Tag Archives: Boston

Mundane Monday: Shadow

This week’s Mundane Monday theme is shadow. It’s a good one for Halloween, but I wasn’t reminded of anything Halloweeny for some reason.

I was reminded of memories, and of bright backgrounds that cast foreground objects into shadow. This picture was taken at the Museum of Science in Boston in 2013, when we still lived in Massachusetts. Moving to California was not even the shadow of an idea yet. It was late December, just after Christmas, and my parents were visiting for the holidays. We went to the museum for “something to do” with the kids and grandparents.

My dad’s mobility problems had already begun, and he spent much of his time in the museum sitting on one of the benches, looking out the window at this view. I don’t remember what the object in the foreground is. It looks like some kind of odd historical Rube Goldberg device. Or a spinning wheel, one for the Princess Aurora to prick her finger.

Sunset is very early in Boston that time of year, and you can see the bare trees out the window, with their little squiggly, fingery branches.

I was there too.

12-27 MoS ordered


Pluto’s Heart

Sunday was my husband’s and my 18th wedding anniversary. It was our first anniversary in California, but otherwise there is nothing particularly special about the number. It snuck up on us a bit, leaving us to make plans at the second-last minute. One of the nice things my husband planned to do was come to church with me.

I have gone to church regularly since becoming a Unitarian-Universalist as an adult. In fact, the first UU church I ever joined was in California, Neighborhood Church in Pasadena. The UU churches here aren’t the direct Bostonian heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing. I’m not going to walk into a Messiah sing here and find myself sitting next to one of Hosea Ballou‘s violin-playing relatives (this really happened to me in back in Massachusetts). Out here, churches appear to be closer to the 6th UU source, Earth-Centered traditions. I’d been in a spiritual wilderness before I joined Neighborhood Church, and what I most remember about it now are the redwoods it was nestled in. I felt peace there among those trees, and welcome, and protection, and most importantly, relief from pressure, judgement, competition, and the need to be socially “on” at all times. The trees had been there long before all that, and would be there long after all that was gone. Although I wouldn’t have used this language at the time, the trees accepted my inner introvert, and I was grateful.

My husband and I were married in a UU church a year and a half later, but he’s generally not a churchgoer. Born and raised in Germany, he and his father formally resigned from the state church. Both my husband and I have PhDs in scientific disciplines (he, computer science; I, neuroscience) and both of us carry a strong skepticism towards fundamentalist religion and unscientific thinking. I found this outlook compatible with Unitarian-Universalism, he did not. I also found I wanted, and needed, the community of other seekers I found at a UU church, and he did not. After we were married, I continued to go to church almost every Sunday, and he did not.

Perhaps surprisingly, this has worked okay for 18 years. He comes to church occasionally, to see me and/or the kids play music or celebrate a milestone. I like it when he comes. Sometimes when he’s not there, during a service I will stand holding a hymnal by myself, and look around at whole families, families in which both parents are there every week singing from a shared hymnal, a little wistfully. But then I remember an alternative that proved unworkable: having a significant other who was a true believer in a religious orthodoxy that was more important to him than my feelings or experiences were. Having a significant other who needed me to change my beliefs in order for the relationship to work. I know how painful that was, because I lived it. I can’t turn around now and do that to someone else, certainly not someone I love. I turn back to my hymnal, and keep singing by myself.

So this week when my husband wanted to come to church on our anniversary, I hoped it would be a good service. The church that I’ve started attending here is promising. The people are all quite friendly and I enjoy the minister’s sermons. Plus, outside of the church, there are redwoods.

plutodogThis week’s sermon was about Pluto, called “Pluto’s Demotion and Religious Devotion.” Before we left Boston we went to see a big exhibit at the Museum of Science about Pluto. It was right when the New Horizons flyby was happening, and I remember the pictures that came back, especially the one with the heart. My college classmate, Kenneth Chang, a New York Times science reporter, covered it. In fact, my Facebook feed was full of people giving Pluto some love. But a sermon about Pluto? The fifth UU source (in a tie with the 6th source for my favorite): Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit. They get points for taking on this potentially scientific topic in the first place.

backinmyday_fullpicSo, I’m sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in the sermon. It started out strong, pointing out that at first, before Copernicus and telescopes, there were 7 planets: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These were what human observers could see with the naked eye. Earth wasn’t on the list, since it was thought to be in the center. What follows is an old, familiar story: scientists find out new facts, perspectives shift. Earth and humans move further and further away from the center of things. This trajectory encapsulates what I’ve learned over the years about the “conflict between science and religion:” when religious people talk about it, it is assumed to be self-evident that this de-centralizing of humanity is a Bad Thing. When scientific people talk about it, it seems to be generally assumed and self-evident that this de-centralizing of humanity is a Good Thing. I find these assumptions can get in the way of productive conversations and greater understanding. I’d like to have a conversation about the topic in a way that doesn’t insult my intellect or condescend to my sensibilities, in order to understand why Darwin had to defend the “grandeur in this view of life.”

I rarely have such an opportunity, and I didn’t get one this Sunday morning. Instead, I was told what’s wrong with scientism and what’s right about humility. Perhaps the minister was trying to get at the second half of the 5th source, the warning against “idolatries of the mind and spirit.” I agree there about the virtues of humility, but scientism is another story. I looked up this AAAS blog, “What is Scientism?” afterwards, because I had forgotten what the word meant. I never heard it during my scientific training, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a scientist use it. While the author of the blog, Thomas Burnett, gives a thorough history of the word scientism and claims that it is a strange but useful word, I don’t find his arguments convincing. For example, Burnett simply assumes that statements from scientists such as, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (from Carl Sagan), or “We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little” (from E.O. Wilson) are self-evidently alienating and bullying without ever explaining why he thinks so. The point of view expressed in the sermon was similar: science is just another way of looking at the world with no more validity than any other and to say otherwise is scientism (another Bad Thing), lacking in appropriate humility. The changes in the accepted number of planets, in Pluto’s status in particular, and people’s reactions to those changes, were cited as evidence for this claim.

wonkaSorry, but I’m still not buying it. It’s not because I don’t believe that everyone, including scientists, is biased. And it’s not because I believe that scientists are better people than non-scientists. The minister cited a number of examples of biases affecting both beliefs and behavior in the case of Pluto. I found these examples interesting and informative. I didn’t know, for example, that Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, was a UU. And I hadn’t thought of it before, but he was also the only American to have discovered a planet. As an American UU, sure, I’m proud of Clyde Tombaugh, and want to remain so. Back when I was in 6th grade, I learned that my very elegant mother just sat upon nine pins. I don’t like that one as much since I’ve become a mother myself, but my delight at imagining puffed-up authority figures being skewered is still alive and well. So yeah, I see these biases in my own thinking and in that of my tribe. I wish Pluto was still a planet. But crying scientism still seems like a strange response.

The problem for me with the “scientism” critique is that people who like to use the word seem not to understand what science is. Like Willy Wonka in the meme, perhaps they think “science” is some anthropomorphic entity that has a will of its own and can say things. Or they think that because scientists, like all humans, are biased and imperfect, the scientific method itself shares the same biases and imperfections, just writ large–the sum of all the flaws of its practitioners. But that’s not it at all. The second half of the 5th source says that the results of science are a warning against, not a feeder of, idolatries of the mind and spirit.

As we were driving home, my husband pointed out that the Pluto debate turns on definitions, not on science, and I agree completely. The word planet has been given a new definition several times in history, but that hasn’t changed the objective nature of what Pluto is or the scientific method by which Pluto is being studied. The newest definition includes 1. the shape of the object (that it has to be massive enough to be round) and 2. that it has to clear its neighborhood of other objects. This new definition excludes Pluto from planethood, much to many people’s disappointment. But not all. DumpedMeFor a gleeful salvo from the anti-planet camp, read Mike Brown’s book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. Brown is the Caltech astronomer who discovered Eris, another dwarf planet that is larger than Pluto. His discovery started the astronomy community down the road to “demoting” Pluto and ruining it for the rest of us who liked our 9 planets and our quaint motherly mnemonics.

Well, you could look at it that way. Or you could look at it as Brown does: as a new, exciting discovery about the universe. In this view, we haven’t lost Pluto, we’ve gained Eris, and Ceres, Haumea and Makemake, and a whole Kuiper belt full of strange and wonderful objects. “Praise him for showing us that stargazing, far from being a dead science, is a living, changing wonder,” says Benjamin Wallace about Mike Brown. And Mike Brown still loves Pluto.

If this had been my sermon, I would have focused on the wonders and new worlds that new scientific knowledge and changing definitions can open up to all of us. As UUs, we could even bring in for discussion the changes in definitions of other important words and concepts in response to new knowledge. Maybe it’s that I had marriage on my mind that anniversary day, because I kept expecting the minister to mention it. The most recent change in the definition of that word and concept, marriage, to include same-sex couples, has delighted many people (including me) but has also caused controversy and hurt on a scale far larger than anything Pluto has to offer. The analogy isn’t perfect, but to me there is a strong parallel in how both definitions, of planets and of marriage, have evolved to be more precise, and also to take into account facts about the universe that were not previously known or understood.

According to Burnett, the definition of scientism given to us by historian Richard G. Olson, “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern,” is so broad as to be “virtually useless.” I disagree. Rather, efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern are exactly what what we are engaging in and should be doing more of. Definitions sometimes change and evolve because of a traditional scientist working formally in a laboratory. But they also change and evolve when the status quo isn’t working for someone, somewhere, who may or may not be a formally trained scientist. Trained scientists or not, these folks make an observation (or have that observation thrust upon them by circumstance) and formulate a hypothesis about a better way, gather evidence in support of their hypothesis in the form of empirical observations and experiments, including lived experience, and then try to convince others on the basis of that evidence. Definitions change and evolve because of these people’s hard work in bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

The opposite of arrogance and idolatry, coping with these changes in definitions has taught us humility in the face of what we did, and still do, not know.


Golden Age

Everyone says that decluttering is supposed to be therapeutic. So why don’t I feel that way? Instead of experiencing the “life-changing magic of tidying up,” I feel like telling Marie Kondo to go stuff it.

There have been some fun, bright spots in the odyssey to divest myself of possessions that I won’t need in CA: the mother/daughter pair who came to get my freecycled collection of vintage Nancy Drew books; the friendliness of the workers at the Hazardous Waste Drop-off (cheerfully taking bleach, paint thinner, burned out CFLs, and no-longer-rechargeable batteries off my hands); the little boy who picked out a new toy car and little girl who fell in love with an artisanal stuffed bunny made out of soft alpaca fur. The prospect of new kids rummaging through an old tub of Barbies and again putting beautiful dresses and little shoes on their funny-looking plastic bodies and feet. Watching the kid I gave an old Connect 4 game to play it over and over with his friend and his mother. I even learned something about landscaping: one woman came to take large old cardboard boxes because she’s using them to cover over and redo her yard, kill weeds, and put fresh soil on top. The processes and interactions that I dread are invariably not as bad as I have made them out to be in the anxious hours between 4 and 5 am. Even disposing of a recalled de-humidifier and getting a check for it looks like it will be relatively straightforward (although it will cost $20 of that check to be environmentally responsible about the disposal).

We went to Boston’s Museum of Science yesterday, a last visit to see a couple of cool things they had on exhibit: the Science of Pixar, Exploring Pluto, and a movie about living in the Age of Airplanes. It was intended as a nice break from moving, and in many ways it was, but the Pixar exhibit also brought me face-to-face with the endless supply of junky plastic movie-tie in toys that I’ve been dealing with over the past weeks.


We haven’t bought a Happy Meal or equivalent in a long time, but the plastic lives on, and there’s something unseemly about the durability, complexity, and ubiquity of the toys. They’re in the basement. They’re in the playroom. They’re in the attic. They’re in tubs and drawers and toy organizers, in bowls and on shelves. Many of these toys are strange creatures or contraptions of one kind of another: body-less heads with big neotenous eyes and open mouths, silly expressions, crazy hair, wild colors. At the Pixar exhibit, you can see exactly how those expressions were designed, made and realized, and even make some yourself. There are complex mathematical and engineering equations describing curly hair, and cheese, and the trajectory of a waving elastic arm. A group of earnest, diverse, interesting people show up on screens labeled “Working at Pixar” to tell visitors about their jobs and how much they love those jobs. These jobs are mainly about pixels and films, animated characters and virtual lighting, but It’s brought home to me that designing those toys must be somebody’s job too, and so is actually making the physical objects. And somehow, because of that, it feels like these toys, junky and ridiculous and missing parts though they may be, deserve a better fate.

I didn’t know what to expect from the IMAX movie, called Airplanes: A World in Flight. As museum members, we had free tickets that we needed to use up, and this movie was showing when we were available, so we went. It turns out that the movie makes a compelling case for how aviation brings us closer together, makes our world smaller, and enhances cultural understanding. “Every age is a golden age,” Han Solo’s voice tells us. “Appreciate the age you live in.” The movie is interspersed with gorgeous pictures of the African Savannah, of Rome, of Las Vegas, and it ends with our future home: the San Francisco Bay area, the City, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, blazingly lit up at night, planes flying overhead, music from James Horner. It’s a beautiful movie, hopeful and optimistic, showing us lovingly and at length the goldenness of our age. Typical for me, I teared up at the ending, which shows a family greeting each other as one of them gets off a plane in the SFO airport, coming home to loved ones from a time away.

The film also had a section on flowers from Kenya being delivered to Alaska by plane. The script followed these flowers from initial cutting to vase on someone’s table in Anchorage. Planes make this kind of thing possible too, and while the movie was careful to maintain a positive tone, I was kind of appalled. These flowers only live 14 days from cutting. All the work, the fuel, the resources spent to fly them to Alaska where, in less than two weeks, they’ll be compost. This kind of thing happens with food, too, and is often discussed negatively: instead of eating out-of-season foods flown or trucked in from halfway across the world, people are told they should eat locally-produced foods bought at farmers’ markets. It’s better for the planet, and for your health. Coming from where I’ve been for the past month, awash in “stuff” that was probably shipped in from another continent and that I would have been better off without, I’m predisposed to think this way. I tear up often these days; it’s embarrassing.

What’s especially hard to understand and process, for my little brain, is what to do with this information now that I have it. Perhaps my tears are about something more than missing Boston. I read an article this morning, shared by a distant friend on Facebook: The Great Grief: How to Cope with Losing our World.  “The notion that our individual grief and emotional loss can actually be a reaction to the decline of our air, water, and ecology rarely appears in conversation or the media . . . It is as if this topic is not supposed to be publicly discussed.”  I can try to buy flowers locally (or pick them from my garden). I could even boycott cut flowers altogether, since, unlike food, they are not necessary for survival. But in general the whole system is so big and complex, and the supply chain so long it’s hard to even know where to start. If I boycott Kenyan roses, who am I helping? There’s also something wonderful about being able to get roses from Kenya. Kenya is proud of its airline and the people who work there in the flower industry are happy to have good jobs. That choice might hurt rather than help.

I too will be getting on a plane in less than a week. I’ve done my share of flying, for both business and pleasure. My carbon footprint is not small. I have always loved looking out of airplane windows to see the clouds. I took these pictures, of Mt. Rainier and Diamond Head, last year when we were on our way from Seattle to Hawaii for a vacation. That I am one of the few humans in all history who can take such pictures, that I live in such an age, is awesome, humbling, and sad at the same time.