your feet dangling. If you don't believe me, here's a visual:

I wouldn't have thought anything could top that, but we went on to ride a couple more coasters that were so extreme as to be almost violent: those taught me my limits. I came off Invertigo with a headache, and I must say even my die-hard friends were a bit shaken. I may cross that one off my bucket list. As for Flight Deck, it caught me off guard since its rating was only a 4, but it was so much like Invertigo that it brought back the headache that had just started to wane. After that, I think everyone had had enough. I had one more wish, since I thought it best to end things on a gentle note. So our very last ride of the day was on a beautiful old carousel with rearing horses and calliope music and the world spinning at a demure, ground-level pace. And perhaps you only fully appreciate the charms of a carousel after spending an afternoon defying the laws of gravity and common sense.

Today, I was a little stiff but otherwise unscathed. I took some Tylenol and enjoyed my proximity to Mother Earth. Here are my conclusions about yesterday's adventures:

1. People may not be meant to fly, but you'll never get them to admit it.
2. Soaring 12 stories is actually less painful than getting banged around and bruised at lower altitudes.
3. Getting out of your normal comfort zone is not a bad thing.
4. Roller coasters aren't as scary as some other things you encounter in life.
5. Closing your eyes? Always an option.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Greetings from the Night Garden

A strange thing happened while I was writing this post, and it's never happened before since I've started the blog. I had most of the post written and was in editing mode when I noticed that the first two thirds of my essay had disappeared. Ouch! Horror! Fire! Calamity! No amount of hitting the back button has brought it back, so I have to conclude that all that Beautifully Constructed Prose is gone for good. I don't know exactly what happened, but of course word processors can be tricky. Trickster-y, too.

I was writing about the mysterious dark thing I thought I saw outside my window at work a week or so ago. Something fluttered by, and I only caught it out of the corner of my eye. I kept watching for it all week and kept seeing other things -- a leaf one day, a moth the next -- but I never saw what I thought I had seen the first time. Though only half-glimpsed, it had seemed bigger, darker, and more exotic somehow than a moth, like a creature from a night garden. What I really thought I had seen was a large black butterfly.

Since the butterfly is a symbol of psyche, and a black one carries implications of the shadow, the undeveloped part of our being that holds so much potential, this was a sighting guaranteed to spark the imagination of a Jungian. It might not be as exciting as the scarab beetle that bumped against the window of Jung's consulting room right after his client had dreamed about just such a beetle, but it was a break in the routine all the same. I was sitting there working, probably looking at news databases in Lexis-Nexis or doing something equally prosaic, when all of a sudden this creature appeared, hovering just on the edge of my vision and disappearing before I could get a good look.

But had I really seen it or had I seen something else, like that humble brown moth I spotted a few days later, and had my imagination turned it into something grander? That was the question.

I had somehow connected this to Jungian psychology, the quaternity, and the three men who appeared in my dream last night and dumped a yellow couch in my living room, but all of that has disappeared into the ether of Blogger's text editor. So maybe I should just say what actually happened.

On Friday afternoon, I was finishing up loose ends at my desk when something flew by my window, and I was quick enough to get a good look this time. It was a black butterfly, and an unusually large one, with big bold wings. I'm not sure where it came from, or even if it's the same one I saw a week ago. Now, the practical, rational side of me says, OK, a butterfly, you've seen one like it in the Arboretum. That's true. But my poetic side likes the contrast of midnight wings and bright sunlight, and the fact that it was flying so far from the ground.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dessert and Metaphysics

Yesterday was lazy. I got very little reading done, even though I took a book with me when I went out to lunch. I was what you might call "out of sorts"; either that, or that Peanut Butter Honey Amaretto gelato did me in for the day. I came home and thought I'd lie down for a while and read about postmodernism. What happened was that I lay down and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was after 1 a.m., and I'd been dreaming.

Today, I buckled down and finished the chapter that's been holding me hostage for several days. In all honesty, not only is the material dense, but I also have a problem with the loss of the self since I'm kind of attached to my "self." The author of my book says that the way to deal with the "death of God" is to keep marching on until you arrive at a type of nihilism that is ultimately affirmative but causes you to lose the death grip you had on your sense of self. You lose the polar opposites of not only self and other, but also of life and death, and this leads to a strange sort of happiness (at least for philosophers). 

That's great, but on a hot July afternoon with an "everybody's out of town feeling," it's a little tough to hear that you're probably not even who you think you are. 

To think that the core of your being is in some sense quite insubstantial is not only disorienting, but it also goes against the way I experience myself. But as I've started thinking about the connection between Buddhism and this idea of the loss of the self, the whole collapse of inner/outer takes on a certain beauty.

In Old Path White Clouds, the life of Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddha explains the principle of interpenetration (and the loss of the self) to his follower, Ananda, using the example of an empty bowl. Although the bowl contains nothing (except air!), the Buddha points out the presence in it of all the elements -- earth, fire, water, and air, as well as the hands and the skill of the potter -- that came together to make it. So, appearances to the contrary, the bowl is not an independent thing in itself, but the nexus of all these things. In the same way, I'm not just myself, separately and alone, but a dynamic matrix of many different forces that have come together in a specific place and time. 

Actually, this is comforting in certain ways. In some sense, we're never as alone as we think we are. I'm not just alone in my living room, typing this in tranquillity; I'm composed of long-dead stars that once breathed fire and now live in me: "The world in a grain of sand," as William Blake said. It's beautiful and profound, but I still like the idea of my uniqueness and the solidity of certain things. Call me stubborn, but I don't want to dissolve into nirvana. I'd rather stay here and try another gelato.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Home Before Dark

I drove back from Chicago today, a trip of about six and half hours, not counting stops. I had never driven there before and wouldn't be anxious to do it again, since it involved a complex chain of interstates beginning with I-75 and ending with I-290, a black hole of a tollbooth line, numerous construction zones, people losing their luggage in and by the road, and a weird little maneuver through a rusty corner of Gary, Indiana, that probably saved time but was not at all scenic. Yes, it sure sounds like a labyrinth.

Chicago itself was nice. I spent the weekend seeing the sights of Oak Park, listening to bands at a music festival, and visiting a Pacifica friend who lives on the North Shore. All of the neighborhoods I saw in the suburbs were decked out in their finest red, white, and blue, and the atmosphere was very festive. Chicago is a very proud and patriotic town.

I spent most of the afternoon yesterday touring the neighborhood around Frank Lloyd Wright's house and studio in Oak Park. Since I was on vacation, I had decided not to worry about looking for labyrinths (ha, ha), but lo, I was walking back toward Chicago Street after seeing the Unity Temple when I ran smack into a labyrinth on the grounds of a church. I went back later to walk it, and it was different from most other labyrinths I've seen because the path was made of crushed gravel that made a nice crunch under your feet. You could hear the sound of your own progress.

I drove out to visit my friend last night, and we ended up on her back deck, talking, comparing notes on our research, and just laughing. It's good to stay connected with other people doing the dissertation because the process does get lonely sometimes. You can certainly get lost in it.

Driving back home this afternoon, I realized that MapQuest had become my Ariadne's thread. I also discovered that you can have a thread and still get lost, as I did, trying to get back on I-90 East. I never meant to see the South Side, but I did -- at least a little piece of it. Going back was supposed to be the same as going in, but parts of the route didn't look familiar at all, maybe because there weren't a lot of memorable landmarks. After all that flatness, it was a relief to get to the rolling hills of southern Indiana with its dips and valleys mellowed by the afternoon light. Once I got back on I-275, I was on familiar ground again. After that, I knew my way.

Next time I go to Chicago, I think I'll fly. Even Daedalus didn't mind using wings to escape the labyrinth he had built, and I think the pilots can usually be trusted not to fly too close to the sun.