Thursday, September 14, 2017

Aliens have landed on my roof

Classes have begun at the college, a season about which I have selective amnesia.  No matter how many times I have done this (33 times, I'm counting), no matter how prepared I am with handouts and room arrangements is always nervewrackingly chaotic and utterly exhausting.  It's fun like riding a really big wave is, equal parts exhilaration and terror, and you can feel pretty bedraggled by the time you wash up on the beach.

And of course, while you are riding this wave of new school year energy, you can't do anything else. All this to say, it felt delightful today to have some quiet time to do some research and a bit of reading.

I had Jon Larsen's  In Search of Stardust1 on my stack of books to read because last spring the upper division research methods course I taught did an experiment to measure the heat capacities of meteorites, using the method developed by the Vatican Observatory's Guy Consolmagno, SJ and Bob Macke, SJ and colleagues.2 The students were curious about the astrochemistry context (where do the samples come from, how can you distinguish regular rocks from these stony aliens) and I've been collecting resources for this coming spring when a new batch of students will make these measurements.

I tend to think of meteorite strikes as spectacular and rare events, fireballs roaring through the sky that finally come crashing to earth.  Still they aren't as rare was you might think — tens of thousands of meteorites weighing as much or more than a euro coin hit the earth each year, most of them landing in the water.  But what takes my breath away are the hundreds of trillions of micrometeorites that come to rest on earth each year, adding as much as 100,000 metric tons to the earth's mass.  Invisible, unremarked.  Perhaps as many as one a day hits the roof of my house, there are surely some of these ancient bits of dust in the water I drink, still others stuck to my hands after weeding the garden.

Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, discovered that you could find and identify these micrometeorites by looking at the dust on urban roofs, previously it had been thought you couldn't find them in the midst of the general detritus of a city. But a careful eye is rewarded, as these cosmic intruders have a characteristic morphology. Their shape and appearance means you can sort them out under a microscope, much like Pasteur manually sorted the crystals of tartaric acid, and they are astonishingly beautiful.
From J. Larsen, In Search of Stardust , p. 51.

Larsen offers a brief and readable glimpse into the science of micrometeorites, but I enjoyed simply browsing the images, reading them as I might clouds.  There is a golden glass meteorite with deep blue inclusions (p 51) that looks like some alien aquatic creature's shell, while the burnished cryptocrystalline specimen on page 45 looks like a bronzed wasp's nest — until one remembers it is less than a millimeter long. One scanning electron microscopic image of an ablation spherule from the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 looks like a tiny alien skull.

As much as I learned about the dust from outer space, Larsen's register of the terrestrial imposters gave me an entirely different view of road dust, which contains polished spheres of glass from the reflective markings on the roads and tiny crystals, microgemstones.

In one of the most beautiful passages in Isaiah (Is 54:11-12) we are told, "I lay your pavements in carnelians..." Who knew it was literally true.  The world is a beautiful place, if only we know where and how to look.

(A version of this post appeared at the Vatican Observatory Foundation's Catholic Astronomer blog.)

1. J. Larsen, In Search of Stardust   If you get it at Amazon through this link, the Vatican Observatory Foundation will get a donation. There was an article in the NY Times last spring about the project as well.

2. Guy J. Consolmagno, Martha W. Schaefer, Bradley E. Schaefer, Daniel T. Britt, Robert J. Macke, Michael C. Nolan, Ellen S. Howell, "The measurement of meteorite heat capacity at low temperatures using liquid nitrogen vaporization" Planetary and Space Science87 (2013) 146-156

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Renewing vows: 9131 days

It's the nine thousand one hundred and thirty first day since Math Man and I walked through the doors of the parish church, processed down the aisle and vowed to stand by each other and cherish each other in weal and in woe.

It's our 25th anniversary, if you don't want to do the math (yes, Math Man included the leap years!).  It's not a prime number, but composite, with a prime factorization of 23 x 397.

Our sons had a life sized photo cutout of us made and restaged the wedding — right where it happened in our parish church. It is an entirely different take on renewing your vows.  They photographed the 'event' and gave us the photos (and the cutout) for an anniversary present.

It seems unthinkable that we've been married more than 13 million minutes, millions seem so large and the time so short.  Other significant dates to come?  On January 22, 2020 we will have been married 10,000 days and on Monday, May 13, 2024 for a billion seconds.  Billions and billions. And yes, these days are on my calendar!

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Labor, crosses, prophets and floods

I've lost count of laundry loads and dishwasher runs and dinners cooked, the house has been bouncing since I got back from Rome in early August. The boys have come and gone again, back to school and work, one to the east, the other west.  The Egg's friends have come to visit, sleeping on sofas.

The long and short of serving.
My sister-in-law, No-no came to drop my niece, She of the Book, off at college.  From Houston.  They arrived here the day Harvey hit, awoke Sunday morning to texts from my brother Geek Guru that the waters of the nearby bayou had risen fast and he and my nephew were shocked to find they were now trapped in the house.  They spent a damp, dark day surrounded by flood waters, checked on by police on a Zodiac, watching neighbors get pulled out by boat and helicopter.

They are, I am relieved to say, now safe. When the waters went down, they evacuated to my other Houston brother's house. The house is OK, it was raised up past the 100 year flood level.  The garage and the cars in it?  Toast.

Labor, crosses, prophets and floods. And yet still, ordinary time.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Blood Feuds: The Great Bryn Mawr Bake Off

"Can you search to find what to substitute for glucose syrup?" I asked Crash.  Corn syrup, as it turns out. "It's cool to find a use for corn syrup besides making blood." he mused.

Math Man likes eclairs.  For Father's Day I bought him a book of fancy eclairs (or rather a book of eclair recipes) to browse, and promised to make him some.  The Egg has been home for a few days between a summer of math research and the start of his senior year and binge watching the Great British Baking Show.  Crash is also here for a few weeks between a stint in England and his next stage management gig, and thought to stretch his cooking repertoire beyond Budget Bytes and blood. Hence the eclairs.

Raspberry and chocolate, it still looked like Macbeth in the kitchen yesterday. (See below)

This afternoon we had The Egg making bread, Crash making choux for the eclairs (from Tom's mom's recipe after the book's recipe failed us) and me making braised short ribs for The Egg's departure dinner.  It was a lot like an episode of the Great British Baking Show.  Right down to Chris fanning the chocolate glazed eclairs with the baking sheet.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Angels in glass

From a old column for CatholicPhilly

Stair treads in Hiroshi Sugimoto's installation, at the restored Go'o 
Shrine on Naoshima, Japan. c. Michelle Francl
No one lingered after the 12:10 Mass. The breezes that spun through the open stained glass windows whispered of an August day too wondrously crisp and cool to be inside.

“What can I do to help you get out sooner?” I asked the sacristan.

“Could you close the windows?”

I found the pole and started down the south aisle. The light streamed through the canted stained glass, and I paused for a minute to read the names inscribed along the bottom of each century-old pane.  “William and Margaret White” under St. Patrick and St. Bridget; the Ancient Order of Hibernians made a gift of St. Rita and St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

Each window gently puffed as I swung it closed. “Peace be with you” they seemed to say, blessing me over and over again as I worked my way around the periphery of the sanctuary.

I am reminded of a line from Sainte-Chappelle by Eric Whitacre, a choral composer famous for his intricate a cappella works: Et angeli in vitro molliter cantaverunt.  “And the angels in the glass softly sang.”  Whitacre’s piece tells the story of a young girl visiting Sainte Chappelle, a medieval gothic church in Paris renowned for its striking stained glass windows.

The girl hears the angels in the windows softly singing “Sanctus, sanctus.” Her voice and theirs twine until the light itself sings, “Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory.”  The score is crystalline, I can hear the dust motes dance in the light that streams through the windows, the stone walls of the church itself sing.

Even a silent chapel has something to say to us. The design of a church is meant to both speak to us of God’s saving work and to encourage us to speak to God in return. Images, whether frescos or stained glass windows, facilitate these conversations.

St. John Damascene, an eighth century Syrian monk, wrote that holy images move him “to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that light and darkness speak to us of God [1147].

Stained glass windows sing to us of the company of faith to which we belong: the angels, the saints, the artists who take light and darkness and bend them into a shape that moves us closer to God, the people who supported these artists financially and in prayer as they worked.

Next time you find yourself in a quiet church, see if you can hear the soft voices of the angels and saints in the glass singing, then join your voice with theirs in hymns of praise, thanksgiving and supplication.  Et lumen canit.  For the Light sings.


Read the story of the angels in glass (as sung in the Latin or the English translation) here.

Listen to Eric Whitacre talk about the composition of Sainte-Chappelle (along with some snippets of the music).

Take a virtual tour of the Sainte Chappelle sanctuary.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Unexpected eclipses

Midway to the peak of the eclipse.  No, I didn't look through
the camera to take this!  Note the lens flare just to the right
of the sun.
"Aunt Chel," called my youngest niece as she bounded through the front door of my dad's house, "it looks funny outside."

I got up and went to check.  I agreed, something was off. The sky was dimmer than it should be and an odd color, not the desert blue I expected late on a Sunday afternoon, but colored a bit orange.  Thunderstorm incoming?  No, not a cloud in the sky.  And I'm in the desert. Right. Fire? This is more of a worry, there is only one road out from my dad's small farm.  We don't smell smoke, but still, I'm uneasy. And then there are the trees....something is just not right.

We go back inside to check if there is anything on the Cal Fire site about nearby fires, my dad and sister-in-law have worried looks on their faces as I describe the sky. As I'm opening up my laptop , my stepmother mentions in passing that she'd heard something about an eclipse coming next month. Next month?  "Or perhaps today?" I wonder aloud. I hadn't heard anything, but I live on the other side of the continent, and I'd been on retreat for the last week, staying in a hermitage in a spot even more remote than my dad's farm, and before that, spinning around in the end of semester chaos.  
You can see the "bite" the moon has taken out from the sun in
the lens flare!

I type "eclipse" into the search box. We are indeed in the middle of an annular eclipse of the sun, the moon's shadow will sweep over California, but not reach the East Coast.  80% of the sun's disc will be obscured by the sun at the peak.  This is a noticeable amount of shade, and we've noticed.

I breathe a sigh of relief, and take my niece and nephew out to show them how to observe the eclipse by making pinhole cameras with sheets of paper, and by looking at the crescent shadows on the ground (the leaves on the trees serve as ad hoc pinholes, or you can make your own grid with your fingers).

The crescents are visible in the
grid made by my niece's hands.
This time I know there is an eclipse tomorrow. The reports on the radio, TV spots, news reports are hard to ignore.  I am prepared.   I have glasses to watch with, and a pair of binoculars with the appropriate filters on them.I have a good sense of what the sky will look like; outside Philadelphia, where I live the sun will be just under 80% obscured.

But I wonder if being so prepared will change the experience. Will it be as viscerally disturbing, or just a fun science-in-the-neighborhood day, much like the Wallops' rocket launches we gather at the school field to watch?  What do I miss when I am not sitting uneasily on the edge of uncertainty?

The mathematics and science that let us predict eclipses, not only their time and track, but also the phenomena we ought to observe, take my breath away, but I confess I don't long for a universe that I can completely predict.  It reminds me of a line from one of Alice Walker's poems (Before you knew you owned it): “Live frugally on surprise.” Surprise is part of the delight of doing science, the interesting questions for me come when molecules surprise me, in their structures or or in their behavior.

Similarly, my heart and soul are not captured by an utterly predictable God, a clockwork deity. I long to be surprised by mercy, ambushed by God, caught in a whirl of life and love beyond my comprehension, just as I was caught by surprise by that eclipse.

A version of this post appears at the Vatican Observatory Foundation's blog, The Catholic Astronomer.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Whale's Tale

Crash criss-crossed the country in a little red Fiat this summer.  Kentucky to DC to Pennsylvania, back to Kentucky, on to Chicago. Seattle, San Francisco and my dad's Central California farm.  All this to come and go from his job in Montana, where he was stage managing Macbeth for Shakespeare in the Parks,1 or more precisely, managing the production until it was ready to criss-cross Montana and the Dakotas.

It's a fascinating program, the actors take everything on a 6000 mile road trip — including the stage itself — except for the tech crew.  They rehearse with the help of the tech crew, but in the end learn to do for themselves.  Including putting up, taking down and packing the stage into the giant trailer they tow, nicknamed The Whale. (See the timelapse embedded in this post!)

Read Crash's interview with two of the actors here:  SixByEightPress.

1. Not that Shakespeare in the park, note the plural and the distance from New York.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

J.F. Powers and cloaks of invisibility

Betty Powers, with J.F. Powers and their daughter
There is an interesting piece in Commonweal ("His Bleak Materials")by Jeffrey Meyers on Catholic novelist J.F. Powers. I've read Morte D'Urban and several other of Powers' stories, and found Meyers' perspective on his priest characters intriguing, casting them as ordinary men with no special talents trying to negotiate their way through the thickets of the world and the church, despite the seemingly (and perhaps truly) irreconcilable differences between these spheres.  I can relate.

I was more intrigued by Meyers' lead into the article, which sketches a monastic version of Powers' life (he lived near St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, a place I've spent time writing and retreating).  He describes Powers' doing his laundry on his knees in a rusty bathtub, and his "hairshirt house" — drab, shabby and cold.  It's a sharply unromantic view of a writer's hermitage.

But where is Mrs. Powers in this sketch?  Powers was married and had five children. Were they perhaps living elsewhere?  No, they were not.  At least one other person lived in that hairshirt house, but somehow she has been rubbed out of this particular picture of Powers. It made me think about The Astronauts Wives which I recently read, and how many of them had been majoring in STEM fields, but dropped out when they married, their other selves tucked into a drawer or a footnote.

Betty Powers née Wahl is not neglected in John Rosengren's memories of Powers ("The Gospel according to J. F. Powers").  Next time I'm in Collegeville's cemetery, I will look for her grave.  She was a promising fiction writer when Powers was introduced to her by one of her professors at St. Ben's and continued to write and to publish after she was married.

Powers died while folding his own laundry.  An ordinary task.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Arboreal alarm clocks

I walked down the driveway yesterday morning, the cicadas howling in the humid air.  Classes, you need to get ready for classes. Their fall alarm seems so much louder when you've been away. This year, after a cicada-less stop in California, the sounds of summer fading to fall feels like an alarm going off at 3:30 am for an early flight, rousing me from the deepest of sleeps.

Usually the end of the summer creeps up slowly. The cicadas hum, the air gets misty, the leaves on the trees wrinkle ever so slightly, their spring greens grow dusty and faded.  The garden begins to look a bit spent.  I don't need my calendar to tell me summer is waning (though one of the astronomers at the Specola kept saying, "July is going to be over, it's going to be the 8th month of the year."  He was aghast at how the year had flown.  Me, too.)

It's been a good summer, with stretches of time for thinking and writing, time to explore some new projects and finish off old ones. There was time with family (wedding!) and time to tidy.  A bit of retreat time.  Time seems more expansive, perhaps because of the longer days, or perhaps because they are less hectic, more predictable.

And for the record, there is a full month of summer left before I begin teaching.  If only I could hit snooze on the cicadas, and blissfully go back to my midsummer's dreams.

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, one 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 I 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 heavens, 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.