Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A moment of profound gratitude.

(Taken from my post on Facebook.)

On days like these, when I pause to take stock of my life, I am profoundly humbled and grateful. There are so many good people, family, and experiences in my life. I just completed my third tour of Europe for this year, and it was my most successful and busy one to date. There is just so much kindness and joy to behold in the world. These tours are so radically heart-opening and intense, as I meet people and go from complete strangers to something so much more in a matter of minutes, hours, days. I have had students tell me that my workshop has influenced their approach to life, watched as the heart chakras of a classroom cracked wide open and people reached out to cherish the souls of their peers, felt the support from a community of strangers (and students) as I mourned the loss of a beloved friend, found home and healing among friends in foreign countries, marveled at the beauty of others and their willingness to open up through countless experiences both light-hearted and intense, and have -- time and again -- been loved, rejuvenated, and encouraged by those in my life.

Every day, I am astonished to know people around the world whom love and care for me, people whom inspire me, people whom bring such richness to my life, people whom make me aspire to be a better person. I don't know what I have done to deserve such richness, but I do know that I will always strive to share that bounty and love with others. I wish I could convey to each and every one of you exactly what you mean to me, why I so deeply appreciate you: how your presence in my life makes it special, miraculous, and awe-inspiring.

I sometimes don't know what to do with it all, this ineffable feeling; it makes my heart swell to the point I think I'll burst. So here I am, trying to put to words to the indescribable, because it's the only thing I can do to relieve the pressure and channel the energy into something productive. It is a paltry facsimile of what I truly feel, but I hope that it provides a glimpe of understanding how much you mean to me. You bring tears to my eyes and a joyful song to my heart.

I love you. Happy holidays.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Recursion is fascinating.

I remember the first time I brushed up against the concept of recursion in a summer camp programming class in Visual Basic 6.0. (Yep, those were the good old days.)

Most programmers speak of recursion with awe in their voice. The words "elegant," "beautiful," and "artistic in its simplicity" often come up. My initial exposure was seeing a recursive program to draw a Sierpinski triangle.

The Sierpinski triangle.

After some puzzling over the code, I eventually understood how it worked, but never fully grokked the elegance. It wasn't until now, properly learning recursion through CS106B, that it hit me while learning about the Tower of Brahma (Tower of Hanoi) puzzle.

Fun side note: it's cool to read about the legend behind the Tower of Brahma puzzle. From Wikipedia:

The puzzle was first publicized in the West by the French mathematician Édouard Lucas in 1883. There is a history about an Indian temple in Kashi Vishwanath which contains a large room with three time-worn posts in it surrounded by 64 golden disks. Brahmin priests, acting out the command of an ancient prophecy, have been moving these disks, in accordance with the immutable rules of the Brahma, since that time. The puzzle is therefore also known as the Tower of Brahma puzzle. According to the legend, when the last move of the puzzle will be completed, the world will end.[2] It is not clear whether Lucas invented this legend or was inspired by it.

If the legend were true, and if the priests were able to move disks at a rate of one per second, using the smallest number of moves, it would take them 264−1 seconds or roughly 585 billion years[3] or 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 turns to finish, or about 127 times the current age of the sun.

After the lecturer set up the problem, I thought for a moment how to solve it recursively. I didn't have any insight (not giving myself proper time to really work it through on my own), but I ventured to guess that the solution would be rather tricky and possibly complicated.

Then she revealed the code.

All that work, accomplished through three simple lines.

My reaction:

The lecturer, Julie, clearly takes pedagogy seriously, for she took the time to create illuminating animations to see the process of recursion. Here it is, solving the Queens puzzle (how to fit 4 queens on a 4x4 chess board, or NxN board) using recursive backtracking. (She walks through it piecewise for a 4x4 board, then shows it automated for an 8x8 board at 42:30.

Fascinating. Now I am beginning to see the stunning power of recursion, where it can solve problems that are simply unsolvable any other way. 

Admittedly, I am a little nervous about actually being able to solve recursive problems. We'll see. I did have the intuition to come up with the recursive solution to the midpoint-finding Karel problem from CS106A. The other examples shown thus far I am able to figure out once the code is presented, but I'm not sure how quickly I would have reached that point on my own.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reflections on competitions and my journey in dance.

The past several weeks have been packed with events. July Massive, Sweet Molasses Blues, Nocturne Blues… One right after the other. I have hardly had time to sit down and reflect upon my thoughts in an organized fashion.

I could expound upon the many virtues of each event. They offered unique experiences and provided a space to form many fond memories. Each event prompted growth in new areas. Each one made me so happy to attend for a host of different reasons.

However, my mind has been buzzing ever since the competitions at Sweet Mo and Nocturne Blues. My experiences in them affected me deeply. I competed in all the contests possible: the Jack & Jill at Sweet Mo, and the Jack & Jill, Strictly, and Solo at Nocturne. Each yielded learning opportunities.

Nocturne: Strictly

I partnered with the lovely Tess Myers for the strictly competition. End result: making it to finals! We were thrilled about these results. Looking around at our peers in the finals, the vast majority were professional dance teachers. To be placed in the same category was a huge compliment.

We had a wonderful time dancing. The second spotlight was definitely our highlight; we caught the wonky horn call-and-response of "Jungle Blues" by Wynton Marsalis (around 2:50). We just went nuts. Surrendered to the song and gave it what we felt, not necessarily what we "should" do in a competition. It was such a fantastic time dancing together!

Sweet Mo & Nocturne: Jack & Jill

The results of this competition knocked me on my ass: I didn't make it into finals. While I never assume that I will get in, I couldn't help but be disappointed by the results -- disappointed in me. I can do better than that, I thought. 

I had long conversations about the outcome. People spoke of the mayhem and inaccuracy of tapout prelims, the lack of a causal relationship between competition performance and quality of dance or quality of teaching, the complexity and uncertainty about judging criteria for J&Js, the jumble of variables simply outside of your control as a competitor. I understand all of these intuitively. 

As a judge of many contests myself, I know the potential for a huge range in preferences among judges. Dance cannot be quantified for evaluation, no matter how much we talk of percentages and scoring categories. At the end of the day, it usually boils down to a gut reaction. That gut reaction is influenced by factors both concious and unconscious. Maybe the judge didn't happen to watch you carefully or catch you at good moments. Maybe what you were wearing struck a chord with them. Maybe they were inspired by your movement for inexplicable reasons.

I was reminded of all these points by the many kind friends that came to my aid, seeking to lift up a deflated ego. For some reason, their words were not resonating with me.

My first objection to their encouragement used for argument a theoretical dance competition involving Baryshnikov. Hands down one of the greatest dancers of all time. Not only is he a beautiful technical dancer, he also evokes a powerful emotional response. He creates Art effortlessly. While there would still be many variables outside his control (perhaps the judge is just tired of seeing the guy), he would do still well in this make-believe competition because he's just that damn good. (This is not to say that I compare myself to Baryshnikov; such would be an exercise in continual disappointment. However, it does say to me that while there are external variables, the ones you do control (namely, your self) can make a world of difference.)

Borrowing from statistics, let's pretend your scores are normally distributed. (It's a stretch given low N sample size, but bear with me.) Your mean score is something you have a good amount of control over. Much like Baryshnikov, you have influence over the outcome to a certain degree. This makes intuitive sense; if you are totally new to dance, your average score would be quite low, but would trend upwards with training. The external variables contribute to the deviation from the average. That deviation may mean you don't make the cut. However, what bothered me is not that I didn't make finals; I was upset because I felt my average was not as high as it should/could be.

While listening in on a lively discussion of competition among friends at Nocturne Blues, an insightful point was raised by Evan. As dancers, we all experience moments of brilliance, of Flow; those times when everything comes together: technique, creativity, and emotion. But they happen maybe 10-20% of the time for most of us. What separates an Amateur from a Pro (he was speaking from the perspective of a former Ballroom competitor, where they use those terms regularly) is that the Pros hit that flow 95% of the time. They find it through countless hours of practice, training, and competing. They gain control over what we attribute to the mysterious machinations of the universe. This argument made absolute sense to me. While there are all these variables "outside your control," you can manifest them to work for you through will, through achieving Flow, and that is something that you can control -- sort of. With a lot of practice.

It never was about the competition results, even though it took some digging to realize. Even if I had placed, I would have eventually come upon this point at the heart of my disappointment: I have not been training as much as I want or expect of myself. I have been teaching a tremendous amount, which has been wonderful practice, but my dance practice has slipped continually. 

It began once I left Stanford, once I left an environment where I was taking at least one dance class per quarter. While not Blues-focused, these classes would provide valuable cross-training experiences and grow my dance is other ways. After leaving, my training went on hiatus. I think I practiced an underwhelming total of three times while in New York. Six months of being a "full-time" dance teacher and I could count on one hand my number of training sessions. There were mitigating circumstances, a litany I recite to be gentle with myself. No longer a source of regret, I regard this time as a valuable learning experience, realizing the importance of using my time in rewarding endeavors. Since leaving New York, I have spent the past few months recuperating from life transitions and embarking on a journey of personal growth and improvement. Training in dance, unfortunately, did not make it onto the list of "Projects of Self."

So here I am: an international dance teacher with nine years of experience, unable to place into the Jack & Jill finals at two competitions in a row. What adds sting to that statement is the underlying knowledge that I have not been practicing, and I see that as manifesting in my competition performance. If I had been working my ass off and not placed, I would not be as disappointed; I know this to be true, for I have gone through that scenario before and came out the other end feeling good about myself. 

Fortunately, the universe is on my side and has already conspired to offer training times to me. This week, I travel to Austin, where I will spend 2.5 weeks with the inimitable Campbell in intensive training, teaching, and practicing. It will be a grand time. It's as if the universe set up these opportunities, then took a moment to show me why they are important. Thanks, Universe.

Nocturne: Solo Blues

Certainly the highlight of the Nocturne contests. The prelims were a hoot -- complete with an epic showdown between John Joven and me on the second song. But the finals. Oh man, the finals. 

There were two competition levels: masters and intermediate. The finalists from each category were divided into two mixed-level teams. We were given 50 minutes of preparation with the following instructions: come up with a team name, have at least 2 all-team choreography movements, and feature each individual at least once.

What came forth was a spectacular showing of solo dance and riffing. Both teams really brought the energy (with the great help of Gordon Webster and his band). People were fun loving and full-on. There were no stupid props, no aggressive-offs, no escalations of "I'm sexier than you." Instead, it was two teams playing off each other's ideas, interacting with each other, and making a damn good show of it. The crowd went nuts.

Three highlights for me: 1) pimp walking out with David straight at the judges, all of them wide-eyed and speechless, then throwing down a rather complex routine; 2) soloing while my teammates circled me, which morphed into both teams dancing around in a circle, people sometimes breaking out to solo; and 3) the joy of our lovely team dynamic, being the team captain, focusing on providing a space and guidance so we could all thrive and have a wonderful time. Being part of a team reduced the burden of responsibility on me to achieve the nomal goal of competitions -- to win (this is a social phenomenon known as social loafing -- which always conjurs images of baguettes hanging out together). It freed me to not worry about the results; I could focus on having fun, playing with others, and creating an entertaining and inspiring experience for the audience. 

I think it was the most fun I've ever had in a competition. Perhaps that is what the ideal mindset for a competition is, right? Something to ponder.

Competitions play an important role in elevating the quality of dance in our community. They are at times frustrating, painful, and confusing. But on the whole, I believe they yield great benefits. I keep on competing -- even when they crush my spirit and make me feel like a shitty dancer -- because I know at the other end of the phase will be valuable revelations and insights. The key is to keep reflecting upon and learning from it. If you go in and the only feedback taken is your placement (or not) in the contest, you have missed the point and wasted a huge opportunity for growth.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

An answer to my email prayers.

Oh, Boomerang...

How have I not discovered you before? I am so passionate about productivity hacks, yet you have eluded me for over a year!

Boomerang offers many neat features:
  • Schedule emails to be sent later (no more emails to a prospective employer revealing that I was doing emails at 3am!)
  • Mark a message to return to your inbox later
  • Write reminders to yourself to appear at a particular time
  • Request read receipts
And my personal favorite...
  • Remind you to follow up if they don't respond
This last feature is huge for me. Sending reminders is nothing special if you have a decent task management system, but the followup tracker is perfect and simple.

 I have long used OmniFocus to track emails to followup. You just never know when that message will fall through the cracks for someone else; when you're on top of the ball (even when that ball is in their court), it looks good and often saves you from firefighting later on. If you ever do management, this tool is a godsend. If you ever need something done and don't want to waste mental energy remembering to check on whether it's done, this tool will free your mind.

The flow to track emails in OmniFocus was never very good. While I could tie the OF reminder to my email, I could not tie my email to the OF reminder. So if the person was on top of their game and did respond in a timely fashion, I might forget to delete the OF reminder. How often I would receive a followup reminder a couple days after they had already replied, and I would waste time figuring out if a followup was actually necessary. Further, while the flow was streamlined, it did require an extra 30 seconds of setup, so I was not consistent about creating reminders.

I had been thinking about writing a browser extension to fix this problem. It would have waited a year or so while I continued to learn the fundamentals of programming and API. Then a simple blog post on Toggl clued me into Boomerang.

Now it all lives in my Gmail inbox. AMAZING. You can get a followup reminder if there's no reply, if it's not clicked, if it's not opened, or regardless. A simple checkbox and you're done.

Get it. Do it now. You will be so much happier that you did.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A rare species of bird discovered.

Mom asked us put out a bird feeder a few days ago. We provided an excellent setup: suspended between the house and a grove of trees, positioned just outside the breakfast table window, and rigged with a system of pulleys to easily raise and lower for restocking of seeds. For the first couple days, it did not attract any bird traffic.

This morning, everything changed: we were treated to sighting a rare, flightless bird.

The black bear; a male juvenile.

My dad spotted it first. He was grabbing a sugar for his coffee; it took him a while to look up and notice the bear. I was roused from bed with calls of "THERE'S A BEAR IN THE BACKYARD," accompanied by frenzied barking from Reka. She has a bark reserved for when she feels really threatened or senses danger: it's throatier, more urgent, and louder. She was using that bark right now.

Alfred (I named him Alfred) peeked into the windows, curious what the fuss was all about.

"Hey guys, what's up?"

After establishing that he was not about to be chased off, Alfred hopped up on his hind legs and took hold of the feeder in his paws, pulling it down to the ground.

This one was only a child, but clocked in at around 300 pounds by my estimation. A clawed, heavyweight creature standing up at 7 feet tall is an awesome sight. It's bizarrely human-like in that moment.

My dad caught a video of him going to town on the feeder. He would sit on his haunches, sometimes with legs splayed out in front of him, nose burrowed under the little metal roof. Once with a mouthful of seeds, he would draw out his head and munch away, letting his gaze wander. He seemed so at ease, sitting there, utterly unphased by the frantic and aggressive vocalizations from the dog.

No amount of shouting, barking, or clapping of pans could deter him. Eventually my mom resigned herself to the gradual dismantling of her beloved bird feeder (which was, by definition, a bear feeder, having never served any birds) and returned to preparing her breakfast.

An odd truce was struck between the two breakfasting individuals.

All we could do was wait. He left once the feeder was completely emptied. 

We learned later that everyone at Bear Lake does not bother with a bird feeder while the bears are active. If you put it out, they will figure out a way to knock it down. Put it up a tree? They'll climb it. Up a steel pole? They'll keep slamming it to knock it down. They will dismantle any protection scheme with brute force and patience.

The tag on each ear signified two strikes against Alfred; twice already he had run into trouble with the human population. He was a city bear that had been relocated up in the mountains. A third strike and he will be put down. My mom, taking an eventual liking to Alfred, did not file any official complaint.

Perhaps hard to believe, but it was my first time seeing a bear at Bear Lake, and certainly the first time being so close to one. Despite the namesake, Bear Lake does not have a particularly high concentration of bear sightings / incidents. Most of the bear population is wild and steers clear of any human areas.

Not a bad way to start off the day. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

On hard work and the decomposition of trees.

One of the key aspects of life at Bear Lake is hard work. Perhaps unexpected, given that it's supposed to be a vacation. There is the hard reality of living in a house that sees people 2-3 times per year: there is just a lot of maintenance work to be done. The second is that work is part of feeling fulfilled as human beings. You get hooked on the rewards of manual labor. You get to tangibly improve your living space. See it right there. Falling soundly asleep after a long day of hard work is so satisfying. Today was one of those days.

The project: clear the large wood pile currently rotting near the house.

The task: move all that wood to a burn pile ~50 yards away using your hands and a small hauler. I started off running solo.

The process: drive tractor up to wood pile, load logs of 10-50 lbs each into trailer with hands, drive to burn pile, unload trailer with hands, repeat. Repeat and repeat and repeat until you're so tired you can't hold a full-fledged thought in your head.

Working gloves proved the most critical piece of equipment. The wood pile varied in stages of decomposition; almost all of them crumbled when grabbed. As my fingers sank repeatedly into mushy, moldy lumber, the only thought on my mind was, "Thank god I'm not actually touching this stuff."

I uncovered an ecosystem that exists on decaying trees. Ants build nests underneath the bark in the area hollowed out by termites. Salamanders colored brown with a bright orange streak (blending quite well with rotting wood) patrol the surface in search of the many ants, termites, and other insects that take up residence. Fungi of many different varieties and colors set up shop. Centipedes skitter about, likely on the same mission as the salamanders.

In a place of death and decay, there is a remarkable amount of life.

The most notable of the fungi was this collection of pink molds.

I took to wearing a ventilation mask on account of the molds. With so much of it probably going airborne as I tossed logs into the trailer, I breathed a little easier knowing none would give me some crazy respiratory symptoms.

The heat and humidity was relentless. It isn't nearly as bad up in these wooded lands of the Pocono Mountains, but it gets plenty hot just the same. About an hour into the project, I was thoroughly soaked and peppered with wood scraps. Donned in shorts, sandals, gloves, ventilator mask, and nothing else (except for the sweat glistening on my skin), I was probably a bizarre sight to behold.

The lower back aches, even with proper core engagement and lifting technique. My wrists and hands complain about repeatedly grabbing objects at odd angles and hoisting them. Knees and legs begin to tire. It becomes a challenge to keep the inspiration, stoke the fire that drove you to attack the task with such gusto at the beginning. Learning how to keep up with labor over the long haul is a unique challenge.

Lunch and an afternoon siesta offers a valuable respite to keep energized.

My day was peppered with exciting moments to spice up the day. While tossing yet another huge log onto the brush pile, I caught a glimpse of a translucent body partially hidden underneath some rotting wood. Upon further investigation, I revealed the largest grub I have ever seen.

It was as big as my thumb.

This sucker is the Jabba The Hut of the grub world. I imagine little grublings bringing offerings of chewed wood fiber (or whatever the hell they eat) in exchange for the right to exist on that log. Jabba was quite adept at burrowing. I had to keep coaxing it out with a stick -- no way I was going to touch it with my finger -- for the photo op. It would quickly turn its head down and worm its way through the soft wood, the little mandibles at its mouth constantly working. The body beneath the thin outer skin would slide forward and backward as it worked its way in.

I will admit: I did squeal like a little boy when I found it. There was a certain fascination about this gross critter.

Intellectually, I know that fallen trees eventually decompose to become part of the forest floor. But there is no substitute for seeing it in action. I was shoveling what amounted to organic mulch. The wood really does turn to dirt. It is SO AMAZING. Its soft, reddish, and moist.

After about 5 hours of strenuous work, it was time to call it quits on hauling the wood pile -- because the tractor ran out of gas. But our work was not yet finished. My dad and I broke out the chainsaw to hack up a rather large fallen tree next to the wood pile that also needed to be cleared. More bending over and heavy lifting.

Rough, dirty days like these are best concluded by a trip to the lake. Caked with mud, sweat, sunscreen, wood chips, and squashed mosquitoes, there is nothing quite like diving into the pristine waters of the lake. My dad describes it as a "baptismal experience." It is a gratifying moment, washing yourself clean of the day. It is now time to reset, to exit work mode, to sit back and revel in what you've accomplished. Your relaxation is deep, rewarding, and earned. Your muscles ache, but you get to rest -- good job.

*  *  *

Forgoing my Ashtanga yoga practice for the day (having concluded that morning practice before breakfast is the most sensible), I am enjoying a calm evening on the porch, writing about the day and sipping at a glass of incredibly delicious whisky brought back from the UK. The porch is screened in, so the cool night air can be experienced without the obligatory swarm of mosquitoes and other insects. Bird calls dominate the auditory landscape while the sun is setting, drowned out occasionally by the rushing of wind through the trees. As night falls, the chirping of crickets and other forest critters take over. Reka, our family dog, barks at who-knows-what from inside, dutifully alerting everyone in the house that, indeed, there are other creatures outside in the darkness.

The light fades from the sky, casting trees in negative space. Lightning bugs flash their intermittent, luminescent signals, communicating in some primitive argo. It is only 9:30pm, but I am ready for bed. Tomorrow's sun will bring a new day of hard, rewarding work.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Italiano Classico.

[Posted 2013-06-19, backdated 2013-06-14. There's one more entry that will be posted about Rome from before I left to Florence, so this is now coming out of order...]

I had an unexpected visitor join me for adventures in Florence. Unexpected in the sense that plans were made to meet only 24 hours beforehand. Such are the joys of travel: you can never know what comes around the bend. It precipitated from the best of intentions: a desire for adventure and opportunity to connect with another human being, to learn and to share, to break the rules and be spontaneous, to live in the moment.

No sense in trying to read a map; let life take you where it will.
Much of the day was spent wandering the city of Florence. This has become my modus operandi. It feels good on the body, you see many different aspects of a town, and you are always pleasantly surprised with every new turn in the road. The key is to only have a general sense of your location. If necessary you can return to a major landmark (e.g. the river) to get your bearings. Carry a map, have a general sense of where green spaces (parks) are located, and just start walking. I think I consulted the map only when it was time to actually return home at 11pm. Otherwise you go with the gut. 

Our first stop was the park area to the west, near the Ippodrome. Sitting, talking, observing the habits of insects exploring the woodland floor. Nothing spectacular, but definitely fun.

We eventually crossed the river and began to ascent a long, winding hill via a narrow street.

The main reason was to get away from the car and scooter-choked streets of the city. I seriously believe that driving around is a national Italian pastime. It's the only way to explain the absurd number of vehicles constantly occupying the road, spewing fumes and making a tremendous racket.

As with most spontaneous decisions of this trip, this one turned out quite nicely. For a long while we ascended, passing beautiful and large Tuscan homes. Many harbored orchards within the confines of tall concrete walls. I was seriously tempted to jump one and hang out beneath the boughs of an olive tree.

Eventually we came upon a cute little park with an impressive view of the city below.

We chatted more, ate a lunch of various fruits, and lounged about. The air was warm with a soft breeze, absolutely perfect in the shade of trees. Wrapped in a blanket of the perfect temperature, naps were inevitable. Such a leisurely way to spend the height of the day.

Eventually the ever-continuing road called to us. More houses of classic Italian appearance and expansive views of the city. 

Without intending to do so, we found ourselves at the foot of the statue of David. (As it turns out, the one outside is a replica, but it's still quite stirring.)

We attempted to go to Zeb, a restaurant recommended by my fried Kayce, but they were booked until 9:30pm. Presently famished from many hours of walking, we sought sustenance elsewhere. 

As with most treasures, this one presented itself to us. We walked up a small road, one that did not look promising, and found La Beppa Fioriana. Outdoor seating surrounded by windflowers, mood lights, and a castle turret at the top of a hill. Delicious Italian food that had me wiggling with delight.

First: fried dumplings with the most succulent prosciutto I've ever had, plus stacchino cheese. Mind-blowing chianti Classico that would go for twice the listed price in the US.

Second: homemade gnocchi with pumpkin seeds, pesto, almonds, and ricotta cheese. Also, risotto with creme drizzled with herbs and strawberry and mint sauce.

As the evening wore into night, we were surrounded by conversations in multiple languages. A huge family gathering was taking place in a private room. They laughed and cheered and sang songs. The children (probably 20 of them) ran about and played outside, obviously unable to tolerate the slow pace of these meals. It was so beautiful, so classically Italian. I was grateful for this experience which was so obviously a gift from the universe, and for the company to share it with. A perfect conclusion to a day in Firenze; not necessary to make it a good day, but it finished it off quite nicely. Or, as they say, it was "the dot on the i."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


[Posted 2013-06-19, backdated 2013-06-11. I have SO MANY POST that I have not been able to load due to insufficient Wi-Fi access...]

(I have something like a soundtrack to this blog post. Feel free to listen, I'll refer to it later. Good mood music for today's entry.)

I am off to see the Vatican today. Not exactly sure where I will go (the museum? St. Peter's? Who knows). 

Started off the day right with a visit to the local markets. Picked up white pizza and way too much fruit. The lady at the counter was very sweet and kept offering me samples. She has known my host for 20 years. 

Today I travel without my laptop. I feel naked without it. What will I do if I get tired and want to dink around on the Internet? No worries, life will go on and something will work out. 

The flow of traffic from the metro stop led me to St. Peter's Basilica, so I guess that is where I will be exploring.

I just can't get over how blue the sky is here… 

Entry to the basilica took about 30 minutes. No problem, I had my fine book of short fiction (Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2009) to keep me company. Definitely worth the wait: the interior was simply breathtaking.

There were far too many classical sculptures to capture them all. Instead, I tried to pick out some that really spoke to me.

This is a famous sculpture by Michaelangelo depicting Jesus and Mary, completed when he was 24 or so. One person commented in a thick Southern accent, "If he could finish that one by 24, I bet he had time to do ALL the sculptures in this place." The banal comment did not evoke a response from his wife and two daughters. I can be so entertained by the bizarre, stilted dialogues filled with dead-ends among families.

I had moments that tickled me. The first: even their speaker system comes with a marble paint job.

The second: apparently Gregorious the 14th was invisible.

The 3rd: all the cute flags that tour guides would carry. They bobbed and swayed above the crowd like pixies. This was my favorite.

While it may seem the church was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with sweaty tourists, it generally was not that bad. Apart from the occasional wade through an amorphous, ambling tourist group blob, I had enough personal space to feel comfortable and absorb the sights at my leisure. Watching the groups from the outside, I thanked myself for not signing up for a tour. Artist Andrew was most pleased.

Next it was off to the beautiful dome by way of 550 steps. Waving off the obligatory warnings about the infirm attempting such a feat, I began to ascend the steps. The first half of the path was mostly free of humans, giving me ample time to lose myself in the repetition. Step up, walk, walk, step up, walk, walk, step up… It went on for at least ten minutes. I was comforted by this spanse of time alone. In the second half I reached a bottleneck, which is to be expected given that there is very limited space at the top of the dome. Getting there got rather interesting.

The view from the summit, much like the process of getting there, was breathtaking.

I was disappointed to find an ample quantity of inane graffiti. What compels us to permanently record our names, inscribed in a heart, to prounounce to all the world of two anonymous lovers (who will statistically be likely to break up one day) will always baffle me. Particularly in a sacred place like this. It doesn't take being religious to have some respect.

Damn kids… My intolerance for their immaturity has amplified in the past couple weeks. I have encountered way too many groups of high school students who clearly don't want to be where they are and pass the experience by ruining it for the rest of us. (I'm exaggerating, of course -- I don't let them get under my skin too much. But I do go out of my way to avoid them.)

After the basilica and my tasty packed lunch enjoyed on the shaded riverfront, I made my way into the heart of south-central Rome, the home of way too many churches. 

Some had utterly unremarkable exteriors that did not reflect the treasures inside.

Most of them were densely adorned. The highlight was finding a tour group of priests. They even had the typical radio transmitters with earbuds for each member so the leader would not have to speak loudly. It never occurred to me that even priests would want to get together for a tour.

After a spontaneous bus ride (with everyone squished in so tightly you could probably relax your legs and not fall down), I worked my way along the crowded, sun-scorched streets to the Pantheon. 

Inside, I was treated to a rare surprise. Choirs from all over Europe were doing a special performance inside the Pantheon. I sat there for nearly an hour. The music I linked to at the top of the post is my poor-man's job at recording it. Everyone was beautifully dressed. Halfway through the hour, a man came out and proposed to one of the performers. There was much cheering and a lot of tears.

I was deeply moved by this time spent in the Pantheon. It was bordering on a religious experience -- the angelic voices, the unusual acoustics, the dramatic setting. I felt my spirit lifted into the sky at times, ascending through the opening in the ceiling.

I left the Pantheon shortly before the conclusion of the event, staggered by the emotional and spiritual experience. What could I possibly do next to let me down gently, return me to the land of reality, the land of Rome? The answer, of course, was gelato.

Among the many dates I will be taking myself on during the course of the week, I have committed to eating gelato at least once a day. I even accounted for it in my budget.

During my many travels on the streets of Rome, I was often treated to the delicate and warming fragrance of jasmine in full bloom. It is one of my two favorite scents (the other one being wisteria), and it gave me such pleasure every time I walked by a walk shrouded in its vines.

Reflecting upon the day, it is hard to believe I ever worried about being bored without my computer. It will take some getting used to being out and about from 8am to 7pm each day, doing sightseeing and adventures with no opportunity for a return to home base. As it happened, I had to force myself to return by 7:30pm, not wanting to be late for dinner. There was still so much to be seen, but tomorrow was yet a new day.

That night, it was time to change locations yet again. I am next off to stay with a CouchSurfing host -- the only one I successfully found for my 10 day stay in Italy. I say goodbye to Bob and his wonderful family. Thank you for all the food, the stories, the music, and the perfectly warm welcome to Roma. (And thank you to Karissa, whom introduced me to this kind and faceted gentleman.)