Thursday, October 31, 2019

Teal Pumpkin Project

I have been allergic to peanuts and coconut all my life. No PB&Js. No Reeses. No Mounds. No peanut M&Ms.  Vigilance is a habit, and I’m grateful it’s been a long time since I’ve had anything worse than hives. But Halloween always ended with dumping my candy out on the table and pulling out all the stuff I couldn’t eat. My mother would stash it away for the adults.

Now that I’m on the treat buying end of this annual transaction, I’ve been sure to include something non-food in the assortment on offer. This year I noticed the Teal Pumpkin Project, where you used a teal pumpkin to signal that you had treats that were safe for kids with food allergies, or who otherwise couldn’t eat candy. So I posted a sign on the door.  First set of kids, with one allergic member of the gang (5th grade-ish boys) looked at the spiral glow bracelets and said, “Sick!” (Which I took to be a compliment.) I try hard to find non-edible treats that are equally attractive, so felt this year was a win.

The loss of a significant amount of my Halloween candy every year got me thinking about abundance. My mother didn’t make my siblings share their haul with me, but there was always an abundance, a full measure.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Science nostalgia

Last week I went through the files from some of my early journal articles for an essay I'm writing, and for a talk I gave. It had me thinking about how many things have changed around my work over the last 40 years.  In no particular order...

The watch on my wrist has a thousand times — yes, that's a thousand — more data storage than the "big" 80 MB (no, that's not a typo either, megabytes, not gigabytes) hard drive my research group shared in graduate school. That hard drive was roughly the size of a washing machine.

PDFs weren't a thing, nor were email attachments, until after I had tenure. You submitted articles to journals by postal mail. And you might be notified of their acceptance by a small postcard. You ordered reprints.

I haven't hand drawn a figure using pen and ink for a technical article since before my kids were born (though I have for a few Nature Chemistry Thesis pieces). I note here they have both graduated from college.

Conference posters weren't carried in tubes (or as pieces of fabric), but in folders as single sheets of paper. Wise people brought their own tacks to the meeting to mount their posters. Color? Color? Only if you used colored ink.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Jaw-dropping floral arrangements: true feminine genius

The tweet captures one man's list of appropriate ways for women to minister in a Roman Catholic Church. In an earlier tweet he'd been really clear. No woman altar servers, lectors, eucharistic ministers. It's heretical.

As one not endowed by the Holy Spirit with the ability make jaw-dropping floral arrangements, or linens, or vestments I suppose I should just sit down and be quiet. Which actually is my preferred way of being inside sacred space, to be honest.

But I cannot countenance this reframing of "feminine genius" as "good with crafts." This is certainly not what Pope John Paul II meant with the term in his Letter to Women nor in Mulieris Dignitatem. He was focussed on service - women are to serve. (So why not women altar servers? How much do are you willing to bet the persons setting and clearing the table at the Last Supper were women?) Women, he suggested, are moral forces. And women love unreservedly.

What does moral force have to do with embroidery or flower arrangements?

I will confess, I'm not at all sure what "feminine genius" really means. Should not men be moral forces? Serve? Love unreservedly? I've looked at the documents and I still honestly cannot reconcile a God who created women able to do quantum physics or theology with a God who would say, "but don't do that.."

But all of this is just dross in the face of the Gospel, which calls us to a jaw-dropping radical acknowledgement of each other's human dignity. We are told that we are to feed the hungry, see that those who are thirsty have water to drink, to welcome the stranger (with no mention of checking their immigration status), to care for the sick.

We come to the Eucharist to learn how to recognize and tend to the Holy in each other, to celebrate the care that we have been given in God's name, to be filled so that we might spill over. It is absolutely the summit of our life of faith, it is equally its font. To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom: "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice." Or in a floral arrangement.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Man up!

I ran across a tweet this morning which suggested that "manned" as in "manned spaceflight" was derived not from "man" (the word commonly used for a  male human being) but from the Latin for hand "manos[sic]".  In other words the tweet suggests, it is related to manual, and so doesn't actually have sexist roots.

The Latin for hand is manus, and indeed it is the root for things like manual and manuscript and manufacture (and perhaps even manuensis). All referents to things done (or once done) by hand, and all with the stem manu-.

But it is not true that manus is the the root for manned . Historically manned does mean "something done by a group of dudes." The OED has a clear explanation of the origins of the word. The root is mannen from Dutch and Germanic sources. The link expressed by the tweeter to doing things by hand is a folk etymology, and one that I suspect has its origins in actual and overt sexism. I can trace it back to a letter from James Daniels in Physics Today (51(10), 11 (1998). He doesn't give a source for his etymology, and two issues later he will be forcefully corrected by an Oxford linguist.

Why do I think it's overtly sexist? Ah, because that letter from Daniels also makes snide remarks about women and LGBTQ physicists.

Interestingly "innocent" suffers from a similar etymological mix-up of its Latin root. It's not from noscere (to know) but from nocere (harmless).

Friday, October 18, 2019

Balaam's Donkey

St. Luke drawing the Virgin
Rogier van der Weyden
From Wikimedia.
I'm steadily chipping away at writing a set of Advent reflections for 2020, and yesterday was dancing with this reading from Numbers, featuring the beleaguered Balaam dragged from mountain top to mountain top in hopes he would eventually say what people wanted to hear. Meanwhile, on my own reading list is Balaam's Donkey, an eclectic collections of reconstructed homilies by Cistercian Michael Casey OCSO.

Casey's book is a "daily devotional" in the sense that there is an entry for each day, but the entries are not keyed to the lectionary or even to the liturgical seasons. Given that I am so often writing out of  time and season, I am always delighted to find someone else to wander this trackless desert with me.

Today's entry was titled "Service" and the last paragraph made me think of the Church's current struggles to speak with authority (a theme clearly sounded in the Advent pericopes I am working with) in the modern world.

"Sometimes the service that needs to be rendered is the offering of advice or correction.  My first abbot used to insist that this will work only if persons in authority have a solid history of genuine concern for the welfare of the other."  (from Balaam's Donkey, by Michael Casey OCSO p 377)

Electronic rosaries aren't going to cut it. Nor are strident "no true Scotsman" arguments about what it means to be Catholic and only if we were louder and more unbending will we be appreciated. To be heard as a voice of truth, one first must genuinely live out that truth.

Happy feast of St. Luke!

Monday, October 14, 2019

"Vocatus — for the discerning." read the door. The "t," he noticed, was a discrete crucifix.

He'd gotten the email asking him to make an appointment almost a month ago. The woman who'd taken his call wouldn't answer any of his questions, saying only, "Our certified spiritual genomicist will walk you through your results."

The softly lit waiting room was unremarkable, stock chairs and table lamps, blue industrial carpet. 
By Brian0918 
Or it was until you noticed the bowls of branded rosaries on the side tables, "Vocatus ™" on one side of the center medal, an image of Our Lady of Graces on the other. Virginal white plastic beads. High grade, but plastic nonetheless.

Click, click. The guy next to him was nervously fingering a rosary in his pocket. Definitely not a candidate for the Trappists, he thought. And what about that guy in the corner, in a leather jacket and jeans so black he nearly vanished into the shadows. Goth or Jesuit?

"Xavier," called the receptionist and he followed her down the hall. A thin man in a Benedictine habit stood up behind a desk and reached across to shake his hand and introduce himself with a word, "John."  A bar chart was up on the monitor, he saw.

"Sit, please," John gestured to the chair across from him.

"We appreciate your interest in discernment, and let me start by saying that your results indicate you have a strong vocation." He turned toward the monitor. "As you see, the markers for mysticism are clear, you carry all three of the known genes: NUM3, XTC9 and NEF1. These, in combination with the ascetic gene, at 7q31.2," he touched a pad and a gene map appeared, marked up in red, "suggest the Carthusians could be a fit for you.  Now, here we see..."

I went to a talk last week by an anthropologist who mentioned genomic markers for experiencing the numinous, which has me musing about  a world in which vocations directors would use gene maps.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Holy kicks

I need new walking shoes, and Keen no longer makes the ones that have taken me more than a thousand miles (yes, they should have been replaced at half that, but....). Searching the interwebs for something suitable, these shoes came up. INRI shoes, Nikes with 60 ml of water from the Jordan (holy water, blessed by a priest). Complete with red wool insoles (to remind you of the previous Pope's Pradas and sorry, I couldn't resist the alliteration), a "papal" seal and a crucifix. Cost? $1425 because the verse in which Jesus walks on the water is Matthew 14:25. (I think they missed a connection when they made 24 pairs, not 12.) They sold out in 1 minute, but you can get them on the resale market.

You could argue the shoes are reliquaries, holding water from the Jordan in which Jesus was baptized, though the actual water poured over his head is long flowed to the sea. Still, over two millennia and assuming good mixing, the probability is high that some of those molecules (perhaps a hundred) are once again in the Jordan and now in the INRI shoes that once poured over Jesus' head. By the same arguments, there might be a thousand molecules of water in my tea that once poured over Jesus's head.  Does this make the shoes a first class relic? My tea?

It's all holy ground we walk on, $1425 holy kicks or not. And I still need to find new walking shoes.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Rom-com at the Rite Aid

Math Man took in the expanse of wood floor, the waltz-y music and reached for me. "It seems the perfect spot to dance." I laughed and said, "There's a scene from a movie!" We were on an exciting Saturday morning date to get our flu shots.

I spent the 15 minutes we had to wait imagining the movie, scribbling bits on an old flyer from the Edinburg Fringe stuffed at the bottom of my bag. (Because I'd left my trusty 3x5" black notebook in my other bag.) Surely a rom-com? Or just maybe a Bond knock-off? Nope, definitely a rom-com. How would I have written this scene? Were we the main characters or are we having a cameo in someone else's film? Was this a prologue, the epilog, a set-up for a flashback? Would we dance, or not quite touch and head to the chairs at the edge?

We are the main characters. The pharmacist is a cameo by Awkwafina. It's the prologue, which is the set-up for a flashback, to Princeton University in the fall. It's October 1987, the main characters are crossing campus, the crisp leaves swirling around our feet. Each of us is deep in conversation with a colleague. We brush pass by each other as strangers would. Next scene shows a handsome mathematician in a light blue oxford shirt, his sleeves rolled up past his wrists, standing in front of a blackboard covered in arcane symbols. The phone rings. Flip to a woman standing in front of a set of mailboxes, unfolding a stiff piece of stationery....

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Perpetual adoration by the light of the Acme

Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and clamorous discord.

The rash one has no integrity;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live. Hab 1:3b

It's hard for me to look at the first reading for this Sunday without thinking of the current political situation. I am horrified, appalled, sickened that the president of the United States would suggest shooting people in the leg at the border to slow them down. I am ill watching the smug smile of the UK home secretary as she firmly asserts she will stop the free movement of people here and now.

Have they — have we — no regard for human dignity, of the homeless, of women, of those living in with violence and in peril?

I'm writing this in the dark and quiet of a local shelter for homeless families, keeping station at the door. The families are asleep, the van will come early tomorrow morning. A parish I was at years ago hosted perpetual adoration, and I had a weekly late night shift. Now I come again to sit with the Body of Christ, in the dark and thin hours, contemplating not a gold chased tabernacle lit by a single candle, but cream painted block walls awash in the lights of the Acme parking lot across the street. Tantum ergo Sacramentum veneremur cernui.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Raids on the ineffable

A open book with chant on one side, a black and white drawing of the evangelist St. Mark with a lion. A small white clay hemisphere sits on the right hand page.
Cycle B. Mostly Mark. And an empty crib, an empty shell
within a rough fired clay support.
I have 252 "drafts" sitting in my blog queue. Some with just a title, others with one or two lines suggesting what I was thinking of writing about (but didn't at the moment have the time.) Some of them are more than a decade old, the oldest one dates to April 2005, which is roughly when I began regularly posting to this space.

What was "The Litany of the Snacks"? Hint: Crash Kid and Barnacle Boy often lack inspiration in the morning. 1/31/2006.  Or the inchoate post, "prostrate on the floor," from the middle of May 2005? It was the end of the semester, I had a 9 year old and an about to be 7 year old, of course I was prostrate on the floor. On the kitchen floor, apparently: "rule of benedict has prostrate on the floor when change kitchen detail...I'm prostrate just _from_ the kitchen detail"

More recently I abandoned a piece titled "Raids on the ineffable" which contained no useful clues to what I was thinking, including where the title came from. Google was no help, while "raids on the ineffable" is the subtitle of a relatively recent book on the philosophy of mysticism (which I've now added to my wanting-to-read list) I'm nearly certain that wasn't the source. For some reason I think it's a fragment from a poem? There's a similar line in T. S. Eliot's East Coker, "a raid on the inarticulate" that appears to be frequently misquoted as "raids on the ineffable." But I don't think that's it either. Huh.

My current writing project could certainly be framed as a raid on the ineffable, a book of reflections on the readings of Advent, sending me deep into Isaiah and Luke's territory with the hope that I will return with some little bit of something for someone and then wraps completely inadequate words around what surely/hopefully/perhaps is treasure. Eliot is not encouraging on this front.
...And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
Or perhaps he is.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
I'm trying.