Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Transcribing the Sheep Genome

I'm knitting a sheep from sheep's wool. Benedictine sheep wool to be precise. The pattern is both simple and complex. Simple in that it uses only one stitch - the knit, and few variations on it at that (a mid-row turn and an increase). Complex in that nearly every row is unique. Follow the pattern slavishly and you end up with what appears to be a sheep skin growing off your needles. It never fails to amaze me, or those watching me. I realized it is like DNA, you read off a linear code to produce a 3-D object. Even though I understand the principles behind both processes, the mystery of creation remains.

Information about the real sheep genome is here. My sheep code can be obtained here.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Fifty Fewer enters Week 2

It's more than a week since I started trying to move some of the accumulated "stuff" out of my life. I've gotten almost 140 different things out of the house (some to the trash, others into recycling, still others have gone to thrift shops and libraries). Listing the items has helped in two ways. It's satisfying to see how much has gone (though truthfully, I can tell by looking at the house, noticeably less cluttered), it's also helpful to see the patterns in what tends to accumulate. Choosing to count "classes" of stuff rather than total items has had the benefit of letting me discern once about the need for an item and then each new encounter doesn't require repeating the process. Crib sheets can just go when I encounter them, now that I've firmly decided that are not needed in our lives (I've found them stashed in three different spots so far...). Like reverendmother, putting a specific boundary around the project puts a bit of stress on it. When I didn't add to the list (though I was still clearing clutter) for a couple of days, anxiety crept in at the edges.

The clutter has been a stressor for a long time. I spend far too much time looking for stuff, and having to mentally track it all takes energy.

So far it's been a success, so even if I don't get to 400, both my house and my brain feel less cluttered.

Project Cookbook: Pound Cake

One project that has been waiting in the wings for about six months is the production of the second edition of the family cookbook. The first edition is twenty years old, and some of my sibs (and now nieces) have asked for a update. Part of the joy of all of this is recounting the family stories that these recipes are tied to. The unearthing last summer of my grandmother's recipe file is another impetus. The last version was spiral bound and printed on a dot-matrix printer (and composed on my IBM PC). This version will get laser printed and hand bound, testament to the new technologies and the very old (I learned to hand bind in a class on illuminated manuscripts). I'm going to post the recipes as I go, partly so I can have a searchable archive to go along with the codex when it's complete, partly so I can ask sibs to comment.

First recipe:

Pound cake

4 sticks of Imperial margarine
1 pound confectioner's sugar
6 eggs
3 cups cake flour

Cream margarine and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add cake flour. Bake in a ungreased loaf pan at 300oF for 1 1/2 hours. Let it cool in the pan.

My mother made this as long as I can remember. The top of the cake always had a crack running its length. She always used Imperial margarine to make it, memorable, since margarine otherwise never made an appearance at our table or in her kitchen. She produced it from memory for me a couple of days before she died. It's been sitting on a sticky on my cabinet ever since. She said she got it from my paternal grandmother, Sally Miller, whose father was a tavern keeper, and was pretty sure it had come from an Imperial margarine box. (Fifty fewer got me to think about taking it down, and what to do with it when I did. It's in my writing notebook.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

RGBP Friday Five: Hard Habit to Break

1. Have you ever successfully quit a bad habit, or gotten a good habit established? Tell us about how you did it.

I started walking, 30 minutes a day, every day. It helped to ask a friend to help me monitor, "Are you still walking?", on a regular, but not too frequent, basis. It helped to ask for Math Man's, Crash's and the Boy's support (necessary if I'm going to get out the door while kids are awake).

2. "If only there were a 12-step program for _________________!"

Putting laundry away. During the semester, the baskets are always with me. Even though I know the time I spend digging through them in one day for socks is equal to the time to put it all away, I procrastinate this task beyond belief! And worse yet, I've enabled it by buying more laundry baskets!!

3. Share one of your healthy "obsessions" with us.

Singing! The extra oxygen is good for the brain or something...but I know it makes the people I live with nuts (but we're even on that see #4)

4. Share the habit of a spouse, friend or loved one that drives you C-R-A-Z-Y.

Leaving the drawers open - it looks like the bedroom has been ransacked. All three of my guys do this and it drives me NUTS.

5. "I'd love to get into the habit of ___________________."

Putting the laundry away the day it's folded.

Bonus: What is one small action you might take immediately to make #5 a reality

Giving away those extra laundry baskets (and then I could claim another fifty fewer category!)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Velvet SUVs

Where does a 400-lb gorilla sit?

Anywhere it wants to, goes the joke. Where does a 6000 lb SUV stop to pick up kids? Same answer, it seems. Watching an SUV stop in the middle of a traffic lane on a major road to pick up kids today got me to thinking about why people drive these infernal machines. (Full disclosure: I drive a MINI and ride a bike, which makes SUVs look seriously big to me.)

Parking is tight near where I live, and watching an SUV do a 10-pt turn to get out of a parking lot can be diverting, but it makes me wonder why people who live here buy these enormous vehicles. Unlike the ranch country where my dad lives, there is rarely a need to go off road here to pick up your mail or take the trash out. They use more gas, make more pollution, dump more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, require larger parking spaces and increase congestion (because of their height, cars tend to "hang back", so fewer cars can move through an intersection at a time - watch the next time you're behind one!). They're bigger, dirtier and scream, I've got lots of money!

In Victorian times, velvet drapes that were so long that they pooled on the floor were all the rage. They, too, took up more space than was needed for their function, and were "dirtier". And of course, the reason for having them was to subtly advertise your wealth. I can afford something that is way bigger than it needs to be, and the staff to maintain it. And we all know what happened to the British Empire, eh?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Teen brain

Driving Crash Kid to school early one morning a couple of week's ago, we were discussing the book he's reading in LA. The Trouble with Lemons revolves around a death by drowning. Crash noted that it wasn't really a murder, it was just a series of dumb decisions kids made that led to someone's deaht. Suddenly he blurted out that he thought he was doing pretty well adjusting to being a teen-ager. (Editor's note: this is based on all of two week's experience.) "I think so. How am I doing at adjusting to being a teen-ager's mom?" "OK. But, you know, I don't think I'll ever be a crazy teen-ager, so you won't really have to worry a lot." "Crash, it's kind of a biological thing, adolescent brains can't quite process risk, and so sometimes adolescents do pretty dumb things. I hope you won't!" "Not me, Mom, I promise!"

Last weekend, we're getting ready to cross the street during the evening rush hour. The light is green, but Barnacle Boy is dutifully waiting for the pedestrian signal. Crash is haranging him, "Look, it doesn't matter, there's no traffic. Just come on!" Still talking, he steps out into the cross-walk - directly in front of a car making a left-hand turn. I scream his name, the black sedan comes to an abrupt halt and no harm comes to my risk taking adolescent. Traffic rolls again and I turn around to chastise my eldest, to find him shaking with sobs. He was so frightened. "Remember what I said about teen brain?" I gently teased. A sniffled assent. "I guess you're not immune!" A brief giggle. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and my prayers rising like incense.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Requiescat In Pacem, Rufus

Saturday night Barnacle Boy appeared in the kitchen distressed, "I think Rufus is dead, Mom." Rufus is his hamster. "What makes you think that?" "He didn't eat dinner and he's not breathing." Rufus is downright ancient for a hamster, and doesn't always wake up for dinner, so this would not in general worry me. The not breathing, however, is a tip-off. The Boy is right, Rufus has indeed gone on to the next life where he'll always have dried papaya and a wheel that doesn't squeak. We take the cage out to the garage and I promise to help him take care of Rufus in the morning (we're having a thunderstorm!).

The next morning, we consign Rufus to the earth. Last summer my director (a Jesuit priest) had told me about the 6-yr-old son of friends, who'd called him to try to convince him to come help him bury his fish. Four phone calls later, he'd promised to construct a service and phone in to preside. He took the canticle of the three men in the furnance from Daniel and converted it to a litany (All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord). We did the same. There were tears, but litany as a form seems to weave something healing around you, and it seemed to have channelled the grace in this case, too.

Old Rages

I decided tonight I could learn quite a bit from looking at the list of what I've moved out of my life. Maybe it would help me consider what kinds of things I let take up housekeeping with me! Each thing I tossed this week had it's own small discernment that went along. Why do I keep it? How does it serve the house? my family? me? If it were not in the house, would anyone miss it?

I went shopping tonight to get supplies for a wedding party I'm helping host on Sunday. As I wandered the aisles at IKEA, admiring the plethora of shiny household items arrayed with Swedish precision, I kept asking myself, why would I want to bring any of this home? (Full disclosure: I came home with extra champagne flutes for a toast, $0.75 each; napkins; and three new plants.) What do I really need?

Looking at the list tonight to begin my examen, I realized I had a typo: old rages appeared instead of old rags. I'm afraid it's a Freudian slip! Old angers are definitely something to toss if I want more interior space. My office and living room are both noticeably clearer after this weeks' fifty, it would be nice to feel equally spacious on the interior.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Fifty Things

I'm trying to throw away fifty things this week. I want less "stuff" to tend in my life as I reach my 50th year. The rules:

1. Keep a list of what gets tossed.
2. Only categories count. You only get one point for old magazines, not one point per magazine! (I could have gotten almost all the points for the week by just tossing periodicals.)

I'm going to try to do fifty a week until I leave for 8 days in silence in July. How much more space (exterior and interior) will I have when I have 400 fewer things?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

One of these is not like the others...

Which one of these is not like the others? The kid in khaki pants, of course. That would be my son, Barnacle Boy. One hundred kids in dark pants and white shirts, and then there's mine. It's high season for concerts: men and boys choir, elementary music, band, middle school chorus - and I'm having a hard time keeping track of who needs to wear what when. White shirt? Button-down shirt? Tie? No tie! Any dress pants OK? Dark pants?! There are no clean dark pants? And we need to leave when? Five minutes?! Oh dear. I feel like a Roz Chast cartoon: Bad Mothering Cards, collect the whole set.

I have to admit that when another kid walked on stage wearing not only khaki pants, but a pale pink shirt, I felt a moment of connection with his mother. Was she equally beleaguered?

Five Minutes Peace

When my kids were small, they had a book called Five Minutes Peace by Jill Murphy. Poor Mrs. Large asks her kids for 5 minutes peace after breakfast. She heads for the bath, visions of bubbles dancing in her head. Any mother knows what comes next: the kids, of course. In the end, the kids end up in the tub and Mrs. Large gets her peace - all 3 minutes and 45 seconds of it back in the kitchen. "Five minutes peace" is now the code in our house for "Mom needs privacy, please don't...(fill in the blank: stand outside the bathroom door and converse, ask me to sign your math test while I'm up to my elbows in cat litter, you get the idea!)"

Don Riley, OSA, currently the provincial of the Augustinian province of St. Thomas of Villanova gave a wonderful homily for Mother's Day, which drew on the Gospel for the day (John 14:23-29) where Christ promises to leave peace as his gift to the world. He stopped preaching 5 minutes sooner than usual, then suggested we give the mothers in the assembly "Five Minutes Peace", a gift he thought they rarely enjoyed. He asked the lector to time it, and we sat down - in peace. My first thought was that kids would get restless, adults would whisper, little ones would cry - what is he thinking? But it worked. Not only did silence take hold, but peace did as well. It was a risk, but one worth taking. I wonder how often we fail to take a risk for peace, since it seems that whatever we might try would be so little in the face of so much conflict and could not possibly have an effect should it succeed?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Do you say toe-mah-toe? Friday Five from RevGalBlogPals

There is no via media at my house! The Friday Five....

1. Mac? (woo-hoo!) or PC? (boo!)
Why yes, the Friday Five author reserves the right to editorialize!

Macs rule here, and rumor has it use less energy. Let's hear it for green machines.

2. Pizza: Chicago style luscious hearty goodness, or New York floppy and flaccid?

You can never be too thin if you're my pizza crust.

3. Brownies/fudge containing nuts:
a) Good. I like the variation in texture.
b) An abomination unto the Lord. The nuts take up valuable chocolate space.
[or a response of your choosing]

No nuts! Not only do they take up space that could be devoted to chocolate, but I'm allergic.
Really, allergic.

4. Do you hang your toilet paper so that the "tail" hangs flush with the wall, or over the top of the roll like normal people do?

I'm so happy that anyone puts a new roll on that I don't care which way it goes!

5. Toothpaste: Do you squeeze the tube wantonly in the middle, or squeeze from the bottom and flatten as you go just like the tube instructs?

As Math Man is wont to say, I'm wanton with the toothpaste tube. I've been tempted for years to run an experiment and see if in fact his method gets more toothpaste out of the tube. I think the answer is not! (I think the advice came from a time when metal tubes were used, and squeezing from the middle could lead to failure of the tube!)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Sounds of Silence - or Not?

I drove up this morning to see my spiritual director and to spend a day in silence at the Jesuit retreat center an hour's drive north of here. I try to do this once a month. Usually I come up the night before, have dinner and spend some time meditating. The joy of not having to decide what dinner will be, or cook it, or clean it up, is alone worth the trip, but what I really come for is the silence. There can be 80 people in the house for a retreat, and rarely do you hear a word spoken. After about 18 hours of soaking silence, I'm ready to talk to my director, drive home and face the chaos, knowing that I've replenished the reservoir of stillness in my soul.

Today that silence is elusive. I've been chasing it since midmorning from chapel to garden to cloister, and have finally run it to ground in the far corner of the library at 8 pm. Small chapel: After a heinous drive through the morning traffic (it took me 30 minutes to go less than 2 miles at one point) I thought I'd found the still point, until two women walked in the door, plopped down beside me and began to chat. Four people in the chapel, forty seats and they have to sit next to me? and talk? I had the same sense of indignation that you get when you see someone toss a bag of trash out the car window. Their words were littered across my interior landscape of stillness. Main chapel: someone is practicing the organ, lovely, but not silent! Cloister: phones ringing (!). Gardens: lawnmower. My room: someone holding a cell conversation on the terrace. I have fled to the library. The silence is so thick you can float on it. The only noise is the gentle tapping of the shade on the window and the clicking of the keys on my laptop. I should have checked the card catalog first to find where the silence was filed. I may stay here all night!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

To coin a phrase

I've coined a new word: aparent v. to temporarily detach from parental duties, to vanish from the house to take a walk, to be unavailable to referee. The other evening I sought to aparent while my two guys watched TV before bed. Math Man was on his way home from an evening event, and I wanted to get in my 30 minutes of walking before it got too late. "OK for me to take a walk?" I queried the bodies sprawled on the living room floor. I took the grunts as assent and grabbed my iPod to circle the block (four circles is 2 miles, clearly I'm not in this for the scenery). First circle, no Math Man but house is still standing. I'm relieved. Second circle, still no van in the driveway, no flames. Still relieved, but guilt is tapping at my door. Third time is the charm, Math Man's home and I can truly be aparental. Whew! The final lap winds to a close and as I open the door I hear Crash sobbing. I hadn't bargained on a commericial break wrestling match gone bad. "Can't you guys manage for 20 minutes on your own?" wonders Mom. Barnacle Boy looked me right in the eye and said "Apparently, not!" Aparent - not.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


"Crash was right, you do lose all your teeth in 5th grade..." moaned my youngest. He's trying to figure out what he can eat comfortably with two loose molars (one on either side, of course) and two missing ones. Not much, alas. One is, as my mother would have said, hanging by a thread. "Can you pull it out, Mom?" "Won't that hurt a lot?" inquires a younger neighbor. "Not when my mom does it!" my loyal child informs him. "Does she use Novacaine?" Crash Kid sails through the kitchen and tosses off, "No, she uses Momocaine!"

It seems to be generally effective.