All posts by Sofía Vélez Calderón (sofiavelezcalderon.com)

Writing, Spain, starting over, paleontology, and archaeology

8 Tips on How to Be More Present in your Day: Sunday, September 8, 2019

Ever since Lucas has passed I’ve been mulling over the lessons that he taught me on how to be more present during my daily living. These are 8 tips that have helped me be more present–and less anxious–during my day.

  1. Watch the sunrise. Lucas was a crepuscular being. He would be up before the sunrise. There is something depressing about getting up in the morning when the sun is already out. I’ve noticed that in getting up before dawn, I can listen to the evening crickets getting ready for bed and the crepuscular birds waking up with their morning song. Watching the sun rise with a cup of coffee gives me a feeling of power over my day, because I am watching the day start and the day is not watching me start. I can rejoice in the sounds of Nature and the beautiful sky colors of dawn. I can also rest easy in knowing that I won’t be rushing or be late to an appointment or class. I can rest easy in knowing that I can take my time in getting ready, which is very good, since I’m not a morning person and I’m notoriously slow in getting ready. I feel like I am in control of my day instead of the day being in control of me.
  2. Don’t check social media, news or your email; instead, write in a journal. If you get up and the first thing you reach for is your phone to consume social media, or to check your email, or to check the news, your day is off to a bad start. Many studies have shown that consuming social media leads to depression, and the news lately on upsetting topics such as climate change and Brexit, will not put you in the right mood for your day. Instead opt to keep a journal and write what writer Julia Cameron calls your “morning pages.” Cameron suggests three pages, but I must confess sometimes I fall short of this goal. But the overall goal is to capture the last vestiges of a dream, dump your thoughts for the day ahead, jot ideas for future writing projects, get troublesome emotions out and on paper, where they look less scary. Don’t edit yourself. Just write whatever’s in your head, and if that’s only half a page, that’s ok. If it’s more, even better, but the overall goal is to do a mind dump of your thoughts. You’re not here to impress anyone, so let me repeat, do not edit yourself. You’ll be amazed at how much your mind and soul are holding onto when you wake up in the morning.
  3. Gratitude journal. In addition to your morning pages, make sure to keep a gratitude journal. Write three things you’re grateful for in the morning, even if they’re the smallest of things. When I was living back in Cambridge, my gratitude journal would read something like this: 1) Thankful that I got up early and didn’t oversleep; 2) Thankful for my roommates; 3) Thankful for my friends on Twitter. Or, during hard days: 1) Thankful for the bird singing outside my window; 2) Thankful for the morning rain; 3) Thankful for a quick conversation I had with my mentor on the previous day. Being grateful puts you in a good mood and it makes you cognizant of even the smallest things around you that are working in your favor. You’ll notice what I mean the more you do it. Also, make sure you do this at night, right before you go to bed too, so that you can take stock of what went right in your day. It goes without saying that writing in your journal at night also reaps some great benefits, too.
  4. Gentle exercise. I like to do yoga and lift weights in the morning for many reasons. I suffer from a lot of anxiety and doing yoga allows me to re-focus my attention from myself and my emotions to my body. Once that re-focus takes place, my mind is concentrated on just that and my anxiety dissipates. I also like to lift weights because as I’ve been aging, I’ve been noticing a loss of muscle tone in my arms. The lifting of weights allows me to tone my arm muscles and bring definition to my arms. And again, it allows my mind to re-focus on my body and again, once that takes place I have to concentrate on making sure I lift the weights correctly and I can’t afford to think about things that worry me. I can’t afford to get distracted by anxiety, otherwise I will do the yoga wrong or hurt myself while lifting weights.
  5. Early morning walk. This one I learned from Lucas. Going for an early morning walk, without earphones, allows me to concentrate on the sounds and sights of Nature. My walks are meditations. I make sure to notice and take in everything around me. I feel very close to Lucas when I walk because I am noticing the things that he taught me to notice: birds, insects, snails, other dogs, scat, flowers, and City sounds. Walking also helps me think through projects and homework assignments, and I arrive at ideas or answers I wouldn’t have arrived at if I had been studying at home or at the library.
  6. In the evenings, clear clutter from your day and leave your desk clean and tidy for the next day. If you wake up to an untidy desk, I will assure you will be in a bad mood immediately. With no space to write your morning pages, with receipts laying strewn about, with unnecessary objects taking up space, you will be in a bad mood. There is nothing better than waking up to a clean desk with no papers. Just your journal waiting for you, with a pen.
  7. In the evenings, leave the dishes clean and leave your coffeemaker ready. This is just like leaving the desk clean. If you wake up to dirty dishes, you’ll be in a bad mood. Make sure that all of your dishes are clean when you’re done with your day. Also, leave your coffeemaker ready for the next morning, especially if you’re like me and you’re not a morning person. I have an Italian mokkapot, and I like to leave it set with water and the ground coffee inside it so that all I have to do in the morning is set it on the stove, and I’m set. I also like to leave my coffeecup and saucer out with two sugar cubes and ready to be used. It gives the appearance that an imaginary butler came in during the night and set up your breakfast coffee for the morning.
Image of a mokkapot from vivakoffie.nl

8. Go to bed at night at the same time, every night, including weekends. This tip is really for us anxiety sufferers. If your sleep schedule is haphazard and you go to bed at different times every night, I can assure you that you won’t be able to get up in the morning to watch the sunrise, and you’ll be rushing to work. Also, getting the same hours of sleep every night has a lot of benefits: it keeps you from gaining weight, it does wonders for your skin, and you wake up well rested and not groggy. Waking up groggy is the worst and it puts me in a bad mood immediately because it takes a lot of energy for me to drag myself around and get myself ready. If you’re new to this, I suggest you put an alarm on your phone for the same time every night that alerts you that bedtime is coming. That way you can start with your evening ritual: your nightly journal pages, washing your face and brushing your teeth, applying facial moisturizer, cleaning your desk and washing your dishes, and so on. The last thing you should do before going to bed is writing three things you’re grateful for. These things that we are grateful for should be the bookends to your day.

George Lucas: A Tribute: Friday, September 6, 2019

I had never been good at practicing mindfulness, or being mindful period, until I got a dog. Observing your breath, which has been extolled as the surefire way of becoming present, left me in such a deep state of hyperventilation I quickly needed a break from taking a break. I was also a person in constant, anxious movement, fretting about, starting projects but never finishing them, leaving things halfway done, forgetting items in places, moving from one thing to the next, in continuous apprehension. 

            But then I got George Lucas, a miniature schnauzer that was the doppelgänger of the Star Wars director down to the salt-and-pepper beard and pensive dark eyes. On our first walks I wanted to rush, but this was anathema to him. Things and objects needed to be smelled, taken in, mulled over, considered. Others needed to be thoroughly investigated for long stretches at a time, as if notes were being taken for a PhD thesis. I had to slow down, I was forced to slow down for the sake of my dog; otherwise, he wouldn’t enjoy his walks, and I couldn’t do that to him. 

And two whole new worlds opened up before me. Worlds I didn’t know existed because my anxiety had prevented me from discovering them.  During those walks, I had to completely focus my attention and energy to Lucas’s methodical walking mode and to what he found curious. I became aware of what the Japanese haiku poet Basho called the “cricket musician” and to the coquís, the tiny tree frogs that are native to Puerto Rico and croak a high-pitched “coh-kee” sound to attract mates. I would quietly observe Lucas investigate fire hydrants and the helechos (ferns) for the perfect place to leave a peemail. These investigations took time, and they would make me focus even more on our surroundings: the snail gliding peacefully toward a leaf; the lonely ant dutifully carrying a breadcrumb back to his people; the scary buzzing of an escarabajo (scarab) flying slowly and clumsily towards an unclear destination, which always turned out to be my hair; the zorzal pardo (pearly-eyed thrasher) singing his question-like song; the neighbor’s rooster’s quiquiriquí anthem; the fire truck’s siren to which Lucas would join in enthusiastic harmony.

            I had become aware and fully present to the worlds of Nature and the City. As a result of these walks, I became very attuned to my surroundings, particularly sights and sounds. I would view the world from Lucas’s perspective, discovering flowers that he found interesting and sounds that made his ears twitch independently of each other as he zeroed in like a radar on their source. 

            With these walks, my anxious state of being began to dissipate. Lucas’s systematic way of approaching life rubbed off on me, which was a good thing because I worked as a high school math teacher at the time. Instead of starting to grade a pile of exams and leaving it unfinished, I could now sit comfortably and grade them in one sitting. I would no longer leave things on at the stove to be burnt. I could start andfinish a book for pleasure. During my lunch hour at school, I would leave the school grounds and take myself out for a walk not only as a break from the fast-paced life of a high school teacher but also to enjoy the sights and sounds I knew Lucas would enjoy. I would also find myself paying attention to the ground like a red-tailed hawk, looking for any scrap of food or other unknown substance he might accidentally ingest. These walks were as if I were taking him out for a walk in spirit, and they were a balm for my soul. 

            But I became completely untethered from the worlds of Nature and City after the death of Lucas, which occurred two days before Hurricane Irma and seventeen days before Hurricane Maria. Since the electrical power grid was essentially destroyed by the two hurricanes, the City would be plunged into darkness and silence at night. 

            Suddenly I was very much alone, caught in an internal hurricane of grief I could not get out of, not even to fully absorb the physical devastation around me. Losing him to leptospirosis, a disease I too had contracted at the same time, felt like I had been uprooted—just like one of the thousands of trees around the island—and placed in a steel bubble where nothing but sorrow could touch me. 

            It was at night that I also became present to the silence of Nature. Since there was no power, so no light to read a book by, I would lie in bed straining to listen to the nature sounds I was so used to when I walked Lucas. But there were no coquís, no cricket musicians, no zorzal pardos, no roosters. Nature had become completely silent, and the silence was terrifyingly deafening. This drove me to crave other sounds, any sounds, and the only sounds were those of the neighbors’ power generators that ran on diesel, and the only smell was the stink of diesel. The fact that Nature was silent was a painful reminder that Lucas was gone. Every night, I would have to lie still in bed and strain to listen to something that wasn’t a generator but those sounds never came. Every night, I had to brace myself to my own internal hurricane.

            The timing of his death and the hurricanes was too much, too fast, too soon. And yet ironically, my mourning shielded me from crumpling like so many people did after Hurricane Maria, and I became present to a new kind of presence: the presence of urgency. While others went into denial, I sprung into action, perhaps as a way of not dealing with the violent emotional landscape within me.

            There was no gasoline? No problem. I would make a 6-hour line under the scorching sun with my car’s engine turned off until the gas station would open again. My whole left arm would get sunburned from sitting in the driver’s seat with the window down, but I didn’t care. 

            There was no food? No problem. I would make a 2-hour line at one of the two only restaurants that opened after the hurricane. 

            Wait, they only accepted cash because there was no Internet connection for the credit card system? No problem. I would make the 2-hour line at the only functioning ATM in my vicinity and pray I was lucky there was any cash left when my turn came up. 

            There was no propane gas for my mother’s generator? No problem. I would stand guard with her in front of her house, waiting for a San Juan Gas truck to ride by. At one point I ran behind one, but the driver ignored me. 

            These tasks kept me alive because they kept me busy and most importantly, not present to the uprooted ceibatrees, the defrockedamapolatrees, the cars’ windshields strewn over sidewalks, an apartment’s entire parquetflooring hanging from my mother’s patio wall, and the lampposts that had flown like projectiles now lying everywhere. 

            I couldn’t help but think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Hurricane,” wherein she writes: 

“…I watched

the trees bow and their leaves fall

and crawl back into the earth.

As though, that was that.

This was one hurricane

I lived through, the other one

was of a different sort, and 

lasted longer. Then

I felt my own leaves giving up and

falling….”

            My own leaves had given up and fallen, leaving me naked with grief. I thought of Lucas and his final moment, when I had to say goodbye. And the first thing that popped into my mind to tell him was that in the grand history of the universe, a human life is very short. I remembered reading in David Christian’s “Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History” that the Universe is about 14 billion years old, the Earth 4.5 billion years old, the scale of human evolution about 7 million years old, the measure of human history 200,000 years old, the history of agrarian societies and urban civilizations 5,000 years old, and the chronicle of modernity a meager 1,000 years old. I also remembered reading The Dragons of Eden, wherein Carl Sagan popularized the concept of the Cosmic Calendar, in which he condensed the history of the Universe and the Earth into a 12-month calendar. We come into existence only near midnight on December 31st, when developments such as Stone Age tools and the Pyramids begin to appear. It is in the last second before the clock strikes midnight that the world becomes what it is and we know of today. 

            Keeping all of this in mind, our lives are then minuscule things when compared to everything that came before us. And the life of a dog even more infinitesimal but infinitely more precious. 

            I told Lucas that my life, in astronomical terms, would be short too, just like his, and that we would meet again. Because of the shortness of my own life, our approaching “separation” would be brief too and therefore he needn’t worry about not seeing me ever again. Because in the grand scale of astronomical time, we would meet again very, very soon. And in the same breath, I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I would never see him again, but that when I did, it wouldn’t be for long. I thanked him for giving me the honor of being his human for almost 12 years, a number I still wrestle with as being so unfairly short. I hope, and I think he understood what I was saying.

            It’s been two years since Lucas has gone, but my world has completely changed. I have not healed completely, and the clichéd adage that “Time heals all wounds” is not true. Some wounds never heal. One must accommodate one’s soul around them. While the grief is still there, I am reminded of a Robert Webb quote sent to me by a friend shortly after Lucas’s passing: “The sadness that we feel now, we can afford to hold close; safe as we are in the knowledge that grief is love’s echo. We only have to listen and it’s there. Today is a heavy day, but this is just an aftershock. The earthquake, the main event, as usual, was love.”

            When I walk now, I look up at the trees and notice the birds singing. Every time I hear a fire truck, I smile. Smells, both good and bad, are quickly detected by my nose. The tinkle of a dog’s tags immediately makes my ears prick, just like it did with Lucas’s, and I happily look around to see where the dog is. Things that used to scare me, like the sound of a scarab’s wings near my face, no longer do. 

            I have been broken but made more present to other people’s suffering, especially the one that you cannot see, the one that is unspoken. When I talk to people now, I listen attentively instead of interrupting. I watch and consider their body language. I no longer think of what I’m going to say next in the conversation while impatiently waiting for the other person to stop talking. I think before I comment, instead of impulsively saying whatever’s on my mind. This has made my conversations full of thoughtful pauses and silences, with which I am now, for the first time in my life, comfortable. I can read the mood in a room when I first walk in because I walk thoughtfully now. 

            In the evenings, I take myself out for a walk and have taken up the hobby of taking photographs in the blue hour. I listen to the song of evening birds. I notice ant marches and moth dances. I use an app to see what constellations and planets lay above me, like spilt blue glitter in an art classroom. And when I return home, it feels like I have just returned home with Lucas. His presence in my life has made me become more present in my own, and for that and a million other things, I will be forever grateful. 

Picture by Sofía Vélez-Calderón. Photoshop by @toddyfur on Twitter.

Air-conditioning in T-Rex’s Head: Thursday, September 5, 2019

Skulls belonging to T-Rexes have always been found with two large holes at the temple. These holes, known as dorsotemporal fenestra (“fenestra” is Latin for “window”), were thought to be sites of jaw muscle attachments. But a recent study has hypothesized that these holes may have had a radically different function: they may have aided in thermal regulation instead for the king of the dinosaurs.

The researchers used thermal imaging on reptiles, specifically alligators, which also have dorsotemporal fenestra. When the temperature outside was cool, and alligators needed to warm up, thermal imaging showed these two large holes get warm. Inversely, when the temperature outside was too hot, thermal imaging showed these two holes become cold, as to keep the alligators cool.

Kent Vilet, one of the study’s authors, comprares the alligators’–and by extension the T-Rex’s– cross-current circulatory system to “an internal thermostat, so to speak.”

Comic by Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics.

This kind of study is a perfect example of how the current analogues of extinct animals can be used to solve anatomical and other paleontological mysteries.

Dinosaurs were warm-blooded reptiles, and a gargantuan creature such as a T-Rex would have generated an immense amount of heat. These two holes would have acted as an “air conditioner” for the skull. It is also hypothesized that T-Rexes may have panted, much like birds, alligators, and dogs do to cool off.

T-Rex action figure shown with replica of a broken T-Rex tooth. Replica by http://www.masterreplicasgroup.com

Since, according to this study, the dorsotemporal fenestra are no longer seen as sites for jaw muscle attachments, it can be concluded that the bite force of a T-Rex may have been smaller than previously assumed.

Information for this post was taken from CNN.

Illustration by Zhao Chuang/Courtesy of PNSO

Taphonomy: Wednesday, August 28, 2019

I’ve spent the whole day today reading up on taphonomy, the study of the changes that influence a faunal or archeological deposit. The word was coined by the Russian palentologist Ivan Efremov in a 1940 issue of Pan-American Geologist, and literally means the “laws of burial.”

Figure 7. Possible taphonomic scenario resulting in the accumulation of giant panda bones in the lower chamber. Drawing by Jennifer Kane. From: Jablonski, N. G., J. Xueping, L. Hong, L. Zheng, L. J. Flynn, and L. Zhicai. 2012. Remains of Holocene giant pandas from Jiangdong Mountain (Yunnan, China) and their relevance to the evolution of quaternary environments in south-western China. Historical Biology 24:527-536.

All taphonomic models emphasize decline in the integrity of the buried remains, which occurs before, during, and after burial. Further decline in integrity occurs during excavation and archaeological biases, which can dictate what’s an “important” find and what’s not. It is a fascinating branch of science and I discovered super curious things today during my reading. 

So I’m reading one of the Cambridge Manuals of Archaeology titled simply Zooarchaeology(2005). From the book: 

“The deposited [faunal] assemblage contains the durable remains of animals either intentionally buried, thrown on a refuse heap, or lost at the site…Foot traffic across the [faunal] site crushes some of the refuse. The plant and animal refuse attracts scavengers and commensal animals. Animals, such as mice and land snails, find food and shelter at the site and their bodies become part of the assemblage if they die there, along with insects and botanical materials. Other animals living at the site, such as [an] owl roosting in [an] overhanging tree, regurgitate pellets of inedible animal remains that mingle with the debris related to human economic and social life.”

If you thought that was the end of it, we’re only beginning. After all of this happens, post-depositional processes further change the site. For instance plant roots and burrowing animals can alter and move the deposits from one place to another. Displacement also happens thanks to flowing water and wind, each of which carries sediments that can add to the deposit. Finally, as if you weren’t having enough fun yet, there’s something called tephra, which is a fancy word for volcanic ashes. Tephra can blanket and seal older deposits beneath more recent ones. 

Now what is really awesome about this is the things you can deduce. Sometimes you will find evidence of cooking but no bones. That’s because cooking shrinks bone, sometimes to the point where the bone completely disappears from the archaeological record. That’s crazy! The bones that do survive cooking will become brittle and appear white or light blue in color. I saw this at my first dig in a cave in Lyon, France. Bluish bone was recovered in modest amounts, evidence that cooking was being done inside the cave. 

The presence of horn, mollusk, shells, and turtle shells may signify the use of these as drinking vessels or bowls. And speaking of turtles, here’s an interesting tidbit: Sometimes turtles enter middens (refuse heaps) but there is no evidence of them. The way you deduce they were there is through the presence of commensals, such as barnacles and bryozoans, tiny invertebrate animals that are filter feeders. Both barnacles and bryozoans live attached to turtles and sea whales. So if you find barnacles or bryozoans at a site, you can deduce that a turtle (or sea whale!) must have passed or swum by!

Now a final note on commensals, this time land snails and house mice. Commensals are attracted to refuse heaps for food, moisture, and shelter. The presence of commensals at a refuse heap means the midden was left exposed to the elements for a long period of time. If there are no commensals, then this means that the pit “was filled rapidly, covering and protecting the refuse from disturbance and destruction by exposure to environmental forces (Armitage and West 1985; Reitz 1994a).”

Another thing that I found curious is how trampling can widely disperse an animal’s remains while leaving them scratched and broken. I can’t imagine walking over animal bones, but there you have it: Homo sapiens at its finest. Heavy foot traffic such as in a house, barnyard, or stable would be places where heavy trampling occurs. But the archaeologist has to be careful to distinguish trampling marks from marks made by the matrix in which the deposits are found. Again, from the Zooarchaeology book: 

“When the soil matrix is coarse and has large sand grains, such scratches are easily visible without magnification. However, if the matrix is soft material, such as dried leaves and pine needles, the specimen’s surface may be so polished that it is similar in appearance to worked bone. Attributing such abrasions to trampling may be incorrect because similar marks also are caused by sedimentary particles, aeolian processes, or aquatic transport (Gifford 1981; Shipman and Rose 1983a).” 

And let’s remember that plant roots can also leave marks on the specimens and burrowing animals can scratch and “rearrange” the position of the same. 

What’s interesting about taphonomy are their studies. These are called actualistic studies. I know of a taphonomist, for instance, who released the bones of cows at a section of a river in Wyoming and then followed them down to see where they ended up. People, however, can get very creative with these studies. Again, from the Zooarchaeology book: 

“In an experiment to document the impact of digestion on fish elements, Wheeler and Jones (1989: 69-75) fed fish to a dog, a pig, and a rat, as well as eating some themselves. They then collected the feces, sieved out the fish remains, and examined them for damage from chewing and digestion. The kinds of damage observed were then compared with those seen in an archaeological deposit of a latrine pit from Coppergate, York. This study of the survival rate of bone first fragmented by chewing and then exposed to digestive juices demonstrates that as much as 80 percent is lost.”  

To go through your own feces in the name of science shows dedication and passion. 

I’ve really had a wonderful day thus far reading about taphonomy, and this is definitely a branch of paleontology I would like to learn much more about. 

I wish I knew the author of this comic in order to give him/her credit.

Dinosaur paleontology in Danger of Extinction: Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Argentina possesses one of the most fertile grounds for dinosaur paleontology and for many good reasons. Patagonia has plains that are arid and leave fossils exposed to plain sight, while the Andes “houses” strata of various periods. Add to that the fact that South America was isolated for a long time from the rest of the continents, and you have a unique suite of dinosaurs unseen anywhere else in the world because they followed fascinating evolutionary trajectories. Take for instance the discovery of Patagotitan mayorum by paleontologist Diego Pol. At 37 meters long and weighing 70 tons, it is the largest dinosaur ever known. It makes our favorite T-Rex, coming in at 12 meters and weighing in at 9 tons, seem like a garden lizard in comparison.

In Argentina, about five new species of dinosaurs are discovered a year, a number that competes with other dinosaur-rich nations such as China and the United States.

But ever since the nation’s economic crisis, which began in April 2018, government subsidies for paleontological work have shriveled up.

Mattías Motta, a PhD student in dinosaur paleontology who works there, comments, “We are really contributing a lot to the knowledge, not only of Argentina but of the whole world, because of all the evolutionary history, what happened in Argentina is particular. Argentina is recognized worldwide for paleontology and that we cannot [be] exploiting it for lack of subsidies is really a shame. It’s like extinguishing science.”

Around 100 Argentine paleontologists are currently working on excavations, but they are privately funded by entities such as the Jurassic Foundation and National Geographic. However, there is a limit to how much money you can continually give scientists when the local government doesn’t cooperate.

The above information was taken from EFE and El Nuevo Dia.

Barcelona: Monday, August 26, 2019

Today I went to Barcelona for the first time since I got here 20 days ago. I went with a newly-made friend from the apartment complex where us graduate students live. I must admit I approached this trip from where we live, Bellaterra, to the big city with some trepidation. The U.S. Embassy has issued a security alert to American tourists advising them of “an increase in violent crime in the city of Barcelona in the summer of 2019, specifically in tourist areas. Local authorities have reported a significant increase in the number of petty theft schemes that have included acts of violence, such as aggressive thefts of jewelry, watches, and purses. In some cases, these incidents have resulted in injury.” On the advice of the Facebook group The American Society of Barcelona, I took a cross-body purse to keep my personal belongings as close to me as possible.

But the trip turned out to be much more relaxing than I had anticipated, and I have my friend to thank for that. He knows the city well and he moved within it with confidence and ease. That confidence and ease rubbed off on me and made me less stressed out.

We visited a taco place, where he had tacos and I simply had a clara, a beer with very low alcoholic content mixed with lemon extract. The place had an eighties vibe with neon lights everywhere.

Margaritas y Micheladas

What really attracted my attention was a Virgin Mary with a neon halo. Mircea Eliade would be tickled pink with this.

Lávese las manos y que Dios le bendiga!/Wash your hands and may God bless you!

We then went to an Asian supermarket where I was finally able to get crystallized ginger, one of my favorite snacks and perfect for my stomach ulcer. We then walked through La Rambla to the most gorgeous stationery store I’ve ever seen, called Raima. There was even time to get hazelnut ice cream. On the way back on the train, we saw jabalíes, wild hogs, in the distance. I was so excited because I’m an animal lover and I’ve been wanting to see jabalíes ever since I got here.

All in all it was a good day and I didn’t even mind walking in the heat. And I have my new friend to thank for that.

Homo Religiosus: Sunday, August 25, 2019

Today I attended a Catholic mass at Bellaterra’s church. The service was in Catalan, but in knowing Spanish, I was able to follow along. I’m not a practicing Catholic, and I haven’t been to confession in years. But I’ve always been fascinated by religion from the point of view of cultural anthropology. Man’s need for ritual has held my attention since I was a kid. Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian of religion and an anthropologist/sociologist, coined the term Homo religiosus to mean that man has always yearned for the sacred. This yearning can be broken down into four beliefs:

1) A belief in a transcendent reality;

2) A belief that the Sacred wants to connect with human beings;

3) A belief that when the Sacred enters a place, it makes it holy. Once a place is holy, a human being can enter it and become holy him/herself;

4) A need to celebrate and recount myths. In doing so, Homo religiousus enters “sacred time” and remembers what Eliade calls “paradigmatic models”–lessons in how to be a good person, what values and virtues to cultivate, what vices to avoid. In this celebrating and recounting of myths, Homo religiosus enters sacred time again and again to discover and re-discover his/her purpose in life.
These four beliefs have been paraphrased from here.

In Chapter 4 of The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade writes:

What we find as soon as we place ourselves in the perspective of religious man of the archaic societies is that the world exists because it was created by the gods, and that the existence of the world itself “means” something, “wants to say” something, that the world is neither mute nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing without purpose or significance. For religious man, the cosmos “lives” and “speaks.” The mere life of the cosmos is proof of its sanctity, since the cosmos was created by the gods and the gods show themselves to men through cosmic life.

The inner patio of the church is well-taken care of as you can see by the lushness of the plants.

Geneticist Dean Hamer proposed the existence of a “God gene,” meaning that we’re genetically predisposed to have spiritual or mystical experience. He studied over a 1,000 people and singled out the gene VMAT2 for predisposing individuals to mystic experiences and the feeling of the presence of God. This gene is responsible for regulating serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. In turn, these neurotransmitters are hypothesized to cause mystical and spiritual experiences in individuals. He believes that having these mystical experiences gives people the will needed to live life fully in the face of death.

This has been an extremely controversial hypothesis because it has been based on one, unreplicated study. Plus, this gene can make you believe in anything, as New York Times science journalist Carl Zimmer pointed out here. Personally, I find the hypothesis fascinating and would love to see whether the study could be replicated. I would suppose that Dean Hamer is today’s scientific exemplar of Homo religiosus, in that he’s looking for a scientific reason for why so many people believe in God and religion.

It was wonderful to attend the service and view it, for the first time, as an anthropological experience instead of as a purely religious experience as I did as a kid. I had a couple sitting across from me that were in full devoted prayer the entire time I was there. My heart went out to them because they were clearly troubled and were asking for divine help.

Starting Over: Friday, August 23, 2019

One of the main reasons why I moved to Spain, in addition to the fact that I will be studying at one of the best paleo programs in the world right now, is to start over. From scratch. No strings attached from a previous life. No unresolved conflicts following me from my past. Here, in a place where no one knows me, I can be myself or I can reinvent myself, and no one would know the difference nor be the wiser.

Starting over holds a deep fascination for all of us. But if you really want to start over, you need to take a good, honest look at yourself and see who you have been and where you’ve been. A good, honest look. No rose-colored glasses. A good, very good look. Don’t only see but recognize your mistakes. And instead of seeing them as mistakes, see them as learning opportunities. What can I do better in case a similar situation arises again? Seeing failures as learning opportunities, and not as failures–which is such a negative word–is the first step to starting over. This is something I had to learn in order to not have my mind ruminating about “failures.”

The next step is to imagine what your best self can look like. Imagine it fully. Can you be more organized? Can you be more punctual? Can you deliver on what you promise? Can you say “no” more often, thereby avoiding too much and spreading yourself too thin? Can you love yourself more and criticize yourself less? Can you finish a project that’s been lingering on forever? Can you be more fully present to your loved ones? Can you listen more and talk less? Can you listen attentively and not be thinking about the next thing you’re going to say right after someone stops talking? These are a few questions that you can ask yourself as you envision the kind of person that you want to become.

But you must believe that you have the potential of transformation, no matter what other people have told you and no matter what you have told yourself. Some people like to put you down before you even start to blossom. These are the people that in your new life you must avoid as you start over. And they can put you down in multifarious ways: in being emotional vampires and sucking all of your energy; in being so chatty you can’t get a word in edgewise; in narcissistically talking only about themselves but when you talk about you they invalidate you and your experience; in blissfully ignoring your talents and telling that to your face in backhanded ways. People can be subtle and not so subtle in their attempts at aborting your potential to blossom. Don’t let them. These people are troubled, and they are not your responsibility, no matter what they claim.

So that’s the third step, avoid people who constantly invalidate you and surround yourself with people who love you and are actually there for you when you need them. Start discarding negative people, start accumulating positive, gentle souls.

The fourth, and final step, is to live as if you’re already the person you envision. Start right now. If that entails dressing differently, do so now. If that entails setting boundaries with people who constantly overstep them, do so now. If that entails worrying less and practicing mindfulness, do so now. If that entails stopping procrastination at some project, do so now. If that entails going on a diet that works, I suggest going on the keto diet, and doing so now. If that entails exercising more, start right now in your own home. You don’t need a gym. You can start right now in your own home. Just simple, gentle stretches. Start slow and be gentle with yourself.

And reward yourself in your road to starting over and don’t punish yourself if you’re not getting there as fast as you’d like. There’s no better proven system than the action-and-reward system. Think of the popularity of clicker-training with dogs. Think about why this technique of positive reinforcement is so good and fast at training them. There’s no punishment, just positive reinforcement when a desired behavior is obtained. Negative behavior is ignored, and not rewarded. In that way, that negative behavior is extinguished. Clicker-training is so popular it’s even done with horses and dolphins!

This morning I went for a walk with a new friend I made at Bonaparte. She showed me the neighborhood of the town that is next to the university, and now that I know it, I can start walking in the mornings. Back when I was living in Boston, I was walking between 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day, which was great because it kept my anxiety at bay while keeping me in shape. Walking here has been a bit more difficult because of the heatwave, but now that I know that the temperature is under 25 C very early in the morning, I can walk all I want and regain my walking routine.

And that’s the only thing I’m bringing from my “past” with me: my walking routine. Walking for me has always served as a meditation. The constant cascade of thoughts becomes more of a gentle stream, I get answers to questions I have on what to add or delete from a creative writing piece, my intuitive understanding of a subject I’m studying becomes deeper and fuller. Even writers have talked about what they think about while they walk or run. For instance, Haruki Murakami’s excellent What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Everything else I leave behind. Everything else I choose to leave behind because it no longer serves me.

Because I’m starting over.

Make sure to check out the song lyrics of A Quiet Life by Teho Teardo on the Web site’s right-sided content bar. It’s a beautiful song about starting over.

Skeleton Lake: Thursday, August 22, 2019

Roopkund Lake, which sits atop the Himalayas at 16,500 feet above sea level, is also known as Skeleton Lake and for good but macabre reasons. The lake is frozen most of the year but when it thaws, hundreds of skeletons emerge.

The skeletons were initially discovered by a forest ranger in 1942, who concluded they were invading Japanese soldiers from World War II. But local folklore has a more colorful explanation. There is a nearby shrine for the mountain goddess Nanda Devi. A king and his queen led a pilgrimage with their attendants, but when Nanda Devi saw how raucous they were in their exultant celebratios, she decided to strike them down. A few years ago, a group of archaeologists concluded that the skeletons belonged to a group of travelers from the ninth century who were struck down by a lethal hailstorm, since many of the skulls show blows to the head.

But a new study has yielded even more puzzling results. The skeletons belong to travelers spread over a 1000 years. There are individuals of South Asian origin dating from the 7th to the 10th century. But then, there are individuals of eastern Mediterranean origin–along with an individual of East Asian origin–dating from the 17th to the 20th century. The natural question is: what were individuals from the eastern Mediterranean doing so far from home and why?

One answer is early ecological tourism. Perhaps news of Roopkund Lake had traveled all the way to Europe and some people decided to pay it a visit.

This explanation, however, does not sit well with Kathleen Morrison, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She calls attention to the fact that a Hellenic kingom existed in India for about 200 years, beginning in 180 B.C. She also points out that radiocarbon dating gets less and less accurate the closer we get to the present day, implying that the date between the 17th to the 20th century of the eastern Mediterranean individuals is wrong. To her, this massive amount of skeletons can only mean one thing: it’s a graveyard.

Regardless of whether the site was a massive dumping ground for the dead, the recent study also discovered that the individuals included both children and the elderly, but mysteriously, none were family relatives. To me, this is evidence that the skeletons belong to pilgrims. However, a search for travelogues and written accounts of journeys or pilgrimages has proved unfruitful. And the mystery remains and deepens.

Featured image was taken by Atish Waghwase.

Photograph by Awanish Tirkey.



Blue Hour and W. B. Yeats: Tuesday, August 20, 2019

It is now one of my two favorite times of the day: twilight. Celtic lore holds that the “veil” between the human world and the fairy world “lifts” during these magical times of day, allowing for fairies to be seen by humans. I’ve investigated what gives twilight its magical blue color in the sky. It turns out that during morning and evening twilight, the Sun is from 4 to 8 degrees beneath the horizon. During these times, the Sun’s blue wavelengths dominate because the ozone layer absorbs the  yellow, orange, and red parts of the light spectrum. This kind of absorption is known as the Chappuis absorption, named after the French chemist James Chappuis. As a result, a magical teal color dominates the sky. The sun sets pretty late here in Barcelona, at aroun 9 p.m. I say late because I’m used to the sun setting at 6:30 p.m. in Puerto Rico, where I’m from. Photographers love to take photos during the blue hour because the blue light is magnificent, as you can see here. It’s almost as if they’re hoping to catch a fairy.

W.B. Yeats once wrote: “At Howth, a great colony of otherworld creatures travel nightly.” The Irish Times has a great article about fairies still living in the Irish imagination. From the article and being quoted from Irish Fairies (1890) by W.B. Yeats:

“When I tell people that the Irish peasantry still believe in fairies, I am often doubted. They think that I am merely trying to weave a forlorn piece of gilt thread into the dull grey worsted of this century. They do not imagine it possible that our highly thought of philosophies so soon grow silent outside the walls of the lecture room, or that any kind of ghost or goblin can live within the range of our daily papers. If the papers and the lectures have not done it, they think, surely at any rate the steam-whistle has scared the whole tribe out of the world. They are quite wrong. The ghosts and goblins do still live and rule in the imaginations of the innumerable Irish men and women, and not merely in remote places, but close even to big cities. 

At Howth, for instance, ten miles from Dublin, there is a ‘fairies path’, whereon a great colony of otherworld creatures travel nightly from the hill to the sea and home again.”