Thursday, October 23, 2014

Math Man and chaos



I first met Math Man at new faculty orientation, on a hot and steamy August day.  I, with four years of college teaching under my belt, had come at the provost's invitation to share what wisdom I had with my newest colleagues.  Math Man jokes that his one-liner about his research — "I design chaotic billiard tables." — was what caught my attention.  It's a line, he still jokes, that attracts a certain kind of woman (geeky).  Fast forward to the end of first semester, and it might be that we have been on a date.

This summer he helped develop this TedEd lesson about billiards, chaos theory, and the climate.

We expect things to be linear, turn the tap a small amount and the temperature of the water changes a tiny bit.  But not everything in nature is linear.  For example, you can make a small change to the concentration of one reaction in this reaction, and suddenly the entire beaker starts flashing through different colors.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Round about on pilgrimage


We're in Ireland, on pilgrimage.  Well, perhaps Math Man is on pilgrimage -- under both the oldest definition, which simply means a wanderer from foreign places, to the current which carries the connotation of a journey to a sacred place. As soon as Crash announced he was studying this fall at Trinity, Math Man started planing the trip.  Four rounds of golf, a thousand kilometer loop, three iconic courses. Oh, and some time in Dublin with our son.

I love to walk, so for me, as long as there is a good walk to be had, I am happy.   This morning, in the rain, I had a most marvelous walk on an utterly empty golf course, then into town and along the sea wall.  Math Man is out playing this incredible course with just a caddy, no one else was so crazy as to go out early this morning.

Pilgrimages ought to offer difficulties, I suspect. Roads that are less than direct, wrong turns, trying weather.   We left Ballybunnion late yesterday afternoon, headed to the ferry across the Shannon.  Though the GPS took us round two sides of a triangle, we made it with a safe margin. We cross, then decide we will take the N67, the larger road, slightly longer route, along the Atlantic coast.  "Follow the signs for the Wild Atlantic Way," advised our innkeeper from last night.  We drove to Kilkee, only to find the road closed for repairs.  A construction worker offered directions around. We backtracked nearly to Kilrush, and turned north again. The road was single lane, and the tractors were heading home for the night. The cows were all resting their heads atop the stone walls that lined the road.

We intersected with the N67 again.  Only to find it closed again in less than a kilometer.  We asked directions.  "Go back to Killrush...take the road to Cooraclare"  We did, finally finding the road to Cooraclare.  For more than an hour, the GPS told me it was 45 minutes to our destination, no matter how far we drove, we never got any closer.  A mystical pilgrimage?  Was there a task we needed to do?  A novena to say?

In the end we arrived at the hotel I'd booked us. Late, dark, tired, it looked more like something out of The Shining than anything else. The coffin like base to the narrow bathtub, made me think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  But the staff in the bar was delightful, we watched Ireland tie Germany in the last 10 seconds of a soccer game, drank cider and ate a good meal.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Trigger warnings

The student plenary voted to ask faculty to consider placing trigger warnings on class materials and syllabi.  I know from painful experience, how distracting triggers are when they appear, and how difficult they can be to avoid.  And I know that I've brought up examples in class that trod on painful ground for students, a risk I take in electing to teach chemistry within a context, not as a sterile set of numbers.

On Sunday — which would have been Tom's 58th birthday — I opened up the Sunday paper to find this spadea.1  I was riveted by the red balloon.  The aneurysm which killed him would have been at least as large at the balloon in the illustration, it still strikes me an unimaginable that we could not have known something of that size was inside of him.  It's odd, too,  to think about Tom at 58, older than our parents were when he died, twice the age I was when he died.  Does it make sense to think about someone being dead for more than half their life?

Probably not.

But it may explain today's funk, and last night's uneasy dreams.




1.  I love that there is word for these foldover sheets on newspapers.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Memory charms

Photo of Thomas Great Hall
at Bryn Mawr College

c. Bart Everson.  Used under CC license.
Yes, I work at a place that bears a passing resemblance to Harry Potter's Hogwarts.  In my building, as at Hogwarts, not every stairway goes where you think it does.  I teach Potions to first year's at times and since I've an exam in progress this week, there may be some that wished for a memory charm.

The battery on my little pedometer ran out last week, which I discovered when the TSA people had me run it through the X-ray again.  I finally got around to doing something about the lack of electrons yesterday.  I thought I had another battery for it, but couldn't recall where I had put it in my study.  Ah, I did remember that the device had sent me an email when the battery was low last time, complete with information on the battery type.

I searched "fitbit battery" in my email and what came up but an message with the subject:  "fitbit battery is clipped to the wall folder hanger in my study."  It felt like magic. How did I know I'd need that information?


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hermeneutic of exhaustion

It's been a crazy couple of weeks, where despite my best intentions, I ended up working 12 straight days without a break.  Mindful of nettles and myrtle, I am grateful for work that is sustaining, in literal and metaphorical ways, and that is extraordinarily stable.  But a number of conversations this week have left me thinking about how we read the rhythms of work and rest.  Are more hours construed as more devoted, more passionate, or just more?  Is rest something that we must collapse into, or is it built into the order of our day?  We speak of a well-earned rest, but what does it take to earn such grace?

Of course, the ability to ask these questions is itself a luxury. A few weeks ago, the New York Times had an article about shift work, and the ways in which the lack of a predictable and regular schedule, — a rhythm of work — can make it difficult or even impossible to meet the basic needs of life, from a place to live, to time for sleep and care for a family's children.  Over these days I've been aware of those I see working odd hours: the grocery store clerks re-stocking early in the morning, the baggage people there when my plane lands at 9 pm, the woman working the desk at the hotel overnight.  No matter how out of control my schedule feels, the bulk of it is not this much out of my control.

After this crazy busy rush, this weekend I made time to do my laundry, to sit and meditate in the warm rose and cobalt blue light of the parish's stained glass windows.  I walked with Math Man, wrote and read.

This afternoon I picked up Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings, a Trappist monk from Holy Trinity Abbey, written in the late 1980s after he'd been a Cistercian for almost a quarter of a century.  It's a practical book in some ways, grounding the customs of a monastery in Benedict's rule and lived experience in equal measures, which reminds me of First Initiation into Carthusian Life (it oh so practically covers laundry as well as prayer).

Cummings notes that while being and doing are two parts of who we are, and both need to be appreciate.  But being comes before doing, being trumps doing.  I risk doing so much that I fail to be, that I lose the ground I  stand on.  God, in whom I live and move and have my being.

Two other thoughts from the chapter that I'm thinking about.  "Monastic manual work brings me again and again up against the obduracy of things." and the notion that we might take on more work than we should to insulate ourselves from what might be found in prayer and contemplation.

And in all this I learned this is a journal called "Mystics Quarterly" (they reviewed Cumming's book when it first came out).  Do mystics need a journal?