Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The camel in the classroom

My students are in the throes of preparing for their first midterm exam.  I posted a practice exam and a somewhat hastily produced set of answers to the exam (memo to self - don't try to do this after 10 pm at night after a long drive and office hours).  I corrected the errors in class this morning (humility, it's good for the soul, right?).

In the usual after lecture scrum, a student came up and showed me her work on one of the more complex problems and suggested there might be another error.  Given my track record for the night, I looked carefully at her work.  Whew.

"No, no, I'm quite sure I'm right on that one," I tell her,  "I know that you get roughly a pound of water for each pound of camel fat you metabolize, so burning a kilogram of fat should yield a bit more than a liter of water for the camel, not 100 ml."

There is a sudden silence.  Did their professor really say that she keeps that kind of data on camel fat in her brain?

Everything I know about camel fat I learned here: F. D. Gunstone & R.P. Paton, Biochem J. 1953 July; 54(4): 617–621.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Back from sabbatical: the roar of the waters

Deep is calling on deep,
in the roar of waters;
your torrents and all your waves
swept over me. Ps 42

I'm back from my sabbatical. I didn't wade slowly back in. Instead I wrung every last moment from the leave, then strode purposefully into the deluge of the first week of classes.  We're three weeks in and I'm riding the waves of energy that crash against my door.  New students, excited and nervous, eager and tentative, poke their heads into my office, "Are you free?"  "Can you explain...?"  "I was wondering if..."

Last year's juniors rap on the door, looking rested and assured, far cries from the tired shadows who cradled coffee cups on my sunroom floor last December and wondered about the pchem exam looming over their heads.  "How was your summer?"  "What are you doing this year?"  "What are you most excited about?" we ask each other and (more cautiously) I inquire, "And next year?"

To teach is to know in some ways that we are a pilgrim people — always moving, ever changing.  I sometimes feel as if I am standing on an island in the middle of a river.  People are shooting the rapids on one side, others pole stolidly along through the slow moving shallows and marshes.  I shout directions and advice over the roaring rapids, wrap up bundles of provisions and push them out those drifting past.  And at night, I climb the steps up the cliff, light the candles inside the beehive hermitage I've built on the clifftop.  I look out past the mouth of the river into the vastness of the sea and I chant the psalms.

Out of the depths, O Lord... 

Photo is of my office.  For a beautiful reflection on wonder, which made me think yet more about why I find joy in teaching, read Robin Craig's sermon for today at Metanoia:  Welcome Wonder

Monday, September 17, 2012

A certain passion for the tangible

Though a theorist, I freely admit to a certain passion for the tangible.

I make my own bread and jam. I can bind a simple codex.

It's great to be able to stop by the store and grab a loaf of bread or several jars of jam, I'll admit, but there is something about the making of my own that pulls me deeper into the mysteries of who and what we are called to be. I can order a book of photos of my kids from Shutterfly, but I can also bind prints by hand for each of them.

Each of these tasks calls for getting messy, for careful discernment about time or temperature or materials and each cannot be rushed. It takes four hours for the bread to rise, two weeks for the jarred jam to set, all night for the glue to dry on the book covers. To be willing to let go of control, to watch closely, and to sit patiently - it's good advice for many things, prayer included.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Suburban foraging

When I was growing up, my mother managed to ride herd on six kids and all their various activities and get dinner on the table as my father walked through the door. Six days a week for decades. And on the seventh day? She rested. Not on Sunday, but on Saturday.

Take out wasn't an option, due to both budgetary and geographical constraints. We lived in the country, far from pizza parlors or fast food. (Pizzeria pizza was an enormous treat when I was young.) When the kids were very young, Saturday meals were simple, pasta or soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. When we got older, my mother would announce that scrounge was on the menu. Which meant you were on your own with what could be scrounged up in the house, free to be as elaborate or as simple as you wished, as long as you cleaned up!

The Boy wandered up to my office the other afternoon to wonder what was for dinner. Math Man was away at a conference, so it was just the two of us. "I was thinking of scrounge." "I'll go forage, then."

Urban foraging may be all the rage in Berkeley, but suburban foraging is alive and well in my house at least!

Photo is of pizza dough ready to rise. Something I've been baking at home since I was 10.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Be opened

At the vigil Mass last night I was struck by the tension in the Gospel reading with its challenge to be simultaneously open — to be able to hear and to speak — and silent — to hold deep within ourselves the mystery of what God has done for us. In the midst of a country and church that is stretched almost beyond bearing, I kept thinking about whether I was willing to pray for the grace to "be opened," for the grace to hear God in places that I would rather not listen. The contrast between Jesus putting his finger in the man's ear, and how often I (mentally!) stick my fingers in my ears and chant
la-la-la was particularly sharp.

As I sat out on the porch in the cool of the morning, I found myself contemplating what it means to speak and to be silent, to hear and to be heard, to hold God within and proclaim him in the streets, and I listened to this piece from Margaret Rizza's collection New Dawn. It's a gently haunting litany of ways in which we might hear the voice of the Lord: in the silence of the the heaving of the the words of a stranger...

While the piece itself feels like it was cut from stillness, I loved its acknowledgement of God in the midst of chaos: "in the heaving of the seas". I might desire undisturbed solitude and silence, a serene spot to contemplate the mysteries of the divine, but the reality of my life looks more like a heaving sea than a placid lake.

"Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it." Thomas Merton

A version of this post appeared at RevGalBlogPals. Photo is of the ocean at Gloucester, MA, near the Eastern Point retreat house.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Universal experiences - not! PB&J sandwiches

In a talk today one of my colleagues used the making of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a metaphor for the piecewise synthesis of molecules and asked his audience whether they made their PB&Js by putting peanut butter on piece of bread, jelly on another and then sandwiching the pieces or by putting the peanut butter on a slice, then spreading the jelly on top of the peanut butter, and topping it off with the second piece of bread.

When he was done, I mentioned that I've never (ever)1 made a PB&J sandwich, or eaten one, for that matter. Regardless, the metaphor worked for me, probably because I've seen enough sandwiches made using things with similar textures, but it did get me thinking about the examples I use in class. I know that there are not many truly universal experiences I can draw on (particularly when it comes to food), but I'm hesitant to strip the chemistry entirely out of the everyday experience students may have.

Now I wonder what other ubiquitous experiences I haven't had....

1. And I don't mean "never" in the HMS Pinafore sense: "What, never?" "Well, hardly ever!" - I mean not one single time. I'm allergic enough to peanuts to carry an EpiPen and to never have had enough peanut butter to know what it tastes like.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Changing seasons

At 7:45 this morning, dressed like the 50-something, slightly quirky professor that I sometimes pretend to be, I grabbed my laptop bag, various bits of professorial paraphernalia — neatly bundled into a furoshiki — and my lunch and headed to morning Mass and Lauds, and from there, on to my office. I'd already put a trio of plants in the car, ready to take up residence once again in my office. My sabbatical is officially over.

Some things have changed. I have a new computer. A new colleague. Sodas in the student lounge cost a quarter more (necessitating a trip back to my office for another coin). The mailboxes have moved. There is a vegetable garden in the courtyard outside my office.

Some things have not. Students are still hunting for the elusive stairwell that will take them to the 3rd floor (there are eight in the building, but only three of them go up to the library level). Faculty are counting heads and seats to see if they match up. (I was 10 seats short in my intro chem course, at least until a colleague with a smaller class was willing to trade classrooms with me).

It felt good to catch up with colleagues, to dust off my desk and recycle outdated papers. To bring some life back into my office with plants.

It's my 28th year of teaching, and I'm grateful to have a job I still love as much as the day I began.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Culinary shifts

The Boy has noticed some changes in the household now that Crash is away at WJU. The laundry has decreased and the variety of possibilities for dinner has increased.

When I was growing up in a large family, my mother rotated through a fairly small set of dinner menus (roast chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans or meatloaf, mashed potatoes and get the drift). No fussy presentations, no fancy sauces. Think Midwest, 60s, farm (though we didn't live on a farm and my mother grew up on Long Island).

As far as Crash is concerned, food is fuel and/or background for interesting conversation — and should arrive on the table with as little fuss (or spice) as possible. He's a solid and conscientious cook. He would have fit right in at the table when I was growing up (metaphorically anyway, physically, there was no more room on the deacon's benches that the kids used instead of chairs), though his palate has admittedly grown a bit more adventuresome over the last couple of years. Still, I suspect last night's dinner would not have been to his taste.

Hot Spinach and Chicken Sandwiches

One loaf of Brother's Bread (see note below)

3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
leaf spinach (fresh or frozen, we used frozen)

2 large bone-in chicken breasts, skin on
seasoning (pepper, orange rind, salt and ginger)
1 cup of chicken stock
2 tsp flour

Pat chicken breasts dry. Season skin liberally. Place chicken in an oven proof skillet. Bake oven at 400F for 30 minutes, reduce heat to 350F and cook until juices run clear (internal temperature of 165F). Remove from oven, take chicken from pan, and let rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, stir flour into drippings in pan, heat briefly while stirring. Slowly add the the chicken stock, scraping up any baked on bits and making a smooth sauce.

Remove most of skin and bones from the chicken and slice thinly.

In another skillet, melt butter in olive oil. Saute garlic in olive oil/butter mixture, then stir in spinach. Cook until spinach is tender.

To serve, place two slices bread on a plate, cover with chicken and spinach, then ladle about 1/4 cup of sauce over the top. Serve hot.

As we say around here, this one is a keeper.

Brother's Bread is a single rise loaf from The Secrets of Jesuit Breadbaking, and comes from Wernersville's kitchens. My dad gave me the book years before I ever ventured to the Jesuit Center on an 8-day retreat, and the bread is one of my boys' favorites. I know the recipe by heart: (2 1/4 cups of water, 1 tbsp yeast....)
A good substitute would be a sturdy white bread or large loaf of Italian bread or good torpedo rolls.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Poached plums

No, not a recipe, but a William Carlos Williams poem (This is Just to Say):

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The family rules are few and simple (see here), but of late we've added one. If you have your eye on something in the 'fridge, put your name on it. This goes for leftover Chinese food, sodas left to chill and the defrosting pasta sauce I have planned to use for dinner. I keep an pad of stickies in a kitchen drawer for the express purpose of labeling the sodas I'm chilling (though not the cold plums, of which I just ate the last).

I ran across this Williams poem yesterday and wondered at what the backstory might be. Were there plums? And if so, who ate them? Was forgiveness required, or as in my house, were plums in the icebox up for grabs? It reminds me of a poem written from Victor's dad to his mother about which way the toilet paper was to be hung.Wikipedia has a rather unappealing analysis of the poem, more useful to desperate high school English students, I imagine, than it is to me. But for more fun, listen to this piece from This American Life on apologies and this poem (starts at about 51 minutes).