Ornament of the World

Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 2002. 315.

Harold Bloom’s foreword characterizes the book as “poignant” but also “to some degree…an idealization.” Menocal portrays how three Abrahamic religions shared lives, cultures, and sovereignties across the Iberian Peninsula between 711 and 1605 AD, with an epilogue nostalgically recalling convivencia – ergo Bloom’s conclusion. Her version of the region’s complex history uses stories of people who drastically shaped the written and spoken language, visual arts, scientific or philosophic knowledge, architecture, and clothing of the Iberian Peninsula. While Menocal doesn’t include Portugal’s shared linguistic and cultural history, she briefly explores a few relevant European religio-philosophic movements. Because she draws her biographic snapshots mainly from academic study, the author provides primary source citations and further reading opportunities. While historical context is sprinkled about, readers draw a conclusion mainly of wonderment at fluidity of culture, privilege, and approval across the peninsula for this historical period.

Menocal’s storytelling is approachable and appealing, using primary sources and a deep knowledge of the time periods to spin works of vitriol toward a value of multicultural convivencia. The author celebrates members of a minority religion or culture who succeed within the majority culture, such as Samuel the Nagid, a Jewish vizier, or Bishop Racemundo of Elvira, a Christian diplomat. Similarly, she celebrates Petrus Alvarus and Judah Halevi for producing works that, while being violently Islamophobic, indicate a profound understanding of Islam and the Islamic/Arabic culture of al-Andalus. Most of the way through the book, I understood that the author is saddened by the loss of convivencia or a distinctly multicultural society such as al-Andalus. She seems also to romanticize the poetry written in Arabic and Hebrew from the Islamic period of Spain, and to an extent modern Arabic and Hebrew poetry, for providing a subtle path to reviving the convivencia of al-Andalus. I will use this book to further my reading, and have followed Menocal’s name to another book from my local library.

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Friendly Commute Map!

Another update on the idea that our commutes should be pleasant and safe:

A bike shop owner told me today about Cyclopath. This is an open source project based in the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities that provides bikers/non-car travelers alternative routes. The project uses a Geowiki platform, and users can input information as they experience it on the ground; the website will incorporate that information rapidly for other users’ benefit. When I explored it a tiny bit this evening, I found the map portion malfunctioning, but I was told that the website is extremely useful. There are options to explore established routes, or plan a trek along the fastest or friendliest routes or use established paths in the commute. I’ll look into the website another day to explore how to change up my established paths.

What are your regions’ alternatives to common mapping apps like Google Maps? What resources in your communities could you tap to learn of alternative routes?

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Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert’s newest book Big Magic has an interesting premise. Gilbert uses the book as part love letter to creativity, part self-help book for creative endeavors, and part invitation to readers to live a creative life. She posits (without scientific tests, evidence, or studies, mind you) the existence of supernatural entities that bring inspiration, creative genius, and new ideas into and out of our lives. Although I am skeptical of several ideas in the book, I do identify with her overarching entreaty: create not for others but for yourself.

I didn’t wholly agree with Gilbert until I thought about this blog. Using views as quantitative evidence of “success”, this blog isn’t successful. It’s not widely read – I average 3 views per day when I post, and I post infrequently. Late last year, however, I wrote and posted a letter to a friend’s family after he died, using this medium to share with the people he left behind what he meant to me. The twenty-four hour period after I posted registered nearly two hundred views! When I wrote the post about Scott, I wrote to process grief and share with his family. I created it for my own use, and it was the most “successful” post on my blog.

Gilbert writes that if we create for ourselves, we will enjoy our lives more regardless of others’ opinions. She posits that if we are lucky enough to have our creative outputs recognized, what we create for ourselves will register among outsiders more positively because we, the creators, are authentic to ourselves. For the most part, I use the blog to engage other media and authors in conversation and to practice writing skills from college – not overtly personal creations. I chose to post about Scott in this blog on a whim, and the post was far more personal than I usually allow. That post was created for me, and I was rewarded for that effort. Yet the reward means little, as that post allowed me to share grief with a friend’s family.

I experience the power of creating for me. I entreat you – create something for yourself! (Creativity is possible outside of the traditional “arts”, remember.) How will you use creativity in your life?

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Updates on Posts

Looking back at last year’s posts, I have a couple of updates providing continued conversation with certain topics.

Regarding “Shifting Attitudes Toward Business” and “Black Friday”: This week I started working as a mechanic for the Upper Midwest’s largest bike shop company. Throughout the hiring process, my two weeks of training, and my first shift, I conclude that my current company – a multi-state corporation – is the kind of business balancing valuing profit with caring for employees. My managers actively maintain social relationships with their employees, implicitly endorsing a work-life balance. The employees express pleasure in being at work and spend time together outside of work. I haven’t heard anything about profit targets, yet my first shift included my first “performance target”: a task or challenge to better myself. The company has invested heavily in me through online lessons and practicum training, all of which comes with a training bonus. In other words, my current employer, capitalist though it may be, expresses alternative attitudes toward business.

Regarding “A New Commute”:  I also work for Outward Bound during the warmer months. I dislike my commute to my base, the commute I proposed to change in the linked post. Well, I will have to change my route to work later this year, as my base moves to a new location! The quickest route to the new location automatically runs through the largest park in my neighborhood – the path winds around a lake, is bordered by flowering trees and shrubs, and passes by a waterfall and beautiful old buildings. I am very excited about my new commute!

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A New Commute


My first experience living in a large city happened in Alexandria, Egypt, where I learned how to commute between apartment and university. I had transportation options other than the hour of walking: taxis, micros, and the iconic Alexandrian tram. After a while of living in Egypt, a couple friends and I established a pattern. We took a taxi each morning to school, allowing for everyone to sleep a little longer, but we went separate ways in the afternoons. Sometimes I took the tram, but the cars were packed with people and loud conversations. Like Daniele Querca, my commute bothered me enough that I began using a different route. I walked along the seafront highway, ducking inland at some random intersection, and then following my sense of direction and knowledge of major thoroughfares toward my apartment. My favorite route took me under a canopy of flowering jasmine vines growing from two second-story balconies near lights and tinsel strung across the street forgotten after Ramadan’s end. I enjoyed meandering home and finding beauty in my adopted city.

Two years later, my partner and I moved to new jobs in a metropolis approximately the same size as Alexandria – Minnesota’s Twin Cities. I now live about two hours’ walk from my work. Listed from fast to slow, my transportation options are taxis, Uber, collective car owning companies like Go2Car, biking, public transit system, or walking. While I have more options, I now operate with time and financial budgets stretched thin. So I bike as often as possible, but in bad weather or when I must take lots of gear to work, I use public transit. On public transit, I derive pleasure only in listening to podcasts – rare is the conversation held between strangers – and walking the last blocks through a park to work. If I bike, my favorite moment is the view of morning sunrise while crossing over the Mississippi River, but that moment is fleeting and dangerous as I’m biking on a busy bridge during rush hour without a bike lane. My commute exists mostly as an odious task to complete twice a day.

I happened to hear the embedded TEDTalk while commuting on a bus. Querca offers the idea that commuters can take pleasure in their commute, and his idea reminded me of the pleasure I experienced while walking to my Egyptian apartment after school. In Minnesota, my commute has remained the route provided to me by Google Maps. Neither other commuters nor I make time to meander through the hidden paths in our metropolises, but Querca points out that we only need add a minute or two onto our commutes to find more enjoyment in that daily routine. I plan on changing my route to find a more beautiful path to work. Will you join me?

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New Idea

Hello. Quick update: I’ve been unemployed and desperately looking for a job for the past three months. I just got hired. Which means that I can spend my time not on job searching but on new pursuits. I’m looking to put more effort and time into this blog.

I put up this blog initially as a place to put research. Separately, my partner and I have a Think-Wonder-Discover series of posters. Questions we want answered go under “Think”, we guess an answer under “Wonder”, and then we go and investigate, posting results and citations under “Discover”. I began researching anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the kingdoms of medieval Iberian Peninsula but realized that I would research for months before having work that I thought appropriate for this blog.

So here’s my idea. I could take the blog along with me as I research. Instead of having an annotated bibliography, I reflect on each secondary and primary source here. You as readers get taken along for the ride, which also means that I have to justify why invest in answering this question. I ask for you to engage with me in discussion over conclusions and connections. At the end, I still deliver a result worthy of college expectations.


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Scott Meadowcroft

One week ago I learned that Scott Meadowcroft, my friend, killed himself. The news hurt in ways I wouldn’t have expected – it brought up memories, regrets, frustrations, worries, and seemingly unfounded sobs. Task-driven as usual, I pondered how to respond to the news, how to reach out to his daughter, his twin, his mom, his little kid son. American culture is notorious for dealing only with the short term effects of grief, of demanding that we move on with our lives immediately after the funeral. I want to counter our culture. I was moved by the remembrances left on Facebook but those are also fleeting…so I post this blog.

I met Scott the first meal I had in central Oregon this summer on an Outward Bound base – May 11. I began to know him in early June, happening to witness the photo shoot of his newest birthday suit Speedo. Scott wasn’t an open book, especially about his life before Outward Bound. I got hints that he’d experience with substance abuse, perhaps even gang-related, that he’d lived on streets, and he’d broken promises, burned bridges, hurt people. I know he didn’t create a stable family and struggled with romantic relationships. When I knew him, he drank too much, he was addicted to cigarettes, and he seemed to attract fights in town. He was a rough-and-tumble character.

Having studied at Cordon Bleu, Scott spent time working Chicago’s fine dining scene, garnering honors as an excellent sous-chef and slowly making his name known. He was passionate about culinary arts, food presented correctly and tasting just so, believing food preparation to be his only laudable skill. Proud to have studied butchering, he cooked for base camp in Oregon while simultaneously working with his twin brother (still in Chicago) on their sausage business. In his stories he was a teacher, and I learned to put vanilla and salt in frosting, that lemons could pickle, and how to make salmon canapé in under 20 minutes while finessing a meal to serve 175 in a kitchen built to serve only 30.

Fully aware of his track record of building unstable relationships, he believed almost viciously that a man was worth nothing if he gave up fatherhood, so he wanted desperately for his children, Riley and Jude, to know that he loved them. He made very clear that he was proud of Riley. Scott felt strong bonds with his family, even if his lifestyle didn’t show it: stories of his mother’s strong character, expectations of dressing to the nines, the fun of pranking with his twin and cousin, the anticipation of creating more trouble, and even how Riley showed the family predilection toward making trouble. Even as he dreaded returning to Chicago for another winter, he looked forward to spending time at their cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan, where his love of cooking meets a love of wilderness and sparks fly.

Scott helped me in intangible ways. My partner hated living in the Oregon desert and felt outcasted from Outward Bound society. Scott similarly didn’t fit in, and spending time together became the highlight of both of their days. Scott’s strong stance on fatherhood crashed into our lives two months after my partner’s long-estranged father died. After my partner moved to Minnesota and I finished out my internship, Scott hung out with me, watching movies, eating ice cream, going climbing, to plug both our lonelinesses. He was a strong cord in the rope tying me to the Oregon base.

I looked forward to spending time with him in Chicago, seeing the city from his perspective, meeting the characters I only knew from stories. My partner and I had promised to visit him this winter and hadn’t yet found the money to do so. I kept in touch via picture messages and small text conversations. Call it surviver’s guilt or whatever, but I do feel responsible in some small part for failing as part of his support network. At least I feel responsible for not doing more. I wanted to visit him on base next winter, when he hoped to have the job of base caretaker.

Every conversation I had with Scott returned to a set of themes: food, black powder firearms, family, classic rock trivia, WWII history, Chicago, and Outward Bound. Stories of traveling abroad into concentration camps and the arms of Fascist revolts in Italy melted into stories of meeting famous musical persons in Chicago bars and stories of the latest culinary innovations. Somewhere in the intersection of a cursing wrestler who idolized Jerry Garcia, made art with balsamic vinegar reductions for hungry critics and unaware outdoor educators, hunted desert rattlesnake with black powder pistols engraved with Civil War navy scenes, and shared a love of his daughter with the homeless girl in Bend and the youth of Odin Falls was the complex human named Scott Meadowcroft.

Love and hugs.

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