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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reflections from Helsinki (actually Amsterdam Airport): Week 4

Well, I'm finally headed home. It's hard to believe that four weeks have gone by. I'm spent, having had worked steadily through the past couple of weeks, culminating in a trip to the University of Warwick in England for an intense and productive couple of days of research discussion with some new colleagues. I feel like I do at the end of a long mountain bike race, nearly spent and glad to be so close to the finish line. I write from the Amsterdam Airport, following a quick flight across the pond from England, waiting for my flight back to the States. Can't wait to get home!

It's been another good research trip abroad. It's hard to be away for so long - you begin to feel disjointed - but it's also a great opportunity to focus on research, which is difficult, time consuming work, requiring creativity, collaboration, persistence, determination, and day upon day of effort. So the gift of this trip for me is really the time, which I hope I've used well. I think I have, and anyway, I gave it my all.

Now it's back to my bike and some time away from work.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Reflections from Helsinki: Week 3

Most of us will spend a huge portion of our lives working, which makes what we do important. Work is the main way most of us engage in our communities and take part in the human endeavor on earth. Work also challenges us, brings tension into our lives, and forces us to look at ourselves. Work is a teacher, and as humans I think we are meant for it.

I'm fortunate to have work with variety and that I enjoy. I get to teach young Montanans and see one or two a year get hooked on the joy of learning. That's a rush! And I'm a research mathematician, one of a global community, which requires hard work and travel to do it well; right now, I need a break from it.

I recall dreaming of being a Professor when I was an undergraduate, and yet I can't say that I chose my career. Looking back, it feels like it just sort of happened. And now at 38, with a family and lots of responsibility, a Professor is what I am and will be for some time. With the years rushing by, I do feel trapped now and again, and frustrated at the limitations of my chosen work and that my time on earth is so short. But on the whole, I feel fortunate to be doing what I'm doing.

This week I took a work trip up to the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, abound 4.5 hours north of Helsinki by train. Kuopio is similar to Missoula in size and remoteness, yet there's a group in the Physics Department there that is one of the strongest in my research area in the world. It was good to visit with such high caliber people, share ideas, and get some collaborations started. 
Kuopio, Finland.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Reflections from Helsinki: Week 2

self portrait
This week was pretty uneventful: mostly work, but I did go to see an exhibit of 300 paintings of Helene Schjerbeck (good luck pronouncing that) at The Ateneum, Finland's national art museum. Schjerbeck is a major 20th century artist; says the Ateneum web page, she is 'one of the most important and recognised artists in the entire Nordic region.' For me, a great art viewing experience leaves me in awe and inspired and this exhibit did that. There was the work, which was wonderful, stemming from realism when she was young to modernism in her later years, but also the long career: she worked hard from her teenage years through to her death at 83.

After the art exhibit, I went for dinner and then on the way back to my flat, crossing through a park near the train station, I stopped for a minute to watch Montley Crue, who were playing live. It was quite a crazy juxtoposition: high art vs. glam metal.
Me too! Here's a kid at the Helsinki show. I got this off of Motley Crue's facebook page.
Lastly, I finally made it to probably my favorite spot in Helsinki, a big wood-fired public sauna. You bring a beer or two and in between sweats hang out on the sidewalk, as in the picture below, cool off and enjoy a refreshment. It's a unique experience on many levels, from the obligatory old lady in the men's locker room, who cleans and will even give you a scrub down (seriously!), to beer on the street with only a towel on, to the giant searingly hot sauna filled with sweaty dudes. I got a good laugh telling  some fellows that in Montana there is usually a sauna at the gym, but they always have a warning sign about excessive heat, even though you typically can't get them near as hot as the typical Finnish sauna.
My favorite Helsinki spot.
I've been on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, sometimes lonely, other times frustrated (research typically doesn't move in a continuous and smooth manner), and still others feeling peace and gratitude, often all in the same day. The good news is, I'm already half way through.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Reflections from Helsinki: Week 1

It's hard to believe I've been here a week-and-a-half already. My days are nothing special: work and the bike ride to and from my flat in the morning and afternoon, running on some dirt path along the sea at the beginning or end of the day, and a little bit of chill-time in the morning and before bed. Although it literally pains me to be away from the family for so long, it's a luxury to work without distraction and also have time to read, write, watch a few movies, and listen to music. (In an effort to stretch my musical palette and remain relevant with my kids, I'm currently on a mission to find a rap sub-genre that I really like. Here are some artists that I've found so far: Atmosphere, Eyedea & Abilities, Dynospectrum, Felt, and Gang Starr.)

Since I've spent so much time in Helsinki, I don't feel pressure to see the sights, which has its pluses and minuses: on the one hand, it's nice to feel that I can do what I like with my time, while on the other, I could really benefit from some more distraction on a lazy Sunday. Also on the plus side is that the friendships I've made continue to deepen. Just this past Saturday, in fact, I went to the graduation party of the son Otto of my host, Heikki Haario. I have known Otto since he came with his family to Missoula in 2005, as a 12 year old kid. Here in Finland a big deal is made of the high school graduation party, noticeably more so, I'd say, than is made in the US. I enjoyed observing the festivities, and felt like I was seeing something uniquely Finnish, which at this point is far more interesting to me than some old historic church.