Saturday, August 16, 2008

where NBC gets it wrong

While the Olympic Games always provide fodder for people who see everything in terms of politics, I'd like to register a complaint on the cultural front regarding NBC's treatment of the icons China created for the Beijing Olympics.

You've seen the main symbol for months, now: it appears to be a stylized person, practically a stick figure, on a red field shaped like a rounded and very uneven rectangle. The symbols for particular events have been modeled on the same basic, off-kilter design.

What bugs me is that NBC took these icons, centered the stick-figure images, and turned the uneven red background into little round buttons. Scandaleux.

While I can't know what was going through the minds of the graphic design crew at NBC, I feel safe in guessing that they didn't understand the significance of the original Chinese design, which would have been obvious to even the most casual student of East Asian culture:

It's a chop, guys.

Many cultures have methods for indicating something's authenticity. Koreans, borrowing from the Chinese tradition, employ dojang (stamps, chops) for a number of purposes, all related to authentication. One's dojang is, even today, as important as signatures are in the West (but we should remember that the West has its own tradition of seals, as does the Middle East).* A Korean might, for example, be asked to use his stamp when receiving a new bank book. He might also use it on contracts and court documents. East Asian artists use several types of dojang on their works as a way of signing their names to their art.** Quite often when you look at a piece of brush art, you'll see two (sometimes more, sometimes fewer) square or squarish stamps occupying the lower left-hand side of the page, and a single stamp-- often of amorphous shape-- on the work's upper right-hand side. This stamp is sometimes made by taking an irregularly shaped stone, slicing it in half like a potato, polishing the exposed cross section, and carving words or images into that surface. The other stamps tend to be regular polygons, usually squares. All the stamps are patted against a special red paste (or in the modern Korean office, a red inkpad) and then pressed against the document or artwork.

This is what you see when you look at the 2008 Beijing Olympics logo: a dojang on which the character jing (from "Bei-jing"; pronounced "gyeong" in Korean and "kyo" in Japanese) has been rendered as a dancer.***

By now, I hope you can see why NBC's artistic choice grates on me. They basically took an image that has great cultural significance to literally billions of people, and ground it down to something smooth and lifeless. I can only assume this was an act of ignorance, not cultural imperialism. No matter the cause, the effect is jarring, and I'm unhappy every time I see the NBC versions of those icons.

Of course, I don't know how they're treating those symbols on Chinese TV. If the Chinese are also turning the original design into cute, soulless little red buttons for their Olympic news broadcasts, then shame on them, too.

*I don't know enough about the history of seals to know whether the Western tradition directly derives from the Middle Eastern, but the ancient scriptures of the three Abrahamic religions all make reference to seals, and might have had some influence on the Western mind. Does anyone know whether Western seals are derived from Middle Eastern sources?

**Some Westerners scoff at dojang on the assumption that they're easy to forge, but I'd put the level of difficulty on a par with forging a signature. In fact, forging a signature might actually be easier: all the forger needs is time to practice, while the forger of a stamp needs to obtain materials to make an actual stamp. Once made, the fake stamp might not possess quite the same minute flaws as the original, so detection of the forgery is still possible even if the copy is painstakingly faithful to the original in its dimensions and proportions.

***All glory, laud, and honor to Wikipedia for noting the jing reference.


chicks dig my killer good looks and placid demeanor

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Friday, August 15, 2008

a most revealing walk

I was inside for most of today (Friday), but stepped out around 8:15 this evening to check out the campsite by the river. I may be moving there in a day or two to save some money.

Turns out that the site is both an RV park and a campsite. I met a gent who was RV'ing there; he explained that "tenters" (i.e., people like me who are tent camping) could stay there for $9 a night, which is quite cheap, but that many of the sailboarders who flock to that part of the river tend to camp without paying. He also said the site was very windy, but my time in Celilo showed me that I can handle wind, and that my tent is an effective shield against it.

The only problem with the tent sites at the RV park is that most of them are exposed-- no shade trees (the RV spots, however, are among the nicest I've seen this entire walk). This will mean setting up shade using the poncho plus my backpack, trekking poles, and bungee cord. The backpack's bulk and weight, normally liabilities, will come in handy as a way to give the trekking poles some stability. I might need to buy extra tent stakes, though. Luckily, Arlington has an Ace hardware store just a hop over from this motel. I'm sure it'll have stakes, or something sufficiently stakelike, in stock.

According to the gentleman I spoke with, most of the RVers are part of a team that's putting up a "wind farm," i.e., clusters of wind turbines that generate electricity, like the ones atop the mountains on the Washington side of the gorge. These guys are long-termers; the campground offers monthly rates for such folks. I wished the man well on his construction project and took a tour of the campground. Not much to see and feel but wind, water, and gravel. At that time of day, temps were pleasant.

When I turned around to go back to the motel, I found myself face to face with an enormous full moon shining brightly over the mountains. I kicked myself for having left the BlackBerry back in the motel room; otherwise, I'd have taken a pic for you. It was quite a sight.

And a final revelation: the walk back, which couldn't have been more than a quarter of a mile, was rather painful. The knee needs a lot of rest. This frustrates me because, as I've been losing weight and improving (however slowly) on the cardiovascular front, I've gotten tougher in other respects, and recover more quickly from a day's walk than I used to. I'm not tired. Muscle-wise and lung-wise, I'm ready to move on. It's aggravating to have to tarry because of one recalcitrant joint, but that's where things are for the moment.

The pain was worrisome, too, because this was the first time I'd experienced such discomfort while both (1) walking a short distance and (2) doing so unencumbered. I'm especially worried that I might be grinding down my meniscus. I don't want to find myself with a knee that's scraping bone on bone, so for now, the cheapest (and probably best) solution is rest. I'll have to find some way to occupy the rest of my body in the meantime. Crunches and pushups might not be a bad idea, along with picnic table pullups. I might even take to curling my backpack, and I'm sure I can find or concoct some sort of cardio routine that won't involve the bad knee.

So tonight's walk was quite informative. I had a chance to familiarize myself with a possible future campground, catch an amazing full moon, and discover that my knee needs more rest than I've been giving it, even if the rest of me is good to go. In all, today reminded me that going on this walk was a good decision. Despite the pain, the grit, and all the other little hassles, this has been an experience I wouldn't trade for anything. Yes, even the rides in those squad cars.

I have no regrets.


Assumption and Liberation

To all you Catlicks out there: Happy Assumption Day!

And to everyone with ties to Korea: Happy Liberation Day! I'm morbidly curious to know whether President Lee Myeong-bak has broken with his goofy predecessor's tradition of not acknowledging and thanking the countries that liberated the peninsula.


health update

Even though I still had some water in my Camelbak when Officer O'Neill met me (latecomers: see the two previous posts), my throat was nevertheless parched: the sunshine and heat had been as relentless as the wind, and I was covered in a fine, gritty layer of dust that abraded my face every time I wiped sweat out of my eyes. The dust got into my mouth as well, and may have contributed to the faded huskiness of my voice, a quality that stayed with me all afternoon and part of the evening, even after I had showered and rehydrated. I sounded like the Godfather for a while (NB: Mike, you called me before all this happened), which was cool.

I may have to buy even more water bottles (or perhaps another Camelbak) as long as I'm going to be daring this high desert heat. It means yet more weight, but the only alternative is periodically crossing both the freeway and the railroad tracks to reach the river, then filling my containers with river water that's gone through my filtration/purification system-- which I've practiced with but haven't tested on "dirty" water yet. Getting to the water isn't always easy: long portions of the freeway and railroad track are lined with barbed wire. Sure, such fences can be hopped, but try that on a bad knee when you're dead tired. I'm no Bear Grylls.

As mentioned before, I walked about twenty miles, but probably should have stopped around the fifteenth mile, before things had gotten truly painful. I had, in fact, flipped a coin while pausing at Mile Marker 123 (where I took pics of the freeway and the wide, blue river); the gods had told me to set up camp in an out-of-the-way spot instead of continuing on to Arlington. Out of pride and/or stubbornness, I ignored the gods, and the rest is history. How differently the day would have gone had I abided by the coin toss!

So the knee is, as always, an issue, but I think it'll be fine if I keep distances to fifteen miles or less. My face and forearms are another matter.

After all this exposure to cold and heat, rain and shine, you'd think that my skin would have toughened up by now. And you'd be wrong: my face is redder than a boiled lobster, and my forearms aren't far behind. I'd neglected to smear any SPF lotion on, but maybe that's for the better: the lotion would have attracted even more dust and grit. No matter what self-protective measures one takes, there are almost always negative consequences. No yang without yin.

The motel shower was a relief; it sloughed all the dirt and stankiness away. I spent the evening more thirsty than hungry, and when I had a late dinner consisting of a shroom-and-Swiss burger and fries, I destroyed the burger and left most of my fries on the plate.

Assuming my knee is OK by Saturday morning, I'll be on my way, right on schedule. If things aren't so good, I might wait in town another day or two, but will do so at the campground. Another factor is the weather: Officer O'Neill strongly advised against walking in the upcoming heat. I should probably listen to him.

Thursday was, all in all, as bad as I'd thought it would be. More such days lie ahead. If ever there was a time to envy skinny people and their high surface area-to-volume ratios (great for heat dissipation), this would be it. Ah, to drop another fifty pounds and remove half my sweat glands...


ma troisième rencontre avec la police

It's arrogant and selfish, but I'm beginning to think of the police as a sort of personal deus ex machina. Case in point: State Trooper O'Neill, who pulled over today when I was about twenty miles into my 28-mile walk from Rufus to the town of Arlington. While I wasn't prostrate with exhaustion or desperate for water, my knee was killing me and my brain had reached that now-familiar point at the end of a long day where it was crooning, "Around Mile 128, you might feel a slight sting. That's pride... fuckin' with you. Fuck pride! At Mile 129, your ass gets in a vehicle!" à la Marsellus Wallace in "Pulp Fiction."* I never raised my thumb, but what I'm trying to say is... I didn't have to.

I never asked Officer O'Neill how he knew to stop for me. Perhaps someone had called it in: "I've had enough of these fat half-Koreans on our roadways! Now here's another one! Look at that ass! Can't somebody do something?" Perhaps Officer O'Neill was simply driving by. I'm partial to the latter theory because Officer O'Neill repeatedly expressed concern about anybody hiking in this heat, which hovered close to or slightly above 100 degrees today (for you metrically minded readers, das ist Fahrenheit und nicht Celsius).

Officer O'Neill was perfectly friendly, though he did snap on some menacing purple gloves and ask me to (1) put anything in my pockets on the hood of his car, and (2) Assume the Position for a search. "This won't be that invasive," he said with a chuckle. As it turned out, it wasn't, but it did mark the first time that I'd been searched by the police. According to the trooper, this was a precaution because I was getting into the car with him.

Yes, he offered me a ride the rest of the way to Arlington, and yes, I accepted. The pain in my knee had won out, leaving me convinced that fifteen miles is, for the time being, about my upper limit when encumbered. Twenty is pushing it.

It turns out that Officer O'Neill had done a military stint in Osan, South Korea; he speaks a little Korean (no, I didn't quiz him). I told him that, before we parted ways, I had to have his photograph, and he graciously accepted. He drove me into Arlington and dropped me in a parking lot near a gas station, but not before giving me the skinny on the local restaurants and lodging options. The campground is, as it turns out, an RV park (or it's next to one), but Officer O'Neill, still concerned about the heat and its apparent effect on me ("You don't look so good," he'd said earlier), recommended that I check into the motel, which I've done. I took my picture, thanked the trooper for his time and help, and we parted ways.

I guess I was a spectacle both on the freeway and in town (how often do you see police cars dropping people off, with riders and drivers shaking hands?), because when I limped into the gas station food mart and got a 44-ounce cup of Dr. Pepper with ice, a gentleman in line asked, "Are you the guy on the freeway with the cop?"

No offense to all the law enforcement folks I've met, but this isn't exactly the rep I was hoping to form (though we might, through clever PR, spin this somehow as "Kevin Kim: interreligious bad boy"). So I told the guy my story, talked about how I was walking across the country, praised the police I've encountered (they've all been perfectly polite and competent), and hoped that it all made sense. At one point, the man asked me, "Were the cops giving you a hard time out there?"-- indicating what might be some sort of bias about the police. Advice on how not to form such a bias: don't get your dumb ass arrested.

So I'm three for three; three pleasant encounters, of which two ended as "courtesy rides" in a squad car. I'm bizarrely happy it happened; it would have been a shame to have left Oregon without a friendly police encounter. I'm beginning to think I need to factor the police into my walk somehow. Surely each fraternal order is a mix of different religions (I have similar thoughts about the military); there's potential for something big here.

Officer O'Neill has this blog's address, so he can correct me if he feels I've misstated matters.** I do have one wish of all the police I encounter: please alert the police along my path (very soon, the Rockies) that I'm not some crazy dude who's come to town to steal your virgins and eat your senior citizens' brains. I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I don't do drugs. (I do eat and swear a lot, though, but I'm not particularly sorry about either of those things. More on that later.) Also, I'm not violent by nature, despite the pocketknife.

My point is that it'd be nice for law enforcement to be aware I'm passing through without them freaking out about the large, sweaty backpacker. Not that anyone's freaked out yet, but I fear that my luck will one day run out.

So we have another happy ending here. You'd know if things had turned out badly: I'd be in jail, which means I wouldn't be blogging. Given how often I write, my silence should arouse suspicions.

Thank you, Officer O'Neill, for being today's deus ex machina.

*Yep, "Marsellus" is spelled with nothing but "s"es in the world of Quentin Tarantino.

**He will most likely say he picked me up at Mile 128, but I could've sworn I'd passed that mile marker before we met. I might've been between 128 and 129.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Meet Officer O'Neill.
I did.

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over in Washington-- can you see the wind turbines?

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the river's gotten very wide and very blue

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bird's-eye view of I-84 (looking east) from the overpass at Exit 123

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Mile 120 (17 more to go), showing off that "cancer patient" look favored by American 20-somethings

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roadside picnic: can you see the thousands of ants?

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veesh me laahck

I'm in Rufus, which, as it turns out, has motels. I'm enjoying this last bit of luxury at the Hillview Motel on 203 Wallace Street before a walk of more than 28 miles tomorrow-- in 97-degree heat. I need to wake up super-early if I plan to make the campground with enough daylight to spare for tent-pitching (though with a tent like mine, pitching it in darkness won't be that difficult), but most of the walk will take place when the sun will be at its hottest.

I'll be spending two nights in Arlington because I anticipate I'll be dead on my feet by the time I arrive. I'll also be experimenting with my dad's military poncho, seeing if I can jury-rig some extra shade because Friday-- the day I'll be staying put-- also promises to be a scorcher, and I won't be basking in an air-conditioned room. This ought to be interesting. If the jury-rigging goes well, I'll show you a picture. If it doesn't... I'll probably show you a picture, anyway.

Shifting gears now: do you remember George Martin, the New York Giants star (now 55) who walked across America to help the first-responders of 9/11? I don't know whether you clicked my sidebar link to his site, but if you haven't, you should: his story's quite interesting.

Martin walked a little over 3000 miles, from NYC to San Diego. At first, he had hoped to walk about 50 miles per day in four 12.5-mile sections. He apparently came to his senses later, and ended up averaging a more realistic 22 miles per day (no heavy backpack, but he did carry a pack at times). He had a team helping him out, as well as a host of corporate sponsors. He also budgeted $150,000 for the walk itself. His walking partner (he didn't walk with an entourage) was also his security chief. Martin had hoped to raise $10 million for his cause; in the end, he raised over $2 million, an amount that was matched by hospitals affiliated with his project. Martin lost over 30 pounds over the course of his journey. When, toward the end of his trek, he found himself encountering severe headwinds, his team created an interesting solution for covering the daily distances: instead of walking westward from Point A to Point B, Martin plotted his route, was driven to Point B, and walked eastward to Point A, making the headwind a tailwind. The procedure was repeated for Point C: instead of walking from B to C, he was driven to C and walked to B. I guess we all have to figure out how to cover those miles. Like me, Martin started out saying he wouldn't "get in a car." Reality sets in quickly.

I think Martin's cause is a worthy one; you can probably still contribute to it if you haven't done so already.

And with that, I need to hit the hay. I'm really not looking forward to tomorrow's walk.

UPDATE: Looks as if my potential walking partner won't be joining me. Alas!


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

coping with solitude

A friend in Korea writes:

If and when you get the time, I’d like to know through maybe one of your blog entries, what it feels like to be…alone out there, walking, sleeping etc.  Does it give you a lot of time to contemplate life, the universe and everything?  Or are you too busy plotting your route and keeping up with the blog?  Most people I know have a need for human companionship; to constantly hear another voice and I don’t think they’d be able to pull something like this off simply due to the isolation from their friends and families, not to mention the less-than-stellar living and sleeping conditions.

Interesting question.

I'm one of those introverted freaks who'd probably do just fine in solitary confinement. I've got so many voices in my head that I don't really need another source of entertainment, so you might say I'm never lonely. Perhaps this explains eight years in Korea with no TV, radio, CD player, or MP3. Silence isn't my enemy. No, scratch that: a lack of human voices isn't my enemy.

When I find myself alone in a room or on an empty road, I usually end up talking or singing (badly) to myself, bringing out whatever internal dialogue happens to be burbling around inside my head. This sometimes happens in not-so-isolated situations, too. Today's a good example: as the cars were whizzing by on I-84 during my short walk into Rufus (where I am now), I found myself reciting the entire Kirk/Spock dialogue from "Star Trek 2"-- the part where Kirk tells Spock, who was just meditating, that they need to make haste to Regula One to check out a disturbance, and Spock cedes command of the Enterprise to Kirk. I was walking along the eastbound shoulder, so my back was to the nearest traffic, which meant I didn't have to worry about people seeing my lips move; I therefore felt safe enough to talk out loud (loud traffic also masks belching and farting, but you already know this, I'm sure).

Come to think of it, I've never felt truly alone on this walk. Because my purpose is to talk to people, my walks usually keep me close to civilization. If I'm not walking along a highway or freeway, I'm often walking through a neighborhood or business district. People abound. I imagine this will change when I hit some truly empty spots here in the American West, but up to now, I've never gone a day without at least seeing someone in a car or truck, on a motorcycle, on a bike, or on foot. Just seeing fellow travelers is often enough to keep me from feeling lonely, and it helps that most of the folks I've encountered while on the road have been friendly and helpful. Add to that the fact that I'm having these religion-oriented conversations along the way, and it's hard for me to think of a moment where I've felt truly isolated.

So coping with aloneness is a snap for me; aloneness is different from its ugly cousin, loneliness, and I can truly say I'm never lonely.

It helps to anthropomorphize. I talk to spiders, grasshoppers, deer, raccoons, squirrels, dogs, cats, and their carcasses. I talk to trees, rocks, the wind, the sun, and the sky. I've got a dash of Saint Francis in me, and I suspect Saint Francis, who addressed the powers around him with great love and cheer, was secretly in touch with his pagan European roots.

(Or maybe I've read too much Tom Robbins.)

All of which is to say that being alone hasn't been a problem for me. While I value companionship when it's available, I often prefer silence to human noise, the better to hear me talking to myself... or to hear the world talking to itself.


the march to Umatilla

I spent $60 (Oregon has no sales tax, by the way-- just like Delaware!) on three book-sized state atlases because I'm sick of not knowing what lies ahead. If I had a laptop with Google Earth installed, this wouldn't be much of an issue, but because all I have is a BlackBerry, it's fiendishly hard to do anything map-related. Scrolling across a map's surface takes forever on the handheld, which draws and redraws the changing map imagery at a snail's pace, making simple tasks-- ones that should last only seconds-- take many long minutes. What do you do when you want instant random access to a wide-angle, bird's-eye view of the land, but don't want to shell out for a (heavy) laptop and WiFi? Gotta buy the big maps, mofo.

Since the beginning of this walk, I've balked at buying these atlases, but have finally come to realize that they represent an important investment. Staring at the relevant section of the map of Oregon has been a relief; I almost feel as if something has come unblocked. I know I'll be hurting tomorrow when I wrestle these heavy monsters into my backpack, but what choice do I really have? (By the way, the three atlases together occupy about the same volume as a laptop. Good thing they don't come with a padded carrying case.)

So, armed with atlases and Google Maps for BlackBerry, I've found it much easier to plot my upcoming route. Here's how it's going to look for the march to Umatilla:

8/13: 8-mile walk to a public campground just east of the town of Rufus, just before the John Day Dam.

8/14: Approx. 26-mile walk to a campground in Arlington. I predict I'll be tired and achy enough to need to stay there for two nights. So...

8/16: Approx. 20-mile walk (Exit 137 to Mile 157) to a campground in Castle.

8/17: Approx. 13-mile walk to Clarke, a walk that finally takes me off I-84 and onto Route 730 (which I hope will be walkable; my speed drops drastically when I'm wasting time dodging traffic).

8/18: Approx. 12-mile walk to Umatilla, where I'll be Couchsurfing (thanks, Amanda!).

I'll be heading toward Walla Walla and then Lewiston not long after that, and at some point after Lewiston I hope to have my dad's assistance as a chase car driver as we strive to get me through the Rockies at a far faster pace than I've managed thus far. I'm looking forward to September and the resurrection of college campuses; I fervently hope to stop at many such places to talk with students, profs, and interested locals. I've got this romantic picture in my head of engaging in animated nighttime exchanges about religion while sitting at an enormous trestle table in some pub, a tankard of mead in my hand, candles on the windowsills... and then I remember that I don't drink alcohol. Ah, well.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Jay Ellis Ransom on religion

Here are some selected passages from Dr. Jay Ellis Ransom's monograph, Christianity: Worshippers of the Sun. It won't take you long to see what Dr. Ransom's opinion of religion is.

[NB: Despite harboring deep disagreements with the professor (who, as you'll recall, was my host for a day in The Dalles), I thought we got along famously. Dr. Ransom, with whose daughter I stayed when I was in Longview, Washington, is a true gentleman and scholar. At 94, he retains full independence, living in his own place, driving himself everywhere (this includes the long drive from The Dalles to Longview to visit his daughter and her family), and discussing life, the universe, and everything with half-Korean interlopers. I hope to write a bit more about my time with Dr. Ransom, but for the moment will return to his remarks on religion.]

Without further ado:

1. A religion is nothing but a set of communal beliefs.

2. The key words in all religions wherever over the face of the world are believe and belief.

3. The New Testament Gospels (meaning "Good News") haven't been newsworthy reading for educated people for the last hundred years. Their magic and fairy tale mysticisms offend today's intelligence!

4. ...a single provable fact: There is nowhere in the universe any such thing as a divine One God, or for the matter of historical reference, multiple gods.

5. If a universal One God truly existed to override human history and who "created" the universe and everything in it in six "days" (ancient Egyptian and modern geologists' eons or eras), there would never have been more than a single religion.

[The above selections all come from the monograph's preface.]

6. Every major religion... sooner or later breaks down into regional differences, cults of many aberrant kinds, denominations, and even within these separate churches with variations in practices, beliefs, and rituals. The reason is that people everywhere in small enclaves entertain often conflicting views of natural phenomena, different interpretations, and different ways of living.

Across the world, therefore, there is no such thing as one all-encompassing religion. This leads to the logical conclusion that nowhere in the universe is there one unifying deity, a god or God Incarnate, except in the human imagination!

7. Every business in the world revolves around the selling of a product or a philosophy. Religion is therefore the philosophic "product" to be sold to a congregation. Whatever the so-called "spiritual" content of a system of beliefs may be is unimportant (it varies from one church, cathedral, mosque, or evangelical congress to another). What is of prime importance is that, as a product, religion has to be sold to (or forced upon!) enough customers, the laity, to support the theological chieftains. This monetary system goes back to Ancient Egypt of 5,000 years ago.

That is about all that there really is to religion. It is no more than a commercial business dressed up in spurious "spirituality" with psychological appeal to a specific group of like-minded followers. "Passing the plate" also helps out with donated income to the ministerial personnel! (No question: every church needs financial support; a mythological God does not!)

[NB: The above excerpts come from Chapter 1, the introduction. What follows is again from the preface, and makes for a strikingly conciliatory contrast with everything you've just read. To wit:]

8. Science and religion actually are two sides of the same coin, differently interpreted and understood but with a common goal-- to try to understand and control a vicious and fractious Mother Nature that is forever "wrathful" and unaccommodating.

I have plenty to say about all of this, but will let you have your say in the comments first. As always, I expect comments to be civil and, in this case, respectful of someone who has accomplished much as an anthropologist, journalist, linguist, and teacher.



Does anyone know whether it's safe to put SiteMeter back on the blog?


Bear Grylls vs. Les Stroud

[UPDATE, January 1, 2009: Just a note to all the readers who have found this entry through Google searches of Bear Grylls and/or Les Stroud: there's nothing in this post that will sway you if you're already convinced that one survivalist is better than another. Besides, I didn't originally write this post in the spirit of "my daddy can beat up your daddy," which is the type of childishness that apparently infects hundreds of silly discussion forums devoted to the whole "Grylls versus Stroud" topic. I have my opinions about which show is better, but this says nothing about the shows' respective hosts. Comparing the two, as people, would be like comparing apples and oranges.

So relax, have fun, enjoy the read, and if you've something to add, feel free to leave a civil comment. And if you're interested in my trans-American walk (which is what this blog documents), please dig into my archives, work your way forward, and comment along the way.]

Staying in hotels means watching a lot of cable TV. While I've seen several episodes of Bear Grylls's pumped-up Discovery Channel series "Man Versus Wild," it wasn't until I was in that Motel 6 in The Dalles that I finally caught two episodes of Les Stroud's "Survivorman," a show that also deals with how to survive when stranded in the wilderness.

The two shows have a lot in common: in both cases, the men deliberately strand themselves in remote, inhospitable locations and must figure out how to move to a likely rescue point. Along the way, they improvise shelters, live off the land, and give us viewers advice on the hows and whys of what they're doing to survive.

There are, however, crucial differences between the two shows; this became obvious after I saw those episodes of "Survivorman." One major difference is the respective structures of the shows: Grylls relentlessly soldiers on until he reaches a plausible extraction zone; Stroud, by contrast, must show he can survive seven days wherever he finds himself (one episode, about a deserted tropical island, showed him feasting well on fish, coconut meat, coconut milk, and a strange root juice) while either moving to an extraction zone (Alaskan wild episode) or staying put and awaiting rescue (tropical island episode). Grylls often stops when he finds either people or fresh traces of civilization.

There's no doubt that Grylls puts on the more entertaining show. He's got a little Steve Irwin in him, and seems less hesitant about playing with dangerous wildlife (in one episode, he gets badly stung by bees simply because he wants some honey). Grylls also seems more willing to risk potentially bone-snapping leaps in his efforts to descend (or ascend) mountain peaks, while Stroud proceeds with far greater caution and deliberateness. Grylls is ex-military; this training is a huge component of his show, and partly explains his gleefully gung-ho approach.

But what's won me over to Stroud's show is that he works alone-- unlike Grylls, whose camera team is at the ready, doing everything Grylls does while also holding video equipment (hats off to that crew!). Stroud, poor bloke, has the unenviable task of not only demonstrating survival techniques, but also setting up, and occasionally ruining, the cameras with which he films them. According to Wikipedia, Stroud is usually carrying around 50 pounds of video gear with him on his adventures. Grylls has the luxury of stripping half-naked to cross an Icelandic river in 60mph winter wind if he so wishes.

Stroud also appeals to me because he fails a lot. Starting a fire with a camera lens, for instance, takes a lot of time and effort, something that Stroud very candidly portrays. He also loses his footing with enough frequency to reassure a tyro like me that falling is just a normal part of the wilderness experience. Grylls's show is more smoothly edited; failures are rarely shown.

There are other contrasts. When Grylls digs into a rotten tree and extracts a pulsating grub the size and thickness of two of my fingers, you know that that grub's history. In one "Survivorman" episode, however, Stroud paused and admitted that he wasn't quite sure about the species of mushroom he was about to bite into. It's possible he was playing up the fear factor for our sake, but at that moment he looked quite sincere to me. Eating an unfamiliar shroom is a big risk. I was riveted when he took that first bite.

In all, "Survivorman" feels far less contrived than "Man Versus Wild." While both hosts are obviously putting themselves in great danger, it's Stroud who, ultimately, has less of a safety net. He, like Grylls, is equipped to signal for help if things become truly dire, but as he pointed out in an episode about the Alaskan wilderness, when you're under a forest canopy, a rescue chopper can fly right by your position and still miss you completely. If Grylls goes down, he's got an on-site crew to help him out.

So: while I enjoy both shows and may even have learned a thing or two from them, I find I can relate more easily to Les Stroud's approach to wilderness survival than to Bear Grylls's.


Monday, August 11, 2008

when you get closer to the Front Door Chapel, you see this:

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the Front Door Chapel, which has got to be one of the smallest churches I've ever seen

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in Biggs

I'm in the town of Biggs after a walk of seven or eight miles yesterday; am staying at the very cheap Biggs Motel, which offers a decent-sized room for only $40 a night. I'll be here until Wednesday morning, when it's possible I'll be meeting my walking partner for that day.

The next town over is Rufus, only about six miles from Biggs. Rufus doesn't seem to have any motels, and I'm about to hit a very long stretch where I'll most likely be camping beside the freeway, preferably out of sight of eastbound traffic and away from any residences.

Biggs is a very small town catering mostly to people who are just passing through. It's got a McDonald's, a Subway, a couple diner-style restaurants, a shop or two, lots of trucks, and not many actual houses. It's also got what appears to be the world's smallest church: I'll be taking a picture of it shortly.

The lady who runs the Biggs Motel very kindly offered to dry my laundry after I'd hand-washed it and strung it up on a trekking pole. While the hotel itself is rather humble, I'd recommend this place to anyone in the region who needs a cheap place to stop for a night or three. As I mentioned, it's $40 a night, in cash (no credit cards accepted), and that's after tax.

So while I'm in Biggs and preparing to leap into the unknown, I need to stock up on supplies for the next few dozen miles. I'm not looking forward to the extra weight in my backpack, which recently gained weight thanks to the extra water I now carry. Keep those fingers and tentacles crossed for me.


orb weaver and buddy, threshold guardians above my motel room's door

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the biggest moth I've ever seen up close (size 12 boot for scale), taken while on Route 206, not far from Biggs

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

on wind

The bluster and blow of Mother Nature's breath has inspired me to write a brief interreligious meditation on wind.

Most people who know me know that, when I hear the word "wind," my first thought is more likely to be "FART!" than something spiritual (though there's really no reason to see farting as somehow opposed to spirituality). But once my thoughts turn away from flatulence, I marvel at the linguistic, and therefore conceptual, connections that exist among the terms wind, breath, and spirit.

In Genesis, during the first creation story that occupies Chapter 1 and spills over into the first few verses of Chapter 2, the spirit of God moves* over the surface of the waters. The Hebrew term for "spirit" here is ruach (also romanized as ruah) which can also refer to breath. The Greek rendering, familiar to many Christians, is pneuma, which can also refer to spirit and breath. The Latin spiritus occupies almost the same semantic field: spirit and breath and blowing, as seen in words like inspired, aspiration, respiration, and so on.**

When you move into Asia, two terms with very similar semantic fields leap out at you. From the Indian tradition we have prana, a term that can refer both to breath/breathing and to life-energy; from the Chinese tradition we have qi (pronounced "chee"), rendered as ki in Japan and Korea.

Some people take these terms, prana and qi, to be interchangeable. I don't. The concept of prana is linked to a Hindu map of energy flow through the body; the Chinese map of qi flow is quite different, and throughout Chinese history the term qi has referred to different concepts. Nevertheless, both terms generally denote breath as well as vital force, and this is a similarity I find striking when we do a cross-cultural comparison with ruach, pneuma, and spiritus.

Qi and prana can be, per the ancient claim, manipulated through the use of breathing and meditative techniques.*** Here we see the notional connection with breath. In Korean, there is also the expression "kiga-makhi-da," literally, "the ki (breath) is blocked." A more natural translation of this expression might be something like "It took my breath away," an expression that can be used in negative as well as positive contexts, as when we anglophones say that something is "breathtakingly stupid."

This meditation was inspired(!) by wind, and while I think I've managed to illustrate how different cultures connect breath and spirit/life-force, I haven't done a good job of connecting these concepts back to wind.

On the monotheistic end, ruach can mean "wind" along with "breath" and "spirit." Spiritus comes from an earlier root meaning "to blow," so a connection with wind is at least implied. I don't remember whether pneuma also denotes wind.

I don't think prana and qi can be directly associated with wind, but one Chinese way of thinking about qi was to say that qi wasn't merely the vital force flowing along meridians inside living things and natural phenomena; it was, instead, energy-- period. According to this way of thinking qi is everything, and everything is qi. That includes the wind, which can be seen as one of qi's many forms.

To be clear, I'm not implying that all of the terms discussed here are totally synonymous. They aren't. They each arise from their own distinct histories, and should be treated with due caution. What I hope I've done in this meditation is merely to note some interesting conceptual and thematic similarities, connections I perceive that may be worth further exploration.

And now I'm off to Biggs. It's a short walk today, about eight miles.

*In the French Jerusalem Bible, the verb used is planer, which is to glide.

**Pneuma, as a root, appears in modern English in contexts having to do with air (e.g., something pneumatic) or breath (e.g., pneumothorax, pneumonia); I can't think of a spirit-related use of the word outside the context of Christian theology, where the term pneumatology forms a triad with theology and christology.

***Scholar Victor Mair has done a great deal of work on the influence of yogic traditions on Chinese thought. While qi and prana might be distinct concepts, it's likely that the evolution of Chinese thinking about qi was influenced by India. This is almost certainly the case by the time we get to the neo-Confucianism of Chu Hsi.


the outcropping I was just on

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"...permanence at rest and permanence in motion: participants in the Power that remains." (Know the reference?)

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meanwhile, across the river, it's getting very, very brown

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feeling the river wind

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outcropping (very windy)

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the "beach" (stones remind me of Nice and its smooth pebbles)

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me, the big water, and a lump of concrete

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