Suicide Squirrel Season

My bicycle commute takes me through the territory of a colony of squirrels.  I think it’s one colony, but it might be two, given the numbers of squirrels scampering about.  There are plenty of bushes and trees, and the ground sort of levels out into a small urban meadow.  Also, it’s right on a major bike path and near the airport, so there are lots of food opportunities.

Even though there’s probably plenty of food for them, around the October-November timeframe the squirrels start to get, well, squirrelly.  Their hoarding instinct starts to kick in as the days get shorter, and they start running around like crazy more, to include darting across the bike path with frightening frequency.  One day in October this year I had two near-misses, and both were due to squirrels.

All that said, there seems to be a special, suicide squad type of squirrel that lives in this colony.  Maybe I just notice them more in the fall and winter, but it seems like as other squirrels are winding down for the year, the really cool looking black ones are just gearing up.  They’re also the most likely to dart in front of a moving bicycle, it seems.  They’re usually hard to see in the grassy areas because they do blend in with the dark shadows under the trees and bushes, so when they do rush across the path, it’s a bit of a jolt.  You just hope you don’t skid off the path or actually run into the little beastie.

Given the way they hang off in the shadows (quite literally) when it’s the hardest to see them, then go running like mad across the path in front of a moving bicycle, often at the bottom of a hill, I have to wonder if it’s all a set up.  It’s as if the squirrel colony has trained the suicide squad to make use of their natural camouflage to cause a few additional crashes where they could scavenge for any food that comes spilling out of the bags.  I can just hear them chittering in delight at the thought as an especially inattentive bicycle commuter comes down the path.

Just another reason to make sure you have a good bike light and are paying close attention to your surroundings while biking–you wouldn’t want to be the next victim of the suicide squirrel squad.


Living in a Time of Distributed Knowledge

I am very thankful we live in the internet era, with widely distributed knowledge freely available.  Not only are there things like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the entire Summa Theologica available online, more practical, technical information is also widely available.

Case in point:  how to replace the power mirror motor in your car.  Last week, I was trying to back out of our very narrow garage in our rather wide Ford Flex.  It just barely fits in, with about 2.5 inches on either side of the side mirror.  I was paying more attention to the passenger side as I was going out and heard a thunk just outside my door.  Sure enough, I caught the driver side mirror on the garage door.  Well, if I had to break the mirror, I did it the right way:  just the pivot on the motor, not the glass or the housing.  I ordered the part (with grumbling about needing the more expensive one with memory…), and, through the power of YouTube found out exactly how to replace the motor.  Even though this is for an F-150, the set-up and steps are all the same.  It really was a 10 minute job–the trickiest part was removing the mirror itself from the old mount since I was being especially careful not to break the glass to avoid the mess and needing to buy yet another part through my carelessness.

In some ways, this must be what it felt like after people had lived with the printing press for a few years–knowledge was widely distributed, freely available, and ideas proliferated wildly.  Sure, not everything was true, a good idea, or based on reason (just like today), but that just means that consumers of knowledge have to be highly discerning in what they read and how they evaluate it.  To my mind, our schools should be doing far more to develop critical thinking skills for the students, rather than teaching them how to take tests or whatever technical skills the state thinks they need to be productive workers.  Without critical thinking skills, people (including my generation and previous) are blown about by popular opinion (or worse, the opinions of the popular) without anything to ground them or a yard stick by which to measure those opinions.  Much less are they prepared to discuss ideas and engage with topics to get at the truth of a matter without getting drawn into escalating insults (ad hominem, anyone?) or other logical fallacies.

What it comes down to is the proportional relationship between the amount of knowledge you can freely access and the need to apply critical thinking.  As we have access to more and more information–and not just through technology, this applies as children grow older and are able to read more books or have greater access to the internet–the more we need to exercise our critical thinking skills so we don’t get caught up and swept away by a narrative that may sound good, but is false or otherwise actually harmful.

Catechetical Bicycling Analogies

My bicycle commute gives me plenty of time to think of random thoughts. Usually I recite the rosary, but sometimes stray thoughts will percolate up, and a scant handful of those wind up being useful. In the last month, I’ve actually had a couple of analogies spring to mind that I’ll have to use for my CCD class:

Analogy 1: One night not long ago, there was a fast biker coming around a corner on an unlit segment of the path. He had a very dim, small light (probably because his battery was going out), but it was enough to see him, and, I assume, for him to see where he was going. He might have been overrunning his light, but that was the risk he took. This spurred the thought: “In times of darkness, even the smallest light makes a difference.” One way to take this analogy for catechesis is that even when days are darkest and you are at your most overwhelmed, small prayers make a big difference. As long as you do not lose hope, you’re going to come through it OK. Another analogy to make with this is that even our smallest good works make a difference. The recipient may have needed just that action at just that time, and the doer will be building up treasure in heaven.

Analogy 2: There’s a place on my way to work where if you cut the corner and follow the track that walkers take, you run about a 50% chance of hitting the edge of the sidewalk wrong and getting a flat. You’re much better off going all the way to the corner and making the turn. In fact, you only save, at most, 20 seconds. Now, those 20 seconds might mean you make the light at the cross walk, so it might be worth the risk of a flat, even if that means an extra five minutes to change your tire. This one’s a pretty clear analogy for why you want to avoid the near occasion of sin. Not that the near occasion itself is sinful, but at least half the time you’ll go over the line. So, is that [insert temptation here] really worth it, knowing that it puts your immortal soul at risk?

I hope these work for my students and convey the right meaning. The issue is you never quite know when something will work, hit the meaning, and stay with them, or when what you say just goes over their heads, or worse, sets them off down a completely different, and unedifying path. Here’s hoping a small glimmer makes it through my teaching so they get something out of it.

Hang Up and Bike Already

After the heat and humidity of summer started to fade but before it got really cold, I noticed a somewhat bothersome trend on the bike trail in the afternoon:  The extensive use of phones, which means bicyclists are 1) going very slowly 2) not paying attention to the trail or the surroundings 3) blasting music or 4) all of the above.

Now, I’m not one of those speed demon bicyclists who will mow you down for not going fast enough (actually, I’ve been known to hang back behind someone going a little slower than I prefer when I can’t see around a corner, or want to actually look around at the fall colors), but when you’re barely able to keep the bike upright because you’re trying to talk on a phone or send a text and have to slow down, you’re better off just pulling off the side of the path and having your conversation.  On the other hand, you also have the people who decide to stop and have the conversation, but are oblivious to what’s going on and so stop in the middle of the trail, or just around a corner so they are impossible to see.  I’ve seen several near collisions because of both of these.

I really don’t understand the use of the phone/bluetooth speaker to blast music.  I guess it’s a step up from using headphones so you can’t hear anything, but I’m still not interested in hearing your workout music.  Then again, the people who do this don’t really seem to be exercising; they seem to be commuters like I am.  Really super casual/occasional commuters, but commuters nonetheless.  Maybe they miss their car stereo so much they need a tinny sounding speaker attached to them any time they are in movement.  At least you can hear them coming, so they do get points for safety.

The worst really is when you get combinations of the above–not really pulling off the trail to place a call while still playing music is pretty common, or at least was a couple of weeks ago.  One afternoon, I swear there were at least three near misses in a short stretch of trail due to phone use/misuse.

At least they are out there, enjoying the weather and getting some exercise, but I do wish the phoning cyclists would just hang up and bike already.

Time to Confuse the Cats

The end of Daylight Saving Time last kept the cats confused until Wednesday.  Even though she’s adjusted now, Lavash is still quite hopeful that I’ll feed her at 0500 instead of (or, more likely, in addition to) her usual 0600 breakfast.  Benson, on the other hand, still just snarfs up whatever he can whenever he can, and lets Lavash do the pestering.

Last Sunday, when the time change went into effect, Lavash was quite distraught when I didn’t get up at what she thought was my usual time.  She usually starts getting worried if I’m not out of bed by 0520 (yes, she’s that good of an alarm clock), but last week it was 0420.  Good thing that’s pretty close to my usual time to wake up.  She was horribly disappointed, though, when she had to wait a whole hour and a half for her breakfast, in spite of everyone being up (the kids had a bit of a rough transition, too).  Monday and Tuesday were better, but she still isn’t entirely sure I have the time right.

It didn’t help much that the time change coincided with a weather change.  We got cold all of a sudden.  So cold, in fact, that we decided to fire up the furnace since extra layers of clothing were only going so far.  Benson is especially happy that the hot air blower spots are, as far as he’s can understand, working again.  I saw him huddled by one heater vent the other morning and asked him what he was doing.  He rather sheepishly unfolded himself and walked over to a different vent, still looking sort of embarrassed, as if to say, “yes, I know I have fur, but it’s tropical weight.”

As far as the cats are concerned, the good thing about the weather change is that the squirrels are out and about, scurrying around furiously in preparation for winter.  They’re looking pretty plump by now, too, so Lavash and Benson have a great time window hunting the squirrels.

We’ll have to see what this year’s winter brings.  Last year was especially mild, which was a nice way to ease back into the temperate zone from the tropics.  I have a hunch that this year won’t be nearly so mild, but probably closer to normal, if not a little colder and snowier than usual.

Stegosaurus Cake

The twins just turned five, and got a stegosaurus cake:

While a pentaceratops could have been fun (just like the triceratops for their three-year birthday), I went with the stegosaurus and made the plates on the back out of pentagons.

Dino-texturingSo, the icing is a little sloppy mainly because the cake was frozen when I put it on, and it immediately hardened beyond what I could smooth out.  We’ll call it dino-texture.  I didn’t want to push my luck with letting it thaw out too much before everything was in place since it took me three tries (and two wooden picks) to get the neck on without it falling.

The cake itself is my basic coffee cake recipe, but made with more liquid than usual to tighten up the crumb.  Also, I used apple cider rather than milk, and a heavy dose of cinnamon to give it an autumnal spiced cider feel.

Who you starin’ at?

The cake went over very well with the twins and with Quarta’s godfamily (Tertia’s came for lunch, but we did the cake with dinner).  Again, a success, even if a little lacking in execution.  Next time I’ll have to work quicker with the icing, and a thinner layer at first, to get it smooth.

Christ the King, Extraordinary Form

Today, being the last Sunday before All Saints Day, is the Feast of Christ the King.  In the Ordinary Form, it has been moved to the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, or right before Advent.

Pope Pius XI instituted the feast with the encyclical Quas Primas, issued on December 11, 1925.  The encyclical discusses the Holy Year of 1925, which celebrated the 16th centenary of the Council of Nicea, and how the celebrations of that year underscored the need to accept Jesus as King and Ruler, as is done throughout scripture, and, up until then, in pious practice.  The first paragraph explains:

IN THE FIRST ENCYCLICAL LETTER which We addressed at the beginning of Our Pontificate to the Bishops of the universal Church, We referred to the chief causes of the difficulties under which mankind was laboring. And We remember saying that these manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further, that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations. Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ; and that We promised to do as far as lay in Our power. In the Kingdom of Christ, that is, it seemed to Us that peace could not be more effectually restored nor fixed upon a firmer basis than through the restoration of the Empire of Our Lord. We were led in the meantime to indulge the hope of a brighter future at the sight of a more widespread and keener interest evinced in Christ and his Church, the one Source of Salvation, a sign that men who had formerly spurned the rule of our Redeemer and had exiled themselves from his kingdom were preparing, and even hastening, to return to the duty of obedience.

At least in part, Pope Pius is responding to world events and the gathering storm clouds that presage a return to war.  He points at moral principles being purged from the public sphere as a troubling trend, especially as the Church is discounted as an authority and increasingly pushed out of public discourse.  The answer is to recognize that all earthly rulers, in whatever sphere, derive their authority from Jesus, The King.

Quas Primas puts the feast at the end of October, to fall just before All Saints Day, in order to reflect that Jesus is a Heavenly King, and His court is in Heaven.  Our goal is to join that court after our sojourn here on Earth, or at the end of time.  In 1970, the feast was moved to the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year to further emphasize the eschatological nature of Jesus’ kingship.  In a way, that move makes sense–end the year on a high note, and get a reminder that the baby who came at the first Christmas will come again in full majesty at the end of time.  On the other hand, emphasizing the eschatological nature of Christ’s kingship gets away from the need to work to bring His kingdom to Earth now, in the way we live our lives every day.  It almost glosses over the fact that Jesus is king (present tense), and makes it easy to settle into an attitude of “Jesus will be king (future) at the end of time…no need to amend my life now.”  If we slide into that attitude, then we’ve missed the point that Pope Pius was making–the only way to rectify the many wrongs in the world is to recognize that Jesus is King, and we are his subjects.  His law is not obscure, nor is his yoke heavy.

In short, by celebrating Christ the King, it’s a reminder that we’re under God’s law, not just in the future when He comes again, but now, every day, so that we can show the world the joys that await those who turn to Him.

Pizza Pointers

For the past several years (at least three), I’ve been using a pizza dough modeled after the lazy pizza dough from Smitten Kitchen.  I say modeled because I use whole wheat flour, adjusted it some , and think of it as a ratio in bakers’ math, rather than a recipe.  The genius of her recipe is in the varying levels of yeast.  I haven’t quite gotten that pinned down to something 100 percent reliable, but do have it close enough for my purposes.

The basic formula is:

100% whole wheat flour

66% water

3% yeast (for a 5-6 hour rise; for a longer rise, this drops to about 2%; for a shorter rise, this goes up to about 4%)

3% salt (for a 5-6 hour rise; for a longer rise, this can stay the same; for a shorter rise, this drops to about 2%)

So, to translate the bakers’ math into the real world, I usually use:

750g whole wheat flour

500g water

20g yeast

20g salt.

Mix together until it forms a ball (should take no more than five minutes), then cover and let rise until you need it.  Time does all the work of developing the gluten for you.  The good news is this is really flexible–if you let this basic amount go for more than six hours, you’re fine (I’ve never let it go more than 12, though–I usually don’t plan that far in advance).  This gets me four good sized pizzas (about 10 inch, depending on how thick I make the crust).

Forming the crust is a bit of an adventure, or can be.  If you’re in a rush, you can divide up the dough (I use about 330g for each crust, based on the 750g flour weight), roll the crust with a rolling pin, and toss it in the oven (at least 500 degrees; hotter is better if you can get it) for about 10-12 minutes, and have dinner.  If you want to be a little more artsy about it, you can form disks, let the gluten relax some, then start hand-tossing.  I find I get the best results when I use a rolling pin to make sure the disks are an even thickness.  If I try to eyeball it, I usually wind up with holes somewhere.  The adventure comes when you let the gluten relax too much–then the dough starts drooping like a Dali clock when you try to toss it, and you wind up with holes.  Just patch the holes and go for it–it’s still really, really tasty.

Around here, broccoli and olive (individually and together) are very popular.  Yellow cherry tomatoes cut in half are also a hit, as are sun-dried tomatoes.  A recent big favorite is a “Salad pizza”, which the crust, no sauce, and a layer of cheese covered with mixed salad greens (a light dusting of cheese on the greens gets really, really crispy and good).  Bake for about 11 minutes, again at 500 (or more), and, after it comes out, hit it with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  I tried it out a few weeks ago to see if the kids would like it, and now they look forward to it every time.  Go figure.


Technology Prevails Over Biofilm

This makes me rather happy:

The National Park Service has concluded a successful test using laser ablation as a means of removing biofilm that has darkened the dome of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The test paves the way to ultimately clean the rest of the memorial.

The full press release is here, on the National Park service website.

A company out of Chicago, Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, Inc., seems to have developed a laser ablation technique delicate enough to clean a 3,500 year obelisk, buildings, graffiti off petroglyphs, and now, national monuments.

I like this because 1) the Jefferson is one of my favorite monuments (1st Secretary of State, you know) 2) the building is in desperate need of a cleaning (it has visibly gotten grey-er in the year since I’ve been here, and I go by it almost every day) and 3) it shows the remarkable ingenuity of humans.  According to their website, the Conservation Studio folks made the laser machine small enough to be carried up scaffolding, and able to be powered by a 110v plug.  I’d call that pretty remarkable, and a smart business move–you can use this thing pretty much anywhere, it seems.

Now if only technology could come up with a way to zap away cat hair and dried leaf fragments, we’d be set.

The Need to Create

I’ve been mulling over the idea that humans have an innate need to create.  For the sake of argument, to create is defined as to cause something new to come into existance, either physical or imagined.

If humans have an innate need to create, it would help explain why children (mine, at least) can spend hours and hours playing with Legos, or drawing, or anything else where they are creating something.  It almost doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is an activity that results in a creation–bringing something new into the world.  Storytelling falls into this category, too (and you should hear my children tell each other stories, usually connected with the Lego thing they just built or the picture they just drew).  Creating new worlds, sharing ideas, exploring “what ifs” are all activities of creation.

But it doesn’t stop at the end of childhood; I would argue that adults likewise have a need to create.  We might not have the luxury of time to spend playing with blocks, but cooking is a form of creation, or at least transformation, that most people engage in daily (or at least several times a week).  Beyond that, many hobbies are also creative endeavors, consisting of bringing something new into existence, such as woodworking, sewing, landscaping, making music, writing and so on.  These recreational activities re-create ourselves because the activities involve creation on some level.

When this need is stymied, though, what happens?  For my kids, they get cranky that their creative outlet is stifled (either that, or they’re just hungry or tired).  For adults, I suspect it translates into ennui and boredom, especially in a job.  If you feel like what you are doing day in and day out does not give you the opportunity to bring something new into existence, or at least afford you the time you need for creative endeavors, you get bored, and feel stuck in a rut.  You are unable to recreate yourself because you cannot create.

The final piece of this is the question of what if your creative output is not all that good?  We’ve all seen amature art; some of it shows signs of being passable, but most of it is amature.  That doesn’t mean that the effort is not worth it, but that maybe the result is less than the aim.  I would argue that this is the real joy we find in creativity:  there’s always room to improve the output, but the process itself is what helps us be who we are as humans.  After all, we are made in the image of the Creator.  It stands to reason that our nature would include a very faint echo of that Creative act.