Suspending Judgement 

Chantilly, France

About 17 years ago, when I worked as a programmer for a software company in Ann Arbor Michigan I took the Myers Briggs test which was offered by the company. It was offered as a way of helping employees understand how they relate to their coworkers. I think the idea was to help emplyees understand that there are fundamental characteristics of one's personality which can determine how well one relates, interacts, and gets along with other people. Certain personality types work well together. Between others, there could be certain barriers which, when understood, can be overcome.

Without getting into the details of this test, I guess the most understandable part about it is its characerization of people as either introverted or extroverted. I tested strongly introverted which was no surprise to me. Although I enjoy being around friends and trusted acquaintances, I am at times able to tolerate being alone quite well. I'm often surprised that others who I would characterize as having introverted characteristics really hesitate to describe themselves as such. Perhaps its because they associate introvertedness with anti-socialness. I think one very helpful aspect of the test is its clarification that introverted does not mean anti-social. As was explained to the test takers at the time, it is often impossible to superficially distinguish introverts from extroverts. They both attend parties. It's just that when the party is over, the introverts go home and the extroverts go on to the next party.

Another measurement of Myers/Briggs is the Judging/Perceiving "dichotomy". This concept is a little more difficult to understand. I remember testing high on the judging side. I also remember being told that a high judging score does not mean that one is judgemental. But the memory of this test score remains with me today.

A less helpful aspect of the test was the fact that (and this may have no link to Myers/Briggs itself) we were given an indication of which personality types performed better in different roles. I remember that my personality type did not come out favorably in the management role which I found to be somewhat discouraging as it ran counter to my ambition to take on leadership roles within an organization. In this case I found the use of the test to come dangerously close to stereotyping and I didn't like the way that it could be used with the effect of possibly discouraging people to take certain career paths. Am I / was I being overly defensive? I still think that the idea is at least controversial.

I scored high on the judgement/perceiving dichotomy. So am I overly judgemental? Even if it is unrelated to Myers/Briggs, I have a suspicion that I can at times be overly judgemental and that when this happens it distorts my world view. I think that being overjudgemental/critical results in a lot of personal dissatisfaction and unhappiness. When I am overly judgemental, I sometimes justify it by describing myself as dedicated to excellence, or as someone who has high standards. I imagine that for those around me, I come off as being arrogant and close minded.

But as for my adult life, I would also characterize myself as someone who enjoys (selectively) seeking out new experiences and reflecting on cross cultural understanding has long been a hobby of mine. Pursuing this subject has allowed me to gain a perspective on my judgementalness. I remember reading a book on cross cultural experiences many years ago in which it was advised that the best way to avoid culture shock and adapt to a new cultural environment was to suspend judgement. This advice has stayed with me over the years and I think it has served me well. I have certainly obtained an enormous amount of personal satisfication in having successfuly lived by this rule in my life outside of the U.S.

Upon reflecting on my experiences in living and working in a foreign culture, there have been numerous times in which I used old habits and ways of thinking from my own native culture to try and interpret the meaning of events happening around me, and most often I was wrong in my interpretation. I have since learned to mistrust my first reaction to interpreting the messages I receive from people and events and to live with a certain ambiguity when understanding what is happening around me. I have also learned to better accept unexpected reactions or behavior from people without taking it personally. What a blessing this international experience has been as it has allowed me to look much more positively at the world around me.

And yet, I have not been able to transfer this experience in an enduring way to life in my own culture. When I return to the U.S. it is too easy after a certain time to fall back into old habits and to reenter a persona of "closed mindedness".

Generally, I think that Western Society values the part that critical thinking plays in society and views scepticism as healthy. I guess I would agree with this, but up until what point? I think this is one of life's questions for which there is no clear answer. Judgementalness is good in some cases and bad in others. Maybe the most important point has to do with the way we judge people and the way we respect or disrespect them. But that is a topic for another day.


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An Artist never Creates in Isolation 

Chantilly, France

I visited the exhibit "Picasso et les Maitres" today at the Grand Palais in the center of Paris. The exhibit is explained as "210 works from the world's leading collections illustrate the inspiration Picasso drew from the great masters." The reserved tickets are sold out months in advance and if you don't have a reservation, you can stand in line for hours to get in. It can therefore be described as a real "event".

The exhibit juxtaposes a selection of Picasso's works with works from other painters which served as the inspiration for Picasso's art. I did find it very interesting. It provides a perspective on an artist and his inspiration which one rarely finds in a museum.

It's very easy when one visits a museum to look at each work in isolation. The visitor rarely has any insight into the context in which the work was created. This you have to find in the art history books, but I think it's fair to say that few people take the time to do any research before visiting a museum.

I came away from this exhibit with the impression that the development of an artist is very complicated. An artist is very much a product of his environment, his associations with other artists, and the past.

Take Van Gogh for example. In the television series on art history developed by Simon Schama, it is clear that Van Gogh was also very much influenced by the history of art and by other contemporary artists - although he started to paint very late in life and his style was quite distinct from anything that had been done before.

What does this say about originality? Can any art be said to be truly original, if it is in part derived from the past and borrowed from the present?

Is it then just not possible to become an artist from one day to the next? I wonder if there are any cases of a successful artist developing in relative isolation, creating works completely without influence from art and artists of the past and present?
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Why Living in the Occident? 

Chantilly, France

So why did I call my blog "Living in the Occident"?

By Occident I mean living in the Western Culture. I guess I could have called my blog "Living in France" which is where I live now but I wanted the scope of my blog to be larger than that. The name of my blog reflects my approach to living in Europe.

Although some may find it difficult to live outside the country they were born and raised in, I feel as comfortable living abroad as I would in my home country, and sometimes even more comfortable. And I think it is because I focus on the similarities and not the differences. My home country and my resident country are both a part of Western Culture. And so I find enough similarity between them that the behaviors and events I experience day to day outside of my home country no longer seem foreign. It is easy for me to see the connection between what I see and experience in France, and what I would see and experience in my native country.

The Western countries are linked by a common set of values. Although there are differences between them, I would argue that those differences are very much insignificant in comparison to their similarities. To be sure, language is a devisive element within the West and much cause for misunderstanding. So is history, with the long legacy of war between the Western nations. But once the language barrier is overcome, stereotypes begin to melt away and the memory of war and conflict begins to fade and what is essential in all of us is what remains. The challenges that each Western country faces, are similar in nature.

Take, for example, immigration. The U.S. faces a challenge of immigration from the poor southern countries of the Western hemisphere, (even if they themselves can be counted among the Western block of nations.) Europe is faced with a challenge of immigration from Islamic countries (Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) and Sub-Saharan countries.

I think that in the future, it will become more and more important for the Western countries to work together to promote their values in the context of a world becomming increasingly influenced by powers outside of the Western sphere. And in the future, as cultures from outside of the West mix with the western cultures due to immigration, it is necessary for the Western countries to define what it really means to be a citizen. Is it a matter of origins, or commonly held values? All western countries struggle today with this issue. Do we as a whole spend more money trying to keep immigrants out, then we do trying to promote Western values to those who have made it in?

Let's face it, the demographics of our republics and democracies are changing. In a few decades the White/Christian makeup will probably become a minority. In North American, the Anglo-Saxon legacy may cease to dominate. But there is no reason why Western values need be under threat, if an effort is made to educate all in the importance of those values. The most important values are those that are enshrined in our constitutions and in our bills of rights.

One of the objectives of this blog is to identify what those values are and how are they manifested in our everyday world. And how did these values develop over centuries of Western history?
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Dahab Retrospective 

Chantilly, France

While I was on vacation, the world wide economic slowdown continued to deepen. Returning from vacation was not easy. I don't know what had the most impact - the muscle pains from all of that physical activity that I was able to stave off in Egypt but upon returning came back with a vengeance, the continuing bad economic news, the noticeably shortened daylight period, or continuing to feel not completly satisfied with how things are going at work.

On the last full day of my vacation in Dahab, I woke up tired - not feeling strong. I guess it's to be expected, windsurfing is a physically demanding sport, especially when learning. I didn't end up mastering the water start but I did succeed in proving that I could still get on the board and control the sail, even after seven years.

On the day of my return I was scheduled to leave the hotel at noon. I spent the morning hours enjoying the last hours of warm sunshine and thinking about the trip.

I like the fact that I spent my vacation time working on a goal. The concept of productivity is important to me, even while on vacation (which I know is quite different from other people). Without some kind of goal, or structure, I do get bored easily and I start to feel uneasy.

It was a vacation that revolved, for the most part, around the wind. It's a concept not unfamiliar to me as my vacations to Safaga, Corsica, and Malta were also wind influenced to some extent. Wind, even in this day and age when much of nature is dominated by man, is still something beyond his control. At times it's not there when you want it, at others there's too much of it, and at still other times the situation changes rapidly and brutally between the two extremes. It requires a certain mindset to deal with it. And having an alternative activity to fall back on when the wind is not cooperating is always in order.

I find the combination of snorkeling and windsurfing to be ideal. When the conditions are bad for one, they are generally good for the other. I use one to "hedge" against the other.

In the complete absence of wind, one needs to remain philosophical. When the wind comes in gusts, the ability to anticipate and adjust the sail so one doesn't fly over with it is key. Working with wind is a good lesson in adaptability. A windsurfer needs to adapt to the wind and work with the prevailing conditions.

I still need to work on my water start. I didn't really make it onto the board yet. The water start is difficult because there are so many variables that need to be aligned in order to pull it off and such limited means to control them. There's the direction the board is pointing in, there's the angle you hold the sail at, where you put your first (back) foot on the board, where you position yourself after placing your feet, how you lift the sail, and how strong the wind is. All of the variables need to be in equilibrium for the manoeuver to work!

I'm searching for a way that I can break up the manoeuver into smaller, more manageable parts. For example, as a start, could one just practice laying low in the water and using the sail to keep the nose of the board in the right direction? What did I do right? In shallow water I was able to get the starting position correct which is in itself, not that easy.

My problem seems to come where I position myself after putting my back feet on the board, and how I lift the sail afterwards. I don't pivot my front arm up enough. And I'm not far enough forward when I try lifting the sail. I also get excited and impatient when I begin windsurfing. But often, patience and level headedness are needed to practice and understand the lessons as well as time and endurance. Having crowds of windsurfers around doesn't help either because one is always tempted to compare oneself with them.

Windsurfing is a sport with so many aspects that it's open to many different teaching approaches. I sometimes don't get the feeling that all the people involved in teaching the sport (authors and instructors) agree on which skill or skills need to be mastered in order to move on to the next level. Is there a clear progression defined? Is there a clear method? A really excellent instructor, in my opinion, would be able to cut through some of the anticipation and insecurities I mentioned above and keep the students on the right track, focused and free from distractions.

I think it's also not so easy to learn in such a course. In this case you are mostly learning by observing and trying to imitate what the instructor is showing you. The approach can sometimes lose its structure. Maybe there was a problem with language. Maybe larger, heavier people need more practice and coaching to get the water start to work.

Windsurfing lessons are good when you are on a solo vacation because it provides structure to the vacation. The problem sometimes lies in the fact that it is not scheduled at the same time every day and you only know at which time it's scheduled at 09:00 a.m. the day of the lesson. This makes it difficult to plan other activities. (The divers usually depart at 09:00 for the day). The other activities need to be very flexible time wise to fit the variability in the lesson scheduling which may be due to anticipated wind conditions.

All in all, five days in the water on the board out of seven is enough. Any more and I would be too tired to continue. The weight lifting I did before coming did seem to help. I think I would have been even more tired and less able to recover after each day if I hadn't lifted weights. Mastering the water start will have to wait for another time, but I was able to recall the harnass skills, and get the tack in order on a bigger board. The last day I was recalling how to do the flare gybe. What I noticed at Dahab is that the old are surfing next to the young, the fat next to the thin, the tall next to the short. So there is no excuse to to continue windsurfing as far as age, stature, and weight are concerned.

What I might do differently next time would be to call the surf center in advance to know more about how their course offerings are organized, for example what's included in a beginner / advanced beginner or intermediate course. I also need to focus more on some of the basics like always holding the rig by the mast and recalling the tack and the gybe. At first I was trying to balance the sail on my head in preparation for the beach start which was completely wrong.


(Dahab Coast Line)

My vacation was also a success simply by the fact that I was able to change my routine, if only for a week. Even if I didn't experience any particular epiphany about my work in France there, perhaps still there are comparisons to be made between approaching the wind, and approaching this ever worsening economic slowdown. Like the wind, it's beyond my power to change and the best solution may be just to try to adapt to it. Look out for the gusts and the lulls and try to adjust the sail accordingly.
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Dahab - Day 5 

Dahab, Egypt

My windsurfing lesson was at 11:30 today. There was a stiff breeze blowing. I used a size 180 board and a size 5.4 sail. I was continuing working on the water start with some progress to be made before having some success. Dahab is a very popular place for windsurfing and today there were many people out taking advantage of the good wind. The large numbers lead to some congestion at the location used for lessons and where sailors start off. There were many people walking their boards upwind. The more advanced sailors use boards without a dagger board in order to get the most speed out of the wind. However, it means they also have difficulty sailing upwind and find themselves having to adjust their position by walking their boards. The congestion is a little unnerving for learners trying to avoid a collision.

In the afternoon I was planning to snorkel at a location called Napoleon reef but as it faces the open sea and the wind was still blowing hard, I decided not to risk being blown out to sea. I stayed in a more sheltered area but which had more mediocre coral. But I did see some new and even impressive new animal life.

1) Giant Moray (Gymnothorax javanicus) - a real monster, I was surprised to find it in this mediocre section of reef.
2) Redtooth triggerfish (Odonus niger)
3) Another scorpionfish - a bit bigger than the one I saw two days ago.
4) Blackside hawkfish (Paracirrhites forsteri)
5) Either a Striped Blanquillo (Malacanthus latovittatus) or a Cigar Wrasse (Cheilio inermis)
6) Either a Black Damselfish (Stegastes nigricans) or possibly a Royal Damselfish (Paraglyphidodon melas) - remarkable blue edge on fins.
7) Jewel Damselfish (Plectroglyphidodon lacrymatus) remarkable blue dots.
8) Bluethroat Triggerfish (Sufflamen albicaudatus)
9) Sand dollar (Clypeaster humilis)
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