Sunday, August 07, 2022

The realms of the unwinking gods

“The first cup moistens my lips and throat. The second shatters my loneliness. The third causes the wrongs of life to fade gently from my recollection. The fourth purifies my soul. The fifth lifts me to the realms of the unwinking gods.”

– a mystic of the Tang Dynasty

I noted I haven’t posted for than a month. I’m all recovered from COVID, but have been writing like a fiend to make up for lost time (also another conference, but that’s another post). By the end of the day, I’m all out of words and ready to be off the keyboard.

I’m working a book called Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea. I knew the chemistry was rich, but as I have done the research, I’m discovering just how incredibly rich and varied it is. The downside to friends and family, poke me and I disgorge odd facts about chemistry and tea. Tea is big source of dietary aluminum and fluoride and their uptake is linked. Caffeine is made from the rubble of a tea plant’s DNA and RNA (adenine and guanine). The gene for caffeine synthesis has been identified and genetics knock-outs made for coffee (but not tea)….ok I’ll stop now!

The quote from the unknown mystic is the epigraph for one of the chapters. I’m holding it to one cup of tea a day, since I’d rather not be unwinking come the wee hours of the night.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Vital signs


I went to my first in-person conference since the pandemic began last week. It was small, we shared many meals together. It also appears that we might have shared COVID with each other. Two days after the conference concluded I got an email saying I’d been a close contact of someone who had tested positive for COVID. I had mild symptoms, so tested. Negative, whew. Just my usual talked too much in loud spaces croakiness.

A day later, feeling like an old late night commercial for Ginzu knives — “now, with more symptoms!” — I tested again.  Two bright pink lines appeared on my home test. Positively positive.

I felt pretty lousy for the rest of the week, with all the misery a high fever brings. I was grateful for the vaccines, which likely kept me from being much sicker. And for space to isolate at home. 

The NHS has a helpful diary for tracking the course of a COVID infection. Space is allotted to record your temperature and pulse oximeter reading three times a day. It was helpful to see when I’d been “fever-free” for more than 24 hours. Crash is always about creating the right paperwork for a project. As useful as the log was, it needed some tweaks.  I needed a column for tissues used (so many tissues, the first few days reminded me of when the kids had RSV) and for my Wordle score.

Fever is gone, pulse ox is (and always was) fine, tissue use down to zero, Wordle scores improved. I declare I am on the mend. And keeping to the theme of the NHS, I’m taking the sea air to convalesce. (This was a planned trip, and since I’m past the 5 days and symptom free, other than tired, we have gone. Regardless, I drove a separate care down, and I’m wearing a mask around Math Man and not contacting others.)

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Praying with a cardinal

 …and a squirrel, a chipmunk, and various bugs. The weather has been just perfect these last few days to sit outside to pray and work. I’ve written a talk for an upcoming conference on Complexity, Simplicity and Emergence (the Fourth Annual Thomistic Philosophy and Natural Science Symposium in DC). I’ve read papers and a book and enjoyed some peaceful time in prayer. It’s been amazingly restorative.

Sunday I was interrupted mid-psalm by a quiet chittering. From the cover of the flower bed under the cherry tree that canopies the back patio emerged a squirrel. It scampered up the trunk and then froze, it had seen me. We were eye to eye. And it was terrified. I could see its heart pounding in its chest. I froze, too. We were in a stand off. Finally it decided that retreat was called for and bounded up the tree, across the branches to the pear tree, then danced down the electric wire to vanish into my neighbor’s yard. 

I wonder how often I am startled by God as I dash about, or am I like the squirrel, too intent on my own projects to notice whose garden I’m in? And would I be as terrified as the squirrel if I recognized who I was eye to eye with in prayer?

Saturday, June 04, 2022

Soul Cycles

My first bike was blue. I was six. It was a bit like Eve and the apple. It was the gift of knowledge and of freedom. Eventually the freedom to ride to the library, which in those pre-internet days was a door to a vast storehouse of knowledge, or to see a friend who lived on a nearby farm. It was also the freedom to sin. Do not ride to your friend’s house for a sleepover, it’s going to rain. The bike will rust. But I was determined to fly up the street with my sleeping bag and PJs and toothbrush in the basket. And…it did rain. And there were ever-after little flecks of rust on my shiny fenders. Like the black spots on the milk bottles we were told represented our souls. Except confession didn’t remove them. My parents grounded me for a week, no bike. 

I thought about that rainy day on Thursday. I had a meeting at the parish at 3:30. The forecast called for rain, maybe. Should I ride? No, says my youngest, before he drove off. But I’ve been trying to bike whenever and wherever I can, in part as my response to climate change. I am lucky to live nearby work and the grocery store and the parish. And I have a shiny new bike (my 5th ever) that won’t rust in the rain. I checked the radar — clear — and the forecast said rain after 6 pm. So off I rode. The pastor joined us about 5, agreed with our plan and then said, “Boy, is it pouring!”  Deluging. Now the forecast said 15 minutes more rain, then a 17 minute break. No lightning. It was warm. Six minutes, mostly downhill. Could I do it?

I went for it. I rode home in the rain. Which indeed stopped and started on schedule. My bike bags kept computer and papers and phone dry. The rest of me? Soaked. But as Chesterton was wont to say “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered." This was indeed an adventure.

And baptismal, as in total immersion. Perhaps my sin is finally forgiven.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Op-ed: Praying to change


I was kneeling after communion on Ascension Thursday (yes, still Thursday in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia) when my watch tapped me to let me know I had a text. I ignored it. I was praying and while I believe God from time to time answers my prayers, I was (fairly) certain God wasn’t texting me.

When Mass ended I checked my watch to see I had a photo of Ted Cruz sent from my youngest kid. Huh? Then I realized that it must be my op-ed, written for the Philadelphia paper. On what we might be praying for when we say “thoughts and prayers” in these horrific moments.

So what was I praying for as I knelt there, moments after holding the Body of Christ in my hands? For the parents and children whose lives and bodies had been torn apart shot from a gun that no one outside the military should have. That their parents might have the strength to watch their children’s bodies taken away from them for the last time. For the teachers who stood in front of their students, for the teachers who wonder if they will ever be in that position. For the courage to keep saying what we would prefer to cloak in euphemisms. For the persistence to keep calling my representatives, both state and federal and tell them what my thoughts and prayers are.

Various people have written to say that the piece has encouraged them to persist in the face of what seems like an intractable problem. Others have written to tell me who to blame. It’s the fault of the parents who failed to take their marriage vows seriously (seriously? Seriously!). Or of universities. Or mental illness. Or, or, or…

Please I pray, let us persist. Call your representatives — that matters. Write them and if you want a copy of my op-ed to send, you can find it here:

Or I send me an email and I’ll send you a PDF.