Dienstag, 18. Oktober 2011


I feel like I have been grading homework and tests straight for the last week.

Oh, wait. I have.

Donnerstag, 8. September 2011

Birthday miles

I had a birthday yesterday, so the cycling year has officially come to an end. As I have done the last three years, I did a birthday ride on Labor day where I have to ride my age. The ride was slow because I started at 5 am and it was really dark. But I did take a really nice picture of the sunrise with my smartphone.

I managed a little over 2500 miles this year to put me at 18,566 since I started keeping track in 2002. The circumference of the Earth is 24901.55, so I still have a couple of years to go (2.5 to 3 years actually) until I will have completed the virtual circumnavigation.

Samstag, 20. August 2011

My kids think I am cool again

I have a long and painful history with cars. First there was the '79 Pinto that I bought right after my mission for $450, because that was how much I had. It was also known as the peach bomb, because that was its color and that is what it was. It had the advantage of having a hole in the floor that allowed me to measure my speed by how fast the yellow stripes passed by. Still, it was good enough to get engaged to my wife with. We sold it shortly after the wedding because, well, it was a Pinto.
Next came the Mercury Topaz we got from my uncle. It was okay, except for the a leaky power steering unit and a really bad paint job. And an alternator that kept going out and a bunch of other little things. When I had to drive down to Ft. Huachuca for Army Officer Basic Course, I needed something that a new Lieutenant could be seen in. I bought a 92 Eclipse. It was totally stripped down--no power windows, no cruise control, not even power steering--which was a plus at the time, because that meant it couldn't go out on me. What it did have was a manual transmission that was a whole lot of fun and a comfortable front seat that I could drive for hours without getting tired. I really liked that car.
When I got home, we sold the Eclipse to my brother, and the Topaz to a woman around the corner, who promptly wrecked it--and then put full insurance coverage on it. With the money from those two we bought a '94 Geo Prizm. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the Prizm, except that it was a Prizm with absolutely no personality, and not enough leg room--which made it very uncomfortable on cross-country drives. Three children in the back was also an adventure. Years later in Texas (land of F-250's and Ford Mustangs) I once picked up an inactive youth in it. His first words to me were, "why don't you have a truck?"
With our family growing, and with my first real job, we purchased my parents Dodge Grand Caravan and I was faced with the fact that my life was now well and truly over. The mini van is a very practical vehicle. It allows the kids to sit far enough behind the parents that they can beat on each other with impunity, or fight over who gets the prime seat in the middle row--which is only prime because it is closer to the treats on long trips. The downside of a mini van is once again the position it forces you to keep your legs (in my case) or your shoulders (in my wife's case) in. It also shouts "I-would-be-driving-an-SUV-right-now,-but-I-realize-that-I will-NEVER-have-a-chance-to-take-this-thing-off road,-so-why-bother" about as loud as I can imagine.
In Texas, my car journey took a strange turn. In the same week, my wife and I both independantly had the impression that a family in our ward who was struggling, could really use our Prizm to replace their broken down car. So I began looking for a replacement. A few days later, I thought I had found the perfect solution. On Ebay, I found a 95 eclipse that i thought would bring me back to the days of happy driving I knew in Sierra Vista, Arizona. So I put what I thought was a low bid on it--and won. It was great, until I went to pick it up, and discovered what I had bought. There was no oil in it (leaked on the ground out of the leaky head gaskets, as it turns out) missing a spare tire. On the way home the battery died completely. I spray painted the hood--in retrospect, I should have painted it yellow, because it was a lemon--but it was still pretty fun to drive, when it ran.
For the last month, it has been back in the shop again. Our normal mechanic (with whom I am now on a first-name basis, and who now has a new ski-boat) couldn't get it running right. I took it in to the dealer, and they wanted to put in a new computer for the second time in two years. It was time to get rid of it.
So here is the next attempt at driving something with a little self-respect. It is a 2005 Acura RSX type S.
Ryan likes it anyway.
For those who say, "You can't get all your kids into that," I answer, "That is correct."
It has a 6-speed manual transmission that is a whole lot of fun and a whole lot of zip.
It also has a moon-roof, which I learned on google, is different from a sun-roof because it has a motorized retraction system and a tinted glass window. And although the leather seats and the Bose sound system are nice, I am just glad it doesn't kill on me at random moments like the eclipse. As an added bonus, the blue paint almost perfectly matches the blue covering on my Stik.

Mittwoch, 25. Mai 2011

Augenblicke auf der Museuminsel

Some years ago I wrote an essay for a presentation on Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Augenblicke in Griechenland, which is a travelogue of the author’s visit to the Parthenon and the museum next to it. I was and am interested in his use of the word Augenblick, because for him, the idea represents a moment of pure clarity, or immediate experience, unfiltered by explanation, or language or symbol, but is a moment of pure presence. The word Augenblick itself is a bit elusive. In common usage, it means “moment,” or a short period of time. We might want to translate it as “in the blink of an eye.” but Blick means to see, or sight, or even better, the gaze, so that Augenblick is somehow the moment of the eye’s gaze–capturing an instant and holding almost as it were in a timeless eternity–but this is perhaps too melodramatic.
For Hofmannsthal, the moment can be overpowering. They are difficult to capture, impossible to hold, and unexpected when they happen. He has such an experience on the Acropolis as he encounters three Korai. Under their gaze he sees time and timelessness as a dizzying swirl that combines the eternal and the temporary all in the same object. The statues come to represent a world lost forever, even if preserved in the stone artifact.
I have always been captivated by his description, ever since I discovered it. His essay becomes an exercise in language–but not one of words, but of a language of stone. It is something more primal than the words we try to use, and I always had the feeling that even his descriptions never came close to his experience. I have not thought about his work in a few years now.
This week in the New Museum (new because it is only 150 years old) I had an experience that reminded me of Hofmannsthal’s Augenblick, and I think I came a step closer to understanding what he meant. There is in the museum a seated figure, carved from a reddish-brown stone. She dates to the 12. Egyptian dynasty, or around 1850 b.c. That makes her nearly 4000 years old. She sits with crossed arms and bare feet sticking out of a full length robe. In her hand she holds a cloth offering. Her gaze is straight ahead, eyes up, with a look of unspeakable calm on her face. The curators have presented her with dramatic lighting from above, highlighting facial features that are at once strong and yet delicate, almost vulnerable. Overall I see the tension between these two extremes of strength and vulnerability in the statue. The form is one that is repeated over the ages in countless works, both long before this one, and long afterward.
But when I saw it, I was overcome very nearly the same way as Hofmannsthal was. There are so many layers here. When you look at it, at her, it is both a woman and a statue. She confronts you, draws you in to her long-vanished world. I see the faith of the one who commissioned the work and presented it as an offering. Then I see the hopeful, resolute vulnerability of the figure herself, upright and resolved on the hard blank stone block. But here also is the hand of the sculptor, who formed her out of a formless block, and I think of the time that has passed since then and the perfect surface, almost unweathered by time, and I "see" all these people, and I am transported back into their world for just a moment and we connect–
But then words fail, just as it is impossible to recover that time in a single statue. I can’t explain what it was like. I tried to show my students that were there with me in the museum, but they just nodded their heads politely and let me professorize into the wind. I think some of them sort of get it, but then they just wander off.
Much later, when I finally flee the museum, overwhelmed by the impossibility of absorbing so much history in a single morning, I discover that my students have long since left. True, they had class they had to get to, and thus an excuse that I did not share, but I would not have noticed the time either way and would not have made it out in time. What are a few hours in the last 4000 years?

Freitag, 20. Mai 2011

In which Geri and I Play a Game.

Last year when I was in Berlin, I was crossing Potsdamer Platz on my way to or from somewhere. On that day they were having a market, which is when various and random vendors set up tents on city squares and sell random wares, good food, and usually some kind of beer or Bratwurst as well. Walking through I noticed a vendor selling a beautifully carved chess set in what looked like a well constructed case with drawers to hold the pieces. It was only 25 Euro. The problem was, I was feeling poor that day, having just spent most of my liquid assets for tickets to a concert in the Philharmonie for me and my students. So I didn’t get the chess board. I felt bad, even though I already have several chess sets, and really display exactly none of them. And even though it was probably made in Poland or somewhere else in eastern Europe, I still like the idea of a chess set as a souvenir. A good one has beauty and function. When I told my dad about it, who also likes chess sets, even though he hasn’t played me since the first time I beat him, he told me I should have bought the board anyway if it were only 25 euro. I thought this was odd, since he is, if anything, even more conservative with his money than I am.

Which leads up to this year. When I took the students to Dresden, there is a market place near the Frauenkirche with all the typical shop tents and wooden huts set up – I had some roast rabbit and Rotkohl with klöße there that was amazing. I also saw a chess board with stone figures and a stone-inlaid playing surface. 25 Euro. So without thinking too long. I bought it. I broke it in at the train station on the way home by beating one of my students in its first game. I don’t like to brag, but I demolished him, sucking him into a gambit and then picking him apart piece by piece. I still don’t like to brag, because he wasn’t a bad player, – but the game wasn’t really that close.

So now the board sits in my room, and I have no one to play. So I have been playing myself–Geri’s game style. If I wait long enough between moves, the left half of my brain can’t remember what the right half was thinking, and it is a pretty fair fight. We can’t play for false teeth, since neither of us has any, just a few crowns we both share. Maybe the loser will have to buy the winner a chocolate bar. Winner chooses the flavor.
By the way, no stone lions were injured in the composition of this post, but 3 of the four stone horsemen have already left the game. My apologies to Ron Weasley.

Mittwoch, 4. Mai 2011

Stuff happens when I am in Berlin

Stuff always seems to happen when I am in Berlin. As a missionary, I experienced the reunification of the two German republics first hand. I wasn’t here for the fall of the Berlin wall, but I took part in much of what came immediately after. I thought at the time I understood what was happening, but now I am not so sure. I know so much more now about the complexities of German history that much of what at the time seemed so black-and-white now takes on a rich texture of colors and patterns even as it fades into the past at the same time.

Ten years later I arrived in Berlin with my family in the shadow of 9/11 and the threat of a new war on terror. The expected bombs soon fell in Afganistan and soon thereafter the (from me) unexpected ones in Iraq.

In that year that everything changed for the United States I filtered it all through the BBC and the German newspapers. I still had trust in President Bush to do the right thing, and I am still not sure whether he did or not. Certainly nothing turned out as we expected it to. One could argue that the fall of the wall and the fall of the twin towers are related. The Soviet decline begins with their failure in Afghanistan, and caused Gorbachev to rethink the entire foreign policy of the Soviet Union. So Bin Laden was a product of the Cold War and that the Soviet pull-out of Afganistan and the later US failure to help the country stabilize in the resulting vacuum set the world down the path that put American soldiers in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

Now another ten years have passed and I sit in the Goethe-Institute I read of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and the new awakening of the Arab Spring. I am 40 instead of instead of 30 instead of 20 and I wonder what these events mean for the future. I no longer think that I can make sense of it the way I thought I could before.
As any president would, Obama is taking credit for the success of the operation against Bin Laden, but it appears that the groundwork that led up to the assault on his compound in Pakistan goes back to well before the begin of Obama’s presidency. The president has also taken some credit for the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere that the newspapers have been calling the “Arab Spring.” Yet I wonder how much of these changes would have been possible if it had not been for the US policies of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan in the decade leading up to today.

And yet another “yet,” it is clear that the Bush presidency and the US made countless mistakes and miscalculations in their foreign policy during the last ten years, and I wonder how much we have hindered the possible progress that could have been made in that time if we had not created so much animosity for the West over the last decade. Is it possible that change could have come quicker if we had left the muslim world alone, if they had left us alone? If we had reacted differently?

Donnerstag, 23. Dezember 2010

Two posts in one night

Here is what I have been working on in my free time over the last 6 months. the biplane is scratch built to my own plans. It started out as a sketch on the back of a poster that I then converted to working plans with a CAD program on my computer. I cut everything out (there are LOT of ribs with two wings), built up the frame over the plans and made the tail and wings.

The problem was, the nose way too long and there was no way it would have balanced without a lot of extra weight in the tail. So I chopped it--even though it is hard to tell from the next pictures. If you look close, there are three holes cut out in the nose of the first picture, and only two in the second.
By the way, I cut all those holes in the landing gear too. That was fun.

To show off all the beautiful frame work, I covered it with translucent covering. here is the finished product:

But wait--there's more! Okay, not such a big surprise for those that already know about this project, but since I have alienated all of those people by not posting forever, only complete strangers will ever see this posting, and you, my new, strange friends have no idea what I am talking about. So here it is. . .

Drum roll, please. . .

a little more suspense . . .

It has lights!!! (the soldering was a real bear. Thanks Jon, for the help.)
but it looks cool under the Christmas tree. It should be really visible for night flying--the original intent of the design. I am sure almost no one cares, but it was a lot of fun to design and build. I sure hope it flies.

Mittwoch, 22. Dezember 2010

Am I in?

Now that I have avoided posting on my blog for long enough that it is just me again talking to the air, I will probably do two posts here maybe even tonight. A while ago my brother joined an exclusive group started by one of my friends from high school. The stone lions are the biggest rage of the internet. I hate being shown up by my little brother. So I had to find a stone lion that was stone-lion-y in a Deutschlehrer kind of way. This lion is in fact over a fireplace in the Goethe-Institute that I visited in Boston last month. I saw it in an assembly room during a very crowded reception for German teachers during a convention for language teachers in general. It was the bright point of the evening--except I didn't have a camera with me. Luckily there was another reception the next night, which I was late for, which meant I had to stand in the back next to the wine for an hour--which would have been fine, except I don't drink--but great accomplishments sometimes require sacrifice. When the talk was over (it was an author talking about her book about--and I am not making this up-- two siblings with a sick cat that they cured by feeding it a very specific type of coffee bean that they then recycled after the cat was finished with it, by roasting the passed beans, grinding them, and making coffee out of them--which they then sold. The high point of the evening was when friends of the author served coffee according to the recipe in the book. There are days when the Word of Wisdom really comes in handy. Anyway, when everyone got up to enjoy the "refreshments" I snapped this picture. So, Charlotte, am I in?

Mittwoch, 10. November 2010


Remember that really fast plane from earlier in the year? Well it saw its end on the last weekend of racing this year. Spectacularly. I lost control around the first turn of the first heat. I am pretty sure my aileron servo stripped out. The only other possibility is maybe the antenna broke loose and so when it got out a ways, It lost the signal. Either way, the aircraft quickly turned into a 100mph lawn dart.Here you can see the nose buried about 4 inches deep into the sod. Battery pack, receiver and 3 of 4 servos seem to be a complete loss. Surprisingly, I think the motor itself survived. This is us digging it out.

CUPRA November Pylon Race - Jeff Packer's Crash from Jon Finch on Vimeo.

These are the people that I fly with. Generally a very generous and fun group. Next race is in March, and I already have ideas to make the next one faster.

Sonntag, 24. Oktober 2010

Many, many years ago--I think it was the summer after my mission when I returned to Germany to visit friends for the first time as a non-missionary, my good friend Lutz Wagner gave me his father's iron cross from the first world war. (I am pretty sure it was his father and not his grandfather--I believe he was already quite old when Lutz was born).

I was very honored by the gift. With Germans, the idea of friendship is deeper than it is most of the time with Americans, it is something closer to family than anything else. At least with the Wagners, with whom I lived for several months, I know the relationship goes beyond simple friendship. So you can imagine how I felt when I looked one day (for a class) and could not find the iron cross anywhere. To make matters worse, this summer Lutz mentioned that he had had a medal from his father and didn't know where it was anymore. I had to admit to him that he had given it to me years ago, but that I couldn't find it anymore.

Of course there is a happy end to the story. A couple of weeks ago my parents threatened to throw out all my stuff that was still at their house (it's less than 20 years since I lived there) if I didn't go through the boxes and decide what I wanted to keep. Guess what I found? I feel a little like the woman in the parable that cleaned her whole house and found the money she had lost.

Objects are really just things that should not be important to us at all, but when they become symbols then that changes them altogether. I can't help but think about the changing meaning behind this one. When it was given, it was a symbol of one man's service to his country--a country that, by the time the cross was awarded, did not even exist anymore. For years during the socialist era, it must have sat in a drawer, nearly forgotten as it would have represented a time of capitalist empiricism to some had it been displayed too openly. It was also a symbol of war and militarism and so somewhat ambivalent in the best of times. To Lutz, I would think that it would serve as a memory of his father. I should probably give it back to him.

To me, however, it is a reminder that the family I am a part of is bigger than that I was born to, or that have been born to me, that there are people that I hope to enjoy the eternities with. That, I think, is what it means to have a Pearl of Great Price.