Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hours spent

I have been sick this past week, so I have spent long hours resting and healing.  Mostly that meant watching movies or sleeping.  When you're sick, spending long hours doing nothing is expected and helpful.

But when you're healthy, there are cultural judgements made about how you spend your time.  Here are some examples.

"I spent 4 hours hiking."  Yay, good for you, that's super healthy.

"I spent 4 hours reading."  Good, that's a good way to spend your time.

"I spent 4 hours doing crochet."  Meh, did you make something cool?

"I spent 4 hours playing video games."  Ugh, what a waste.

It's entirely possible that I'm the only one with those internalized judgements, but I'm willing to bet you have a similar ranking, even if the activities vary.  My reaction to spending many hours doing something is strongly skewed towards whether it is "useful" - did I learn something, make something, or accomplish something?  If so, time well spent.

This can be very maladaptive, judging time spent relaxing as a "waste" of time.  Even knowing that time spent relaxing is a good use of my time, I am a product of my culture - activities that are more relaxing for the time spent are "better" than others.

I am trying to change how I think, but it is difficult.  How we spend our time is an intensely personal decision.  And there are countless different parties telling us how to spend our time.  Knowing who to listen to and when is a lifelong challenge.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Vacation Highs and Lows

Recently, we took two vacations to two very different locales: Zermatt, Switzerland and List (auf Sylt), Germany. There were several striking differences between the two.  (Photo album here.)

Zermatt is what I have come to expect from very touristy Swiss towns. Everything functions well, but lines are unavoidable because of the huge fluctuations in people at any given time. And when I say lines, I mean a meandering mosh pit that eventually coalesces into lines.

If you're not familiar with it, the village of Zermatt is near the Matterhorn, the iconic mountain in the Swiss Alps. Zermatt has an elevation of 1600 meters, making it almost exactly as high as Denver, Colorado. It is packed with the usual assortment of Swiss luxury brands in shops. (I don’t know who buys a 15,000 CHF watch in a small village, but they’re available.) It was entirely possible to get to Zermatt by public transport.

The Luftseilbahn (gondola or cable car) up the mountain has several stops. The “middle” stop is at 3000 meters above sea level, making it higher than Rocky Mountain National Park, but not as high as some of the peaks. There is a second leg of the cable cars (which I didn’t take) that goes to “Glacier Paradise”. There were signs for "Italy", implying that it was possible to transit the Swiss Alps completely by cable car and arrive in the Italian Alps.

The Matterhorn's peak is at 4,478 meters, well above the 3000 meter “middle” stop. The terrain at 3000 meters, even in high summer, is cold and mostly lifeless. It looks barren and alien. Beautiful in it’s starkness, and exotic from the warm summer day below. 

We also visited the town of List on the island of Sylt in northern Germany. Sylt is an island on the North Sea, with sand dunes, sea gulls, and tide pools. It is at least as tourist focused as Zermatt, with boat tours and a Pirate themed restaurant (that was actually pretty good). There are no lines because there is no single attraction. Or rather, the one attraction (the sea) is big enough that people dissipate to the various beaches and bike paths through the dunes. 

On the island of Sylt, there were shops selling high-end watches, bags, and clothes, but they were far less common than those selling beach and tourist trinkets, like rulers with your name on them, big floppy straw hats, beach towels and bags, and so on. It was possible to navigate the island by public transport, but cars were a lot more common.

The beaches are marked where you can use them and the ecosystem of the dunes is being preserved. In the water, there are crabs and small fish at low tide, as well as clams and other shellfish. Plentiful, too, are the sea gulls and terns, and Eurasian Oyster Catchers with their striking black and white plumage and orange bill and legs. They scurry along the water’s edge, stabbing their long bills at their prey, and carrying their catch back to their rooftop nests. 

Where high in the Alps the terrain felt lifeless, the seaside is alive, but somehow paused for the summer. The dune grasses are brown and the sea roses have gone to their bright red fruit. The few trees here are stubby pine, some ornamental olives, and a few others. The plants give the sense that they are waiting for the summer heat and dry to abate before they make their next big change. 

Adventure sports were alive and well in both locations. In Zermatt, you could get a paragliding session. In List, you could learn to surf or to do stand-up paddle boarding.

The roofs were unique and interesting in both towns. In Zermatt, buildings were roofed in large pieces of slate, arranged as diamonds, with the points down toward the eaves. Newer houses used a kind of synthetic slate made to match the look. In List, buildings were roofed in a kind of thatching made of long round reeds of some kind. They were trimmed and tidy; I saw a new thatched roof being installed, so the art is alive and well.

Another difference is language. In Zermatt, you were as likely to hear Mandarin, French, or English as you were German (High or Swiss). In List, German is everywhere. Because I am learning High German, I was able to understand a lot more of what is said in List than I might in a random Swiss city. But, in Switzerland most shopkeepers and restaurant folks speak English. Here, if my German fails me, it’s even odds if they will be able to fallback to English or if Google Translate will have to save me. In a town of this size, with mostly German and Swiss tourists, it makes sense. We did hear at least a few other American and British couples, but it was far less frequent than we heard English in Zermatt.

Two extremes of climate for two vacations. Being so close together in time, the differences were even more striking.  Album with more photos here.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Practical Minimalism

I have often been drawn to minimalism.  My definition is having only things that serve a purpose or bring you joy, clearing the way to let you focus on what matters.  In particular, I seek two outcomes: reduced cognitive load and reduced decision fatigue.

When I read about minimalism for the first time, I tried things like having only one pen, a pen that I really liked.  Or having only one, good quality comb.  The idea is that with only one, cognitive load is reduced because there's only one to keep track of.  And decision fatigue is gone, because there's only one option, so no decision is required.

I still have that pen and comb, but I also have other pens and other combs.  The reason I bought more pens and combs was simple: convenience.

A lovely fountain pen is a delight to use.  But if I need to make a note and my one and only pen is in another room, I have to stop what I'm doing to go get the pen.  I added a dependency.  I reduced the efficiency of writing that note.  So, I was less likely to write the note down and I tried to rely on memory.  This increased my cognitive load.

Having only one of a thing can add steps to a process, increasing the amount of yak shaving required to do a simple task.  It adds a dependency.

When you have only one of a thing, there is no room for accidents or "what ifs", no keeping things "just in case".  With most things, replacement is only a matter of money and time, and not having it is not life threatening.

But having to replace it means added dependencies.  It means added time spent replacing it.  It means money you didn't plan on spending.  And, if your stuff is non-standard in any way, replacement may be more difficult: replacing a micro-USB cable is easier than replacing a proprietary Sony cable, and replacing "normal" sized clothes is easier than plus-sized clothes.

Put another way, having no backup means not being prepared.  When I compare the stress of extra things vs. the stress of not being prepared, I prefer to be prepared.

Having only one of a thing means having no backup.

One of the traps I fall into after reading about minimalism, is trying to find the perfect thing.  When you have fewer things, the idea is that you really use and enjoy that thing.  So, if your only pen is a cheap pen that only writes after a few scribbles, it's not as pleasant to use as a good pen that writes the first time.  From this, I tried to find The Perfect Pen.  That quest led me to having multiple pens because The Perfect Pen for journaling is not the same as The Perfect Pen for quick notes.

The search for The Perfect anything is both stressful and a fool's errand.  Unless you enjoy the search, that time is wasted - exactly the kind of thing minimalism is trying to avoid.  And, there's often no signal for "good enough".  Yes, a backpack might be functional, it might be pleasant to use, but is it perfect?  There is always room for improvement, so the search continues.

Having things that bring you joy does not mean that everything must be perfect.

After I read about minimalism and start thinking about the stuff in my life, I eventually come to a balance.  I have enough things and a backup.  There is still some decision fatigue, but it is balanced with efficient action.  I have things I like, but they need not be perfect.

The lessons of minimalism are good to examine now and again.  I enjoy my stuff, but I recognize that the stuff itself doesn't bring me happiness.  Stuff is enjoyed by my interactions with it.  It reminds me to focus on what matters in life and not on the stuff I use when doing those things.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

[Sunday (not) in Switzerland] Out of your comfort zone

I'm back in the U.S. for a few weeks.

After moving to Switzerland, I had new appreciation for my coworkers that left their home country for work.  In Switzerland, I can usually fall back to English to get things done, but in the U.S. my coworkers from China and India didn't have the option to fallback to their native language.  I empathize with them more than I ever had before.  The stress of living somewhere you don't speak the language is intense.

Being back in the U.S., I understand the appeal of being in the majority.  It's so freaking easy to be the majority.  Everything is tuned for you.  You're the center of the universe and everything seems custom made.  Today, I had a delightful lunch with flavors I enjoy, with music I knew, in a language I understood, with customs and interactions I was ready for.  And it's not just lunch, but car rentals, hotels, clerks in stores, all of them are following a pattern made for me: a white American.

It's a nice respite for me, but it makes me realize how important it is to go outside your comfort zone. When you travel to a new country, things are different.  It can make you re-examine your life and your place in the world.  It can make you appreciate the differences between your life and a different way of living.

For example, in my pleasant lunch, the waiter brought my check before I asked for it.  In Switzerland, that would be fairly rude.  Yes, I had had my dessert, but maybe I wasn't done yet.  I might have wanted another drink.  In the U.S., it's completely normal.  Neither is right or wrong, just different.

Another example: I drove to the grocery store.  That is not unusual here.  On my way back, there was a pedestrian cross-walk not at a stop-light.  Two men wanted to cross, so I stopped for them.  They hurried across the 3 lanes of car traffic, obviously feeling like they had to hurry to not inconvenience the drivers.  In Switzerland, there would not be 3 lanes of car traffic, but the pedestrians would not hurry, and the drivers would not begrudge them the time it takes to cross the road.  In Switzerland, being a pedestrian is respected, not shamed.

I'm extremely grateful for the experience of living abroad, of immersing myself in a different culture and learning its intricacies.  It has broadened my perspectives on many levels.  I wouldn't trade it for anything.  Still, I will admit that being in the majority for language and culture is a nice break from constantly feeling a little out of place.  I hope that everyone gets a chance to step outside their comfort zone once in a while, just so you can appreciate all the things you take for granted.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Flowers and some geology

This weekend, we went to walk the Flumserberg Alpenblumenweg (or flower trail).  I got to see a lot of flowers I hadn't seen before along with some stunning views of the mountains in the area.

One of the mountains is called the Sichelkammfalte (or Sichelkamm fold).  The formation of the fold took 5 million years.  Here is a picture of it and of other folds in a mountain nearby.

The trail we walked also had information on some of the interesting rock formations, like the Sichelkammfalt and other interesting stone types.  It was lovely and I would definitely go back again.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Food!

When people talk about a place having a "different culture", they usually mean some combination of "surface" and "deep" culture.
Surface culture is essentially the cultural norms you can easily identify in a foreign country. Deep culture are the cultural norms not easily detected unless, in fact, you are born and raised in that specific culture OR you spend an extended amount of time in the foreign culture.

One of the big differences in surface culture in Switzerland is the food.  There are some foods that are very similar to foods from the U.S. and some foods that are very different.  I have a few examples on a spectrum below.

More similar

  • Sausage
  • Most potato dishes
  • Bread
  • Cheese
  • Anything spicy or foreign
Less similar

Sausages are very similar, but the spices are different between the U.S. and Switzerland.

Rösti is an amazing potato dish, but it's very similar to hash brown potatoes of a certain style.  In the "starting to diverge" category are also dishes like "Hackfleisch und Hörnli".  It has similar ingredients to "pasta with meat sauce" but the form and flavor is different.

There are more types of bread here, varying in shape and taste.  Bread is much more central to the diet and has a cultural element to it.  A Swiss friend at work said she has fond memories of making Butterzopf as a kid and making crazy braids.

Cheese is omnipresent and varied, but just has different flavors than U.S. cheese.  Cheddar is difficult to find (yes, I know that's originally British).  Colby and Monterey Jack just don't exist here.  Blue cheese is rarely in dishes here while it's enjoying a heyday in the U.S.

Vegetables vary, not in preparation as much as in which vegetables are popular.  Broccoli is rare, spinach is everywhere, and things like aubergine (eggplant), turnip, leeks, and fennel are much more common than in the U.S.

Finally, spicy and foreign foods are the most divergent that I've seen from a U.S. equivalent.  We had burritos for dinner on Friday and the "Mexican Mix" is what prompted this post.  You can see it below.  It tastes weird, but okay. Still, it's not what I would call Mexican.  The Mexican Mix has:
  • Red or kidney beans (fine)
  • Bell peppers (fine)
  • Corn (ok)
  • Leeks (uh, what)
  • Green beans (what the actual hell)

There is also a list of "foods you'd miss if you left Switzerland".  I have tried most of these and some I would miss, others not so much.  I like venison as much as the next person, but it gets old really fast.

For fitting food into the deeper culture, I like the blog called Little Zürich Kitchen.  The author does a great job of talking about food and relating them to the values and traditions of Swiss people.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Botanical Gardens

Yesterday, we visited the Botanical Gardens.  It's a little early in the spring for most things, but there were some outdoor plants to see and the greenhouses were fun.  It was a beautiful day and I saw many plans that I haven't seen before.
Flowering tree outside

Fascinating drooping flowers

Interesting three leaved plant

Inside, we saw some beautiful tropical flowers.  There were some flowers on long vines above a pond.  The plant was maybe 30 feet above the pond, but the flowers had grown down to nearly touching the water.  Really cool looking: just flowers hanging in space.
These look like eggs to me

Hanging by a thread

We also saw and smelled a plant I had heard of, but never seen before.  A "corpse flower" smells like rotting meat and has a large flower.  We saw an amorphophalus konjac or Devil's Tongue or Voodoo Lily.  Wow, what a smell!  It was like ripe road kill.  Fascinating, but I didn't want to get too close.
I will likely visit the gardens again in a few weeks when more things are in bloom.  It was a very serene place.