Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tis' the Season!

Before I get to the good stuff about Christmas at 2 Rennyhill Gardens, a few words about the past week. First, snow. You may have heard that Mother Nature layered Europe in snow over the weekend. I have roughly four-six inches on my front porch- just enough to enliven the Christmas spirit around here. And just enough to bring Scotland to a frozen standstill. As if this never happened before, classes were cancelled, the supermarket ran out of food, roads are closed and iced over, etc.

Undeterred, my trusty Malibu slides to town and back. With Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker blaring over Radio3 (BBC's commercial free classical music station), everything is in it's right place.

Last Friday I went to Glasgow with a few friends of mine to see The National in concert. It was a fantastic. I won't go into it because I know most of my limited readership has never heard of The National or Phosphorescent. But like any good concert, they performed the music in the full-bloom of tension that inspired it. I tried to give an example of how, but after thirty minutes of trying to capture it in words I've given up. Like any good concert.

By the time we got back in the car to leave Glasgow the snow had started. I could barely see the lines on streets downtown. I wasn't the only one. I saw a Scot turn the wrong way down a one-way street. I was nervous that I'd do the same.

I was under the impression that the Scots don't do Christmas lights like we do in the US, but George Square in Glasgow was brilliantly lit. I asked my friend to take a picture as we drove past. I didn't get a picture, but I did get arrested for 'suspicious behavior.' The officer got angry at me because I couldn't understand him. The whole while I thought I was being rather aggressively interrogated for some traffic violation. On the contrary, taking pictures of beautiful things downtown can get you thrown in the back of a police van in Scotland. I'm sure he felt like an asshole when I showed him my military ID. Wrong person to accuse of terrorism.

This highlights a deep cultural/philosophical difference between the States and Britain. They weigh in on balance between liberty and national security very differently than we do. Just imagine if taking a picture of Times Square could get you locked in the back of a police van and treated rudely. For the record, I'm not offended; it's just a guy doing his job. And I was only in the van long enough for them to realize how terribly stupid you'd have to be to think taking a picture of Christmas lights is suspicious. But it was quite surprising nonetheless.

The drive back was awful. By this time the snowfall was quite severe, and forward momentum was really the only thing keeping me out of a ditch or guardrail.

This brings me to the present. Now, ladies and gentlemen inbound to Scotland for Christmas, I have business to discuss. Packing Lists.

Lisa and I intend to jazz things up a bit for when you all get here. We really want this to a fun holiday for everyone, but in order for that to occur, we all need to bring the festive spirit. Christmas Eve we're having an Ugly Christmas Sweater dinner party. The person with the ugliest sweater wins a prize. You're going to love the prize.

Seriously, we're having an ugly Christmas sweater party here at 2 Rennyhill Gardens. That means you need to bring your ugliest Christmas sweater. If you don't have a godawful Christmas sweater, you need to buy one. Dean, I expect you to help Sherle and crew navigate eBay. Keep in mind that your ugly sweater is supposed to be a secret. Don't go showing off your ugly sweater before the party, or you'll get disqualified. And we won't let you eat Christmas dinner with the rest of us.

Other things to pack. Jolene was correct, it isn't wise to bring gifts for everyone here. But, I'll pass around a Secret Santa list. The intention is that you get your person a small, cheap novelty item. Lisa and I need something to put under the tree. We also have a few things in mind as far as White Elephant goes.

Keep in mind that it is cold here. During the day it gets to about -1 or -2 degrees Celsius. That's roughly 28 degrees Fahrenheit. So, it's cold, but it's not unbearably cold. Not to condescend to anyone, but to dress warm you need a layer of close-fitting material to wear underneath your jacket. Basically, if you wear a pair of long underwear, a sweater, and a winter jacket, you'll be fine. You do not need a full-blown ski jacket and pants. I'd bring a little hat to wear and shoes that are water-resistant, and thin gloves if you plan to take pictures (Otherwise, just keep your hands in your pockets. It's rude to point anyway.). I wouldn't recommend boots per se, but sandals, even with socks, simply won't keep you warm.

We're planning a lot of fun things for when everyone gets here. Bring the energy. I've got enough alcohol for everyone to have a good time. We'll have a running Hearts tournament, karaoke, among other things. Yes, I got hot chocolate and gourmet chocolates in a glass delicacy dish.  Lisa and I are getting a little tree, lights, a wreath, and the whole 9 yards. So bring your game face.

We're are serious about the ugly Christmas sweaters. Don't make us disqualify you.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rest In Peace George Scott

"As measured notes of set music we pass, in fast or slow marches to the grave."

- epitaph on the tombstone of George Scott, cemetery grounds of the old St. Andrew's cathedral.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Full-throttle and full-stop mean the same thing

After racing through the past two weeks, things seem to have come to a complete stop. But I haven't taken my seatbelt off just yet. Or done the dishes.

As Kierkegaard would say, "Boredom is the root of all evil- the despairing refusal to be one's self."

In the meantime, I stare down Immanuel at the far end of my desk. The computer keys are much nearer.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Home sweet home, blessed Caledonia!

Allow me to explain my absence. Just after my last post, I made like a bird and went south to London. As an adopted son of Scotland, I go to England only when business requires it. As it happens, the academies' graduate societies of London jointly hosted a cocktail party for academy scholarship winners. To us this was as good of an excuse for a mini-reunion as any.

Six-hours on the train is a long time to sit across from someone and not start a conversation. As it happens, I learned about the Battle of the Britain from an old woman who lived through it. I also learned that Rooney can't be held responsible for his behavior-- "a product of a real punch-up family." "And who let the Chinese in Britain? Your generation doesn't have a chance," she continued. The old lady's daughter, 50 years old or so, returned from the rest room and silenced her right away.

Then the daughter asked me what I was studying at school, and I told her 'philosophy.' She asked if I wanted to be an academic. I said 'maybe.' Then she told me that I'll probably just end up married and with a family.

As I made to leave King's Cross, the old woman warned me that London was full of communists. The daughter elbowed her, sparking banter about her right to free speech. They continued to their vacation home in southern France.

It was refreshing to see my West Point classmates. People say strange things when less tethered to the institution. I'll leave it at that.

The cocktail reception was standard fare. I hovered around the corners of the room. I enjoy social situations, but I like to keep my back near the wall anyway. Since my classmates were occupied with conversation and I was tired from the train, I was struggling to keep engaged.

Then a few British officers came to crash the party. To their surprise, the bar was not free. A black officer, the first of his regiment, called 'The Boxer' by his associates, explained to me why the American military is 'pound for pound' weaker than the British. He told me that at the Falklands the British were only defeated because they went in without proper support, and that Americans would never have been so 'pound for pound' brave to do the same. I told him that 'pound for pound' it is doesn't really make sense to go into battle without supplies, and after some argument he conceded the point ("You're a good chap," he said). Needless to say, I was having the most interesting conversation of anyone in the room, and I kept returning with more drinks for this engaging trio.

I bumped into an academy pal from my Rhodes interview in California. One hell of a shared experience. We exchanged complaints, email addresses, and promised to continue the conversation at a later date.

The party came to an abrupt conclusion (the room was full, then it was empty). The British officers invited me to go drinking with them, to "see how many bars the Boxer will get kicked out of." I really wanted to, but I came to London to catch up with my classmates. They accused me of saying an "Irish goodbye."

I wouldn't want to live in London. I saw Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, etc. and so on. London saw me, at every street corner, at every crosswalk, everywhere, fixed in the sights of the ubiquitous CCTV network. That doesn't bother me, but I did expect that the fabled 'Fish and Chips' would be better than they were.

I headed back up to Scotland after that. This was last, last Saturday. I spent Sunday reading epistemology. It wasn't making sense. On Monday I learned how hard it is to learn 'possible world semantics' on the fly. Then it comes easy, as it should to anyone who won or lost a scholarship. Oh yes, it could have been very different.

Tuesday evening I went to the first Philosophy Society meeting of the year. The Society slated Dr. Jeff McMahon to give a talk on killing and self-defense. His name caught my eye, and I quickly realized that I had met him at a military ethics conference at West Point. He gave his paper, I gave some criticism (perhaps good, perhaps not), and the Society headed to the pub after the talk. We chatted about the possibility of a decent military ethic ever being endorsed by the Army. He invited me to a conference in Oxford on Thursday where the issue would be relevant and a few philosophy instructors from West Point were presenting papers. I got home at midnight, booked my ticket to Oxford for early Wednesday morning, and by Wednesday night I was at Oxford, again reunited with some of my classmates.

The conference was okay. I was glad to see some officers from West Point that I had worked with. I don't agree with the majority of the presentations, but it was important to "be there," as Vonnegut would say, nonetheless. At the pub one night in Oxford, a drunk English man went on a tirade about minorities without any provocation. I wished him well, but quickly went my own way. For the record, I've met stronger opinions about race from strangers in the UK than I have anywhere else.

On Friday I made the pilgrimage to the Oxford philosophy department. Too many brilliant people have worked there to recount. It was a possible world for me, yes, but Oxford is a busy place. Throngs of people shift along George and High Street. The only ones you notice are wearing some kind of neon tights or a mo-hawk. The Bodleian beckons, but antiquity in the clutches cosmopolitans is less than ruins.

I met many former cadets from the other service academies. They were all fascinating and well-worth the trip.

I returned on Saturday night. My household goods shipment arrived while I was out. The boxes were all throughout my anteroom. Lisa's package had also arrived, though wrapped in a giant plastic bag to keep from leaking salsa onto the floor. 'Handle with care' and 'fragile' only empower British post handlers to execute the fullness of their power over you.

Some weeks ago, I had signed up for a tour of the Scottish Highlands for Sunday. Just returning from Oxford, with boxes and salsa all over the place, I really dreaded going. But I had already paid for it, after all, and Google Images speaks highly of the Highlands.

The bus left early Sunday morning. My fellow St. Andrean West Point classmates joined me. The bus driver was also the tour guide. Like all male tour guides in Scotland, he wears a kilt and tennis shoes. The coach fit all 40 of us, but the difficulty of navigating the small roads of Scotland did not deter our guide from narrating, handling his iPod, consulting the map, and driving at the same time. 

Our first stop was the oldest whiskey distillery in Scotland. The tour didn't start for an hour. A Scottish distillery is a distillery like any other, large copper vats and boilers, etc. At the end of the tour we were brought into a large room with a projector. It showed an almost Google Maps flyover of different parts of Scotland. Then we watched the digital mascot of the distillery, a Scottish turkey ('grouse') dance and befall comic misfortunes for fifteen minutes. Then we were told how it was animated. The developers were really proud of their turkey, but I don't think DreamWorks will call anytime soon. You start to miss production value after a while.

We had spent over two hours at the distillery. No one ever returns to the bus on time, except the West Pointers. As we entered the Highlands, our guide cued 'The Gael' over the bus speakers [The Gael]. We were running late, so there wasn't time to stop for pictures. But the highlands are beautiful, on a scale nearing Yellowstone. Bagpipes and fiddle in the background, you wish you were Scottish.

It was beginning to get late. Because people kept returning late, we only had an hour to see the castles and monuments in Stirling. On the way we stopped to see hairy cows. Yes, cows in Scotland have hair. That's it. This stop took us a half-hour.

By the time we arrived at the Wallace Monument in Stirling, we only had 15 minutes to spare. This was, of course, the only thing I had wanted to see all day, but there wasn't time for me to go inside. Remember, we saw the hairy cows instead. William Wallace was one hell of man, but he can't command even a few minutes of attention in the modern tourist scene.

That said, I was able to purchase a stone with the Declaration of Arbroath carved on it. The Declaration reads: "As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself." It only takes bagpipes to bring out the patriot in all of us. It invigorates me and yet I feel foolish at the same time. Aye, to philosophy, freedom is just another argument.

Immediately after the tour, now well into Sunday evening, I went to my first St. Andrew's debate practice. I missed the last few practices, so it seemed appropriate even though I was tired. The coach probably forgot our conversation of some weeks ago, and as a consequence I was placed in the novice room and subjected to condescending words of encouragement. This harassed my sense of irony, and I left offended though no one had been offensive. Pride is that way sometimes.

This brings us almost to the present day. I won't bore you with the details of my recent academic triflings. Philosophy is a harsh mistress, and she'll put me on the couch at least until Lisa does.

Pictures of my recent happenings are below:

This is sunrise by St. Andrews. I took this picture on the way to class.

This is one of the cathedral's in Oxford. There are dozens, it seems. But this one photographed well.

This is the entrance to the old moral philosophy wing of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. It's somewhat famous in the world of philosophy.

This is yours truly standing opposite the Black-watch monument (a legendary military unit of mixed review in Scotland, so named for the pattern of their tartan kilts). 

There you have it, the hairy coo'. These dumb things are all over the place, apparently worth half-an-hour of pictures and refreshments.

This is the Wallace monument. It's a tower sitting atop a large hill. It overlooks Stirling. From afar, it looks like something from The Lord of the Rings. It is very striking, perched in watch over Stirling, the 'broach that holds the highlands to the lowlands' (also the site of the Battle of Stirling, one of the places where Wallace, outnumbered 3 to 1, defeated an English invasion force).


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Double-Rainbow!

For those of you that have never seen this viral YouTube hit, here's the link: Double-rainbow guy.

I finally made use of my $500 fog lights this morning. The fog was thick and heavy. It was rainy. Somewhat cold. In other words, a typical Scottish morning, except not very windy.

The Kant reading group went on for a few hours and as I left Edgecliffe it was already nearing 1800. The sky had cleared, it was comfortably warm, and the sun was setting over the horizon. The castle and cathedral bronzed in the late afternoon light. And, my God, over the ocean was a vibrant, clear, complete double-rainbow-- larger, clearer and nearer than the one that set Yosemitebear in a religious frenzy.

I wish I had my camera with me. St. Andrews at sunset after a day of heavy rain is marvelous. Like Yosemitebear, I stopped to ask myself "what does it all mean?"

The Introduction to Kant's Metaphysics of Morals, that is.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

That Just Happened

When you encounter a Latin sentence during a public reading of Kant, what do you do?

In our case, we ask: "who here speaks Latin?"  The nearest Latin expert says, "I do."
To which you reply, "Then will you read this for us with the proper pronunciation?"
If answered in the affirmative, he or she will clarify: "Ecclesiastical or standard?"
We decide, usually defaulting to standard.

It is read as it was intended to be read.

Then the professor reads it with a forced German accent, as one might guess Kant would have read it.

This is where I come in, scribbling in my journal: That just happened.

And so, I'm sure, it will happen again. Unfortunately, some talents have little opportunity for public exercise. But in the cloistered halls of academia, you may revive dead languages or impersonate whoever you want. You may even do both these things at the same time with relative impunity.

I've attended my first barrage of classes, and I must say that I absolutely love this department(s). The St. Andrews and Stirling Graduate Programme (SASP) is taught by both Stirling University and St. Andrews. Though the bulk of the work occurs at St. Andrews, we M.Litt'ers take the bus every Monday to Stirling (about 1.5 hours each way). The faculties of both departments are approachable, engaging and damn good at what they do.

The same can be said for my fellow graduate students. Everyone is friendly and interesting. The most casual conversations have a tendency to get deeply philosophical. Then, at the turn of a dime, it is casual again. There is no love lost.

Unless I mention some preference for continental philosophy.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Change of Pace

Sixty credits of class at St. Andrews roughly translates to ten credits in the States. If anyone asks you what my course load is like, you can honestly say: "I don't know how he'll make it, what with 60 credits and all." This is what I'll tell the Army; but it can be our secret.

I hesitate for risk of speaking too soon, but graduate school seems easier than West Point. I have class on Monday and Tuesday. For each class I maybe have twenty pages of reading. Albeit hardcore philosophy, in one case even metaphysics, this is still light, given that I have literally days to dawdle through it all.

I also feel prepared. St. Andrews, like nearly every philosophy 'programme' in the UK, completely ignores continental philosophy. This is probably a flaw, but a flaw I'm used to, given that West Point was the same way. The Academy's philosophy major covered most of the important texts in analytic philosophy, more or less the texts we're starting with here. I move forward without the added anxiety of Dr. P's treatise on So-And-So lurking in some dark alleyway.

As has always been my case with questions like, "where are you from?," my part of being a scholar from West Point is even more difficult to explain as a philosophy post-graduate student. "I don't see the need of that," a candid if perhaps rude Brit said to me. But wouldn't you want soldiers, if you could pick any cohort, to know philosophy most of all? The BBC thinks so:

That's at least what I'm telling people. It is, I should hope, more sophisticated than that. Religion is dying and so also the theology it attends to. I'm beginning to think that the cure for the 'Modern Man,' as Arcade Fire puts it, only a hair from the mainstream, is a healthy dose of those ignored continentals. I read Camus to read Kierkegaard, and somehow it seems clearer how it all fits together. As Vonnegut once said and I paraphrase, 'literature should not disappear up it's own asshole.' Philosophy already has, but something being so disposed is not a reason to not seek it out, a diamond is a diamond if even in the rough, or for that matter, an asshole. 

The point of the above comes to this: a thread of truth runs through all the great thoughts of literature and philosophy, even in those thoughts that are incorrect. And should you pull on it, the great apparatus around you comes undone, and maybe, for the first time, you can really see. What you see, I think, can only be described as 'faith,' and is, by its very nature, central to the 'self' and nothing else. This is why Camus insisted that it cannot be explained in common language, and yet, it seems he was, in some 400 pages, able to do so.  'It' is personal, but for the few cases where it extends to those we love. I think the apparatus claimed Col. Ted Westhusing, and I think he could have found solace within. Too inchoate for a thesis, maybe, but for a blog all is fair game.

I cursed out my GPS today. So peace still eludes me, though I daresay it seems nearer than ever before.