Thursday, 28 June 2012

Monday, 11 June 2012

World-Tripping: The Mighty Eagle - Jayhawks and Empires

[Note: this is the second in a two-part post - go here for the first bit]

I did not see a Twister. I did not see a farm on the prairie. What I did see was corn. Lots of corn. Yes you have it correct - after my three weeks at Princeton University I went to Kansas. According to most I told, the most boring state to visit.

Fancy Shmancy neh?
Well, it may not be New York or California but Kansas is where my buddy Baked Beans (in future to be referred to as BB) from my CT days is based and so that's where I happily flew to. Well, technically I flew into Montana. The Kansas City Airport is in Montana according to state lines. That I do not understand but it's on the border so I guess they both own it - Kansas in the name and MO in the postal address so everyone stays happy, if a little confused. BB had graciously organised with a car-owning friend of his (more about him later) to fetch me from the airport and from then it was a mere 45-ish minutes to Lawrence, home of the Rock Chalk Jayhawks, which was to be my home for four days.

Lawrence is very much a university town, much like our own Stellenbosch or Grahamstown; towns which pump during the school season but visit the tome when the students are away. At least that's what BB tells me. I got there just after he finished exams so there were still a few students around but apparently I missed out on all the hype. I also wasn't there for basketball season which is when everyone goes CRAZY! They're very proud of their Jayhawk basketball team (men's team of course). That friend I mentioned earlier? He was certainly a fan.

That would be a dinosaur bone... Nom nom nom.
Sport-pride-madness aside, it really was quite a nice place. BB took me around much of the campus and I saw the sites. You'll see me with the Jayhawk himself, as well as at their Natural History Museum which I felt a tad surprised to see. They had some fantastic exhibits at least. The fluorescent geology was one of the coolest. I knew that some sea creatures glowed in the dark or under black light, but rocks? Too cool for school. Or perhaps, just cool enough.

Me with the mascot figure - kinda looks like a chicken to me...
My four-day trip ended up being full of little things that blew my mind. One of these involved one of the best night-on-the-town's that I have had. On one of the first nights I was there we went out clubbing. I think it was in Lawrence but it could just have easily been the next town over - the details are a bit hazy. No no no, stop the judgy face. It's hazy because of the time lapse, not because I can't remember the night. I can. And it was fantastic fun. Unfortunately said friend couldn't come with us (BB tried his hand at teasing me mercilessly about that and succeeded) but even without him and the minor flirtations that I'm sure would have ensued, it was fun fun fun! Started out in a sports bar (I'd been having a lot of fun in these it seems) where we had a beer or two, played some pool and foosball and probably looked ridiculous doing so as myself and the one other girl in our party were in a dress and heels. Yes, yes, not my usual attire (I compromised by wearing jeans underneath - it was chilly). Anyhoo, after the pub we went to the club whose name I cannot remember. The combination of champagne (pre-drinks), a shot or two and the knowledge that I would probably never see any of those people again meant that I danced the night away. And damn did I dance. Shy, self-conscious me in the middle of the circle putting the moves on. I think even BB was surprised. I'll have to ask him if I remember. The mind-blowing part came when at precisely 02:00 the music stopped (mid-song), the lights came on and everyone was ushered out of the club. They were closing. At only 2 am. On the weekend. I had never experienced anything like it. It was surreal. I was told it was nothing to be surprised about but damn, if half the clubs in Durbs tried that I think the patrons would riot.

After the other girl had finished being sick in the road (never a pleasant sight) we went on home and just when I thought my night was over, no, BB had trickery up his sleeve and I am still shocked to this day that I didn't see it coming. Apparently he'd been in contact with the friend during the evening and so I was told we were going to stop in and say hi before we went back to BB's apartment and crashed (they stay in the same complex). Now I was under the impression that the two of us would say hi to him, have a coffee or something, normal ye ken. Uh, no, BB left me. Sneaky little bugger. Oh, I should probably mention here, if not before now, that this friend had a dog. A beautiful young pup whose name I thought I'd remember even after forgetting the guy's. Well, I remember the guy's name but not the pup's. Quite a sorrow. Yes, so meeting the dog was one of the main reasons I stepped into that apartment alone. How can anyone say no to meeting a joyful, beautiful black Lab pup? Long story short it turned out into a pleasant evening watching a movie and chatting with the pup snuggled squarely between us on the bed. There was a moment..... And chicken-shit me shied like a new colt and let it disappear into the black-hole that is 'that awkward moment when...' The nigglesome 'what if...' stayed around after the fact for a while but if you don't grab life's opportunities you shouldn't whinge about missing them, right? All in all it was cool; I slept well, enjoyed having a dog to play with and be nice to, and the friend was a gentleman. That was the last time I saw him until he drove me to the airport to leave. Not awkward at all right? Ha. An end to a darn decent evening, with me creeping into BB's flat just before the sun was rising... If I'd waited just another half hour or so I wouldn't have missed the falling of the smattering of snow. (BB told me it snowed properly the day after I left. Typical.)

Just look at that yumminess....
Oh, one other mind-blowing moment was the yoghurt place! I've since found out that there ARE such places here but at the time it was new for me. Frozen yogurt of your choice(s) with any topping(s) of your choice and you pay by weight. How great! I should be looking happier in the photo but it was a serious moment... There was also the ama-Zing steak I had at a Longhorn Steakhouse that BB took me to. Holy moly. After my terrible meat-luck at Princeton, this was a big helping of heaven to any red-meat lover. And the service staff were so friendly! If you're a Saffa and are wondering what to picture, imagine an upscale Spur without the cramped tables, dingy lighting and raucous singing. Nice, but still a family place. Last mind-blowing moment to reminisce about was more of a "Whoohoo! I'm awesome!" moment: after spending some time in the games room of BB's complex, he'd handed my ass to me innumerable times with pool, so much so that we moved onto air hockey just to see if I could salvage some pride. I could. Now I'm not saying it was a whitewash - he did win some battles - but I won the war! Air hockey is officially more my game than pool.

Wow, that dog's name is really going to bug me now. Until writing this I hadn't realised I'd forgotten it!

Some of the things D and I saw on our last night in NYC
So to sum up, Kansas was good - got to watch all three LotR movies EXTENDED VERSION which I hadn't seen before - and it was wonderful to hang out with BB and catch up. I couldn't stay there forever though so on the morning of the fifth day it was back to the airport and back to New York City for two nights before setting off home. The first of those nights I did NOT take advantage of the city since even though I'd left Kansas around 10am I only arrived at JFK after 6pm that night. They didn't have any cheap direct flights (both to and from Kansas) which I found crazy so if I list the places I went to during this trip to the States I could include Boston, Massachusetts and Cincinnati, Ohio if we are counting airport waiting rooms as places. So needless to say after landing and getting a taxi to take me to my hotel (he had no clue where he was going) all I wanted to do was sleep and sleep I did.

My final full day in the States was actually a nice one. The weather was rainy and miserable so I spent most of the day in my room sorting out my life and watching American TV - first time I'd ever watched Jeopardy and I got to watch reruns of The Nanny. Then D (the PhD student from SA remember?) got back to NYC after visiting San Diego and our NYC adventure began. All in all we spent about six hours walking around Manhattan, the day before Christmas Eve, and we saw all we could. Times Square. Madison Square Garden. The Empire State Building (don't laugh but it took us quite a while to find that one). Two things we didn't see because the relevant trains weren't running were Lady Liberty and Ground Zero, which would have been pretty cool me thinks. We did however see the great big Christmas tree in the Central Plaza, the post office (I found it cool because I finally clicked about a slogan in Terry Pratchett's Going Postal), the NYC Hard Rock Cafe, a supercool screening on the side of a building, and many many other little and big things that made the night fantastic. Two things I won't forget: the global element that meant that the strangers we asked to take a photo could barely speak English, and the bright, bright lights of Times Square. I felt like I was on the surface of a disco ball.

Bad quality, but showing the crazy number of people in the Central Plaza

Again, not great quality but this was the supercool animation that was played using the wall of a building. I thought this was ama-Zing-ly done!

Although there is so much more of America and NYC in particular that I'd like to see and experience, I was happy to come home in time for Christmas and bastards to burgle my parents' house while they came to fetch me from the airport. Ok, that I wasn't happy to come home to, especially since I should have been the first one to notice but I think due to the jetlag or whatever, I didn't (at one stage my oblivious self was only a foot away from impaling my head on the twisted burglar bar).

So. A pretty good trip (sorry that it took two parts to get through, but it WAS a month of my life). There is one thing, however, that I do not and doubt I ever will miss and that's the accent. Specifically the New Jersey/New York border accent. Good gosh but I wanted to shoot those girls on the train from Princeton to NYC. Bang bang! You're dead from sounding nasal and stupid.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Alone in public.... Must. Look. Busy.

I got the idea for this blog whilst sitting in a coffee shop. I was meeting friends for some late brunch and I arrived before them and sat down to wait. The place was by no means crowded, but there were enough people around such that no matter which direction I looked in, I saw some or other patron. Perhaps that means I had chosen my seat badly, but that's neither here nor there. While I waited, after ordering something to drink, I casually glanced around and noticed two things. First, only one table other than my own had a single person in attendance. Secondly, this person kept fidgeting. If she wasn't digging in her bag, she was absorbed with her cellphone or playing with spoon in her (presumably) coffee. This is round about the time that I realised I often had the same urgings and that I sometimes had to forceably make myself just sit, do nothing.

I count myself as a people-watcher. Don't call the cops, it's not the creepy stalker kind. I often go to coffee with myself, or at least I used to, and when I'm relaxing at my table I'll people-watch. Airports and coffee shops are some of the best places - you see so many different people and one can't help wonder what their story is. But, even with my being comfortable with staring into space or idly wondering where strangers are off to or how their day is going, I'd usually take a book, or have work with me - papers to mark or some such. It's partly a way to make good use of the time, but there is a sliver of reasoning that wants to show whoever is watching me that I have stuff to do, that I'm not just a lonely person sitting around like a loser. I irrationally want to broadcast (subtly of course) to anyone watching the people-watcher that I am choosing to stare at the world, or choosing to be sitting alone; that I'm taking a break from my satisfying and busy life to enjoy the view. Note that my life may be neither satisfying nor busy but that's what the broadcast should say.

Coffee shop or bars or the like are easier than other scenarios - at least you can order a drink, even if it's just free water, and that gives the hands something to do, gives you some appearance of purpose. Meeting someone somewhere populated, for example at a cinema, is more difficult. Arriving at the same time as the other person is quite difficult unless you literally pitch up in the same vehicle so it's always a catch-22 for me: I hate being late (it's rude), but being early means you stand around looking lost and aimless.

These days, and particularly in the above case, the cellphone has become the weapon of choice against the enemy of appearing at a loose end. I have often found myself waiting for people and being unable to resist the urge to take out my cellphone and look busy. Or glance at my watch. Repeatedly. There's only so many times you can check your phone without looking desperate. The smartphones have an advantage here in that you can check for sms's, emails, check your social networking sites, use the internet - they give you more time to use up looking busy but even with all that, eventually you're going to run out of reasons to haul out your cellphone and start pressing buttons.

Why do we have this obsession with appearing busy? Why can't we be comfortable with just waiting? I don't know the answers to these questions but I am sure there are many shrinks out there who would be happy to provide many and varied explanations. You can ask them and let me know.

So what I want to say is this: If you ever find yourself alone in a crowded place and start to feel uncomfortable, like the eyes of everyone are on you and judging you pathetic, just take a deep breath, slowly look around you, order a drink if you can, and watch the world. And if you lock eyes with a fellow watcher, smile or incline your head and find joy in the knowledge that, yes, you're alone at that moment but that doesn't mean you have to be self-conscious about it. The world can be an interesting place if only you chill and take the time to notice.

Monday, 4 June 2012

So good to have them home

This is a very short post just to emphasize how glad I am, and surprised at the depth of the joy, to have my parents back. They've been away for the past month on a trip of discovery to Namibia where my Dad wants to settle. Since my gran died last year I have become far more aware of how much we take people for granted. Plus there's the whole thing of my never having been a family person. I love my family but we've not been the do-things-together type for a long long long time.

Whether it's because of all the upheaval my sister and myself have had to deal with since they left (everything goes wrong - thanks Murphy) or purely because I am changing, I have missed them muchly. So it wasn't just the dogs that were very happy to see them get home last night. Hugs all round and happy happy faces. It's amazing how much a hug from a parent solves sadness for a time.

I've delayed my return to Durban so that I can enjoy another night of being with my full family - some red wine, dark chocolate and a DVD with my mum will be the order of the day.

No matter how much your family can drive you up walls and round bends, treasure them whenever you can (or remember to).

Saturday, 2 June 2012

World-Tripping: The Mighty Eagle - Tigers

Time for more globe-trotting memories... I started this series of posts in Australia and now it's time to cross the equator and visit the great States. It turned into an interesting way to end 2011 and it prompted my new-found respect for certain beers. Let's begin...

If you've bothered to peruse my profile you know that I am a Masters student studying Cosmology. I started in August of 2011 and my supervisor left for a six month sabbatical at Princeton in September/October. I thus got the opportunity to travel to the USA - something I was quite looking forward to. An added bonus is that my visa is a ten-year one and holds for both business and pleasure so yay for me! Only quirk is that my passport expires before that visa does...

The train tickets I needed to get from JFK to Princeton University
As my memory is not the greatest and that trip ended over five months ago, I will only be able to mention the things that stood out. The logistics went smoothly until I arrived at JFK and needed to get through customs. Considering my brief wait in the Sydney queues I didn't expect the two and half hour incompetence of the American borders. Granted, this incompetence made me smile, fondly thinking of home. Chin up chaps, first-world countries are also capable of pathetic service. This wait also provided the opportunity to observe human nature. Wow. Some of those foreigners were super grumpy. I can understand the sentiment - you've just gotten off a long flight, you're tired, possibly back-sore, and you just want to get the admin over with so you can get to where you're going. BUT being a rude, impossible person is not going to make the process any easier; you're not going to make the lines move any quicker. You may just cause the reverse. So even though it was frustrating, I quite enjoyed the experience - I guess I was one of those annoying happy people, keeping calm and cheerful, relaxed in the knowledge that my South African training had made me prepare travel plans such that I wasn't in a hurry. Perhaps because of this, and the fact that I wasn't yelling at the guy once he got to me, the customs official who ended up helping me (in the US Citizens queue might I add - I moved queues about three times) was really nice and he smiled and was interesting and gave me good advice as to how to get where I needed to be. Ha, he even offered to call me a taxi. I was impressed with the train system though. Taking the Airtrain from JFK, then the metro and NJ Transit/Dinky through to Princeton University was fairly painless. Except I could have done with having less luggage. I loathe lugging stuff around.

The Princeton Tigers' Football Stadium
My usual entrance into the Astro Department
  I am sorry to say that when I first arrived I got lost on campus. Perhaps I was bemuddled from jetlag but whatever it was I didn't think things through before acting and ended up travelling twice the distance I had needed to in order to get my room key and meet people at the Astrophysics department. It didn't help that I'd gone to Princeton to work with my supervisor KM and I arrived in America just in time for him to go back to South Africa for a week. Thankfully D, a coworker from SA and one of KM's PhD students, was also visiting Princeton over a similar period and he helped me out a lot with getting settled and learning how to get to and from where I needed to be. It was novel having jacked-up Tiger Transit buses running with a reliable schedules posted online - and these buses are not the dodgy ones of UKZN intercampus travel but clean, safe alternatives to walking in the bliksem cold. And it surely got chilly. Although not as chilly as anticipated. Plus Americans have brilliant central heating. This does mean however that you have to bundle up to go outside but then once inside you have to effectively undress to single layers to feel comfortable. For someone (a.k.a. me) who rarely wears closed shoes and is not a particular fan of it when they do, this got tedious. The basic point of my weather comments is to admit that in hindsight I could have taken fewer clothes. That, and the fact that there was a place to do laundry in the same building I was staying in. Ah well, live and learn. Hopefully next time I can take a smaller bag and be done with the problems and inconveniences caused by cumbersome luggage.

Anyhoo, I was sharing my office with D for two weeks before he left for elsewhere in the USA, and then I had the place to myself for my last few Princeton days. I met some very cool astrophysicists during my stay. First there was RH who is an ex-Saffa - she is hilarious and was a breathe of fresh SA air in the midst of the all the Yanks. Then there was JM-the-1st who I met via RH but only got to know more during and after the departmental Christmas party, but more on that later. The apartment I was staying in was a two-bedroom affair and I was lucky enough to have three different flatmates during my stay. The first I didn't really get to know, I don't even remember her name - she was only there for three days and our schedules turned out to be polar opposites so we only saw each other once at the flat and then I bumped into her at the office once. She seemed quite pleasant though. Then there was KB from Pasadena who was in a rock band. He extended an invitation to visit him and his wife if I was ever in the area. And finally there was JM-the-2nd from Austin, Texas. He's only second because I met him in that order. I found it an amusing coincidence that in the short time I spent in America, I met two Murphy's with almost identical first names. JM-the-2nd was really nice - went to have a pub dinner with him the night before his colloquium and he laughed at my confusion over the american way of giving a tip. It seems a little dodgy to me I must admit - a system like that would never last in SA; it'd be taken advantage of every which way. So yes, I met some pretty cool people. One of the many great things about travelling.

The oh-so-yummy sandwich
I kid you not, this was my dinner once. Carrots and apples.

On the topic of food, the meat from the grocery stores was gross as all hell so I ended up eating veggies for dinner pretty much every night. The cafeteria had darn decent food so lunch was covered. I fell in love with some grilled chicken sandwich (minus the gherkins which they called pickles) - I think I had one almost every day for lunch.

Since it was a work trip, it would be prudent to mention something about that. I got more work done in those three weeks than I did in the previous three months. That's no exaggeration, although I wish it was. I also met many brilliant and intimidating professionals in my field. My supervisor took me with him to Rutgers in New Brunswick where I got to meet more of the collaborators involved with ACT (Atacama Cosmology Telescope in Chile) and who I will eventually be writing papers with. So that was all dandy. And of course intimidating and terrifying. Survived it though. And then I got to visit New York City with a few fellow astros and had a lovely evening after the xmas party with JM-the-1st and one of the high-ups whose name I unfortunately can't recall. Something with an S I think. Anyway, they introduced me to Yeungling. It's a beer made only in New Jersey and it was baie lekker. I think it was that which started my appreciation for beer, something I was certainly lacking. Between the three of us we finished two baskets of popcorn and three pitchers of Yeungling. JM and I played pool doubles against S and his friend and thanks mostly to JM we kicked their butts. I remember that as a fantastic evening - talking outside to strangers and locals. I remember an Irishman who hated potatoes. And an Italian that S pissed off. The night ended in an amusing manner - I wasn't sure how to get back to the apartment. I picked a direction and just walked until I started to recognise stuff. JM graciously walked me back. It turned out it was an excellent way for us to sober up.

Last thing to mention about my Princeton time that I can mention (other than the gloriously fast internet) was a nice little evening spent with D and some of his NJ friends. Sana and Alisha are two very interesting young ladies and here's a little of the evening's output....

I love it when....

....they give you crayons at dinner time

Now here ends part one of the Mighty Eagle trekking. Next it's into the Midwest...

The Marrying Age

Well now, that takes the tally to six. Six couples that are engaged or already married. And those are just the ones that include a close or ex-close friend of mine, mostly within my own age bracket. I must be coming to that time of my life when the white dresses and confetti come out to play. Others' thank goodness.

It's a strange dynamic that forms. For someone at this stage of life there are three primary cases; case one - you're single, case two - you're in a relationship, case three - you're already hitched. For each case there are a number of different reactions to hearing the "We're engaged!" shriek of a happy woman or shout of a proud man. You could be happy for them, excited to be counting another into the fray of matrimony, depressed for them, depressed for yourself, as well as the myriad shades of grey in between. And then there's the faint tint of fear. Generally I think that applies to the singles or not-yet-married/engaged couples. Fear that you'll never get there. Fear that happy matrimony is something that will happen to other people. I suppose you also get those who fear that it would happen to them; they are probably in the minority though.

For me, I am living in the shades of grey. For all six couples I am certainly happy. Admittedly the degree of happiness varies. For most it's a true but cursory happiness - I am glad that they have found the person they want to share their life with and even through my personal cynicism about relationships, I hope that it will work out for them. To these I can be sincere in my congratulations and fond wishes. Then there's the happiness that is definitely there, but it's tainted by a smidgion of irrational envy or regret. For this I may have to paste a smile at times if my true one slips and shows cracks, though I hope that it will not be as dramatic as all that. I remind myself that if the friend truly means as much as to me as I say they do then I will be happy for them, above any other emotion. And I will be. Along with this and sometimes on it's own, is the happiness that's being nudged by concern. This is for those couples at whom I look and think "oh dear". It's the cynicism that takes over I suppose, which is my problem, not theirs. It's for the friends for whom I am glad that they think they've found their person, but for whom I worry that their thoughts are wrong or they haven't given it enough time - I doubt their sanity or logic. As others and often myself will tell me, love cannot be all about logic and sanity.

However, I for one am glad that I am not there yet. I know many who are engaged or already married who are younger than me. I cannot imagine being in that situation right now. So yes, I say congratulations to you all, with a true and hearty smile to boot. I hope that you will never have cause to have another wedding. My cynicism despairs that there will be, but hope springs eternal so they say. Also, remember that if you DO have another wedding, the white dress and veil are a lie...

Friday, 1 June 2012

Quote: Game of Thrones S1

Syrio:   Do you pray to the gods?
Arya:   The old, and the new.
Syrio:   There is only one God, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: Not today.

There are only 4 people that will understand this

It's strange the things we think of when we don't give thought to what we think. Ok, that made more sense in my head. I was attempting to fall asleep so I wasn't consciously thinking of anything in particular, and then I realised I was thinking about Stanley. And once I'd realised that, it came to me that I'd been thinking of him more than usual lately. 'Usual' is basically never these days. I do not know if it is specifically a good or bad thing that this is occurring. Perhaps it just is. What I find interesting is that conventionally speaking it is someone else that I would be expected to be thinking of when reminiscing about certain parts of life. Instead I think about Stanley.

I remember few things in life - what I did last week or yesterday is often difficult to recall - but I remember vividly many many days of my Stanley-era. There is only one moment that I cringe for. All the others are good ones. Some extremely good. Then there's the conversations of 'we should do blah blah blah' and I have vague regret at never acting on the talk. Perhaps I will never forget all of this. Perhaps it will never be purged from my brain as I know my best friends wish. And perhaps the reason for that is that I was completely out of it when the trip went South. Most of my reckoning of it going South is due to what others told me, rather than a specific "I remember experiencing that and thinking that's not on". It's a case of I know what I should think/feel about it but I can't make myself remember why I should, or what I felt when it was bad. It's a good thing I moved provinces. I'd be disgusted with myself if I was still torturing myself in his presence. Now it's just reminiscing. Although many of those memories make me smile a little - a quiet smile. I wonder if this is how people get trapped in "for old times' sake" daliances...