Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Blast from the Past

I’m putting off working on the mountain of papers I have due within the next two weeks, and so I present you with a highly belated entry on what was probably my favorite part of my semester in Ireland: my trip to Scotland with the mountaineering club.

27 October: Scotland

There were all sorts of meditations on Belfast I wanted to record, but now is not the time. We’re on our way back from the mountaineering club’s trip to Scotland. It was a blast, and I’m immensely glad I went.

There isn’t much to write about where Thursday is concerned. We took the bus from Galway to Dublin and Dublin to Belfast, then a ferry from Belfast to Stenraer. Then it was back on the bus to Glasgow, where we stopped for shopping before heading on to Fort William. It was dark when we got on the bus in the morning and well dark by the time we got off it in the evening. So when we finally made it to the hostel, all anyone wanted was food, tea, and sleep.

We stayed at hostel Chase the Wild Goose, which was great craic. We filled the whole thing, so there was no need to bother with locks and such. It was run by a twenty-something guy named Dan, who hung out with and played guitar for us in the evenings and even came out to a pub with us on Saturday night. He also kept us well-supplied with tea and coffee and wasn’t too fussed about us making noise late at night.

The hiking was, of course, great. On Friday we scaled Ben Nevis, which at 1340 meters is the highest point in the UK. It wasn’t a particularly pretty mountain, but it offered some decent views of the highlands. Unlike those of Ireland, Scotland’s major hiking mountains appear to have trails, a fact that I thoroughly appreciated. This, and the fact that I decided to pay for hiking poles, made the walk a lot easier than Mweelrea. It was a long walk, but most of it wasn’t particularly steep. We were told that the medium and short walks would be covering the same distance, but at different speeds, so I chose to walk with the slow group—why hold up the faster walkers when I already know I’m slow?

The difference in conditions between the base and the summit was remarkable. It was raining at the base, but it was too warm for me to keep my hood on without overheating, so my hair was soaked through. Then we got above that level of clouds and it was clear for a good long while, giving us a chance to see the surrounding countryside. But as we climbed up higher, we reached a layer of fog—nowhere near as thick as it had been on Mweelrea, but enough that the lovely view was gone. And as we neared the summit, the terrain became snowier and snowier—there were probably eight inches of it up at the top of the mountain. It was snowing, too, if lightly, and the wind picked up as we went. This was fine as long as we kept moving, but once we got to the top, we got pretty chilled.

Coming down was hard, though. The snow and then the rocks were slippery, and my knees were killing me. I couldn’t keep up with the group either; I tried for a while, but it soon became clear that there was no point in fooling myself. At some level, I knew that there must be people behind me, that they wouldn’t have just left me behind without a leader on sweep. But I was so far behind the main group that I had a hard time imagining that anyone could be moving more slowly. For 2/3 of my descent, I was completely by myself—and for a lot of that, I couldn’t see anyone from our group either before or behind me. It was miserable, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t bitter and frustrated.

Our second day’s hiking was an easy walk along a hill overlooking Loch Ness. There were some decently steep hills, but they weren’t very long, and it was a well-established trail. What you would expect of hiking in the US, really. The walk was short, though, only about an hour—I think we spent more time looking for the trail than hiking it. We didn’t get very close to Loch Ness, either, which was a little disappointing. We did take the bus over to the parking lot above the castle for a closer view, but it wasn’t the same thing.

Ben Nevis by day

A truly enormous tree.

Taken on the bus, believe it or not!

Our last day of hiking was Glencoe, and let me tell you, it was spectacular. Ben Nevis was great just to be able to say that we did it, but I would happily hike Glencoe again. It helped that the weather was wonderful, cold but clear and sunny.

We didn’t take the most logical way up, which meant that we spent a fair amount of time picking our way up and along a field of loose rock (my least favorite of all the hiking surfaces I’ve encountered so far). But eventually we passed that point and were rewarded with some truly spectacular views. Up at the higher altitudes, there was snow on the ground—but because there was enough sun to melt it, you got these really cool ridges where half of the mountain had snow and the other half didn’t.

There came a point near the top where we were told we could see the rest of our route: up a steep and snowy slope and along the top of a ridge before starting back down. Looking up at that one face, all I could think was, “you’ve GOT to be kidding.” Not only was it snowy, it was so steep that it was almost like climbing a ladder—a sharp, irregular, slippery one. But getting to the top was immensely satisfying, and the view from the top was stunning.

Say it with me now: "You've GOT to be kidding!"

The view from the top

And in the midst of all this natural glory, we got a bit of history. We hiked through the valley where the Campbell clan massacred the McDonalds, a surprisingly flat expanse that tapers to a deep crack running up the mountainside. It was a peaceful sort of place, and you’d never guess at its bloody history.

This is the canyon in question.

All in all, I’d say we did a pretty impressive amount of hiking: about 9.5 miles on Friday, which took us up (and, of course, back down)1340 meters. Sunday only took us up about 900 meters, but it took us much longer, so I’d say we walked a good deal further. Not bad for a weekend’s work.

But the hiking was only half of what the trip was about; I’ll remember the time we spent just hanging out just as strongly. On Friday night, we went to a hotel bar and then a pub with a fair number of the group. Katie was short on cash and had to pay with a credit card, so I got her a drink at the first place, and she bought me one at the second. Didn’t give me much a choice about it, really—she asked if I wanted a beer, and I said I wouldn’t know what to get. She just looked at me ad said, “come on,” so I followed her to the bar, and she bought me a pint of Foster’s, which was okay. I met some new friends that night—Andrew and Connlet, whose full name I cannot remember or spell properly for the life of  me, even though it’s been repeated to me on several occasions. In my defense, he speaks quietly, so spelling it out for me while we’re walking on gravel didn’t help me much. I joined them in playing darts that night at Connlet’s insistence; he asked if I wanted to play, and when I passed half-heartedly, he just handed me the darts.

Katie and I had a great time at the pub in town on Saturday as well. Space was pretty tight, and so we ended up crammed into sharing a little table with two guys who weren’t from the group. They were in Fort William on some sort of conservation project, and I think they were Welsh. We ended up talking to them about all sorts of things, from Guinness and microbrews (Katie and I both tried and liked An Teallach, a local brew) to Irish prejudices to the amounts and kinds of tree cover in Ireland and Scotland. Their names were James and Pete, and they were great fun to talk to. Ames even gave us his business car, in case either of us had a LinkedIn account.

As much as I liked the hiking, the socializing might have been the best part of the weekend. We had a really interesting roup of people—international students and staff from France, Germany, Finland, Poland, Romania, Nepal, and the US; older Irish men and women who just take part in the club for the craic of it; a Scottish guy who was doing the same thing. I think I’ve had more experience with the Irish language and musical culture, as well as linguistic conversations, with this club than anywhere else. Several of the guys are studying, researching, or working with Old or Modern Irish, so I could discuss linguistics with them and ask questions like “why is Dublin called Baile Átha Cliath if the name comes from Dubh Linn?” I walked into the kitchen to do my dishes at one point and Liam and Aengus were talking to/shouting at each other in Irish—just functional stuff, nothing longer than “would you pass me that towel?” but still cool.

There’s also a fair amount of knowledge of traditional music and dance. There was an older man and woman who were fantastic at what I’ve since learned is called sean-nós, or ‘old-style’ dancing, and a couple of the others seemed to have at least a basic knowledge. They tried to organize a couple of set dances as well, telling us that we went in and then out and then cross left and then right and so forth. There wasn’t enough space and half the group seemed to have issues with rhythm and direction, so it was a royal mess, but it was great fun nonetheless.

We had plenty of music as well, as we had fiddler, a tin whistle player, and a flutist  for trad music. Plus there were a good four or five guitar players, if you count our host. So there was a lot of singing—traditional and modern, accompanied and a cappella. Though I guess I was the only one singing a cappella. I think I’m going to have to learn to play the guitar; it would be nice to be able to provide my own accompaniment, and a lot of my favorite songs really rely on the instrumental contributions.

All of this made for a grand fancy dress party at the end. The beer, cider, and whiskey were all flowing pretty freely, and they handed snuff around as well, though the Americans categorically refused that one. People went all out with the costumes too—black cats and witches, of course (lazy Americans that we are), but also babies, cowboys, a Trekkie, a leprechaun, batgirl, 70’s guys, an astronaut, a tooth fairy, Pinocchio, a corpse bride. I hadn’t planned or brought a costume, but I wore all black, tied a scarf around my waist for a tail, put my hair up as ears, and used eyeliner to draw on whiskers and a nose. Michelle gave me cat eyes as well—she was a great hand with the makeup.

Corpse bride Michelle, who did such a great job with my makeup (not to mention her own!)

Not long into all this revelry, we played something called the box game. The idea is to pick a box up off the ground with your teeth, without touching the ground with your hands or knees. Those who manage it pass on to the next round, for which you tear off a layer of the box so that it’s about half as tall. I made it to the second-to-last round, for which the box walls were about three quarters of an inch tall. Three people managed the next level, where it was just a flat piece of cardboard, but not me; I was able to get that low, but I couldn’t figure out how to pick the thing up. My muscles were not happy about the unexpected deep lunges; I’m sorer from that than from all the hill walking!

This trip turned out to be one of my favorite weekends of the entire semester, and I’m so glad I went. I made friends with whom I continued to hang out for the rest of the semester; I’m going to miss the mountaineering club and the people in it a lot.

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Wondering and Wandering

April 15, 2011

In the middle of a linguistics assignment, Miranda Lambert’s country twang shattered my concentration on foreign language teaching and made me think of camp. Of summers spent in the sun, and the dirt, my tanned and freckled skin dotted with mosquito bites and bramble scratches. Of days spent grooming horses and shoveling manure—the kind of labor that makes you grateful to fall onto your mattress at night, no matter how thin or lopsided it might be. Of backcountry roads and cornfields, of lakes and forests and towns with little more to do than go to Wallyworld. Of singing around a campfire, or with a motley group of men and boys bearing old instruments. Of being truly happy, despite the hard work and the way the forest that surrounded us limited my world.

I like being a college student. I like being an intellectual, I like sitting in coffee shops writing essays on classic literature. I like the hobbies I have picked up here, and the network of dancing friends that spreads across the Midwest. I loved living in Europe, with its public transportation and liberal mindset, the sense of history and tradition pressing in from every direction.

I would have to give all that up if I moved to the country. The easy travel to dance exchanges, the ability to hop on the TGV and marvel at the cathédrale of another ville and then picnic on bread and cheese. The life of tea in coffee shops with computer in hand and book on the brain. And yet there are days when I wonder what I’m doing in college at all, when I know that workdays spent in a little room with fluorescent lights, be it a classroom or an office cubicle, will surely drive me mad. But what is there to do, these days, that would let me spend my life outdoors? But ranching stopped being a profitable occupation a long time ago.

I’m a mountain girl, a country girl, a European village girl. I want to sit in on Irish trad sessions with a pint in hand, to hike the Rocky Mountains, to visit the vineyards of France. I want to spend my life writing and thinking—and yet I want nothing more than to raise horses and grow my own food. How can I be happy, when my own desires pull me in such different directions? How am I to find my own path, when I have no idea which way I want to go?


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Opinion (Not News)

Today I attended a lecture by S.E. Cupp entitled “The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity.” At the end of the lecture, I was surprised to discover one of my professors sitting behind me. He asked me what I thought of the lecture; I told him that I would have found her more convincing if she wasn’t just as general and dogmatic as the liberal media she was attacking.

One professor walked out before she had spoken for five minutes, and I understood why. I stayed until the end of the Q&A session, though the rest of the audience probably wished I hadn’t by the time I had asked three or four questions.

I will grant her, she had some valid points – and she made them much more effectively during the Q&A session, when she was no longer reading from her prepared speech. Some thought-provoking points, and my responses:

  • We trust the media to be fair and balanced, but they’re taking sides, and our mainstream news is presented from liberal, secular viewpoint.

I’ll give her that one. She had plenty of examples of the the condescending, derogatory way Christianity is often portrayed in the media. The religious columnist for Newsweek probably has much more worthwhile things to write about than compiling a list of the hottest rabbis. Religion should be handled seriously and respectfully, at least by the news. Flippancy belongs to the talk-show hosts, not the reporters.

However, while I can see the objection in a the news being presented in a liberal slant, I see no inherent issue with the news being presented from a secular point of view. If you’re going to take a religious point of view, you’re going to have to pick a religion, and you will essentially be preaching its values to those who might not share them. The secular viewpoint seems to be the only fair one, provided it is not pro-secular.

  • America is 80% Christian, and a secular “mainstream” media no longer represents the mainstream.

This figure, she admitted, was taken from the CIA world factbook, which is great for overviews but less so for specifics. Most of the people I know who identify as “Christian” are so in that they espouse Judeo-Christian values and maybe go to church now and then. Now, that may have a lot to do with being from Deerfield, where the most religious people I knew were Jewish. But I think it’s something worth considering when you start throwing around big numbers like that.

If the mainstream media is indeed to represent the mainstream, does this mean that they are obligated to present a pro-Christian viewpoint? Because I find that idea profoundly distasteful. Is not being pro-Christian the same thing as anti-Christian, at least in the eyes of the Christian public? How should the media, and everyone, for that matter, ride that balance?

If that much of the country truly is religious, then they deserve to be represented. How does one represent religion without implicitly preaching it?

  • The separation of church and state is widely misinterpreted; forcing Americans to keep their religion private is exactly the opposite of the Founding Fathers’ intent.

Yes, America was founded by people who wanted to be able to be able to publicly and openly practice their religions. By this token, I think students and teachers should be allowed to pray in public schools. But once you ask students to pray, or set aside time for them to do so, you’re showing a preference for religion, and I don’t think that’s acceptable.

I guess the trickiest part of this is that evangelism is an inherent part of Christianity, and of many major religions. But once you begin to proselytize, you’re infringing on the religious rights of others – especially when you do so in an official or governmental capacity. I guess I don’t know how this balance can or should be struck.

  • Even those of us who are not Christian (she’s an atheist) share most Judeo-Christian values. Attacking Christianity is unnecessarily divisive and prevents us from recognizing what we have in common.

This is where I started to get a little fuzzy about what she was actually arguing. I agree with the statement above. However, earlier in the lecture, she mentioned how we had gone from a time when the New York Times urged Americans to pray for the astronauts of Apollo 13 to one where the government use of “In God We Trust” was under attack. So I asked her if she thought that retaining those same values while removing any explicit link to Christianity constituted an attack on Christianity.

I did not get a straight answer to this question. Her response was essentially that getting offended that your money says “God” or at being wished a Merry Christmas seems like a waste of time. I’ll agree to the second point, though I do espouse the public use of “Happy Holidays.” If you know that someone is Christian, then by all means wish them a Merry Christmas. But if you don’t, you’re making assumptions. Having grown up in a largely Jewish community means that I don’t assume that people are Christian. 

Christmas wasn’t really the point of my question, however. It was more about the explicit reference to Christianity in a more official capacity – in the pledge of allegiance, on our currency. It was about finding a middle ground. If atheists are offended if we mention God, and Christians are offended if we don’t, how can we ever find a middle ground? Does God have to be acknowledge as the giver of those values in order for it to be acceptable to Christians – can they be “American values” rather than “Judeo-Christian?”

I don’t think that removing phrases like “In God We Trust” and “under God” from government use encroaches on people’s personal faith. Americans can trust in God whether America does or not.