Thursday, August 24, 2023

Indexing habits


I just finished Dennis Duncan's Index, a History of The: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. It was a great read, accessible and with lots of lovely word play to enjoy. I enjoyed his capacious definition of an index, large enough to encompass the arrangement of kitchen cabinets to allow its users to reliably locate items. I reflected to Math Man that we use that sort of index when we are at the shore. There is always a designated key and beach pass bowl established near the door. Going out for an early morning pastry run? No need to shake out everyone's pockets looking for one of the two sets of keys we were issued, they are in the bowl. 

These days I leave my phone in the bowl, too. Mostly. Today after a long beach ramble I put it down on my shoes while I unlocked the door, thinking to myself, "Don't leave it here!" Door open, I dropped the keys in the bowl. Two hours later, headed to lunch, I grabbed the keys and wondered where I left my phone...argh. On my shoes. Outside the door.

Practice good indexing habits!

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Sensible of conditions

I looked out at the beach yesterday, the water dotted with white caps, sand shimmying itself into tiny dunes and turned to Crash, "Did they teach you the Beaufort scale?" (He is taking a sailing course in London this summer.) He checks the waves and says, "Beaufort 6?" "It's been too long since I thought about it," I admitted.

The Beaufort scale describes the intensity of the wind in terms of observable conditions. Beaufort 0 is so calm that smoke rises vertically.  At Beaufort 2 the leaves can be heard to rustle and you can feel the breeze on your face. Beaufort 6 is a "strong breeze" in which it is hard to raise an umbrella, and white caps are widespread on the waves.

If I wanted to know the current wind speed at the nearby weather station I could check my phone, but there is something about being sensible of the conditions where I am standing that I find appealing. It calls me to be present, to listen and to look and to feel what is around me.

For the record, the conditions were Beaufort 5, a fresh breeze, windspeed 20 mph. Crash and Math Man demonstrate!

Tuesday, August 22, 2023


Should I spend some time this morning working on my syllabus? It's a cool day at the beach and perhaps that is why I am feeling the tug of the school year. Or perhaps it's because I read an opinion piece in The Atlantic that claims the syllabus is dead. (Because you can make an update-able electronic version? Because now it's customary to put a lot of policies on it, which somehow dilutes the scholarly value of the reading list and schedule?)  

I am trying to resist. I have been seriously unbusy for the last 10 days, leaning into the joy of being away where I can't clear off my desk or tidy the living room. Savoring the time with family. Burrowing into books old and new. Writing purely for pleasure. 

The pull of the new academic year is a bit like the tide, swelling and ebbing on an immutable schedule. Today at 1:09 pm the tide will peak. On Wednesday, September 6th at 1:10 pm, I will stand up and welcome a physical chemistry class bursting at the seams. Resistance is futile.

Monday, August 21, 2023


I am recreating. I am down at the New Jersey shore, ocean breezes blowing through the door, the susurration of the surf punctuated by the shrill shrieks of sea gulls excited by the potential snacks being toted onto the beach to keep toddlers (and teens and twenty-something offspring and their parents) from getting peckish. 

I have read six books, walked miles each day unplugged from books or podcasts or the news, floated in the sea, eaten ice cream, laughed with my kids until the tears ran down my face, lingered over dinner at an outdoor cafe. Soaked in grace until the creakiness of the summer’s push to finish the book (and several other projects) eases. Reminded that at my core I am a human being, and not a human do-er.  I feel re-created.

Classes begin in just over two weeks, the start of my 39th year as a college professor, my 61st “first day of school”. I always imagine the entry to the new school year will be gentle, the air faintly crisp at the end of the day. And always somehow surprised when it is comes in hot, afterburners roaring. All the more reason to dump as much heat as I can this week.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Two universes

I started The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz last night. It's about a couple who meet online but turn out to be living in (slightly) different universes. In another timestream Tom and I would be married 42 years today. A friend who was married a week before we were posted a picture from their wedding a few days ago. In the background was Tom, who had been a groomsman. It was if he had casually dropped into my universe for a second, to say hello.

The story is leaving me to wonder a bit what my life would have been like in that other universe. Would that Michelle be here at the shore this week? Might I run into her on my morning walk, when for a brief second the two universes intersect? Or catch her out of the corner of my eye? 

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Ferragosto and the wedding of the sea

It is the feast of the Assumption, Ferragosto in Rome. This year I am down at the beach, where it is just as hot and humid as the last time I was in Rome for the Assumption. The church here is air conditioned, unlike the church in Albano, and the cool Atlantic waters offer sweet relief after a walk. Like Albano, church bells have been ringing all day here. To call the faithful to Mass. And the carillon currently playing an eclectic mix of patriotic songs and hymns (none of them Marian).

The tradition here is to bless the ocean, then take a dip to share in the blessing -- before the grace evaporates at midnight. The water was a bit rough, but then grace can be rough at times, too. I made sure to get in the water. The bishop starts in Atlantic City and finishes in Wildwood, it seems, so the entire Jersey shore gets a share in the grace. 

I finished Velvet the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It was a riveting read, with enough unanticipated twists and turns to occasionally make me gasp. (I could almost taste the tortas in the little cafe in Mexico City, so tried the local tacqueria for dinner.) Finished Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves (a re-read). Dug into Frederick Buechner's The Remarkable Ordinary, which is remarkable and not in the least ordinary. Downloaded The Impossible Us to start.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Write a book for you?

I kept getting these sorts of emails while I was  actually writing the book for my UK based publishing company. They did not all go to junk!

I love the line, "Last but not least, after the publication of your book, it will be published in Google News, Yahoo, and other major news channels. What more can you ask for?"

What more, indeed.

Dear Dr. Michelle Francl,

I am ....., Editorial assistant from UK based publishing company, contacting you with the reference from our editorial department. Basing on your outstanding contribution to the scientific community, we would like to write a book for you.

Researchers like you are adding so much value to the scientific community, yet you are not getting enough exposure. No matter how many papers you publish in famous journals, you will be still unknown to common people. To solve this problem, we came up with this unique solution.

With our book writing service, we will write your research contributions in common man’s language. We will also include all your published papers into this book in a way that a common man can understand it. And then, we will publish your book with our publishing group. Before, publication, we will send the draft to you for scientific accuracy, once you approve our draft, we then proceed for publication. You will get all the rights of your book, and all the sales generated from your book will be credited to you.

Your book will then be listed on famous websites like Amazon, eBay, Goodreads, and many other popular book websites. As a result, you will get good credit and people will recognize your hard work and your scientific contributions.

Last but not least, after the publication of your book, it will be published in Google News, Yahoo, and other major news channels. What more can you ask for?

All we need is your book writing contract, and you will get all the rights for your book.

Will be waiting to hear from you.

Best Regards,

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Done is good

It’s a book! The manuscript for Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea has been dispatched (virtually, a zip file dropped into the publisher’s dropbox). Math Man captured the moment for me. I read some 500 papers, drank 400+ cups of tea, made about 100 chemical figures and gathered it all together into what will become a 150-ish page book early next year. The final paper copy of the manuscript weighs just over 700 grams — printing it out for a last read made it feel very real. Paper has more heft than electrons. (Yes, I realize there are a lot of electrons holding that paper together!)

“Done is good!” is what students and faculty say at Bryn Mawr to encourage each other to finish something. It may not be perfect (should I have written more about matcha? Or about wind ovens and samovars? Maybe.), but it is finished. And done feels very good! So I am off on two weeks of vacation, with some time to read things unrelated to tea. (First up, Velvet is the Night, a very noir novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia set in 70s Mexico. I spent a summer there in 1973, so the setting really comes to life for me. I adored her Mexican Gothic, and some 60 pages into Velvet I am entranced.)