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Friday, January 27, 2012

peripatetics - St Austell, Cornwall

I've documented some of this trip to St Austell on my painting blog (2 November 2010 and 14 December 2010), but I thought I'd wax on more about it here.  St Austell was my first real "literary-themed" trip, and part of my first time in Europe.  It was at the end of a youth-hosteling trek with college friends; I set out on my own while they remained in London.  I traveled to St Austell in search of what turned out to be a fictional place described in two of the books in Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising Sequence (Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch).

I wrote then that The Dark Is Rising Sequence was one of my "favorite book series as a child."  That's actually an understatement; I was pretty obsessed with her books.  Once I finished them (the first time) I went through what can only be described as a mourning process.  All other books I tried to read afterward paled in comparison, so I just ended up re-reading hers.  I've lost track how many times I read them.  They also were the first books I bought with allowance and gift money I'd saved up.  I imagined spin-off stories involving the characters, with me involved, of course, joining in the eternal battle between the Light and the Dark (the series incorporates Arthurian and related myths and legends in a contemporary setting, in a cosmological battle between the forces of Dark and Light.  The Dark seeks to control humankind.  Spoiler - the Light wins.)

I did eventually move on... mostly.  I tried reading them recently, and found that, rather sadly, perhaps, I've finally outgrown them.

I hadn't at the time I made my pilgrimage to Cornwall.

Since the fishing village of Trewissick didn't exist (the village named in the books), I stayed in St Austell, where BritRail dropped me off.  It was where the Drew children got off, too, picked up by their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry, in Over Sea, Under Stone.  Only there was a huge, jostling crowd when they got off; I think I was the only one.

I stayed in a charming bed-and-breakfast.  I recall the bed I slept in had a bright orange coverlet.  I sampled "Cornish ice cream" and some grocery store scones.  I made my way to the sea and sat on a boardwalk looking out at families playing sedately on the sand and, beyond, the calm waters stretching out to the horizon.  It was nothing like the restless, shifting sea I imagined in the books, with waves crashing dangerously against the rocks.  There were no pillar-like stones rising up above me on the headland, below which was hidden the golden chalice, an artifact that would become important in defeating the looming forces of the Dark, for the Dark, the Dark is Rising...

Needless-to-say, I enjoyed my visit, my own little adventure.
View from the boardwalk, looking out at one of the headlands.  Notice there are no pillar-like stones on the top of the headland.

More of the calm sea.

St Austell train station.  No one else around.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

peripatetics - Existentialist groupie

I've been something of an Existentialist groupie since high school.  So, no surprise, on a visit to Paris I did a bit of a SartreBeauvoir pilgrimage.  I visited a couple of their hang-outs, Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, their gravesite in Cimetiere Montparnasse, also walked by Hotel La Louisiane, where Sartre and Beauvoir once lived.

I discovered Albert Camus’ and Jean-Paul Sartre’s writing my senior year in high school.  The themes of absurdity, choice, freedom, and responsibility really pulled me, one of those revelatory type of discoveries about ways of looking at life and existence.  I call myself a groupie because I was and am sucked into the personalities of Camus and Sartre (at least the written version); I'm as much fascinated by their lives as their ideas (arguably, these are inextricable).
Cafe de Flore.  
Yes, I even kept the sugar wrapper.
Les Deux Magots.  Now, of course, Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots are more  for tourists like me rather than philosophers and literary luminaries.
Obligatory sugar wrapper.
Place Sartre-Beauvoir.  I had to take a picture of the street sign because it had their name on it.
Beauvoir and Sartre's grave.
Does enchantment pour
Out of every door?
No, it's just on the street where you live.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

peripatetics - Bronte Parsonage and Museum

Having dispensed of the sports topic (for now, at least), I thought I would do some posts of some of my "literary-themed" travels.  My visit to Haworth, England still stands as one of my most cherished.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my “pilgrimage” some years ago to Haworth, England (on my painting blog, smallgreycat.blogspot.com - 9 June 2010, 15 February 2011, and 19 March 2011), to see the Bronte Parsonage Museum, and wander the moors.

Like many others, I read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in high school and became… let’s say, rather obsessed, re-reading it a number of times and devouring her other books (though – if anyone’s even still reading this, it will be other devotees who may have had a similar experience – I didn’t find her other books nearly as revelatory.  The Professor I found to be a pale precursor, Villette, which I liked, something of a re-write of Jane Eyre, and Shirley well-intended but not very compelling).  I went on to read Anne Bronte’s two novels, which I liked moderately well, and then, finally, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which I enjoyed slightly less than Jane Eyre but appreciated much more.  Emily Bronte, I thought, was ultimately the superior writer of the three.  I also enjoyed Elisabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte and Juliet Barker’s excellent biography of the Brontes, as well as the accompanying Letters.  That’s a brief encapsulation of the material of my obsession, though not the meat of it.

Despite Charlotte Bronte’s admirable stated agenda of asserting a feminist credo, I, much less nobly, was responding in a visceral sense to the melodrama – the passion, the atmosphere.  No doubt the Brontes would be rolling over in their graves if they knew that they were one of the progenitors to a slew of bodice-ripping romances, but I think it’s safe to say it happened.  That wasn’t their only legacy, of course.  They’ve inspired feminist literature, as well (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea being a prime example).  But, still, Charlotte Bronte will forever be known as the author who brought us Edward Rochester, and Emily Bronte, Heathcliff (despite the fact that Heathcliff was a sadistic brute).  The romance between Jane Eyre and Rochester, in particular, was forever branded on my impressionable late adolescent psyche, and to this day continues to fuel my need to see every latest film version of the book that comes out.

It also compelled me to make my little pilgrimage.

I’m so glad I went.  I guess I’m easily amused, but I still get giddy thinking about it.

As I mentioned on my painting blog, I did not run into any Rochesters or non-sadistic brute Heathcliffs.  Alas.  Nothing that exciting.

Aside from meandering through the museum (which was very cool), I set out to roam the moors.  It was a rather blustery, chilly day, overcast and threatening rain.  The moors were largely devoid of any other trekking tourists, so it was just me and the sheep (of which there was quite a number).  I made my way up to Top Withens,thought to be the inspiration for the Earnshaw house in Wuthering Heights.  I remember being struck with how harsh and isolated the landscape was, the endless rolling, barren hills, and could see, feel how it infused the all the Brontes’ novels.

I’m including some pictures I took while I was there to add visual interest to this posting.  I’m also including a sketch of me on the moors and painting I did based on one of the photographs, which I already posted on my painting blog last year.

walking up Main Street
looking back
the church
heading out to the moors
meandering through the misty moors
more meandering
Top Withens
Top Withens and the view beyond
painted version of the same

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Alpha Dog

I asked my husband for clarification about the concept of “alpha dogs,” as well as beta dogs, aka, second bananas in basketball.  These terms were some of the vernacular being tossed about by the media and my husband, especially during any NBA trading activity of major basketball celebrities, like LeBron James going to the Miami Heat in the 2010-2011 season, and, more recently, Chris Paul being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.


The “alpha dog” in basketball, my husband patiently explained to me, is not necessarily the “best” player on the team, the one most athletically gifted with the showy, poster-making shots; that said, he often is the best player on the team.  Skill and talent help.  A lot.  But, first and foremost, the alpha dog functions as the grounding force of the team, the one whom everyone else follows.  His “dominance” appears to largely be due personality, that elusive quality of “leadership”.


My husband’s description does make the use of the “alpha dog” analogy apt enough.  I made a brief foray into reading up on predatory pack animal behavior for this; it appears that the “alpha dog” or alpha wolf, at least, isn’t necessarily the most aggressive, though winning physical challenges from betas is vital; Peter Steinhart in his The Company of Wolves suggests that the alpha may be the one “to hold the pack together, to give it comfort and coordination and belonging."


As a side note, romance writers' concept of “alpha heroes”, and in paranormal romances, in particular (since a lot of them involve predatory pacts of werewolves and vampires), define them similarly; the alpha hero, in addition to being tall, dark (sometimes blond, though), and handsome (devastatingly so), is, once you get through the tough, muscled, brain-bashing exterior, better at talking about feelings than I am.


This “dominance” hierarchy in basketball is not akin to teenage boys attempting to master insecurity and establish their identity.  To be sure, there’s plenty of power displays in college and professional basketball, stare-downs, trash-talking, the “oh, sorry, I didn’t see you” bumps on the shoulder as I oh-so-casually walk past you.  But these are usually against opposing team players; it’s a strategy to try gain a competitive advantage.  Well, it can also be about bad tempers and bruised egos.  And sources tell me that alphas and betas in a team are not past put overly presumptuous rookies “in their place” outside the court.  The rookie cubs will need to prove their worth on the court to establish their rightful place in the pack


The hierarchy is established ultimately because it is arguably the most successful strategy to win, as it is thought to be for wolf packs to survive.  My husband referred to it as the “Big Three” tactic; that is, in addition to the alpha, there are two bananas seconding him, who on any given night may dominate, take command of the game.  An example is the current roster for the Miami Heat, fronted by Dwayne Wade,  LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, or the legendary Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan era (with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman).


Yet at the same time the bananas need to “know their role and stick to it” (quote from my husband).  If betas or gammas (defined variably as third in line, the nonconformist, a mellowed alpha, or a loser, depending on the context; there doesn’t appear to be a consensus) are either unaware or in denial of their status and role and actively try to usurp the alpha position, the rest of the players get confused, plays get broken, and opportunities are lost.


Having no alpha at all doesn’t work well, either, no matter how much talent there may be on the team.  In these cases, my husband suggests, the team relies primarily on the coach to serve as proxy for alpha, but in my husband's opinion it’s ineffective at best.


Of course, there are exceptions to this rule of the “Big Three,” other playing strategies, like Dirk Nowitzki’s “One Man Show” approach that won the Dallas Mavericks the 2010-2011 NBA Championships, what my husband referred to as “surreal to watch,” or to cite his other example, having a well-balanced team like the Detroit Pistons (I’ll have to take his word on that one)


An interesting deviation from the wolf pack analogy is the omega role.  In wolves, the omega is at the bottom of the hierarchy, the butt of everyone's joke.  The closest analogy in basketball parlance is what my husband refers to as the “human white flag” or “human victory cigar”.  This is the player who typically occupies the eleventh spot on the bench, and who comes out at in the last seconds of the game, after a team has completely blown away the other team or is conceding defeat.  Rather than the butt of everyone, this is typically a “good locker room guy that everyone likes”.  He’s someone who’s “not going to do anything stupid, practices hard, and is always on time.  He reminds good players what they’re supposed to be doing."


At the Division I college level, sometimes coaches put in as “fifth man” in the starting team (of five) someone who looks curiously undersized, never seems to have the ball, isn’t taking a lot of shots, doesn’t appear to do much of anything, but is always “in position,” where he’s supposed to be.  My husband calls this player an “extension of the coach,” to remind other players of various defensive sets and plays.   Also contrary to the omega wolf analogy, this player is also generally well-liked and respected because he integrally facilitates the alpha in grounding and organizing the team.  This player is typically never good enough to go “pro”, but does great in community and office basketball leagues.  He rules as alpha at that level.


Actually, in keeping with the idea that having an alpha is more a practical strategy rather than based on naturally aggressive natures, my husband notes that in his community and work-related leagues, the hierarchy is much more vague, because the stakes are less high (well, for most), and of course the talent pool isn’t as – well, as stellar.  As my husband described it, in his current office team, “none of us suck,” but his teammates segregate into two camps, those who “know how to play” and those who are “confused.”  It’s good to have some teammates who are in the former camp on the court.


Notably, his current team is doing well.  They have no losses so far and may very well make it to the championship game again (like last year; they won).