Monday, July 24, 2017

An observer from the Vatican

Not this telescope, a very modern Celestron scope with
an autoguider
It was a clear evening, hardly any humidity veiling the gardens as we came down from the terrace, on of the Jesuits wondered if it might not be a good idea to pull out one of the small(er) telescopes and look at the heavens. So at about 9:30, three Jesuit astronomers, a philosopher of science and me convened in the courtyard, lights out, except for the light in the pool of the fountain.  It won't be fully dark for another hour.

This telescope has an autoguiding system, you sight on four stars to calibrate, then you can just pull up a celestial feature from the menu and the telescope will twist and turn until it has the selected feature in its field of view.  Very cool. The hard part is figuring out what you might want to see and whether or not it is visible.

The visibility depends on whether a particular feature is "up" on this time of the year,  the light pollution in the sky,  and whether or not it is behind the roof of the Specola!  And if you are tall enough to see through the eye piece.  I had to stand on a chair (carefully, so as to not fall on the telescope) to see a couple of things.

What to look at?  Jupiter!  The moons again, strung out like a necklace of pearls, and just a wisp of its stripes to be seen. Saturn, where we strain to see the Cassini division in the rings, and wonder if that is one of the moons of Saturn we see, or....

We pulled out Turn Left at Orion (Guy Consolmagno SJ and Dan Davis' great guide to the sky, even without a telescope, just a good pair of binoculars, you can see fascinating things), to see what we might see. Astronomers suggested galaxies they had studied.  We saw Vega, icy blue. We looked for double stars.  We saw a ring nebula, which Rich Boyle SJ called a smoke ring, and for all the world that's what it looked like. Does God blow smoke rings?

There were things to be seen even if you weren't looking at the telescope.  I saw a meteor streak across the sky.  We watched a satellite sail majestically across the sky, wondered if it was the international space station (no, you can find the ISS's orbits as a function of time on the web and I checked the next day).

There is something about looking up at the heavens, even when the scientific work does not actually require it, that pulls you deeper into the mysteries of both God and the astrophysics.

The title comes from a time when Br. Guy was visiting a telescope to do some observing, and went to Mass at a local  parish where the pastor announced they had a visitor:  an observer from the Vatican. Not that kind of observer!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Talking trash and the Lateran Treaty

There's a phone book. No, there is not a direct listing for the
Pope. Yes, I looked.
I am not in Kansas, and most definitely not in Bryn Mawr at the moment.  The Vatican Observatory is just across the border from Italy, in the Villa Barberini, the gardens and farm that form part of the Holy See's extraterritorial properties (this part of Vatican City State is, at 140 acres, bigger than Vatican City proper).  I'm staying in an apartment in the extraterritory, which is delightful, looking out onto a small enclosed garden gone slightly feral, with huge orange flowers, overgrown white roses, a pair of palm trees and an old, old olive tree that a flock of swallows calls home.  And a fountain.

There are many ways I'm sure I'm in another world, I would know it even with my eyes closed.  The chant drifting in through the open window in my office, which I realize with a start is not a recording, but the nuns in the cloister next door chanting their Office.  The burble of the fountain in the courtyard below, the trucks circulating through town towing billboards and booming out ads, and the incredible silence that drops over the town between 2 and 4 for the riposo, the after lunch rest in the heat of the day.  And then there is the trash and recycling, which has to be transported across international boundaries.
View into the enclosed garden.

The question of how to deal with the Specola's garbage required consulting the provisions of the Lateran Treaty of 1929!  Rather than drive the trash and recycling into Rome (indeed, someone used to do that), now it gets moved across that international border between Vatican territory and Italy (and the Vatican reimburses the municipality for the services.) Though it sounds like a long haul, but it's just a few feet from the storage room to the street, a shorter distance than the recycling travels down my driveway at home.

In other ways, this feels much like home. The corso, with its eclectic mix of shops is different from Lancaster Avenue only in that cars are more likely to stop for you at the crosswalks and the incredibly narrow sidewalks. Walking two abreast is a challenge and at peak shopping times, I imagine it looks like a parade of ants threading their way from food source to home and back. The cascade of bells from the cathedral (which are just about even with my window and not even 100 meters away) remind it's noon, louder than Bryn Mawr's bells which chime the hours aways, but still a gentle cue to the passage of time.
Duomo (cathedral) in Albano, St. Bonaventure was once 
the bishop here.

And I will miss the after Mass-apertivos on the terrace overlooking the gardens. The other night was humid and the long tree lined avenue that leads away from this end of the gardens was misty.  The birds whirled up as someone walked by. The whole scene looked like it had been done with CGI, I half expected to see orcs come roaring down the avenue.  The sunsets have been glorious and the evenings pleasant, even as the days are hot.

I walk past the cathedral and can see the top of the cloister out my window, all so serene at the moment, but in World War II, the bombs did not spare it.  L'Osservatore Romano has the story here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Column: Just Enough Distraction

I find much wisdom in Lewis' Letters to Malcolm, though I was somewhat vexed to find that Malcolm was fictional.  Much of the appeal of the book for me is in its tone, and its ability to limn questions without answering them.  I find mystery appealing.  The full quote is:

“A clergyman once said to me that a railway compartment, if one has it to oneself, is an extremely good place to pray in 'because there is just the right amount of distraction.' When I asked him to explain, he said that perfect silence and solitude left one more open to the distractions which come from within, and that a moderate amount of external distraction was easier to cope with. ” — C. S. Lewis. “Letters to Malcolm.”

This column appeared at on 20 July 2017

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you’ Mk 1:35-37

Next week, they are tearing down the wall of the building 20 feet away from my office. Last month they were using jackhammers to remove the terrace underneath my window. It’s been a bit noisy in my office, to say the least, and likely to get noisier. So, in the absence of students and classes to teach, I have fled to the hills, literally.

I’m writing this from my temporary office in the Vatican Observatory — the Specola Vaticana — now housed in the papal gardens in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. My desk is tucked up under the eaves of what was once a cloistered convent for Basilian nuns, renovated for the Specola’s quarters in 2009 when the nuns moved next door.

The quiet here is almost as deafening as the jackhammers at home. I can hear the papal roosters crowing, the burble of the fountain in the courtyard below, and the traffic brushing past the walls that separate the Holy See from Italy, but no one is knocking on my door asking if I know when they will tear out the classroom down the hall or if I’ve thought about curriculum planning for the spring yet. I can work in peace.

Working at the Specola is, to use C.S. Lewis’ image, much like praying on a train: “[T]here is just the right amount of distraction.” Not so quiet that my to-do list dances in my head, not so noisy that I can’t hear what creation and the Creator have to share this morning.

I often long for the perfect spot to pray, to go off like Jesus walking long before dawn into the hills to be with his Father in silence and solitude. But perhaps what I need more than the occasional retreat is to learn to find the spots where I can pray with “just the right amount of distraction.”

Even Jesus did not remain hidden away, but returned with Simon and his disciples to tend to the needs of others. So, too, I need to catch the moments between meetings to look toward God, to take a few minutes to sit in the piazza’s late afternoon buzz and pray.

In finding these pockets of space and time, I’m practicing tuning my ears to the murmur of God at work in all things and at all times, even when the walls are falling around me.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Princess Bride, Chemistry and Rome

The 3rd century amphitheater is in use,
concerts start next week.  Note the exit.
I'm working on an essay about what it means to be an experimental science, wrangling with the philosophy of science literature, Including this delightfully brisk paper by William Goodwin, "Experiments and Theory in the Preparative Sciences" ($), which might be summed up as "Experiment.  You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."  (My apologies to Inigo Montoya.)

Two other words I learned this week do not mean what I think they mean.  Agone and vomitorium.  The church built on the site of St. Agnes' martyrdom is Sant'Agnese in Agone.  You might think (but I couldn't possibly comment) that agone refers to Agnes' agony.  Nope. Its root is the Greek agora, amphitheater, as this are used to house a sporting arena.

And on a walk up the Colle dei Cappuccini (the hill where the Franciscans have a church), there is a 3rd century amphitheater, with two vomitoria — large exits that let the audience pour out at the end of a performance.  Not what you thought!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Eternal City

The heat was incredible in Rome when I arrived last week.  I ran with sweat and swilled water at every opportunity.

I spent a day and a bit in Rome before heading off to Albano Laziale where the Specola is located.  I visited various churches, walked the streets and did my back to school shopping (for me and for The Egg).

I enjoyed the irony of the guys dressed up in the toga and centurion outfits, outside the Pantheon, while someone thrashed modern music on an electric guitar a few feet away.  Did I mention the heat?  OMG. The Pantheon was packed, and despite the signs asking for silence, the whispers grew to a roar.  The swallows flying up and onto the drum of the dome inside looked like something out of a Fellini film.

Despite the drought, at least some of the fountains were on, including those in Piazza Navona.  I ducked into the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, sited where Agnes was thought to have been martyred.  The head of Saint Agnes is kept in a reliquary in a very plain chapel, in full view not five feet away from you, a crown of laurels framing her skull.

Then there was the body of St. Camillus in St. Mary Magdalene. Right there, from the 16th century, in impeccably clean clothes in a glass case. If it were not for the glass walls, I could have reached out and touched him. I left wondering who cleans and cares for these bodies, and why do we display them, so we can look upon a miracle, the incorruptible body of a saint?  

The domes in the summer light which streamed through high windows.  The man, the body of Christ, wrapped in a dirty sleeping bag half hidden behind a car on the steps outside of St. Augustine’s.  His chest bare and his legs sticking out, he looked like he could be a Christ taken down from the cross. He slept fitfully in this heat.  As I stood not 5 feet away, reading the sign about the church. Signore, pieta!

Rome's attractions are less attractive in the heat, I now understand why popes and emperors fled to the Alban hills in the summers.  It's almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler up here than in the Eternal City.

Monday, July 17, 2017

O Canada

Before I headed off to the Specola for a couple of weeks of science, cappuccino and gelato, Math Man and I went off to Canada on holiday, Cape Breton Island. We were there for Canada Day (the 150th), where Math Man was bemused by all the people wearing red in the little town park, waving tiny Canadian flags.  It seemed so...unCanadian to be so flamboyantly Canadian.  There were fireworks.

I saw a bald eagle, my first ever in the wild, 30 feet over my head on the 5th hole at the Highland Links golf course in Ingonish.

Parks Canada has put red Adirondack chairs out in national parks all over Canada to encourage people to sit and admire the view.  There is a nice view behind Math Man, but he is also facing a gorgeous view.  We are on a small peninsula poking out into the Atlantic.  Some of the red chairs are pretty remote, a couple even helicoptered in according the Park Ranger I met atop Mt. Franey, 1400 hard won feet above sea level.

Speaking of Mt. Franey, I climbed it while Math Man played 18 holes of golf on the course below.  There is a red chair on top of it, which I was determined to sit in. The trail is steep, and after the first half kilometer, quite rough.  I made it to the top, enjoyed the view, sat in the red chair and chatted up the ranger. How did the red chair get up there, I wondered. In pieces?  No, no, we drove it up the road.  Yep, that's how she got up there.  She drove.  (I couldn't have driven up the road, but I could have walked down it.)

Math Man and I hiked on the other side of Cape Breton Island, on the Mabou mine trail.  It follows a track that was used by carts (hard to imagine as it clung to the edge of the steep cliffs) to go from house to house. Not much sign of the houses left, except the occasional rose bush gone feral along the way.

And there was Tim Horton's. A red sprinkle donut.  O Canada!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A day at the Vatican Observatory

I am at the Vatican Observatory — the Specola Vaticana — for another week, and here is a taste of a day at the Specola in photos.

8 am
A view out the edgy apartment I stayed in for
the first two days in Albano.
It's a cup of tea and a chance to check my email in the apartment I'm staying in at Albano Laziale, a small town about an hour outside Rome where the Specola has been since 1930 (having moved out from their quarters in Vatican City in Rome).

The entrance to the Specola
9 am
I've left Italy to go to work in another country, no passport control needed, I just opened the door with a key and walked in.  The Specola is housed in the Papal Gardens in Castelgandolfo, where Popes John Paul II and Benedict spent the summers (and I understand why - it's decidedly cooler here than in  Rome).  An "extraterritorial" part of Vatican City State's, the gardens cover more area than the Holy See in Rome.

10 am coffee and conversation is sacrosanct
10 am
Cappuccino!  The astronomers meet for coffee and conversation in a sunny room off the courtyard. Alessandro Omizzolo (a specialist in galaxies and a priest of the diocese of Padua) is the barista.  Paul Mueller, SJ, the superior of the Jesuit community here and a philosopher of science is headed out the door, while curator of meteorites, Bob Macke SJ points out the science humor on the bulletin board (in both English and Italian) and Gina Savinetti (who cooks for the Specola) stirs her cappuccino.

Bonus - Guy Consolmagno, SJ, who directs the Observatory returns from a month-long sojourn in the US.  Last stop was Philly!

View into my office from the Specola library
11 am
Working in my office under the eaves, the view is over the courtyard, the library right outside the door.  It looks nothing at all like what Dan Brown described in The DaVinci code, despite the bearded Jesuit brother who directs the Observatory working downstairs.  You know you are at home when the network recognizes your laptop as soon as you lift the lid!  It's a great spot to work, quiet, light filled and in the heat of last week, delightfully cool.

George Lemaître's signature in the guest book.
There are historic photos and artifacts dotted around the building, every visit I find something I haven't seen before.  Fr. George Lemaître, who put forward what has become known as the Big Bang theory was a visitor here, as you can see from his signature in the guest book (it's directly above Martin Schwarzchild's).

Pranzo with the Jesuit community.
Meanwhile, I am finally catching up on work email, clearing out the backlog from the vacation I took right before heading to Rome, the travel (from Cape Breton to Rome in 48 hours) and a couple of days of work in Rome proper.

1 pm
Pranzo!  Lunch with the Jesuit community.  The other two guests at lunch are here from the Deutches Museum to tend the Specola's historical clocks.  The treats Alessandro is holding were baked by the guests. After lunch, we headed up to the "alta" for coffee and conversation(or grappa, or for those of us still struggling with jet lag, Coke Zero)

4 pm
Bob Macke consulted with me and my students last spring as we worked to set up an apparatus similar to his to measure the heat capacities of meteorites.  We had trouble with atmospheric water condensing into our liquid nitrogen (which messed with the mass measurements we were tracking). Bob has a useful bit to add to our set-up:  a pasta storage container to enclose the dewar.

Bob Macke SJ with some scientific
The scientific group working at the Specola is a diverse one, including the Jesuit staff, other astronomers and technical staff and a dozen adjunct scholars like myself, and sloshes from one side of the Atlantic to the other (between the VATT on Mt. Graham in Arizona and the Specola outside Rome). To help everyone get to know each other, Bob Macke is filming short interviews with each person that can be shared internally. It's been great to find out what other people are doing on the research front, and how they found themselves working here.  Bob recorded my interview this afternoon.

Afterwards, I dug into working on the proofs for a manuscript.  I have an inordinate attachment to commas, which Crash has been kind enough to point out to me.  So most of the work on this paper has been pulling out comma after comma, which really does make it read more smoothly.

7 pm
One of the graces of the Specola that I particularly appreciate is the small chapel upstairs, and daily Mass, whether in Italian (that's the language of the house) or in English, or sometimes a mix of both.

Giuseppe Koch, SJ (the Specola librarian) presided tonight.  The opening line for his homily was, "Io sono Giuseppe!" true and from today's readings about Giuseppe and his fratelli (Joseph and his brothers).  I'm glad of the small Italian missals which let me blunder my way through the responses.

8 pm
Gelato!  Along with the pane quotidiano, one of the best parts of my daily routine here.  Today Alessandro treated Guy to gelato on his return (along with me and Bob).  I have limone e frutti di bosco in hand, that's Bob's cone in front, with Oreo gelato. Who knew?

Curious about the work of the Observatory?  You can read more about it at the Catholic Astronomer blog, or ask me in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

#Scienceathon: Day of Science

Today the Earth Science Women’s Network is hosting Science-A-Thon, in which participating scientists are chronicling a day in their life on Twitter and Instagram (follow #dayofscience and #scienceathon).

I'm working from the Vatican Observatory, the Specola Vaticana, this week. The Specola might seem focused on anything-but-earth science, but the meteorites that the earth sweeps up as she moves through the heavens are clues not only to the otherworldly, but to our own planet's history.

8 am
It's a cup of tea and a chance to check my email in the apartment I'm staying in at Albano Laziale, a small town about an hour outside Rome where the Specola has been since 1930 (having moved out from their quarters in Vatican City in Rome).

9 am
I've left Italy to go to work in another country, no passport control needed, I just opened the door with a key and walked in.  The Specola is housed in the Papal Gardens in Castelgandolfo, where Popes John Paul II and Benedict spent the summers (and I understand why - it's decidedly cooler here than in  Rome).  An "extraterritorial" part of Vatican City State's, the gardens cover more area than the Holy See in Rome.

10 am
Cappuccino!  The astronomers meet for coffee and conversation in a sunny room off the courtyard.

11 am
Working in my office under the eaves, the view is over the courtyard, the library right outside the door.  It looks nothing at all like what Dan Brown described in The DaVinci code, despite the bearded Jesuit brother who directs the Observatory working downstairs.  You know you are at home when the network recognizes your laptop as soon as you lift the lid.

UPDATES as I go today.

This is a first ever fund raiser for the Earth Science Women’s Network, so if you are inclined to support them, you can donate here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Catholic Press Awards: And the winner is...

"...for the best essay in a magazine about prayer and spirituality..."  It's not me, but the late Brian Doyle's "A Prayer for You and Yours" published last year in Give Us This Day.  Poignant — all the more so given his recent death — with a touch of torque on the language that I deeply admire and appreciate, it speaks of the lengths and depths parents will go to, and God.

Give Us This Day swept the category this year, taking first, second and third places. All three essays pulled on the authors' experiences as parents.  Listen to Mary Stommes' mother's wise words about an exasperating child in "The Wisdom of Our Elders":  love him.  We, too, are loved by God -- no matter how exasperating at times.

Third place?  That went to my essay,"We Are Never Alone," about Psalm 139 for last May's issue: We are never alone, but besieged and beloved, from the beginning of time to the ends of the earth.  I can't tell you how surprised I was at the news!

Do read Brian Doyle's and Mary Stommes' pieces and feast on the riches they lay on the table.  Mine, too, if you are so minded!


On July 13th, the Earth Science Women’s Network is hosting Science-A-Thon, in which participating scientists are chronicling a day in their life on Twitter and Instagram (follow #dayofscience and #scienceathon).

Join me for the day.  I'll be posting a photo every hour on a day when I'll be working from the Vatican Observatory, from that early morning stop at the espresso bar to Mass in the chapel at the end of the day (or at least a photo of the chapel!). The observatory might seem focused on anything-but-earth science, but the meteorites that the earth sweeps up as she moves through the heavens are clues not only to the otherworldly, but to our own planet's history.

Participants are listed by country -- so far I'm the only one under "Vatican City"!

This is a first ever fund raiser for the Earth Science Women’s Network, so if you are inclined to support them, you can donate here.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Kitchen Mitosis

The Egg in my dad's kitchen, making
eggs. Family recipe of bacon & eggs.
I reached into a kitchen cabinet tonight looking for a particular mixing bowl, then remembered it is in North Carolina, where The Egg is having a ball doing math and cooking for himself.  So bits and pieces of my kitchen have gone south for a few months: skillets (plural), sauce pan, pasta pot, spatulas large and small.  And that mixing bowl.  It’s a bit like mitosis.  There is the junk DNA — the kitchen towels, of which I have such a surfeit, I can’t tell you which ones went — and the dominant genes, only a single copy is necessary for the function — I can make do with just the one skillet.

The NY Times had an article earlier this month about preparing young people to “adult”.  The article included a list of experiences and skills to help get adolescents and young adults ready to launch.  Listed under “Daily Functioning” was “Cook three basic meals. (Eggs, cereal and pasta don’t count.)”  I told Crash and The Egg that I thought pasta counted if you made your own pomodoro sauce or mac and cheese from scratch.  (Our go-to base recipe is from the 2011 cover of Bon Appetit, and I highly recommend it, you can make it in not much longer than it takes to bring water to the boil and cook dry pasta, and freezes like a dream.)  Math Man wanted to know if quiche counted, or is that just eggs. We agreed, it counts as a real meal.

We have a shared Google drive folder with family recipes in it (my mother’s pound cake, my grandmother’s pie crust, hey, someone needs to add Aunt Vi’s gumbo recipe). Crash recommended Budget Bytes to The Egg as a source of tasty budget recipes.  I tried one of the recipes The Egg cooked last week - a sticky soy ginger sauce that tasted great on salmon over rice.  Genetic inheritance in reverse.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


The world is busy this morning, perhaps because it is not weighed down by the humidity and the hulking clouds of yesterday. The birds are twittering, a bee is battering desperately at the back screen door, a spider has spun a Snow White-worthy web in my chair on the patio. Sirens are wailing nearby, the wind is waggling in the leaves. Whoosh - a starling just swung past, the cat's ears swiveling like radar to follow its passage.

I want to be two people. One who has all day to read, write and do research and one that putters in her garden. Or maybe three people, one who has time to run errands - to pick up those books and drop off that package.  But I imagine if I cloned myself, we all might want to pick up a book and a cup of tea and sit out here on the patio in the patchy coolness under the tree, drifting between worlds, handing the breviary off one to the next.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Et tu, Brute?

The Washington Post reported today that some of the people upset by Oskar Eustis' and The Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar for Shakespeare in the Park in NYC feel moved to threaten the production with threats of death and bodily harm, as well as a deluge of angry emails.  Unfortunately many of these souls can not figure out what state the production is in (New York), the name of the theatre company (The Public Theater).  As a result lots of Shakespeare productions are getting angry emails.  Including Crash's production of Macbeth, which is put on by Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (plural Crash notes, not singular) some 2000 miles away from New York's Central Park.  Thankfully, they have gotten no death threats and I say that with no sarcasm whatsoever.  I am grateful.

I'm fascinated with the geographical disconnect, that somehow sees the park on the news as your local park, and can't see that what's playing there isn't Julius Caesar. Blind anger. I'm also fascinated that a staging of Julius C with an Obama character in the title role did not raise nearly this sort of ruckus - in fact, it raised no ruckus at all.  Et tu, Brute? 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Powered down

Why, I wonder, is the refrigerator dark when I open the door?

The power is out.  I keep reaching for electrons that aren’t there.  Flip a switch and wonder for a second, why is there no light. The electric blue of the flame under the tea kettle seems magical, a bit over the top, in my dim kitchen. The quiet is so deep I can hear the carpenter bees chewing away at the branch in the garden and the first pings of the tea coming to the boil.  How can the bees be so loud? I had no idea that the tea kettle was signaling me so long before it whistles.  I wonder if it shrieks so because I've ignored its repeated polite reminders, "I am at the boil. Boiling.  Yes, I am boiling nicely, thank you."  

The internet leaks in through my phone, a burp of news here and there.
PECO: Outage in area .... Cause = Equipment problem. Estimated Restoration Time = 06/14 12:00PM. Text STOP to stop all PECO texts.  
Early this morning the expected return of power was 8:20 am.  Now the stated restoration time has move to 12:00 PM.  I translate: "It’s more complicated than we thought, so we’ll say 'noon' because 'We have not the foggiest.' would be unwise."

Thermodynamics.  I’m thinking about rates of energy transfer and isolated systems.  I put my tea in the insulated pot, screwing the lid on tightly, forcing it to hold onto its heat.  I imagine the molecules restlessly shimmying around inside, unable to get comfortable.  Most mornings I pop the 2nd cup into the microwave to stir up the molecules again when it gets cold, prodding them awake with photons, but today there is no rest for the weary.

I switch off the wifi on my laptop, not wanting to spend electrons for what I cannot have. Toast. No. Oven. Nope. Plans for the laundry. Derailed.

I open the refrigerator door. Why, I wonder, is it dark?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Memento mori

The hyacinth is in bloom, the heads already blushing blue. I hadn’t noticed it, perhaps because I hadn’t expected it. It had hardly recovered from the ravages of the winter before last when I had thought it lost.  I mourned it anew this spring when February’s warmth gave way to icy March winds and a damp, dark, chill May.

Weeks ago I brushed my hand along the bare sticks of the hyacinth behind the church, wondering aloud if it, too, was wrecked by these winter vagaries.  Wondering silently what a friend, gone to God after a ravaging spring, would think of these wild swings.  He would say it is chance to taste loss, to know what will be asked of us in those last years, or hours of our life.  He would say there is always hope, even when we don’t notice it, or expect it.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Contemplating sliding scales

I have an essay out in this month's Nature Chemistry —"It figures" — about how the computational tools we use shape what we teach and not necessarily in good ways.  It's framed around slide rules, an obsolete analog computer that used to be as much a marker for nerd as a plastic pocket protector.  Science and engineering students wore them like light sabers on their belts.

They've faded from popular imagination, most of my students have never heard the term, or if they have, don't really know what they look like.  The last slide rule slid out the door of Keuffel & Esser in 1975 (they sent their engraving equipment to the Smithsonian).  A few years ago ThinkGeek sold replicas. You can still find the classics, used and even unopened packages ready to sell to engineers and scientists.  The Oughtred Society has a online museum, as well.

Writing this article reminded me of the aesthetic pleasures of non-electronic geeky things. Like my stereoviewer for looking at stereopics of molecules.  It's like the difference between chopping my onions with the deliciously sharp knife I brought back for The Egg from Japan and tossing them into the food processor.  Perhaps slide rules are like rosaries, a way to mindfulness and contemplation for scientists?

It reminds me a bit of this poem by the Muslim mystic Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī, though for her it was potatoes, not onions.

Don't know how to use a slide rule?  It's fun, it's geeky. No need to buy one to play, check out this simulator and these instructions (written to respond to Crash's questions) at Nature Chemistry!

You can read the article here:

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Summer Schooling

I spent my elementary school years in rural Illinois, a few minutes' bike ride to dairy farms and gravel roads.  These 1960s summers were filled with new things to learn and explore.  How to ride a bike, how to sail a boat and paddle a canoe and how to bake a chocolate cake  - starting with Black Midnight Cake from the 1958 Betty Crocker Cookbook.  (I'm still wondering why the recipe called for adding the dry ingredients alternately with the water.)

I read books and books, science fiction, short stories, novels, Russian novels, classic literature.  Courtesy of the local parks and rec department and my mother's signature on innumerable blue mimeographed permission slips, I went to Cub's games, and waited in line to to see the moon rock at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.  Only to be too short to actually see it. (That experience led me to body check the guy who tried to push in front of the kids who had waited all day to see the Pope at Independence Hall.)

Summer wasn't for schooling, but regardless I learned a lot in those long, unstructured days.

What's up this summer?  Books on the current pile.

Keep the Damned Women Out (Nancy Malkiel's almost 700 page history of co-education in the Ivies)
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Mason Currey)
River Flow (David Whyte's poetry)
A Short History of Astronomy (from the ever-growing Oxford series)
A Sense of Direction (Gideon Lewis-Kraus, on walking the Camino and the 88 pilgrimage trail in Japan)
Bleaker House: Chasing my novel to the ends of the earth (Nell Stevens)
A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived (Adam Rutherford)
Room (Emma Donoghue - I finished this in one sitting yesterday)
The Wound of Knowledge (Rowan Williams, yes, that one)
The Gathering Edge (Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, another installment in the Liaden universe)
The Beginning of All Things (Hans Küng)
Two from the Mageworlds (James Macdonald and Debra Doyle)

Recipes to try?
These cakes!  I bought the book just to oogle them.
Colorful deviled eggs.
And a whole boatload of things I saved on the New York Times Cooking site.

Local walks.  Riding my bike.  Rome.  California to see a niece married.

It's been a long time since the 60s, but summer remains a time to explore many worlds, interior and exterior. Where are you traveling?  What are you reading?

And now I finally know why -- to reduce the formation of gluten in the cake, making for a lighter confection! Ah!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Veiled criticism: What does it mean to be Roman Catholic?

Holy Door open for Year of Mercy in St. Peter's in Rome.
Melania Trump is Roman Catholic. Or not?

I'll admit I was surprised to see the news flash by on Twitter today that Melania Trump is Roman Catholic, after her office confirmed that she identifies as Catholic, though a little digging shows that it was on her Wikipedia entry as early as February. I posted a link to the story on Facebook with a "What?!" which provoked a conversation about the rules for a valid Catholic marriage and what makes someone Catholic. Are you Catholic if you say so?

I'm going to start with Pope Francis' advice: Who am I to judge? Because when it comes to deciding who is Catholic, or a real Catholic, or a practicing Catholic, particularly when you are a public figure there's a lot of judging to go around.

There are three things required to be Catholic:  be baptized with a Trinitarian formula (though not necessarily baptized in a Catholic rite), believe what the Roman Catholic Church believes (minimally the Creed), and acknowledge that the Pope and his bishops are charged with keeping the faith, such that you owe them obedience in matters of faith and morals. Generally these last two are done formally, professing the Creed in public with the intention of being a visible member of the Roman Catholic Communion, but it is not clear that they must be (though I'm no canonist).  I'm thinking of the crypto-Catholics in Japan, were they not Catholic?

We Roman Catholics have a lot of rules about who can receive sacraments, or be godparents or lectors, or whose children may be baptized or receive first Eucharist, who can be married within our walls and not -- and how that all might happen. Some are well rooted in the theology of the Church and the sacraments and others not so much, some are just barriers, walls to keep out...who I am never really sure. Do we want to be keep out the child of the single mother who must work two jobs and therefore cannot attend the 30+ required Saturday catechetical classes so her child can receive First Eucharist? (Note these classes are for the parents, there is another set for the kids, and this isn't my parish!)  No exceptions.  No kidding.

We make up a lot of stories, too, about who is a good Catholic and who is not. Wearing a veil - when visiting the Pope or at Mass - doesn't make you more or less Catholic, or a better or worse one.  Nor does praying the rosary.  Go to Mass twice a year, or twice a week or twice a day. Receive the Eucharist, or not.  Is your marriage valid in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church or not?  It does not matter. There is no more or less when it comes to being a member of the Body of Christ.  There is only grace, and grace in abundance. Because we are all sinners, all undeserving of that grace.

"Who are you?" someone asked Pope Francis early in his pontificate. "I am a sinner," he replied.

Who I am to judge?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Kyrie eleison

Dawn from New Camaldoli in Big Sur. May 2012.
Oja Gjielo's Kyrie is running through my head - literally, my earbuds are in.  Earth is spinning by on the giant screen on the wall.  Without my glasses, I couldn't figure out what the brown blur was. The desert.  The desert is almost as enticing as outer space at the moment.

The last few weeks have had me contra dancing with words, passing down the line from one set to the next.  From book review to essay to opinion piece to my own book.  I send one spinning back to the editor or press, to be caught up into the dance on the next.  Yesterday I sent the last piece hurtling back across the ocean to my editor.

I think it's summer, a sort of desert time on some academic calendars. The regular rhythm of classes falls away, followed by what I always imagine is going to be a gentle transmutation into the summer's writing and deeper thinking. Days to spend contemplating long horizons and wide open landscapes. A brilliant sun illuminating my work, bringing what needs to be done into sharp focus.  Cool nights to refresh the soul.

I forget that that summer is always entered through a veil of fire, followed by a plague of gnats.  Grading and meetings, graduations and good-byes, and the occasional crisis.  This year has been no exception.  As I clear out the ashes of the year, filing papers, shelving books, writing reports, the gnats descend.  I bat at the cloud of emails, and they buzz all the more angrily.

Never mind hermitages and anchorholds. Today, I'm longing for a pillar in the wilderness (there are still modern stylites -- Maxime lives atop a 131 ft pillar in the mountains).  I managed a couple of hours atop my virtual pillar today - in the early stages of a new project.  The view was magnificent and enticing.  I could barely hear the gnats.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dot Magis: Sacred cacophony

St. Benedict Fra Angelico via Wikimedia Commons
“From holy Easter until Pentecost without interruption let ‘Alleluia’ be said both in the Psalms and in the responsories.” —from The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 15.

" breath caught in my mouth. Alleluia? I had barely thought the word in weeks, and now we were singing it in four parts, in Lent. St. Benedict’s Rule flashed through my mind. Wait, I wanted to say, until 'holy Easter'! 
Holy Easter duly arrived, and with it, a delightful explosion of Alleluias. But I still wondered at my discomfort with those out-of-season Alleluias. I was reminded of St. Ignatius’s caution to retreatants in the Spiritual Exercises (#127) to 'not read any mystery that is not to be used on that day or at that hour, lest the consideration of one mystery interfere with the contemplation of the other.' It can be hard to hear God’s voice in a cacophony, even a cacophony of sacred mysteries." — read the rest at DotMagis
I have a short piece up at DotMagis reflecting on how the out-of-season singing of alleluia made me more aware of the need to be present to each of the tasks and people that appear in my inbox and at my door even in this particularly chaotic time of year.  Just as with the sacred mysteries of the Exercises, I mused, take things one a a time.  What I hadn't quite realized when I wrote it is that these swirling demands are not like sacred mysteries, they are sacred mysteries.  Enveloped as they may be in difficult personalities, or troubles that I can't unravel in a few lines, even popping into my inbox, these are collisions with the sacred.  And surely a mystery.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Party lines

Writing for publication I sometimes feel as if I'm a character in an epistolary novel.  My manuscript goes out, crisp and clean on my screen, and returns speckled with conversational balloons.  "Is this what you meant?"  "Could you shorten/expand/clarify this?" "Rephrase, please." I respond, "No, no, not at all." "Yes." "Of course."  When we run out of conversation, it goes to print.

Crossing conversations are challenging. Facing the piece that came back in the fall with multiple editors in conversation with each other and with me in the margins was like doing battle with an octopus, it tentacles wrapped around my prose, prising one free only to find two more clinging to a paragraph.  This week the cross talk consisted of not one, not two, not three...ok, lots of...pieces that had been consigned to editorial hands returning.  Science. Not science. Short.  Long. And the book, the book came back, too.

It's a cocktail party in my computer.

Monday, May 01, 2017


It's the first day of final exams.  I always think it will be a quiet day, no classes, no grading yet.  But as always, it was a day packed with meetings: office hours, writing conferences with the research methodology students, award ceremony (two ! chemistry majors being honored), reception for a retiring colleague (with a surprise appearance from an alum, now herself a faculty member).  A steady stream of people through my office and in the hallways.

I came home and scrounged up a meal, savoring the silence along with the local bread and cheese. A neighbor was practicing the trumpet, beautiful jazz borne on the wind, dancing down the street and drifting in the window to languidly wrap itself around my ankles.  Now the wind is stirring the new leaves.  The insects are pinging against the screen door, and the neighbor's air conditioning whines like a giant gnat, which I only noticed when it ceases.

This silence sluices over me, cool and dark.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Marching -- and Speaking -- for Science

Speaking at the March for Science in Philly
Science.  It's what I have done most days for the last 40 years. To paraphrase Pedro Arupe SJ (or not - see this article on pseudo-Ignatian quotes) it is what seizes my imagination, it get me out of bed in the morning, determines what I read, and who I know and what amazes me with joy and gratitude.

What amazed me today were the thousands of scientists who brave a raw and rainy April day in Philadelphia to march for science.  I met some of my students early this morning and we took a train already packed into the city and found our way to the start of the march at City Hall.  We marched the not quite 2 miles to Penn's landing, waving signs and occasionally even chanting. Scientists are quiet sorts, it turns out.

I enjoyed listening to snatches of conversation about people's work as they walked and talked. Science was happening even on the march!  The signs were great - lots of old science jokes, some politics, some just...odd.  "If you aren't part of the solution -- you are part of the precipitate." "What do Trump and atoms have in common?  They make up everything."

At CityHall, waiting to march.
One sign reading "It was the year they finally immanentized the eschaton." puzzled my students — which led to a conversation about eschatology and "end times" theories as we walked. I teach at a liberal arts college - can you tell?  [I didn't realize until writing this tonight that it is a line from a 1970s novel, we could have had a while other conversation!]

with some of my students
I gave a speech, a nanosecond of which was featured on the evening news, I did an interview for CBS news in Philly, also on the news. The camera guy had a hard time getting the camera low enough to film me.  My youngest brother will be amused.

If you want to know what I had to say, I did an interview with Sabrina Vourvoulias of NBC 10 in Philly —A Chemist, A Feminist and a Theologian Go to the March for Science.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Ashes and incense

Fragment of press for making bread for Eucharist. Byzantine.
There are little flecks of ash on my alb, from where I brushed up too close to the censer.  Ashes to ashes. I walk the church through a cloud of incense.  A shroud, a veil, for the Sacrament behind me.  A pillar of cloud in the night.

I fall on my knees in the chapel.  The smoke that curls around me smells of incense and oh, so faintly of ashes.  Of prayer and of destruction. The chant pours over the two of us kneeling before the altar, piles up and spills out the door like a wave, there is a moment where all is still, and song washes back in.  We remain until the music is spent and I step into the clear cool air on the other side of the wall to let the embers die.

For whom shall we pray? For Mother Church.  For public officials. For those who believe and those who don't.  For pilgrims, return, and salvation for the dying.  I kneel and I stand until I wonder if I can stand again with this weight on my shoulders, or whether like Jesus I will stumble and fall.

I watch the choir recoil at the stark news.  Ecce lignum Crucis.  A member has been suddenly widowed, can we lean on you? Now? Today? Behold the wood of the cross. It's 9:00 pm and part of me is in an office outside a hospital waiting room 30 years and 3000 feet away, as a nurse offers to call someone for me.  All I can see are her hands, poised over the dial.

A psalm in the darkness, I can see nothing beyond the pool of light on the text. Have mercy on me, O God.

Black silk pants, black silk shirt. A white pall flows over the coffin. The alb slides over my head. "See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity." Water from the aspersorium splashes against my hand, and arcs overhead.  Renew me.

The sacrament of salvation lies broken in my hand, and I breathe in Easter.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

A widow's mite

Graduation, UCI.  June 1980.
It was half a lifetime ago.  Literally.  I was not quite 30.  I will be not-quite-60 this week.

Really, it was such a short time.  We didn't even know each other for 10 years all together. Married, another not quite.  Five not quite six.  This was not half a lifetime even then.  Nor even a third or a quarter. A fraction that grows smaller with each passing moment, sliding through my hands as I try to pin it down.

When can we neglect a term, my students wonder, desiring simple solutions?  When it's one part in five, or one part in ten? One part in a hundred - not something I'll have to face then.  Or the mathematical limit, where the one part in forever becomes nothing.  Somehow there, but not.  Evanescent increments, to use Bishop Berkeley's term.

It will be 30 years on Easter that I became a widow.  And yet I could still have written this essay from a woman widowed a scant three years — young, she suggests, at 36 with a loss that she had 42 days to see coming, where my 29 year old self had less than 42 hours.  I know those odd moments, curiously devoid of grief, where "call Tom to tell him you got tenure" shows up on my mental to-do list.  Or the dreams where you are trying to explain to people that you must rush, because even though Tom is next to you, you know he is dead and will vanish at sunset.  Or sunrise. Or.

I have, too, the memory of my mother confessing she had no idea what to tell me about mourning a spouse. Her friends had not yet reached that age.  There was no pool of experience she could draw on, except one unspoken moment.  Though I remembered then, and now, my mother's voice, whispered words of explanation in a back pew at St. Luke's as a neighbor's coffin drifted down the aisle, followed by a weeping woman in a black coat, "no mother should have to endure the death of a child."  Was it the year she lost the baby, or years later? I can't quite place it in time. Was the neighbor's name Angela? Her daughter baby sat for us, a teen-ager to my seven whose name I can't recall, just how sophisticated I thought she was.

The young widow wonders about remarriage, which overrides the widow effect, the damage being widowed does to your body.  You can't replace a person, she exclaims. True, and yet your heart might open to accommodate another.  Victor has not taken over some spot reserved for Tom, but has his own space in my heart.

It changes you, she says "I think it’s about withstanding a blow that fundamentally changes your architecture."  I would not disagree.  Our check-box demographics can't capture the complex plane of my life, or hers.

"And what are these same evanescent increments? They are neither finite quantities, nor quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?" Bishop George Berkeley mocks the calculus, and the infidel mathematicians who entertained such thoughts.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Playing poetry ping-pong

Renga is a 15th century Japanese collaborative poetry form. The kick-off poet writes a hokku (three lines, 5-7-5 syllables each, what we now call a haiku), the next poet adds two 7 syllable lines.  The third poet takes the 2 lines and adds a 5/7/5 set of verses.  And so on...see this example taken from Miner's book Japanese Linked Poetry.  

Renga can be serious or funny (haikai no renga), but the game is not so much as to follow a single through line in the imagery, but to link and shift.  I enjoy the ways in which the shifts can make me blink, and tsukeai, unusual and evocative juxtapositions of words.

One way to play this sort of linked verse game is to write a series of 5/7/5 verses, each one starting with the last line of the previous.  A friend shared the hokku for a recent renga he had started:
without my glasses
i’m groping trying to find
where my glasses are
If I'd been in the game, I might have responded with
where my glasses are
smudged by thoughts I cannot catch
I see drops of grace 
Anyone is welcome to play!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

April: poetry and passion

April...the cruelest month said T.S. Eliot.

April is the cruellest month, breeding  
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing  
Memory and desire, stirring  
Dull roots with spring rain.

It's a cruel start to April here.  The weather has been cold and damp, the late March snow on top of a warm February killed the blossoms on my cherry and pear trees.  There are a few dozen blooms on the forsythia.  Branches scratch at the sky. There is still almost a quarter of Lent to go.

I'm seeking solace in poetry of all sorts, giving a series on the psalms for my parish, nibbling at Marie Howe's The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.

PrayTell has an April litany of intercessions for fools, apt for both the day and season.  My favorite
For acrobats and poets and kite fliers, and all who do things that are not merely useful, that they may know the pleasure they give to others.
And a litany of prayers for the 5th Sunday in Lent, from the depths:
For the People of God, as we watch for Easter's dawn in our lives…we pray…

For refugees and immigrants, for all those in need of new homes in which to settle…we pray
For those trapped in the depths of war and of poverty…we pray
For hope, when all possibilities seem exhausted…we pray

For the sick and for the dying, and for those who accompany them…we pray
For our beloved dead, brought to life everlasting through God's Spirit dwelling within them …we pray. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dot Magis: Signs of an early morning Examen

The photo is from Ireland, taken in the parking lot by a small pier. There wasn't much of a divider between the water and the pavement, and I suspect more than one distracted motorist had gone over the edge there.  Signs matter.

One of the nearby bridges over the railway track is out, which has changed the local traffic patterns. My drive to Mass and morning prayer now involves fewer traffic lights, more stop signs and a need to be very alert for those who view stopping at stop signs as optional. I'm oddly grateful for it all, which led to this reflection for DotMagis.

"I imagine God at each intersection point asking, 'Do you see me?' I think of the last line of Mary Oliver’s poem, What I Have Learned So Far: 'The gospel of / light is the crossroads of—indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.'

...I pray for the grace to see the stop signs, that when I reach each crossroad, I might stop long enough to see the light of God on every corner. I pray that I might not be gone, zipping on to the next thing, but aflame. Ignited."

Read the whole thing at DotMagis.

Friday, March 24, 2017

On Being on dusting

A few weeks ago I got an email from one of the producers of On Being letting me know that Krista Tippett had used an excerpt from a blog post I had written for DotMagis during her interview with poet Marilyn Nelson.

Nelson is one of my favorite contemporary poets, in part because her work tangles with such a wide range of themes, from the desert fathers to modern Trappist martyrs, she is unafraid to draw on scientific imagery, and brings a unflinching eye to the gouges racism has left in our country.  I'm still haunted by Fortune's bones, or more precisely by the thought of Fortune's wife dusting her husband's bones.

During the interview Tippett tells Nelson:
"To that point — I don’t know if this is something you’re aware of — we found this blog post that was written actually by a professor who had just gotten back from sabbatical, and she was dusting her office. Have you read this? I mean, this is the things you can find on the internet. This is the upside of the internet. Is your poem, Dusting?'"
It reminded me of a story one of the Jesuits at the observatory told me about going into the Rome to pick up a piece of paperwork he needed that the government website had shown was ready. When he finally got to the window, he was told to come back.  "But it said it was ready on the internet," he pleaded.  But the Italian bureaucrat was unmoved, "The internet says many things.  Next!"

The internet does say many things, and so it was quite nice to hear my writing called part of the upside of the internet. It was also fascinating to hear a little bit of my own work read aloud, which Tippett does (you can hear it around 25:00 minutes in the segment).

In the "Case for Dusting" I suggested that the dust on my desk might have alien origins: "fragments ...burnt off comets that blundered into Earth’s atmosphere. Crumbs of the infinite lie scattered across my desk."  So I particularly enjoyed the recent piece in the New York Times about jazz musician Jon Larsen's work identifying the micrometeorites in ordinary, every day dust.  The photographs are gorgeous.  Now I really can't bear to dust my desk, knowing what I'm wiping away.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Sliding scales

The Egg bought me this slide rule, I also have the somewhat 
more sophisticated K&E slide rule that my mother-in-law, 
Gai Hamburger Donnay, bought with them money she 
earned tutoring Jackie Robinson in chemistry during her 
undergraduate days at UCLA. The log tables are from my 
father's, in his CRC Handbook of Mathematics.
I've been playing with scales off and on for the last couple of weeks. Not musical scales, or pay scales, or sliding fee schedules, but logarithmic scales on a slide rule for an essay I'm writing about computational methods.  What do we use, what did we use, and how do these options affect what we do in research and what we teach?

As part of this effort I learned to add and subtract on a slide rule.  I mentioned this to a younger colleague who seemed unimpressed, why not, weren't slide rules just the equivalent of the calculator, instead of pressing buttons, operations were done by some sort of sliding algorithm?

Ah, but the miracle1 of using logarithms to do computations was that you could multiply two numbers by adding two numbers. To multiply two numbers, say 2378 and 3467, you looked up the logarithm of each in a table — 7.774 and 8.151 respectively — added them together (15.925) and found the number corresponding to this new logarithm to arrive at the answer:  8,240,000 (to 3 significant figures, the exact answer is 8,244,526).  Put in symbolic form LOG(A x B) = LOG (A) + LOG (B).  These "logs" didn't help with addition in any way.

But you can use multiplication to add in an admittedly roundabout way.2 To add A and B:
  • Divide A by B.
  • Add 1. (Ok, yes, this is addition, but trivial to do in your head).
  • Now multiply the result by B.
  • The result is the sum of A and B.
This is supposedly handy if you are mid-calculation on a slide rule and don't want to pull a number off to paper, then return to working the rest out on the slide rule.

With a bit of practice, I'm once again getting quick with doing equilibrium problems for general chemistry, faster mid-lecture than pulling out and unlocking my phone to use the calculator on it (and my last standalone calculator bit the dust this week, after a long, long, useful life.)  Then again, when I have a quadratic to solve, these days I can just say "Hey, Siri...."

There were other methods for doing multiplication of two number by adding two numbers based on trigonometric relationships, which led me to learn the word prosthaphaeresis.

I note that one should be impressed with the tables.  It took Napier 20 years of calculations to construct those tables.

1.  And a miracle they were thought to be from the very first, John Napier's book describing his invention (published in 1614) was titled  Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (A Description of the Wonderful Rule of Logarithms).
2. For the algebraically inclined,  this translates to A+B = B (A/B + 1)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Factoring in change

The balance of my life is shifting again, neither Crash nor the Egg will be home this summer, one is doing math research on the east coast, the other stage managing a production of Macbeth in the west.  The last time Math Man and I had no children at home in a summer, we'd been married less than a year.  This coming fall we'll have been married for a quarter of a century. So it's been a long time, and things are shifting.

One marker of the shift is the pizza dough recipe, posted at the moment for easy Lenten reference on the hood of the stove.  It has pencilled in amounts  for 1 crust, a version for 2 (the standard recipe), for 4, for 6.  I've made it just for me, living solo, for us as a couple, for a family including teenaged boys, enough for snacks for a party of hungry teens.

It's such a tangible marker, the size of the ball of dough under my hands as I knead it before a quick rise. Like a family, it's a living, ever changing thing.  Growing and shrinking in turns, many possibilities caught in its web of proteins.  I miss the substantial feel of the larger ball, but take heart in knowing that the dough is rising in other places, too.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Comma Section

The book I've been working on is done, or rather, it's out of my hands and in the hands of my editor.  It will be back on my desk soon enough.  Now I'm excited to clean my study, putting away the books I used and generally re-organizing life with a bit less writing in it.  I have stacks of reference books — Ancient Christian Commentaries on the Scriptures, Rahner's sermons, Tillich — and a small heap of commas that were sieved out of the text.

The commas got pulled after Crash did a read through, along with some light editing, noting: "General comment: You use a LOT of commas in the reflections and sometimes, as here, they obscure rather than clarify your sentence structure."  He's right.  I tend to use commas to help me pace the reading of the text, rather than as the framework on which I am hanging phrases.  This is fine when I am the sole user of the text, otherwise, it obfuscates.

I don't know how many commas I took out (though I could know), but I do know there are 1528 still left in the text, one every 13 words.

Prompted by Ben Blatt's recent short piece in the Atlantic about the number of exclamation points great writers use, I counted those up, too.  They range over two orders of magnitude; a low of 50 per hundred thousand words for Hemingway to 1000 for James Joyce. As it turns out, in this instantiation of my writing, I'm more in line with Hemingway than Joyce: 78 ! per hundred thousand words.

I've been resisting writing the code to produce a version of these cool images of punctuation patterns by Adam Calhoun.