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Thursday, April 28, 2005


I'm something of an expert on ecstasy, but let me explain. Back in my University days I was assigned a paper on "redefinition" in a writing class, and an essay on early English Literature in a reading class. So, I thought I'd write one paper for both classes. This inevitably backfired and I got two of the most lasting lessons of my academic career. One: even if the boss (or teacher) isn't right, they have the power to control your options. Two: in taking the option to write a new paper instead of taking the class again I learned about the etymology of the word ecstasy. Unintended lessons for sure, but none the less valuable.

The original meaning of this word (and the meaning in the religious sense even today) is "to stand aside". Ecstasy doesn't so much connote delight or fun or pleasure, as it does position. It's a place that is unusual, and what you do in that unusual place is up to you.

Many religions and cultures of the world employ various extreme behaviors to invoke "ecstasy". These methods include, but are not limited to: praying, singing, chanting, fasting, pilgrimage, hanging from hooks, snake handling, running, walking, staying awake, heat, cold, silence and laughing. My most recent experience has been with staying awake.

I wouldn't typically define ecstasy as two 20+ hour international flights in the space of a week. But there's hardly a more literal definition - position, standing outside of place and time, and what a strange headspace you get into.

I collected some of my thoughts from the trip. Just some various ideas I ran into as a result of jetlag:

1.Airports are the Opposite of Casinos
2.My skepticism about architecture died a sudden death
3.Travel in Switzerland is good because all "freebees" are Swiss chocolate.
4.Cities follow a similar lifecycle to stars
5.Most words have origins in meaning, but "mama" and "papa" only have the meanings they do because they are physically the first sounds babies CAN make.

1. Airports are the opposite of Casinos because:
Casinos have no clocks. Airports are full of them
Casinos have no windows. Airports are full of them
Casinos try to make you stay once you get there.
Airports try to get you out as soon as possible.
Most airports close.
Casinos don't, so you can't be late or early to a casino.


(and these revelations came to me as I was staring at the meticulously clean, but poorly designed Vienna airport perfectly reflected in the polished stone floor tiles. The Vienna airport is CLEANER than a Singapore subway. And that's saying something.)

2. Why am I so skeptical about architects?:

I'm partly skeptical about architects because I've met a few who I found arrogant and elitist (which can be fun because they're also somewhat defensive and easy to provoke). Another reason I'm skeptical about architects is that I've been in a few buildings and have found the "designed" ones as crap as the "cookie-cutter" ones (keeping in mind that "cookie-cutter" or "boiler-plate" designs are also created by the Alan Smithee equivalent of architects). So, I guess I'm as disappointed with architects for selling-out to the average as I am offended by them for assuming they know what above-average is. I admit, that's an unfair position. But what value do architects propose to provide? At their worst they design buildings to maximize the efficient usage of cheap materials to create adequate built environments. At their best they design buildings that share ideas of integrity, optimism, stability and confidence with the people who use them.

I had the opportunity recently to work in a building designed by an architect at his best. You could say I had a moment. Designed by Jean Tschumi in 1956-1960 (and from what I can gather, renovated in `96), the building put me in a location that had meaning. I can't be anything but grateful for that. And now I'm on a design-kick, looking for a new watch that does a similar thing (on a much smaller scale). What is that thing? Saying something like: "grow up, get to work." How can a building or a watch say that? Magic, design, beauty, they just can - but most don't.

That's how my more general skepticism about architects (and designers in general) died a sudden but welcome death in Switzerland, April 2005. So I'll withdraw my global nose-thumb and reserve it for those who rightly deserve it.

3. Travel in Switzerland is good because any freebies are Swiss chocolate. Pretty self explanatory this one. The chocolates on the pillow at the hotel, or on the plane before landing, or well, that's actually about it. It just seems like there was a lot of good chocolate going around. And when the going gets tough (hour 17 of a 25 hour trip), it's good to have good chocolate to get you over.
In the words of Curtis Mayfield:
Tryin' to get over
That's what he's tryin' to do y'all, y'all
Takin' all that he can take
Gamblin' with the odds of fate
Tryin' to get over
Tryin' to get over

4. That cities follow a similar lifecycle to stars hit me when I was listening to a radio show about how the primary cities of the past devolve into burnt-out middens as they age. The question posed by the interviewer was: Can Mumbai emerge from infra-structure-chaos to shine as bright as Beijing? I suspect the answer to that question is "no", but maybe for the better.
Anyone familiar with astronomy should know about the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. It charts the lifecycle of stars based on brightness and surface temperature. Mass is probably in there somewhere, but whatever. In my time-burnt mind it was perfectly clear that large cities burning bright will probably burn out sooner than mid-sized cities with conservative growth rates. The analogy needs work, but I'm sure the relationship is there.

5. (I predict that soon most of my posts will be baby related. This is just the beginning): Most words have origins in meaning, but "mama" and "papa" only have the meanings they do because they are physically the first sounds babies CAN make. You can trace most words back through to their "original" language, but mama and papa (and the other derivatives; ma, pa, pepe, meme, mommy, etc.) don't so much have an origin in meaning as they do in mechanics. "ma" is the voiced phoneme of "pa". Both are (and don't laugh because it's not dirty-talk) bilabial consonants. "ma" and "pa" are the easiest sounds to make, and some of the first consonant-vowel sounds babies make. Parents (and grand-parents) are keen to ascribe meaning to anything baby says, so it's only natural that "ma" is turned, by adults, into a word. The crazy thing is, that even if the baby doesn't intend to be addressing their mother with the word mama, they end up getting a response from their mothers that is consistent and therefore reinforced. The sounds" mama" or "mamamamamamamama" become the meaning Mama because of the way we react to the sounds. I'm having a look around to see if early language acquisition goes any different for children who grow up in places where mama and papa are not words (like Japan, where mama is Okaasan - ya, that's a mouthful for a baby).

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