Friday, May 30, 2014

Writing stuff

I just sent back the proofs for an essay about teaching students to write in the context of chemistry research, titled "The Write Stuff."  I'm also settling down to doing some writing for the workshop I'm going to at the Collegeville Institute later this summer.  I'm writing about writing about writing...

I'm fleshing out a couple of pieces I wrote on the blog, and I wanted to be able to browse through it without a lot of clicks.  So I turned all ten years of writing into a PDF (thank you BlogBooker), printed it out (double-sided) and had it bound by the delightful guys at the local printer. More than a thousand pages, more than a thousand posts. Almost 400,000 words.

It's hard to believe I've written this much, in this space -- it's like a tiny time machine, I can pop back into a moment from the past, and remember what it felt like to be grading over the holidays (like having an ugly Christmas ornament hanging over my head) or see again the pigeons on an icy day in Philly sliding down the wheelchair cuts like snowboarders down a half-pipe.  There is a solidity to these memories, now printed out like this.  I wonder if a granddaughter or great niece might one day happen across this in a box, and what she might think about Crash and The Boy...

It's a good reminder too, as I stretch myself to write a more sustained piece than a column, or a blog post, that at least some of the time, I have the "write stuff."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


I consider myself reasonably savvy when it comes to social media - at least for someone my age.  I don't Snapchat, I do tweet and Instagram.  I have a sense about how private things are and (mostly) are not in cyberspace.  I have a public persona, who writes and speaks and teaches.  But until this week I didn't know about my "other" box on Facebook messaging.

I feel compelled to note that my public Facebook profile shows I am married.  I do not write about looking for romance on my blog.  I might add that I have gray hair, rarely wear as much make-up as lipstick, and have a Rubenesque figure.

So why do I have multiple messages from men I don't know in my "other" box - from men who "hope I don't mind" this intrusion?  I do mind.  I am not flattered.  I am not game.  #YesAllWomen

Friday, May 23, 2014

On the verge of summer

My friend Fran at There Will Be Bread had a lot (or should that be a Lot?) on her mind after a whirlwind week; Crash (now in the midst of a summer that will take him from intensive Latin, to work with a church historian, to the Naval History and Heritage Command) is writing about writing again after a whirlwind of a sophomore year.  Do you just show up again without explanation?

I turned my grades in yesterday, and while there are still some loose ends to tie up as department chair, I suspect it might be summer on my calendar.

Ignatius talks about stopping a few paces before your prayer space to pray for the grace you desire in that time of prayer, and to once again commend yourself into God's hands.  In that vein I headed off Tuesday night through the rush hour traffic to spend the night at the old Jesuit Novitiate in Wernersville, and to see my spiritual director — to stop for this moment before my summer begins and ask for the graces I might need and to remind myself just how I live and move and have my being.

And like Fran, here are my scattered thoughts, more than a bit windblown...

The weather was, as the local news station kept repeating on the drive up, "unsettled," but I threw my umbrella in the back and walked twice in gentle rains. After dinner, I walked through the hedgerows and back up toward the cemetery.  The newly cleaned gravestones glowed blue-white in the dusk, bright ovals hovering over the high grass.  I walked through, stopping to pray for a couple of men I knew, and for Joseph Grady, SJ, a scholastic, because my late neighbor Marie Malloy prayed for him. Then I leaned against the wall down by the oldest grave in the cemetery, which belongs to Anthony Ryan, nSJ a novice who died 10 weeks after he entered in 1931, and prayed.  Despite the unsettled weather, it was a very settling spot to pray.

One retreat was wrapping up, another just beginning, so everyone was having a talking dinner.  Arriving near the end, I found an empty table, filled my plate and sat down with a book and crept into the silence held between its covers.  At the end of the meal, a Jesuit friend (and my long-time confessor) came over, offering tea and gentle conversation, both of which I gladly accepted. It was a grace-filled entry into the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, a celebration that was warm, joyful, grounded in my current challenges, bracing and above all, a deep experience of mercy.  Easter all over again.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Shoes made for walking

Black flats and bike
From where I sit, graduation is all about the shoes. My shoes. The students' shoes.

It makes sense, this event is about walking.  We ask students "are you walking?" meaning, are you planning on coming to graduation? The faculty walk in.  The students walk across the stage, then off to other adventures.

I'm usually in one of the first couple of rows on the floor of the tent, so the student's feet are more or less at my eye level, and given that they are all in identical black robes, what tends to catch my eye first is their shoes.  Practical black Chucks (after the rain we had yesterday, a solid choice); sky high red stilletos (awarded "most stunning" by my row of faculty); classic black pumps; bright sneakers with a sari — and one pair of bare feet.

It's about my shoes, too.  I dress up for this culminating event, and dressing up means dressy shoes, but I walked 4 miles on campus today (I wore a calibrated pedometer), so it also means comfortable shoes. Given the mud, I wore black flats good enough to count as dressy, but not so good that I would be distressed if they were ruined (I speak from experience, I sacrificed a pair of black pumps to a commencement I was leading a few years back). And of course, I need a pair I can bike in.  If you don't have to drive to a commencement, don't.

That's me with the new William Kennan Professor of Mathematics, better known on this blog as Math Man.  I've already swapped my regalia out for a haori from Kyoto...

Saturday, May 10, 2014


Twinning in crystals is when two (or more) lattice intertwine, sharing some lattice points in a particular way.  I'm working on a essay, due to the editor on Monday.  I've researched and wrestled with the topic.  I've shuffled index cards around and outlined and sketched and written.  And today, with all the tough parts written and the rest quite nicely sketched in, I realized that this was a twinned essay.

Tomorrow is now devoted to some very careful surgery to separate the two pieces so they can each stand on their own.  Good news is that they will both find a home this summer.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Column: Drawing to see and to pray

I am now reading Franck's handwritten and illustrated book, The Zen of Seeing.  That's where the picture of Pope John is, the Holy Spirit wing touching his head in benediction.  The book I really covet is Outsider in the Vatican, long out of print.

Frank McMahon's sketches and watercolors of Vatican II are also moving, see below and this one of the Council in session at Corbis.  Br. Mickey McGrath OSFS's bio is here.

This column appeared at on 9 May 2014.

That they may see and recognize,
And consider and gain insight as well,
That the hand of the Lord has done this,
And the Holy One of Israel has created it. Isaiah 41:20

Last summer, someone found my kindergarten report card while rooting around in the barn’s attic. My teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, while lauding my readiness for the academic rigors of first grade, suggested that I be encouraged to continue drawing — I seemed to enjoy it. This spring, I finally took her advice and signed up for a basic drawing class.

My still lifes have a vague Dali-esque character, with their mugs that sport handles in odd spots and pears that seem to float in mid air. My teacher offers gentle corrections, mostly in the form of questions, “where do you see the darkest spots?”

It’s not about drawing, he suggests, but about seeing — and about joy. I find myself looking up at the sky when I leave class, noticing not only the dazzling yellow and pinks of the sunset, but the subtly different colors of the trees against the horizon. The hand of the Lord has done this.

Last weekend I browsed Brother Mickey McGrath OSFS’s beautiful book Good Saint John XXIII. [] Pope John XXIII is the first pope I remember, in part because one of my mother’s friends was studying in Rome, and stories of this gentle Pope threaded through his letters. Reading Good Saint John brought back memories of curling up next to my mother while she nursed one of my brothers, listening to her tell me about what was happening in the Church, helping me see the church as a something far bigger than the little Midwest parish church over our back fence.

Br. McGrath — who lives and works in Camden — brings the wisdom of Francis de Sales, Pope Francis and Pope Saint John XXIII to life with his own lively art work. His introduction reminded me that “seeing” was a way of praying. Take ten or fifteen minutes each morning to sit with an image, he suggests. Gratefully acknowledge that God is present, then pay attention to what God is trying to show you today.

This morning, I happened onto a quote from Pope John, “I want to be wholly for God, penetrated with His light, shining with love for God and souls.” It is a wonderful piece of wisdom to take to work today, like a breath of the Holy Spirit.
Frank McMahon's watercolor sketch of the
opening processionfor Vatican II.  ©©

As it often happens, this book threw open the windows to other books. Artist Frederick Franck, spent time at Vatican II, capturing the spirit of the places and people of the Council in his sketches and watercolors. I am caught by one of his ink portraits of Pope John, his eyes closed, and the wing of a dove — the Holy Spirit — extended to bless him. In his classic book on drawing as meditation, Franck suggests that in all the faces we draw and see, we should try to spot God’s face, even when He’s not explicitly in the picture. He quotes St. Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century theologian, “In all faces is shown the Face of Faces, veiled and as if in a riddle.”

Our last drawing class is next week, and we are all nervous about drawing from a live model. Now, I’m worrying a bit less about whether anyone would recognize the faces I draw, and hoping instead that my sketches will let me see “the Face of Faces” and recognize what God’s hand has made. It’s not about drawing, it’s about seeing. And joy.

A lovely set of Franck’s sketches and watercolors can be found in this slide show at US Catholic.  Full disclosure, I received a review copy of Good Saint John XXIII from the publisher, for whom I also write.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

It wasn't an accident

A devastated Hiroshima in the aftermath of the nuclear bombing.
The photo to the left isn't quite as recognizable as the one below, but the mushroom cloud in all its immensity does not capture for me the incredible devastation wrought by something small enough to fit in my kitchen.

The last topic I covered in intro chemistry this semester was nuclear chemistry, which I think is a critical topic (pun intended!) for many reasons.  I hope to give the students a more nuanced sense of risk around nuclear materials. So we talk about where exposure comes from (living in a brick or stone house exposes you to more radiation than living near a nuclear plant), how background radiation varies with location and altitude (the background radiation in the evacuated areas around Fukushima is lower than the normal background in Philadelphia).  We talk about risks and accidents.  How many people have died in coal mining accidents versus in accidents at nuclear plants - making power costs people's lives.  I tell them one of the most serious accidents happened in Brazil — four people died of radiation poisoning, including a 6 year old girl, hundreds were contaminated — and had nothing to do with nuclear power.
The mushroom cloud, 11 miles high, 
over Nagasaki

Suddenly a hand went up in the back.  "What about Japan," my student asked, "that wasn't an accident, was it?"  The class stirred restlessly as I searched for an answer.  "No," I said slowly, "no, that wasn't an accident.  It was a terrible, unspeakably horrific thing."  Now they are silent, still looking at me.  I confess I am a pacifist.  I tell them they should read John Hershey's Hiroshima.  I tell them that this, too, is a risk of having power, nuclear and otherwise.

And at some level, I want to briskly brush this question away, and go back to talking about why Brazil nuts are so radioactive and how much uranium is in a granite kitchen counter top -- things that by comparison seem brightly ordinary and safe.

Instead, I listen to their silence, realize I will not recapture the ordinary in the 4 remaining minutes, and I send them away...

They shall beat their swords into plowshares 
and their spears into pruning hooks; 
One nation shall not raise the sword against another, 
nor shall they train for war again.  Isaiah 2:4b