Sunday, December 30, 2007

Travels with Crash

Crash and I are riding Amtrak up to Vermont to spend a few days housesitting for friends (just down the road from his favorite ski hill and a few miles away from Math Man's Aunt Venerable). It's a long drive in sometimes dicey weather, flights are expensive, so the train is a gift. Crash worked on a paper about Freud (?!) and is now refining his world conquering strategies playing Civ III on a laptop while simultaneously watching Scrubs on his new iPod nano (coincidently inscribed: Interdum feror cupidine partium magnarum europe vincendarum1.) I can watch over his shoulder as tiny legionnaires battle for territory or build emplacements. It reminds me of the Robin Williams' flick Night in the Museum.

I love looking out the window on long train trips, and often wish for my camera (though good pictures would require getting out and washing my window pane, and as Crash is fond of saying, "That's not happening!"). It turns your perspective around. Instead of the fronts of stores twinkling with lights for the holiday, you see their plain concrete block backs, dumpsters and heaps of brown cardboard boxes -- all lit by utilitarian floods. I momentarily wonder what it's like to live or work so close to the tracks that you could reach out your window and touch the passing trains. And just what happened to the United Pattern Company, now a forlorn brick shell by the side of the tracks? We roll by a rack of gleaming white shrink wrapped boats just a mile away from a trio of rusting car hulks.

Who rides the local trains? From the ads on station walls it's definitely not the people living in those apartments against the tracks: Betteridge - serious jewelers, visit us in Greenwich, Palm Beach and Vail; NY Times bestselling author Joel Osteen "Become a Better You"; Flat Out to Hong Kong.

1Sometimes I get this urge to conquer large parts of Europe.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Feast of Unleavened Bread

Having made a joyful noise unto the Lord last night at the vigil Mass, the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord at my house unfolded gently this morning, and for the first time in years I did not celebrate morning prayer alone as the dawn broke.

The boys got up and helped me get the breakfast ready: orange juice, tea, and homemade cinnamon buns. Gifts were opened and enjoyed (my favorites - Math Man 's gift of an e-book by one of my favorite authors; Crash's Nerf dart gun - along with lessons in how to shoot it; and the Boy's kit to construct a robot from coins - the first time he's ever shopped solo for me with his own money).

Crash wanted loaves of "Wernersville Bread" (actually Brother's Bread from Secrets of Jesuit Bread Baking - a gift from my father years before I ever visited the old novitiate); Barnacle Boy lusted after his own favorite, the yeast rolls from Fannie Farmer. I manged to get a batch of each made this afternoon, juggled around the rest of the cooking. Twenty minutes before dinner was due to be ready, as I opened the oven to slide the rolls in, I knocked the pan with the two loaves off the stove top where they had been rising. The pan flipped and both loaves hit the floor. I could hear the oof as they deflated - right along with my pride in my ability to juggle multiple cooking projects.

Crash and I picked the now seriously unleavened bread off the floor. By some miracle both loaves were on the dish towel I'd covered the pan with, so we reformed them and left then to rise a third time. (There's a parable here I'm sure...) The third time was perhaps not quite the charm, the loaves are a bit flatter than usual, but Crash professed his delight with the outcome nonetheless.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Pecan Shorts

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 tbsp cold water
1 cup flour

Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla and water. Gradually blend in flour. Chill. Roll 1/4" thick. Cut into rectangles. Bake at 325oF for 20 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom. While still warm, shake in powdered sugar. For a festive look, add a couple of tablespoons of colored sugar (I like green or red at Christmas) to the confectioner's sugar. Alternatively, sift the confectioner's sugar over the warm cookies while stick on the cooling rack. I get less cookie breakage with the second method.

These are my all time favorite Christmas cookies. The recipe comes from my Great Aunt Vi, who grew up on the bayou in Lousiana, then worked as a nurse in New Orleans. The year before my mom died, she was bemoaning the fact that my dad was not planning on making Shorts for Christmas. Too much trouble, he said. They are fragile cookies and do require a bit more oversight than most. As a surprise, I baked a batch, carefully wrapped each cookie in waxed paper, then packed them in layers in bubble wrap. Off the package went to my sister's in California for hand delivery to my Mom: express mail to be there in time. The next evening, my sister called to report. Urgle. Her dog had eaten the package. A real trooper, The Pretty One asked for the recipe (she's not a cook), baked a batch and brought them over to my mom.

Ah...yes, there are no pecans in the recipe as it's come down to me. I'm allergic to nuts, so this is fine with me. But if you like pecans, you'll have to figure out how much and how to add them in!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Don't make me send out the screaming monkeys!

When my dad visited this fall, he brought with him a small stuffed monkey wearing a cape and a mask. He camped on the sofa and waited for my youngest son to come into the room. Pull and release. The monkey soared across the room, cape fluttering in the breeze, screaming as it reached apogee. It sounded just like the screaming monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.

Back in the days when you were at the complete mercy of the network programming executives for your home entertainment, a showing of the Wizard of Oz was a real treat. Counter cultural even then, my family never ate with the TV on (except on Saturday nights when the Black Hawks were playing), but we would be allowed to do so to watch Oz. My dad saw it in the theater when he was 7 years old and has fond memories of the magical moment when Dorothy reached Oz and the film was suddenly in color. Since we had a black and white TV, I never picked up on that transition (and now that I think of it, I don't think I've ever seen the film in color). My first memory of the film is of the wicked witch and her screaming monkeys. I was terrified of the monkeys, and would flee the room when they swarmed.

These days I have a deep desire for my own corps of screaming monkeys that I can call out when I reach the limits of my patience.

Find your own screaming monkey here. Or see a flight on YouTube.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Attractive Fixed Points

Math Man specializes in the mathematics of dynamical systems, in chaos theory. I dabble in chaos too, just in its embodied form, rather than the theoretical. Chaotic systems are not random, though they might appear to be. Given a particular set of starting conditions (two sons, one cat, teaching two classes, a spouse on leave), the unfolding of the system is completely determined (a December calendar that requires 5 colors to keep track of everyone's obligations).

Not every system ultimately leads to chaos (where every possible state is eventually experienced), some eventually arrive at an equilibrium state - called an attractive fixed point. I think I'm approaching a fixed point tomorrow, though I'm not finding it all that attractive personally! All obligations (musicals, concerts, dinners, rehearsals, auditions) are being sucked in to the 6 hours between 3 pm and 9 pm on December 13th. Some fixed points have basins around them, where the conditions all lead to the same end point (exhaustion?). Others find a new fixed point to hone in on with a subtle change in conditions. So what will the potential ice storm do to my spiral?

The spirals above are three related species in a damped oscillating chemical reaction.

The Jesuits hold that you can find God in all things, presumably even chaos. I note that ergodic is another term for chaotic. QED, or perhaps I should say AMDG?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Six Recognitions of the Lord

I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray.

Six Recognitions of the Lord,
Mary Oliver in

For all that sung prayer is in my life, I generally don't sing when I pray the Office alone. In the last few years, I've occasionally used poems in place of the hymns to start my prayer. There are poems in the back of my breviary - but for the most part few of them spoke to me, and for years I've ignored them. A chance encounter with the still point in T.S. Eliot's Burnt Norton led me to begin to dip into and out of the worlds of various poets. I find those who are spare of words, but rich in imagery to be most appealing...and now I have a collection of favorites to supplant the ones in the back of my book. This is the latest addition.

These words are utterly spare, but incredibly full...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

My Soul in Stillness Waits

I wrote this for a limited circulation Catholic magazine in 1995, and this week found a copy stashed in the Advent/Christmas volume of my breviary. Crash was about 8 months old!

I love the evenings of early winter. The colors of the sunset are so gentle, the air so clear, the branches so stark against the waning light. There is such a sense of clarity and stillness about them.

Something about that sky invites me to stop -- not to admire or to capture -- simply to stop. It’s a feeling at such odds with my life in this season. I am always struggling to squeeze that last bit of information into my students, to write that final exam and grade those papers and somehow eke out a moment to bake a cookie or two. Yet there is that sky, quietly, insistently drawing me into its stillness.

Last year the autumn chaos was worse than ever. Back from a year’s sabbatical, I was teaching a new course, trying to prepare a paper for a meeting overseas and in the midst of it all get things ready for a new baby. I hadn’t much time for sky watching. The first weekend of Advent found me early to Saturday Mass. The candles were lit and the light was soft and gentle. I could merely stop, like a breath suspended in time. In that incredible stillness, I could suddenly feel the child within me. The stirrings inside were gentle, yet unmistakable. What I had rationally known for almost five months, but somehow never quite believed, was suddenly abundantly clear -- I was not alone. A new life was struggling to make its approach known to me, and here in the stillness of a winter evening I could finally hear it.

Christ is that winter’s evening. A light that is soft, yet one that brings the world into clear focus. A center of stillness, gently, inexorably drawing us into a place where we may simply stop and wonder. A place out of time where the stirrings of a new life might be finally be felt. A place where we are not alone. This is the Christ of the O Antiphons. O Lord of Light, come light the hearts of those in shadow! O Spring of Joy, fill our thirsty hearts! O Root of Life, may your seed come to fruition within us!

As Advent approaches, I find myself again watching the evening sky and remembering the faint stirrings of the babe in my womb.. The stillness still draws me into it, despite the lusty cries of hunger from a babe now in arms. For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits, truly my hope is in you.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Practically Perfect in Every Way

The New York Times has an article today about the risks of perfectionism. I'm glad to know my lack of compulsiveness about the dust bunnies under the bed at home is a sign of mental health! Interestingly, when the article first went up, it was less than perfectly edited, there was an extra period:

"Ms. Provost said those in her program at U.C. Davis often displayed symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder — another risk for perfectionists. They couldn’t bear a messy desk.. They found it nearly impossible to leave a job half-done, to do the next day. Some put in ludicrously long hours redoing tasks, chasing an ideal only they could see."

As this was an article that could be commented on (a new feature at the Times), I followed the link to do so (the first - a perfectly blank page, how delightful!), and wondering if the flaw was deliberate - a subtle joke.

Apparently not, not only has the article been corrected, but my comment was scrubbed! The stated policy is: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. For more information, please see our Comments FAQ. Now admittedly, the FAQs note that "To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction." But I would argue given the subject of this article, and that it speaks to teaching perfectionists how to "slack off" productively, it was very much to the point!