Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Pandemic pasta proofs

There is a fabulous investigative piece on the bucatini shortage (did you notice?) by Rachel Handler in Grub Street. It's a great read.

Bucatini gets its name from the Italian for hole, buco. It's basically spaghetti with a hole drilled through it. (That's not actually how it's made, I realize. It's extruded with the hole built in, but I am enjoying the image of special drill bits hollowing out thick spaghetti and given the pandemic, I'm letting my imagination run rampant, since I can't.) Anyway, Handler suggests the appeal of bucatini is how much sauce each strand can take up, about 200% more she asserts than its thinner, topological genus zero counterpart, "due to math."

I wondered about that math, so I did it. The surface area of a cylinder is π x d x h. Where π  is π  (3.1415928....) and d is the diameter of the cylinder and h the height (not Planck's constant, the first thing. I think of when I see h in an equation). For a 260 mm length of bucatini with an outer diameter of 2.9 mm and an inner diameter of 0,8 mm, the surface area of the outside is 2370 mm2 and inside is 650 mm2. For the same length of spaghetti, it's 1570 mm2. So assuming the sauce penetrates to the center of the tube, the bucatini has 192% of the spaghetti's surface for sauce. Or about only about 100% more. Math!

Now, of course, I want to know how much the sauce does penetrate down the center shaft. Will there be bucatini at the grocery store tomorrow? Stay tuned for further pandemic pasta proofs.

Photo is from Wikimedia by Popo le Chien and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Objects with a topological genus of zero have no holes in them, e.g. a solid sphere. Objects with one hole — bucatini, donuts and coffee mugs — are genus one. This is the source of the mathematical joke that to a topologist, a donut and a coffee mug are the same.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A stranger and you welcomed me

Crash Kid is looking to establish a base in another country. He and his brother have reclaimed the German citizenship the Nazis stripped from their grandmother, which makes this easier, though in no way was it easy. It took them three years to work through the process to get to this point. Details took on an outside importance, and a lack of attention to them could have derailed the process at any time. But in the end, all the umlauts fell into place and they went to the German Embassy in Washington, DC to collect the paperwork that said they were German citizens (and very snazzy challenge coins). They said they felt welcomed!

A couple of days later I got a package in the mail, my copy of A Stranger and You Welcomed Me, the latest in the Homilists for the Homeless series that Deacon Jim Knipper launched in 2012. This cycle I have homilies for the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and one for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Both are Ignatian inflected, particularly the one for January 1 which sketches the Examen. I note that I'm not the only chemist in the collection, Mags Blackie has two homilies in there as well, including a beautiful reflection for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time which wonders at the Eucharist through the eyes of a chemist — what happens to the molecules of the Eucharist?

All of the proceeds from the sale of this volume go to organizations that help immigrants, all of the authors donated their work. There are homilies from James Martin SJ and Nadia Bolz-Weber, from Fran Szpylczyn, Dan Horan OFM and Phyllis Zagano. So many different voices. 

A cool 99% Invisible podcast about challenge coins.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Modern Reliquaries


Most Decembers at this time, I wouldn't notice if aliens had landed in front of Philadelphia's city hall. News takes a back seat to the flames of semester's end. But sabbatical means a different rhythm, a chance to read the paper (not that it's on paper) and listen to a few podcasts. Last night I ran across this article about iPhones with bits of Steve Jobs' iconic black turtleneck embedded in them. 

As it happens, I have an item much like that. It's a reliquary containing a fragment of the bones of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. (It's that round object at the feet of the statue of St. Thérèse that's on my home altar.) It came from a friend who inherited it, I have a folder with paperwork in Latin attesting to its authenticity. (There has always been a brisk trade in fake relics.)

The relic on my altar is a so-called first class relic, an actual piece of the saint's body. Second class relics are clothes or other items that belonged to the saint. You can "create" a third class relic by touching something, usually a piece of cloth, to a first or second class relic. There are rules about relics, including that the faithful may not buy or sell them. 

Relics are typically sealed into reliquaries, which can be quite elaborate. Like those iPhones with pieces of Jobs' turtleneck or the Beatles' suits or — like a bit of the True Cross, also a first class relic — a small piece from the first Mac. Secular reliquaries. 

Fr. Neil Xavier O'Donoghue at PrayTell also noticed these secular reliquaries. And should you be wondering if there are still those hawking pieces of the True Cross, just as they did to medieval pilgrims, browse (which I hasten to say is not associated with the Holy See) which links to relics on eBay. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020


If you look closely, you'll notice that the Delft mug on my desk features not pastoral images of the Netherlands but robots and pterodactyls and aliens invading. Catastrophes. It seems like an apt choice for these pandemic days. Besides, it holds heat nicely and it works with the splints holding my finger joints in place. 

The other day I brought up a mug of hot tea to start the day. Fluffy decided to join me. Afraid she'd knock over the tea and hurt herself, I opted to remove her bodily from the desk. 

This worked. She didn't knock over the tea. I did. With such vigor I sent the tea flying a full six feet and left my phone in a puddle of (alas) sweet tea. I grabbed the phone and rinsed it. Washed the floor. Thrice. Because sugar. 

But I didn't break the mug and the phone still works.

So how's quarantine going for you?


Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tangled up with God

One of my friends is posting brief (and beautiful) Advent reflections each day on Facebook. A couple of days ago she wrote a bit about what might ensue if we get tangled up with God. I loved her image of us entangled with God, of God choosing to become entangled with us. Not God serenely dwelling within Mary, or within us, but God mixing it up with his people. Not God in a tabernacle, but out and about where the paths can be muddy, the ways steep, the risks many. 

The reflection I wrote for yesterday in the little Advent book talked about how Jesus is rather literally entangled with the physical world. The atoms and molecules he breathed and ate and drank, the very stuff that made up his body, is now entangled in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wood of the cross I lift above my head and carry into the church. It's a staggering reality, I said. But so too is the reality that we are tangled up in God in our hearts, our minds and our souls. We cannot extricate ourselves from this tangle. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Glitches and gratitude


That's my hand, my hyperextended ring finger to be precise. It's made typing tough -- at least words with L's and O's in them. And it turns out that it's made writing tough, too. My brain is connected to the keyboard through my fingers and when the connection is glitchy, so is my writing. So it's been a slog lately, as the finger has gotten glitchier. 

Thankfully it doesn't hurt. It's just distracting when I have to think twice to get a key to click, or take my hands off the keyboard and return the bones in my finger to their correct alignment.  It's the first time in my life I've regretted being a touch typist. If I were a hunt and peck type,  this wouldn't be an issue at all.

I tried channelling my inner 1960s executive and dictating, but Apple's software is glitchy (just in different ways than my finger). I can't get it to put both Ls in my name. 

I finally went to see the orthopedic surgeon, who fixed it —temporarily at least — leaving me with two small splints. Major surgery I'd like to avoid, so the splints or their fancier cousins will be companions for a while. Typing is easier, though still needing a bit of adjustment to get it back on total autopilot. I am amazed and grateful that such a small thing could make such a big difference. 

In this moment where we have given up so much, I'm more and more grateful for the small things. What small things are you grateful for?

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Curious Incident of the Rabid Mouse On The Neighborhood Listserv

I’m on one (well, really more than one) of those neighborhood electronic bulletin boards. Recently someone posted on the board asking for help rescuing an injured mouse found in their garage. Surprisingly this didn’t elicit nearly as much conversation about the desirability of saving the mouse as I thought it might. (Given the recent issues in my office, I’ll admit to being not entirely supportive of mouse rescue operations.) 

What did result was a bit of back and forth about mice and rabies. Someone noted that they’d been told mice carried rabies. Given the mouse population around here, that could be cause for panic. Several people (including me) posted the CDC advice about rabies in rodents which notes that they are rarely found to be infected and there are no known cases of human transmission from rodents. No need to panic about mice as a reservoir of rabies, right?

Nope. Pretty soon someone posts a link to a paper on rabies in rodents and lagomorphs (bunnies, I didn't know that either). I read the paper. There are no reported cases in mice. Not in more than 15 years. The authors do comment on this: "The small body size of most other rodent species likely results in higher mortality rates from injuries sustained during altercations with rabid mesocarnivores and may contribute to the rarity of smaller rodents reported as rabid." Good, so again, no need to panic about the mice as reservoirs of rabies, right?

Nope. I get schooled in science: '"never been known to..." does not mean "impossible"'. True, but since you can't prove a negative, this isn't a helpful statement. Given the size of the mouse population and its proximity to humans, that rabies has never been observed in mice, let alone be transmitted mouse to human says really, there is no need to panic about the mice as reservoirs of rabies.

Apparently if you want to worry about rodents and rabies, you should direct your attention to groundhogs, which account for 90% of rodent rabies cases. Which makes me wonder, is Puxatawney Phil vaccinated for rabies? 

The whole exchange reminded me of the "What to Expect When You are Expecting" books which listed rabies under "Common Childhood Illnesses." There are fewer than 5 cases a year in humans in the US. Sadly there are closer to 60,000 deaths per year from rabies world-wide, half in children. 

Photo of presumably non-rabid marmota monax (groundhog) from Wikipedia.

Friday, October 16, 2020

How to cook

A poem found by stirring together one part reheating instructions, two parts installation instructions and an ad for a local garden.

How to cook

Activation is available by running

        I’m running late
        Dinner in minutes
        How many minutes?

Full of advice
        One quarter teaspoon of saffron harvested at the equinox.
        Stir twice, counterclockwise.
        Drizzle with oil pressed from sun kissed olives, salt, pepper ground fine.

Contents HOT
        Contents under pressure
        Do not heat a closed vessel.
        Turn right, turn right, turn right, turn left.
        Turn around.


An older item already exists in this location.
Do you want to replace it?


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Mathematical Morning Musings

It's not yet 8 a.m. I'm in the bathroom washing my face, Math Man is getting ready to get in the shower. He turns to me and says, "So if you take the partial derivative of r with respect to x...well, actually the second partial derivative..." 

"Where r is the square root of x squared plus y squared plus z squared?" wondering if he is really talking to me, or just thinking aloud.

"No, no, just x and y," he clarifies.

Unbidden the chain rule flowers in my brain, 2x times a half...divided by the square root, right and then we'll need the product rule. We don't keep a white board marker in the bathroom, despite its inviting plethora of glass surfaces. I'm not sure why, there's one in the kitchen and in the downstairs bathroom, where math gets inscribed on the panes of glass in the door and on the mirror. We have a glass sheet screwed to the wall in the downstairs hallway for the purpose. But I digress...

"Does it surprise you that it blows up?" wonders Math Man.

"Oh, no...that derivative shows up in some operators."

Sweet talk between lovers in the morning.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Falling into the ocean

"Preaching about prayer is like falling into the ocean. We cannot touch the ocean floor; we are overwhelmed by the vast sea around us. We come up flailing our arms, gasping for breath and struggling to stay afloat. No matter how hard we try, we cannot reach the depth and the breadth of prayer, but we continue to be buoyed by prayer even as we explore its mysteries." — Lewis F. Galloway in Feasting on the Gospels (Luke, volume 1)

I feel entirely seen. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Writing prayer

One of the pieces of writing on my desk at the moment is a book on prayer. The book is essentially a plan for a day of retreat on learning to pray. Writing it has been an experience. I feel like the builder of this instrument, there is so much to say I keep adding 'functions' to my text. If I'm talking about postures of prayer, I should talk about St. Domenic, right? But then should I mention Tertullian or Ignatius or...

Pretty soon, I have marbles flowing everywhere. And look as wild-eyed as the designer of this instrument. 

I'm on the downside of the writing at the moment, mostly taking text out rather than adding it in. But I can't help myself entirely, I just tucked in a bit from Bonhoeffer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Modern Burma Shave

It was, back in the day, prosaic poetry: Shave the modern way / No brush / No lather / No rub-in / Big tube 35 cents – Drug stores / Burma-Shave

I'm too young (really, by this measure I'm young!) to recall the Burma Shave signs along the highways, teasing out a line at a time. The signs came down in 1963, around the time I learned to read. When on a sabbatical leave in 1998 (in which we drove and camped our way across the country with a two year old and four year old in tow, in the days before video displays in cars or handheld tablets, but thankfully after recorded books) we encountered a similar set of signs for Wall Drugs on I-90 as we headed to the Badlands.  

But Burma Shave has been reimagined on the Pennsy Trail in Haverford, where pages from Sheep Take a Hike by Nancy Shaw tease you down the path and back. And if you tire midway through, there's bench and some books to take a break with.

The camping in the Badlands was memorable. There were a whole series of thunderstorms the night we camped there. Crash woke me to tell me his sleeping bag was wet, and it was because there was a stream running through the tent. We hung stuff up to dry in the morning, drove to get breakfast at the diner near the entrance, but didn't get back until the next storm struck. We decamped in a deluging rain storm, the kids tucked up and dry in the minivan while a sopping wet Math Man and I loaded up our gear.

We stopped in the first small town we came to, and found a laundromat. Then we went to Wall Drugs. My memories of Wall Drug are misty, but I can still see the lemon yellow walls of that wonderful laundromat. Dry sleeping bags are a wonderful thing, right up there with dry socks.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Favorite star


My favorite star.

Alina Sabyr, an astrophysics grad student at Columbia and Watson Fellow, produced this great video asking people around the world what was their favorite astronomical feature — what takes their breath away when they look up. I’m not alone in thinking Saturn is incredible (see Stammering About God). I loved the choices of the familiar  — the moon or Orion  — and the unfamiliar — my colleague Guy Consolmagno SJ’s choice of Eta Carinae, which we can’t see from the Northern Hemisphere.

Why, I wondered, did the sun not come to anyone’s mind? Mine included, at least at first. Maybe because we can look deeper and deeper into the night sky, but even a glance at the sun is too much for us to bear? 

Monday, September 14, 2020

A restless universe

Tigerzeng / CC BY-SA 
When the kids were younger we went through a phase of lighting candles for dinner. There were (unsurprisingly to anyone who has kids or was a kid) tussles over who would light the candles and who would get to use the snuffer to douse them. Fire is fascinating. 

My hang up was with the smoke from the candles. I wanted to watch it twirl and twist, folding like ribbons on itself. And so was regularly annoyed when the douser waved a hand through the smoke, instantly dispersing it into a muddy cloud hovering over the dining room table.

I find the ephemeral silken ribbons both mesmerizing and beautiful. But what really catches my attention is what the smoke reveals about the air molecules as they bump and jiggle the smoke,  knocking the particles about until they no longer waft upward, carried by the heat of the burning wax and wick, but randomly move, gradually drifting outward until they are but a thin haze. Even in still air, the molecules are moving restlessly about. The nitrogen molecules in the air surrounding you right now are moving at 500 meters per second, more than a thousand miles per hour. Billions of them are colliding with your skin every second.

The unseen universe is a restless place. Something St. Augustine might not argue with.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Books: Alchemy and poetry

Crash has returned to his own apartment, leaving us with a call board to plan the meals and organize the day and an (almost) up to date inventory of the chest freezer.  Much as I appreciate the latter ledger, I'm wishing I'd kept a ledger of the meals we made over the course of these months.

I have been dipping in and out of Jane Hirshfield's new book of poetry, Ledger, which opens with "Let Them Not Say":

Let them not say: we did not see it. 
We saw.

Let them not say: we did not hear it.
We heard.

When I read "Advice to Myself" about a file with that title (and presumably advice) created a decade ago, I felt very seen.

I pulled philosopher Harry Frankfurt's little book On Bullshit off the shelf and am glad to have done so. He references Augustine! The essay attempts to carefully delineate lies and liars from bullshit and bullshit artists. 

"For the bullshitter, however all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."

In this particular political moment, I highly commend On Bullshit to you. 

I've been captivated by Ainissa Ramirez's The Alchemy of Us. The opening vignette about traveling timekeepers was fascinating.

Anne Perry's Death in Focus is set in Europe during the rise of Hitler. It's a mystery, it's dark, and it's reminding me that we shouldn't close our eyes or ears. I have seen. I have heard. It's incumbent on my to speak. And to vote!


Monday, August 31, 2020

Not the Disney Scene You are Imagining

A few weeks ago I was back in my office briefly to pick up some books. It was the first time I'd been to my office since the pandemic pivot of the spring. But my office hadn't been unoccupied while I was at home. The mice had been there. Not a mouse. Mice. And unlike Snow White's helpful woodland creatures they weren't dashing around cleaning my office. They nested in papers and partied on my desk. There was glitter everywhere. Well, not actual glitter, but the remains of the wrappers of a handful of forgotten chocolate kisses, clearly the draw for the big event. They left the champagne alone. 

In the end there were a lot of papers that it was now very easy to decide to if they could be tossed (perhaps the creatures were helpful in cleaning my office after all? #darkDisney). I've taken a hundred or so books off the shelves to clear behind them. Thankfully the mice seem to have generally eschewed the books for the stacks of papers.  The office has been vacuumed and surfaces cleared and cleaned. Traps have been set, though the miscreants seemed to have moved on. Now I just need to put the books back to check off one unofficial sabbatical project: clean my office. 

OK TBH, I also need to clean out a cabinet. But then, I really can check the project off the list! Also, mad props to whoever left a photo of a mouse holding a chocolate kiss on my door. A spot of humor in an otherwise awful situation.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Firkins, Butts and Barrels


My brother The Reverend (not to be confused with my brothers Geek Guru, The Artiste or The Wookie) posted a meme about 'medieval units' for measuring wine on Facebook last week. (The punchline calculated how much a butt-load of wine would be:126 gallons, which is surely a butt-ton of almost anything, though only half a tun). 

In a weird coincidence, the illustration included the firkin (a mere 8 gallons) which I had just written about in an essay on the names of units. I had found it in a 1955 book, Conversion Factors and Tables, which spent 500 pages listing units of measurement currently in use and various conversion factors. I'd gone through the whole thing looking for interesting unit names. (Yes, a very David Foster Wallace thing to do,  I'm aware.)  Firkin, if you must know, and you really must, is a quarter of a barrel and comes from the Dutch vierkin for a fourth.

Other weird unit names:

  • Barleycorn: 1/3 of an inch, or if you prefer SI units, 0.84668 cm
  • Pottles: There are 16 gills in a pottle, or two quarts. To be "pottle deep" is to be drunk, which makes perfect sense, though I wouldn't have to be all that deep into a pottle to feel the effects. Oddly this is also a unit of land area; the OED speculates that perhaps it's' the amount of land that would produce a pottle of grain. 
  • Perch: A fish length? While US Fisheries says a perch is 19.1 cm, a perch is 36 13/ average perch long, it's also a rod, or 16.5 feet. Perch the measurement and perch the fish are etymologially unrelated. The former comes from the Latin for measuring rod, pertica, the latter is from the Greek, πέρκη or speckled, which presumably perch are.
  • Bougie decimales: Not that bougie this bougie is a wax candle, from the Bougie (Arabic), a town in Algeria (Bijiyah)which carried on a trade in wax. It's a unit of illumination, equal to one candle.
  • Frigorie: It’s just another name for a calorie, but presumably for situations where you are dealing with falling temperatures. It has not caught on.
  • Microns of mercury: Not a weird unit at all, but I enjoyed the alliteration, and the faintly royal scent of it all. "May I introduce her highness, the Micron of Mercury?"
  • Scruples: Not the spiritual sort, these have actual mass, a bit over 2 grams per scruple. Derived from the Latin for small pebble.
And don't forget the hobbit - a unit of volume equal to 4 pecks, which is 8 quarts of pickled peppers or anything else you want to pick a peck of.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020


Summer has meant reading books for as long as I can remember. Clearing out family papers from my desk last week I found this photo of me at age 5 looking longingly at the bookmobile. My sister is in the pram and my brother is also balancing on his trike. My mother is undoubtedly behind the camera (and probably pregnant with another brother).

I remember the bookmobile as being crammed with shelves. I can still hear the crinkle of the cellophane protective covers as my mother browsed the books. I suspect this photo was taken in September, I'm pretty sure I had that dress in kindergarten. 

There was no library in this small town in the middle of dairy country, so this is how new books made their way to us. 

By the time I was in fourth grade we had a library, set up in a house that also served as the police department and the municipal offices. I was already a science fiction addict (watching all those NASA launches fueled my desire to travel to the stars, at least in my imagination). The tiny library, roughly the size of my current living and dining room, seemed huge and such a luxury compared to the bookmobile. I would pedal my bike there, check out a book or maybe even two, ride home, devour it and repeat.

Now there are probably more books in my house than there were in that little library (and never mind what is in my office and my lab). And the little town has grown, and has a good sized library. One thing hasn't changed, my joy in devouring a good book.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Reading List: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - or Not

As I'm slowly doing some writing about writing, I've been pulling books on the craft from my shelves. I rediscovered How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider on my shelves in part because it turns out to be written by the mother of a colleague (which I hadn't realized when I bought the book, though on re-reading, I should have known!) Schneider's own poetry laces through the pages of this luminous book, and I cherish her fearless and tender takes on the challenges of writing about things that have entangled themselves in our souls. Perhaps my favorite is the section on tradition and writing, where she reflects on not surrendering her voice —"the unique Ozark twang, the flavor, the very originality of my voice." I hear in her poem, "Mama," a familiar litany of words, "Kerosene, gasoline, Maybelline, Vaseline..." I'm transported back to my paternal grandmother's house, where I too watched the lightning bugs, not the fireflies, dance in the heavy summer air, and wondered at the jars of Vaseline and Pond's on her dresser.

I quoted Sirach at the start of a chemistry essay, "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us" [Sirach 44:1], which prompted me to pick up James Agee and Walker Evan's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evan's photographs of these depression era sharecroppers are crystalline. As someone with a predilection for long sentences, I appreciated Agee's ability to have a sentence start on a page, continue through another, full page and finally finish on the third page, without, I think, ever technically running on. The book is often held up as a turning point in non-fiction. Still, I was too put off by the casual racism in the book and a vague sense of shame to be peering into these people's lives even at almost a century's remove to finish it.

I felt utterly seen by Anne Fadiman's essays on reading (Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader). I also take pleasure in cook books speckled with eggs and cocoa, and hang on to beloved books that have been reduced to a loose collection of signatures. (My copy of Meyer and Meyer's Statistical Mechanics is held together with a ribbon.) If you love to read, read this.

Thursday, August 20, 2020


 I've worked as a chemist for more than four decades. Over that time the technology I've used has shifted from punch cards to magnetic tape to solid state storage to the cloud. I once encoded molecular structures using something called a Z-matrix, now I sketch them on a screen. I began using log tables and a slide rule to do calculations, and can now pull up something on my phone to do weird fractional roots while on a walk.1 

But this reference card I made my first semester as a graduate student has been the one constant in all that changing technology. It sat on my desk as a grad student and again when I was a post-doc. It was pinned to the bulletin board behind my desk in my old office. When I moved offices it took up residence in the small bin on my desk.

So I was distressed when I couldn't locate it yesterday. I was back in my office at the college, looking for the card to use to illustrate an essay about units and their names. My office is torn apart, as I was invaded by mice during the pandemic. I had to pull several hundred books off their shelves, and many of these are still stacked on the floor and on my working table. I reached for the bin card! My heart sank. 

I looked all over. Had I inadvertently used it to mark a page in a book while talking to a student? Left it by the chalkboard? Taken it down to the lab? No, no and no. I finally concluded I must have mistakenly tossed it with the mouse infested papers from my desk. I was surprisingly saddened by this loss of the one artifact that threads through my entire career. 

Truth be told, I don't need this card. The values are readily available in many places online and off. I rarely refer to it. After all these years, the conversion factors I use regularly are in my head, I can flip effortlessly between Ångstroms and bohrs and nanometers. And the handy conversion between angles inscribed at the top? I can't recall the last time I used it, since relative coordinates have gone the way of the dodo. But there was an ineffable sense of loss nonetheless.

I headed home, and on a whim, checked the bin on my desk. There was the card, ready to be consulted. When I grabbed the essentials from my office back in March, I had taken this not-really-essential essential. I guess I don't have to retire just yet.


1. Math Man was mulling about his research on our daily walk, trying to work out a 2/3 root in his head, which we did, but then I offered to check it on the phone. Our estimate was just fine!

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Assumption: Who longs to see the face of God?

A woman wrapped in the gold of the sun, bedecked with the jewels of the universe.  A woman through whom God shines so fiercely that even infants in the womb can sense the radiance. It is hard not to be bedazzled by the lavish images and extraordinary promises of this feast, by the share in Christ’s glory that is Mary’s and that we pray might be ours one day.

Yet my imagination is caught, not by Revelation’s dragons and diadems, or even the queen draped in gold of Ophir, but by the woman in labor.  I can feel my body recall the times I labored to give birth to my sons. To be in labor is to yearn with your entire being, to be wracked by an ineluctable longing to come face to face with what has been kindled within you.  

So I hear the reading from Revelation and the response that springs from my heart is not the prescribed psalm nor Mary’s Magnificat.  Instead, Psalm 24 insistently asks: who shall climb the mountain of the Lord, who will stand in his holy place? Those who long to see the face of the God of Jacob. 

Mary once labored to bring God’s hidden face to light, so that we now might to yearn with all our being to see the face of the God of Abraham and of Jacob.  Of the God who promises to lift up the lowly, to show us mercy — and to raise us from the dead.  — From Give Us This Day, 15 August 2014

Santa Maria Assunta in Arricia, Italy, just down the road from the Vatican Observatory. Designed by Bernini. Photo above is of main altar, taken on the feast in 2018.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


 I've been slowly going through some of the boxes of papers and photos from my parent's house.  In one of them I found a Voice-O-Graph my grandmother sent my mother while she was in graduate school in New Orleans. These were roughly 1 minute recordings, etched into a 78 rpm record. She made this one on the 86th floor of the Empire State building on a foggy February day. She tells my mother that she's not sure what to say, but loves her and misses her.

I hadn't heard my grandmother's voice in 50 years, a half-century. It was an extraordinary experience. I had been hearing it in my head as I've re-read her notes and cards to me. But it's not the same as the recording.

Yesterday, I video chatted with The Boy as he made dinner in his apartment near Large University and I made dinner in my kitchen. He is the same age my mother was when her mother recorded that message. I could listen to him talk about the algebra proof he'd done. (This is not your mother's algebra class, he was several minutes into the description before I latched onto a term I knew, like a shipwreck victim grasping at a floating crate. Abelian groups, I know what those are!) He could admire my homemade fettucine. My mother and my grandmother would have been amazed at this technology. And, I suspect, eager adopters.

All this flotsam, floating forward through the currents of the last century, tossed about in various moves. Tiny remnants of people I knew and didn't. It's made me wonder what my children and the generation that follows them will think of what I've saved. What fragments of my voice will I leave behind? How will I know what to say?

Sunday, August 09, 2020


St. Monica's tomb
A few years ago I was in Rome for a meeting, and wanted to stop in Sant'Agostino, to light a candle in front of St. Monica's tomb — and to escape the heat for a few minutes. Rome was in the middle of a brutal midsummer heat wave, it had been almost 90°F when I'd left my hotel midmorning and hotter yet by noon. My timing was off, the church had just closed for the mid-afternoon riposo. I wandered over to the shady side of the piazza to check the bulletin board for when it would reopen, and to regroup.

As I peered at the board, I realized there was a young man, shirtless, a sleeping bag wrapped around his middle, his bare legs crossed at the ankle. The reflected light made him almost glow. He looked like Christ, just taken down from the cross, laid on the rough stones. And just like that, he was transfigured.

Christ crucified lay at my feet. I stood there for a very long time, wondering what I could do and then I turned and walked away. 

Photo is of St. Monica's tomb, Sant'Agostino, Roma.

I went back to Sant'Agostino later in the afternoon, lit my candle and prayed with St. Monica, then left euros in the box for the care of the poor. And everytime I go back to that church, I wonder what became of him.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Reading Rahner

I was working on an essay about praying the everyday, and (misquoted) Karl Rahner, SJ. My editor caught it, but it drove me to pull Rahner's The Need and the Blessing of Prayer off the shelf to find the full context. The chapter entitled "Prayer in the Everyday" is beautiful. If I'd re-read it before writing my own piece, I'd have been tempted to write simply.

Go read Rahner's "Prayer in the Everyday". The End.

"What can be of more astonishing exaltedness than the voice of the Spirit which makes the eternities quake and fills the abysses of God" when it carries our small, timid prayers to the very throne of God. "So that the earth's weeping is heard in the innermost chambers" of that place God built for himself. There is much to weep about in the current moment, and much to appreciate about Rahner's exhortation to simply "pray in the everyday; pray the everyday." in these times where one day blurs into the next.

What else am I reading? I just finished The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman who embedded himself in the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in the 1990s. The melding of theory and praxis made me think about chemistry training, where you need to be able to see the dance of the atoms in your head, but also have the knowledge in your hands. 

I'm reading Mexican Gothic, a novel set in the mountains of Mexico, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I spent a summer living with my grandfather and his wife in a small town in the mountains outside Oaxaca, and the novel reminds me of my sense of dislocation. It's dark and 50s-ish and it glows. There's also some chemistry sprinkled here and there:
“She was certain she’d heard about how these most civilized Victorians had been killing themselves in this way, the fungi chomping on the paste in the wall, causing unseen chemical reactions. She couldn’t remember the name of the fungus that had been the culprit—Latin names danced at the tip of her tongue, brevicaule—but she thought she had the facts right.”
Which has me reading William R. Cullen and Ronald Bentley's "The toxicity of trimethylarsine: an urban myth" (J. Environ. Monit., 2005, 7, 11-15).

But whatever you're reading, put it down for a minute and read John Lewis' last words to us
"Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way." 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Building blocks

I'm stuck. I'm working on a short piece on a big topic and I'm stuck. Anything I say seems simultaneously too specific and not specific enough. 

I keep thinking I should give it up for the day. Work on a piece that is in better shape, and so less frustrating. Take another crack at one of the two book proposals I'm working on. Keep cleaning my office. Unsubscribe from more lists. Fold the laundry. Write a letter to a friend. Go for a walk.

Scratch that last. It's 92°F out there, and humid. 

What does it mean to be productive?

Electronic kenosis

Before the college grants a faculty member a sabbatical leave, we must submit a plan detailing the work we hope to accomplish. These leaves are meant to be a chance to dig deeply into our scholarship, to create space to think. One project that's on my list, but was not in my official plan? To clean out my office. Not just tidy it, but to clear out papers and books. To craft space to think literally and metaphorically. I've been slowly working my way through it all, recycling and shredding and putting aside books for the chem lounge library. I'm letting go of so many things I've hung on to "just in case." Zip disks. CDs for old versions of software. Notes from teaching dating to the last century.

Last week, while sifting through my email, I decided to clear out the corresponding electronic accretion. I get more than a hundred emails a day (that's a literal hundred, not a metaphorical hundred) most of them advertising, some lists, not including what gets screened out by the junk and spam filters. Even though I have the settings such that I see "Important" emails in a separate stream, still, things I really want to see sometimes didn't get recognized, which left me paging through the detritus in search of pearls. Which sometimes I missed.

I started clicking "unsubscribe."  Five minutes here, ten minutes there. I kept a list. Whew. I think I can survive without seeing "Congratulations on your 1580th Mention!" (about my academic papers) or hearing from one company three times a day about what's on sale. Click here to unsubscribe. There are more than 75 companies and lists I'm no longer hearing from - or will no longer hear from once they update their lists (seriously, only ever few weeks?). 

It's been like opening the windows and doors to get a draft moving, there is space for the spirit to blow through.

Irritations. Unsubscribes that ask you to check which email you used. Unsubscribes that take you through multiple screens to be "sure" you want off. Notes saying it might take a few weeks to update your preferences. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Gardens and saints

Yesterday, on the feast of St. Mary of Magdala, I went for a walk in a nearby public garden with a friend. Because of course a garden is where two women should go to talk about the Gospel.

It was lushly humid. The grounds are full of little delights. I loved the cross hatch pattern in the fountain, and was so enamoured of its symmetry, I didn't notice that the "rocks" in the pool are actually carved heads. And why had I never before noticed there were spikes on day lilies?

This is a garden to listen to, as well as see. The outlet from the pond burbles, the cicadas wail, and the cypress whisper in the breeze. 

We talked about Ignatius and the Exercises and praying with all your senses. It was a walk that tasted of salt, so full of flavor, and of bread, rising in the heat of the day.

I kept wondering if we'd turn a corner and find Monet painting water lilies,  or Jesus in his gardening hat harvesting the squash in the vegetable garden.

The photograph of the orchids in my blog header is from another botanical garden, in Singapore. I took a taxi after a day's work to walk that garden in the late evening, so much of my experience of that garden was of sound and scent, of footsteps on the path muffled by the humidity.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The font of all holiness

Water. A pleasant coolness in the heat. Relief from thirst. A sluicing mercy after a long hot walk. 

Every time I walked into my parish church, I dipped my hand into the font at the door and make the sign of the cross. The same font both my sons were baptized in. The same font friends were baptized in, six, seven, eight decades ago. I love the expansiveness of it all, a deep bowl of fresh water set into the century-old marble font — not some barely damp, crumbling, mildewed, amber sponge tucked into a tiny shell screwed to the wall. You could wash your hands in this font or give a baby a bath in it, reach in and splash cool water on your face. A reservoir of mercy. 

But now. The font is dry. We wave our hands under a spout and with a burr and a buzz, hand sanitizer spits forth. At least 60% ethanol — is that by mass, by volume? By volume, says WHO. This is our communion hymn now, burr, buzz, burr, buzz. Amen. I rub it on my hands, its sharp scent carrying memories of hospital visits. The church is a field hospital says Pope Francis. And so, this too, is a font of mercy.

Photo is from Japan. You wash your hands and rinse your mouth before entering a temple.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

120 days, 120 miles

Crash and The Boy are off. Crash is back to work, for a short stint at least, and The Boy is off to graduate school at Large University Math Department. Our nest is once again empty.

Crash arrived here in mid-March, his job having evaporated, his apartment sublet. We made up the guest room for him, and he organized us. The glass board in the hallway became the call board with the weekly dinner and baking schedule on it and everyone's "call times" on it. Classes, recording sessions, meetings. The signs of the times on our doors: "Meeting in progress." "Recording!" "Door closed to keep cat out."

He left us far more organized than when he arrived. My basement pantry is sorted. The basement and garage organized. My kitchen cabinets! Nothing like someone who is a  professional stage manager to organize your process and your props.

It was a mixed blessing, to have my adult son back with us. I treasured all those hours tackling cooking projects with him, the random conversations. The planters on the back porch he helped me plant are a riot of blooms. But this time meant his professional life was in stasis, certainly nothing I could have wished for him. So after 120 days, we got into my Mini and drove 120 miles to a job in Brooklyn. A suitcase, a bag of groceries and his backpack and he was off.  I'm grateful for both the coming and the going.

And then I drove 120 miles back. Through a nightmare tangle of traffic. And in a moment of madness, Google routed me from Brooklyn across Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, only to bring me to an intersection where you could see the entrance to the tunnel directly ahead, but not get into it. There was a (permanent) barrier. Forced to turn left with a pack of other presumably misled people, the re-routing said it would add 30 more minutes to my drive to circle around to the actual entrance. But at the next intersection, a kind NYPD traffic cop rolled his eyes, stopped two lanes of traffic and waved me right into the onramp to the tunnel. My gratitude was without bounds. 

Meanwhile The Boy was packing a UHaul with a vintage blackboard (math, you need a good board to think on), his trusty KitchenAid and a new queen bed. Between finishing a master's degree and a two year high school teaching stint and the start of grad school, he's been baking for social change. The local radio did a piece on his bake sale, part of series on Philly's grit and grace. 

Grit and grace and gratitude. Words to live by.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Dystopia or utopia? Mixed graces

I was the altar server at last night's vigil Mass, the first time I'd served since the parish had shut down due to the coronavirus. Waiting in the back chapel to process out onto the altar was like walking through an abandoned city. A breviary left on a chair, ribbons marking a Lenten Friday. A copy of my Lenten book, tucked on a shelf, awaiting the elderly man who left it there for the next morning's meditation.

Clad in an alb and a blue surgical mask, my glasses fogged over, alone in a chair set far back from the altar,  made it feel even more like I was in a bad SF movie. Would I look down at my hands and see some alien fungus suddenly sprouting there?

Despite this, the church felt safe and inviting. Every window and door open (yes, even in this heat and humidity) gave us a soundtrack. Trains passed twenty-feet away, birds chirped, rain briefly pounded down, leaves stirred in the breeze. It wasn't distracting so much as the contrast intensified the silence within. 

The church's architecture is such that with the doors and windows open it felts as if the church's vault is suspended a few feet off the ground. We were entirely contained in God.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Other worlds

I'm re-reading Joe Haldeman's Worlds trilogy, which is set inside a captured asteroid (and features carbonaceous chondrites — a type of meteorite). This brilliant GIF from Jacint Roger Perez transported me to the surface of Comet 67P. It feels like the opening to a SF/horror flick, where the next shot will be the inside of an isolated research station on the surface of the comet. Two scientists will be having coffee and shooting the breeze, and suddenly....

the room will shudder
one of them will say, "what's that anomaly on the screen?" and hit the top of the display
there will be a pounding on the wall
an alien with many teeth will come up through the floor
something will start oozing from a cabinet

Chose your own adventure.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

A feel for God

In a draft left abandoned last December, I mused about a Augustinian friend's homily on reading the lives of the saints, particularly their everyday lives. It gives you a feel for how God works in the world, he said. I thought about this off and on throughout the day. It's another riff on Ignatius' sense of "God in all things."

How do we sharpen our senses, get a feel for God? The Exercises are one way, but how do we keep stretching what we've developed. In that season of births and epiphanies, it made sense that I was thinking about how we practice spotting God-with-us. Now I'm thinking about it again in these extraordinary moments of Ordinary Time, where my world has shrunk to a circle with a diameter of how far I can walk in 30 minutes.

This morning, as I walked the same loop I've walked for the last 3 months, I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye, as if there were jewels scattered on the ground. I stopped, looked closed, to see only the patch of weeds growing at the side of the road. Two more steps back and suddenly, for just a second, there they were again. The sun, at just the right angle, turned the last drops of this morning's rain into a panoply of diamonds scattered over the crabgrass. 

I lay your pavements in carnelians, your foundations in sapphires — Isaiah 54:11

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Lost poem

I've lost a poem, not a poem of my own, 
not a poem whose lines have wound themselves 
into my soul — but a poem that could own me.

It was fleeting, in my stream for a moment. 
Keep it, the thought flickered, but I swept past. Now

           My hands are bloody from digging...

If I could pull it from the sky even 
one shattered fragment.

Her words, for I am certain it was her words, embedded in her stream. 

Still. I can remember only one word: Dakota
And that it made the ordinary sacred.

Saturday, July 04, 2020


What's on the side table this week?  

Prayer: A history by Carol and Philip Zaleski. I'm heartened that someone was willing to tackle a subject like the history of prayer in one volume. So maybe I can say something worthwhile in a single book. 

Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis. I'm still struck that it took me so many years (forty!) to discover C.S. Lewis' full name. Clive, it's Clive Staples Lewis. I'm also enjoying the layers of snark in these epistles on prayer to the fictional Malcolm. I also appreciate the genius of the little interjections that put flesh on Malcolm's bones. Seriously, I continue to worry that we take prayer both too seriously and not seriously enough.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang. A collection of SF shorts, the title story (which I've yet to read) dances around the 2nd Law of thermodynamics. I was riveted by "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny" and intrigued by the story about the digients and the life cycle of a software object. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

I write like...

Found on Twitter, an algorithm to match writing to other authorial styles. So who do I write like? Depends. Margaret Atwood (Ordinary Jewels) but not Margaret Atwood in this riff off Margaret Atwood's Solstice, then it is Chuck Palahniuk. The Nature Chemistry pieces apparently echo Arthur C. Clarke.

Maybe I just write like myself.

Friday, June 26, 2020


This is the solstice, the still point
of the sun, its cusp and midnight,
the year’s threshold
and unlocking, where the past
lets go of and becomes the future;
the place of caught breath, the door
of a vanished house left ajar. — Margaret Atwood  in Shapechangers in Winter

The solstice comes twice a year. At this cusp, my face is turned toward sabbatical. At the next, tipped back to the classrooom. It is, for now, a place of caught breath, simultaneously midnight and high noon. Everything bright and in sharp focus, everything yet dim and enshrouded.

The door is ajar, I wonder what will come in.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Ordinary jewels

Larve acquatiche di tricotteri con guscio
I recently ran across the work of Hubert Duprat, a French sculptor who collaborates with caddisfly larvae (yes, you read that correctly, caddsifly larvae) to create jeweled carapaces. I'm inspired by the caddisflies, who build their houses out of whatever is to hand, whether it's gold and pearls, or sticks and bits from the shells of dead snails. 

I'm working on a couple of pieces on prayer, one very short, one long. The writing has me thinking about how I sometimes complicate prayer, wanting to dress it up and take it out to some beautiful chapel, and waltz with it in down the cool and dark nave. But perhaps I need to take a few lessons from the caddisfly larvae and be willing to gather into my prayer whatever is at hand, precious or not. The weeds growing through the stones on the back patio, the scream of the lawn mower next door, my own inattention. And just perhaps, in that gathering I might realize just how precious those bits are.

More pictures here

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

All the books

Books pulled for the prayer book project.
In some sense a sabbatical is a period of rest, like a field left fallow for one year, or one semester, in every seven. And after this last semester, I am truly longing for some time off the keyboard and away from Zoom. But in another sense, it's a time for planting, for tending new shoots, for testing new varieties. It's a time of growth.

A colleague asked me what I was most excited about reading, now that my sabbatical is here. Reading fuels my writing, it brings me into conversations I might otherwise never have, it's a launching pad.  A reader also wondered what I was reading these days, so herewith is a sampling of what's currently open, and some random thoughts. I'll try to post a weekly list.

The Psalms, a new translation from the Hebrew: arranged for singing to the psalmody of Joseph Gelineau. I'm working on a short book on prayer, meant to be used by individuals or in a parish or similar setting. Sort of a retreat in a box. Add time and perhaps someone to reflect with or a journal and voilà, a retreat.  The book kicks off with the Psalms, praying with them, plumbing their depths for advice on prayer. So I've been reading The Psalms, straight through, in the Grail translation that's currently used in the Liturgy of the Hours. One line, almost any line, drives me straight into the Hours. These are words that are etched deeply in mind, heart, soul and body. I can hear the voices of those I've prayed with over the last thirty years layered over the bare words.  I can hear the melodies and chant tones I've sung them to, the words nearly dancing on the page. I recall when the monk next to me used to breathe in a long verse. I can see the places where I've prayed them. My back stoop, my parents' garden, the Eastern cloister at Wernersville, the small chapel at the parish, airports and emergency rooms. Like Lewis' wardrobe, I open the book and am transported. I open any page and, to quote Buechner, am "riven by unbearable light."

The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age by Robert Wicks. I thought this might inspire me to organize my office. It's a challenging text, with whiffs of Johannes Baptiste Metz' Poverty of Spirit. To be humble, you cannot even hang on to the notion of humility as something to be attained. It tastes of St. Romuald — "Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother gives him." — but also like Catherine of Siena. “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” The text is rather heavy on male authorities.

The Collapsing Empire series by John Scalzi. Oh, this was a wild and fabulous read. I tore through all three books. I didn't (quite) see the end coming, or perhaps it wasn't the end I wanted to come, but in the end it was the ending that was right and true. Math Man, Crash and my youngest devoured the series as well. It features strong women characters, one of whom falls in love with a mathematician. So, you can see why it might appeal around here.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi A beautifully written book that is as challenging as the Metz' Poverty of Spirit and in many of the same ways. You are not the center. This is my second go round with this book, and it's very much worth the revisit.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Sit in your cell

Friday was the feast of St. Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese Benedictines. Romuald's rule was simple:

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.

If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.

I'm starting a sabbatical leave this week, six months of sitting in my cell — my study at home. I had many plans to physically travel over this period, but now am going to listen to Romuald's advice, and sit here, as though it were paradise, singing the Psalms in my heart, as I still can't in community. No guilt if my mind wanders off to the cardinal flirting with me from the pear tree, or the surprisingly cool caress of a morning breeze.

First up - a short book on prayer.

What happens when your plans burn to the ground? Read Pico Iyer's' piece in Granta: Out of the Cell 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Prayers for wearing a face mask

At PrayTell, Rita Ferrone has written a beautiful prayer for the blessing of face masks. 

As I sat in the back of church on Saturday, I wondered about prayers for the wearing of a face mask. They can be hot and uncomfortable, and I wear one not directly for my own well-being, but for the well-being of others. It's a cross we carry for others, should we not embrace the chance? 

Herewith, my prayer for the donning of a face mask.

Holy Spirit, whose very breath brought creation into existence,

Grant me the grace to wear this mask, with all its discomforts and inconveniences, in wisdom and charity. Help me to bear this cross which I carry for the most vulnerable among us. Hold us all close in your care and bring this pandemic to a swift end. 


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Corpus Christi

Pomona College's Glee at St. Peter's in Rome.
It is the vigil of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ — Corpus Christi — and I went to Mass. In almost any other year, this would be unremarkable.

Four years ago, I celebrated Corpus Christi twice. Once in a diocese that hadn't transferred it to the Sunday, and then again, on Sunday in St. Peter's in Rome, weeping as I listened to my son (and his college choir) sing Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus and stretched out my hands between earth and heaven to receive the Body, if not the Blood, of Christ. This year, I wondered if I would receive communion at all.

My parish returned to the public celebration of the Eucharist. So instead of curling up in a chair with my iPad and headphones, I rode my bike, donned a mask, purified my hands with Purell and went to the vigil Mass. No singing, but with every window and door open, the music was beautiful nonetheless. The birds were in fine voice, the percussion section well served by the cars driving over the bridge, with a whoosh and a clang. No entrance gong or hymn, but someone's phone went off as the cross ducked under the lintel of the sacristy door. The altar, our altar, firmly planted in the world.

No Byrd this year as I went up, hands open to receive what I have been longing for all these weeks, just a quick whisper of my name to let me know it was my turn. I still wept.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Space race

Black and white photograph of Mary Sherman Morgan from the 1950s. A woman with short hair and glasses.
Mary Sherman Morgan, circa 1950s
I've been doing a lot of Netflix binging in the last few months, in part because I've been so exhausted at the end of a day that I just collapse into a chair and let the images go past. #pandemic 

Having Crash with us has expanded our repertoire. This week, we've been watching the comedy Space Force. (I'm a space nerd, so have also lately dipped into The Expanse and Avenue Five. If it's set in space, I'll give it a spin.) Space Force cuts awfully close to the bone, what I might five years ago have considered satire now just replays the real news of the day.

The last episode we watched featured character Edison Jaymes, a Goop-ish woman entrepreneur whose fuel is supposed to burn more completely and energetically, solving a problems she says, that the male scientists have been unable to.

 Spoiler. The fuel is a fake and they launch to the moon with the standard fuel.

What struck me about this is that this story line is also ripped from the news, but in real life, the fuel that the male scientists designed was the failure. In 1958, after a number of notable and embarrassing launch failures, chemist Mary Sherman Morgan designed the fuel (Hydyne) that would successfully carry the first US satellite to orbit. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

The ratio

"The ratio" on Twitter is the ratio of replies to likes: when replies far outpace likes, the tweet is radioactive. The ratio here is the time it takes to prepare dinner to the time it takes to eat it. It's been running between 4 and 5. In large part this is because we've been making more things from scratch than I usually do. Loaves of bread, tortillas, pizza sauce, pasta. Things I often buy without a second thought.

I've been doing more from scratch for a lot of reasons. It's given me family time, cooking alongside Crash has been a delight. I've learned new recipes and new techniques from him, including a great chickpea stew. It's been some alone time as well, a time off Zoom and my email and all the management I've been doing for classes and colleagues. It's been contemplative time, kneading a ball of pasta for 8 minutes is deeply prayerful, at least for me. It's a way to leave loaves of bread and boxes of pasta on the grocery store shelf for those who need them.

It's a reminder, too, of what it takes to put food on the table, not just the cost in dollars, but the cost in time. A homemade loaf of bread costs me just 80 cents, far less than what a similar loaf would cost in the store, and not quite half the cost of a loaf of sliced white bread costs at the Acme here. But thrifty cooking takes time and energy, both of which I am privileged to have.

My awareness is all well and good, but as Pope Francis notes in Laudato Si', the goal is "to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."[19] I'm not suffering when I bake my own bread, but if the experience doesn't lead me to discover what I can do about the reality of hunger in my own community, in my own nation, then the awareness, painful or not, is for naught.

The ten most needed items at Philadelphia food banks. More than 200,000 children in Philadelphia go hungry. Roughly 80% of adults who are food insecure are working, 25% are senior citizens. Hunger is linked to our society's unwillingness to pay a living wage to those who work.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

A strong driving wind

What might the Holy Spirit be stirring within you? from Society of the Holy Child Jesus on Vimeo.

“…suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind…
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:2a,4a

Listen to the air around you. Hear the strong wind that heralds a storm. Strain your ears until you catch a faint rustling in the leaves, the beginning of a summer breeze. Feel the rushing air that announces the subway’s arrival. Pay close attention to the bubbles that rock the lid of a pot on the stove, making it sing.

Listen to the whole reflection...and breathe!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Breathe in Easter

From Not By Bread Alone, 2018

“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.”  Ps 118:17

While Handel’s Hallelujah chorus with its glittering brass glissades and pounding drums may be the iconic grand Easter chorus, for me it is Eric Whitacre’s lush and complex choral setting of the single word “alleluia,” that sings of the resurrection. The chorus begins so softly, I’m never sure quite when the piece begins, or if that breath of an alleluia is only in my mind.  Soon the alleluias swell and fade in waves. At last the sopranos hit a note almost impossibly high, swirling over the rest until a tenor solo breaks in. Alleluia. This is how I imagine the resurrection, Jesus taking that first uncertain breath, his chest barely rising and falling, his breathing gradually growing in strength and regularity, until the Spirit breathes onto him, calling his voice forth again. Alleluia. This is the resurrection as I imagine it.  No trumpets, no great beams of light, simply God breathing unto God in one unbroken line of praise.  Alleluia.  He is risen. Alleluia. We are risen. Alleluia.  You will rise again. Alleluia, alleluia, an infinity of alleluias.

St. John of the Cross, expanding on his Spiritual Canticle, writes of the soul “catching its breath in God.”  God breathes into us, fashioning us in the image and likeness of the Trinity.  We breathe that same air of love back into God.  To use Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ’s powerful image from his poem, “Easter Communion,” we who have kept vigil are now breathing Easter, catching our breath again in the resurrection, brought to life from Lent’s ashes. 

We breathe in to live, we breathe out to speak, to sing, to pray.  It is an ordinary miracle we have been given. No trumpets, no gold clad angelic choruses descending to earth, simply God’s breath ever in our mouths, God’s breath ever in our souls.  Let us ever and always, breathe Easter.  Alleluia. Alleluia!

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy.
Guard me, O Holy Spirit, that I myself may always be holy.
— St. Augustine of Hippo