27 March 2009

The Year of Acquiring Nothing: Slips #2 and #3

Okay acquiring nothing is going to be harder than I thought.

#2: The existing 5-year old laptop has a serious virus that would require serious Geek Squad help. Rather than put the money into the old piece, we have ordered a new Dell, that has, thanks to advances in technology, a hard drive that has 12 times more capacity than the old one. (I guess this counts as a big slip.)

#3: Trying to plan a European train journey online is next to impossible. The resources just aren't there unless you are taking an mainline route. So I broke down and bought the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable.

24 March 2009

Minnesota, Hail to Thee

For a few months now I have been contemplating taking a creative writing or a literature class. I had lots of writing practice and critique in college and grad school but that was writing for the social sciences and not very creative. I thought it would be fun to be in a structured situation with an instructor assigning themes, topics, forms, length, etc. to force me to think more creatively when I write. More recently I have been thinking it would also be fun to take a literature class. Although I have had eight years of post-secondary education, my last lit class was in high school and it couldn't have been terribly penetrating even if I had paid attention. My interest has been further piqued by reading Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair. It portrays a kind of Harry Potter-like world but with Special Ops agents focusing on literary crimes, and all the attendees at a John Milton conference are called John Milton (much to the chagrin of the hotel manager Liz Barrett Browning). It has occurred to me as I read this book that there is a lot I don't know about the history of literature in general and British lit in particular. I have read lots and lots of 20th century British lit (and a lot of Victorian Trollope) and I remember some Carlyle, Dickens, and Shakespeare, but beyond that I only have a faint notion of how it all hangs together.

So, I set out to find some kind of class that might be interesting to take. Unfortunately Washington DC does not have much in the way of meaningful adult education. One is stuck with either really remedial things like ESL and parenting classes, or programs meant to churn out professional degrees. Among Georgetown, George Washington, American, Howard, Trinity, and Catholic, you would think I would be able to find something. You would be wrong. Even if some of these institutions do offer classes that would fulfill my desires they don't offer anything at night, unless of course you want to get a public policy degree or an MBA.

I even checked out the University of Maryland College Park. It would be inconvenient to get to, and I really don't like the campus, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Their University College program has the kinds of classes I am looking for but all but one of them was online only, no actual classroom time. Call me a dinosaur, call me a Luddite, call me whatever you want. There is no way in hell that an online course can take the place of the classroom experience. No doubt there are times and subjects when distance education makes sense, but to see such a wholesale move to web-based classes by a major university was really depressing to me.

Throughout my search I kept thinking of all of the hundreds (if not thousands) of classes offered in the evenings at the University of Minnesota. The dearth of evening classes here in our Nation's capital, however, made me think that my recollections of the University of Minnesota might be woefully out of date. So for grins and giggles I checked out the U of M's website where I discovered that evening classes are still alive and strong in the Twin Cities. For the current semester there are 12 literature classes that meet in the evening. And none of them are web-based. (They may actually offer web-based classes, but I filtered those out when I did my search.) The point is that there is so much to choose from. Instead of focusing on just those classes that lead to professional degrees like so many institutions today, it appears that Minnesota has not given up on educating its populace by providing curricula that is broad as well as deep.

I always used to joke that Minnesota was a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there. (This being the opposite of what most people say when they travel--especially to places like New York.) Minnesota may not have the excitement of a tourist destination, but it has quality of life popping out all over the place. Washington DC has culture popping out all over but so much of it is either geared towards tourists or serious researchers. And the stuff that is geared towards residents seems hopelessly wound up in the world of politics. Great stuff if that is the sum total of your interests.

So if you are in Minnesota, be proud of your University. If you are in DC and you know where I can take a literature class at night, please, let me know...

15 March 2009

The Year of Acquiring Nothing: Slip #1

Well, it didn't take long for me to slip up on my quest to acquire nothing over the next 12 months. I am out in Los Angeles right now for the express purpose seeing the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall and its fabulous looking pipe organ. It has a physical design unlike any organ I've ever seen, and I would guess unlike anything else in the world. I will have more to say about Disney Hall in the near future, for now I just need to admit that I had my first bit of back-sliding on my pledge to acquire nothing for the year. I knew there would be slip-ups, I just didn't know how quickly it would happen.

As I mentioned in my blog post about this pledge, gift/book shops while traveling are my biggest downfall and danger. So it should have come as no surprise to me when I walked into the gift shop at Disney Hall that I would get into trouble. And there was a one of a kind book that I couldn't live without...

The book, A Forest of Pipes by Jennifer Zobelein, is the story of the Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ. Not only does it have fascinating bits about the design, construction and installation of the fabulous french fry-like organ, but it also includes a CD with a "tonal tour" and explanation of the organ's sound. I ask you, how could anyone pass that up?

11 March 2009

The Year of Acquiring Nothing?

Since we finally made the decision to start looking in earnest for a house to buy about this time next year, I have been thinking about ways to get us better prepared for that event. We have definitely been good about building up our savings and we have been even better at keeping our debt pretty much at zero, but I still feel like there is more that we could be doing.

Of course my getting back into the fulltime job market will be a key element--but that isn't scheduled to happen until the end of August for various reasons. And we certainly need to refresh our memories about the process itself, find a agent we like and trust, the best way for us to structure the deal, etc. But it occurred to me that we could help ourselves out financially and logistically if we stopped acquiring "things" over the next year. We would obviously save money and we would have fewer things to move when we do find the right house. Of course not acquiring things for a year won't put much of a dent in the overall amount of what will need to be moved, but hey, at least we won't be adding to it.

The rules for this year of non-acquisition are a little squishy at the moment. I want it to be meaningful, but I also realize that there will be things that come along that aren't "needs" but we feel are important nonetheless. For instance I know John is going to want to replace a few pots out in the garden and will be buying plants for the upcoming growing season. And I am going to start going to a sing-along group and there is a song book that I will have to buy. But these will be exceptions to the rules. Too often the inclination is to buy first and think about other options second. We are by no means shopaholics--not even close--but we do tend to buy what we want without thinking much about it or putting it into a larger context of its utility. This especially happens when we travel. Museum book/gift stores are probably are weakest moments.

And I should be truthful, I am not really proposing some set of austerity measures. We love to travel and have several trips already planned for the next year. So we sill still be spending money--and doing our bit to stimluate the economy--but there are lots of little things along the way that we don't really need. And given that I have been blessed with the oppoturnity for so much wonderful travel, I don't really need birthday or Christmas presents.

I haven't talked to John about this yet. I think I can get him onboard--as long as I exempt his gardening budget. Still, I am determined to do it even if he decides not to. I love having a goal. I will let you all know when I fall off the wagon.

And don't even get me started on the necessity for consumer spending to prop up all of our livlihoods. We consume, therefore we live to eat and breathe another day. And the crazy notion/reality that we have to consume our way to a more sustainble, green planet. Ridiculous of course, but it is a bind we seem to find ourselves in.

06 March 2009

The Real World is Real Again

If you liked The Real World back in its early years, you might consider checking out the current season. If you are like me you stopped watching this show years ago when the "characters" became helplessly one-dimensional and cared only about booze and hooking up. No matter what kind of projects or obstacles MTV threw at them, they seemed incapable of having anything to say about anything other than the aforementioned booze and hooking up. In the early seasons the characters had something more going on in their lives and their minds than just being on the show. Some held jobs, most had hobbies or some kind of interests or expertise that went beyond getting into the entertainment industry. At some point the characters or the producers decided that trashy and brainless was the way to go. There were so many low points over the past 20 years that it is hard to choose a nadir. I couldn't pinpoint when it got bad, but it stayed bad for a long time.

How about the lame group that lived in Paris and were supposed to help update a travel guide but prefered the hottub in their suburban home over the glories of the City of Light? Or the Las Vegas cast who were so trashy they might have made even Vegas blush?

But this season in Brooklyn, it almost feels like it is 20 years ago. Yes, there is still much in the way of immaturity, drunkenness, and hormonal outbursts, but the cast overall seems to have much more nuance and humanity than the program has shown us in a long time. Trust me they are not all paragons of intellect and virtue and there is plenty of needless drama. But there is also a lot of heart. The season must be more than half way over and still none of the cast members have hooked up with each other (or with anyone for that matter). Cast members buck the stereotypes in many ways--like the gay guy who seems intent on being the insensitive guy of the group, while the straight Iraq war vet has a heart the size of a tank. Even the pranks pulled on the show and the reactions to them seem endearing compared to the booze fests of seasons gone by.

I am not saying this is a brilliant show, it never was, but if you liked the old Real World you just might like this new one. Apparently I am not the only one who feels this way, after writing post here, I came across this assessment of the current season.