Saturday, 6 December 2014

Erkel the Unimpressive Alien

This story was inspired by a dinner conversation with my family. Therefore, it is also dedicated to them. In place of it holding any real significance, I will say that I hope meeting Erkel makes you a little less intimidated by the superior life forms from other planets that have been or are interacting with Earth. If, that is, you happen to be intimidated by that kind of thing in the first place.

Erkel never could quite get the grasp of doing fieldwork. He got good grades in the theory classes at Space University, but his practicum in Atlantis ended with no small disaster. Admittedly, Erkel had not been the sole problem with that particular situation, but it didn’t bode well for his future career. After graduation, all of his classmates were given state-of-the-art ships and sent to nice, warm, tropical locations on Earth in which to found civilizations and build giant megalithic structures. Erkel, however, graduated at the bottom of his class and barely obtained an assignment from Command Pantheon. After much deliberation with the panel, Sergeant Ankhor gravely handed him an info crystal and nodded. “Ok, Erkel,” he said, “We’ll give you a ship, but there’s only one assignment open for you, so you can take it or leave it.”

Erkel gazed into the info crystal. “Ohio?” he said, “Where’s Ohio? I don’t remember learning about Ohio.”

Sergeant Ankhor shook his head. “Nobody’s ever learned about it. Nobody else is in the area.”

“So, I take it that I’m not to be near the equator… like everybody else.” Erkel said.

“No,” Sergeant Ankhor laughed. “Nope. Definitely nowhere near the equator.”

“Uh,” Erkel swallowed back his disappointment, “I’ll take it anyway.”

“Good alien,” the sergeant said, slapping him on his narrow, grey shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll grow to like the climate.”

Erkel zipped to Ohio and got straight to work, but just couldn’t seem to catch a break. While all his buddies approached godhood and built structures and civilizations that confounded human beings for thousands of years to come, Erkel only managed to make a few dirt mounds. For a while it looked like he was on the verge of inventing a new giant alien-human hybrid species, but he hit a wall and the whole project tanked when his girlfriend, Neith, came all the way over from the Mediterranean for the first time in centuries just to break up with him. It was a cold and rainy night when she arrived.

“It’s not that I don’t like you Erkel,” said Neith, “It’s just that I tend to, you know, forget about you when you’re not standing right in front of me.”

“But, Neith,” he sputtered, “I love you!”

“Oh,” said Neith, “Well, this species you’re creating will love you. Don’t worry.” She winked and wandered off to see how things were coming along in the warmer southern continent.

You can imagine Erkel’s despair when his own hybrid race ended up in several massive boneyards a short time later. Yet, even the gravesites amounted to nothing. The Smithsonian never publicized anything about them. Nobody even remembered his civilizations, much less recognized him as a deity. By the time he was recalled by Command Pantheon, it was like he had never been on Earth to begin with.

After the failure in Ohio, Erkel didn’t catch another commission for a thousand years. During the interim, he made crop circles just for laughs, in a fit of frustration, but was matched by a handful of human pranksters with planks of wood and a few ropes.

Eventually, General Ankhor stuck out his neck for him again and got Erkel assigned to a tech crew position on a research vessel. It was his job to make sure the math was right so that abductions of humans through closed bedroom windows didn’t end in disaster. Abducting through windows was easier than abducting through walls, but it was still a delicate maneuver. To give Erkel credit, he had suggested altering all the human fire regulation manuals so that at least one window was required in every bedroom, but he unfortunately had the idea only several years after the humans started instituting this rule of their own accord.

Erkel managed to successfully abduct about half a dozen people before disaster hit at the house of Solomon Rupke. He had poor, terrified Solomon in the tractor beam and halfway through his second-floor window when it became apparent that something had gone wrong with the calculations. Solomon wouldn’t come all the way out, and he wouldn’t go all the way back in. Erkel's colleagues threw sidelong glances and got them out of there before Ripley's Believe It or Not showed up, leaving Solomon with his legs still dangling out of the window. Erkel’s handiwork was displayed all across the globe under the headline “Still Living Man Materialized Halfway Through Pane of Glass”.

“Well,” said his coworker, Nabat, over a cup of Ayahuasca, “At least you’re finally getting your media attention. Even if it is while you’re on a covert operation.”

Erkel sniffed. “The National Enquirer doesn’t count.”

After that, Erkel was reduced to janitorial work on deck. His sole legacy to humanity was a hairy, hardy creature that ran around barefoot in the mountainous western region of North America. It was an inbred and devolved descendant of his failed hybrid species. It didn’t even have language capabilities.

No, Erkel never quite got the hang of doing fieldwork.  It was a long few millennia.

"Well, you'll just have to sleep in a bedroom without windows. It's against fire regulations, but they're really just a conspiracy started by the aliens." --Cousin Jordan on how to avoid being abducted by aliens.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Carla is a Kimchi Queen

I have hardly written a thing in any medium at all since August, which I'm sure is my driest stint in at least a decade. There's lots to write about, but for some reason I have had no compulsion to actually sit down and write. It's strange. And hopefully short-lived.

I did, however, recently have a compulsion to make homemade kimchi. Kimchi, for those of you who are not plugged into the erudite world of international food, is a traditional Korean dish made of fermented cabbage and chili. Basically, it's red sauerkraut. My first roommate at school got me hooked on the stuff.

Since making exotic food is always done best when it's done with friends, I called up one of mine and suggested we make kimchi together, even though she had never tasted any before in her life. "It just so happens that I've been on a homemade fermented foods kick lately," she said, which was convenient. "Let's do it!"

So, since she has three small kids we didn't want to pack up and haul all over the city, we agreed that I would pick up the ingredients ahead of time. I convinced my cousin, who lives with us, to join me in the hunt. "Hey," I said, "Do you want to come with me all the way downtown tonight to check out a Korean grocery store?"

He shrugged. "I have nothing better to do."

Not only did he come, he drove me in his own car and was the one who found most of the ingredients. We got salted shrimp (which just about made me gag to look at it), the smallest possible package of gochugaru spice (in an aisle that sold mostly extra-large-flour-bag-size sacks of the stuff), and roasted seaweed to complement the kimchi. We also found the last remaining napa cabbage and daikon radish at Sobey's. The radish looked like it had been freshly pulled out of the garden and haphazardly chucked into the produce aisle without so much as a label. We weren't even quite sure that it was a daikon until the cashier confirmed our suspicions. It looked more like a rhinoceros tusk.

Here's my friend wielding the daikon in an appropriate pose:
The next day, my friend and I convened. First we cut up the cabbage and had her little guys get down and dirty helping us. They rubbed salt into that cabbage until their hands were too sore to do it anymore. Then we put them to bed. The elder of the two little guys had red pajamas, so we pretended he was turning into kimchi while he put them on. He took great delight in this and proceeded to not only turn me into kimchi, but to eat me, also.

Here's the smaller of the little guys getting the fermentation process started:
After the little people were in bed, we let the cabbage ferment for a couple of hours while we hung out and played with her pet leopard gecko. Then, after washing our hands, we prepared and mixed together the rest of the ingredients.

My friend first started getting really excited about our endeavour when she saw the jar full of dead shrimp. "I think I might have to eat one plain," she said, staring back at them. "This is so cool!" A few minutes later, she said, "I'm not so sure about this anymore." I said, "Oh, I'm not letting you back out now."

Unfortunately for her, the tiny aqua-baby-sized shrimp she ate, while whole, was actually like, nine-tenths straight salt. Her face showed it. We discovered that she had probably just consumed her entire recommended daily dosage of sodium. Oops.

I myself forwent eating an intact shrimp, because whatever else I may dare to eat, seafood terrifies me. I made my friend blend the shrimp into a pulp, since the shape of food does actually make the difference between whether I like something or throw up. Even blended, however, little poppy-seed sized shrimp eyeballs continued to stare me down through the fleshy gelatinous goop. We quickly mixed in the chili flakes so I couldn't see the pink pudding anymore, and then things were fine again.

Using some plastic gloves from my friend's garage, I squelched the red paste into the cabbage. At first I was concerned that it was dry, and not red enough. Something had gone wrong. But just as I began to express my fears, the cabbage seems to relax and all of a sudden, is was swimming in its own brine. A beautiful, red brine. Then I got excited. At any rate, whatever we made looks like kimchi, except when it's in jars. In that case, it looks like pasta sauce, but you sure wouldn't want to confuse the two.

It turns out that food shrivels up a lot when it ferments (who knew?), so we finished with less kimchi than I had expected, given the size of the napa cabbage we started with. Nevertheless, we came out of the experiment with one jar each of authentic Korean kimchi that's actually Canadian.
Although my cooking cohort has still never really eaten kimchi (we have to let it ferment for a few days before we eat it), she recited to me all the health benefits she could foresee it giving. I suspect she will grow to like it whether she actually enjoys it or not. As for me, tonight, I opened up the jar and inhaled deeply. So far, it smells like kimchi - pungent, mouth-watering kimchi. Complete with dismembered shrimp paste. I made my cousin smell it, too.

"Isn't it so good?" I exclaimed.

My cousin made a non-commital humming sound.

"It's better than this particularly weird Christmas song we're currently listening to," I said.

"Definitely that, yes," he agreed.

Just a little longer to wait!

Speaking of my cousin, I've begun collecting quotes from him: "It was on purpose, but not intentional." ---on being asked how he had burned his finger

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My Name is Colour

One of the wonderful things about spending time in China is getting to muck about with the Chinese language, and conversely getting to hear delightful versions of not-quite-English. Both ways, Chinglish abounds.

I can read a smattering of Chinese characters, so when we attended church, I tried to follow along in the Chinese hymnal that the congregation lent us. To my great consternation, I encountered these characters together: 主面, or zhu mian. In English, that's, "God noodles". The Lord's Supper like you've never had it before!

"Christina!" I whispered in horror to our team's assistant leader, "What are we singing about?!"

"Oh, don't worry," she said. "Mian can mean things besides just noodles."

Google Translate says 主面 means "main surface". Chinese is so confusing.


Rob and Cathy were representatives from our organization who came part way through the program to check up on us. We were with them in a pizza restaurant. Rob had recently noticed the poster plastered above our booth, which declared that this restaurant had successfully earned the lowest passable grade possible in food safety, a C. The C grade was accompanied by a red smiley face that actually wasn't smiley at all. This poster was proving to make both Rob and Cathy rather nervous, especially since someone had just died of bubonic plague the next province over.

By this point in the program, we had been eating regularly in C grade restaurants for several weeks. There wasn't any option, really. Hardly anywhere earned above a C grade, but we'd had no major gastrointestinal (or plague-related) problems to speak of, so the rest of us weren't particularly concerned.

Rather unfortunately, it came to pass that while we were in the process of trying to convince Rob and Cathy that everything would be fine, I saw a mouse skitter across the floor. It was the only mouse I saw during the entire trip.

"Oh," I interrupted the conversation, "I'm pretty sure that was a mouse that just ran by."

No sooner did I finish speaking than it darted under our table and ran over Cathy's feet. She shrieked. I shrieked. Everybody shrieked. The mouse turned a frantic 180 and darted into a back corner. By the time the shrieking subsided, a Chinese server had arrived to see what catastrophe had befallen our table. He found us all sitting with our feet tucked up under us, eyes wide in shock.

Cathy used to live in China and speaks some Chinese. "Fuyuan," she declared, which is the word for 'server', "There's a laohu running around!"

The fuyuan wisely figured it was not at all probable that a tiger was running freely about the restaurant, and surmised it was much more likely a mouse, or laoshu, causing our terror. He expressed embarrassment on behalf of management and then the restaurant offered us free drinks.

"Well," said Rob, "I guess that explains the C rating." He ate the pizza and fries, regardless. We encountered no more tigers and all escaped unmauled.


I told my class that we were going to have a debate: Which city in Ningxia is better, Yinchuan or Qingtongxia? "It's such a long name," I mused out loud, "Qingtongxia."

My class burst out in ill-concealed snickers.

"I beg your pardon," I said. "I meant, Qingtongxia."

They all applauded me.

For the record, Qingtongxia is pronounced with one first tone and two second tones, not two first tones and a very pronounced fourth tone. Now you know.


Of course, we westerners weren't the only ones running into problems speaking.

My station in a cooperative multi-class activity involved coaching groups of Chinese students to say "Willy's real rear wheel". The idea was that once they said it correctly, I would give them some information they needed to complete a puzzle. Unfortunately, the more they focused on getting the L and the R sounds correct, the more they altered the vowels. We just couldn't have both. Sometimes we had neither.

Me: You must say, "Willy's real rear wheel."

Any Chinese student, pick a student: Veely's reer reer reer.

Me: Willy's real rear wheel.

Students: Veely's rahr rahr rahr.

Me: Real. Not Rahr. Real.

Students: Zheel! Zhee-ar! Uhzhar!

Me: Uh, real?

Students: Rah.....e.....l?

Me: Rear.

Students: Rahr.


Students: *giggle*

Me: Rear, rear.

Students: Zhahr, zhahr.

Me: Wheel.

Students: Rear.

Me: Oh, good heavens, just take the information and go.

I got flashbacks to the most recent Pink Panther movie, where Inspector Clouseau wants to buy a dabaga.


This same L/R issue also surfaced with regards to my name. A particularly skilled student or so would call me Cah-la, or even on occasion, Carla, but the vast majority called me Colour. For a while, I halfheartedly tried to correct it, but eventually gave in and allowed Colour to become part of my identity.

A Chinese official at the closing ceremonies took it upon himself to read aloud all our transcribed names. He spoke no English and knew he wasn't going to get our names anywhere near correct, but still he was willing to embarrass himself because he wanted to show us all respect by acknowledging us. In Canada, we might not consider it especially respectful to mangle someone's name, but in China, in this situation, it meant a lot. So I can sit happily with the name Colour. It's all I've got, since despite all his intentions, the official couldn't quite bring himself to even try my last name.


Speaking of linguistic issues:

“You had nothing to say about it and yet made the nothing up into words.” - from C.S. Lewis's Perelandra

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Skoki: Happy Feet

A couple years ago, my dad, my sister, and I went on a backpacking adventure with our church's outdoor club (see August 2012). That escapade involved both emotional highs and emotional lows, but the highs must have outweighed the lows overall, because this summer when my dad asked whether we wanted to go again, we agreed. This time, we took on Skoki Trail at Lake Louise, which involved two nights in tents and 16 kilometers of hiking in and 16 kilometers of hiking back out. Our group was largely the same as last time, minus a few marathon runners, plus a few of their family members.
The primary difference between this hike and the last one is that I wore different hiking shoes in hopes of avoiding the blisters of doom and despair that I suffered last time. These were new shoes, and although I had broken them in, they were still clean and spiffy looking when we got to the trail head. Finding this to be unacceptable, Mike scuffed them up with his own shoes and kicked a rock at them before we set off.

Beyond the shoes, my outfit differed from last time in that I chose to bring a red bandana instead of a white one. Even my socks were the same. Then, just before we left, my cousin Jordan, who lives with us, lent me a thin but warm sports sweater that he often wears hiking. Adding it to the dry-wear sweater I had stolen from my brother's closet, I was decked out like a man for most of the weekend. Given how personal hygiene tends to go on backpacking trips, I probably smelled like one, too.

The beginning of the hike was a long trek uphill on a fire road. It caused me to remember that a hike in a national park is a very different thing from a plain old walk in the park. Yet, when I wasn't wheezing for breath, the conversations were pleasant.

"Carla! How has your summer been?!" Jessica exclaimed, coming alongside me on the trail.

"Hi," I said, noticing that she was hunched over like a goblin of some sort, struggling against her backpack. "I went to China."

She was in severe pain, but she looked up at me from her stooped position, smiling. "Oh my goodness! Yes! China! I remember that. You have to tell me all about it!"

We stopped a few times to try to adjust her pack, but it was too short for her torso and too heavy. Nevertheless, she continued to chat cheerily with whoever was beside her and you wouldn't know she was about to die except for her strange posture.

She didn't die but arrived with us at the first campsite, called Hidden Lake. The lake was so hidden we never found it. Anyway, I was more interested in how Gillian was teaching me to set up the camp stove. The first time I tried to start it, I let the gas run a little long so she gasped and told me it was going to explode. Then she had me try again until I got it right. Eventually I did manage it, made a cup of hot chocolate, and then completely counteracted the warming effect of said hot chocolate by washing the cup in a freezing cold stream of water. Following that ill-planned attempt at getting warm, it was bedtime. We crawled into our tents and listened as the skies opened up and poured all night long.

There was evening and there was morning - the first day.

As a rule, I don't sleep well in tents. As a result, I was the first person up the next morning. Being entirely without a timekeeping device, there was no way to tell whether it was closer to five in the morning or nine, but I was awake, hungry, and feeling independent, so I retrieved our bear bag, set up of the camp stove and cooked breakfast all by myself. I almost got lost only once in the process, and was not eaten by a bear, despite my believing that I heard one in the bush every time I turned my back. We always believed there was a bear nearby; notmybrother!Justin was wearing those barefoot shoes that are essentially a rubber version of toe socks. Whenever he left prints in the mud, someone (usually Brianna) would be momentarily very startled.

At any rate, bear or no bear, everyone else woke up in due time and joined me, standing around the soggy picnic table to eat breakfast. It turns out that Ann doesn't sleep very well in tents, either. She told us about her night while waiting for her food.

"All night," she said, "I was wondering why I like to do this. It's cold, wet, and every time I can't sleep at all!"

"But you do like doing it?" I said.

"Oh, I love it," she exclaimed, "but it's miserable!"

We repacked after breakfast and continued up the trail. I say "up the trail" and not "down the trail" for a reason. We climbed two passes that day. The first one, Boulder Pass, was aptly named because it was full of boulders. Ann helped Jessica and James climb one by groping them as they tried to pull themselves up, Mike and Clary performed acrobatics on another, and we just hung around a while having fun.
The second pass was called Deception Pass. This particular pass inspired in my mind a chase scene that should be in a movie somewhere. It would be simultaneously the most painful and most wonderful chase scene ever, with the bonus of incredible scenery. Car chases are so cliche; instead, put your foot-bound prey and pursuers on a steep mountain pass. The prey takes three steps, stops, and wheezes. The pursuers take three steps, stop, and double over on their knees, heaving breaths. The prey resume running, makes it two steps further and stops to pant. The chasers make a surge for their target, get in three more steps, then need a water break. Would this not be an epic scene?

The scene would be comedic, but standing on the peak of a mountain pass is not. It's a desolate place to be. It's all grey rock shards, where chill winds whip through and clouds settle. The air is thin. It's barren and dangerously exposed. There is nothing to see, but there is everything to see. It's empty, except for the crazy human beings who routinely decide to throw themselves against nature and hoist themselves up there for the sole purpose of looking down on everything else. The view takes their breath away, and they throw up their arms in exhilaration at having conquered.

Just following the pass was the most scenic part of the hike - a view of two lakes and some waterfalls, framed by several mountains, the names of which I have forgotten. The clouds that day happened to channel sunlight in such a way that the wall with the largest waterfall was spotlighted. It was gorgeous. My family and I were trailing behind the rest of the group a bit, because we were busy taking poor pictures of it. Eventually, though, everybody else also realized how beautiful it was and stopped to eat lunch in front of it.
After making it over both passes, the path sloped downward again and we eventually found ourselves at Skoki Lodge, in which, once upon a time, Prince William and Kate stayed the night. As proof, in the lodge's dining room there is a picture of them standing on the threshold. Apparently they helicoptered in with their own bathroom trailer. Upon learning this, my dad indignantly set off in search of the "bathroom for the masses" and spent the rest of the way to the campsite discussing how the US president also always takes his own bathroom with him, so people can't steal his pee and analyze it.
No, lounging on comfy window seats is not typical of backpacking trips.

This hike was easier for me than the last one because even after hiking over two passes, my feet were happy and blister free. Justin made a point of asking about my feet every kilometer or so on the second day, and kindly took a picture of my heels to prove their satisfactory condition:
The second campsite, Merlin Meadows, wasn't far from Skoki Lodge. We arrived, set up camp, played cards and dice and did the usual things you do in campsites. This campsite was special because it included a fire pit, so the men in the group took turns picking up huge dead logs and smashing them into trees, usually with a running start. We used the pieces to fuel the flames. Once Brianna thought she saw a bear, but the bear turned out to be wearing a yellow shirt, so we decided it was James collecting firewood instead. We stayed up late to our legal roaring fire, made all our clothes smell like smoke, watched a deer amble through the campsite, and then shuffled off to bed.

There was evening and there was morning - the second day.

I made up for being the first awake the day before by now being the last. Clary woke all three of us up, saying from outside our tent that Mike and Duane were "winning" the race to be the first ready to go. Duane already had his tent packed, but Mike had a cup of coffee, so she wasn't sure how to call it. We groaned, pulled ourselves out of bed, and sluggishly prepared for the day to come.

Here I must insert a comment about the weather during this trip. It was cloudy. The whole time. On the third day, I wasn't quite convinced that the sun was up until noon. Throughout the entire weekend, the clouds threatened rain, and did in fact rain during the nights. As a result, most of the group shielded their backpacks with waterproof covers. Most of these covers were bright yellow. Also, it was cold out, but hiking tends to warm you up and can make you uncomfortably warm, even in the cold. The end result was that our group trekked along the trail looking like a line of molting ducklings. Yellow, semi-waterproof, and not sure whether we should be adding plumage or tucking it away. For most of the third day I wore mittens, several sweaters, and shorts. Everyone else wore about the same, except for Deanna, who decided she was only cold and dressed accordingly.

Now you can imagine the lot of us retracing our steps to return the way we came. Going back seemed easier than coming in had been. We made good time and stopped for lunch at a halfway hut that had been built in the 1930s. It was a nice find because it meant we didn't have to sit in the mud to eat. The third day was was largely uneventful, but there was something comforting about recognizing the places we passed. Knowing where you're going is less exciting than facing the unknown, but it gives you a sense of control. It's all just an illusion of control, of course. First, there's no controlling the weather. Just because it could, the sun finally shone and we saw our shadows for the first time all weekend during the last hour we were hiking out. And second, you might feel like you know where you're headed and where you're putting your feet down, but a thirty pound backpack really kills your balance and agility. You might think you're going to leap lightly off a rock only to find that you're falling flat backwards on your bum instead.

Anyway, we covered the entire distance in a single day and still could have hiked a lot longer. Somehow, I remained blister free. Here is the picture proof of our good condition as we made it back to the trail head. Mike said he was proud of me for how dirty my shoes ended up.
Here are a few more shots from along the trail.
After everyone made it to the end of Skoki Trail, we piled into our vehicles and drove home. Although my dad and sister and I had been just fine at the end of the trail, by the time we jumped out of the car at Dairy Queen in Canmore, we very nearly crumpled into three bumps in the parking lot. I guess it only takes an hour or so of rest for your muscles to start seizing up. I fancy that our simultaneous groans of surprise were rather melodic, which is serendipitous, because wouldn't that be appropriate music to roll under the end credits?


Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of the easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

poem by Robert Frost

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Two Very Important Videos

I never heard a door in China go beep beep beep like doors in Canada do when they're attached to a security system. The Chinese have a different way of making sure intruders don't get into a place without being noticed.

This door served additional purposes. More than once it inspired me to bray like a diseased donkey as I strolled down the hall. It always made sure we were awake before we began our walk to class. More than that, however, the sound of this door came to signify the end of an intense, hot day in the classroom and re-entry into the sweet air conditioned relaxation of our hotel rooms. WD-40 is so overrated.

In China, they also have a superior way of making noodles. The gracious staff at this restaurant turned on the machine just for us when they saw we were standing there pathetically, waiting with our cameras pulled out.

A third wonderful thing about China is the Chinglish. So, for the quote today, let's go with the instructions found on the "Security Scattering Route" of our hotel:

"Please don"t worry if fire is occurring .Our hotel have owned succer scattering facilities to sure you transmitted safely. Please follow the direction route to the informationg corridor and there safeguards will take you out to the seccurity belts. Point profess your excellency seat."

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Culture Shock in China

Surprisingly, the largest culture shock causing issue in China was not the bathroom at the school:
It was not the food, which was so good despite the grimacing faces on the safety rating posters of the many C-grade restaurants we ate at. It was not the diaper-less babies with split pants and bare bottoms doing potty training in the middle of the sidewalk. It was not the clear "if you walk off this ledge it's your own darn fault" mentality that results in a dearth of safety rails in public spaces. It was not the fat men shamelessly strutting around with their shirts pulled up to rest on their exposed bellies as a way to beat the heat. No.

It was the group of ninety or so Americans we were trained with in Beijing.

I am a Canadian whose cumulative time spent in the USA amounts to about 3 weeks of my entire life. Those three weeks were split between places like Yellowstone Park and Disney World, which are surely representative of American culture at large, right? However, despite my lack of actual experience in the great land beneath the 49th parallel, I've seen a lot of it on TV. Therefore, I considered myself knowledgeable about American culture.

A couple years ago, when we gained a new American professor at my school, he came in armed to the teeth, metaphorically, with cultural sensitivity. He expected culture shock. As far as I can tell, he functions just fine in Canada, but in class he would commonly tell us of his experiences adjusting to life in a new culture. Even after nearly two years, he was still finding things that surprised him. Admittedly, I eventually rolled my eyes a bit because everyone knows the two cultures aren't that different and I wondered if he might be a little overly sensitive culturally.

Nope. I have since repented of this heresy. I suppose that to a Chinese person, our cultures will appear virtually the same, but to someone who grew up in just one or the other.... wow. Not so much.

Let's not think that I'm trying to propound stereotypes. I have known Canadians that behave like I'll describe the Americans, while the Americans who were on team with us in Ningxia province better fit the Canadian stereotype. However, culture pertains to groups of people, en masse, not to any particular individuals, and individuals aside, this group of ninety Americans did not behave like a group of ninety Canadians.

There were several cultural differences that immediately rocked me off kilter, but here's just one of them: Americans (in my very limited experience), are aggressive. Not in a bad way, necessarily. They weren't aggressive in such a way that I'd make a break for the hall at the end of each training session in order to avoid getting mauled. They were aggressively friendly, and aggressively helpful.

There is something incredibly confusing about feeling angry with people for being too friendly and helpful. It's downright disorienting.

You may think that "aggressively friendly" should be an oxymoron, but it's not quite. It's the kind of thing where I, being the apologetic Canadian, would apologize to someone for forgetting her name, and she would, with a hard to describe snap to her voice, tell me that I don't dare be sorry because I've never learned her name to begin with so I absolutely should not feel bad at all and don't worry. I'd say one thing, and get an excited earful in reply. Not a nasty earful; they were all friendly earfuls, but I know I wasn't the only Canadian who was blown over by the energy, noise, and assertiveness. Several of us just wanted to crawl into our hotel rooms where we could disengage for a while.

Part of being "aggressively helpful" means that they made sure we knew everything we could possibly want to know about every possible situation we might encounter during our training in Beijing, whether we had expressed a desire for this information or not. It was simply assumed that we wanted to know. At one point, one of our leaders remarked that, "North Americans love information," and proceeded to spend an entire morning of our limited training time explaining, with many personal anecdotes, everything from the multiple ways to do laundry at the hotel (and the individual steps involved), to what the hospital would be like if we broke our legs.

While it was kind of the speaker to remember the eight or nine Canadians in their midst, and alter her language to say, "North Americans love information," instead of "Americans love information," it seems that it's not quite true. The Americans appeared to appreciate, or at least tolerate, the information sessions, but I think all the Canadians were just trying not to shriek and pull out their hair. We did not want any more information; I literally became twitchy, feeling my precious hours in China slip away.

I asked my roommate, a feisty five-foot Texan with strawberry blonde hair, if this felt like standard behaviour to her. She said yes, and Americans love to talk, they can't get enough information. I said that in Canada, we probably would have drawn everyone's attention to their informational handouts, pointed out a few of the particularly important points, given five to ten minutes of helpful tips, and told people who to ask if they had questions. She said, no, this seems pretty normal to her and once at a political meeting she attended, they spent an hour just explaining how the meeting was going to work.

The aggressively friendly and aggressively helpful things were beautifully combined by a nice couple that I had breakfast with the morning after arriving in Beijing. I was dopey and blah and jet-lagged and didn't feel particularly conversational. I think I said my name was Carla and asked them where they were from. They answered, made jokes about each other to me, explained to me a good deal about themselves, and advised me on how to conduct myself in China.

With China, I expected unexpected things to happen, so when they did, they didn't knock me off balance. With the Americans, I hadn't expected anything particularly unexpected, so it knocked my upside the head. And now, I just find it ironic that the most uncomfortable place for me in China so far has been in a roomful of Americans.

“The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day he was born.” G. K. Chesterton  

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

I Blog to Kill Jet Lag

No, it doesn't work.

I am back from China. Naturally, as I am fighting jet lag and therefore a wee bit cross-eyed at the moment, my writing may be a bit rough. Nevertheless, I am eager to begin documenting my travels, as this blog is named "The Wanderer". Happily, this year, I am allowed to post things to "You Twit Face" as one of our group kindly refers to social media.

However, China being China, and Ningxia being Ningxia in particular, I will still censor myself somewhat. While nothing about the trip is secret, there are certain issues that remain very sensitive - for example, religion and politics. So if you don't see much here about either, it's not because they're unimportant or because my opinions are particularly private. It's because this is the Internet, and the Internet tends to misbehave, and I'd like to not cause trouble for anyone.

That said, as an introductory post (more to come), I shall now regale you with a compilation of  interview questions and answers. Let's see how well I can predict the questions you're likely to ask first.

You: So where were you, exactly?

Me: Qingtongxia, Ningxia.... China. That's pronounced something like "Cheeng-tōng-shyah, Neeng-shyah".

You: Um, where is that in relation to Beijing or Hong Kong?

Me: Ningxia is the red thing. Qingtongxia is south of the provincial capitol, Yinchuan, and just to the west of the Yellow River.

You: How was the food?

Me: Delicious. I rarely eat eggplant in Canada, but in China, it's SO GOOD. In Canada, eggplant isn't that awesome, but in China, it's called qiezi, and I've yet to find a qiezi dish I don't like.

You: Was there a lot of rice?

Me: Yes. Also, a lot of noodles and a ton of delectable dumplings, or rather, jiaozi.

You: Was it really hot? What was the weather like?

Me: The temperature varied between about 22 degrees Celsius to just over 40. Qingtongxia wasn't very humid, and happily, much less smoggy than Beijing.

You: So.... what were you doing there?

Me: Teaching English. More specifically, I was helping with an English teacher training program, and taught a class of primary school English teachers, bringing up their English level and teaching them about communicative activities.

You: How many people were in your class?

Me: Eleven. Twelve at first, but one had a family emergency and needed to leave the program.

You: Were they good at English?

Me: The proficiency level in my class varied rather dramatically. There were three that were quite good - I sometimes forgot that they didn't understand everything - and one that I would say didn't speak more than a word or two of English. The rest were somewhere in between.

You: Huh. Happy to be home?

Me: Yes.

You: Do you miss China?

Me: Yes.

You: Both at the same time?

Me: Yes.

You: You want to go back sometime?

Me: I would be happy to. 

My deep thanks to those who supported me in this adventure. Your prayers and your willingness to help with finances have been very much appreciated. I'm blessed with opportunity and blessed to have so many wonderful people behind me!

"Sometimes you look like a child, laughed a lot and feel happy. Sometimes you look like my friend, help me how to pronuce at the difficut words. Sometimes you like our sister. I'm very happy talk about with you! We had a lovely time." -from a thank you note one of my students wrote

Monday, 23 June 2014

Heroically Cleaning Toilets

I should totally be a hero. I don't know if I've got the reaction speeds and durability to be a protagonist hero, but I could be one of those secondary characters that give the emotional and moral force to a story - like the old mentors that die in the first act, but without any beard. I would be that one dignified lone person who quietly but steadily leads the crowd in refusing to do what the antagonist wants.

I can imagine the moment of my fearless stand, making eye contact with all the people I'm going to inspire and spur to greatness, triumphantly demonstrating that while evil thinks it has won, there are still good people around to be reckoned with. I'm ready to take a place with the gutsy good guys who challenge death for the sake of righteousness. If called upon suddenly, I would stand up. I would be that awesome old man in Avengers who tells off Loki or the convict in Dark Knight who throws the detonator off the ferry.

Somewhere, I've got a flair for the dramatic, but it's mostly poetic. I hate any form of drama in actual daily life. Plus it's not like I'm facing a torrent of major ethical crises at the moment, so that also works against my being a hero. There was that one time I pointed out to my university prof that he had mistakenly given me too many marks on my midterm. That was a morally momentous enough of  an occasion to outweigh all the times I've neglected to clean the bathroom in favour of browsing Facebook, right?

I've just finished reading a work called Strange Virtues by Bernard Adeney. It was recommended to me by an incredibly enthusiastic classmate who said it was the best book ever on crosscultural ethics. It very well could be; I was fascinated by it. But I was also overwhelmed. To be honest, I don't know if I can navigate the world of crosscultural ethics when plain Canadian ethics confuse me quite enough.

Adeney relates in his final chapter an account of an unarmed female missionary friend in Africa who literally ran up to a rape in progress and screamed angrily at the man to stop, all the while knowing that the man was a member of the secret police who regularly tortured people behind her house.

As a general rule, I am also an unarmed female. I am not in Africa, and I don't, as a general rule, scream angrily at dangerous men who torture people, but in a situation as ethically unambiguous as violent rape? Of course I'd intervene. We watch movies and imagine ourselves to be the superheroes; we're the ones who would have stood up; the ones who wouldn't have been taken in. I'm ready for it!

But I still don't know what I would have done if, while working at the Distress Centre, a caller had asked me for a phone number to an abortion clinic. Institutionally, I would have been obligated to give it to her. Socially, it was expected. To not do so would have been considered inappropriately judgemental and unprofessional. And in practical terms, a caller would be perfectly able to get the number without talking to me, anyway. I could have perhaps compromised by handing off the phone for someone else to deal with such a caller, but that would have been pure self-righteous legalism. Probably the only right thing to do would have been to deny her the number despite knowing that she'd get it anyway and that I'd likely be asked not to return to the DC. But is such a poor result worth such a sacrifice?

I told my cousin Aimee about my fear of this situation before I went for my first shift. I admitted that if it happened, I thought my response would probably be to just start crying. When I returned home afterwards, Aimee inquired as to how it had gone.

"Well, I didn't cry," I said. Thankfully, the situation never quite came up and so tragedy was avoided. One time my supervisor instructed me to repeatedly ask a frantic pregnant woman if she needed to go to the "hospital". For some reason, I didn't realize what I was actually offering her until the call was over. The woman, at least at that point in time, turned the option down. Perhaps God knew that I wasn't ready to consciously face a decision like that. Perhaps in this case, my ignorance was a merciful gift.

So you see, I have a problem. The problem is that I wax noble and philosophical, but mostly I just sit on my parents' couch and read books and write blog posts about it.

Luckily, Calvin and Hobbes can weigh in here with a word of wisdom. Calvin learned from his dad how to build character:
I'm not sure that's quite how it works, but there may be some truth to it. If we live our whole lives passionately pursuing happiness, then what makes us think we'll have the guts to voluntarily suffer when asked? A speaker at school said that he had been zealous to do grand and sacrificial things for God in the missionary field. He said the dialogue on the topic went something like this:

Him: God, I'm willing to die for you!
God: Really? That's cool. Thanks. But what I want is for you to go clean toilets all day at this summer camp.
Him: What?
God: Are you willing to do that for me?

He cleaned the toilets.

I'm due to head to China to teach English for a month come Wednesday. Partly I'm super excited, and partly I'm terrified that I am not going to do a God-glorifying job. I am concerned that I will come back and be disappointed that I didn't have the courage or the discipline to do better. Yet, at this point, there's only so much that I'm capable of.

Adeney remarks of his friend who jumped into the rape situation that, "There was nothing she could do, but she did it anyway." There's something oddly comforting in that notion, and compelling.

Thank God for working through us and for going before us. May he work through me, despite me, and teach me to do all the things that I don't believe I can do. In the meantime, if I really wish to be of noble service, perhaps instead of imagining grand heroics I ought to clean a few toilets.

“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.” Samwise Gamgee (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Difference Between Us

I like to fancy myself prejudice-free, but every now and again my “unconscious” sense of superiority is laid bare. So far in life, I do not have stockpiles of cross-cultural experience, but I do have experience with people less privileged than myself. I consider myself privileged; the objective analysis of my position is not the main issue. The main issue is how I relate to others who are not like me.

Am I trying to help lift people to my level of thinking and being? Because I am wonderfully gracious with gifts to give? I have found that for me, the most potent way to quash the sense of superiority that separates the privileged “us” from “them” is to realize that, but for the grace of God, I would be them.

My family has made good choices; as a result partly of this, we have peace in our home and food in our fridge. I am well educated, involved in my church, and usually feel quite secure.

My dad’s side of the family is of Mennonite heritage. They came to Canada in the 1920s because things were not going well in Russia. My great-grandfather and his wife were “bitten with the emigration fever” and left for Canada a few weeks later. His father and siblings had asked him to stay in Russia and help bring in the harvest – one last harvest – and then they would all leave for Canada together. My great-grandfather declined to help in order to leave right away. He and his wife and kids made it to Canada; by the next year, the door to Canada from Russia had been closed. They never saw their parents or siblings again.

It was not until just a handful of years ago that a family reunion was able to reconnect our severed family: those in Canada and those finally arrived from Russia. I was not at that reunion, but my dad told me about it, with a rather dazed look in his eyes. He spoke of the vast differences between the two sides of the family and the stories they had been told by their long-lost cousins. They were still poor farmers, living difficult lives. My dad said they were uneducated and set in rigid, old fashioned ways. “If my grandparents hadn’t left when they did, had they waited just one more season, life would have been very different for us,” he said, shaking his head. “Their life could have been ours.”

We had nearly been them.

*   *   *   *   *

I made a friend in my late teens. We met at a Bible study and clicked pretty well the very first time we talked. She and I had the same interests and could talk deep into the night about literature, theology, stuff that mattered. We were the same age, we both had a younger sister and a younger brother. We were both homeschooled and Christian and had a lot of the same questions. We had good heads on our shoulders. I saw her as a kindred spirit, we were so similar.

One day we were talking about the pains of growing up. I related how I felt stunted in my growth because everything had always been handed to me. Everything was wonderful; the problem was I had no reason to mature.

She smiled politely. “Everything wasn’t handed to me,” she said. Her parents were divorced and her relationship with both of them was strained. They lived mostly on welfare and because her mother often wasn’t there, she had to be the one to make sure that details like groceries weren’t overlooked. “I had to work for what I got,” she said.

I shut my mouth and stopped complaining, embarrassed by my ability to make a crisis of a lack of crises, and surprised by what she had told me. We were so similar, the two of us. Why had she been required to face all that when I had not?

She could have been me.

*   *   *   *   *

For a couple years, I volunteered for a crisis phone line. We were trained to handle just about anything, from suicide to schizophrenia to sexual harassment. You deal it, we’ll take it. We got calls from all sorts – abused kids and lonely seniors, homeless women and successful businessmen. I found the strangest ones to talk to were the women about my own age. How had life gotten so complicated for them so quickly? We had all started off the same way – as little bawling babies. But my life was still happy and straightforward.

They must have done something wrong. They must have made a bad choice. A series of bad choices. I’d help them get their heads back on straight.

We got to learn a lot about the lives of our callers. They had personalities and talents. I spoke with an Olympic-level athlete and a fairly successful activist. I spoke to people with all sorts of skills and abilities. Some of them were much more capable than I was, in a lot of ways. They were braver. They were stronger. They were smarter.

Sure, they might have made mistakes, but haven't I also done so? Why was I still somehow in a position to help them?

Sometimes the program supervisor of the phone line would stop by the phone room. If the lines were slow, she’d try to get us to sing musicals. When we'd politely refused, she’d tell jokes and chat instead. “You know,” I said to her once, “We hear all about callers’ messed up lives, but sometimes they say something that reminds me that they’re a lot like us.”

“They’re just like us,” she replied.

It could have been me.

The desire to help make the world a better place and to help those less fortunate than ourselves is a beautiful thing and an important trait if we are to be a just and compassionate society. However, are we altruistic because it makes us feel kind and wise and generous?

Of the seven billion people on the planet, and earth's entire history, I'm the only one that turned out to be me. How did that happen? Understanding the history of how I got to where I am must be at least as important as knowing where I aim to go. I am where I am today largely because for some obscure reason, God let it happen it that way, yet I congratulate myself on earning my spot in the world. Hopefully the awareness of this arrogant tendency will serve to help rebuke it.

"We are always ready to make a saint or prophet of the educated man who goes into cottages to give a little kindly advice to the uneducated. But the mediaeval idea of a saint or prophet was something quite different. The mediaeval saint or prophet was an uneducated man who walked into grand houses to give a little kindly advice to the educated." G. K. Chesterton

Friday, 6 June 2014

C. S. Lewis Gone Wild

When C. S. Lewis wrote his space trilogy he called it a "modern fairy-tale for grown ups". He wasn't kidding. Sometimes pedantic philosophy aside, Out of the Silent Planet was friendly enough, a little bland perhaps, but Perelandra was plain creepy. And That Hideous Strength turned out to be one of the more macabre books I've read. I can't say, either, that I expected Lewis to have all his characters running around swearing and calling each other "bucking idiots".

In this trilogy we have everything from playful little alien cubs, bubble trees, and loveable old "Mrs. Dimble" to nudity, demon possession, and disembodied heads. Lewis proves himself to be a mishmash crossover king, incorporating 20th century earth, Roman gods, Arthurian legend, a mention of Atlantis, and Tolkien prehistory. I've probably missed something; Lewis sure didn't. (Tolkien apparently wasn't tickled to find out that Lewis had not only repeatedly mentioned Numenor without asking, but misspelled it and confused it with Valinor)

That said, I loved these books. I didn't love everything in them and don't agree with Lewis on some points - I didn't even understand him here and there - but I loved the books. The world building, theology, and artistry, not to mention story, that went into them is astounding.

A word of warning, however. Lewis takes real earth and real theology, and mixes them so seamlessly with myth that it's painful to try to separate them again. These books aren't Narnia, not by a long shot. It's not fantasy with Christian imagery. It's fantasy... but it's also Christian theology. With the two woven so tightly together, there's a danger of either assuming that some of his theology is also just fantasy or that some of his fantasy is a part of good theology. We want to swallow it whole and then ask whether it's true or not, or at least, we want to ask which parts are true and which aren't. At any rate, I did, got nervous when I couldn't nail down the distinction, and decided to stop trying before my brain imploded. In the end, I concluded that it's not a good way to approach said books.

I believe that Lewis meant the space trilogy as a story to help us reflect on the relationship between our God, his creation, and our historical human society. He means for the ideas to provoke thought and appreciation, not for the specific details to necessarily be slotted into our doctrinal statements. Unfortunately it's so easy to try to look at his work through the modern dichotomy of fact vs. fiction, to try to be rational and scientific about things (a philosophy which he tears apart in That Hideous Strength, by the way) because that's how we've been primed to think ever since we were wee kidlets being taught to answer everything with either a "yes" or a "no".

I wouldn't call the space trilogy an easy read, by any stretch, by they are very well worth it. Whatever your bent and however you take them, Lewis says a lot of really interesting things - assuming that you like philosophy. Which, if you've read to the end of this post, you probably do.

From Perelandra:

"Long since on Mars and more strongly since he came to Perelandra, Ransom had been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and both from fact was purely terrestrial-was part and parcel of that unhappy distinction between soul and body which resulted from the fall. Even on earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance."

Friday, 2 May 2014

Brilliant, Sherlock

My mom says that whenever she hears the theme music from the Bourne trilogy, she thinks of me. We both really like those movies. Sometimes, when the music is playing, I like to imagine that I am Jason Bourne. Or Sherlock Holmes, according to which soundtrack happens to be on. Alas, I am unfortunately neither.

Part of the TESOL program involved interviewing an English learner from another country over Skype, and then later giving them feedback on their English. We did this project in pairs – with one person interviewing and one person taking notes, then switching roles to repeat with another language learner.

I talked to a pleasant young man. He told me his name, that he has a wife and an eight-month-old daughter. He told me that he wants to travel to the Middle East. We had a nice chat and he showed off his baby to me. Then I told him we had to sign off so my compatriot could prepare for the next interview.

A minute or two later, the next English language learner called in. I took notes while Adeline interviewed a nice young woman. She told Adeline her name, and I thought, “Maybe all the volunteers on the other end are using aliases when they talk to us, because she has the same family name as the person I interviewed.” Then she told Adeline that she has an eight-month-old daughter. I thought, “Wow, what a coincidence.” Then she told Adeline that she wants to travel to the Middle East and I thought, “We were told that the Middle East is a popular destination. That sure appears to be true!” Then she showed off her baby to Adeline and I thought, “What in the- hey! That’s the same baby clothes the first baby had! ...Must be the local baby fashion.” 

Sigh. Adeline later pointed out to me that it was the same baby, too.

Brilliant, Sherlock. It took me that long to understand we were talking to the same family. I mean, sure the room they were Skyping us from looked different when you viewed it from beside the computer instead of from in front of it, but not that different.

I may enjoy a good detective story, but the chances of me becoming a super-sleuth or the female version of Jason Bourne are dismally low. Good thing my mom loves me, anyway.

"Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." Lewis Carroll

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Rock-Paper-Scissors: Ultimate Guide

Some time ago, my cousin and my brother sat down and decided to hash out a comprehensive strategy guide for the first throw of the game Rock-Paper-Scissors. They report that by using the tactics in this guide, they lose the game much less often than they used to (except to each other). The trick is to judge accurately where on the tactics scale your opponent sits. I promised to post their work on my blog, so here it is, the second ever post written by someone other than me.

Please feel free to use this guide, if you dare. Personally, it makes my mind melt into mush, but I'm not studying to be an engineer like they both are and I don't rank very high on their tactics scale. If you do choose to use it, please report back on the results. My brother and cousin would find your success or failure very interesting to analyze.

Rock Paper Scissors Strategy
Developed by Justin and Jared
Written by Jared
Edited by Carla

Part One: The Order of Likelihood

1. Scissors is the most natural. People do not expect you to throw rock, plus they have just finished saying "scissors."
2. Rock is thrown by moderately smart people because they think you won't expect it.
3. Paper is the least likely. It seems weak and so only an extremely smart person would throw it. If the person you are battling is not smart then they won't throw it.

People tend to think in order:
Will my opponent throw rock? Not likely.
Will my opponent throw paper? Maybe... not sure.
Will my opponent throw scissors? Maybe.

Therefore the average person (we say "average" intelligence, since we assume no one is stupid) will choose scissors unless they are rushed, in which case they will choose rock (their hand is already in a fist). So, a good strategy is to rush your opponent, then choose paper. But only do this with someone who is not spontaneous. If they are not spontaneous but a planner (like you), rush them and do paper. They will break down.

If your opponent is spontaneous but also smart, tell them what they are going to do. This will confuse them. They will think, "Should I do what my opponent said?" They will most likely leave it until the last moment to decide, in which case they will choose rock because their hand is in a fist. However, since they are smart, they will catch on quickly, so don't try this tactic twice, and you may not want to suggest they throw rock. This would only alert them of their subconscious and make your plan less likely to succeed. Try telling them they will do paper or scissors or that they could do either. Telling them they can do either makes them feel good and like they have a choice in the matter.

However, if your opponent is both smart and knows you are also smart, they will loop through the whole list and throw scissors first, expecting you to throw paper like only a really smart person would do. They will probably be unaware that they are even employing this reasoning. Rarely will anyone loop through the list more than once.

Part Two: Psychological Description and Analysis of the Tactical Scale

E/N: Your opponent's thought pattern in italics. Commentary in normal typeface. Advice in bold.

1. Level One (Average):

What is a good item to choose? I know, scissors! Why? Because I don't expect them to throw rock. Will I win with scissors? There's a good chance, especially if they do not throw rock.

Notice that this person makes good choices, but does not make advancements based on how smart they think you are. There is also a good chance that they don't care as much about the game as you, but they do still value their own dignity in at least making a "smart" choice. Choose rock to beat this person.

2. Level Two (Smart):

My opponent knows that I won't throw scissors, and so will expect me to throw a rock. But will they have the guts to throw paper to beat my rock? Probably not, so I should throw a rock, because even if they also throw a rock, I'll still be safe.

Notice that this player assumes you are smart, though not smart enough to throw paper. They subconsciously realize that the next item you would think about is "rock". And they want to be safe, so they don't throw scissors. Choose paper to beat this person.

3. Level Three (Quite smart):

My opponent would not expect me to throw paper, because they do not think I am smart enough to do that. They will probably choose rock. At any rate, they certainly will not choose scissors, because that would be too natural.

Notice that this person takes an offensive strategy and things of something you "would not expect". The only problem is that they do not expect you to be smarter than them. Choose scissors to beat this person.
4. Level Four (Very smart, patient, and knows that you are smart):

They race through and reject the first three options and then decide as follows.

Why not do something that my opponent would never suspect? It would be sneaky to choose scissors. Would they throw rock to beat my scissors? Well, they think I will not expect them to throw paper, because we both know that is the easiest way to fool a smart person. So he will try to take advantage of that by using paper and will therefore lose to my scissors.

Choose rock to beat this person. Be careful when battling people at this level. They are extremely smart and it may be very difficult to discern the difference between this person and a person who would do several cycles through the list. Also, you have a mutual understanding that the other is smart, which makes it even more difficult. Yet, these people are probably the most fun to play with, because they treat you with respect and you do the same for them. You should respect all players, but these people deserve a different kind of respect.

5. Level Five:

It is this level where things get mucky. These people have an understanding that you have a mutual bond of smartness. They relish in that bond of smartness. Some may call it overkill, but these people deserve a lot of respect and are extremely smart. Their logic is more complex than the logic of others. They take a great deal of time and drag and drag on, struggling to come out on top. And they might. These people are unpredictable.

They think like this:

My opponent knows that I don't care about the fact that rock and paper are dangerous, so they also know that both of those are fair game for me. Therefore, they are just as likely to pick something to beat either of  those as they would be to pick paper. If they were to pick paper or scissors, which would they pick... ah... hmmm... grrr... (This would be a good time to rush their decision)... hmmm errrr...(long trails of logic later) I think rock is my best option because I've been spending enough time thinking about paper and scissors that I am worn out and need a fresh idea. I have proven it through in my mind.

Choose paper to beat this person. Notice that as time goes on, sheer determination will play a role in how far along the list they cycle. Sometimes these people may cycle through further than rock, so scissors may not be a bad idea, though it is a risky move. Choose scissors only if you are quite sure that they have passed to the next level.

6. Level Six (Characterized by efficiency, brains, confidence, and belief that you have confidence in your decision as well):

This is the level that nearly no one will make it to. Not many people care enough to even get to level four or five unless you hype the game up. Level six is, interestingly enough, usually characterized by less thought than level five. If a person bridges into this level, then they all of a sudden seem to stop struggling to find the right item. Instead, they grin. They have a confidence that is not foreboding, but instead makes you feel accepted. Their confidence is well earned. They are the best there is, and they think you are, too. So why would they stress more than they have to? They already have your respect. These people are good to play with and a lot of fun. It's only the level fives that will drag on.

These people think like this:

I have dragged on before, but I am above that now, thankfully. Let's skip over a few if-thens (A/N:  I do not want to say too much aloud and give away the secrets of how I think). Let's start this at a random point where I choose... rock. Randomness may be an asset to me this game since my opponent is so worthy. He or she expects great things from me. I see that my opponent is about to do rock, but he or she will do rock anyway because they are confident in their decision. I choose paper.

Choose scissors to beat this person. They will not see it coming. Notice that this person chooses a "random" entry point, speeding things up, and creating a quick, efficient, and barely traceable trail of logic. This person is extremely hard to track.

The best method is to find their entry point and go either two or three items deeper than the place they started. Their entry point is often based on what they think you will do, in which case, they will choose the item that will beat the one they think you thought of. If their entry point is paper, they will chose scissors in order to beat it. Then you should choose rock. It is important to notice that their entry point could also be what they intend to do, not what they think you will do, but usually the higher level players will chose an entry point based on what they think you will do.

The entry point is hard to find. The major instance where it will not be rock is when the player has their mind on paper or scissors for some reason. Perhaps if they are a secretary or janitor, they will be more likely to chose paper or scissors as an entry point. If their entry point is based on their own personality, rather than what they think you will do, they will most likely choose that item themselves. Adjust your choice accordingly.

Part Three: Equation

Level of opponent smartness on a scale from 1 to 6
Level of opponent determination on a scale from 1 to 6

Your choice = opponent smartness + ceil((determination-smartness)/2)

 ("ceil" means if it's not a whole number, round up)

1 = throw rock
2 = throw paper
3 = throw scissors
4 = throw rock
5 = throw paper
6 = throw scissors

The methodology assumes that people are as determined as they are smart, but if there is a large difference, it will affect the choice as shown in the equation.

A/N: This equation is more of a guideline than a perfect algorithm.

Part Four: Closing remarks

Good luck! It is usually safer to assume that the person is not as smart as you think. When in doubt, make your choice -1 in the list (applies mostly to levels three through five).

No instructions have been made for subsequent throws, but our hypothesis is that they will tend to choose the item that is one or two after the one they just chose (add cycles acordingly to your discretion). They will probably add an item for two rounds, then go back an item for 2 more rounds, then be tricky and try to act based on what you have been doing, often consecutively repeating an item. When you suspect this, just go backwards in the list instead of forward. They will lose, and it will frustrate them, so be nice to them. People usually will not repeat an item choice after they have just lost a battle in the first of a best-of-three. They do not want to repeat a losing item because they are subconciously repelled from it. You should make sure you pick the best of the remaining two items after winning if their loss is the first of a best-of-three.

By the way, there is a level zero. These people are actually not smart. They pick rock. But you should lose to them by picking scissors. You will be doing them a huge favor in life. Always think of others and use your wins responsibly. Let others win too! (It will also make your method harder to trace if you win only most of the time, not all the time.)

The End

I enjoy this as much for Jared's charm as for the analysis.

Man in black: "All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun."

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

On Plans and Changes

I did it! I am home again after spending two years gaining a degree in Applied Linguistics: TESOL. Already I notice that I have begun thinking of myself as a teacher. My mom is a teacher and my sister is currently a TA, so I stand in good company.

With another chapter closed, I feel like there is need for a stock-taking or reckoning of sorts, but I'm not sure how to go about it. So much has changed since I started the program, or is in the process of changing, that I'm not really sure how to sum it all up. I've kept this blog for the most part quite faithfully for the last seven years and I begin to wonder whether it's time to move on to something else. Yet, for all that change is coming more rapidly now than it has before, I can see by looking back at my earlier posts that it's not a new thing at all.

But now! My sister is getting married and working on her master's degree. My brother is well into his college career. My dad is working downtown again after working from home for most of my growing-up years. My mom is retiring as a music teacher and throwing herself into teaching kindergarten. I've moved away from home, met new people, earned another degree, and moved back again. It seems odd to be moving back when everything else is moving forward.

Now that I'm graduated (again), people are asking me what my plans are. Here is my plan: As far as the calendar is concerned, I'll be spending a month or so in China this summer. As far as anything else is concerned, I think I'll just hang back and wander a bit. By this, I don't mean that I'm ok with the idea of stagnating and of doing nothing; in general terms, I plan to be useful and an asset to the people I'm around. What I mean by "wander" is that I'm going to hold back from trying to decide for myself what the course of my career will be. That is too much pressure for me to handle. I tried to do it after I got my first degree and ended up going nowhere as far as that was concerned.

I like following plans, but have difficulty pulling them together myself. I've always viewed this as a weakness on my part. Partially I balk at the research involved (and laziness I do believe is a weakness), but also I've understood this as a lack of drive, and as a result of fear that I'll make bad decisions. However, when I shared my fears related to not having a plan with my professors, they didn't pray that I'd figure out what I'm supposed to do. They prayed thank-you-God-that-she-doesn't-have-any-plans and reminded me of Psalm 32:8 - "I will show you and teach you in the way you should go. I will tell you what to do with my eye upon you." And how am I supposed to notice where God is glancing unless I have my own eyes on him?

If I don't already have my own plans, it may prove to be a lot easier to let God steer me in a good direction. I don't really believe that I need to be constantly concerned with stepping outside of God's will - if he flat-out doesn't want something for me, it won't happen, and if he does want it, it will, regardless of what I do. And for everything else, maybe I need to worry less about my not-having-a-plan, since I'm lousy at making them anyway, and aim more for keeping my eyes on Jesus and seeing how I can serve God where I am today.

My cohort Caroline, who has a few years on me, said something similar earlier this year. I was freaking out about my future career and she, who is usually fairly soft-spoken rebuked me, saying that being preoccupied with our careers is "nothing but cultural crap" and that the best things in life tend to break in, unplanned. 

This really isn't what I expected to hear. I expected to hear, "Get off your lazy butt and do your homework." That's what I've been saying to myself, though unsuccessfully. Isn't it the people that are good at making plans that need to hear that they should lay off? Maybe not. Maybe it's time to come at this whole thing from a different angle.

So there we have it. That's where I'm at. I don't know what I'm doing or where I'm going, but I'm not lost. I stand contrary to Dr. Seuss when he says in the poem oft quoted at graduations, 

"You have brains in your head,
You have feet in your shoes,
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go."
What I can and will choose is how to react to wherever I find myself. I can choose to react by serving God or by digging in my heels against him. I will not miss the present by always worrying about the future. I suspect that if I watch carefully and am obedient, things will work themselves out.

I guess this post ended up being less about the changes that have happened and more about my orientation to where I'm going. Change in plans?

“There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, 'All right, then, have it your way'." C. S. Lewis 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

College Grads in High Places

This morning I handed in the final paper of my degree. It is not my magnum opus.

But before I handed it in, I had a self-pity fest. "THIS IS NOT HOW I WANTED TO END MY ACADEMIC CAREER," I wailed to my quadmates.

"What?" said my roommate Heather with a sidelong glance. "By standing on a stool in your pajamas eating a bowl of cereal?"

Indeed, I was standing on a stool in my pajamas eating a bowl of cereal.

"Don't jump, Carla!" Cassie intervened, "Don't do it! It's not worth it!"

It struck all three of us as so pathetically ridiculous that Cassie grabbed her camera, handed it to Heather, and we continued the scene. Movie coming soon.

I can rock social media in my pj's.

School president Michael Pawelke to the school assembly: "The hamster looks alive, but the WHEEL AIN'T SPINNING!"

Friday, 31 January 2014

The Importance of Food

Living as a college student has apparently caused my stomach to shrink. This was the holiday of not eating everything on my plate. Or rather, the holiday of repeatedly looking like a moron by massively overestimating how much I will want to eat. After Christmas dinner at my aunt and uncle's place, I found my cousin, Randal, in the kitchen.

"Uh, can we do something about this so people don't see how wasteful I'm being?" I said, abashedly showing him my plate.

His eyes met mine for a moment as he stifled a chuckle, but he silently worked on my behalf to bury the remnants of my dinner in the garbage bin. It seems that while being a student, I've gotten so used to eating less food, that I hardly know what to do anymore when there's too much food to eat all at once.

The relationship between my appetite and school grew apparent when my sister, Brianna, was dropping me off a few days before the beginning of this semester. We were running errands in the neighbouring town, and she was ready to be off, as it's a long drive home for her.

"What'll you do for lunch?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know. I'll probably just skip it," I said.

She looked at me with a mixture of shock and horror before promptly driving to the nearest Dairy Queen and buying me lunch.

At first I thought it was just something weird to do with me, and possibly with my Mennonite frugality and reticence to buy groceries, but I quickly realized that's not the whole story. The phenomenon seems to be pretty much dorm-wide. One of my quad mates once had a roommate whose mother refused to let her live in our hall anymore because she went the year eating nothing but ramen noodles and the occasional burnt fish.

Being a student with a kitchen and without a cafeteria meal plan has multiple good points. For example, you spend less on food. You can eat what you want, when you want. You develop your domestic skills. Hungry boys come to visit. But it also comes with a few less positive points, the most major of which is the issue of laziness.

Each day at meal time it's anyone's guess as to which desire will prevail: the desire for sustenance or the desire to not move. Once you've found a suitably comfortable position in which to hang off the couch or bed, you really don't want to get up to do the work of cooking.

At one point, I was doing homework in my friend Jaynette's dorm. Being a good hostess, she offered me something to drink. I asked for some water.

"I was thirsty before I came down," I explained, "but my water bottle was empty, so I gave up."

She laughed at me then, but she functions pretty much the same way. When I eventually left to go back to my own dorm, she started thinking about her own needs. "Maybe I'll have soup for supper," said told me tentatively, "or nothing."

Meanwhile, my quad mate, Cassie, and I were tag-teaming each other to make sure we were consuming appropriate nutrition. On the first day of school, Cassie fed me kimchi, rice and seaweed, which was nice, because I hadn't been planning anything else. On the second day of school, I offered her salad and a fried egg.

"It's not really much of a supper," I apologized.

"Oh! I was planning on not eating, so this is great!" she chirped. As long as we weren't both lazy on the same day, we were ok. Then, we discovered that Cassie's roommate was suffering from the same laziness and also needed to be looked after. Here's how that discovery happened:

Lona: Carla, have you eaten supper?

Me: Yes. I went to Subway.

Lona: (disappointed) Oh.... I'm not going to do that.

Me: It looks like Cassie is making yummy dumplings... but you can't eat them because you're a vegetarian. Are you just not eating tonight?

Lona: I had some soup.

Me: You should go upstairs and tell the boys who keep eating our food that it's their turn to feed you.

Cassie: Yes! They promised us butter chicken.

Lona: I don't want butter chicken.

Me: But they might at least give you the butter.

Cassie: Ask for something else in place of butter chicken.

Lona: (burying her face in her blanket) No! I don't want to!

Eventually she settled on a yogurt cup for supper.

My own roommate is a bit better about eating, since she literally passes out if she's not careful, but the rest of us? Some things just get in the way of a good meal. For example, if in the next two days you have to read four hundred pages and write thirty yourself, plus attend classes and do general life, something has to give. The logic goes like this: there's no due date for supper. It's easier to read textbooks hungry than it is to read them sleepy. And giving up personal hygiene is just poor etiquette when you live in close quarters. Result: food gets a rain-check.

Then, there's also the issue of plain, dumb forgetfulness. You would assume that grown women don't need a mother to remind them to eat, and to be honest, I never used to understand, either, how people could get so involved in their work that they forget to eat. It is crucial to life, after all.

Last semester, I had a gap between two classes that book-ended lunchtime. Occasionally, as I was working away on homework during that time, I was visited by a vague sense that I was forgetting something. Inevitably I put it down to my just not being productive enough and then carried on.

I do not have an eating disorder, I promise. Neither do my quadmates. The only issue we have is that we're college students. Also, now that we've assigned each other weekly cooking duties, the situation has improved somewhat. We always eat eventually, you have my assurance. Besides, when we finally get hungry enough to do something about it, there's always the 24-hour McDonald's just the next town over.

"Food is an important part of a balanced diet." Fran Lebowitz