Thursday, December 29, 2005

Special Relativity

The first snow of the season has come and gone. Early in the morning of their treasured snow day, Barnacle Boy and Crash Kid made an expedition to the basement for their boots. The Boy's feet have grown since last winter -- the boots don't fit. The Math Man suggests that Crash wear my boots and Barnacle wear Crash's. I point out that this solution is unworkable, since the Boy's feet are a full size larger than mine and I haven't been able to wear Crash's shoes for several years. Math Man hadn't quite processed the new relative ordering!

New boots have been ordered!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Mechanical Miracles

Measured and restrained can easily become mechanical. Consider the candles. In medieval times, as now, you might light a candle for an intention. Then, you might truncate the candle to the measure of the saint who assistance you invoked. Now, at least in the Cathedral in Philadelphia, you drop a coin into a box and an electric light turns on. It is deeply unsatisfying -- but perhaps difficult to express why. I might say that we moved from one truncation error to another. The light is now utterly mechanical, we control its incandescence, the time it will "burn", the risk inherent in its burning.

Has this truncation of the expansion limited our ability to hear the communication of the unmeasured and unmeasurably abundant grace of God? The outward form appears much the same, but the res, the spiritual reality, has been irrevocably changed. Quantum chemists know that small changes in the functional form, to the point where two functions still appear identical, can lead to much larger changes in the expectation values of critical characteristics, such as the energy!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

It's all about the laundry

Sitting around the Thanksgiving table at a friend's house with 3 generations of women, I said something and realized I sounded just like my mother. I turned to my friend's daughter, aged 13, saying "You'll swear you'll never do some of the things your mother did, and the next thing you know, you're doing them." She shot right back, "The laundry?"

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Barnacle Boy Discovers Personal Care Products

Crash Kid's move to middle school has resulted in an increase in the use of "personal care products" in our household. It's not that Crash has discovered the opposite sex and is suddenly aware of the need for hygiene, he's actually a pretty clean guy. Crash has an early bus, and he shares a room with Barnacle Boy. The Boy gets up with Crash, and then enjoys the morning news shows. It's the commericals that got him hooked on the personal care routine. He uses three different shampoos (using up our complete collection of samples from parental trips) and would shower until there was no hot water left if we let him. He smells wonderful and looks so shiny and bright. Quite a change for a kid who was morally opposed to hand washing earlier in the year!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Interventional Radiology: An Essential Skill for Motherhood

I never entertained the idea of going to med school, chemistry has been a passion for as long as I can remember, but the Saturday before Halloween I wished I could trade places with my grad school roommate (now a radiologist). Barnacle Boy wanted to be a Munchy for Halloween. The Munchies are cartoon characters BB and his friend ML cooked up last year. To make the Munchy frame, I ended up threading long wires through casings along the outer edges of the costume. This process would have been much easier if I had gone to med school, become a radiologist and spent years placing stents in arteries. Who knew?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

You Know, Hamsters Die When They're Overhandled - Moms just Stress

As Barnacle Boy (Crash Kid's sib) and I walked home from school this afternoon he popped out with "Hamsters die when they're overhandled, you know." "I know," I replied, wondering where exactly this conversation was going. As far as I knew, the hamster had been just fine when I left for the college in the morning. "Do you remember when I got sick as you and Dad were going out to dinner and you stayed home to take care of me?" I made an acknowledging noise. "I think it was because I had too many things to do that day and it made me sick, like it can with hamsters." Short pause. "Mom, I think you might be overhandled."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Technological Lemmings

Coming back from a trip today, I tried an alternate route. I was following the instructions of my GPS down a back road and noticed quite a bit of traffic coming in the opposite direction. Turns out the road was a dead-end. We were all lemmings, following the technology down the road!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Like a Shepherd

Driving with Crash Kid to church tonight to cantor, I told him I thought I would have trouble singing the communion hymn with a straight face. "What is it?" I broke into song:

Like a shepherd he feeds his flock,
and gathers the lambs in his arms.
Holding them carefully close to his heart,
leading them home.

Crash is giggling by the first line and guffawing by the end. "They're pretty messy to hold, Mom!" "Yep, all I can think about is my white shirt at the end of the day."

Holy cards of the Good Shepherd favor white robes, fluffy lambs and bucolic scenery. After my sojourn as a shepherdess this summer, I realize we've been sold the sanitized version. Newborn lambs are not fluffy and white, the ewes do not always trot sweetly along at your side and those white robes will never be the same after a day in the pasture! Our urbanized culture pulls a misty nostalgic curtain over Isaiah's point.

God cannot be the God of the holy cards. It would be as if I were only my kids' mother at the end of the day when they are scrubbed, sleepy and tucked into their clean white sheets. Instead I'm their mother when they are sticky, tearful, bloody and worse.

I told Crash my experience as a shepherd reminded me that God was willing to pick us up even when we were at our messiest. Crash? He said, "I think God is most willing to pick you up when you're messy." His theology isn't bad!

Friday, August 26, 2005

Trains, planes and automobiles

The corridor from Washington, DC to New York is well traveled, probably too well traveled. Last weekend a round trip to Baltimore, some 200 miles total took six and half hours. Given that most of distance was on interstates, we should have been able to do the trip in about four hours. Our average speed was just over 30 mph - and there were no major accidents, just volume and a fender bender off to the side.

Today I took the train down to Washington DC, 40 miles further away. The entire trip, office door to my hotel, local train to Amtrak to Metro, took just over three hours for an average speed of about 45 mph. And we spend $35 billion a year on the highway system (nationally - add in the local contributions and it's yet more)? The system seems near collapse in some locations - the I-95 corridor being one of them. Invest in trains.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Another shirt ruined

Lambs tend to arrive in the middle of the night, and last week at my dad's farm was no exception, new babies were found gamboling around the pasture in the morning. Yesterday, with afternoon temperatures in the 100s did not seem like the ideal time for the ewes to give birth. About 4 in the afternoon I hear my dad yelling for help from the back pasture, he's got a tiny baby lamb in his arms, so small it could slip through the fencing, another one back in the maternity pen, and mama loose in the pasture. I end up with the babe in my arms, while dad and various sibs and offspring herded mama into the pen. At the end, I was covered in mud and worse, but everyone was happily bedded down.

I drove the truck down to get the mail (and the latest Harry Potter), came back and was dreaming of a shower and a quick dip in the pool, when I hear my youngest say "Hey, Grampa! There's two new babies in the pasture." I grabbed the binoculars, thinking he must have mistaken the sheep in the grass for lambs. That would be, not! Two brand new, still wet babies were out in the back pasture. Out we go, I scooped them up, and all I could think about as I scooped up the bloody lambs was a quote from a favorite mystery series, "Another shirt ruined!".

Most of the stains have come out.

Radcliffe Emerson, Egyptologist extraordinaire, is rather rough on his shirts and his wife Amelia Peabody Emerson is wont to remark, "Another shirt ruined!" at the end of many of their adventures. The Emersons are the creation of Elizabeth Peters, who has a doctorate in archeology. Read the first, Crocodile on a Sandbank

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Be a statistic!

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Crabby Patties

I picked up Crash Kid from camp this afternoon, and mentioned in passing that I had nearly finished my poster for the meeting next week. He responded brightly, "Does that mean you'll be less crabby?"

Why am I doing this again?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Jimmy Neutron lives here

I programmed a robot to drive forward for 6 seconds! Way cool...though in the interest of full disclosure I will admit the task was made easier by the fact that my 9yr old actually built it for me, I just did the coding.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Brain Implosion

Role layered upon role today, and at one point, while trying to draft a coherent e-mail, answer the phone and keep track of the kids, Crash Kid appeared and wanted me to surrender the laptop to him, so that he could watch a film. I told him that my brain was going to implode. He patted my hand, picked up a marker sitting on the table and proceeded to put it to my forehead and making sucking noises. When I asked what he was doing, he said "I'm sucking out the dead brain cells so your head won't implode!" It had the desired effect and I cracked up -- but it made me wonder, is all this multi-tasking really making richer neural connections, or just killing all my brain cells?

Meanwhile, Geeky Mom is loosing her mind over the laundry and other "Domestic Duties". Maybe I can lend her Crash Kid's brain sucking device?

Monday, June 13, 2005

Book Meme (from Snail's Tales)

book meme (via Snail's Tales)

Aydin tagged me last week, but I haven't had a chance to respond until now.

Number of books I own: The collection is hovering around 5000 volumes and I've committed to a "one in-(at least) one out" philosophy, so that is its size for the foreseeable future. There are no more walls to put bookshelves against - so unless we convert the kids' room to compact shelving (and don't think I haven't dreamed about it!)...this is it.

Last book I bought: Spirit of Fire by Ursula King. A biography of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit paleontologist and theologian.

Last book I read for the first time: I wished I'd made you angry earlier. This series of essays by Max Perutz, a Nobel prize winning x-ray crystallographer is wonderful to dip into. I didn't read them in order, but opened it up at random to find yet another gem. There is an essay about Haber, Germany and the war effort, and another one about the discovery of the α-helix.

Four books that have influenced me:
Lady with a Spear by Eugenie Clark. Women in science, working your way through school, and adventures in the Pacific, this book has it all. Dr. Clark's sheer joy in the science comes through, and even though I didn't end up as an oceanographer, I think I take as much pleasure in my work as she does in hers.
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. The courage to change your life, or let it be changed in dramatic and sometimes, difficult ways. The book that inspired me to begin praying the Liturgy of the Hours on a regular basis.
The Liturgy of Hours
Marie Curie by Eve Curie. When I was younger, it was such a romantic tale -- fainting in a garret, so entranced by the science that she didn't eat (or couldn't afford to!) ; meeting her husband, another scientist. When I was older, coping with being a young widow...

Five bloggers to tag:
Respectful Insolence
The Examining Room of Dr. Charles
Geeky Mom
See Jane Compute

The tag was to Culture of Chemistry (the blog for the other part of my life...)

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Emperor's New Clothes

I saw a scarf in the knitting store, a wisp of thing in sea green. I ended up getting silk and mohair to knit one of my own. It's like knitting the emperor's new clothes. Even with several inches on the needles, it weighs nothing, and the yarn is nigh on invisible. The pattern was called the "Airy Scarf" and it is certainly apt.

Elemental MoThEr

Do you know how to tell if someone is a chemist? Ask them to pronounce: unionize. If they say "un-ionize" rather than "union-ize" -- they're a chemist!

How do I see mother? Sometimes it's Mo, Th and Er....

The pressed flower card taped to the wall next to my desk at home is carefully inscribed to "MoThEr" in a scrawl poised somewhere between kindergarten and first grade. I smile as my minds eye produces an image of the often sticky ball of ebullience that is my youngest son. The next time I spy the pink construction paper talisman, Christopher has vanished and in his place is a litany of chemical elements: "Molybdenum, Thorium, Erbium." I have the same sensation as when I look at the women in the classic optical illusion of the young woman and the old. Who do you see in the picture? At any given moment you see only one woman or the other, yet both are always there. The images cannot be separated —no line exists that divides the image of the beautiful woman from the crone. The whole of each is present within the other. You have only to switch your focal point, and the image changes. There is no blurring of the two images, you see one — or the other. This is my life. I am a mother and a professor, my life flicks back and forth between the two personae. Change the focus, and mother becomes Mo, Th, Er.

From an essay I wrote entitled "Elemental MoThEr" collected in Parenting and Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career (edited by Rachel Hile Bassett, Vanderbilt University Press, 2005) and published this month.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Obedience, obligation and oblation

There is a sense in some circles of the Roman Catholic Church that abuses, particularly liturgical abuses, must be curbed. The roots of "orthodox", after all, are in "correct praising", so it's not a far reach to assume that orthopraxis will encourage orthodoxy. The The Lay Confraternity of Ss. Peter & Paul was founded on essentially this principal, "inviting the Christian faithful throughout the world to give glory to that public prayer and liturgy which is the Divine Office" in order to "restore to the faithful a means by which the praises of God may continue undefiled".

The Hours are not merely obligation, a binding contract with ourselves or our God. Saying the Liturgy of Hours, in English, or in Latin, using the current Rite or not, does not automatically produce a layperson who does not question authority, nor one who desires to worship only within the Tridentine Rite. While the Hours are indeed ties that bind, gathering a Church scattered in time, place and perspective into one single prayer, the Hours can be an oblation as well, an offering, a free gift, of our time and attention to the Creator to whom we are bound by covenant and not contract. The outward forms are not without significance, but unless they connect to our inmost beings, they are not effective.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A retreat in a can

I've spent much of the last 2 weekends on my knees - but not in church. The upstairs study is getting a much needed make-over, starting with demolishing part of closet (which act committed me to repainting the entire room). Last year at this time I was packing to go on an 8-day silent retreat. This year WMGK is counting down the top 500 hits on the radio, most of the neighborhood kids have come to "help," and in the midst of it all I still have to think about what's for dinner! But I decided I'm still getting my retreat.

When you don't have 5 kids in the 12' x 12' room with you, prepping a wall to be painted can be reflective. The moment of transformation does not come quickly. Careful attention has to be paid to the walls. Where should I patch? What needs sanding? The dust, dirt and grime need to be cleaned from the surface one last time. To see all this, things have to be moved out of the way, and while the prep work could be done solo, now it's time to have some help to discover what might be in the way of the new creation. In the end, I mask the windows and trim, working my way inward from the edges.

My kids (and my better half) remind me of "The Little Red Hen": "Who will help me scrub the walls?" "Not I!" The fun is in the actual painting, and when the time comes to roll the actual paint onto the walls, I have lots of volunteers! Not until I pull the final bit of masking off, can I be sure that the new space will work.

One retreat in a can, stir well before applying.

The room looks great - except my color blind 8 year old asked me why I'd chosen black (it's dark blue).

Sunday, May 29, 2005

You know you're a geek when... get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and check your e-mail while you're up. clean out a large closet and fantasize not about a walk-in dressing room, but compact shelving for the books you keep amassing.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

From 0 to 60 in under 10 seconds

There are days when I dream of driving a zippy BMW like the one Halle Berry drove in the James Bond flick. Alas, the household budget doesn't include a line for sports cars and my commute to work is a 35 mph zone all the way.

Motherhood meets my need for speed. Tonight, at 3:15 am, I woke from a very sound sleep to, "Mom, nose bleed!". (Actually, all I remember hearing is "nose bleed," but the caller who is curled up beside me on the sofa assures me he used my name.) I went from dead to the world to fully functional by the time I got downstairs. I'm amazed at the way your mind can register, process and respond to a call when I think I'm unconscious.

Now, of course, that the nosebleed seems to have stopped, it's 4:03 am and I don't know what to do with all the extra adrenaline. It was useful in the moment, but I'm done now. The birds are just waking up....I wondered when that happened.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Matter and Form

Years ago the now-retired cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia was moved to demand, "Why is that woman [me] studying theology?" More annoyingly, I'm sure, at his seminary! To his credit it's hard when you have a ringer in the crowd, and I doubt he was expecting a theologically trained chemist to be on his pastoral visit to my campus. So why do I study theology? What does it have to do with quantum mechanics?

I've decided to submit a paper to a conference in the fall on the legacy of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit scientist and theologian who drew strongly links between science (in his case paleontology) and religion. My basic premise is that de Chardin's theology can bring a new perspective to sacramental theology, particularly when viewed through an Augustinian lense.

De Chardin speaks passionately of the tangible encounter with God:

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. In eo vivimus. As Jacob said, awakening from his dream, the world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it. Venite, adoremus!

That vivid image of being assailed by the divine, in everything we touch and that touches us, drives me back to Augustine who saw sacraments as the visible signs of invisible grace. I want to treat of things "sacramental" rather than of the Sacraments (the seven of which the Baltimore catechism -- and the Council of Trent -- say: an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace). Sacraments, with both a small "s" and a big "s", work. They are, as theologians are wont to say, efficacious. De Chardin's sees the universe as inescapably sacramental. The grace pounds at us. Augustine implies a similar outlook, that God and his grace seeps through the physical visible signs.

Each sacrament has its proper matter and form (res et verba). Baptism's water and invocation, "I baptize you in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." are both necessary to bring about the grace of the sacrament. Sacramentals too have may have matter and form, such as the blessed water we use to make the sign of the cross as we enter or exit a church. Would we see matter and form differently from de Chardin's perspective?

At the cemetery, as we stood around my mother's grave, her pastor blessed her one last time, sprinkling water over the casket (as the rite demands). Sprinkle does not do justice to Fr. Ray's blessing. The water poured over her casket, sparkling in the sun like our tears, washing the dust off the top. It was not just grace brought forth, but abundant grace. Full and overflowing.

Sometimes I think we are chintzy with the matter of the sacraments, as if we must somehow horde the grace, or there won't be enough. De Chardin pushes us to consider the abundance of the created world, and to use that created reality to mould ourselves into image and likeness of our creator.

I've got two days to polish this thesis into a 200 word abstract. In search of grace....

Friday, May 20, 2005

Qui cantat, bis orat

I've used Qui cantat, bis orat, a quote from St. Augustine that translates roughly as "to sing is to pray twice" as my e-mail tag line for the last couple of years. (I don't put the English translation underneath, which prompted my father to send me a book of Latin quotes -- and their English translations -- to me for Christmas last year.) The tag appealed because of it's source (I belong to an Augustinian parish) and because I sing for the parish.

But why does Augustine privilege sung over spoken prayer? I can't find the original source of the quote, so I'm not sure what was in Augustine's mind, but I do know what's in mine. Singing, particularly with an audience, is risky. I tell people that I sing solo instead of jumping out of airplanes, it's the same irreverisble mix of panic and thrill. You are exposed when you sing, and lack of confidence (as well as of pitch) are difficult for those singing with you, or listening to you, to overlook. Prayer is risky and exposed as well. We express our inmost needs, hold out our most difficult hurts for comfort, and risk being changed and challenged by the grace we receive.

Our lives begin in the rythyms of our mother's wombs. Her heartbeat and breathing are the first music we hear, and are inextricably wound up in how we grow and are nourished. When we sing, particularly in prayer, and perhaps most of all in community, we reach down into those first experiences of the grateful sharing of food that is the Eucharist. Our singing nourishes us and we grow by it, when we enter into it together.

The space spanned by spoken prayer is smaller than that of sung prayer. The range of the voice, the changes in rythym add a depth to the prayer that speech cannot reach. Sung prayer can be layered on top of sung prayer, a multi-dimensional function that cannot be captured as speech. As St. Paul said to the Romans, "the Spirit herself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."

Sometime when I cantor, I am so worried about the notes and the words, that I can't pray the psalm. Last Sunday, I literally shook at the ambo. When I know the music so well that it wells up effortlessly, then, then I understand what Augustine means. It can be joy, as in the Christmas psalm, "All the ends of the earth have seen the power of God..." echoed back by the congregation, filling the world with song. It can be sorrow, singing to shepherd my mother to new life, weaving the words and music over her coffin like the lullabyes that wrapped my cares away for the night as a child. When sung, it is surely well prayer.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Devil that Doesn't Wear Prada

I've been wanting to read The Devil Wears Prada since it came out, but couldn't quite justify getting the hardback -- or really even the paperback for just a "beach read". As part of the entropy reduction project on the home front, I've been clearing out shelf space and bringing the books in to work to leave on the free books table. (A remarkable number seem to find a good home in this way!) Dropping off the latest collection I discovered a copy of The Devil free for the taking. I'm still ahead on the entropy front, though. I left 3 bags and only took 2 books.

It's mesmerizing. It's not the descriptions of the Jimmy Choo's or an insider's look at the fashion industry that has me sucked into this book -- it's the tyranny of the boss. Part of me reacts to my life the same way Andrea does to Miranda. The laundry dings, and I spring into action like Andrea does at the ring of her cell. The clutter that threatens to encroach on every horizontal surface sends me on a hunt for a mauve piece of paper that may be (or may not be) still in the house. I don't have that much more to go on in my quest than Andrea did when tracking Miranda's siting of some vintage dresser in an antique shop. Except that the clutter doesn't seem to be sociopathic.

Like Andrea's relationship with Alex, I sometimes feel that kids and spouse has to taken second place behind tending the demands of the clutter and the laundry. It's for them, I say, but I'm not sure they care at any given moment that they won't be able to find the band camp registration paper or a clean pair of socks tomorrow morning. How can they live in the moment, while I'm continually living in the next?

The Francl Statement of the Second Law

"No cyclic process is possible whose sole result is a flow of heat from a single reservoir and the performance of equivalent work." Lord Kelvin

This is the Kelvin statement of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Though Kelvin did not aim to describe a weekend in my life, it's not a bad start. I am the single reservoir, I'm pretty heated, the proceses are cyclical (I empty the laudry from the basket, wash it, put it back and it quite regularly appears in the basket again -- except for the underwear hanging on the hooks in the bedroom), and no matter how much heat I give the kids I can't seem to get an equivalent amount of work back.

Frankly, I prefer the statistical approach to the 2nd law. I never appreciated the nuances of entropy until I had kids. Today, between laundry loads I was trying to clean the upstairs study in preparation for painting it next weekend (having pulled the inside out of the closet last weekend, the paint job is very necessary!). I made great progress on getting things in order, only to come downstairs to find the kitchen in utter disarray and an entire division of little green army men deployed on the sunroom floor. Net progress toward order was clearly negative, as the 2nd law requires.

A sudden thought? If my life (or at least my house) should miraculously get ordered, does that mean that somewhere, some other poor soul's house has become even more disordered than mine ever was? I suppose the 2nd law actually requires that the disorder gets spread around, so that my orderliness leaves a little mess in everyone's house.

A colleague and friend suggests that there is, somewhere in my house, waiting to be discovered, my own personal reservoir of disorder. It's probably under the laundry.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Rule of St. Benedict

The phone rang at 5 tonight, dragging me back to "real time". I'd spent much of the afternoon working on a draft of a paper and was finally making major progress with a sticky section. The call was for my husband, the person on the other end felt compelled to advise me to write the message down. I would say that I felt like a secretary, except that secretaries are professionals, and I would never presume to advise one on how to record the message being left. I felt like a child.

And it was 5 and since my other half had to be out of the house by 6 with our youngest for an event, and was not yet home, I needed to turn off academic mom and enable the housekeeper mode. I managed to get kids fetched from school and dinner on the table before the witching hour. Witching described my attitude as well as the hour. The writing had been going well, and I needed about an hour to pull the section together. At times like this I fantasize having a stay at home spouse, allowing me to emerge from my study to scrubbed children and a prepared meal, and return to the cocoon at meal's end.

Instead I'm trying to cultivate a Benedictine attitude. The rule of Benedict recommends work, prayer and study in measured proportions. The work is itself is meant to be prayer, the study to fold into prayer.

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul.
Therefore the sisters should be occupied
at certain times in manual labor,
and again at fixed hours in sacred reading."

Pocket pets

The CDC has announced that "pocket pets", e.g. the hamster that shares this study, are potential carriers of salmonella. This is bad news for the hamster owner, who is morally opposed to hand washing. The CDC would approve of the effect that hamster has had on the cat -- the very elderly cat has succeeded in jumping onto the hamster cag. This feline study suggests that with the proper motivation, even the very infirm can be helped to exercise. The hamster, of course, is terrified, which can't be good for its cardiovascular health, but you can't have everything.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Access Codes

Access Codes

Geeky Mom laments her responsibility for the myriad of details that keeps the family running. My other half pleaded for a halt to my travels this spring, he was overwhelmed by the logistics. Why the moms?

When I was young, I was sure that my mother never slept. When I called, she appeared! Thinking back, with 6 kids -- 4 under 6, she probably didn't ever sleep in those days. I've come to realize that the concept of 24/7 access to mom by kids is not a linear function of the number or age of the kids. All two of mine, well past toddlerhood, track me down in the bathroom (I swear a light goes on when I close the door), in bed ("Mom's sleeping," I hear my husband call, unheeded by the owner of the feet pounding up the stairs), and on the road (thanks to the cell phone, I'm a first responder to domestic disasters thousands of miles away). Despite a parenting partner who can do it all, when the kids need something, I'm the first person they call.

We're trained in the womb. Mom is there 24/7, with warmth, comfort and sustenance - and she doesn't have to be shared with siblings. Dropped into the cold world, I suspect my kids miss these days more than they realize. I think I miss these days more than I'll admit. I still remember my mother holding me after my first husband died. I could hear her heart beating, feel her warmth in the midst of desolation, and be comforted. I held her as she died last month, longing to comfort her, longing for her comfort.

Maybe holding the one string, that stretched ever so long umbilical cord, is what makes us feel responsible for the rest of the strings that hold it all together. These are the ties that bind - and there's no breaking them (or break for the weary!).

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

It's all Greek to me

I'm convinced my kids are studying classical Greek drama on the side.

First Child: We heard about middle school today. The lunch is 2.25 a day, that's twenty-five cents more than at the elementary school, so I'll need 11.25 a week for a lunch ticket. You can have a cell phone...

Second Child (simultaneous with the first): We had closet day today, and made masks in art.....

Mother: [Second Child] please let your brother finish.

First Child: Yeah, [Second Child] let me finish.

(Second Child wails loudly)

Mother: [First Child], if I had wanted a Greek chorus effect, I would have asked for one!

Second Child (still wailing): Yeah, [First Child]!

You can replay the scene several times in a 2 mile car ride, if you or your passengers choose. First Child and Second Child parts may be swapped at will.

Classical studies are a great foundation for an interesting life.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Of violinists, evolution and contempt

PZ Meyers cheers on Richard Dawkins and his position that religion is a delusion and God is an imaginary friend, made up by adults not ready to face the world alone. I generally agree with PZ's attempts to clarify the concept of evolution and to fight the good fight when it comes to keeping it in the schools at all levels, but his endorsement of Dawkin's "casual contempt" strikes an off note. As both a trained scientist and a trained theologian, the tacit assumption that the question of the existence of God can be addressed by science strikes me as unwise. God's existence cannot be directly determined by any experiment. You can believe, you can not believe, you can believe I'm delusional -- but neither of us can prove a thing. Faith in God does not preclude faith in science, the two positions are in no way necessarily exclusive, though as the comments on the post make clear, they are for some people.

Is my (potential) delusion harmful in any way? Is there a need to correct it? It's not in conflict with any measurable reality, I care for my family (if you ignore the dust bunnies massing under the beds), pay taxes and hold down a job. Yes, some people who share my delusion behave in ways that are inappropriate, or hold beliefs in clear conflict with material reality. I would note that there are those who do not share in the delusion who also exhibit inappropriate behaviors and hold beliefs that are in conflict with material reality (UFO abductions anyone?). I'm not sure the common issue in all this is the delusion, but perhaps the issue lies more in the lack of respect for others.

It all reminds me of a story I once heard. A gentleman arrives in the ER, in clear need of psychiatric care. He begs the staff to let him call his agent, "I'm a world class violinist!" "Right!," they say. Next morning, sure enough, his agent calls...he is indeed a world class musician. Moral, if you're delusional about one thing (literal creationism), you may not be delusional about everything.

Friday, April 29, 2005

A tiger by the tail

Verlyn Klinkenborg reflects in the New York Times about the redemptive value of installing new (Apple) software. My Tiger arrived this afternoon as promised, and I've managed to install it (the rate determining step was my getting my desktop back from my 8 yr old). I admit that I do feel renewed, if not redeemed. My calendar's to-do list seems tidier, though I rationally realize it is just as long as it was this morning (longer?). I can now make a thesaurus appear with the mere touch of a finger, and check the weather in California with a stroke of the mouse pad - there is a power in renewal.

The thesaurus is my word "lost and found" - not a place to shop for an all new vocabulary, but a thrift shop where I can exchange the outgrown skates for a pair as well-used, but better fitting. My mother taught me how to wisely shop a thesaurus when I was in 3rd grade. Mastering technique for looking up a word (first in the index, then to a page of related words) felt like a rite of initiation, rewarded at the start of 4th grade with my own copy of Roget's Thesaurus. That tattered edition still sits on my shelf, its acid-ravaged pages a mirror of my mother's increasingly fragile skin. I'm afraid to open my relic, not wanting whatever vestiges of my mother's touch that remain inside it to crumble away. My electronic thesaurus is sturdy, but can never be quite as rich in text as my first Roget.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Walking and talking at the same time

The woman walking past me was having an animated conversation with no one. It wasn't her voice that caught my eye - it was her bright yellow shirt. I thought nothing of it, until we interesected again and I realized that she wasn't on a cell phone. Ten years ago my instinctive reaction to a fellow pedestrian talking loudly to someone I couldn't see would have been to cross the street. It struck me that now I assume s/he is on a cell phone, and hardly count the behavior as odd at all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Medieval iPods

Thefts of iPods on the subway are up in New York. Those white wires dangling from pockets send a clear signal about the status of the bearer: you have a life that merits a sound track. Well, that, and you know good design when you see it.

Medieval ladies hung their good taste around their waists. Delicately illuminated girdle books advertised the wearers wealth, status and presumably, their literacy. Often these were Books of Hours, collections of psalms and prayers to accompany the canonical hours of the day. The Hours are still kept today, and like the iPods provide a "soundtrack" for a life. Some monastic communities still sing them (that's what the monks are chanting in those CDs), but most people who pray the Hours don't.

The Hours have been a soundtrack for my life for 20 years. The subtle changes in the texture of the psalms and prayers as the day waxes and wanes bring a sense of order to my chaotic existence. The songs have wrapped their way around and through the loss of a husband, the births of two sons, teaching and the laundry. My book of Hours is not the elaborate status symbol of the medieval courts, but a well used friend, whose ribbons hanging from my briefcase send a clear signal to those who can read it: my life has a soundtrack.


Monday, April 25, 2005

Life with Rufus

I share my study with an 8 year old, a 10 year old and a hamster. The cat only visits. This works better than you might think. The hamster is liveliest at night, and cognitively demanding work anywhere in the house isn't possible once the guys are home from school, so they may as well use the space. Every once in a while, though, all three spheres coming crashing together - literally. Last Wednesday I spent a delightful afternoon doing quantum mechanics, just as the last pieces were falling into place, my 8 year old comes bounding in from school with our neighbor (age 6). I showed Chris what I was doing and pleaded for "5 Minutes Peace" to see if I could finish it and find out if I could discover something new. "Will this get you the Nobel Prize?" "Unlikely, but I'm still really curious!" He conceded me the five minutes and assured me that he and Andrew could find something to do. They could. They did. They put the hamster in his little transparent ball and let him loose in the study. Finis!

Friday, April 22, 2005

Leaky Luggage

The line between my professional life and my personal life blurs deeply when I'm on the road. Good night kisses in one time zone overlap chairing a conference session in another. E-mail sessions and conference calls are interwoven through a visit to see my mother, who is dying. The spheres begin to leak into one another, as colleagues eavesdrop on bedtime blessings and my mother becomes privy to confidential goings-on at the college. When I'm away, I seeem to carry more baggage than what fits in the overhead bin.

Monday, April 18, 2005

If Harvard's president had really wanted to be provocative...

As a woman faculty member in the physical sciences teaching at a women's college, I was particularly struck by Lawrence Summers' recent remarks concerning the apparent unwillingness or inability of married women with children to manage the sacrifice of working 80-hour weeks. He might consider whether it is that women are less willing to sacrifice than men, or if they might have to sacrifice more. Few women scientists enjoy the luxury of a stay-at-home spouse, which means they must at best, take on half of the hours necessary for management of the household (and at worst, significantly more than half). I note that Princeton's recent study of its science faculty found that the majority of male science faculty had a spouse at home at least part time. None of the women did. If you don't have to prepare the meals, grocery shop, do the laundry, take the children to lessons and school, clean the house, you can work an 80-hour week, commute, contribute the roughly 10 hours a week that the average man does toward the upkeep of the household, sleep 7 hours a night and still enjoy 3 hours a day of down-time. That's enough to have a life: read a book, watch a movie, coach your kid's soccer team. Those three "extra" hours a day are roughly what I spend doing dishes and laundry, making beds, taking care of children, and mopping floors. In families like mine, where both spouses have to split the household management, there is a "second-shift" awaiting us both at home. I'm reasonably sure the majority of the guys at Princeton are not coming home to mop the floors!

I wonder why the general assumption that doing great science requires 80 hours a week doesn't appear to be up for discussion. I don't spend 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in the lab doing science, yet I have maintained a significant, high-quality research effort for almost two decades. My average number of citations per paper -- in some quarters a measure of their quality -- is competitive (or better) than that of the Harvard chemistry faculty. So while I may not publish as often as the faculty in Harvard's chemistry department, what I do publish is clearly read and used.

If Dr. Summers merely wishes to provoke, by all means rehash arguments that skirt the edge of "can women really do science and math?" or "women don't really want to work that hard". Instead, why not be truly provocative and ask why 80-hour weeks are necessary for academic science, ask if we are confusing quantity of publication with quality, ask if success in Ivy League science departments should depend on the unpaid, invisible work of women at home.