Sunday, January 20, 2008

Stanford Silliness

I've been captivated by the concept of layers lately, particularly as it intersects with principles of design. I just returned from a trip to Stanford, where I gave two presentations to foreign language teachers from the San Francisco Bay area centered on these ideas. One was called The Learning is in the Layers, and another extended ideas from that presentation to address issues of leadership and advocacy.

I stayed at the Stanford Guest House, which is located on the grounds of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The people watching was quite interesting because a number of visiting scientists were staying there. I chatted with a German PhD student who was visiting the U.S. for the first time. He had just come from Berkeley and was waiting for time in the labs at Stanford to see if he could calibrate the measurements he took at Berkeley. Rather than send him back to Germany and then fly him back to Stanford, they told him to hang out at Stanford for 10 days. Trusting (or desperate) soul that he was, he asked for help with the ATM (that multiples of 20 thing confused me at first too), and when I didn't rob him of the $200 he extracted, I expect he figured it was safe to continue chatting. ;-)

It was interesting to hear his perspectives on the U.S.--everything is so big, there is so much space, and we have so many choices everywhere we go. From my own travels abroad, I thought I knew exactly what he meant with respect to grocery stores, size, and space. However, I quickly discovered that I hadn't thought carefully enough about it. Consider this abbreviated version of his description of a typical restaurant experience in the U.S.:

Meal - "Which meal do you want?" (From a very thick menu of choices)
Appetizers - "Do you want an appetizer with that?"
Soup or Salad - "Do you want soup or salad?"
Salad - "Do you want a caesar salad or the house salad?"
Dressing - "Bleu Cheese, French, Ranch, Thousand Island, or Vinagrette?"
Timing - "Do you want that brought out right away or with the meal?"
Sides - "Beans, rice, or potato?"
Potato - "Baked potato, fries, or mashed potatoes?"
Steak - "Rare, medium, medium well, or well done?"
Drink - "Coffee, juice, milk, pop, tea, or water?"
Pop #1- "Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, etc."
Pop #2 - "Caffeine free, diet, or regular?"

He explained that he was exhausted and overwhelmed before he ever even picked up his fork!
It reminded me of a fabulous book I've been reading called The Paradox of Choice. The author explains how too many choices just make us ambivalent and grumpy. I only got about half-way through it before my work drew me into other things, but I'm looking forward to dipping back into it.

Meanwhile, I came to question how Mr. German Guy ever formed his perspectives on the American restaurant experience because I quickly discovered that Stanford doesn't believe in feeding its visiting scientists! ;-) There is no restaurant in the guest house, and the nearby cafeteria is closed on weekends (and has pretty limited hours during on the weekdays). While my hosts provided meals, my tummy wasn't on CA time, so I ended up walking about 2 miles to a nearby strip mall with a little grocery store and stocking up on midnight snacks.

While I was there, a colleague of mine who was in a doctoral program at MSU and has since transferred to Stanford picked me up and took me to campus town for an exquisite dinner of lamb in yogurt sauce with pomegranate. (I haven't been able to duplicate it yet, although I found that I still make a mean lambchop!)

When he found out I hadn't yet toured the campus and would not have the opportunity to do so before leaving town, he kindly drove me into campus and we walked a good chunk of it at 10:30 at night! It was . . . imposing. It is one place where the photos don't even begin to do it justice (and, unfortunately, I didn't take my camera with me that evening).

Legend has it that the Stanford Family tried to donate money to Harvard, were snubbed, and decided to start their own university. The university's website offers a much longer, and much more sanitized version. It was great fun to be hearing such tales as we walked under the giant columns and admired the grandeur of the buildings that had so many features of Spanish architecture. What struck me most about it is that although every building is large and majestic, the entrances to the buildings are very close to one another--just a short walk across small plazas, and every plaza and every building seemed connected to every other by the stone plazas and covered walkways. So, unlike a large university like MSU where all the buildings seem to proclaim the importance of individual schools within the university, at Stanford, no matter where you are, you feel like you are a part of something larger than any individual college--you are a part of something that has been around for a long time, something important. You feel like you are a part of Stanford. It was a very cool feeling, and interesting to feel how much architecture could play such a strong role in making one feel connected to an existing community.

It is not without its quirks, though. The funniest thing ever were Jim's stories about the new bicycle roundabouts that have been recently installed on campus. Evidently, bicyclists were crashing into each other and pedestrians at various high density areas on campus so regularly that roundabouts have now been installed in an attempt to address the problem. I'll post photos as soon as he sends me some.

My 2007 Christmas Card

So, I like to think that the fact that I'm two months behind with my blog posts is evidence of incredible self-control and phenomenal self-discipline! I am trying to stay focused on the task of finishing up my graduate work, and when one is in that mode, it is amazing to see how the generally inconsequential magnetism of many things is suddenly magnified, transforming them into powerful distractions!

I don't suppose anyone will buy that argument with respect to the fact that this is now the fourth year that I have not sent Christmas cards to anyone! The worst part of that is that I enjoy putting them together and sending them out. Typically, I do something creative--a poem, a newspaper, or whatever, and I usually try to include a personal note as well. The first year I moved here, I started putting together a very cool CD that I was very excited about sending out to everyone. You've heard of unfinished symphonies? Well, that remains my "unfinished CD." (If you say it really fast, it almost sounds like "unfinished symphony!" Gotta love that assonance!) Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to finish it and send it out NEXT Christmas! Sadly, though, it is true that you get taken off of most people's Christmas card lists if you don't send cards out every year. So, I officially have almost no friends now. I suppose one could view that as an interesting test! Who still writes after 4 years?! ;-)

All of that to say that I think the two photos below will have to suffice as my Christmas card.

The Pathetic Christmas Letter

I have now traveled enough to have favorite airports. I love Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis, for example (and absolutely detest Cincinnati and Kansas City). That wasn't such a big surprise, but I was shocked to realize during the trips I made in December that I have favorite attractions and restaurants in particular terminals of each of those airports! Here is one of them:

I took this first shot during a layover in the Detroit airport. As usual, on that particular day, I was entranced by the geometry of it (and, anyone who knows me professionally will be amused by the prominent multiplicity of triangles in the photo). It is a beautiful, concrete representation of much of my thinking about cognition, culture, perspective, and the ways in which the secular and the spiritual interact.

This second shot is the actual Christmas card. For those of you who haven't ever been through the Detroit airport, there is a large fountain that sits in the center of a busy plaza-like area. The fountain is basically a large black circle that drops right to the floor. Unlike most fountains, there is no retaining wall or pool around it. The water just slides right over the edge and, presumably, down into drains underneath it. The other thing that makes the fountain so glorious is the way it works. After a period of complete stillness, it begins to shoot little rods of water out in random little patterns (yes, I know randomness is not usually a characteristic that one associates with patterns--although if you've read any chaos theory . . . ). The little rods of water are of varying sizes and they literally leap from one side of the pool, shoot through the air, float there, suspended, and land gracefully on the other side of the pool. It is incredible to see water in its liquid state appear to have such a discernible, solid form and shape. In fact, in some other photos I took, you cannot tell that they aren't solid rods coming directly out of the fountain.

Not only are the flexible little rods gorgeous, but every time I pass the fountain, I have the thought, "Now THAT is what joy feels like." It is a visual representation of joy--simple, elegant, yet full of richly complex layers that are indescribably meaningful and profound.

And THAT is what I wish for each of you this new year--that you'll feel inside the way this fountain makes me feel . . . full of joy!