Sunday, January 15, 2017

Syllabi, world creation and via ferrata

Via ferrata in Austria
By Luidger - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
I'm spending my days layering class prep over the final work on a book manuscript due to the publisher in about a month.

Writing today felt a bit like I was climbing up this cliff. Strapped onto a cable, exposed to the elements and grabbing for any handhold I could.  (Thanks, Flannery O'Connor for the lift midafternoon and to Crash who read a texted version of a couple of paragraphs on his phone between planes).

These fixed climbing routes are called a via ferrata - an "iron road" in Italian.  In some ways my intro chemistry class is a via ferrata, a way to climb through some tough material using fixed points I've constructed. It's a collaboration between the climbers and the creator of the route, and work is required on both parts.  (I have climbed a couple of easy routes this way - in Acadia and in New Mexico - the views were great, but I was pretty terrified the whole way, which hopefully my students will not be.)

I also read somewhere, by someone, a great essay about syllabi as a genre, specifically "world creation" genre.  I wish I could find it again.

Book report:  100% drafted; 77% in reasonable draft; 43% in near final draft; 23% in rather drafty draft.  This week's goal - to get those pieces in drafty draft well on their way to final draft.

And if you're wondering how I stumbled onto the term via ferrata -it's how you get to this hotel.  Warning, the photos are not for the height averse. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Effects of Incipient Predation on the Cognitive Abilities of Perimenopausal Women

Evolution has primed humans to give high attentional priority to potential predators in near proximity. This study quantified the effect of predator threats on cognitively demanding tasks in perimenopausal women.

Subjects were recruited through direct contact from the principal investigator's familial network. One subject, age >50, menopause status self-reported.   

Control Subjects played two rounds of Bananagrams(tm) with the principal investigator (PI).  Only subjects suitably matched to the verbal proficiency of the PI were allowed to proceed on to the second stage of the study.  Suitable matches were declared if the subject won one round and PI one round.

Predator exposure protocol A common local predator, Felis catus domestica, was obtained from the local SPCA and acclimated to the laboratory environment over a period of more than a decade.  To establish its predatory capabilities, the predator was allowed to regularly hunt rodents in its residence's motor vehicle storage unit.

The predator was roused from a nap and introduced into the area where the subject and PI were confined.  The subject was encouraged to play another round of Bananagrams(tm) with the PI, while the predator tracked her hands and sat on her tiles.  The outcome measure was the success or failure of the subject to beat the PI in rounds when she was being stalked by a predator known to her to be successful.  

Results and discussion The subject lost the round.  We hypothesize that the significant cognitive load placed on the subject by the need to track the predator, as well as regularly removing the predator from her tiles, decreased the attention she could devote to the game.  A potential confound is the need for the subject to more slowly retrieve tiles from the common pile when prompted by the "peel" stimulus, inviting the predator to pounce on her hand.

Conclusions If you want to beat your mother at a word game, get the cat to stalk her game play.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Letter Box

The number seems overwhelming - 19,700. It's number of emails I have sent using my gmail account since I began using the service 10 years ago this week. Though it seems impossible, it's really only 5 or 6 a day, on average.  It still feels like a lot of emails -- and it doesn't count the real mail that I still send.

I wrote a reflection for DotMagis this month about St. Ignatius and the grace of writing (and receiving) hand written notes, but closed by noting that there is joy, too, in the personal notes that come into my email inbox.  A note from my sister, another from a college-aged niece.

Today (coincidently?) there was a note from an editor, sharing a reader's reaction to a reflection I'd written which warmed my heart and my soul.  The Holy Spirit has a sense of humor.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Bird Watching on The Baptism of Our Lord

It was 14oF when I went out to pick up the newspaper from the end of the driveway.  It was unusually quiet for a Sunday morning.  It was too early for the murmuring exodus of cars headed to church or too cold for the dogs who yip at every dashing squirrel, and there were no leaf blowers howling   — any unraked leaves being conveniently buried under 4 inches of icy snow. All of which made the sharp knocks from across the street hard to miss.  

I spotted his red crest first.  Undeterred by the cold, or the darting wrens, a pileated woodpecker was digging into a tree across the street.  I stood and watched him until I was shivering, then slipped inside to grab something to take a photo with (Math Man's phone sitting right inside the door). The dried leaves shimmied in the rising breeze, sounding as if a rushing river had materialized overnight on the next street, and the woodpecker processed his way up the trunk, unruffled by the wind, huge in dignity.  The Lord God Bird, or rather its cousin.

Tomorrow is the last day of the Christmas season, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (at least on the current calendar, the note in my breviary for Epiphany is clear that if January 8th falls on a Sunday, Baptism of the Lord is omitted and Ordinary Time starts immediately on Monday).  The Gospel will leave us with the image of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the Jordan - in the form of a περιστεραν (peristera).  The translation will say "dove" but it could equally well have been rendered "pigeon" -- the Greek gets translated both ways in the New Testament, and there is no clear line between doves and pigeons.  I suspect we get dove because pigeon pulls up images of splattered statues and aggressive birds 

I went to a talk last spring where the speaker referred to the Holy Spirit as a  "feral pigeon" as a matter of course (and which also featured an extended reflection on the ivory billed woodpecker, also known as the Lord God Bird.)  This characterization of God as feral continues to haunt me, it seems both almost profane, dancing with heresy.  But then I think what's the opposite of feral?  Domesticated? Could I really think of God, of the Holy Spirit, as "domesticated"?  That, I think, is heresy. God as a creature we have gradually accustomed to living with us?  God who doesn't endanger us?  God who is subordinate to us?  No, no and absolutely not.

Feral, which carries the sense of unruly, even dangerous, seems more apt for God, who promises us not tranquility, but presence in the storms.

The Holy Spirit shakes things up, blesses the unexpected as well as the ordinary.  Of course She is feral, and not in the least domesticated. She may even be a pigeon, strutting on the streets of Philadelphia.

A snippet from the interwebs that sticks with me, about disturbing word choices.  Child to waitstaff:  "I wish to devour the unborn."  Waitstaff: "Excuse me."  Mother (with a long sigh):  "He wants eggs.  Scrambled eggs."

Dodos are in the same family as pigeons (Columbidae).

Varying language lets us dance, pick up and shake something

Friday, January 06, 2017

The Art of Packing a Camel (Redux)

Things I learned last year:  that camels originated in North America (in South Dakota! and were originally the size of a rabbit) and that the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles contain many a camel skeleton.

This is a version of a piece I wrote four years ago for This Ignatian Life, which is alas, no longer available on the web.  I'm thinking again, on this traditional feast of the Epiphany about what I lug around with me, and how well balanced my load is. Full disclosure, while I have (once) ridden an actual camel, I’ve never packed one.

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow." — T. S. Eliot from The Journey of the Magi

Four years ago today, on Epiphany, I walked resolutely (so says my journal) out of the retreat house dining room and into the Spiritual Exercises.  Like Matthew’s magi, I had had a long journey there, though it required not that I follow a star, but instead have the stars in my life align.  One by one, the pieces had fallen into place. A sabbatical leave in the spring semester, space left in the January 30-day retreat, kids’ schedules, and suddenly I found myself packing a duffel and driving (north)east.

The Exercises are designed to flow back into everyday life, what some call “the fifth week”.  For me, the Exercises truly began not when I walked out of that dining room, but when I started jotting a list of things to pack: this was my zeroth week.  I packed with the First Principle and Foundation tacked up on my bulletin board:  “And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.”

The choice of a composition of place and Gospel text for these meditations was obvious, for at least in December, it was hard to pack without having the magi hovering over my shoulder.  What exactly goes into your camel’s saddlebags? What do you take on a journey to pay homage to a King, to meet God in the flesh, to walk with Jesus in the Exercises?  And what do you rid yourself of before you leave?

In the end I took very little: two sweaters, an extra pair of jeans, snow boots — for the ways were surely deep and the weather sharp where I was going — and my knitting.  I still took too much.  Four translations of the Psalms. Four?  And a set of watercolors that I never once touched.

I confess I still find it hard to be a minimalist packer in a culture where big cars and bigger box stores make it easy to buy in bulk, where spectators routinely roll tents and and chairs and packed coolers across the athletic fields for an afternoon, and a trip to the mall with a small child requires more gear than your average camel could cart.  Their subtexts are difficult for me to tune out:  Don’t run out.  Be prepared.  Keep your options open.

Me, my traveling bag and camel at La Brea.
In themselves, these desires are not evils.  My family’s life runs more smoothly when the household doesn’t run out of laundry detergent or toilet paper; my students are well served when I have everything I need for the day’s demonstration tucked into my teaching bag. Yet I worry that I so insulate myself from needs that it becomes difficult for me to grasp that everything I have comes from and returns to God. Even the everyday things like laundry detergent.

So four years later I find myself returning to the contemplations of my zeroth week — even when I pack so much as my lunch.  I ask the questions that the magi must have faced with a long journey ahead, where the weight of what you carried could — quite literally — drain the life from your camels.  Where you might have to sit on what you had packed, so that with each passing mile the lumps and edges of your luggage gives you galls.  Where balance is not a metaphor, but a hard reality.

To choose to travel in this way is to make manifest that I do not know what the journey will bring.  It is to practice trust in the workings of the Spirit.  It is to grasp that empty spaces are opportunities, not to stash yet another gadget to be better prepared for some eventuality, but to be able to stow an unforeseen gift given along the way.  That what I bring in my saddlebags is not just for myself, but much is meant to be left with those I meet.

I learned on the Exercises that there is an art to packing a camel.  One I can keep practicing, even if the journey is only to my office, and my saddlebags hang not on the sides of a camel, but on the back of my bike.

You can listen to T.S. Eliot read his poem Journey of the Magi here.