An Examined Life

blossoms2

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Someday

One day, when I am older, I imagine I will have the occasion to look back on my life and write something like:

When I was younger, in my mid-twenties, I lived in the Museum District of Richmond, Virginia, a small city that awkwardly hung between Southern and hipster. Its buildings were old and elegant, constructed in the style of the Gilded Age. My apartment was a small one-bedroom in one of these buildings on a grand street lined with monuments, tributes to fallen heroes of the former Confederate capital such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The apartment came with warm orange walls and neighbors whose fighting reverberated down the hall.

In the springtime the District was at its loveliest, when the jasmine, cherries, and dogwoods opened their blossoms and their fragrance overtook the unpleasant smells of the city. In the afternoon, new leaves glowed nearly transparent in the sun. I worked from home at that time and would take walks on these evenings, wandering the city I had come back to, come back to experience for the first time. On some streets, you could find a block or two where not a sound was to be heard besides busy birds singing their delight and the distant traffic faded so far into the background as to become imperceptible.

My walks led me nowhere in particular, and not having any destination, I was free to aimlessly amble for as far and as long as I liked. Often it would strike me that although I appreciated the unique beauty of this city, I didn’t feel immersed in it. Richmond had not wooed me, not like Appalachia had, where I had fallen head over heels for the hills that hugged me and kept me warm on cold winter nights. I thought often of returning to its comforting arms, but as spring opened up into summer, I began to feel a different kind of pull. It was the pull not of comfort, but of the horizon and the unknown. The kind that makes you restless, not ever quite able to relax. Even as I would watch TV to wind down after work, my legs fidgeted and my mind wandered, because I knew out there, beyond the boundaries of my familiarity, there were bigger mountains to climb.

Someday I will look back and write that.

Lessons

During college, I interned at a small publishing house with their editorial department for a summer in New York City. It had been my dream all throughout college, and I pictured myself as one day being a world-class editor in book publishing. I was mostly given safe tasks that an intern could complete without ruining anything. The company was small enough that I would regularly see the president as he bustled past my desk during his day-to-day activities. Well, I would see him out of the corner of my eye as I stared at my desk, completely avoiding eye contact, of course.

Frequently, I would answer the phone in place of the executive assistant whenever she was in a meeting with him or out to lunch. Though she knew several of the callers by name, I knew none of them and nothing about what they wanted. I was typically expected to say, “I’m sorry, he’s not in right now, may I have your name and number?” Sometimes those oh-so-important people would leave just a partial name, or no number, or just start up a conversation with me anyway. As an inexperienced intern with no actual idea what I was doing and expending enormous amounts of energy pretending I did, those were the most anxiety-inducing moments of my life.

Until they day she was out sick.

That day, I took over even more of her daily duties, such as booking a car for the president’s important date with a client that night, internally flailing all the while.

In the afternoon, I was instructed to go into the president’s office for the first time and take notes for him. Queue ducking under the desk to hyperventilate and slap on another layer of deodorant.

“Don’t be scared,” one of the employees told me, “He’s all bark and no bite.”

Helpful.

I collected myself and walked in. Maybe it was the failing deodorant or the deer-in-headlights expression on my face, but apparently he could tell I was nervous. He proceeded to make small talk with me that consisted mostly of a lecture on the merits of the Great Russian Writers. He rattled off their names. Dostoyevsky? Tolstoy? Chekhov? I hadn’t read any of them.

None of them?”

“No.”

He shook his head as if to say, You don’t know what you’re missing, you uncultured heathen.

Well, that’s what it felt like, anyway.

For the rest of the afternoon, I scrambled around trying to keep up with note-taking, order taxis, check reservations and generally manage his life for him until finally he was successfully out of the door and I took what felt like my first breath of the day.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up in the publishing industry of New York, but I did read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. I had learned an important lesson that day, which was that I didn’t want to be caught in the embarrassing position of having to admit I had never read Great Russian Literature ever again.

Next book on my list: Walden, or A Book that Has Been Sitting on my Shelf for Five Years.

Rule #1 of city living:

Always, ALWAYS carry cash. No corner market will accept cards for purchases under $5 and all you will want is some tasty-looking 50-cent bananas. You will go home empty handed.

(Also, one day you WILL discover you need to do an emergency load of laundry, have no quarters, and no dollar bills to exchange for quarters. You will end up wearing that tacky shirt you liked in eighth grade that you meant to take on the last Goodwill donation trip. You will be ridiculed by everyone you love.)

Autumnal

Changes in season, a season of changes.

It’s August: Buckle Up

It’s August: buckle up. Some cool astronomy shit is going down this month:

August 6 – The Rosetta spacecraft, launched in 2004 by the European Space Agency, will fall into orbit around a small rocky comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Being that it’s not Halley’s Comet, 67P was formerly of little to no interest to Earthlings. But it’s about to get a lot more interesting: the ultimate goal is to land a probe on its surface as it speeds closer to the sun at 33,000mph. To build up enough velocity to fling itself to the outer regions of the solar system, Rosetta performed a sort of slingshot maneuver, orbiting the Earth three times and once around Mars before hurtling off toward 67P. It then shut down its systems into a state of near-hibernation for two and a half years.

On January 14 of this year, Rosetta was fired back up to burn its engines and slowly bring it close to 67P. In less than a week, Rosetta is scheduled for its final burn that will bring it into orbit. Afterwards it will begin preparing to gently push and nudge the Philae lander onto its surface, where it will run tests for the next year as the comet whips around the sun.

August 12 – Peak viewing for Perseid meteor shower. Does this even need an explanation? Sixty meteors per hour streaking across the night sky, some appearing as bright fireballs hurtling toward the ground. I rest my case.

[Because of a full moon on August 10, viewing will be less than optimal this year, but even less than optimal Perseids are pretty damn spectacular.]

August 24New Horizons, a NASA probe sent to study reject planet Pluto, will cross Neptune’s orbit. New Horizons was launched in 2006 (hard to believe it’s been eight years since then) and is expected to reach Pluto in about one year. To give you an idea of the layout of our solar system, one year after its launch, the spacecraft performed a flyby of Jupiter and harnessed its gravitational power to propel itself forward 9000mph faster. Seven and a half years later, it’s just now crossing Neptune and is still 300,000,000 miles from its destination.

The goal of the New Horizons mission is to learn more about the shadowy boulder, such as its diameter and atmospheric composition. Images from the craft will exceed the quality of the Hubble telescope.

Cats, Dogs, and your Human Identity

It’s the quintessential question for a first date: are you a cat person or a dog person? Almost everyone can answer it definitively. Many know deep in their heart of hearts which animal they connect with more. Even when someone is a general animal-lover owning both types of pets, when you ask them if they’re a cat or dog person, they’ll answer something along these lines: “I really love both, but I’m definitely a cat person,” or vice versa.

I am a cat person. I enjoy their antics and appreciate their rare cuddles. But mostly, I just get them. I know how to interact with them (i.e. leave them alone). I’ve read books on cat behavior and watched “My Cat From Hell” to fine-tune my knowledge, and while I’m no Jackson Galaxy, I think I understand my cat’s moods pretty well. It comes almost naturally to me.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, does not. He likes cats, sort of (moreso when they act as much like a dog as a cat can), but he doesn’t get them, nor does he care to. But he loves dogs and every part of owning one, even (or rather, especially) the training.

I started thinking harder about this difference between us while we housesat a while ago for his coworker. Her two dogs had related to both of us relatively the same until that night when he decided to work on commands with them for fun. Watching him interact with these two dogs almost entranced me. It seemed so effortless. He was able to seamlessly command their attention, change his facial expressions, and give social cues in order to build a working relationship with them. Afterwards, they had eyes for no one but him.

Of course, I wanted a try – I wanted the dogs to adore me too. The sting of rejection is hard to bear– the pups paid me half as much mind as they had my boyfriend. I just didn’t have the touch.

To me, being a cat or dog person didn’t seem to be simply a matter of which animal we like better. Maybe it could say something about who we are as individuals.

Recently, a study was published from Carroll University that attempted to answer this question. In results that disgruntled 50% of the population, it was shown that cat and dog people do at least exhibit different trends in personality traits. The study found that dog people tend to be energetic and outgoing. Cat people are more introverted, sensitive, and…(to the displeasure of canine lovers) intelligent.

Researcher Dr. Denise Guastello said of the study:

“It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog. Whereas, if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you’re more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.”

Guastello mainly correlated the types of environments people prefer with their animal of choice as a possible cause for the results.

But it’s also interesting how this research ties in with what we know about the evolution of dogs and cats. Though humans have a long history with both animals, dogs were domesticated much earlier than cats – at least 5,000 years, by modest estimates. And they were domesticated for different reasons, in different ways, with different results.

Although the details of the early domestication of dogs are fuzzy, it is widely believed to have been based on a mutualistic relationship. Wolves that were more social and unafraid were more likely to receive food (in the form of scraps) and shelter, and they passed these traits to their offspring. At some point, we discovered they were useful and kept them. Dogs were put to work at first for hunting meat and, as they developed a bark, protecting the camp. Later they herded flocks and carried packs or pulled loads, and more recently they have provided aid and assistance. They lost the wolf-like physical traits and turned into the cuddly goofballs we love today. As we found more things they were good for, dogs became ubiquitous companions among humans, who influenced their evolution into something unique.

From their relationship with humans, dogs adopted special behaviors uncommon among animals. They learned to interpret subtle social cues, demonstrate the ability to read human facial expressions, and recognize when a human’s attention is on them. Dogs are also the only non-primate species to gaze at the right side of the face when encountering a human, as humans do for facial recognition within the right brain. For dogs, this only happens when they see human faces, and does not occur with other canines or any other animal.

On the other hand, the domestication of cats was a much more passive process. Humans just kind of tolerated their existence, and natural selection went to work as cats hung around villages and hunt vermin. Furthermore, though they have high intelligence, cats didn’t undergo any of the changes of domestication that dogs did. They’re still basically tame wildcats, and can survive fairly well on their own.

Humans and dogs evolved together so closely that dogs became more like humans. We learned how to appeal to their inner pack animal by playing the role of alpha-dog, and interacting with them became an animated and almost social process. Cats remained separate, aloof, and virtually unchanged. While they do bring social comfort and companionship to their owners, interaction happens on their terms.

As such, ownership of cats and dogs are very different experiences, and pet owners often state that they see themselves in the personality of their pets. They feel compatible with that animal, similar to compatibility with close friends. This seems to suggest deep behavioral differences between cat people and dog people beyond environmental preferences. It’s less fun fact for a first date and more a core part of our identity. Further research into factors such as childhood pets and the way cat and dog people relate to others could help us understand more about ourselves, our natures, and even our history.

Waiting

The Struggle of Evolution

Most people are at least familiar with Darwin’s theory of evolution at its most basic level: that all creatures have evolved from a common ancestor. Unfortunately, this loose understanding leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation, and misconceptions run rampant, the most popular being that humans were once monkeys. Enough people feel uncomfortable with evolution by natural selection that as recently as 2005, there were still laws on the books requiring public schools to teach intelligent design as an alternate to “Darwin’s view.” One hundred and fifty years after the publishing of The Origin of Species, around three-quarters of the American population still reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, as stated in David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

Quammen’s commitment to scientific truth and interest in Darwin, the scientist and the man, served as motivation for his book, a short biography on Darwin and the making of his theory of evolution. Quammen is no scientist, as he readily admits. Besides the odd science class in school, he has had no academic training in the field of biology and the natural sciences. He’s simply a science journalist, invested in the acceptance of evolution, who has had the opportunity of travelling with field biologists while he gathers information for his projects. As in previous works such as The Song of the Dodo, Quammen takes this technical knowledge and simplifies it for the everyday reader, producing another enlightening and engaging tale.

Although Quammen is virtually self-taught, the information presented in the book indicates a breadth of knowledge on Darwin and his work. He delivers a wonderfully intimate portrait of Darwin and demonstrates a clear grasp of his work. Readers are first drawn to the title: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Inside, we are promised an explanation of why Darwin is described as reluctant; what makes him hesitant? Quammen answers these questions and many more, delving into the various quirks of Darwin’s life – for instance his eight-year obsession with barnacles. Readers are introduced to aspects of Darwin not often publicized: the sickly Darwin; the affectionate Darwin; the meticulous Darwin. In addition, Quammen clarifies for the reader much of the evidence supporting evolution and natural selection, details that only come naturally in telling the story of Darwin’s life, given that his theory was his life. He seamlessly switches between biography and scientific explanation, giving readers an impressively thorough account for the limited amount of space of the events leading up to Darwin’s assured confidence in his theory.

The book is written in a loose chronological order in which Quammen sometimes jumps ahead and then rewinds back. However, he always has good reason to do so, such as a flashback to Alfred Wallace and the beginnings of his own theory that developed while Darwin was working on barnacles. The narrative is still easy to follow. It begins just after Darwin steps off the ship that took him around the world and started the cognitive wheels turning. Quammen makes a wise choice in omitting details of Darwin’s time on the Beagle, both in the interest of brevity and avoiding repetition. Most other major Darwin biographies have covered his Beagle journey, making it an already well-known fact about Darwin’s life. Beginning the narrative after his trip helps keep the book a short and unintimidating 250 pages, a quick read for most who will pick up The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

As it is so short, the book is not for those who have already read other, longer Darwin biographies and are expecting to find something new. They will likely find the book repetitive, already being familiar with these details of Darwin’s life. Similarly, if one is looking for a book containing every detail of Darwin’s life, this isn’t it. However, this book is a great jumping off point for those who don’t know much about the man behind the theory. It provides a wonderfully entertaining overview of his post-Beagle years, and the reader walks away with a better sense about the type of man Darwin was. For some, the narrative will inspire to read more about this quirky man. For others, this brief portrait of Darwin may be enough. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin stands on its own as a fulfilling portrait, describing for readers what exactly happened while Darwin removed himself from society to focus on his work inside his home.

The book also dispels common myths about these years, for example that The Origin of Species was met with great and immediate excitement, or that Darwin was alone in his evolutionary thinking. In addition, it gives details about the relationships in his life: with his colleagues; with his children; and most importantly, with his wife. Quammen discusses the marriage in depth not only to show Darwin’s devotion as a husband, but to contrast this with his devotion to science. Though he paid painstaking attention to detail, he couldn’t help seeing what it all meant in the bigger picture: that natural laws guided the development of species, not an omnipotent God. The conflict of his research with the love for his religious wife was one Darwin struggled with until his death. Though she always remained supportive, there was great pain in her understanding that he would not be with her in the afterlife.

One of the most delightful stories of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is an excerpt it includes from Darwin’s own autobiography. Darwin, in the early days of his adulthood, was an avid beetle collector. On one of his beetle-collecting trips, he found a rare beetle, and then another, holding one in each hand. Then he spotted a third, upon the sight of which he placed one beetle in his mouth in order to hold all three. The beetle then released an acidic liquid which burned his tongue, forcing him to promptly spit the beetle out and allowing that and the third one to escape. Lighthearted tales like these among the hard science make The Reluctant Mr. Darwin surprisingly endearing, as it illustrates the idiosyncrasies of one of science’s most revolutionary men. Quammen’s narrative entertainingly continues the 150-year effort to bring Darwin’s theory into society’s good graces.