Wednesday, May 30, 2018


Fox in our backyard. Credit to Math Man.
It's not a misspelling, I assure you. This post is about primarily about preying, though perhaps there is something to be learned about praying as well.

On Friday, Mr. Math Teacher (the offspring formerly known as The Egg on this blog, and not to be confused with Math Man) and I were grilling vegetables on the driveway.  I look across the street to see our local fox in hot pursuit of a squirrel in my neighbor's front yard.  It did not end well for the squirrel, who was carried off.  It was fast. It was, at most, fifty feet away.

I was stunned by the raw power on display so close at hand. Living as I do in an inner-ring suburb, which hasn't been wild in more than two centuries, in a house with a tight roof and solid doors, I'm more insulated that I want to admit.  Wind, water, cold and heat are all seemingly under my control.  Too windy, close the windows.  Hot? Nudge up the A/C.  Ice and chill, bless the Lord?  Not so much.  I keep a bag of salt in the garage.

I wonder if this is part of why the desert fathers and mothers left the cities and made their way to caves in the arid wastes.  To grasp viscerally that they controlled nothing of import.  Not the winds or the waves, the predators that slithered through the door or pounced from above.  Neither life nor death.

In other predator news, there is are owl pellets piled up on the roof by my bathroom window. Which I presume means an owl sits there from time to time. And what looked very much like a juvenile eagle was perched on the roof of the rectory garage yesterday.  #signsOfTheTimes

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Briefly seated

Airline boarding areas are constrained places.  Once there, you are reluctant to leave its confines, metaphorically constrained by thoughts of missing your plane. There are the literal constraints of too few seats and electrical outlets, combined with too much luggage. Is the crowding deliberate, I wonder?  Is it a slow compression, pushed ever closer to our soon-to-be fellow passengers, getting us ready to be packed into the cabin. We eye each other. Will he be noisy? How much stuff do they have? Will she be sitting next to me?

At Burbank I was fascinated by the number of briefcases that required their own seats. Fully half the chairs in the waiting area were occupied by briefcases and coffee cups, chaperoned by hefty guys dressed in flying-on-business clothes — blue shirts, no ties, sports jackets and grey pants. Their arms were crossed, their legs splayed out. They, for the most part, stared straight ahead. Don’t tread on me.  Arrayed along the wall are bearded guys in shorts and flip-flops, chic young women, and one grey-haired professor, earphones plugged in to a podcast. #privilege

In the Phoenix waiting area there are seventeen wheelcharis lined up to board, their occupants icons of confinement.  They are boxed in on one side by a railing, on the other by seats, with barely a foot between them. Meanwhile the woman on the end of my row repeatedly does a series of core exercises, her feet raised off the floor, beating time to an unheard tune.  We all bounce with her, the connected chairs neatly delivering the impulses down the line. #physics

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Whose race are we running?

This is the third stop on a blog hop for Chris Lowney's latest book, Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World). Find the rest of the tour here.

"Compare and despair, that's the advice I got," noted the young Jesuit novice across the table from me. A group of us were having coffee and a last conversation before beginning the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  We were nervous and uncertain of what lay before us in these thirty days in silence. Whatever God wanted for each of us during these days and over the next years, it would be different.

Almost a decade later, those words have returned to me again and again.  I have offered them to students worried about their progress in a course relative to their peers, murmured them to myself when looking at a piece of writing that was nowise as good as that essay by...stopping each of us in our tracks.

Last weekend, reading Chris Lowney's latest book, Make Today Matter, I scribbled "compare and despair" in the margins of the section on his third habit:  "Don't win the race, contribute to the (human) race." When we focus on winning, on besting those around us, we are never quite content with what we have. Someone always has more.  More money, more time, more honors. So we compare ourselves, and come up wanting, despairing of what we haven't achieved, rather than rejoicing in what has been given to us. Turn it around, suggests Lowney, and look not to get more, but to do more. To consider making the next move not one that positions you to move up, but makes the world a more just and a more loving place.

Science can be pretty competitive at times, no one wants to have their research scooped by another group barreling down the same road.  But another weekend read reminded me again what winning could mean.  The abstract for a feature article in the latest issue of Chemical Communications ended by noting that the translation of this chemistry "into real-world applications, starts to demonstrate the power of this approach, and its potential to transform the world around us for the better." Prof. David Smith goes on in the article to explain why he shifted his research to tackle fundamental questions in supramolecular chemistry from a different perspective: "[E]xplaining to someone with a life-limiting condition that you are using all of your skills to understand how peptides interact with one another in toluene somehow felt inadequate."  There were many directions he could have taken with his initial groundbreaking work, some more likely to "win" the science race than others, but he chose to seek a win for all of us, not just himself.  Something that might make this world a more loving place.

As I start to plan for the summer's research and writing, and my work with students next fall, I'm reminded to ask the question, not how many people will read this paper or cite this work compared to my peers, but what is the potential of this work to transform the world into a more just and loving place.  It's a good habit to get into.

Full disclosure, Loyola Press gave me a copy of this book.  You can watch a short clip about Habit 3 here and read a sample chapter or two here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

small & fond & local

If you haven't listened to the Jesuitical podcast — do.  Even if you aren't in their demographic (which I'm pretty sure I'm not.)  I found it because they interviewed my boss at the Observatory, Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ. This week's episode is a conversation on faith with poet Mary Karr, and in it their weekly "Consolations and Desolations" plunges into the depths. 

Karr read "The Voice of God, (from her latest collection taken from a series, "The Unholy Bible").  It's the Book of Wisdom rewrit and begins,
Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you
    could be cured with a hot bath,
says God from the bowels of the subway.
It's the end of the semester here, generally stressful, and this year a bit more than usual. (Or maybe age is catching up with me?)   The days spit me out at the end, damp and knotted and with a to-do list longer than when I began.  Out of the depth, I cry to you, O Lord. Hear me, and if you can't answer me, might you at least answer some of my email? (#modernMiracles)

So here is the answer, take a hot bath, not rumbling under my feet on a city street, but Bluetoothed into my earbuds.  Speaking of modern miracles. God, whispering in my ears. Take a hot bath, it'll cure ninety percent of what ails you.

The voice of God: "small & fond & local"

You can read the whole poem here.