Sunday, February 23, 2014

Setting the alarm

February 23, 2014

Dear friends,

My trusty old alarm joined the list of mechanical objects that permanently retired this year.  The clock came to the end of its service with a rather spectacular display of constantly changing red digital numbers that reported a different hour of the day approximately every minute. 

Annie (cat of the house) found this behavior entertaining, and would sit on the night stand and watch with interest as the red numbers spun around. However, the person of the house (me) did not find this method of telling time very useful. A new clock was ordered.

The clock that I chose is a remarkable object with TWO alarms, a restful green digital read-out clearly visible in the dark, a choice of radio or buzzer for each of the two alarms, radio to sleep by (FM or AM), and a snooze button with three different settings.

Given my infamous ineptitude with mechanical things, you will wonder what I was thinking when I ordered a clock with such a large option list of settings and multiple buttons to push. I should have known there would be trouble. However, the possibilities of a programmable snooze alarm overcame my good sense, and the new clock with all of its potential for splendid, continuing confusion arrived yesterday.

The task of plugging the clock in the first time, and setting just one of the two alarms proved challenging to say the least, but not worth a blog. In the process, however, a memory of my father surfaced that I would like to share.

During our high school years, in the evening my sister and I had chores, homework, dates, and (inevitably) "one more thing to do" and so were habitually late getting to bed. As a result, we were chronically sleep deprived. We would carefully set the alarm to ring at the very latest possible moment, hoarding every moment of precious sleep, then rush like mad to get to school on time.

In this process we developed the disastrous habit of shutting the alarm off and going back to sleep. There was no snooze alarm, and no adult to supervise—our father was at the barn doing chores. The alarm that frequently shot us out of bed and into action was not a clock but the sound of the kitchen door as our frustrated father brought in the milk. The frantic rush in the morning to get out of the house with books, lunch, and some kind of breakfast was a daily crisis.

One spring night Beth and I had a particularly intense discussion about the specific time at which I should set the alarm. The school bus was leaving early the next morning for a music festival in a nearby “city” and it was imperative that we both be at school early and on time for the bus. We attempted to calculate down to the very second the latest possible time we could sleep and still make the bus. When at last the clock was set we gathered up books and homework and music and placed them on the chair by the kitchen door so nothing essential would be forgotten in the morning rush. 

After a relative quiet fell in the kitchen, our father looked at me over the top of the newspaper he was reading.

“You know, Gay, I don’t believe I know anybody as good as you are at setting an alarm.”  He paused, then added with a smile, “But it seems to me you sure could use some more practice at getting up.”

Thinking with you today that it would certainly be an improvement in the present world if getting up were as easy as setting the alarm even on the new clock.

See you next week.


Sunday, February 16, 2014


February 16, 2014

Dear Friends,

I write this morning from a place of astonishment. 

I have just completed an hour of face-to-face conversation with my friend in Gaborone, Botswana. Skype is an everyday tool for most of you, and, while not a daily experience for me, still not a new experience—I skyped (necessary new word!) several times a week with my sister during the last year of her life. 

Still—I am astonished. 

I drank my morning coffee while talking with my friend, watching here the morning sun on the snow outside my study window while watching there the late afternoon sun on the green foliage I glimpsed momentarily out the window of her study half a world away. 

Where am I? What time is it? Well, it depends. 

Are you asking about what is real in Gaborone or real in Denver? Both morning and afternoon are real and both real at the same time but I know how to report only one reality at a time. I cannot describe the intricate interwoven tapestry of this experience.

Identity processes and the task of framing time assume bewilderingly complex shapes in the worlds that technology permits us to enter.

And language—ah, that too assumes new shape.

I use the verb “skyped” casually these days, but inwardly I am secretly amused when I do so. I think of skyping as the new skill of “sky-skipping ©.”  I skipped through the sky this morning into afternoon in Gaborone and had coffee with my friend.  Now that is an astonishing thing.

I was present (at the same time!!) both in Gaborone (albeit there in virtual body form), and present here in Denver with Annie contentedly asleep in a patch of sunlight on my desk.

I confess no progress at all in understanding how this sky-skipping happens. However, as I experience this multi-layered reality I find myself developing a deeper awareness of still another reality in which I live out my life. 

Jung wrote, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”

Gaborone, Denver, the Kingdom of God—thinking with you that my grandfather was incorrect—it is possible to be in more than one place at once.

See you next week.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Making Stew in the Freezer

February 9, 2014

Dear friends,

A writer is grateful—always—for readers. I am particularly grateful for readers who not only read but who also ask perceptive questions. This week’s blog has grown out of such a reader response.

“You haven’t clearly explained what you mean by cognitive processes,” a reader (and friend) said, then added, tongue-in-cheek, “You have left me thinking that cognitive processes are mysterious things like that piece of sky that fell on Chicken Little’s head. Right?”

Well, yes and no to the Chicken Little hypothesis, but the question merits serious effort to clarify the term. What are cognitive processes?

Every analogy has limitations, of course, and in the end inevitably fails to convey in full the meaning it seeks to illustrate. But a kitchen-based analogy at this point may provide some help in making cognitive processes a useful term.
Suppose, for example, I set about the kitchen-based task of making beef stew.  

Assembling the contents for the stew is fairly straightforward: meat, vegetables, liquid base, and seasonings. Nothing mysterious here.

Assembling the list of ingredients is not, however, all that is necessary in order to make a stew. I must do something to—with?—the items I have assembled. Specific processes must be applied.

Join me in the kitchen--willing suspension of disbelief [smile]—where you watch me dice finely all ingredients, using, of course, great artistic flourishes of my chef’s knife. Then you watch me mix these finely diced items at high speed for four minutes in a blender, add three cups of carbonated water, then pop this mix into the freezer for two hours. 

Clearly what will emerge from the freezer cannot be fairly called a stew whatever the excellent quality of the original ingredients may have been. The content has been severely—irreparably—altered by the processes to which it has been subjected.

The human mind has a truly spectacular repertoire of processes that it can use on the ingredients of the mind—ideas, feelings, and physical responses to data provided by the senses. But the human mind can at times apply an inappropriate process that leads to a frustratingly unhelpful conclusion. We can be as inept in processing feelings, ideas, and body responses as I was in processing the ingredients I assembled for my hypothetical stew.

There are interesting (and amusing) examples of this problem all through the history of thought. At one time, for example, some very bright people had this idea: If there is such a thing as the soul, we should be able to measure a difference in the body at the moment of death when the soul leaves the body. We will explore the idea of the soul by weighing people immediately prior to and following death.  If there is a soul, then the post death body will be lighter in weight than the pre-death state in which the soul is present in the body.

The problem here was not lack of logic—the idea that there must be “evidence” of the soul if it exists, is not in itself illogical. The accompanying presupposition, however, opened the door to inappropriate cognitive processes.  The assumption that the soul if “real” consisted of mass that could be weighed led to rigorously careful weighing of bodies, pre and post death.  When no reliable differences in body weight were found some people concluded that the absence of "weight" proved the absence of soul.

There is some truth here, obviously. It is highly improbable that “soul” exists in a form that can be weighed whether in terms of pounds, ounces or metric equivalent. 

But that is not the point on which I want you to focus. I want you to think about the way in which the very idea of soul became altered by using the notion of the weighing process. Our present understanding of the condition we term "brain dead" may make us shake our heads at the picture of frantic efforts to weigh a body at the point of death. But it should also make us cautious about the results of an error in cognitive processes.  A way of thinking that is indeed helpful when applied to objects that have mass is not  helpful in thinking about objects without mass. Processes that are useful in the study of objects with mass can lead to faulty understanding of those objects that exist without mass.

Demonstrating that the soul does not have mass does not demonstrate that the soul does not therefore exist. Things may exist even when an inappropriate process does not permit us to identify or understand their existence.  

It has become something of a cliche to say that we cannot reach a correct answer if we have the question wrong. Nevertheless, it is worth noting here in passing that one important way a question can be “wrong” is to shape the question in a form that initiates inappropriate cognitive processes. 

Anyone want to volunteer to answer this question: what factors alter the weight of the soul?

One of the gifts of the postmodern “age” is a new insistence that the processes of science, valuable as they are, do not permit discovery and understanding of ‘ALL’ truth.

Thinking with you today about the longing of Paul’s soul when he wrote, “. . . that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. . . (Phil. 3:10).” 

What did Paul mean when he said “that I may know Him” (italics added)?

Wondering too about the cognitive processes Paul had in mind when, a few sentences later, he added, “. . . join in following my example . . . walk according to the pattern you have in us (Phil. 3:17).”

See you next week.