All posts by Sofía Vélez Calderón (

Writing, Spain, starting over, paleontology, and archaeology

Notes From the Underground: More Grad School Characters

  1. That graduate student that is good looking, doesn’t study, and parties too hard, and in the process gives himself Covid. I want to party like (and with) this guy, but…is he still contagious? What if he’s got long Covid?
  2. That graduate student that instead of taking notes during lecture does adult coloring books in a slow and painstaking way. Girl, I get it. This lecture sucks. But I’m loving your coloring. And you’re doing it on a tablet. Props.
  3. That graduate student who’s a thinker and thinks, thinks, thinks about…starting after-school projects, but doesn’t study for this classes. I love this guy. He’s starting amazing things, but even he admits he doesn’t study that much. I secretly think he’s a genius. Everything he says is automatically profound, and he has a contemplative aura around him. Fascinating. He also reads poetry. His boyfriend is a lucky guy.
  4. The Good Looking Guy (GLG) from a foreign country with the killer accent continues to accumulate ducklings that follow him around, men and women and everything in between. Point in fact, a girl physically stole my Covid-assigned seat so that she could sit next to him in class yesterday.
  5. That graduate student that announces during class that she was white and upper middle class. This was a little random. Came out of nowhere. Awkwardness ensued over Zoom.
  6. The graduate student with the Darth Vader voice. Love him. Never have seen him physically. He has his camera off on Zoom. But his voice is velvety. He should be on the radio. I told him today. With a voice like that, skip grad school, and just go straight to Hollywood.
  7. That graduate student who is “woke” and corrects everyone else on their respective cultures, because apparently she knows best. This has really become an archetype during these times of “cancel culture” and “wokeness” but man, is it annoying. I know, my age is showing.
  8. That graduate student that dances to Taylor Swift in her apartment to get inspired to start a new module on statistics. This would be me. Currently, the album Reputation is playing in the background. Thanks TayTay.
  9. That graduate student who’s asked to give his presentation and freaks out and says, “That’s today?!?” Oh my goodness, #rip. I felt for this guy. This is what nightmares are made of.

Notes from the Underground: Grad School Characters

It’s been an interesting 6 weeks in graduate school. I’ve found myself quietly observing the people around me. While I’m a bit older than the average 22-year-old, it’s been an eye-opening experience.

  1. The Chatty Ones: These are people who need to voice their opinion every 10 minutes in class. I can’t tell whether it’s because they’re extroverted, they’re wary of a participation grade, or just like to hear themselves talk. Sometimes I get inspired by their chattiness and get Chatty Cathy too. I need to stop this.
  2. The Quiet Ones: Sweet people. They quietly take notes and look around and smile at you. I would like to get to know them better.
  3. That One Person who is Quietly Taking Notes for Something Else that is not Being Discussed. I’m taking a small seminar in Buddhism and spiritual caregiving, which has been a fabulous experience. I sit next to a guy who is always taking notes on a book that we’re not discussing. He has an artist’s sketch pad that he uses to take notes. It’s all blank pages, unlined. He has a collection of Japanese pens in different colors. He sits right across the professor, with this book open that we’re not even going to talk about until next semester. He is avidly taking notes on the book, writing in tiny handwriting, then going for a colored pen and circling certain words that he has just written. I am fascinated. What is he doing? Where is he going ? What is the endgame? Dude, we’re not touching that book for 3 more months. We’re talking about the reading that was assigned for today. Are you just like hyper-organized? Also, Buddhism advises to “live in the present moment.”
  4. That One Person Who Argues with the Professor to Prove They’re Right and the Professor is Wrong. This is…a bit painful to sit through, but there are a small number of students who are “woke” and want everyone to know it. They also want everyone to know that they know more than the professor, even though the professor has a PhD and several, several years of teaching experience and is a professional data scientist. So they start by asking what looks like an innocent question and then get agitated when the professor answers that question with something they were not expecting or they do not understand. For some reason, they immediately assume the professor is wrong and start arguing. Dude. You’re wrong. He’s right. Stop arguing. It’s not going to change the math or the concept.
  5. That Good Looking Guy (GLG) with a Killer Accent and a Gaggle of Girls After Him. This one is an interesting specimen. I take a class with GLG. Great looks, foreign accent, funny…and I think he knows all of the above. He has quite the fan club of ladies after him. They follow him around like a gaggle of geese. It’s a little bit like Make Way for Ducklings. Every time I see him, there are girls trailing behind him. It’s amusing.

6. That Person on Zoom who is Eating with their Mouth Open or Chewing Gum like Britney Spears. Oh my goodness, please turn off your video camera. By the way, I love Britney Spears and I am very happy that she’s getting out of that conservatorship. #FreeBritney

7. That Person on Zoom who uses Zoom to Fix Their Hair and Clothes. I don’t understand this generation. And now for some lip gloss!

8. That Person in Class Who is Shopping on J. Crew. I take a class that is…a bit subpar. Won’t go into details, but it’s not what I was expecting and apparently what other people were expecting either. I sit next to someone who is always on J. Crew, adding colorful cashmere classic-fit crewneck sweaters to their cart.

9. That Person in Class Who Draws Meticulous Labyrinths in Their Notebook. What is going on? Let’s talk.

10. That Person in Class Who Looks like They’re Taking Notes but They’re Furiously Writing Emails. I admire the fury. He’s committed to Fury.

How I am Weathering the Pandemic, part ii

I’ve moved to New England for school. First, I am so happy for the temperature change. We had a heat wave here that rivaled the hot, tropical temperatures of Puerto Rico. Now that heat wave seems to have dissipated and given way to a few days of weather in the 70s. I am building a new life now, from scratch, in the middle of a pandemic. So what has changed?

  1. I order food to be delivered. Usually from Flour Bakery. I’m a big fan of their croissants and salads.
  2. I go for evening walks. Due to the temperature change, I am now back to doing what I love the most: going for walks at the blue hour. I really enjoy the beautiful teal colors of dusk and having time to think. These walks are very meditative and introspective. I also need the exercise, which I haven’t been able to do since March 2020.
  3. To Uber or Lyft or public transportation? This hasn’t changed. There is no way I’m getting into an Uber or Lyft or the subway or a bus during this time. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m terrified of the Delta variant and I’m not in the mood to be ensconced in a place with re-circulated air. That being said, I have a dinner to attend to next Tuesday evening, and it’s too far of a walk. So I’ll have to take a Lyft. I’m not looking forward to this. I hope the Lyft driver will allow for lowered windows.
  4. To mask outside or to not mask outside? The governor of my state has declared that you can walk outside without a mask if you’ve been vaccinated, and to then wear masks inside buildings. I disagree. How do I know that people who are going unmasked outside have been vaccinated? What if there are some anti-vaxxers lurking? And then, the other day, someone sneezed a horrendous sneeze in public without a mask. I actually saw the droplets leave his mouth. No thanks. I will wear a mask outside, thank you. The curious thing is: I get judgmental looks from people outside who are not wearing masks, which I think is ridiculous. No matter, I don’t care.
  5. I’m taking a class on Buddhism and spiritual caregiving. I’ve discovered a beautiful class at the nearby divinity school on Buddhism and spiritual caregiving. I’ve decided I’m going to take this class to: 1) deepen my knowledge of Buddhism, and 2) to have a respite during the week from my other classes, which are requirements.
  6. Keep reading as much as I can. Books, books, and more books. One of the few good things about this pandemic is that I’ve read an extraordinary amount of books, and that’s thanks to my book club.

How I’m Weathering the Pandemic, Sunday, January 31, 2021

It has been a challenging time, with emotional ups and downs during this pandemic. However, lockdown and quarantine finally took a toll during the new year: I began experiencing cabin fever, bouts of never ending restlessness, moments of complete anhedonia, and many nights of insomnia. While examining what was happening to me, I decided I didn’t want these situations to keep “happening to me.” I wanted to take back control of my days, so I actively searched for things to do to bring me some much needed relief and consolation. I wanted to share these tips with you, in case you find yourself in the same boat as I am.

  1. Walking long distances: I do my best thinking while I walk and walk and walk. I’m very lucky that I live near the beach, where I can take long walks while listening to the soft crash of the waves. I have also found that walking organizes my thoughts and even better, gets rid of the bouts of restlessness I’ve been experiencing in the new year.
  2. Reading many books at the same time: Now is the time to read, because let’s face it, there’s only so much Netflix and Amazon Prime Video you can consume. Plus watching too much TV dulls the mind. I have begun reading many books at the same time. Right now I’m reading Alice Hoffman’s Magic Lessons, a prequel to Practical Magic, which was made into a movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I am also reading Sue Grafton’s W is for Wasted because I love the adventures of my favorite gumshoe Kinsey Millhone. Finally, I’m reading a bit of history, which I seldom do. This final book is titled The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis. It is fascinating. I didn’t know this but it turns out that Hitler stole the world’s finest purebreds during WW2 to breed an “equine master race.” I have also found that reading many books at the same time helps your creativity and helps you make connections between topics that at first look seemingly unconnected.
  3. Taking an online class. Now is not only the time to read, it is also the time to learn. I’m taking an online class on world religions, focusing on angels from the Jewish, Christian, Islam, Sufi, and Zoroastrian traditions, and it is exhilarating. Did you know that Gabriel is the only angel mentioned in the Hebrew Bible? I had no idea! The class meets once a week for two hours in the late evenings and is serving as both a respite and an oasis from the grim landscape of the pandemic.
  4. Re-learning a foreign language. I’m bilingual in Spanish and English and took French in high school. However, while I can still read French, I want to up my game in the language by re-learning how to write it and speak it. So I bought two books on Amazon. One is geared towards kids and is marvelous. It’s a vocabulary builder and it comes with pictures of seasons, weather, animals, furniture, utensils, and other fun stuff. The other book is for adults and is geared toward conversational French. Every night, I do a little bit of French before going to bed.
  5. Learning how to knit. I have attempted to learn a new hobby and succeeded: knitting! I love it. It’s occupational therapy. I watched a few videos on YouTube, ordered yarn on Amazon and I’m well on my way to my first scarf. Knitting is like walking: I’ve found that it organizes my thoughts and gives my restlessness a repository in which to live.
  6. Staying actively connected to friends. While I know that there are people out there who are going to restaurants and cafés to meet their friends, I’m taking lockdown pretty seriously. As a result, I am actively Zooming with friends from all around the world to stay in touch. I am actively keeping these friendships healthy and strong because we all need each other during this difficult time.
  7. Meditation. I finally gave in and got a subscription. I practice meditation every night. I suck at it, but I’m hoping I will get better with practice.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you during this pandemic. I had to do a lot of soul searching and look for things that were a balm to my soul while I worked remotely for a company based out of California. And of course, I now take things day by day. I try not to think too much about the future because I become overwhelmed with crippling anxiety. Each day is a blessing and if I get through it ok with my coping tools, I am doing ok. Blessings.

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

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


            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

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.