Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Washington DC: Criss-Crossing The National Mall

The original Smithsonian Institution building known as "the Castle" as viewed from the National Mall.
Note: This is the second of three planned posts on our recent vacation to Washington DC.

We marked the east-west extremes of the National Mall in my last travelogue post. Between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial lies a magnificent public space roughly divided by the Washington Monument. (Actually the monument is about a half-mile closer to the memorial than to the Capitol.) Beyond the monument the Mall is dominated by the giant reflecting pool. Between the monument and the Capitol stands several major galleries and museums of the Smithsonian Institution. It was there that Jennifer and I spent much of our time on our recent venture to DC.

The magnificent Interior of the National Gallery of Art Rotunda featuring a fountain adorned by the Roman god Mercury. Jennifer took these interior pics which I greatly reduced to appropriate blog size.   
A hallway in the National Gallery leading to one wing of the many rooms containing paintings, sculptures, and other art exhibitions.
These green spaces and water features within the National Gallery allow the visitor to refresh their senses in order to maintain a proper appreciation of the artworks to admire within this large and famous collection. 
Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon in His Study painted in 1812.
Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevrra de' Benci painted on wood (not canvas) in 1474.
A licensed copyist at the National Gallery continues her study of a Vincent van Gogh self-portrait.
One of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's many splendid portrait works with me in photo to give it some scale.
Another Renoir, Woman of Algiers, 1870.
A delicately detailed Auguste Rodin hand study from 1917.
The National Gallery of Art was our first stop. (Technically, the “West Building”.) Most museums open at 10:30 in DC. This makes for casual mornings where Jennifer and I could sleep late and have a relaxed breakfast. These were the most laid back moments of the trip. We arrived, by walking, when the gallery first opened and we were both enraptured by the wonderful art works. Multiple and exceptional Renoirs, Monets, and van Goghs impressed me. Seeing David's stunning portrait of Napoleon in His Study was exhilarating. But it was surpassed by Da Vinci's simple yet grand Ginevra de'Benci. That was brilliantly rendered in 1474. You just can't reach back into the depth of art through time in most places like this gallery. It was a spacious experience. Generous with large marbled stillness and hushed echoes, the gallery offer a multitude of classical sculptures by towering artists like Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin, a couple of nice interior gardens which are important (they refresh the mind for more art), and truly great paintings, many that were surprising and fresh to me; wonderful to behold in that ample spaciousness; a luxurious artistic experience.
Jennifer in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden standing at Graft (2008), a work by Roxy Paine.
We entered the sculpture garden next. It featured a magnificent water fountain surrounded by a Roy Lichtenstein work along with the other often odd-ball looking works. This was on our way to the East Building where most of the contemporary artwork is displayed. It was a building of more wonderful architectural design than any work inside of it. There was little happening there as the building awaits closure for renovation.
Jennifer and I spent more time admiring the marquee-like nature of a lighted passageway on the building's interior rather than any of the art it contained. It was a bit of let-down after the main gallery. We didn't stay long but opted to walk out into the grassy, open space of the Mall for the first time in plain view of the Capitol building and cross over to the popular National Air and Space Museum.
A replica of the Hubble Space Telescope alongside a complete Apollo space capsule in the National Air and Space Museum.
Left to right: A V-2 rocket, a replica of Skylab that visitor's could enter, and a V-1 rocket.  Weapons of mass destruction bookending a peaceful space research vehicle.
This is by far the most popular museum on the Mall. All the school aged kids and the adult aged kids like to see the space stuff. I took some photos of early airplanes with particular interest on those by the Wright Brothers. The rest of the robust aircraft collection was sort of appreciated in a general sense as we made our way to the spaceflight half of the museum. There I saw the Apollo 11 space capsule, a Gemini capsule, a Mercury capsule, Nazi V1 and V2 rockets, and an Apollo capsule connected with a Soyuz capsule. There were full-scale models of the lunar landing module and Skylab. The full-scale replica of the Hubble Space Telescope impressed me. I had never considered its enormous size before, which was obvious next to some of the other exhibits. Jennifer thought the place was too crowded and noisy; it was a great contrast to the quiet tones of the art galleries. So, we didn't hang around long, but I enjoyed what I saw and it refreshed my brain for more art.
Jennifer taking a photo of me taking a photo inside the Hirshhorn Museum.  This ain't exactly da Vinci class material here.  The absurdity of it made me laugh.  This "Venus before a pile of clothes" was accompanied behind me by an old snow sled affixed to a canvas of brownish and greenish paint. It is hard for me to take a lot of contemporary art seriously.  Wonder why?
Jennifer went on and on about how this clothes hanger installation impressed her.  The work is entitled Untitled.  It is by Dan Steinhilber (2002).  Eh.
This room installation impressed both of us, however.  Jennifer took her shoes off and wondered around inside.  There was a surreal quietude about it to me.
The Hirshhorn Museum offered another look at contemporary endeavors. This was a more enriching experience compared with the nebulous East Building. Highlights included the magnificent fountain in the middle of the circular building design, an installation of clothes hangers that Jennifer just raved over, a pile of dirty clothes thrust high against a wall with a Venus-like marble statue eyeballing it, and several other sculptures were of interest.

For me the best moment was a rare instance of installation art that impressed me. It was a boxed-in room filled with hundreds of square post-it notes each written in pencil and in different hand writing. The effect was to give the space a brownish-yellow hue. The floor was covered in bee's wax encasing more post-it notes. A guard was stationed at the doorway to make sure no one entered unless they wore booties or went barefoot. An oscillating fan over the doorway caused a few notes to flutter in a gentle breeze periodically. Near the far wall was a simple glassed-in exhibit of two fresh cabbages being slowly devoured by snails. I know this all sounds weird but that is the nature of contemporary art and installations. The effect was impressive and Jennifer and I lingered longer there than we did at most other art pieces up to that point.
Part of Julia Child's kitchen in the National Museum of American History.
As the interpretive signage reads, this is the world's largest flawless quartz sphere.  I am in the background and partially reflected in the gigantic crystal ball.
Lots of visitors to the National Museum of Natural History crowded around to take photos of the truly priceless Hope Diamond.
It was time for a late lunch which we had at the Constitution Cafe after recrossing the Mall and entering the National Museum of America History. Science and history dominated our remaining stops that day. Worthy of note among the American History displays was Julia Child's kitchen which we hung around for awhile. Jennifer enjoyed inspecting all the cooking utensils and other tools of the chef's trade. Next door was the slightly larger National Museum of Natural History, the most popular exhibition after the Air and Space collection. Here we saw dinosaurs, marine life, marvelous minerals, and the Hope Diamond. Upon leaving the museum we were caught-up in a thunderstorm on our walk back to our hotel. This provided brief, wet excitement. It also brought windy conditions that blew all the humidity away and left us with cooler weather and brighter skies for the rest of the trip. We bought beer at a nearby liquor store and enjoyed them in our room. Afterwards we hit the hotel bar for drinks. Very nice.

The next day we visited the National Postal Museum which was conveniently located next to Union Station. Jennifer has always been an avid stamp collector and has maintained a large collection since before we were married. After a trip on the metro into deeper DC (see future post), we returned to the Mall. The metro stop in the middle of the Mall put us right in front of the Freer Gallery of Art where enjoyed more wonderful paintings, especially seeing John Singer Sargent's work Breakfast in the Loggia.  The placement of this piece made it so special.  The architecture in the painting was similar to that of the Freer at the point where it was displayed.
Another instance of Jennifer taking a photo of me taking a photo along with the photo that I took.  Here we are in the inspiring stairwell of the National Museum of African Art.
The United States Botanic Garden is located next to the Capitol Building.  It offers several outdoor walking paths as well as a large conservatory collection.
This was followed by a visit to the National Museum of African Art. Jennifer is very much in tune with the similarities between certain tribal pieces and contemporary art. The building, like most of the buildings we explored in DC, featured a magnificent sky light stairwell that we admired for awhile. On our way down to the Botanical Gardens we stopped outside the Air and Space Museum again. They had set up a couple of telescopes, pointed them toward the sun, and you could check out some sun spot activity which was pretty cool. The United States Botanic Garden was a bit overwhelming to me in terms of the variety of plants. After walking a few paths, I sat in a cool spot on a bench while Jennifer explored a bit more without me. Her cold was getting somewhat worse and it was on this evening after dinner that I made my trek to the Jefferson Memorial (see previous post).

The Smithsonian galleries and museums along the National Mall offer a collection of art, science, and history unique to the world. Few public spaces compare with this vast collection of knowledge in the shadow of the nation's Capitol building. It is worth noting that there is only one building along the National Mall area that is a private headquarters rather than a public hall. That is the American Pharmacists Association. We did not visit there. Hello? Obamacare, hello?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Washington DC: Memorial Trekking

The Capitol building marks the east side of the National Mall.  American flags fly only when Congress is in session, a relic of pre-electronic times when they served as signals for members of Congress to assemble. 
Note: This is the first part of a planned three-part travelogue on our recent vacation in Washington DC.

Jennifer and I recently celebrated 25 years of wedded bliss in part with a trip to Washington, DC. Originally, we had planned to visit Chicago this summer but when our daughter won a major art contest we received free tickets to our nation’s capital. But the award conflicted with my daughter's summer schedule so her parents decided to use the tickets for their summer getaway.

I am not sure my daughter could have handled the pace and intensity of our tourist onslaught on DC. In the course of four days Jennifer and I visited about 13 museums, a plethora of statues, monuments, and memorials, visited DC's Chinatown, and toured a fashionable area around a distinguished private art gallery. The trip was not for sissies. It was far from relaxing though we were enriched by it and enjoyed all the wonderful art and history. Of course, it was by no means extensive. There were plenty of things we never got around to seeing. Four days is just not enough for the many attractions DC offers.

The flights up and back were uneventful. Worthy of note was a lady who sat next to us on the flight up from Atlanta while reading Flow on her iPad. I read an article on Gustavo Dudamel on the iPad app for the magazine Intelligent Life. The back issues of this outstanding publication are available for free as of this post and I recommend them as the best example I know of how to design a magazine app. It is published by the fine folks at The Economist.

Washington DC is an exciting place to visit. Few places in the America compare with the National Mall, which is where we spent the majority of our time. The Mall is dominated by the many museums and exhibitions of the Smithsonian Institution. That was the primary aim of our trip and we spent two full days there. The Mall is conveniently located near our upscale accommodation, The Liaison, a boutique hotel (it was our 25th anniversary after all). It is the first hotel where I have stayed that offered guests a pillow menu. Down pillows came standard with the room. Jennifer requested an additional hypoallergenic one, I selected a buckwheat pillow from the menu. Basically, it was a sack of grain in a fine linen casing. It was a fun novelty to sample but I ended up sleeping with the down feather pillows and used the much firmer buckwheat one for propping up in bed.

The food in DC was our biggest disappointment. There were no really good (affordable) restaurants located in the area around the Capitol. We enjoyed one exceptional breakfast at our hotel. But the $50 price tag for it discouraged us from sampling there again. We had authentic Chinese food at the Wok and Roll in the Chinatown district, but it was only subtly distinctive from Chinese food I can get locally. Jennifer had some good beef stew one evening at another restaurant but my fish and chips was bland. Another evening I enjoyed a unique burger at The Dubliner but Jennifer was non-plussed by her selection. Eating at The Center CafĂ© in the middle of Union Station offered an interesting setting but the menu choices were rather mediocre. However, we didn't starve either. We enjoyed drinks one evening at the hotel bar. I sampled their excellent Macallan single malt scotch. Jennifer had a couple of fruity vodka drinks. Very nice and set a fun tone for the evening.

Other than that it was walk, walk, walk, see, see, see. We were tourists with a passion for art and history and we attacked the city with fairly sustained abandon, knowing full-well we could not cover everything we wanted to see. Still, we experienced a lot and certainly the trip was filled with wonderful, vivid memories and a few surprises. The evening we arrived we took an Old Town Trolley tour of the major memorials. The open-air bus tour guide provided a wealth of information and we were given a few roughly half-hour stops to walk around. We strolled the Iwo Jima Memorial, the FDR/MLK memorial area (they are adjacent), and the Lincoln Memorial/Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Special mention should be made of the comparatively modest Japanese-American Memorial which was next to our hotel. It was the first drive-by location on the trolley tour out of Union Station. I walked back over to the space a couple of evenings later and got some close photos. On it are the names of several internment camps where Japanese-Americans were held prisoner by the United Sates government during World War Two. The numbers in the tens of thousands are engraved in large font around the space along with the inscribed names of all Japanese-American soldiers who died fighting for America against their native country in the Pacific. The monument aptly contains the words "Here We Admit A Wrong..." That probably makes it one of the most unique memorials on any government's grounds in the world. What other government makes such words so public practically next to its capitol building?

The Supreme Court building as photographed by Jennifer from our trolley.  Like much of DC it is undergoing renovation and repairs.  To mask the mess the building is currently draped with a enormous canvas image of itself.  A bizarre symbolic simulacra.  Pay no attention to the justices behind the curtain...
We drove past the Washington Monument, of course, which was covered in scaffolding due to repairs from damage it suffered during a 2011 earthquake in DC. As a matter of note, there is a reason it is called a "monument" rather than a "memorial" like practically everything else in this blog post. The monument was conceived and the land for it acquired while our first President was still alive. All other structures mentioned were erected after the death of whoever they pay tribute.

Our first stop was at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial which was interesting but slightly disorienting in its design. It was located in a more wooded area than most of the other memorials and we actually ran up on a fox making his way through all the tourists in the semi-natural, semi-urban landscape; quite a surprise to see something so wild roaming so freely in that context. The path of the FDR Memorial led us down to the area's Tidal Basin where Jennifer and I took photos of the Jefferson Memorial from across the water. I discovered Jennifer's new iPhone took far superior pictures to my pocket Samsung; though I got a couple of good shots on the trip which I feature in this travelogue. From the edge of the Basin we turned and walked past the FDR area toward an enormous white engraving in the distance of MLK.
The Martin Luther King Memorial was especially powerful to me.  Dr. King stands as an emblem of hope wrought from the center of the Mountain of Despair.
The Martin Luther King Memorial was very impressive. I understood the triangulation of Dr. King emerging from the rock, once the center of the “Mountain of Despair” that stands behind his gigantic relief. It was a line from Dr. King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech made manifest in stone. A wonderful experience. Of his many sayings engraved along the entrance to the monument I noticed one from Norway in 1964 made upon the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” Inspiring and filled with idealistic hope that seems almost quaint today.

The famous statue at the Iwo Jima Memorial.  In twilight.  
The Lincoln Memorial brightly lighted against the night sky.  The crescent moon is in the upper right.  This marks the western extremity of the National Mall opposite the Capitol, some two miles away.
The Iwo Jima Memorial was next, taking us past Arlington Cemetery where I briefly saw John F. Kennedy's Eternal Flame from the great distance of our bus. The Flame was set against the strengthening darkness at sunset. It seemed to shine red like Mars but was the size and brightness of Jupiter to the naked eye, affixed upon a hillside instead of aloft in the early evening sky. The famous Iwo Jima Memorial itself was wonderful to behold. It was not yet too dark to ascertain its subtleties, set on a line from the Capitol far to the east, the Washington Monument between us in the foreground but looking rather small. This was followed by the Lincoln Memorial. Brightly lit, it is beautiful to behold at night. The lighting is a spectacle. It was particularly impressive gazing back from the towering front steps to the east along the entire length of the Mall at night toward the thumbnail sized Capitol dome, about two miles away, with the Washington Monument looking smallish in the foreground about seven/tenths of a mile away. This gave me an excellent feel for the magnificent space of the Mall.
The first names on the Vietnam Veteran Memorial wall.  The memorial is less than one foot high at this point.  Its dark stone and dim lighting made it somewhat difficult to locate to unversed toursits like Jennifer and myself as we walked from the light of the Lincoln Memorial into the night.
This shot gives you some sense of how dark it was around the Vietnam Memorial wall.  You could not easily read the names without some lighting assistance.  The lights along the base point directly up and do not cast much illumination toward the surface of the wall.
The brightness of the Lincoln Memorial was contrasted by the darkness nearby where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stood. Somewhere. Jennifer and I decided to use the bulk of time at that stop to search for it but light became scarce as we walked away from the Lincoln Memorial. We accidentally happened upon the statue known as The Three Soldiers but the memorial itself briefly eluded us in the dim light. In truth, the park beside the classically lit Lincoln building was dark. Only a few pathways are minimally lit. Of course, there is a busy highway nearby with plenty of traffic sounds. So, we weren't lost, but we couldn't see the Vietnam Memorial either. Jennifer located it with her GPS on her iPhone but we still couldn't see the memorial wall. It seemed we were walking toward a retaining wall for the highway.

But it was the Wall vaguely illuminated in subdued lights that did not shine directly on the dark reflective stone surface. You could only faintly make out the names on the memorial, needing a flashlight or some other illumination to read the inscribed names with clarity. Without the direct, bright lights that graced the other memorials it was next to impossible to read or even fully see more than 20 feet in any direction at night. But there were people walking about, talking in hushed tones. We walked to the middle, to its highest point in the Wall and stood there for a moment, meditating. I took a couple of photos and the number of names of mostly young Americans at this point was transformed into a huge weight, a burden. It was a moving memorial.

I thought it somewhat symbolic and metaphorical that Jennifer and I stumbled around trying to locate it and then could not see it clearly once we found it. Sort of like the convoluted, divisive war itself. She and I talked about that as we bought bottled water on the way back to the trolley to quench our thrusts in the humid summer night. The trolley took us back to Union Station past the World War Two Memorial and past the north side of the White House. From there to The Liaison was a bit less than half a mile’s trek through a small jungle of homeless people.

Two nights later there was a brilliant blue sky sunset. A storm front had moved through leaving us with cooler, less humid conditions. Jennifer, who was developing a sinus cold before we ever left on the trip, was totally exhausted from the day's activities. After a (mediocre) supper she crashed while I walked from The Liaison down the length of the Mall and beyond the Washington Monument where I found the Tidal Basin again. A hike of an additional half mile (probably a bit over two miles all total one way) took me down around the Tidal Basin and eventually brought me to the Jefferson Memorial 30 minutes before sunset.

As I have mentioned before, Thomas Jefferson is my favorite patriot. Though we had driven by his memorial on the trolley tour it was not one of our stops. I was dissatisfied with this and decided there would be no better time to undertake the lengthy hike to the memorial than while Jennifer rested. I can cover some ground at a very brisk pace when I hike on my own. I enjoyed my time there, watching the sun set, and how the rays of fading light played off the beautiful marble of the structure. I took photos from every angle both inside and around the memorial. I visited the museum underneath the structure and learned of some of the difficulties (including protesters trying to save the trees that were cut down and heavy lobbying against continued construction after World War Two started) FDR faced after construction began in 1938. I want to study this more in-depth in the future. These small government interpretive centers rarely give you more than a brief digest of what actually transpired. In the end, FDR got his way and the memorial was dedicated in April 1943, right in the middle of the war. It was a hike well worth it to see this most appropriate tribute to the man I consider our greatest Founding Father.

There were other monuments and memorials that Jennifer and I saw as we trekked around DC. Too many to mention, of course. But, these were the major ones, dotting the National Mall area giving it a sense of almost sacred grandeur to the past – to some of the great human beings that forged this nation and the great events that our nation has endured. It is easy to be critical and even cynical about many aspects of American history and present politics. But, to walk these grounds and gather the collective magnitude of what is represented here left Jennifer and I both moved and appreciative of the heritage of our great and still unfolding American story.

My hike back from the Jefferson Memorial took me back through the full length of the Smithsonian buildings along the National Mall. Approaching the Capitol from this direction was wonderful with its great, brightly lighted dome set against the clear night sky. I was a bit surprised by how dark the middle of the Mall was in the evening. If the Milky Way had been out I would have been able to easily see it due to the lack of background lighting. The flip-side of this was that I was walking in darkness that rivaled the Vietnam Wall area. It was somewhat unusual walking that long distance in darkness through such a large public space in front of our nation's capital building though security was tight and I wasn’t bothered by anyone, not even the homeless who roamed more freely the closer I came to our hotel room.
The Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin in the orange hues of the setting sun.  It was marvelous to behold and well worth my four-mile round-trip trek to see it up close.  If you look carefully you can see Jefferson's statue facing the camera looking toward the White House which can no longer be seen from it due to new constructions. 
The Jefferson Memorial on my approach after circling the path along the Tidal Basin.  I find the architecture elegant and inspiring.  Great care has been taken to preserve the various trees surrounding the memorial.  Two elderly cedars can be seen abutting the foundation of the memorial in this shot.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

23 Words

Long-time readers know I consider linguistics and grammar to be particularly insightful into the nature of human experience. The words we choose, the rules governing their meaning and structure in usage, are a prism directly into the heart of what I call Intersubjectivity. In and of itself, grammar does not lie, it does not mislead. It is intended for mutual understanding in society and in ritual. As such, it is among humanity's best efforts at existential clarity.

Guy Deutscher writes: "The real effects of the mother tongue are rather habits that develop through the frequent use of certain ways of expression. The concepts we are trained to treat as distinct, the information that our mother tongue continuously forces us to specify, the details it requires us to be attentive to, and the repeated associations it imposes on us - all these habits of speech can create habits of mind that affect more than merely the knowledge of language itself." (page 234)

Language both creates and reflects human experience. "The influence of the mother tongue that has been demonstrated empirically is felt in areas of thought such as memory, perception, and associations or in practical skills such as orientation. And in our actual experience of life, such areas are no less important than the capacity for abstract reasoning, probably far more so." (page 235)

Last month, it was reported that British researchers had distilled some of the oldest words used by humankind out of seven key ancient language families. There were numerous languages used by ancient humans but the vast majority of the languages spoken on Earth today are derived from these seven language families. From these families British linguists uncovered 23 'ultra-conserved' words that have been around for the last 15,000 years or longer. Here they are, in order of prevalence throughout the primal languages:

Thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm.

Now you can deduce many things from this limited set of vocabulary. It is revealing that "mother" makes the list but there is no word for "father", for example. Does this mean humans did not relate to males as fathers? I was left unsatisfied by this question and several others. I wanted to know a bit more, to push the research beyond the reported news and see the full extent of what looking at ancient languages in this way might tell us about human experience and understanding. So I ventured back to the original source of the 23-words story. It turns out that linguists constructed this list from a larger list of 200 words that were more or less common across the seven language families.

These 200 words are not an exhaustive list by any means. Most likely, there were many more words being spoken for many more experiences across the spectrum of human speech. But, these 200 words represent a commonality that is possessed by no other words of which linguists know. Most of these words only occur in two of the seven language families considered. To make the 23-word list they had to appear in at least four of the seven. Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that these 200 words represent the general extent of human spoken expression, and thus they offer a wider reflection of aspects of human understanding and experience at this pre-Neolithic time.

Here are some of my (non-academic and speculative) thoughts as I have pondered these words and this research over the past few weeks. I certainly consider them to be at the very root of human understanding and social interaction 150 centuries ago. So this is like peering back in time at fossilized human experience. Even taking into account diversity in speech, these words are special in that they occur far more frequently throughout ancient languages than any other words.

Cursory thoughts: "Who" and "what" made the list of 200. But there is no "when", "where", and certainly no "why". My opinion is that time, location, and existential concepts were not sufficiently developed in human experience at this time. There was no need for such words and such words did not create nor reflect the human experience of living. Interestingly, there are words for "sun"and "star" but not for "moon". There is a word for "dog" but not "cat". "Bird", "fish", "louse", and "snake" all make the 200 word list but only "worm" made it into the elite 23 word list. No other animals are named. This does not mean they did not exist, of course. It simply means that spoken designators were not important from a cultural standpoint; that is a very different frame of mind from what you and I have today.

There is a word for "cold" but not "hot", "good" but not "bad". There are multiple words for "night" (perhaps suggesting various experiences or types of night); far more words for "night" than for "day", which was apparently much more straightforward. In fact there are many words that appear in multiple ways within one or two languages while not existing at all in other languages. Here is a short list of such words:

All, belly, big, cloud, egg, fat, foot, good, hair, hold, know, mountain, narrow, neck, night, scratch, skin, thin, wife, year.

To break it down further, basic human roles in terms of parentage seem very limited and perhaps not all that important at this time. "Mother" appears in four of seven language families. "Father" does, in fact, appear, but only in three families, rendering it ineligible for the 23-word list. Thus, four language families had no word for father and while three had no word for mother. There were two different words for "wife" in two languages (four words altogether) indicating a greater distinction than we experience today, but this was quite limited as there was no word for wife in five language groups. "Woman" only occurs in two language groups. "Man" occurs in four and makes the elite list. It is possible that the multiple words of "wife" and the more frequent use of "man" than "woman" reveal the prevalence of patriarchal culture during this time.  Men probably controlled and guided at least the formal use of language more than women.

Action words that make the 200-word list (the number of distinct words meaning the same action and number of language families in which each word meaning appears is listed in parenthesis): bite (2 separate words in 2 languages - four distinct words total), blow (2/2), burn (4/3), cut (3/3), die (1/3), dig (3/2), drink (4/2), eat (4/2), fall (1/3), fear (1/2), flow (1/4), freeze (1/3), give (1/5), hear (1/4), hit (1/3), hunt (1/2), kill (1/3), laugh (2/2), lie (1/3), live (1/2), pull (1/4), say (1/2), see (1/3), sew (2/2), sing (1/2), sit (1/2), sleep (1/2), spit (1/4), split (1/3), stab (1/3), stand (1/2) suck (1/3), swim (1/3), think (1/2), throw (1/2), tie (3/2), turn (2/2), wash (1/2).

These words represent most of human activity at this time. If it isn’t on this list, odds are it was not spoken about although many actions could have been taken for granted or expressed in other ways such as body language and gestures. As mentioned before, "flow", "give", "hear", "pull", and "spit" are the most widely used action words.

In terms of numbers, it is interesting to note that there is no word for "zero". That was probably a concept primal humanity had little need for. There are no numbers over five. The fact that "one", "two", "three", "four", and "five" all make the 200-word list but "six" or any other number word does not obviously suggests that counting was done on one hand and no one particularly thought about adding the other hand to the calculation of things.

Other things of note: In terms of anatomical parts, there were words for belly, blood, bone, ear, eye, foot, hair, heart, leg, liver, neck, nose, skin. But there are no words for mouth, arm, fingers, or toes on the list. Perhaps fingers and toes were considered part of the hand and foot respectively. Black, green, red, and white are the only colors mentioned with black being used far more than the other color words. Other colors were seen, of course, but there was apparently no cultural significance attached to them, they were not a routine habit of the human mind at this time.

So, one has to be careful to put the reported 23-word list in context. This is not the sum whole of human experience 15,000 years ago. Many other words were in use. But, these other words were not in use in most primal languages, reflecting that most of humanity did not speak of such things or expressed them in ways other than in spoken tongues. If one can maintain that context then some speculations about the 23 words can be of relevant interest.

First of all, this list reflects an apparently pre-religious humanity. The words originated in the Mesolithic Period, which is pre-Neolithic. One has to be careful here. Cave painting, sculptures, and the suggestion of ritual date back to the late-Paleolithic Period. So just because there are no religious type words does not necessarily mean humanity was without spirituality. Still, the clearest and most numerous evidence we have of early religious ritual comes from the Neolithic Period which started several thousand years after these words were in common usage. There are no “cosmic” words on the list, no metaphysical ideas. No words for "god" or "spirit" or "soul", though perhaps they were present in a minority of languages.

By this time, humans had been speaking in rudimentary forms for over 250,000 years. (Perhaps for far longer, given that our mouths, tongues, and throats had evolved into the necessary shape, size and orientation for speech long before that.) This was a strictly oral tradition. There was little art until about 40,000 years ago. Song was possible but without words (remember the action word "to sing" only appears in two of seven language families, there is no word at all for "to dance") it would have probably consisted of simple rhythmic tones. There was absolutely no writing to hand down knowledge. Everything had to be remembered by language in the form of body gestures and basic utterances. It took more than 2500 centuries for humans to create what later became a metaphorical language, so representation of facts by dance or body language may have served a social importance greater than speaking itself. Spoken storytelling, for example, must be a fairly recent development in the history of humanity.

Humans spoke some limited variation of a proto-language. By the late-Mesolithic, however, some languages consisted of maybe a couple of hundred words. Most didn't. (By comparison, today's young teens speak many thousands of words and spoken English consists of hundreds of thousands of words.) Storytelling would still be rather limited, but perhaps by now it could be dramatized in some fashion. This is pure speculation; there is comparatively little archaeological evidence for the presence of ritual 15,000 years ago. There is ample evidence of human ritual at, say, 8,000 years ago, but before that things are sketchy. There is a magnificent diffused link between the Neolithic and the late-Mesolithic. It has to be assumed without evidence that some sort of religion was there. It seems very plausible, these were human beings after all. But there are few words to indicate so within in the language families. Therefore, in my opinion, religion as we understand it today was not as important then as it is today - or - religion was held as too sacred to be spoken. 

Humanity was verbally concerned with the tangible, physical world. This is reflected in the verbs or action words that make up part of the list of 23. Obviously, "to give", "to hear", "to pull" (but not “to push” interestingly), "to flow", and "to spit" were all important actions of the day. "To give" suggests cooperation, "to hear" suggests the importance of listening over other sensory input – perhaps reflecting the necessity of this skill when securing an area or directing the attention of others toward possible predators or animals to hunt. Everyone knows you can pull more than you can push. So "to pull" is reflective perhaps not only of an appreciation of weight-transporting physics but of cooperation among people for heavy loads.

"To flow" is probably indicative of the importance of rivers and streams and even the pouring of substances within the camp. "To spit" is fundamental. It is useful to prevent someone from ingesting a harmful substance. Another medical possibility is the use of saliva (perhaps mixed in the mouth with other substances) for cuts or bites or burns. Or it might be a display of disrespect toward another person. Whatever the possibility, spitting was more fundamental to social communication than telling someone to breathe or swallow.

Objects of particular importance: "fire", "bark", "ashes", and "worm". Well obviously "fire" was a big deal back in the day, including the use or disposal of "ashes" as a result of burning things. Humanity apparently lived predominantly among trees. "Bark" was probably useful in a variety of ways from cooking to medicine. "Worm" might be a bit of a surprise. But, it shows the extent of technology. Fishing must have created a demand for worms and they were perhaps an important part of the diet considering that "worm" makes the 23-word list but "fish" is only on the 200-word list. More languages talked about worms than about fish.

The basic words contain several references to what role individuals played within social interaction. This perhaps reveals the comparative complexity of human relationships and the need to be clear as to who someone is speaking to or about. "Thou" is the only word that exists in all languages. This is the singular form of "you" and is perhaps a respectful reference too, indicating that humans had a basic elevated appreciation of individuals at this time. By contrast, "ye" is the plural of "you" so more than one human being was referred to in this context. There was no word for "you" as we know it today. "You" is a modern construct of language, reflecting a slightly different human experience of society and self.

The word "I" is self-referential, of course, and the second most common word after "thou", occurring in six of seven language families. (There was a language family without an "I"; interesting to think about what that culture must have been like, but it was not ultimately influential.) Maybe this is reflective of the beginnings of human ego. Maybe it is simply an essential need to discuss aspects of cooperation within the tribe. "We" is clearly an inwardly focused appreciation of groups, occurring in five of seven families, again suggesting cooperation – the word "them" or "they" does not appear even in the 200-word list, for example. So, it is likely that cooperation trumped competition at this juncture of humanity’s journey.

Odds and ends. "This" and "that" seem pretty fundamental. How else can humans express the difference between “shit and shinola”? It also reflects the fundamental need for objectification in human experience. Wise humans thousands of years later would suggest this was the beginning of a great illusion in human consciousness. Once again, my contention is that the dynamic of language and grammar is not an illusion and reflects a fundamental reality that should not evaporate by assigning prevalence to consciousness itself or significance to a "soul" or other forms of spirituality. "This" and "that" trumps nirvana or salvation in my book.

"What" and "Who" are inherently fundamental to understanding exactly which object or person is being spoken about, again to clarify misunderstandings. Again, there is no "why". "Why" did not matter 15,000 years ago or it was a minor experience of inquiry at that point. "Not" is a disqualifier. I guess this was a necessary word for teaching and communicating in matters that were misunderstood or in pointing out differences in objects or in actions that differed from an intended communication. "Old" probably applied to the natural world and geography but perhaps is a reflection of some sense of tradition as well. Old is relative in human terms. The average lifespan back then was very short, maybe 30 years or so but some people lived longer and deserved a special designation. "Young" was apparently not as important as a word, it does not occur on either list.

The most important body part would probably be the "hand" as it was the tool for making other tools, for building fire, gathering worms, etc. It is long-established that the opposable thumb on our hand contributed fundamentally to the development of human awareness and knowledge. Meanwhile, "black" was the most widely used color designation, occurring on four of seven families. In my opinion, it might be meant as a condition, the absence of light, used instead of the more sophisticated concept of darkness. But color of skin is obviously important. Where used, there were multiple words for "skin", reflecting a distinction of various types of skin.

Of course this 23 word distillation is somewhat controversial, particularly in what it reflects and means. Within the proto-language there was cultural variation reflecting different experiences of people wherever they happened to live and whatever the needs of their experiences demanded. But, generally speaking, for early humans it was all about social orientation, cooperation, and basic objective designations necessary to survive. Complex emotions like love and hate are nowhere in the picture. Fear is the only emotion to make either primal language list. Is this because early humans did not experience a variety of emotions? It is more likely that early humans had little understanding of their feelings or at least experienced comparatively little need to invent words to express them. That makes their world fundamentally different from ours and is reflective of how consciousness has evolved through time from primitive awareness to our present, more complex (and perhaps more confused) condition.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Flow: An Overview

Flow is another wood doodle that has had a fundamental impact on my life.  This psychic reality was discerned by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-me-hy-ee) a famous Hungarian psychologist.  My word doodles on Karma, Being, and Lifeworld have been hybrid posts.  I have cherry-picked sometimes disassociated ideas to give my intimate perspective on these aspects of my spirituality.

With Flow it is different.  I do not take this and disregard that.  I do not fuse otherwise unlinked ideas together.  With Dr. C's brilliant work I take it hook, line, and sinker (watch his TED talk here).  Flow is an insightful psychological discovery and I would not change a single sentence in the four books Dr. C has written so far regarding Flow.  Flow is as close to a perfect understanding of how to get the most out of existence as I have come across in my lifetime of philosophical and spiritual questing.

Placed in terms of my spiritual path, Flow is a orchestrated mode of Lifeworld.  It is developed through specific discipline and techniques as outlined repeatedly in Dr. C's work.  Once established, Flow is "optimal experience" which allows for a more creative, focused, and rewarding life.  Sounds too good to be true or maybe like some new age mumbo-jumbo or maybe some naive religious project.  But it is none of these things.

Flow is a psychological condition that human beings have stumbled in to and out of perhaps since the pre-dawn of civilization.  Dr. C merely uncovered its existence through years of interviews with normal, unexceptional human beings from cultures all over the world.  He found specific characteristics of experience that unify humanity and then he translated these characteristics into mental habits and techniques designed to enhance the possibility of optimal experience.

"The key element of an optimal experience is that is an end in itself.  Even if it is undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.  The term 'autotelic' derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal.  It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done without the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward." (page 67)

"The flow experience, like everything else, is not 'good' in an absolute sense.  It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful;  it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.  But whether the consequence of any particular instance of flow is good in a larger sense needs to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more inclusive social criteria.  The same is true, however, of all human activities, whether science, religion, or politics." (page 70)

"Although a self-conscious person is in many respects different from a self-centered one, neither is in enough control of psychic energy to enter easily into flow experience.  Both lack the attentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake;  too much psychic energy is wrapped up in the self, and free attention is rigidly guided by its needs.  Under these conditions it is difficult to become interested in intrinsic goals, to lose oneself in an activity that offers no rewards outside of interaction itself." (page 85)

"The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity.  Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.  Some critics, however, prefer to stress the differences between flow and Yoga.  Their main divergence is that, whereas flow attempts to fortify the self, the goal of Yoga and many other Eastern techniques is to abolish it." (page 105)

"The 'autotelic self' is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony.  A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self.  The term literally means 'a self that has self-contained goals,' and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self.  For most people, goals are shaped directly by biological needs and social conventions, and therefore their origin is outside the self.  For an autotelic person, the primary goals emerge from experience evaluated in consciousness, and therefore from the self proper." (page 207)

Dr. C offers several specific techniques or habits that will assist with creating the experience of Flow.  These include the pop psychology recommendation of setting goals for your life and monitoring the feedback life gives you in pursuit of goals.  Nothing novel there.  But, in its essence, Flow is about becoming immersed in whatever activity you involve yourself, learning to control your attention and focusing on matters at hand.  Pay attention to what is happening to you within your activity, have a sustained involvement with it.  When you engage in the immediacy of experience you can also experience joy or at least an enjoyment in what you are doing.

"To achieve this control, however, requires determination and discipline.  Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, lotus-eating approach to life.  A relaxed, laissez-faire attitude is not a sufficient defense against chaos....to be able to transform random events into flow, one must develop skills that stretch capacities, that make one become more than one is.

"...it is not sufficient to learn merely how to control moment-by-moment states of consciousness.  It is also necessary to have an overall context of goals for events of everyday life to make sense.  If a person moves from one flow activity to another without a connecting order, it will be difficult at the end of one's life to look back on the years and find meaning in what has happened." (page 213)

"It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual.  But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning." (page 215)

"The most promising faith for the future might be based on the realization that the entire universe is a system related by common laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without taking them into account." (page 240)

The preceding are all taken from the original 1990 groundbreaking book, Flow.  The next series of quotes come from the third book (1997), Finding Flow. It identifies a part of Flow with which I rationally agree but do not intimately exhibit well.

"A person who achieves contentment by withdrawing from the world to 'cultivate his own garden,' like Voltaire's Candide, cannot be said to lead an excellent life.  Without dreams, without risks, only a trivial semblance of living can be achieved." (page 22)

But I definitely relate to this passage in an intimate way.

"It is easier to enter flow through games such as chess, tennis, or poker, because they have goals and rules for action that make it possible for the player to act without questioning what should be done, and how." (page 29)

"It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.  When we are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness we must focus on out inner states, and that would take away attention from the task at hand." (page 32)

"...in the last analysis it is not the external conditions that count, but what we make of them.  It is perfectly possible to be happy doing housework with nobody around, to be motivated when working, to concentrate when talking to a child.  In other words, the excellence of daily life finally depends not on what we do, but on how we do it."  (page 47)

"...work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day.  It usually has clear goals and rules of performance.  It provides feedback either in the form of knowing that one has finished a job well done, in terms of measurable sales, or through an evaluation by one's supervisor.  A job usually encourages concentration and prevents distractions;  it also allows a variable amount of control, and - at least ideally - it's difficulties match the worker's skills."  (page 59)

"Highly productive and creative artists, entrepreneurs, statesmen, and scientists tend to experience their jobs like our hunting ancestors did theirs - as completely integrated with the rest of their lives." (page 61)

"But just free time with nothing specific to engage one's attention provides the opposite of flow: psychic entropy, where one feels listless and apathetic." (page 66)

"And if society becomes too dependent on entertainment, it is likely that there will be less psychic energy left to cope creatively with the technological and economic challenges that will inevitably arise." (page 76)

"Without a burning curiosity, a lively interest, we are unlikely to persevere long to make a significant new contribution.  This kind of interest is rarely only intellectual in nature.  It is usually rooted in deep feelings, in memorable experiences that need some sort of resolution - a resolution that can be achieved only by a new artistic expression or a new way of understanding." (page 87)

"If there is one quality distinguishes autotelic individuals, it is that their psychic energy seems inexhaustible.  Even thought they have no greater attentional capacity than anyone else, they pay more attention to what happens around them, they notice more, and they are willing to invest more attention in things for their own sake without expecting an immediate return." (page 123)

I find that my psychic energy is in fact exhaustible.  Despite yoga, despite being engaged with life, despite moments of precious solitude, I reach a point where I do not care anymore.  We all do at some point, in my opinion.  But that does not mean my exhaustion is healthy.  On the contrary, it probably is worthless.  Nevertheless, I often am surprised to find that I am able to feel Flow.  So there is hope.

"The important point is that the interest be disinterested;  in other words, that it not be entirely at the service of one's own agenda.  Only if attention is to a certain extent free of personal goals and ambitions do we have a chance of apprehending reality on its own terms." (page 125)

"Even the most routine tasks, like washing the dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.  The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks the we don't like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don't do often enough because it is too much trouble." (page 127)

"This attitude toward one's choices is well expressed in the concept of amor fati - or love of fate - a central concept in Nietzsche's philosophy."(page 138)

I need not note my high level of sympathy for the philosophical work of Frederich Nietzsche.  The connections between the autotelic self and Nietzsche's "free-spirit" and "overman" are numerous, perhaps relating to each other in the manner Flow relates with eastern spirituality.  The second book, Creativity (and the longest at over 360 pages, revealing the importance of the creative self within the Flow experience, copyright 1996) contains the following quotes.

"First of all, when we are in flow, we do not usually feel happy - for the simple reason that in flow we feel only what is relevant to the activity.  Happiness is a distraction....It is only after we get out of flow, at the end of a session or a moment of distraction within it, that we might indulge in feeling happy." (page 123)

"...what matters most is that we shape the immediate surroundings, activities, and schedules so as to feel in harmony with the small segment of the universe where we happen to be located.  It is nice if this ovation is as fetching as a villa on Lake Como;  it is a far greater challenge when fate throws you into a Siberian gulag.  At either extreme, what counts is for consciousness to find ways to adapt it rhythms to what is outside and, to a certain extent, to transform what it encounters outside to it own rhythms.  Being in tune with place and time, we experience the reality of our unique existence and its relationship to the cosmos.  And from this knowledge original thoughts and original actions follow with greater ease."  (page 146)

"The argument so far has tried to establish two points: that creativity is necessary for human survival in a future where the human species plays a meaningful role and that the results of creativity tend to have undesirable side effects.  If one accepts these conclusions, it follows that human well-being hinges on two factors: the ability to increase creativity and the ability to develop ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas."  (page 322)

"Interest and curiosity tend to be stimulated by positive experiences with family, by a supportive emotional environment, by a rich cultural heritage, by exposure to many opportunities, and by high expectations.  In contrast, perseverance seems to develop as a response to a precarious emotional environment, a dysfunctional family, solitude, a feeling of rejection and marginality.  Most people experience either one of the other of these early environments, but not both of them.  However, creative individuals seem more likely to have been exposed to both circumstances."  (page 327)

To foster the creativity within you, Dr. C recommends that you wake up every morning with a specific goal to look forward to.  Do your best because if you do anything well, it becomes enjoyable.  To keep enjoying something over a longer period of time you need to increase its complexity.  To accommodate complexity you must take charge of your schedule, find out what time of day and under what conditions you are most creative.  Make time for reflection and relaxation.  Shape your space as much as possible, make yourself comfortable.  Find out what you like to do and hate to do within life.  Start doing more of what you love, less of what you hate.  That may seem glaringly obvious but it is nevertheless more difficult that you might at first realize.

In 2003 Dr. C wrote a book on how Flow applies to the business world, Good Business.  In it he reiterates all the research conducted on the Flow experience.  He stresses that Flow is an active discipline that applies to the world of work.  Specifically: "Flow occurs when both challenges and skills are high and equal to each other." (page 44). Again, Flow is not something that passively happens.  It requires situations that place demands upon our abilities, but it equally requires that our abilities be fully engaged and adequate to the complexity of the matters at hand.  For this reason, we must develop our abilities and take on more complex challenges throughout our lives.  Flow is not about creating simplicity, rather it is about mastering fresh complexity.  This is another Flow aspect I could apply better in my life.  My tendency is toward a Thoreau-like simplification.

Dr. C is emphatic that Flow is not a state of experience that is constant for the individual.  "Clearly, it would be impossible to be in flow all the time, for the rhythms of life do not allow it.  We have to rest, to spend time doing in glamorous tasks like mopping the floor or taking showers.  We need to relax.  There will always be threats that place us in jeopardy. Nevertheless, there is also enormous room for improvement in how often we can access flow.  According to surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization in the United States and similar firms in Europe, between 15 percent and 20 percent of adults never seem to experience flow, while a comparable number claim to experience it every day.  The other 60 percent to 70 percent report being intensely involved in what they do anywhere from once every few months to at least once a week." (page 75)

As Flow applies to work, you discover a means for acting effectively in the monetary world.  For this to happen you must "know" yourself in a business sense rather than a philosophical sense.  By business sense Dr. C means: "Knowing oneself is not so much a question of discovering what is present in one's self, but rather creating who one wants to be." (page 169). "Anything that we can do well, that we enjoy doing, and that there is a demand for, is worth taking seriously as a skill to develop." (page 173) "To know oneself is the first step toward making flow a part of one's entire life.  But just as there is no free lunch in the material economy, nothing comes free in the psychic one.  If one is not willing to invest psychic energy in the internal reality of consciousness, and instead squanders it chasing external rewards, one loses mastery of one's life, and ends up becoming a puppet of circumstances." (page 188)

It will be obvious to long-time readers that I live my life with a tendency toward solitude and simplicity which Dr. C would say impoverishes my experience to some degree.  I am creating less than optimal conditions for living.  This is an area where I could improve my life from the perspective of Flow.  Just because I respect Dr. C's work doesn't mean I follow it entirely.  But I need to be more aware of these opportunities for involvement and work on not being so disengaged in some respects.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that Flow is a mode of Lifeworld.  As such it is not a word doodle on the scale and magnitude of Karma or Being.  It is an intimate word doodle and, therefore, probably does not exist outside of higher animal cognition.  The universe is indifferent to Flow.  It does not take Flow into account in its workings and Flow makes no impact on Karma in a macro-physical sense.  It is trivial from that perspective.

But from within human experience, in the micro-physical Karmic sense, Flow is massive. The Lifeworld is large from a psychic perspective.  Flow is an entire mode of Lifeworld.  And the nurturing of optimal experience through the appreciation of the autotelic self is fundamental to achieving a more enjoyable life regardless of the haphazard whims of the universe.

Late Note;  A few days later I came upon this video blog regarding Flow.