Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Passages



I had prepared myself for the pending proverbial empty nest, knowing that my youngest son would be graduating from high school this year. Plans for college were made, and then, we got that call. A most unusual offer: the top choice institution, the one he was wait-listed for, was offering him admission. The catch: the offer was only good if he took a gap year and started the following fall (i.e. 15 months after graduation). For him, it wasn’t even a decision, he had a secured a spot in the top-ranked university of his choice.

Normally, this news (about being accepted) would be cause for celebration. But sadly, the joy of the moment quickly became overshadowed by the unexpected death of my father. Even now, almost six months later, the pangs of grief remain sharp. I take some solace in having had the chance to visit him in Michigan for his 80th birthday celebration – a time of joy and great fun with family and friends. Before I left to come home, we had breakfast, laughter, and hugs. His heart failed him as I flew back to Pennsylvania. At least it was quick, not the prolonged deterioration and demise that can be the fate of people with terminal diagnoses of certain cancers or ALS.

Early summer brought the death of our 21-year-old cat – our boys had never known a time without her. As a kitten, she had been abandoned, but rescued by a well-meaning family friend who said that we just had to take her to live on our newly purchased farm. Shoo-fly had outlived many other cats that came our way. She was wary of people for years, but loved popcorn and chin scratches. By the time she died, she was quite a sad sack – blind, deaf, and pretty ragged looking. A mere wisp of her former self. But up until the last few days, she purred and loved sleeping in the sunbeams on the deck or back porch.

In spring, we had learned that the in-home care person who checked in on my aging mother mother daily was moving. While this was the impetus to finally “force” the transition to assisted living, the timing was rough, and my stubborn mother didn’t exactly agree with us that it was time. Dementia is an enigma to me. How is it that she can’t remember what she ate for breakfast an hour before, but can recall elaborate details from her childhood and her escapades when she was a working single gal in her 20’s? She creates fantastical tales, including ones about her own mother traveling around the world with a cat, perhaps mercifully not recalling that grandma passed away 19 years ago. Mom doesn’t have much to say these days, but the tales about her mother make her smile again. So much better than the horrific night terrors she experienced a year ago.

I don’t want to grow old.

In June, my brother’s family and I cleaned out decades of accumulated stuff from our childhood home. I felt a terrible sense of loss when the house (conveniently) sold quickly and without hassle. It wasn’t the house or the possessions that I was going to miss, it was the loss of connection to place. The process was a ton of work. Literally. I think a ton of stuff was sold at a yard sale, donated to Good Will, or disposed of. But we had some laughs and relived some good memories in the process as we stumbled upon an unexpected artifact of our childhood or old pictures. 

It was a long-forgotten love letter from my father to my mother (they had been divorced for over 30 years) and piece of his parachute silk that brought me to tears. For years, my dad had asked if I had seen that square of camouflaged material. It almost went into a trash bag, but that particular box of fabric scraps – one of dozens of old envelope boxes of unfinished projects that we were discarding – just happened to spill, and there was the familiar green and brown swatch. I am holding it as I write. A colleague told me that, sometimes, the hands of angels reach down to gently remind us of loved ones who have passed on. I laughed at the time. I believe her now.

When I was in grade school, my father found for sale some acreage and an old camp along a lake – a wonderful retreat. There were 40 acres of lady’s slippers, trillium, maples and birch, a wonderful sandy beach, and toads galore. And yes, even leeches. Yuck. I still hate them. One of my best friends had a camp – that is what everyone called their weekend getaway in the Upper Peninsula – directly across the lake from us. We spent hours and hours exploring, swimming, boating, coming of age. My father converted the run-down structure into a gorgeous home, but he and his second wife sold it when I was in grad school. I dreamed of winning the lottery to buy that place back some day. It is for sale again, but without the acreage, but complete with a much higher price tag. I live 1000 miles away. With 65 acres of my own to care for. So the wonderful memories will have to do. But so much of who I am today was molded there or in the jack pine/blueberry-laden woods behind our house or on the shores of Lake Superior. Gitche Gumme, the shining Big-Sea-Water of which Longfellow paid homage to in his “Hiawatha.” I will have to read that poem again soon.

This week, another dear family member lay suffering, her prognosis went from being measured in months to days. With some cancers, there is no dignity in dying.

I am sad. Too many passages in such a short time.

But back to that lanky 18-year old, the one I worry about because he spends too much time secluded in his room “gaming” – seemingly wasting this extra unscripted time at home (before he goes off for international destinations). After a long “phase” during which it just wasn’t cool to hang out with the “rents,” he chose this moment to decide that mom is once again acceptable to go for a walk with, or to plop down on the couch with to have long chats about politics or music or recipes. 

Thank goodness for gap years.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Healing

Today I noticed how full the begonia plant was getting – flush with new burgundy leaves and the plant’s first flower. This was a gift from my friend Julie Zickefoose, who also sent along an Achimenes plant. The salmon-hued flowers on that specimen have been appearing since June and are almost as sensual as the variety name, “Pink Nightie”. One has to love a plant with a name like that!

It was little gifts like this that made my “era of immobilization” tolerable.  Being able to hear -- through the window -- several species of birds visiting the Serviceberry tree in the front yard, receiving encouraging messages from someone who had recuperated from a much worse accident [thank you Brenda], cut flowers from the CSA each week, and colleagues at work and in the field who helped me to adapt, get food from the lunch buffets, and keep my sanity. During the recovery period, I even had time to do silly things like looking up the origin of words like Achimenes. [It may have come from the Greek word for “tender” or “sensitive to cold” or perhaps from the name of a mythical plant in the writings of Pliny the Elder.] All of these were deeply appreciated gifts, including time.

In the words of the very wise Paul Brown: Healing. It can be encouraged, though not rushed. What a colossal job it must be to create new cells and reassemble things as closely as possible to the original. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

Nothing is rushed when you are in a cast and using crutches. So I read a lot, and looked up mythological stories – partly for fun and partly to prepare for my upcoming History of Disease course. When I could start swimming again, the laps were slow, as if I was dragging a brick.

The thing about internal injuries – be it broken bones or a damaged heart – is that you can’t see the healing like you can with a surface wound. You have to assume that the cells are doing what they should to repair the damage. Of course, being a scientist (and having the time), I had to look up all the details of just what is involved in mending bone. It is indeed a pretty amazing process Paul.

I am not one to enjoy sitting around, even though people said I should milk the situation and let others take care of me for once. I do appreciate all that my husband Dave had to do around the house and to take care of me – including being chauffeur. Thanks to him, off to work I went. Setting aside pride, I scooted around the halls at work in a rolling chair, road up the mountain in nifty all-terrain vehicles (thanks so much Trevor Jones), or provided directions to research students or helped to band birds from the back of a Subaru. 

Corey took me “car-birding” to boost my county list for the year. What a surprise on that day in June when we ran into friends Terry, Greg, and Laura along the Delaware River who had just captured two gorgeous Cerulean Warblers for their research project. More gifts.


Today, four months later, I experienced the full splendor of being mostly-back-to-normal (even though the healing will continue for some time in the leg bone). There was an early morning walk with Dave and Revi before the fog lifted, followed by a walk to the quarry to catch the first glimpses of the Fringed Gentians starting to unfurl. These satiny flowers are an indescribable blue – matching the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses from a wedding that I was part of many years ago. Joren and I gathered enough grapes to make juice – the aroma of which is filling the room as I type. There was apple and pear picking and baking. As the late afternoon sun, low in the sky, splashed gold across the mountainside, there was one final walk of the day through the goldenrod and broomsedge-laden field. Glorious moments. Glorious to be healing.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Memorial Day Message That is Missing

This weekend, social media is filled with messages asking us to remember the Americans who have died defending our country and our freedom. Memorial Day, first established in 1866 to honor Union soldiers of the Civil War, is now a day set aside to remember all of the American soldiers who have died in war in the subsequent 15 decades - about 1.2 million in all. This number, while representing a tremendous loss, pales in comparison to the number of war-related deaths globally for the same time period. Estimates run from 60 to 85 million for the number of lives lost during World War II alone. 

Coincidentally, this past week, I finally had the chance to watch the movie The Imitation Game and finished reading Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The film portrays a number of issues, but one in particular still troubles me. [Spoiler alert:] After the German Enigma code was decrypted, the British made "strategic" life and death decisions about their own troops in order to avoid tipping off the Germans that their code had been cracked. In this way, the British could continue gathering key intelligence. While this intelligence is credited with shortening World War II by as much as two years, I find it difficult to understand how those in charge would intentionally ignore information that could have saved the lives of many of their own troops.

Fountain's book is also about war - the one in Iraq, post 9/11. Without going into the details of the plot, the story vividly portrays the sharply divergent worlds of those who glorify war and those who are actually sent into combat. A particularly poignant passage comes when Billy Lynn's sister is trying to convince him not to return to Iraq after completing a somewhat farcical nationwide tour that both celebrated and exploited the heroes of his squad. She gives a long list of leaders and pundits who were promoting the war (including the President and Vice-president) and noted that all of them had somehow managed to avoid serving in Vietnam.

Admittedly, I am a pacifist and don't understand the reasons for our involvement in most conflicts since World War II. But this Memorial Day weekend, I wonder why instead of just remembering those lost in war, that we don't also start finding ways to avoid further deadly conflict in the future.

In his book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, author Christian Parenti refers to the "catastrophic convergence" of poverty, violence, and climate change. The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) completed a study in 2007 on climate change and national security, and a year ago this month, the CNA published a follow-up report entitled National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change. The Pentagon and State Department have also published detailed strategic reports regarding the impact of climate change on national security. Headlines from the past year include "Climate change threatens national security, Pentagon says", "Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military Researchers", and "Obama: Climate Change a Growing National Security Threat" (a claim that the President reiterated this past week). After Obama's comments in February this year, The New Republic followed with a piece entitled "Obama is Right: Climate Change Kills More People than Terrorism." In this, Rebecca Leber makes a case that around 5 million died due to climate-related factors or carbon pollution in 2010 and that this number will increase to close to 6 million by 2030. But I suppose this is irrelevant to military strategists since reports about war casualty numbers don't include the loss of life due to things like environmental pollution or natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, or other types of extreme storms.

The significance seems clear to me, however, when we overlay the impacts of climate change on top of a widening gap between the have's and have-not's, especially with respect to food and water security, and consider the disparate impacts of climate change on certain regions of the world that have a long history of conflict. To decode: we are looking at a rapidly growing risk for more global conflict. Ironically, the U.S. military is a huge consumer of fossil fuels - one of the major sources of greenhouse gases that are destabilizing the climate. And following up on a 2001 report on Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic, the military is preparing for a joint training exercise (the "Northern Edge 2015") in June of this year in the Gulf of Alaska. Why do I get the sense that our national leadership, like the British in WWII, is choosing to deliberately disregard certain critical intelligence, risking some lives, in order to "succeed" in some larger goal?

During a commencement address at Rutgers University last weekend, Bill Nye said that the "oncoming trouble" of climate change will affect the graduates in "the same way the Second World War consumed people of [his] parent's generation." As we await the release of the Pope's Encyclical on climate change, Cardinal Peter Turkson recently spoke at an international conference on climate change hosted at the Vatican, calling on the wealthiest countries who have long benefited from fossil fuels, to be the ones to find solutions to deal with climate change:
[Wealthy nations] are obliged both to reduce their own carbon emissions and to help protect poorer countries from the disasters caused or exacerbated by the excesses of industrialization. Cardinal Peter Turkson
Last week, I was left troubled by both a movie and book about war. I remain disillusioned by war in general. Perhaps if the U.S. started exerting leadership in addressing climate change, and thus, working to lessen the chances for additional future conflict in the world, I would feel better listening to the all the messages - especially from politicians - honoring the dead over this holiday weekend.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Let’s Bridge the Two Cultures

Following a recent campus email sharing a blog post by Jack Miles entitled Why Are We Losing in the Middle East? Too Much STEM, Not Enough Humanities,[1] there were two semi-defensive email responses, but no genuine debate or face-to-face conversation.  The author of the opinion piece, speaking about America's response to Islamist terrorism since 9/11, noted that
American leaders might have avoided a series of horrific mistakes if they had relied a bit more on the humanities and a bit less on the STEM.
I must admit that this post offended me.  But mostly, I was disappointed that there wasn’t time for dialog.

I have sensed a growing tension between the humanities and the sciences on campus for some time.  I suspect that this is due, at least in part, to all the attention and money directed at the sciences (renovations to Collier Hall of Science, the new Health Science programs, the launch of planning for a new Health Science academic building, perceived inequities in the SOAR* endowment distribution of research support, etc.).  Couple this with Congressional attacks on funding for the Arts and the dropping of these disciplines in K-12 public schools, I can understand the growing sense of frustration.  It is part of the reason that we are having the CAT-LinC* workshop entitled Reshaping the LinC Curriculum-Revitalizing the Liberal Arts; one of the discussion questions in the workshop announcement makes this clear:
How might the current LinC curriculum help to alleviate concerns regarding the current push to add profession-oriented programs to our curriculum?  If the current LinC curriculum cannot achieve this goal, how might that curriculum need to be re-shaped to alleviate those concerns? 
Implicit in this question (to me, at least) is a concern that profession-oriented programs cannot embody a liberal education.  Furthermore, since most of these new academic programs have direct ties to the natural and physical sciences, it seems that some on campus view the liberal arts as separate from the sciences, rather than the liberal arts being inclusive of them, as was the case historically for the Artes Liberales.

Personally, I like the definition of a liberal education in the 21st century provided by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)
Liberal Education: An approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. This approach emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth achievement in a specific field of interest. It helps students develop a sense of social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.[2]
Note the inclusion of science and an expectation that the broad knowledge and skills gained during a student’s education actually get applied.  The essential learning outcomes of AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) project includes “Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World through [the] study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts.”[3]  In other words, it isn’t liberal arts and the sciences, but rather a true integration that characterizes liberal education today.

A few years ago, Joyce Hinnefeld (a colleague from the English Department) and I proposed and organized the first Arts and Lectures series on the Intersections between Art, Science, and Nature for which we brought in speakers whose work exemplified the bridging of disciplines.  We concluded another such successful series this year.  Along the way, I have been exploring such bridges in my own teaching and scholarship and have found that historically, there were many connections between the arts and sciences, especially in the “fields” of natural history and medicine.  But over time, the collaborations faded and once symbiotic disciplines have, for the most part, gone their separate ways. 

The Romantic period of the first half of the 19th century has been characterized as an intellectual movement that integrated the arts and humanities and that was heavily influenced by science and nature.  The period also coincided with the Industrial Revolution, and thus, this has been described as an era of discovery of both the beauty and the terror of science.  Mary Shelley wrote of her concerns of human manipulation of nature in Frankenstein (1818).  In his 1829 Sonnet - To Science, Edgar Allen Poe says that science is the enemy of the poet because it takes away the mysteries of the world. He was concerned about the influx of modern science and social science of the times and how it potentially undermined spiritual beliefs.  The world had entered a period where science was no longer simply trying to understand and describe nature, but was now aiming to improve upon it.  And with 21st century technological advances in genetic engineering, biomedicine, and even conservation (for instance, the new efforts in de-extinction and re-wilding), the attempts to improve upon nature continue.

Towards the late 1800’s and through the turn of the century, scientists were discovering things at a record pace, unraveling nature’s secrets at the both the scale of the atom and the universe.  As they solved these mysteries, some of the world’ most prominent of scientists of all time remained ever cognizant of the beauty of what they were studying.  Albert Einstein once said
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science. 
Another nuclear physicist, Marie Curie, noted that
“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.
Perhaps ironically, both of these individuals were uncovering the fundamental mysteries of atoms and energy that would be used to create the most destructive weapon of mass destruction that has ever been used by humans.  But it was also scientists like Linus Pauling (a Nobel Laureate winner of both the Chemistry and Peace prizes) who in 1958, presented to the United Nations a petition signed by 9,235 scientists from around the world protesting further nuclear testing and published the book entitled No More War!  And today, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has a major initiative and journal on Science Diplomacy aimed at building bridges for peace.[4]

There have been several points in history where scientists have realized the social and ethical implications of their research, and consequently brought their concerns to the attention of the public as well as worked to establish ethical boundaries for the applications of the new knowledge.  The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1975 is an important example.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, heralded as a great literary piece, was also a critical social commentary and strong warning about the use of synthetic pesticides (a product of science during World War II).  Not surprisingly, some in the scientific community did not welcome the book’s publication, but it led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and some of the first pieces of environmental legislation.  The former director of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies and a renown climate scientist on the faculty of Columbia University, James Hansen, has become a leading climate change activist and authored a book entitled Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.  There are many more examples.

Yet the fears expressed by Shelley and Poe around two centuries ago have magnified with each technological advance.  In 1959, Charles Percy Snow (or CP Snow) – a scientist and author -- delivered a lecture in the UK Senate House entitled The Two Cultures and subsequently published a book elaborating on his ideas entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.  The thesis of both was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into two cultures – namely the sciences and the humanities – and that this division was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. In 2008, The Times Literary Supplement included the book in its list of the 100 books that most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War.  One particular excerpt, despite being written about 56 years ago, seems so relevant to the discussions and divisiveness on campus now:
The separation between the two cultures has been getting deeper under our eyes; there is now precious little communication between them, little but different kinds of incomprehension and dislike. 
Neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know. The resentment, which the traditional culture feels for the scientific, is shaded with fear; from the other side, the resentment is not shaded so much as brimming with irritation.
Stefan Collini writing in The Guardian in August in 2013[5] observed that
Snow had presented the contrast between the scientific and literary cultures as being in part about different responses to the industrial and technological revolutions.
This contrast was also described by Peter Dizikes writing in the New York Times in 2009[6] on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Snow’s lecture:
Scientists, he asserts, have “the future in their bones,” while “the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.”
I hear this idea reflected often: scientists have a tendency to think that science and technology can fix all of the world’s problems.  In contrast, many in the humanities believe that technology has caused many of those problems.

In one additional 2009 essay written by Lawrence Krauss,[7] it was noted that
Snow argued that practitioners in both areas [the humanities or "cultures" and the sciences] should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society.
Krauss goes on to say that Snow did not rail against religion, or any of the humanities, but rather against ignorance.
Until we are willing to accept the world the way it is, without miracles that all empirical evidence argues against, without myths that distort our comprehension of nature, we are unlikely to bridge the divide between science and culture and, more important, we are unlikely to be fully ready to address the urgent technical challenges facing humanity.
Reading the reflections of others about C.P. Snow and the “two cultures” has only strengthened my belief that we need to find ways to reconnect these disciplines, to find ways to cross the vocabulary differences and ideological divides, to have dialog in order to better understand each other and address the critical issues of our time.  The STEM disciplines are integral to a liberal education and facets of the humanities must be woven into how we teach in STEM disciplines. Given the role that science and technology must play in addressing the global challenges of the 21st century (climate change, food and water security, emerging diseases, and biosecurity are just a few examples) and the growing public distrust or denial of science (think climate change, GMOs, and vaccines), it is critically important for all students to be cognizant of the role that they may play – individually and collectively – in these future debates and solutions.  How do we get students to not only think across disciplinary boundaries, but to also gain experience in debating and developing policy, translating technical information to policymakers and the public, and to think about science, not just as something hard or scary, but perhaps as a means of diplomacy?  And how do ensure that future scientists continue to be aware of the moral and societal implications of their discoveries?  These are the curricular discussions about liberal education at Moravian College that I think we should be having.[8]
~~~

I leave you with two other random thoughts on why we need to once again integrate the disciplines in a liberal education:

In a study published last year from Michigan State University, researchers found a positive link between childhood participation in arts – especially music – to patents generated and businesses launched as adults. They studied a group of college graduates who majored in science, technology, engineering or mathematics – theSTEM disciplines – and found that exposure to the arts as children increased the chances of ownership of patents or new businesses by over eight times compared to the general public. Furthermore, in their surveys, “80% of STEM professionals report that arts and crafts deliver skills necessary for innovative work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”
“Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.”
  Edward O. Wilson
from Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge [1999]
What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don't know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic.
—  Alison Hawthorne Deming  Writing the Sacred into the Real
In much of the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming’s work, she argues that the farther we remove ourselves from wild settings, the farther we are removed from our spiritual center. She believes the arts allow us to fall again “into harmony with place and each other.” We live in a world that is out of balance (environmentally, and socio-economically).  Artists sense this emotionally.  Scientists know this through data, but need to find ways to express this that doesn’t turn the public off through fear or distrust.  Working together, humanists and scientists can find those words and the rebalancing that we need in our personal and collective lives.


*SOAR = Student Opportunities for Academic Research (an endowment for undergraduate research)
CAT = Center for the Advancement of Teaching
LinC = Learning in Common, the general education program at Moravian College


[4] See http://www.sciencediplomacy.org; accessed May 15, 2015.
[5] Collini, S.,  “Leavis v Snow: the two-cultures bust-up 50 years on”, The Guardian (8/16/13); available at; http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/16/leavis-snow-two-cultures-bust; accessed May 15, 2015.
[6] Dizikes, P. Our Two Cultures, The New York Times (3/19/09); available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/books/review/Dizikes-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0; accessed May 15, 2015.
[7] Krauss, L.M. “An Update on C. P. Snow's ‘Two Cultures’ " Scientific American (8/17/09); available at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/an-update-on-cp-snows-two-cultures/; accessed on May 15, 2015.
[8] I have written on these ideas before in a 2004 blog post (http://anewprosperity.blogspot.com/2014/03/what-fires-should-educators-light.html) and excerpt of which was published by AAC&U in their magazine Liberal Education: http://aacu.org/liberaleducation/2014/winter/husic.
[9]Michigan State University ArtSmarts Among Innovatorsin Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) March, 2001; available at http://ippsr.msu.edu/publications/ARArtSmarts.pdf; accessed on May 15, 2015.