A Moment in the Woods

Oh, if life were only moments,
Even now and then a bad one.
But if life were only moments,
How’d you ever know you had one?
-The baker’s wife, from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim

A year at Oxford has been a moment in the woods. It has been a year in a temporary bubble, away from people, places, and the pressures of life. To say Oxford is a fairytale is not far from the truth. JK Rowling did not invent Hogwarts. She described a year of a student at Christ Church College. Tolkien did not imagine Middle Earth. He wrote about the shires of the surrounding countryside. Lewis Caroll did not dream up Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. He embellished what he saw.

Sylvesters, a black-tie celebration in June, was the beginning of a long goodbye. It was here, during the class superlatives awards, where one realizes that nine months is all it takes to be able to share a communal laugh. That nine months is all it takes for one to induct new members into their inner circle of friends. And that nine months is not nearly enough time to hear 239 stories of how one arrived at Oxford.

Like Alice and Harry soon discovered, being in wonderland has its perils. Alice nearly got her head chopped off and Harry’s life was always in danger. We too had our trials and tribulations, our frustrations and criticisms, and our doubts and worries. But the biggest challenge of wonderland is leaving it behind. On the outside, life is not spent running after the Mad-Hatter and eating imaginary cakes, but it is a place where one has to face issues – jobs, obligations, familial and societal responsibilities. The lessons learned in the safety of wonderland are to be applied to the problems that are prevalent in our wider communities.

The goodbyes at the graduation ceremony in September, like at any graduation, were difficult. All throughout the day, people said goodbye with a sense of finality – as if our time together was ending. But is that really true? Yes, our time has ended as classmates, but our time has just begun as peers. True, as we spread across the globe, some of us will never cross paths again; but we are all separated by a single phone call. As I flew over the Atlantic, all I could think of was “what a small pond!”

I was amused at how similar the first few days were with the last few days. The prevailing question at the beginning, “what did you do?” was asked so many times that the answer became trite. Likewise, the question at the end, “what are you going to do?” achieved the same level of annoyance. As we move forward, we will ask each other with great curiosity and genuine interest, “What have you been doing?” Given the different paths we are taking, I am sure the answer will never be the same and it will always be fascinating.

Be seeing you…

S. J. Russell

Street Fare

I think most people have a love-hate relationship with street festivals. They are fun, enjoyable and are a welcomed break from the repetition of life. However, they are also expensive, crowded, and cause traffic jams in normally sane parts of town. I tend to avoid street festivals because the activation energy to overcome the latter tends to outweigh the benefits of the former. It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy them – if I run across one by happenstance, I will generally spend some quality time at it and take pleasure in their surprises. So when I ran into three street festivals in three different cities in the same weekend, I knew that it would be hopeless to resist the urge to buy a deep-fried Twinkie.

The weekend started inauspiciously. I needed to go to work on a Saturday and I found that the road to the office was blocked off. The Armed Services Day parade wound through downtown and a large swath was transformed into a pedestrian-only haven. By the time I found parking, I had to walk over a mile to the office in the rain. And uphill. Both ways. (Which was technically true! The office is near the top of one hill and I parked on top of a different one.) When I got to the office, I realized that not only did I have a bird’s eye view overlooking the parade, but I also had undampened acoustics from the nearly twenty creatively off-key high school marching bands below. Drowning out the cacophony with Tristan und Isolda was largely unsuccessful, but John Cage would have been proud of the attempt.

Festivals, in general, are full of amusing juxtapositions. The St. Giles fair in Oxford was by far on one extreme, with a Ferris Wheel next to 16th century architecture, cotton candy sold next to a martyr’s monument and a ring toss next to a medieval graveyard. Sweden takes full advantage of a short summer season by cramming many festivals into their long summer days. Their Restaurant Festival featured the top cuisines from Sweden, Russia, China and the Middle East. The International Festival was catered by Russian, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Swedish restaurants. The Midsummer’s Party had booths from China, the Middle East, Sweden, and Russia while the American Festival had…well, you get the idea. Vikingfest in Poulsbo had a Lukefisk eating contest. What’s Vikingfest, where’s Poulsbo and what is Lukefisk, you may ask? All I will say is, “You’re not missing much.”

But I digress. The deep-fried Twinkie was quite good. It was of a limited-vintage strawberry-crème filling variety that has seasonal availability. It was gently battered and expertly fried, such that there was a crispy outside that complemented the moist cake and crème on the inside. A dusting of powdered sugar, a generous dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of caramel enhanced the natural flavor of the Twinkie without over powering it. But as good as the deep-fried Twinkie was, it was completely left in the dust by the gooey goodness of the deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That was simply heavenly.

S. J. Russell

Oceano

Voyage: Getting to Know the Ital Oceano

So here I was, flying to Savannah to board my freighter. I was nervous, for no one I knew had ever traveled by freighter before. As we landed, we passed over the port itself. From above, the ships looked like miniature game pieces from Axes and Allies and the containers themselves looked like the blue, orange, red and white roads from the Settlers of Catan. My heart raced, both for the excitement of the upcoming journey, but also for nervousness as to whether this was the right decision.

After landing, I called the port, as instructed by the travel agency. The operations manager was very friendly, but confused. “Now, wait a minute, why do you want to go on board?” she asked, with a southern drawl.
“Um…I am the passenger on the ship?” I replied hesitantly.
“Oh.” There was a long pause. “So you’re a paying passenger?”
“Yes I am.”
“Oh, Ok.” Another pause. “Does the captain know your coming?”
“Um…I hope so?” Through the rest of the conversation, she gave me directions on how to enter the port and where to go. When we hung up, I had an uneasy feeling that I would be an unwelcomed guest.

Thus you can imagine my apprehension while boarding the vessel. The 212 meter long ship dwarfed the taxi I was in. I made my way cautiously up the gangplank and was greeted by two Filipino crew members who welcomed me aboard with smiles and laughter. They probably noticed my discomfort as they took down my ticket and passport information, but the more they joked, the more uncomfortable I became. It seemed as if they were merely putting up with me.

A big non-smiling Caucasian walked into the ship’s office wearing white overalls and took a look at me. In thickly accented English, he said “Are you the passenger?” After answering in the affirmative and showing him my papers, he said, “Well, I was not expecting you, but perhaps the captain knows you are arriving. Come with me. I will show you to your cabin.” With that he turned around and took off.

“Great,” I thought to myself. “The port agent was right. They don’t know that I’m coming on board.” My fears of being a parasite were coming to fruition. He led me to a very small elevator and we went to the 7th floor. While in that small space, I learned that he, Petar, was the second officer and a Montenegrin. We arrived at a door marked “Owner” and he said, “This is the officer’s deck. This is your cabin.”

I took a cursory glance. Everything in the room was white, giving it a clean but sterile look. It was of the size of a comfortable single with its own shower. There was a bed, desk, bookshelf, closet, couch and table. Everything was tightly bolted down to the floor or the wall. In effect, it looked like a prison cell.

He continued with his instructions. “Dinner is at 5:30 on Deck A. We set sail at midnight.” I looked at my watch. It was 3:00, nine hours before undocking. As he turned to leave, I realized I had no idea if I was supposed to stay in my room for that entire time. “Excuse me but, is there any place on board that I should not go?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Go anywhere you’d like. The bridge is right there.” He points up the staircase. “Just don’t go on deck. You need a hard hat and safety training.” With that, he left.

I began to unpack and took stock of what would be my room for the next two week. There was a window over the bed and I was pleased that I had an unobstructed view of the shipyard. I found a mini-fridge under the desk. There were electrical outlets to plug in my laptop. I was pleasantly surprised that the walls were magnetic. It made it easier to attach my map of the world with some souvenir magnets.

I started to wander down the staircase, opening any door that did not look like a personal room or say “Restricted”. Quickly, I located the laundry room, recreation room, a ping pong table, a pool and the mess hall. I ran into the 2nd engineer, a German raised in Lithuania who offered a tour of the engine room. We descended below deck and entered a cavernous chamber painted green-and-white. On the way down, we pass a spare piston that was taller than a human. Then we saw the engine, all 50 feet of it with 8 of those pistons. We continued descending for three stories to reach the base and saw the 2.5 foot shaft attached to the propeller outside the hull. It makes a mean whirling sound that makes migraines seem tame. After the tour, I told the 2nd engineer how impressed I was by the engine. He shrugged his shoulders and said through his thick Russian accent, “This small motor. Last one was three times larger for a ship three times bigger.” All I could think of was “wow.”

I returned upstairs to visit the bridge. Outside of it was an ominous red lightbulb and a large “Restricted” sign. But Petar said I could go, so hesitantly I opened the door, half expecting to be chewed out by someone, but found it quite deserted. The view was amazing. Below us were rows and columns of containers all neatly stacked one on top of another like Legos. Two giant cranes towered above. A steady stream of trucks drove alongside the ship with containers and the cranes would grab one and place it neatly on the ship. I looked up and saw the lone operator controlling the crane and moving containers at a rate of more than one per minute. The crane, I realized, was the ultimate power tool. What an adrenaline rush it must be to operate a 15 story tall piece of machinery?

At dinner, I met the captain. He is Romanian, but spoke perfect English. He too welcomed me on board and after a quick conversation, invited me to the bridge for the launch. At midnight, I made my way up to the darkened bridge where I met the River Pilot, who was responsible for guiding us out into the ocean. He sat at the front of the bridge and beckoned for me to join him. For the next two hours, we talked about hiking, fishing, Europe, traveling, and all the subjects we could think of. Every once and awhile, he would give coordinates to the navigator as we maneuvered around the sand bars.

As we entered the open ocean, I stared out into the black horizon. The bright orange halo from the street lights became fainter as more and more stars became visible in the darken sky. But no matter how black the sky became, the sea was a darker, purer shade of black. Out here, there were no landmarks, no gas stations or 7-11s to take a left at. We were completely dependent on our electronic gadgets, gyroscopic compass, radar, GPS, etc., for navigational support. I felt sympathy and respect for the renaissance sailors who could navigate in these conditions with only magnetic compass and a sextant.

That night, as I lied in bed, all I could think of was what an amazing day it had been. I could feel the bare excitement of the open ocean. I was in a world that only seamen see and experience. The next 15 days were to contain some very unique moments that could only be experienced on a vessel. I would find out that Petar was a very gentle and kind person after you got to know him. But that first night threw away all doubt about traveling by freighter. I knew that I did belong, and was looking forward to the journey across the Atlantic.

http://wp.me/p3eIPI-JE

S.J. Russell

Memphis

Memphis Journal

 

When most people hear of the town Memphis, they think of the ancient Egyptian capital of the first Nome of Lower Egypt that existed from around 3100 BC to 1300BC. Unbeknown to most, there is also a Memphis right here in our backyard, located in the state of Tennessee.

There are a few must-go places in Memphis that will make or break your trip. The first place you should go is to the airport. This is especially true if you fly into the city. As you get off of your plane you will see a few of FedEx planes – well over a hundred to be exact. Memphis is the central facility of all FedEx central facilities. Anywhere else, you will see a fleet of trucks and delivery vehicles. But here in Memphis, you will see a fleet of planes, ready to transport important cargo to all corners of the globe. On the far side of the airport, near a very small cargo building, there were two UPS planes. I was surprised that there were so many.

Schnucks is a name for a supermarket chain. Isn’t that a great name? It rolls off of your tongue far better than “Stop and Shop” or “Albertsons”. Schnucks also sounds a lot like schmuck. Schmuck, by the way, is the Yiddish word for jewel. To say “Schnucks is a schmuck” sounds far better than saying “Schnucks is a jewel.” To say “Albertsons is a schmuck” does not have the same ring, but saying “Albertsons is a jewel” sounds much better. However, any schnook that says Schnucks a jewel must be a schmooze, as no self-respecting schmuck would be that schmaltzy.

Different regions of the US all have their own regional foods, but rarely does the aroma of that dish permeate the entire city. Indeed, as you stroll down Beale Street listening to Jazz and Blues, you cannot escape the sweet smell of hickory barbequed ribs as it wafts out of every restaurant. Beale street is one of the few “five senses” streets that I’ve seen. You see history, you hear music, you feel the bass through your bones, you smell the barbeque, and you salivate for a taste of it. Remarkable, isn’t it?

So that is Memphis in a nutshell. Yes, there is by far more to see of Memphis than the Airport and a supermarket chain and there is more to eat than just ribs. But who in their right mind would skip all of that in order to see Graceland, a Redbird baseball game or the Civil Rights museum? I didn’t.

S.J. Russell

Time Wasting

The Sound of Time Wasting

Consider the drive from Seattle to San Francisco. If done at a good pace without pushing oneself, the trip can take a good two working days, including meals, rest stops and an overnight stay. It certainly can seem like wasted time with that many hours spent on the open road. Yet it was incredibly relaxing to allow the mind to go numb for two straight days; to have the eyes fixated on nothing but the horizon off in the distance; to meander through miles of mountainous highway and forests of alpine trees. While at a rest stop near Mount Shasta, I realized that there had not been a need for a single coherent thought for over 24 hours. Luxury.

Perhaps it is the moving of boulders. A friend and I do periodic upkeep of a Frisbee golf course. Since it is deep in a wooded area, we find ourselves doing mundane tasks of clearing trails or moving fallen logs. We also end up creating more work for ourselves than necessary, such as when we decided to delineate some of the tee pads with boulders. Armed with a wheelbarrow, a pickaxe and a shovel, we pushed, pulled, rolled and heaved several rocks nearly 150 pounds apiece to their final resting places. After digging some trenches and burying half the rock into the ground, we congratulated ourselves for the completion of three new areas for launch. That evening, I slept far more soundly and deeply than any other night in recent memory. Bliss.

Or is it the triviality of silly games? BBC Radio 4 features several light-hearted programs where the enjoyment comes from the gentle breeze of time passing rather than intense intellectual stimulus. Shows, such as Just a Minute, where the object is to speak for sixty seconds on any subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition may sound simple, but hilarity ensues when one tries to do it. Others, like I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, are merely a string of mindless feats, like Singing One Song to the Tune of Another. They are simple in their setting, difficult in their execution, amusing to listen to when done poorly, and exciting to hear when done properly. Joy.

Sitting very still in a field for several hours may qualify too. It doesn’t matter whether the purpose is to stare at a picturesque stump in the middle of a pond on a breezy afternoon or to sit outside of a barn while enjoying the music from the Olympic Chamber Music Festival. In both of these situations, one just soaks in the surrounding – a feast of colors for the eyes or a kaleidoscope of sounds for the ears. In both situations, stresses just melt into the ground and the inertia to get up and leave is immense. Peace.

But it might be the running around from one coffee meeting to another on one’s own time. It might be the choice of working late nights or early mornings or both, when necessary. It might be the frequent socialization and networking to stay on top of industry news. It might be the speaking at industry events to advance a solution or the creation of partnerships that streamline business processes. It might be the ability to work remotely. Liberty.

Which one(s) is it? Perhaps we will never know.

S.J. Russell

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