Sunday, November 03, 2013

Pursuing excellence (before passion!)

Nota bene: I wanted to bang out a quick note to myself related to two ideas, K. Anders Ericsson's seminal piece The Making of an Expert, as well as Steve Martin's injunction to "Be so good they can't ignore you."  Astute readers of Cal Newport's excellent Study Hacks blog will note that this rehashes of some of his ideas; because originality is less interesting to me than authenticity (Auden), I'm writing it anyway.

Rather than going into history (I haven't the time) or musing on the impact on his professional development (I haven't the interest) I'll just quote:

Be so good they can't ignore you. — Steve Martin

It's a topic I want to explore more as I mentally gnaw on it, but fundamentally I think that Steve Martin hit the nail on the head, and succinctly. An expanded version comes as the subtitle given to K. Anders Ericsson's feature in the Harvard Business Review: "New research shows that outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not any innate talent or skill."  Of course HBR turns it into a mouthful.

Part of the reason I've been mulling on this is because, as I've come towards the end of my blistering eight-year bachelor track, I've wondered about where to go when it comes to a career and what to do once I'm an eligible bachelor on the prowl for employment. The standard line for years and decades has been to follow one's passion, but then the problem is that for 99 percent and change of today's workers, their work is so far removed from passion that if they weren't getting paid they wouldn't do it. Would you go perform your vocational role tomorrow if it were entirely decoupled from salary? If yes, congratulations.

The counter-argument to this would be the notion that all the best players in their perspective roles are those who are exceptionally passionate about what they do, from Yo-Yo Ma to Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey. Ignoring for the moment that Oprah "stood on the backs of little people!" to get where she is (thanks, Bill Burr!), I think saying that because they're passionate they're excellent performers could be putting the cart ahead of the horse a little bit.

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. — K. Anders Ericsson

Malcolm Gladwell is well known for his exegetic Outliers, which debunks the myth that performance is something with which a person is simply born. Terrifyingly and gratefully he puts the onus of excellence on the shoulders of the seeker and in so doing eliminates that particular "out" that people tend to cling to—by being absent of a particular talent, many then feel absolved of any responsibility to themselves or others to do what they can with what they've got. It's avoidance of the self-assessment that Ericsson says is so crucial.

Coming back to the cart and the horse, I think it's more likely that people at the tops of their professions—here Elon Musk or even Mark Cuban would be good examples—are passionate about what they do as almost a side-effect of their expertise, rather than the other way around. Instead of being passionate about a particular topic and therefore becoming excellent at it, it seems more likely that they developed proficiency and then passion followed. Indeed, Mr. Musk has said that his drive to perform is "disconnected from hope, enthusiasm, or anything else. … You just keep going, and get it done." Here you have likely the world's best applied engineer saying that he divorces his performance from his passion, which discipline is worthy of its own discussion at a future date. So I think it's more a question of getting really, really good at what you do (the best, if humanly possible), and then anticipating that that will translate into future passion.

The hanging-chad question for me is whether one becomes passionate about their specialty, or whether having a game-changing specialty simply lets you exercise it in a flexible direction. I'm teaching myself the programming language Python right now; were I to become the world's best through my 10,000 hours of dedication and devotion, does that mean that I'd become passionate about Python itself, or that I'd be able to simply leverage that skill into a place of interest? My gut says a mix of both, but that's open.

Either way, it's clear to me that the best path forward is one of patience, sacrifice and "honest, often painful self-assessment." I want what Mr. Martin said, to be so good that I can't be ignored. I'm working on it. It's slow. It's zig-zaggy. But it's fulfilling to look back and see progress.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I went out for a walk tonight, just up my street. It's curious: as terribly familiar as I am with the other side of Oberer Gaisbergweg—the German mouthful that is my lane—I had never walked more than two hundred feet uphill. Partially this is because it's quite steep and things tend to flow down; on top of that, I think I've never gone that way because it never seemed ripe for possibility the way going down into the city does. But tonight, I climbed.

Like I said recently, it's getting to be fall in Germany. The trees are magnificent shades of red and brown and orange, the air is crisp, and people are waking up as the cold creeps in. I love fall, and it's been a spectacular few days (I'll post photos soon, somewhere). But tonight it was utterly dark and windy as I meandered up the way, and to my surprise I discovered that at the end of my street there's a path into the forest of the Gaisberg. Having no flashlight on a moonless night and less than 10% battery left on my phone, it was naturally a perfect idea to wander into a forest where I couldn't see anything around me and was more or less ascending by feel. What could be wiser?

I don't think it's a surprise to anyone reading this blog when I say that faith has been very deeply on my mind for the last number of years as I've tried to mull over what I know and don't, and what I don't believe and do—and crucially, how apparent dichotomies between what I know and what I have been raised to believe should somehow be reconciled. It's a big part of why I came to Germany. It's a big part of why I haven't been active in the Mormon faith for the last year and change. It's a big part of who I am.

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. — René Descartes

It's not an easy place to be nor a light thing to say. When addressing it with ecclesiastical leaders at BYU there was always the quick and oft-repeated question of my personal behavior that turned me away from open dialogue. It felt so disingenuous, the notion that my questions must be because of moral failings, and not that I could simply be a person living correctly who was looking for answers to deeply personal questions of faith. Why would my being open about trying to believe instantly bring into question my character? If anything, I felt like it ought to solidify it. And to their credit, some treated it as a valid and necessary process towards faith that must happen if one is really seeking to find answers about the tricky parts of life. But ultimately, I felt like it was a tacitly forbidden topic when surrounded by so many people saying so confidently "I know."  How could they know? What did they really know? What am I missing?

As I wandered into the black forest (on the boundary of the Black Forest), I turned back to this topic and realized right away just how appropriate it was to be musing on doubt when walking through a place where I was sure to die, or worse, be killed. Ostensibly because of wind, but really because of serial killers hiding in trees, there were branches and things falling all around me and I had no way of knowing my path nor my destination as I trudged up that steep hill. That's not to say that it was bad, but it was an effort — and a curiously exhilarating effort at that (though I felt like I was letting Heisenberg down, knowing neither my position nor speed). At one point I thought I saw a light ahead, but it turned out that it was a distant helicopter I was walking towards, and fortunately I realized that before I fell to ruin where the path curved up the hill.

The great thing about musing on faith and doubt in the dark on a steep German hill with no lights nor cell service and no moon and a narrow path and crevasses and wind and trees looming and only the fear of being eaten by drop bears propelling you is that it gives very visceral physical form to the idea of seeking truth, in much the same way as Nephi's vision may have directed his way. By sheer luck (may one use that word when writing about faith?) I had remembered this quote from E. F. Schumacher only shortly before:

…through all our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites, which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled…we do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended — the power of love …Divergent problems, as it were, force us to strain ourselves to a level above ourselves; they demand, and thus provoke the supply of forces from a higher level, thus bringing love, beauty, goodness and truth into our lives. It is only with the help of these higher forces that the opposites can be reconciled in the living situation. — E. F. Schumacher

First of all, that quote is awesome. Secondly, I think it very really and deeply portrays why it's crucial in life to try to reconcile the opposites that bug us, or, as Descartes hinted at, to allow doubt to play its role. Indeed, Ambrose Bierce takes it further when he said "who never doubted, never half believed. Where doubt is, there truth is — it is her shadow." I hope and believe that there's tremendous value in accepting questions we may have. Coming from a Mormon background, I have questions about the history of the church and its leaders. I have questions about the existence of God. Some days I have questions about the existence of me (but then I think, and all is well). 

It was doubt I felt as I walked up the hill, both in the physical sense and in the meta-spiritual way that was all the more poignant in the darkness. Robert Service advises us in no uncertain terms to Carry On! when we're desolate in deserts of doubt, but is that the right action? Climbing, I could wonder if I was going anywhere at all, and I did have the very nagging feeling that if something went wrong it could be a while before someone discovered me. And taking the analogy further, the same could be said of my spiritual well-being if I persisted too long with these questions.

I'm so glad for the words of the Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Weston:

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief. Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief. The truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands. But those who fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on rock. They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure. 

Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth. — Robert Weston 

It's only recently in this journey that I've come to some sort of realization that doubt and faith may work together as "opposites, which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled." It seems to me now that there may or must be a third way between proclaimed knowledge and disbelief, where I can say that there are things that I don't understand—but that that is okay. That my asking questions is not only what makes me human, but is also what brings me closer to the divine, as I try my best to go forward each day with whatever faith I can muster. It gives me hope, and makes me glad. I may not know; instead, I can do as Lessing said and make sincere exertions to get to the truth. He said that it is by that pursuit that a man "extends his powers" and finds his "ever-growing perfectibility," which is such a glad thought. Maybe it's okay to strive and to seek and not to yield, even if this life isn't about finding. It's tension that makes us strong.

After walking for nearly six hours—or maybe twenty minutes—my dark and scary wood suddenly gave way to a beautiful view of the glimmering city below, perched on both sides of the peaceful Neckar river. And just as quickly all of this seemed to snap into place for me. It was peaceful up there, with the stars and quick clouds overhead and the faint sounds of people below. Life, with all its challenges, is most excellent, and it seems that the search for truth is one of the best fights there is. And while it's an uphill battle trying to reconcile faith and doubt, I feel like I'm on the right path.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Radical Simplicity.

This is a post on function.

I'm back in Germany, which means that I'm back—after a delightful wedding and a jaunt to Park City—to the daily grind of being a productive student. Ha. It's around 5AM, and thanks to the addling effects of jet lag I'm awake, and thinking about things that I want to change in my life in order to be better at studying, and generally just better at living. And for me, I think a key to that is radically simplifying what I do, when.

There are, I think, three principle steps I need to make to better change my focus from the banal to the effective:

  1. Taking care of myself
  2. Reducing distractions
  3. Underscheduling my time
Essentially, this post is supposed to be a guideline for specific steps that I want to take to be more focused—because the economics of behavior dictate that we'll sort of fall into a lowest-energy orbital in the decisions we make, the obvious goal of any system of improvements should be to reduce exposure to those lesser options. Remove them as choices and you can't choose them. 

It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom. - Aristotle

I read some time ago that it's very intentional that television ads at 6 AM are for BMW and Charles Schwab and that ads at 11 PM are for china dolls and Oxi Clean, in easy payments: whether someone considers themselves a night owl or not, virtually everyone is more effective in the morning. A similar spin on the same idea was this Chinese proverb quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: "No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich." It's easy enough for me today, with jet lag; making it sustainable could be a little more challenging.  With early rising, I'm also going to aim for at least eight hours of sleep a night, with nine hours blocked away being preferred.

Because I'm usually pretty good at exercise, I'll address that less here. It's simple enough to say that everyone out to aim for at least two to three hours of exercise a week, whether that means brisk jogging or killing themselves in cyclocross.  It keeps you happy and healthy, helps manage weight, improves focus and mental acuity, and even promotes cool things like the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor—and besides, happy people just don't kill their husbands. 'Nough said.

Discipline is the training which makes punishment unnecessary. - Pat Conroy

Now it's time for honesty as I get to point two: how much time do I spent per day on Facebook, Reddit, Quora (how ironic), computer forums, shopping sites, and other online time-killers? And how many times a day to I glance at my phone to see what's new on any one of the myriad communications channels there? Between social networks, email, and messaging, there are currently 12 different ways for someone to contact me on my phone — and counting the fact that it's a phone puts me up to a baker's dozen. That's insane, and that with hours of cheap browsing are unsustainable activities in an effective life. So I need to think on how to reshape the way I incorporate them into my school time: perhaps simple elimination of phone usage, and limiting email checks to thrice a day could be an answer. And then I can hit up Reddit after 5, when everyone is awake again anyway.

I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex. - Fred Rogers

Getting to the heart of it, the most important part for me will simply be to reduce the number of items I focus on to ensure that I'm not overbooking myself and losing the thread of important activities. Double majors have become the new undergrad degree in terms of impressiveness, and we're encouraged to tack on as many extracurriculars as possible, but what does that really show? In some sense, it probably shows that we're spread pretty thin. For me, the things I really care about are pretty narrow: school, learning some programming (next up, Python and advanced Excel), cycling, and experiencing Germany. Everything else is noise, roughly speaking.

The nice thing about narrowing things down is that it largely eliminates the stress of time, it promotes focus on the things that ARE important, and it leaves time for creativity and wholesome leisure—important things that fall too quickly by the wayside, and things that make people happy and whole.

I guess none of this is really news, and maybe none of this is even relevant for anyone else, but it's important for me: I waste too much time, and I could take better care of myself. I need to reduce the number of things I'm involved in, and focus on core competencies where I can improve. Radical simplicity is the key. Less is more.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hello again.

It's been a few years.

Life is good, but somehow writing—or at least, blogging—has fallen by the wayside. (To add to that, this blog badly needed pruning; from now on I'll let the chips fall.) But tonight seems to be the night for it, because I'm feeling pensive: slow rain is falling on my windows as I look out at the valley, and the breeze smells like fall. It's a Robert Frost sort of night.

A quick and arbitrary list of changes since my last post: I'm living in Germany now, having gone back and forth two and a half times in as many years; I'm a student at Washington State University, showing Information Systems who's boss; I just finished an internship with the software giant SAP and enjoyed it there; I'm on the right track for good employment and great life adventures.

Salty and wind-swept, but warm and glittering. Keeping in step with the measure under the fixed stars of the task. How many personal failures are due to a lack of faith in this harmony between human beings, at once strict and gentle. - Dag Hammarskjöld

An interesting side effect of wandering is a sort of wistful loneliness, which seems to be hanging around this evening. It's not a bad thing, necessarily: Charles Bukowski called isolation a gift when talking about the important of going all the way for your dreams. With any luck, that's where I am now. But the world is cool and quiet and it makes the thousands of miles to friends and family that much more poignant in my thoughts. What does it mean, that I choose to be here?

Yesterday I went to the Frankfurt International Auto Show, which was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Just to give an idea, the first hall we went into was Lamborghini, Bentley, Porsche, and Bugatti — and I don't think I stopped salivating for the ensuing eight hours. I sat in all sorts of cars, including the new Bentley Flying Spur, and decided that the BMW S1000RR is definitely the winner as far as sport bikes are concerned. But more interesting to me now was walking into the Frankfurt Flughafen Fernbahnhof (the railway station at the airport) to come back to Heidelberg and realizing that, to some degree or another, I've assimilated into the culture here — and then feeling that it's assimilated into me.

I've said over and over again that I'd love to live here; now it's happening, and it's at once right and terribly bewildering. As a person with two passports, I sometimes get the eery feeling that I'm a man without a country, straddling the Atlantic without a sure notion of where I really belong. When I was in an Apple Store on Friday, I talked to another dual citizen who's lived here for the last 30 years, and he said exactly the same. The way he explained it is that he didn't know where he would want to be buried, adding quickly that he hoped he had some time to think on it. It seems like that's the perfect way to describe it.

A friend of mine once wrote a sentence that's stuck in my memory: "When August comes, I will truly be alone in the city." I thanked her, then, for what she had to say on a Christmas Eve in the dark hours of night, but then that one sentence stuck around because it so clearly expressed to me what it's like to suddenly be expected to be an adult — suddenly expected to move up to the big leagues and pretend to know what life means and what to make of it. I'm certainly not there, and with the thoughts that I have as the person that I am, it remains the great intractable question that stays with me. But she kept dancing, and it's the most hopeful thing that could come from such a sentence.

For some, I think answers come in some form of religion or spirituality, or in a clearly defined purpose that drives them to the work. Some, having the laborious luxury of knowing their life's calling, have no choice but to push on in doing it. I don't know that I have any of those things. As Mr. Frost, I have walked out in rain and back in rain, and always at those moments that I'm acquainted with the night because I'm struggling to stay acquainted with myself, looking for answers or for a path or even just a breath of fresh air that gives me the quiet slumber that sometimes seeks to flee.

Men yearn for poetry though they may not confess it; they desire that joy shall be graceful and sorrow august and infinity have form... - E.M. Forster

I suppose this is all a roundabout way of asking where I ought to be and what I ought to do. My gut says that I should be here and that I really am on the right track, but that doesn't eliminate the ifs, the whats, and the whys of living. Does anyone figure those out? Question mark.

In the meantime, fall is coming. The rain has stopped and now I can hear the sound of the A5 Autobahn (Basel-Frankfurt) and raindrops slipping from the trees. Somehow it's a perfect season for me, as the weather cools and the nights grow longer, trees change and the stars lend themselves to chilly observation on the hoods of cars or blankets that soak through too quickly. Fall is coming, and it is good.

Friday, October 01, 2010

An American Evening

You should know that the reason I don't write more often is because I'm on the rocks with writing lately. Sometimes words are wonderful, and sometimes they're the last thing I want to see. My words. I'm undoubtedly my worst critic, and I've tried to write -- but then I throw away my attempts, disgusted. C'est la vie.

As I walked past a McDonald's this evening, I saw what I had to have: the 1955 Burger. I'm not making that up, and, if I'm honest, it's one of the tastiest pretend-burgers I've eaten in years. It brought me back to good ole '55, when a burger was still a burger. To a time when Elvis was doing his thing, only men were allowed to read the newspaper, and the real Bel Air was still just a twinkle in a Chevy designer's eye. Those were the days.

Of course, a burger is hardly the place to stop when you're having a good time, and I was in the mood this evening for Something Completely Different. Cinema is the word I was after. After poking around on my phone, I found what I was looking for, and decided to walk into the city rather than take the subway because I still had time. One of the best decisions I've ever made, too, because I saw the Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren Sterling Moss edition - another throwback to another time and another era, but this time with a staggering 650hp (and even more torques) coming from its blown V8. So help me, I'm naming my second son Sterling Moss Nelson in honor of that exquisite car. And as soon as I have €895,836 laying around (yes, it was that specific), I'm buying that car. Well, no, I'm not. But it was pretty. And if I had to guess, it goes like hell and sounds like heaven.

I'll always stop what I'm doing to talk cars. You know me. Back to it, though, I found out this evening that there's an English-language cinema here in Munich. Granted, German's no longer an obstacle for me, but dubbed movie are one of the dumbest inventions known to man. I've wanted to see The American, a new George Clooney film, but the last thing I want to hear is a German who sounds vaguely like Clooney having to cram his lines into the time while George's lips are flapping. With all respect due to my dear Germans, it's preposterous. A country that can make 250MPH trains and $15,000 surgical scissors should see the superiority in subtitles. But I digress. Again.

The point is, I'm down to 26 days left here. My second round of courses has started, and I'm now in the second-to-highest level of classes offered by Johann's Institute. I've learned a great deal, and I continue to learn. As far as the language goes, I'm at the first point in my life where I think I can admit to myself that my German is good. Not good enough, but good. I'm not ready to go back.

I came to Germany to plan as much as to study. Dad's death threw my life -- and with it, likely some of my psychological health -- into turmoil. I came to Germany then, and that's part of why I'm in Germany now: this place I love, this place where I often feel more at home than America, is somehow where I recharge. Reflect, renew, recoup, redirect, undoubtedly other re-'s too. (If you think of a particularly good one, do let me know.) Meandering back from the theater as I am now, it's raining lightly, drunks are returning from d'Wiesn (hint: Oktoberfest), the world is quiet - and I love it. Goethe Institute will look good on a résumé when combined with my major and my mission, and will hopefully help me stand out in an increasingly homogeneous world. But more, I'm where I belong.

It's about time I know exactly what I want to do, and I have a pretty good idea of how to get there. I have my pilgrimage to the Fatherland to thank for that. It's funny how these things work. And although I'm talking -- writing -- as though I leave tomorrow, I know I still have weeks ahead (and a trip to Italy!) to enjoy and to utilize. But seeing future as present has always been (to a fault) my modus operandi, hasn't it?

(And for those of you who were wondering, the movie was excellent - though deserving of its rating. Reminiscent of The Professional, and replete with absolutely brilliant cinematography... I love it when composition helps tell a story, and, in concert with Clooney's subdued acting, it did. My favorite euro-style film in a while.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Part One, Done.

After four weeks, my first of two intensive courses is done. 15 proud, brave souls withstood the test of time. Though made weak by time and fate, our strong will pushed us to strive, to seek, and to find* our way through what Mark Twain lovingly dubbed "That Awful German Language." We are the few and the proud.

I celebrated by going to the Oktoberfest then having a burger at McDonald's. At almost four in the morning. There's nothing like good Scottish food to buck you up, and it turns out that one of the things I enjoy most about being in Europe is the delightful spin they pit on American fast food.

In America, the Big Mac is the most recognized name in burgers. There's the Big'N'Tasty (I assume it's spelled something like that), and then there's the Whopper. They're pillars of our society, as cherished as american football and national debt. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In Germany, I've eaten the California Whopper (a slice of avocado serves as differentiation), the Big Tasty Bacon (which is a burger and not an oversized strip of pork, as the name would suggest), the Big Spicy (Tabasco sauce) - and in Austria I've savored the Spicy Mexican Whopper, a truly marvelous creation which rightfully earns its name thanks to the liberal sprinkling of cayenne pepper, DIRECTLY ON THE BUN.

Overlooking for the moment the fact that these burgers are a caricature of the continent I call home (sort of), I shall explain the process of ordering said meals. When in Germany, it's best to place your orders for things like Big Macs with as heavy a german accent as possible, because if you say american words like an American, they likely won't understand you. Instead of asking if you want the meal, they ask if it should be menü (think snotty french accent and you'll say it correctly), and at places like Burger King where you can Have It You Way, you don't ask for 'Speck' or 'Käse' on your burger, but rather 'bacon' and 'cheese' (never forgetting to pronounce those words slightly incorrectly so they understand). And at the end of it all, you eat your fries with mayonnaise -- which actually tastes amazing.

My suspicion is that I'm trying to illustrate a cultural point here, and to remove all delicate readerly pretentions, I'll come right out and say that Germans seem to like american stuff (question for readers: does one capitalize countries when used adjectivally?). I wouldn't go so far as to say it parallels Americans' love of german cars, bratwursts and low-cut dirndls, but it's there. And at 3:30 in the morning, when you're wandering a foreign city alone, it's a pleasure seeing those golden arches.

(I'm aware that I've openly admitted in this post to eating at least four fast food burgers while here, which far exceeds dietitians' recommendations of eating one every two thousand years. But I'll get back on my bike this winter and try to earn the forgiveness of my cardiovascular system.)

I now have five days until the next round of classes begin. My cyprusian friend Hector will still be in class with me, but otherwise it's a whole new ball game. We're now a step higher up the germanistics ladder and feel pretty self-important because of that move. The farewell yesterday had all the necessary elements, including an appropriate number of eyes experiencing elevated hydrosic states, and from this experience I have new friends hailing from all over the world. One of these days I'll tell you about how Saudis aren't actually all terrorists, not all Norwegians are blonde, and how I'm pretty sure my friend from Belarus isn't a KGB spy. In the meantime, I'm ready for a relaxing weekend and getting ready for another treacherous cycle of learning and sleeping. I love it.

*My sincerest apologies to Tennyson for using some of the finest words ever penned in a stupid and ironic way.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Salzburg and Zugspitze

On Sunday I spent most of the day doing things that would make my mother cry.

One should expect, when visiting different countries, that the culture there will be different. I've spoken about such overwhelming surprises before. Though very similar to the United States in many ways, Germans tend to be more strict and observant of some things (when trains leave trainstations, for example; I had an experience on Sunday which I MUST tell later), and much more lax about others. Here in Germany, sex and nudity have nowhere near the same taboo as they do in the United States, and the English Gardens that are across the street from my apartment are well known for their Frei Körper Kultur - their free stance on clothing when the sun is out. On Sunday, the weather was perfect and the sun shone warmly down on Germany.

Of course, that has nothing to do with me.

My mother is deathly afraid of heights. Comically so (sorry, mom). It's absolutely hilarious seeing her trying to cope with dizzying heights that I take absolutely for granted. Sidewalks, for example. And as I travelled Sunday to the Zugspitze -- a very high place indeed -- I couldn't help but think of mom and the precarious perch on which I found myself.

The Zugspitze is the tallest mountain in Germany, at 2962 meters - or, as we cowboys like to say, 9718 feet. (We cowboys would also like to take a moment to point out that such a low peak is sissy stuff that can hardly be called a mountain.) It's located in the southernmost section of Germany -- the border with Austria actually crosses THROUGH the station at the top of the mountain -- and is only 35 miles away from Italy. The most amazing thing about the Zugspitze, however, is the gondola from the Eibsee to the top.

My mom's fear of heights is a recessive gene which I have the misfortune of not experiencing as part of my phenotype. I'm quite the opposite, actually, so whenever I see something really tall I want to climb it. It's compulsive, and you'll be pleased to hear that I'll be pursuing psychological help for it back in the States where the doctors are a little less freudian (dear germans: that was a joke). And because of all that, the gondola to the top was this magical, cathartic experience which has changed my life forever, or until I find some taller / more dangerous ride. The car gains 1950 meters of elevation during its ascent up the side of the mountain, and continues to be the highest single-section ascent of any gondola in the world. I rocked that.

Up at the top it was sunny and simply gorgeous, and I enjoyed Rouladen and Spätzle as I looked south across the Tirolian Alps towards northern Italy. We took a different cable car part of the way back down, then I enjoyed the masterpiece of german engineering that is the cog-train that they have running through the mountain almost to the peak. It's incredible, and will definitly make me more appreciative of the german engineering in teutonic luxury cars I plan on owning in the future.

We sauntered over to another one of Germany's tallest peaks (and by sauntered, I mean took the train) and there I experienced one of the more intense "heights" moments of my life: someone decided it would be a good idea to build a 50-foot-long platform there which extends out over absolutely nothing, just to enjoy the view. And when I say absolutely nothing, I mean almost a kilometer of freefall would occur were it to break, and I'd be falling for about 18 seconds (if my maths are about right) before suddenly encountering the ground at nearly terminal velocity. If "I think, therefore I am" is a determiner of being I would, in that moment, cease being very, very quickly. The bottom of the platform is made of grated metal, and it was an...interesting...experience looking through it as I walked to the end of the platform and my certain demise. Gratefully, I haven't been demised yet.

We didn't get back to Munich until almost 11 o'clock at night, and I was ready to crash. One thing I've noticed is how much walking I do here compared to in the states. Even with a spectacular public transportation system, my travelling needs (I know, I don't need to travel somewhere every weekend) dictate that I spend a lot of time on my feet. That, coupled with language classes determined to kill me slowly whilst verbessering my german, mean that I'm sleeping a lot these days. I love it.

I spent the day doing things that would make my mother cry. But I think she still loves me anyway.

PS: I also went to Salzburg this weekend. It was gorgeous. Go there. I'm in love with that city. Best in the world, as far as I'm concerned.

PPS: These pictures aren't mine. Mine are better. And when I have the software again to deal with my camera, I'll prove it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bowling and Jazz

On Sunday I went to Salzburg, and it was one of the highlights of my life. I've never seen such a beautiful city - it's enough to make one's heart ache for the joy of it. I walked probably 12 miles while I was there, and one of the best moments was eating lunch (Spätzle noodles with mushrooms and this sauce consisting of a mixture of tomatoes and ambrosia) in Salzburg's mountain castle while looking out over the city. Words fail me.

I've been trying to think about how one would describe Salzburg, and it just doesn't work. I love the place; go there. Done.

What I can say, though, is that all of you have a new goal in life, and it should be at the top of your lists: watching Europeans bowling. Seriously. On Monday evening the Goethe Institut had an evening at the lanes, and I've never seen anything like it. In America it's reasonably common for people to know what bowling is supposed to look like. For europeans, I have discovered that this is not the case*. The sheer breadth in (shoddy) techniques demonstrated was alone worth the price of admission. One girl would stand still at the beginning of the lane, swing her arm (and the ball) at least half a dozen times before letting go. Another guy would walk slowly towards the lane while holding the ball to his side with both hands, then rotate his whole torso as he sort of set the ball down into the lane. Another girl would put the ball on the ground then push really hard to get it rolling. It was wonderful, and now I understand why curling must be such a great spectator sport - because it's absolutely and utterly preposterous watching people do things this way. I *loved* it.

This evening we went to a jazz club that's rated in the top 50 in the world. It was in the cellar of this old building in Munich, and it had this awesome ambiance that made you think Jack Kerouac was just around the corner, putting something interesting in his blood so he'd be ready for another four-page-long sentence. There was a Steinway grand on stage, and off to the side the bar had just the right mixture of old-world character mixed with modern german efficiency. And that's not even the music.

My hat's off to the pianist. His name was Matthias, and that guy could do incredible things with a piano. Everything from interesting chord progressions to perfectly-timed hemiolas you didn't even see coming to some arpeggios he threw in at the end that were possibly the highlight of the show. The percussionist was excellent, the bass player very good, the saxophonist (and leader of the band) was passable, but the singer --- she was amazing.

I've often wondered what it would have been like to experience some of the jazz greats - Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, Red Garland. Well, after hearing the singer tonight I now think I can understand what it would be like to hear the great Ella Fitzgerald singing. With a head cold. And swimmer's ear. Having learned English from cartoon reruns on Nickelodeon and from karaoke bars in Asia. Inebriated. And singing about 4 times closer to the mic than could ever sound good. Like I said, the singer was astonishing. (The rest of the band really was great, though. That pianist. Wow.)

My studies at the institute seem to be going well. Today we were talking about the similarities between Subjunctive 1 and 2 when discussing past events before my brain finally gave out, but that means I lasted most of the day. I'm finding that I still need at least nine hours of sleep a night here, and I'm sure on Friday night I'll again sleep more than 12 - I don't know what it is, just so much about the language that I'm systematically experiencing. I love it.

It's nearly one in the morning and I need to be off to sleep. I didn't even touch on some of the great experiences I've had in the institute; those will need to wait 'til later. Bis dann!

*I love making sweeping generalizations like that. Of course there were a few excellent players; they were just the vanishing minority.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Word from the Editor

I've heard from a few sources that there's been some confusion about my last post, i.e., that the Goethe Institut is easy or I'm not taking it seriously or something. Allow me to assure you that that isn't the case.

The "cultural awareness" class to which I was referring was a pre-departure seminar I was required to take at BYU. While it could be helpful in other circumstances, possibly, hypothetically, conceivably, it wasn't in my case. The Goethe Institut itself is brilliant, in its scope and structure and in the highly professional way the classes are taught. There is a methodical order to everything done here which ensures that at the end of each day my brain is DONE. On Friday night I slept 19 hours as part of the recovery process from the prior week. I didn't even know that was possible.

I went to Salzburg on Sunday, and per my norm, I have something to say about that. But that'll have to wait until after classes today. Bis dann!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Problem with Experts.

So I'm sitting in the middle of Munich right now. As we speak. As I'm writing. It's dark outside and the furthest into the night sky I can see is the towering Rathaus (city council building) ahead of me. There are hundreds of people milling in this large square, and a little down the street a performer is playing Tchaikovsky on a marimba. The church bells all around just started ringing because it's now 9 o'clock at night - so considerate of them to remind us.

If you have the opportunity to go to a foreign country through school or work, they're probably going to put you through a program like the one I had to experience. There I learned that different cultures are different, that sometimes they have different foods and sometimes the weather in different parts of the world can be different than Utah. Absolutely mind-blowing stuff. Who knew? Probably the best bit they told me, though, was about stages of acclimation:
1. When you get to a new country it's amazing and charming and beautiful and life-changing. But then,
2. You start to notice differences between where you used to live and where you live now. Sometimes that makes you afraid and you start spending a lot of time with people more similar to you.
3. Something else.
4. Eventually you come to appreciate that the new culture is different, and you'll probably learn to like it about as much as you can - maybe as much as your old culture, if your new one is cool like Germany.

I wish I were the one paid to write that. I'd enjoy it so much, and then to get paid besides would be amazing! Anyway, the point is, that training comes to mind as I sit here and watch and listen and feel german. The people, the food, the culture and history, the smells and sounds. Without such advice, I'd never be here.