Thursday, October 27, 2016

Writing a bite at a time

"Dr. Francl," teased my colleague, stopping in on his way to class to borrow a piece of equipment, "your door says you're writing a lot.  But how much do you write?"

I keep a spreadsheet of completed projects, in part to help me plan how much time to budget for a writing project, so this is a question to which I know the answer.  Between thirty and forty thousand published words a year, I told him.  The equivalent of a 120 page book each year for almost the past decade.

I don't think he expected an actual number in response and I must admit that when I think about it in that way (which I generally don't), it's a lot of writing.  On the other hand, at roughly 650 words a week, it seems like not very much.  Which I suppose is a testament to my mother's advice about large projects:  "How do you eat an elephant?" she would ask.  "One bite at a time," we'd moan in response.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Portable Academic

Before we left for Japan, one of my colleagues warned the students that we had a couple of long travel days and they should be prepared with a book or music or whatever amused them.  Dr. Francl, he pointed out, starts writing as soon as she gets on the bus. I am a portable academic.

While I was away, I finished and submitted one essay, and dug into the writing of a second.  I didn't make any progress on the book (though I had brought it — or rather its Scrivener instantiation — along), but that was hardly a surprise, the trip was pretty packed.

So what does this portable academic require?

  • iPad with research notes and writing app
  • keyboard
  • stylus
  • shawl
  • reading glasses

That's it.  No laptop. Wi-fi can be nice, but not always necessary.  Same for a thermos of hot tea. It all fits in a small bag (even the thermos of hot tea).

Despite this, there are moments when I imagine being some sort of Victorian professor, with a full office that gets ported about.  Chairs and desks.  Silver inkpots.  A tea tray. A butler who brings the tea tray.

Parking Violations

"Last week was fall break, and since Math Man had a series of talks to give in Honolulu, I broke my trip back from Japan in Honolulu.  Yes, I realize life is tough here.  We enjoyed a couple of days on the big island of Hawaii, watching the growing lava lake atop Kilauea (it was about 54 feet below surface of the caldera when we were there, clearly visible, and it rose 20 feet yesterday!), hiking into the caldera of a volcano that erupted when I was a year old, and where the lave lake is still cooling...."

I started drafting this post last week, but in dribs and drabs as I tended to other obligations (make-up lectures, department meetings, letters of recommendation...).  I finally finished it on Sunday afternoon, but it refused to format nicely and dinner was nearly ready.  No matter, I thought, I'll just save it and figure it out later.

Clearly, I'd left it parked in a browser window too long.  When I opened it up this morning to finish, it was all gone but those first lines.  Towed away into the sea of data.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything

A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked for a word.  The old man said to him, "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach your everything." - Apophthegmata Patrum 

My students, and my two colleagues  spent two days in Kyoto last week, staying at Shunko-in, a temple cloister in Myoshin-ji, a large temple complex.  We did some meditation training with the vice-abbot there, Rev. Taka Kawakami, but also visited with Thomas Yuho Kirchner, a Zen monk, at Tenryu-ji, a 14th century Zen training monastery (that is still active) set in a gorgeous garden.

Thomas gave us a tour of the old monastery (the training monastery has moved to a quieter spot on the grounds, there can be 20,000 visitors in a single day to the UNESCO World Heritage gardens next to the zen-do!) Monks in training lived, ate and meditated all in the same spot in the zen-do.  Everything they needed — from bedding to rice bowl — was kept there.  No dividers between the beds, you rolled up in your futon at night, next to your snoring neighbor.  If the monastery was full, the most junior monks might not even have a full tatami to themselves.

It reminded me of my 30-day retreat, walking down the hallway of the (now torn down) building at Eastern Point at 3 am, listening to the snores of other retreatants, with just a drawer and a shelf and a few hangers in my room to store things.  And yet, I had space for all I needed (and perhaps a bit more).  Now I'm thinking about my study at home, where books and papers from projects completed and in progress are stacked on a table, and piled on the floor. The clutter is not just literal, but metaphorical, my days too stuffed right now with project to take a couple of days out and tidy.

Sitting in a monastic cell, mine or not, always leaves me reflecting about spaciousness in my life, time and space colliding.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Stylites and circling sushi

Students had a day on their own in Tokyo, choosing between a number of different sites, which meant the faculty had time on their own as well. I watched a bit of the debate, streamed on YouTube, but spent the morning seeing what it might be like to be an urban stylite.

Early in the fifth century Simeon the Stylite lived on top of a pillar in the desert near Aleppo, dispensing spiritual wisdom and hiding from the crowds.  There are still modern stylites, Maxime Qataradze lives atop a rock pillar in Georgia (

I had breakfast sitting in a window on the 25th floor, watching the commuters flood the streets below.  The last time I was in Tokyo, we ate lunch in a rooftop garden, high above Shinjuku.  Yesterday I bought dumplings and sushi in the fancy food hall in Isetan, then took my sketch pad and lunch back to that garden.  It has been uncomfortably hot in Tokyo, and the heat tumbling out of the rooftop air conditioner units didn't make the roof any cooler.  But with height comes perspective, if not spiritual wisdom.  I had a better sense of the landscape, but also of the value Japan places on green space in such a crowded city.  From the top I could see pockets of green in all directions.

My class has been reading Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space.  Bachelard 'reads' gardens and grand vistas as a connection to the cosmos, something that pulls the resident of a space out of themselves.  Vast landscapes always leave me with the sense of how small I am in comparison to the universe, which certainly pulls me out of myself.

For dinner one of my colleagues and I found (on Yelp - where else) a conveyor belt sushi spot.  It was great fun to sample in this way, and thanks to the little signs in Japanese and English popped onto the belt, I (mostly) knew what I was eating.  It was mesmerizing to watch the sushi circle around, and fascinating to see the attention paid to the ever-changing array of little plates.