Friday, October 24, 2008

My recent field trip

A while ago when I was looking for a place to live I looked around on-line to see if I could find any monasteries. No, a monastery was not my first choice or what I was really looking for in a place. I was just getting down to the wire and figured, hey, it worked for me once before. It took a little bit of doing to tell you the truth. I found a few convents without too much struggle but eventually came upon an Episcopal monastery near Harvard and an Orthodox one in Brookline.

After one negative experience in an Episcopal church and a couple of good ones with the Orthodoxy, I developed a bit of an interest and resolved some time ago to try and check the place out. Their website indicated that they were pretty hospitable and allowed people to come join with them for their liturgies. They also sell pretty cool icons. So, wanting an icon or two to decorate my room and a chance to hear vespers again, I took a little trip out there.

Getting there was a bit of a hassle because the train next to my house is pretty inconsistent and the bus connection I needed is pretty infrequent. I ended up walking the distance from the stop where I got off the train because the bus was not on schedule. It was one of those situations where the bus is so late that it was running with the next scheduled bus right behind it.

I was a bit nervous about this situation because I had timed things pretty closely and wanted to be sure to have enough time to get my pictures and still be on time for the service. As all the monks are actually supposed to attend all the liturgies this seemed especially important. Anyway, I arrived and found the monastery on a nice plot of land with some lawns, and a few fruit trees.

I approached to find that it would be pretty easy to sneak up on the place. There were a few monks milling about outside. They had long gray beards and loose black habits that were obviously intended for working in. Also their hearing was not too good. I was obviously out of place and as long as I was unseen I was also unnoticed. In fact I got to the door of the main building right behind one of the monks, almost stepping on his heels who stepping inside wouldn’t have known I was there except he unexpectedly turned sideways to genuflect and kiss an icon of Mary in the vestibule. He asked what I was there for. I explained that I wanted to purchase an icon or two. He asked if I knew where they were. When I denied it he said, “Well go on in then. I knew I’d seen you here before.”

Fortunately there were more monks inside and another seeing the stranger asked what I wanted. He showed me the room where they keep the stuff they sell to visiting public. It was very little like a storefront and seemed more like a kind of small library but in place of books were wooden plaques. After finding the two I wanted the brother said that since it was my first time they would offer one to me as a gift and only ask payment on the other. When I attempted to pay for them both, persisted in his refusal and gave me permission to stay for vespers.

While waiting for the service to begin, a particularly elderly chap in a wheel chair, Father Thomas, approached me about my dress. Having calculated my clothing according to what I’d observed in various churches outside of Mormondom I was a bit surprised to discover that I was supposed to have a long-sleeve shirt for the worship. Father Thomas pointed out a coat rack covered in them near the main entrance. I felt fortunate to find one that fit well enough without any hassle. It was about this time that folks started to gather to the sanctuary.

It was difficult for me to identify the sanctuary at first. I was expecting it to be a much bigger room, something like a chapel. Though it wasn’t a monastery the closest experience I’d had to this was my retreat at the Campion Center. The chapel there was comparable to the Cathedral of the Madeline in Salt Lake. So, I was expecting something on that scale.

In addition to the size I was surprised because it was not a single room but two rooms. If you are unfamiliar with Orthodox churches they position the altar behind what they call a panel. The panel is supposed to emulate the veil in the ancient Hebrew temples placing the altar in the location of the Ark of the Covenant likened to the Holy of Holies. In this sanctuary the panel was proportionately large enough that it made not just a visual but a completely physical separation. The place where one would expect to be space for a congregation there was one row of benches and the participants in the service were in fact spread through a total of four rooms, two of them outside of sight of the panel and the brothers singing the rite.

Now whenever, I visit a religious service that I’ve never seen before, I create a certain set of expectations based on my previous knowledge and experience with that and similar religions. These expectations are frequently violated as was the case with this one. Vespers I had seen before, and wanted to attend because I enjoyed a simple service focused on a kind of singing back and forth between the priest and some selected men in the church. Although these things did happen, the rite here was much more elaborate.

One of the things that surprised me was the similarity between this and the rites in the Buddhist temple where I lived. Certain of the chanting, in tone and repetition, resembled that which is done at Shim Gwang Sa. These monks also performed repeated full-prostration bows that differed by touching their heads to the floor each time. Also their hands were planted on the floor in the form of fists. I, in my ignorance, placed myself in the main room of the sanctuary with the cantors at the front of the panel. It also turned out that this was the room where the icons were to which all the monks cycled through making these bows.

For much of the service I felt a bit in the way while trying vigorously not to be and pay attention to the singing at the same time. In the midst of it occurred to me that it was somewhat difficult (for me at least) to detect God through the elaborateness of everything going on. The fact that I was blatantly out of place didn’t help my perspective much. However, toward the end one kind of cool thing happened. Instead of just standing awkwardly outside of the rites I was invited to awkwardly participate.
At the end of the service a priest, for some reason I think he was the abbot, stood with a cross at the head of a line of monks and visitors blessing each one in turn. Being an outsider and trying to stand out of the way in this cramped space, a gentleman named David invited me to get in the line in front of him. I communicated my reluctance and he insisted, instructing me on what to do. “Kiss the cross. Kiss his hand.” The priest then touched my head with the cross and I stepped out of the room.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Producing the Game

Well, here goes a bit of a story. Many months ago I had a student who like to play Magic the Gathering. This was rather unusual because this nerdiness made him such an outlier on the Island bell-curve that his post-graduation success is not a shocking surprise. Anyway, with the foul geekiness on the island and the relentless boredom our T.V. and drug conditioned students experience, several of them got to playing it out of despair for entertainment. As they did I observed something quite magical. These guys, however difficult a time they had in school, were learning a bit of game strategy but more shockingly some pretty complicated and weird vocabulary. They learned this vocabulary without even realizing it and without any sort of complaint or resistance. It was tough vocabulary too: terms like Incendiary Zubra, or Archaeo Evangel. Anyway, it inspired me as to a way that I might be able to get students to learn more biology, including the big ugly words. You see, I had observed time and again that often the word was the thing. "Why in the world should I go to the effort to even try to sound out, let alone understand a term like Mitochondria or Endoplasmic Reticulum?"

Along with the learning of vocabulary it occurred to me that a great many biological processes work in ways that a game could be designed to model them. For some reason I cannot understand, the vast majority of science education games are designed like Trivial Pursuit or something where the players merely practice regurgitating memorized science facts. I thought it a ridiculous shame to not accomplish the learning of information as well as develop a comprehension of biological processes.

Anyway, I made an initial aborted effort at a game based on the ETC in photosynthesis. That did not fly at all. Eventually I came around to this card game that models cells competing for resources in the environment with reproduction as the ultimate goal. Anyway, I've been working at this for some time and I'm now on my third major revision of the game. The second revision focused on getting more interaction between players. This third revision has been designed to simplify a lot of the game and make the cards less wordy.