Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Twilight Zone

I’m flying from PHL to Greensboro, NC to give a chemistry talk. We have been flying for nearly an hour in a solid layer of clouds. My window is a grey rectangle. I keep thinking I’m in the Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, where William Shatner looked out the window to see a gremlin on the wing. So far, no one on the wings. My flight is filled with business guys, a coterie in their slacks and button downs, all in shades of gray and blue, typing away on laptops.

Me, too, for that matter, on both counts.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Is this a good time?

Friday was a mess.  I woke before my alarm, dreaming of eating gummi bears, which then pulled out the temporary crown I have on a back molar. Surprise! The crown had fallen out in the night, no help from gummi bears (which I have given up for the duration of this dental adventure, which will end just in time for the start of Lent.) Thankfully I hadn't swallowed it. (Do not google "swallowed crown." Just don't.)

I was at my desk by 6:30 am, working to finish a National Science Foundation grant proposal that was due soon. (And yes, apparently unlike the chair of Harvard's chemistry department, I did disclose my (unpaid) connections with a foreign state's scientific institute.) I called the dentist when they opened, they could glue me back together just after 11. Perfect, I have class at noon.

I finish the grant, let the grant's officer know she can check it, fingers crossed we can submit before the end of the day. Do the last bits of prep (naked eggs and handouts) for the two hour class I'll teach at noon, grab my keys and the baggie with my crown in it and head out to the dentist and then the college.

The crown gets cemented back in while I contemplate adhesive chemistry (what would it take to make an adhesive that will stick well, but then be reversible??).  I dash to the college. I don't get in my door before crisis 1 presents itself.

Crisis 2 arrives just before class.
Crisis 3 arrives at the start of class (incredibly dysfunctional tech).
Crisis 4 sends an email while I'm in class. Can we talk? Yes.
Crisis 5 knocks on the door. Can you talk? Yes.

Grants officer finds a typo, fix it and it's ready. AAAGH.  Crisis 6: the file is scrambled. I pull back a previous version. And find another typo.

Crisis 7 calls. Can you talk? Sure. I'll be in your office in fifteen.

The phone rings and I — foolishly — answer it. It's someone who wants to talk about quantum mechanics and a paper I wrote. I say this isn't a good time. He persists. Really, this is a terrible time. Crisis 7 is now knocking on my door. I have to go now. He persists.

I hang up on him.

I apologized by email. It wasn't well received. Crisis 8 came and crisis 9 followed. And it was still Friday. But the grant narrative got fixed and submitted.

Also, it made me think about how I don't always think about what might be happening on the recipient's end when I send an email request or make a phone call.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Real heat and true joy

I'm spending the night at the local shelter for families. My usual spot is on an airbed by the door - as portress. A statue of Mary and a large green plant screen some of the light from the parking lot, an Oriental folding screen gives me a bit of privacy from anyone in the hallway. I set my water bottle and phone on the window ledge, and leave my shoes in easy reach. The hall isn't heated, but I bring my sleeping bag and warm socks.

But when I arrived tonight, no bed by the door. Instead I've got a room with a door, and as the director pointed out before she left, "You have real heat!" Not a space heater, it's on a central system, complete with thermostat. (The families' quarters, I hasten to point out, are nicely climate controlled!) It's a storage space, with bins along the walls with supplies for the religious education program, and boxes of books on tables. But it has a picture of laughing Jesus on the wall, and a spot to put my glasses and phone. The real heat is a delight, but the real joy is that picture on the wall.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Via media in the Catholic media

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University just down the road, has a new article up at Commonweal. In "Dangerous Disconnects" he expresses concern about the ways that the formation of Catholic priests is disconnected from the broader intellectual world, as well as from the day to day lives of the laity. Likewise, he notes that academic theology is also
"..if seminary formation is too cut off from the real lives of Catholics, then I think (and I realize that I am generalizing here) the same can sometimes be said for academic theology. Yes, there are numerous examples of theologians who clearly have an ecclesial intentionality and do wonderful work for the people of God. It is not an issue of personal intentions, however, but of the systemic position of academic theology in an endangered Catholic intellectual ecosystem, one in which the magisterium and theologians in the academy also have to compete with the “teaching” found on Catholic blogs and websites and various other outlets."
I don't disagree with Faggioli's basic premise that seminary education and theology departments are too often disconnected from each other and from the lives of the faithful, but I take some issue with all Catholic blogs being rolled into one bundle and with their content described as "teaching" — which I'm certain is not meant as either a compliment nor as an assurance of orthodoxy. I write a (small) Catholic blog, I'm theologically trained at a Roman Catholic seminary and consider myself part of the Catholic intellectual ecosystem. I'm pretty sure I'm doing the work Faggioli is suggesting should be done.

Yes, I know, I have a limited audience compared to many blogs, but I'm not a single voice crying out in the wilderness and I write in other outlets as well. I've written books, contributed to larger blogs and written hundreds of columns for my archdiocesan paper. Currently active Catholic bloggers and writers with strong theological training are out there, including Mags Blackie, Fran Szpylczyn at There Will Be Bread, Mary Poust at Not Strictly Spiritual, Catholic Mom (which I found through Franciscan Mom), and Fr.Austin Fleming at A Concord Pastor Comments. Many more voices are active on Twitter and other social media platforms. The Catholic intellectual sphere is less of a monolith than Faggioli suggests and I wish Fagglioli's article had explored the Catholic intellectual and social media ecosystem a bit more deeply.

Still, I fear we are conceding the field to loud voices who indeed field dubious teaching and preach divisiveness rather than unity. Many of these sites are like train wrecks, it's hard to look away. I understand, I'm guilty of giving them clicks and browsing their Twitter feeds and wondering if we are in the same church (should priests be hawking ammunition on their web sites? Discuss!). Can Catholic Twitter stretch to be as catholic as the Church?

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Only the trees work...

The dies for the cookie press in the handy stand my father
made to hold them.
Spritz cookies have been a Christmas tradition in my house as long as I can remember, pressed out of a bronze-colored cookie press. I loved looking at the dies when I was young, wondering what shapes each would make. My mother always made Christmas trees and wreaths, but what I wanted to try was the camel.

"No," she would say, "the camel doesn't work. Trees and wreaths." And so we made wreaths with cinnamon holly berries and  trees sprinkled with green sugar and colorful nonpareils as ornaments. (In those days a silver dragée star was placed on top of the trees, but the combination of  my more minimalist Christmas tendencies and the end of the semester exhaustion has led me to abandon that part of the tradition.)

Before we sold my parents' house this summer, we packed up what people wanted from the kitchen. What did I want? Not the Kitchen Aid mixer, but the camel die for the cookie press!  Because I was going to make those camels I'd desired all these years. So I put the handy stand my dad had made to hold the dies (a miniature version of what he used to hold his radial arm saw blades) in one of the boxes I was shipping home

Fast forward to Christmas Eve morning. Crash was arriving from DC and was down for cookie baking, spritz on the list. I made the dough and dug out the cookie press, put the camel die in and...a shapeless blob of dough appeared on the sheet. Three tries later... Ok, maybe using my mother's press was sweet and nostalgic, but not practical. Switched the die and loaded my cookie press. Nope, nope nope. Maybe I should chill the dough. No go. Different cookie sheet? No. Cookie sheet too warm? too cold? Is this sounding like a Bon Appetit video? Finally, I tried the tree. Boom, two dozen trees appeared on the tray.

The camel doesn't work.