Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Homework, Socialized Medicine, and Baptists

Yesterday I attended my first class – Social Theory. It is held inside the old King's College building, consecrated in 1509. The surrounding buildings make up “Old Aberdeen,” the medieval town that grew up around the college. Think cobblestone streets, narrow alleys with secret doors and garden gates. It’s absolutely charming (until you trip over the cobblestones, which I do frequently).

I have come to the conclusion that I will be “fass’in meself” (fussing) this year over all the work that is involved in my degree. It seems that the good folks at UNT never realized that I got by 2 degrees without much effort. In fact, if it weren’t for the one difficult political science class I had my last semester, I would not have been prepared for the kind of reading I must do now. Each page of theory takes about 15 minutes to process, notate, and reflect upon. Then, according to my professor, I’m supposed to read it a second time. She put the fear of god in us about the depths to which we are supposed to go with our homework. I should be reading right now, but instead I am blogging about how I feel about the reading. Does that count?

A lovely English woman named Jan sits next to me in class. After raising a family, she decided to go to university. After completing a Bachelor’s degree, she decided to pursue a Masters . . . just for fun. She is doing this for free, courtesy of the generous financial aid available to UK citizens, particularly senior citizens. She gave me a tour of the Social Science building and helped me find my next class. We agreed to trade notes and meet early before class each week to discuss our reading. Joining us will be an extremely handsome Italian who also sits beside me. I think that’s worth going in early!

I have also registered with a medical office. Socialized medicine, here I come! The National Health Service had me fill out 2 double-sided forms, which is about 4 less than every doctor’s office I have ever visited where I was commanded to list every insurance plan I’d ever had in triplicate. One of the questions asked me to tick the box next to the number of units of alcohol I drink each week. The choices were 0, 7, 14, 21, 28 or more. Clearly, these people enjoy their “water of life,” as they call whiskey. I haven’t had a single dram since I got here. It’s about time!

Just as I finished writing this, the general fire alarm went off in the entire building. I went down to the car park to stand with other bewildered students where a nice local bloke struck up a conversation with me. I thought he was just being friendly but then I found myself being proselytized upon. I only escaped the Bible-belt 5 days ago and the Baptists have already found me. Now I’m really fass’d!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

New Home in Scotland

Have you ever crammed a bath mat, pasta spoon, tea cups, safety pins and a jar of honey into your purse or backpack? Well, I have. My new life requires all shopping to be gotten home on foot and I only have so many hands. The art of squeezing household items into my purse like a kleptomaniac is only one of many lessons I have learned since arriving in Aberdeen 3 days ago. I have learned that granola is called “oat crunchy,” laundry soap is labeled “bio” or “non-bio,” and cute little old men dress up in suits to do their grocery shopping 1st thing Saturday morning. One dapper gentleman made sure to speak to every employee in the store and he seemed very popular. I wanted to ask him to be my Scottish grandpa. Maybe I’ll see him next week.

My walk to ASDA (Wal Mart) took me across the hill where Aberdeen Castle stood prior to its destruction in 1308. Now it’s a public square that features the Scottish version of a gazebo and lots of little shops. My trips to Wal Mart were never so attractive. I also got a look at the harbor with its many oil ships and fishing boats. The oil industry is king here, which explains why the locals took bets on who shot J.R. on “Dallas” in 1980. The best salmon in the world comes from the waters off the northeast coast of Scotland and I plan to eat my share.

My flat is more spacious than I had imagined. I have a double bed, loveseat, desk, fully equipped kitchen complete with electric teakettle, bathroom and two large closets. My window is a door that opens on to a faux balcony covered in ivy and overlooking a courtyard. There isroom to do yoga in here without hitting any furniture, which is more than I can say for my room at my family’s house. The only down sides are an electric blue accent wall and a mattress as firm as Aberdeen granite. Oh well. I’ll just have to “tak the bree wi the barm” (take the rough with the smooth) as they say in Scotland. Tomorrow I begin classes. Today I'm off to visit a thousand year old ruined castle built by my ancestors. More to come!

Here are photos of the castle quare, my new flat and the shopping that I managed to fit into my purse and 2 bags.

Song of the Day: Hey Hey Hey by Michael Franti. This has nothing to do with Scotland, but it was playing on KUT when I left for the Austin airport. It makes me happy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Caledonia, You're Calling Me

"Now I'm steady thinking. My way is clear and I know what I will do tomorrow when hands have shaken and kisses flown, then I will disappear . . . Caledonia you're calling me. Now I'm going home." (Dougie McLean)

After 13 months of planning, weeks of panic-ridden waiting and yards of red tape, I am actually leaving for Aberdeen tomorrow! Class starts Monday morning so I'm going to hit the ground running. At this point, I'm just grateful to be going when it looked so many times like I might not make it. I am thrilled with excitement, nervous about a building a new social network and succeeding in a rigorous academic program, and generally cognizant of the fact that my life is about to change dramatically.

Thank you for the prayers, good karma, rain-dances and other supplications to various deities and or hostile thoughts about the UK border agency on my behalf. These last 2 weeks of waiting have been the most difficult of all and it helped to know you were pulling for me. Lots of love to you! Next time I'll be writing from Scotland.


Song of the Day: Caledonia by Dougie McLean. This is a photo slideshow I made with pictures of Scotland from my 2007 trip.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


"We are all one breath away from being fully awake." (Pema Chodron)

In addition to being emotionally present, I have begun to work on being physically present as well. This is much harder for me. Yesterday I read a very challenging book called “Waking” by Matthew Sanford. He lost half his family in a car accident, which left him a paraplegic at age 13. The trauma of the accident and ensuing painful treatments led him to completely check out of his own body. He said the following in a 2006 interview:

“When trauma is not transformed over time, you become less present. You end of being kind of a shell of yourself. You don’t take in the world with pleasure, you don’t let it flow through you and you don’t let it out. When you lose that presence, you lose connection to the world. That’s when trauma turns into depression, and the more you become separated form the world, the deader you become.”

Since surviving leukemia at age 5, I can count on my fingers the number of times I have actually felt physically present in this world. They are all times of joy: jet skiing on the South China Sea, para-sailing in Mexico, dance rehearsals in graduate school. So seldom do I notice the hard wooden chair on which I sit, the cool water I’m drinking or the faces of the people around me. One of the reasons I love Scotland so much is that the landscape demands notice. The ocean cliffs make me stop and take a long look. The cold wind and rain remind me where I am and the people insist on speaking with strangers.

I often check out of physical pain, even fainting at times. When I was a child, I felt every needle prick and every cough, soon learning that the best place to be at such times was far far away. Now I often pass out when having blood drawn, like the reminder of that early trauma is too much to process.

My goal now is to take notice of the physical world. I’ll notice the mosquito bites, the clouds, and the coffee. Maybe I’ll still faint during blood tests, but at least I’ll take notice of the band aid.

Song of the Day: Wild Child by Enya

Friday, September 3, 2010

Messicostals at Elevation

Caitlin and I visited Manitou Springs, Colorado and went up Pikes Peak yesterday. We had chai and maté at a cute teashop in Manitou and picnicked by Fountain Creek. We began to notice a large number of conservative Pentecostals in town. The women are easily spotted by their long hair, frumpy floor-length skirts and lack of makeup. Their presence in this town was surprising given its reputation as a pagan hippie paradise. They seemed to be in charge of the teashop. Then we noticed that they were closed Saturdays and had religious tracts referring to Jesus by the Hebrew name Yashua. “A hah! They’re Messianic!” I categorized with some relief and placing these folks in their proper place. (I’m a former theology major. Classifying Christians is an academic hobby I can’t turn off). I was a member of the Messianic faith for about 3 years in college. These are Christians who believe in Jesus but follow Judaism because they believe that living like their Jewish messiah brings them closer to the truth. I have always liked old things and I was drawn to the beauty and rhythm of the Jewish traditions, with their candlelit Shabbat dinners and a religious excuse not to work on Saturdays. What got me out of the Messianic movement (aside from a general departure from religion) is its increasing focus on the end times and its belief that Islam is Satan’s religion. I would guess that 20% of the followers of Messianic Judaism come from a conservative Pentecostal background. They bring their long skirts, anti birth-control agenda and fascination with Armageddon along into their new Messianic Jewish faith. Thus, I have dubbed them “Messicostals.”

We read one of the tracts and discovered that there is an entire Messicostal commune in Manitou Springs. They are members of the Twelve Tribes movement and believe that mankind is divided into the holy, righteous, unjust and the filthy. They are, of course, the “holy”. The “righteous” are all the good people out there who haven’t heard of Jesus. The “unjust” are the lawyers and journalists who spread lies for their own benefit. The filthy are the gays and the other sexual deviants. I was sorely tempted to pull out my transgendered Wiccan prostitute routine but I withheld. Instead, we walked the streets attempting our own classifications. We decided that the “filthy” should definitely include the unwashed potheads that haunt the town. I guess you learn something crazy every day.

After lunch, we took the train up Pikes Peak. The day was crystal clear with a blue sky and a wind-chill of “only” 30. I was having trouble staying in the moment because I had just received a threatening email from the UK visa office stating that they would deny my visa unless I sent them my original UNT diploma within 3 days. The package had been sent but I was in that stressed-out state that has set in frequently over the last few months when I felt my dream threatened.

Caitlin, who has been listening to my “be here now” speeches, tactfully reminded me that there was nothing I could do (and no phone signal on the mountain) and that I better enjoy the view. Wonderful pictures naturally came about. I thought about how clear everything seems at those times when we can rise above the chaos, take a deep breath, and appreciate the view. At the same time, my racing heart reminded me that while we all need mountaintop moments in life, trying to remain at 14,000 feet forever would be detrimental to the body. I have gratitude for the crystal clarity and also for having my feet on the low ground again. Sometimes you feel like a mountaintop revelation. Sometimes you feel like a beer. And since there’s nothing I can do about the visa, I’m going to listen to some U2.

Song of the Day: Elevation by U2