Friday, February 27, 2009

Ash Wednesday-- three short comments and one longer one

1) I've been trying to cut down on the Internet for Lent. Turns out, if I keep myself strictly to what I consider a not-indecent amount of time to spend on the computer in one day... it leaves me absolutely no time to blog. :P

2) First meal of the first day of Lent. I unwrapped my Promax bar (the nutty butter crunch flavor is really tasty) and sat on a couch in our lab's coffee room, in a meditative mood. As planned, I had no book or Internet to amuse me; I could spend my entire (small) breakfast thinking of God. So I ate slowly, and as I finished off the last bites, I realized... that I'd spent the entire time studying the nutrition facts on the wrapper. It's such a force of habit to read while eating that I can't remember not to do it even when I'm remembering not to do it!

3) On Ash Wednesday I went to one regular Mass and one in the Extraordinary Form. Both Masses were good. In the NO Mass we got ashed at the end; in the traditional Latin rite the priest crossed all the foreheads with ashes right at the beginning before the Mass even started. I liked this much better, because it kept the main focus not on receiving ashes but on receiving the Eucharist.

Speaking of that...

4) My parish is right in the middle of a Hispanic neighborhood, and Ash Wednesday is the big day for Spanish-speaking Catholics, bigger than Christmas or Easter. So the schedule is as follows: Masses at 6 am, 8 am, 12 noon, and 8 pm. From 3 pm to 8 pm there are half-hour services, with a short sermon and the distribution of ashes, every half hour. For each of these services, they let folks in till the church is full (and it's a large church), then lock the doors, have the service, and let everyone out by the back doors while the new shift crowds in the front. So a whole heck of a lot of people come to church that day. Now why do so many people want to get ashes if they don't bother to obey any of the precepts of the Church, like, say, the one about coming to Mass every Sunday? I don't know, but I was talking with an LC priest tonight who assured me that some believe if they don't get their ashes, and they die before the next Ash Wednesday, they'll go to Hell. Strange that someone can get that belief fixed firmly in his head but not have room for some things the Church actually teaches... A new acquaintance said she saw a man at the 7-11 with the ash cross on his forehead and a hot dog in his hand. (Catholics aren't required to go to Mass or get ashes on Ash Wednesday, but they are required to fast and abstain from meat on that day.) Ah well. One cool thing about cultural Catholicism is that even someone who's otherwise far from the Church will still come one day a year. Gives our zealous priests a chance to preach it to them: "The ashes will not save you!"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Church Fathers Lenten Reading Plan

I've read many quotes from the early Church Fathers-- naturally, the excerpts that show how Catholic the early Church was-- but I have not read entire letters or sermons of theirs from beginning to end. So I was happy to be emailed this link today: a plan for reading through a few of the biggies in forty days, which supposedly takes only 10-15 minutes per day, and all the readings are online. Since I just quoted C.S. Lewis in my last post about reading old books, and since that quote came from a forward he wrote for a new translation of a work (On the Incarnation) by St. Athanasius, and since St. Athanasius is one of the Church Fathers on the list... well, I don't seem to have an excuse not try it.

More info about the various readings and their authors can be looked up in the online Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917.

By the way, how old do you imagine is the idea of fasting for forty days before Easter? I just learned that the first mention we have of it in writing comes from the Canons of Nicea in A.D. 325. Back then it was just for catechumens preparing for baptism at Easter, but soon it spread to the whole Church. But of course, the Bible also mentions forty-day fasts, by Elijah, Moses, and Jesus Himself.

May you all have a blessed Ash Wednesday!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Septuagesima ending, Lent beginning, a hymn, a C.S. Lewis quote, the last of the sweets, and gearing up to pray more

My schedule yesterday prevented me from going to any of the TLMs within two hours' driving distance. I was compensated by the birthday party of a friend who will be moving out of state soon (sniffle). It featured a cake she decorated herself; go here if you want to see what such a cake looks like with 27 lit candles stuck all over it like sea urchin spines.

I made some more Sprite cupcakes myself, a last hurrah before Lent. I don't propose to fast from sweets but it seems appropriate to at least cut down some on the goodies I've been making. All my dessert posts provoked a friend to email me: "Rachel, you do know that 'Mardi Gras' means 'Fat TUESDAY' not 'Fat MONTH,' don't you?"

So it was a fun day but as I was driving home from the party, I realized it just didn't feel like Sunday. I'd prayed the Office with some others and I'd gone to Mass at my home parish, and that's wonderful, but I do that every day. What sets Sunday apart is the traditional Latin Mass, which is longer and more beautiful and so conducive to worship that even if I'm not very well disposed when I walk into the church, before long my heart just gets seized and carried up to God. I try not to miss my Sunday TLM; if I do it'll be a whole long week before I have another chance to go.

So I'm thinking of driving down to San Diego on Wednesday. I hear traffic's awful at rush hour between LA and SD, but if I leave at 5:30 am I can probably make the 9 am Mass at St. Ann's, and I think that might be the closest place to find the Ash Wednesday Mass in the old rite (anyone know of a closer one???) I'll probably come to my senses before then. :)

Another reason I like the TLM is that it follows the old calendar, which has the season of Septuagesima, the three weeks of preparation for Lent. So Lent doesn't just spring itself on you at Ash Wednesday; you have time to consider your life and what you want to work on and what sort of penance you'll undertake. (Like giving up chocolate?)

And another reason is that the older prayers aren't shy about calling us all a bunch of sinners and begging God for mercy. The same is apparently true of the older breviary. Here's part of a translation of a Latin hymn for Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Lent):

The days of ease are about to close;
the days of holy observance are returning;
the time of temperance is at hand;
let us seek our Lord in purity of heart.

Our sovereign Judge will be
appeased by our hymns and praise.
He who would have us sue for grace,
will not refuse us pardon.

It's refreshing to read things like that, perhaps because talk of guilt and penance and our need to be forgiven and strive for purity are so very rare. Like I love rain because we hardly get any and we need it so much. We're warned that it's awful to feel guilty or say anything that might make others feel that way. But there never was a culture that needed that warning less than ours does. My thoughts about the old prayers are C.S. Lewis' thoughts about old books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.

Or, as Pius XII remarked, "The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin."

A year ago I wrote about visual prayer. Here's a possible subject for that: Christ in the Desert, by Ivan Kramskoy. It shows Jesus just before he began his public ministry, when he went out into the desert alone for forty days to fast and pray (and fight temptation). I love the picture. Compared to most religious art this looks so masculine and intense. Jesus' retired life of working as a carpenter is coming to an end, and he's about to leave his mother's home and call his disciples and set his first foot on a hard road that will lead three years later to the Cross. He looks like he's suffering, and he looks like he's not receiving many consolations in prayer, and he looks deadly determined. Just blogging this is making me realize that I do not meditate nearly enough on Jesus Himself, on his life as portrayed in the Gospels. How amazing is it that we have all those stories in which we see God in human form interacting with people who mostly don't know who He is, and we can actually read what He says and what He does? If that seems boring and you wish you were more interested, I recommend praying, "God, please make me care." I've had that prayer answered pretty spectacularly, though not instantaneously; it took time. Anyway, I definitely plan to meditate on this picture during Lent.

Macabre lab retreat

I admit I sort of threw in the word "macabre" to spice up the title, but it does vaguely apply by the end of the post. :)

So I had a busy weekend: all day Friday and Saturday I disported myself by the lovely bay you see pictured here. It's in Corona del Mar ("Crown of the Sea"), and you're looking at one of the views from the little red-roofed building below, which is a marine biology laboratory owned by Caltech, the college I work at. It's from here that a diver goes out regularly in the "research vessel" to fetch us fresh sea urchins.

Every year or so the members of my lab all head down here to talk about what we've been doing. It's always interesting to hear of others' results and new techniques, and during the coffee breaks we can step out the door onto the sand and enjoy the ocean. This year was especially good because there were 37 people participating, including former members and folks flying in from other states and countries. It was also good because I did not have to give a presentation. :)

For some reason every time my lab has a retreat, I get introspective. I suppose all the talks about what the lab is doing and where it's going make me think about what I'm doing and where I'm going, how long I've been working at Caltech and how long I might stay. On other retreats I've felt restless, but this time I was almost nostalgic. I'm glad after all that I'm still around after five years.

We had the inevitable moments during the talks when ego came to the fore. A few folks, provoked by contradiction, started trying to score points and show each other up. They must not realize how that comes off. What a counterproductive way to try to look smart, especially when someone older does it. Hasn't he outgrown that yet? I wondered when the usual person got angry. I think I could never marry a man with a bad temper, not because I couldn't handle being yelled at, but because I couldn't respect him.

(That reminds me of a statement I read once, though I don't know how true it is: "In an argument, women cry because they feel unloved, and men get angry because they feel disrespected.")

Anyway, one of the most interesting talks had nothing to do with our regular lab research. There's a professor among us who's just visiting to try out some things in sea urchins for a while. (I blogged about him once here.) I hadn't known before what his research is. It turns out that it has to do with birth defects. If I understood correctly, he's looking for a more effective way to test whether various medicines being developed will cause birth defects if taken by pregnant women.

The FDA requires new drugs to be tested in mammals before humans, but usually the mammals used for such studies are mice and rats. Problem: some drugs (like aspirin) cause birth defects in mice and rats but not humans, and other drugs (like thalidomide) cause birth defects in humans but not mice or rats. Monkeys would be a much more accurate test, but they're difficult to use for all sorts of reasons.

So this professor (let's call him Erik) is investigating the possibility of testing drugs at a molecular level rather than at the phenotypic level. If a mouse is born missing a leg, that's an obviously deformed phenotype. But a drug that causes no obvious deformity may still be messing with the gene interactions inside the mouse. If you could detect the messed-up molecular interactions, you'd know the new drug might be dangerous for humans even if it doesn't create two-headed mice.

But apparently all this is hard to test in mice, since mammals are complicated. Sea urchins are simpler and easy to work with and they still share a lot of genes with humans. And since Erik's looking for molecular changes and not phenotypic changes, it doesn't much matter that a sea urchin's anatomy is nothing like a human's. So Erik came to Caltech to expose sea urchin embryos to various weird drugs and see how that would throw things off, with a view to developing an informative way to test new drugs in sea urchins.

That's what the talk was about, assuming I didn't misinterpret him (I was tired). I think it's a fascinating idea. But it really didn't need the illustrations. Erik had enhanced his PowerPoint show with many dreadful pictures of newborns with birth defects. I had a split-second's warning: "Don't show us any gross pictures!" said our boss, and Erik's reaction indicated he was going to do just that, and I looked down just before he changed the slide. In peripheral vision I saw a baby, and I could tell that there was something severely wrong with his face. But I'm happy to say I've no idea what it was. I only know that the entire room reacted with loud cries of horror. And so on for the next six pictures or so. They weren't all in a row, either, but interspersed with some harmless slides of graphs, so every time Erik changed a slide I had to look down, just in case.

It's funny because Erik has a lugubrious expression, a bald head, staring deep-set eyes, a vulture-like neck, and a very quiet, slow manner about him. He is just the sort of person you'd imagine would gaze unblinkingly at sadly deformed babies. Well, someone's got to do it, and I'm glad it's him and not me-- may his research be useful!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Catholic Toast

I'm the only Catholic in my family, but I'm proud to say I've taught my relatives to have proper reverence for the holy Faith. They demonstrated their abiding respect just last Christmas when one of them gave me this dignified calendar:

And as if we needed more proof that they're in awe of my religion, here's another Christmas gift they gave me:

A few days ago when I woke up, I knew that the time had come to make... holy toast. My roommate had purchased some nice square white bread. It was destiny.

So I pressed the stamp into the bread.

But that left no impression so I really had to push it hard.

That looks good.

Into my roommate's handy toaster oven it goes!

But I got distracted, and the toast burned. This completely foils my plan to make a killing on eBay. Now what? What do you do with really dark yet tasty-looking toast?

Well, I know what I did.

Meanwhile, a much better image of our Blessed Mother watched patiently from the kitchen wall. :)

Tuesday morning breakfast

Because that is what I chose to call it. :)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Left Hand of God

"How could he explain that he was not a priest?"

Yeah, don't you hate it when that happens?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Four little stories told by Fr. Richard Neuhaus

These were rattling around in my brain today and I thought I'd blog them down. They concern three folks who've recently passed away and one who, thank God, is very much alive.

Avery Cardinal Dulles tells of saying Mass in a parish that had a big banner by the altar emblazoned with the message, "God is Other People." He says he very much wished that he had had a magic marker with which to put a big comma after "Other." But that, he notes, was more than twenty years ago.

from Catholic Matters

In 1997, John Paul the Great appointed me a delegate to a synod in Rome. On the concluding day of the synod, I was seated at lunch between John Cardinal O'Connor and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. In the midst of lively conversation about many things, I was suddenly moved to say how grateful I was that I had come into the church at a time when I could have John O'Connor as my bishop and Joseph Ratzinger heading the Church's office of doctrine. They were a bit embarrassed by my outburst, as was I, but it seemed like the thing to say at the moment. Some months later, I related that conversation to John Paul. He smiled in his mischievous way and said, "So, you are not grateful for your pope?"

from Catholic Matters

A friend calls it "the magic kingdom." He means Vatican City and, more particularly, the Apostolic Palace within Vatican City. That's where the pope lives, along with some senior members of the Curia and the staff, mainly composed of nuns, that takes care of their domestic needs. Some of the apartments are rather grand, with murals by Raphael and other Renaissance geniuses to be discovered in bathrooms and similarly unexpected places. "It isn't home, but it's much." That's a quip regularly offered by cardinals and archbishops when welcoming a guest to dinner.

First Things, August 2007

When during the O’Connor years I had occasion to meet with the pope, he would always ask, "How is Cardinal O’Connor?" And I would always say that Cardinal O’Connor is flourishing and is an inestimable gift to the Church. One time I went on to say, "You know what Cardinal O'Connor said the other day, Holy Father?" "No," he answered. "What did Cardinal O’Connor say?" "Cardinal O’Connor said that he gets up every morning and prays that he will go to bed that night without having discouraged any impulse of the Holy Spirit. Now isn’t that a beautiful thing for a bishop to say?" A pause of several seconds. "Yes," said the pope, "that is a beautiful thing for a bishop to say. I told him that."

First Things, January 2008

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Treats for St. Valentine's Day!

First, I made red velvet cookies and sandwiched them with cream cheese frosting between. The recipe was simple as could be: I bought some red velvet cake mix, added eggs and butter, and baked it, then mixed cream cheese, sugar, butter and vanilla for the filling. I got the recipe from Bakerella, of course, and I was very pleased that my cookies not only looked as good as advertised, but tasted delicious. I will certainly have to make these again. :)

Next it was time for some Oreo truffle pops. I made Bakerella's truffles with some modifications, the most important of which was that I mixed the Oreos with about 6 ounces of crème fraîche instead of 8 ounces of cream cheese. Cream cheese is great in many contexts, but in truffles I don't like the way it competes with the Oreo flavor. Crème fraîche is French cultured cream, like our sour cream but much milder and a bit sweeter. It was perfect for binding the Oreo crumbs together without introducing too much flavor of its own. After I rolled the mixture into balls, I stuck lollipop sticks into them.

A forest of Oreo balls on sticks. It's mesmerizing.

This is the woman from whom I inherited a love of baking, plus good looks, skill, awesomeness and humility. She approved my unfinished Oreo pops. I love you, Mom!

All right, so then I coated the suckers in red chocolate and stuck them in a green foam block to dry. I had originally planned to serve them that way, but they looked a bit scary. Kind of like the turtle formation used by the Roman legions.

So I stuck them all upright and helped myself. :)

And then I made another batch of Sprite cupcakes with buttercream frosting, this time decorating them in many different ways. The flowers were homemade, some from a mold and some as described in the post below.

Of course it all would have felt pointless if I hadn't been able to con some folks into coming over and eating the goods!

The birthday girl is being handed flowers. Others provided curry chicken soup, rice noodles, and vegetables, all of which were delicious. We then sat around the table and read Summorum Pontificum and the pope's explanatory letter to bishops of the same. Now who could imagine a better way to celebrate than that?

And no, that is not our Christmas tablecloth being recycled for St. Valentine's Day. That is a St. Valentine tablecloth with berry-shaped hearts and hollyleaf-shaped flowers, all right?

Chocolate flowers for topping cupcakes

I got this idea from Bakerella, but don't click that link-- her flowers are all perfect and I don't wish to suffer by comparison. :) I dedicate this post to a friend who, when asked if she prefers flowers or chocolate, says she prefers flowers made of chocolate.

First, little dots of yellow chocolate.

Outline the petals in chocolate chocolate.

Fill them in with red chocolate.

Turn them over and you have a cute chocolate bouquet. You might think the uneven sizes and shapes are because I'm unskilled, but actually I was being whimsical. :)

"Rachel is up four pounds. Can't IMAGINE why."

That's what I posted as my status on Facebook five minutes ago, as I sat at the computer in my bedroom.

One minute ago I heard Mery giggling from the computer in the living room. "Rachel!" she called.


"I thought you were on a diet!"

It's beautiful how Facebook facilitates roommate communication.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius!

Yes, the monk St. Cyril and the bishop St. Methodius, blood brothers who together were apostles to the Slavic peoples in the 800's and helped convert all that part of Europe (Germany and Austria and Czechoslovakia, I think, or thereabouts). They invented the Cyrillic alphabet in order to write the Bible in the Slavs' own language. They're much honored in Eastern Europe, Russia and so on--

Wait a second.

Cyril and Methodius are great, but didn't February 14 used to belong to someone else...?

Dang novus ordo calendar. ;) To the 1962 Missal, quick!

Now that's more like it.

St. Valentine baptizing St. Lucilla, by Jacopo Bassano

Update: I just had to draw attention to the excellent link posted by Gary Keith Chesterton in the comments. :)

Friday, February 13, 2009

7 Quick Takes Friday, multimedia edition

Here's Jennifer's post.

1. This five-minute video made the rounds a year ago and I'm still loving it: what the FSSP do to churches they take over. The detail I enjoy most is that as the altar starts looking more like an altar, reflexes kick in and the priests and people start genuflecting.

2. It's raining and I love it. Southern California-- never rains enough here for me to get tired of it. I'm also happy today because I have plans to make a bunch of Valentine's Day sweets!

3. Sesame Street's awesome video on how crayons are made:

4. Fatima, Portugal, on October 13, 1917. About 70,000 people were gathered because three children had said they'd seen the Virgin Mary and she was telling people to repent and pray, and she had promised to give a sign at noon on October 13. The people witnessed the sun changing colors and moving around in impossible ways. It was in the newspapers the next day. (This video moves slowly....)

5. My parents' tangerine tree bore so much fruit this year it's ridiculous. Fortunately the tangerines are sweet and tangy and good. I've been bringing large bagfuls to work every day, and they disappear pretty readily. But one day I brought both tangerines and cupcakes, and I noticed that no one touched the tangerines until all the cupcakes were gone.

6. You'd better not take the kitten's broccoli away.

7. If you go here and click on "Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity", you can download a short sermon for Trinity Sunday based on St. Augustine and F. J. Sheed. I was fascinated because this was the first time I'd ever heard anything like it. To sum it up in one inadequate sentence: God the Son is God the Father's idea of Himself, and God the Holy Spirit is the love that the Son and Father have for each other. I'm wondering if this is a well-known belief and I just missed it somehow? When I listened to the sermon it not only made sense, but seemed inevitable: an omnipotent eternal infinite God must be a Trinity. And it gives amazing depth to all the things Jesus said in the Gospels about His Father, like in John 5.

Does anyone know of a book that expands on this concept of the Trinity? One of Sheed's books must have it...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Awesome lab injuries

Julius, the lab eccentric, wandered into my room recently when the other two occupants were gone. As he moseyed out again, he casually mentioned to me, "I just planted a bomb in your room."

"A stink bomb?" I asked, confused.

"No! That would be rude! It's dry ice in an eppendorf tube; I'm hoping it'll explode near Stefan."

An eppendorf tube is a small plastic tube with a lid, and of course dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide that sublimates directly to vapor instead of melting to liquid. It expands when it sublimates, and if it's in an enclosed space the pressure builds until something gives.

About five minutes later I'd forgotten Julius' warning and Jongmin was back at his desk when there was a startling loud bang in the room.

"Oh, Julius said he planted a bomb," said I.

"Ah!" said Jongmin at once. "Dry ice. Eppendorf tube."

"You've heard of it?" I asked.

"In my old lab," said Jongmin, "we would do RNA extractions, and because it was hard to digest the cell wall we would freeze the cells with liquid nitrogen and--" he made motions of grinding with a mortar and pestle-- "by hand, and then we would scoop it into an eppendorf tube. But we couldn't let it thaw or the RNA would be no good. We had to do it quickly. So sometimes some trace of liquid nitrogen would remain in the sample, and we would add lysis solution and shut the tube, and a few minutes later, BANG!"

"Were there dangerous chemicals in the lysis solution?" I asked.


Phenol's one of the few honestly nasty chemicals we use in the lab. It eats away human flesh. You don't really want a tube of phenol exploding!

Later, Julius and I were working in Joel and Smadar's room. "Was Stefan around when the bomb went off?" he asked.

"No," said I.

"Oh, dry ice in an eppendorf tube?" asked Joel.

"Am I the only person who's never heard of this before?" asked I.

"Probably," said Joel.

So I've learned a new trick. The best part is the time delay; by the time the bomb goes off you're long gone and people have forgotten who was there.

I have had plenty of experience with exploding tubes, if not deliberately planted ones. I used to work in the cytogenetics lab of a cancer hospital where we would be given the leftover blood samples of patients. Cancer cells often have weird chromosome configurations, which our lab studied, so blood samples from sufferers of rare cancers were valuable material to us. Every evening I'd centrifuge the latest blood samples and pipet off the white blood cell layer to freeze in cryotubes which I'd then store in freezer canes submerged in liquid nitrogen. (Exactly the same way they store human embryos, actually-- so wrong.) Then when we were ready to study those samples, I'd fetch the tubes from the LN2 and thaw them out. But sometimes the frozen culture medium had expanded in the freezer, causing the tube's lid to crack open a tiny bit and allowing liquid nitrogen to seep in. Then when the tube warmed up, the opening in the tube would reseal but the LN2 would try to expand, and the tube would go off like a bomb. If I recall correctly, after one explosion we couldn't find where the tube with its frozen blood sample had gone! You're supposed to treat all blood samples as highly biohazardous, as if they all were infected with HIV, so you really don't want them flying around the lab to parts unknown.

We learned not to overfill the cryotubes, and to crack them open as soon as they were out of the LN2-- that stopped the explosions. But I hadn't learned this yet on September 11, 2001. No kidding, that was the date. Being on the west coast, most of us had heard the news before heading to work, so we were keyed up that morning, upset and nervous. I'd been asked to pull a bunch of blood samples and I had an ice bucket of cryovials sitting on a lab bench, fresh out of LN2. Suddenly there was a BANG, and Mari shrieked and clapped a hand over her ear, where a flying shard of plastic had hit her! I'm so glad it didn't draw blood. On that day, that might have done us in.

Speaking of liquid nitrogen, I was warned in safety meetings never to work with the stuff in a closed room. Always make sure the door is open, they told me. Have plenty of ventilation. It seems that somebody who failed to observe this rule ended up dead. A freezer can leak liquid nitrogen without anyone noticing, since the liquid immediately flashes to vapor when you let it out. Nitrogen gas is colorless and odorless and composes 80% of the air we breathe. So it's generally as harmless as can be, but when huge quantities of it are leaking from a freezer, the nitrogen vapor pushes all the oxygen out of the room. It's a bit like carbon monoxide poisoning-- the man died of asphyxiation without even realizing he was in danger. To him it would have felt like he was breathing just fine... till he passed out.

Liquid nitrogen is dangerous in another way. It's stored in big tanks with built-in vents that hiss when the pressure builds up enough for vapor to escape. Sometimes the hissing is loud and annoying. So some dude at a university in Texas decided that blocking the vent would be a good idea. He had a few blissful hiss-free days. Then the pressure got so high that the tank exploded, and just like a little eppendorf tube would, the tank took off like a rocket. It shot right through the ceiling of the lab, then through the ceiling of the lab above that, and would have broken through the roof of the whole building if it hadn't hit a concrete support beam. Fortunately no idiots were killed in the making of that disaster. Larry, our safety rep here at Caltech, made sure to show us interesting pictures of the damage.

I've mentioned phenol, also called carbolic acid. It's very useful to extract proteins from DNA. It was also useful to the Nazis to execute people by intravenous injection-- St. Maximillian Kolbe was killed that way in Auschwitz after he'd been in a starvation cell for three weeks (having volunteered to take the place of another prisoner). So you want to avoid getting injected with phenol. On the other hand, if it spills on you, disaster may be averted if you wash off your skin right away, and strip off any clothes that were splashed with it.

But of course a person would be inhibited about taking his clothes off in the workplace. So Larry told us the cautionary tale of the man who spilled phenol on a leg of his jeans. He rolled up the leg, rinsed off his skin, rolled the jeans leg back down again and went on with his work. Of course there was still phenol in the fabric. And the thing about phenol is that it has an anesthetic effect as well as a flesh-eating effect, so the man didn't feel the damage being done. He ended up hospitalized with a severe open wound. Ick... I'm glad no one's spilled phenol where I've worked.

Okay, my very favorite exotic lab injury story happened to my labmate Meredith. She had run some DNA out on a gel and stained it with ethidium bromide to visualize the DNA with UV light. UV light is damaging, and you especially don't want to look at it directly, so there are plastic face shields and other devices. But it was late, and Meredith was in a hurry to cut out the DNA band she needed, and the safety shields are cumbersome. So she slapped the gel on top of the light box, switched on the UV, located the band she wanted and stooped low over the box with no face shielding to cut the band out of the gel with a razor blade.

Everything went fine. She finished processing her DNA and went home. Then she noticed that she was going blind.

By the middle of the night she couldn't see a thing. Her roommate took her to the emergency room, and the doctor was mystified. He asked many questions to try to pinpoint the cause of the sudden blindness, finally asking, "What do you do for a living?" When she said she was a graduate student in a biology lab, he asked what she had done that day and the UV light was unmasked as the culprit. "It's like a sunburn on your retina," the doctor explained.

Meredith had to fly up that weekend to San Francisco to meet her fiance. There was an odd scene in the airport-- he was waiting for her just outside the gate, but he wasn't allowed to go to her, so he called to her while she walked blindly toward the sound of his voice. Thanks be to God, the injury wasn't permanent and she had her sight back in about three days. I'm guessing they were a very nervewracking three days, though!

As for me, I've sometimes had a sore right wrist from repetitive motion... and that's it. No worse injuries than that. I like it that way. :)

In my first real lab job I used to fantasize that the lab was being attacked by some sort of terrorists, and the cytogenetics department banded together to build dangerous weapons from chemicals and materials on hand, and defeated the bad guys. I think that would make a great movie.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Sprite cupcakes

You know, I never baked this much till very recently. You'd think I was doing it for the blogging attention, but honestly I think it's because I've discovered other people's blogs with such tempting pictures of whatever they're making that I have to make it too. :)

So Bakerella made a Sprite cake, and I decided to try it in cupcake form. Couldn't find Sprite so I used Sierra Mist, and I couldn't taste it in the batter anyway. I bet water would have worked fine, and the cake didn't need more sweetness anyway. I made only a half recipe-- half the cake mix, half the pudding mix-- and got about 30 mini-sized cupcakes from that. I made a whole recipe of buttercream frosting, since it'll keep well in the fridge, and that way I can eat what's leftover on a spoon use what's left over to frost the other half batch when I make it this weekend. I tinted it pink for Valentine's day, frosted my cupcakes and added some very cute heart sprinkles. Voilà!

Some of the cupcakes in the first shot look reddish inside because I was experimenting with mixing various kinds of sprinkles into the batter. Didn't turn out well; it messed up the way the cupcakes baked and made them fall. The cinnamon red hots were the worst-- they simply sank through the batter to the bottom of the baking cup and melted there into one round cinnamon disk. Kinda funny actually. Didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the cupcake!

The texture of these cupcakes was so incredibly light that once I frosted them they were very top-heavy. They're pretty small, too. Like, so small they jump into your mouth before you know it. That might be why the ones I took to work disappeared within two hours. :)

Darío Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos

First, that's a pretty cool name. The only cardinal's name I can think of that's even better is Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val.

I've had a special place in my heart for Cardinal Castrillón, who's head of the Ecclesia Dei commission, ever since he said that the Pope wants the traditional Latin Mass in every parish and it should be offered even if only three or four, or none, request it, so that people can learn it, because "everyone, including younger generations, would benefit from the riches of the extraordinary rite." So Summorum Pontificum wasn't just a magnanimous gesture for hopelessly nostalgic schismatic malconents-- good to know since I love the TLM too. :)

Now not everyone's as interested in all that as I am, but check this out. Cardinal Castrillón comes from Columbia, where he used to be bishop of Pereira. At that time there was a drug lord in Columbia named Pablo Escobar, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people and had amassed a fortune ranked by Forbes as the seventh greatest in the world. Yesterday I learned this from Time Magazine concerning Cardinal Castrillón:

He has gone deep into Colombian jungles to mediate between leftist guerrillas and right-wing death squads, and once showed up at the house of cocaine king Pablo Escobar disguised as a milkman. Revealing himself, Castrillón Hoyos implored Escobar to confess his sins, which, presumably at some considerable length, the vicious gangster did.

Can you believe it? A bishop dressed himself up as a milkman and somehow snuck into a drug lord's abode and convinced him that he'd better go to confession? How cool is that? He's gangsta! Makes you wonder what your bishop has done lately, eh? I should print out his picture and put it up on my wall!

Unfortunately it looks like the confession didn't do Escobar, or the people he was terrorizing, much long-term good: he failed to reform his life and died in a shootout with police, probably by killing himself when he saw he was cornered. Still, Cardinal Castrillón must have figured it was worth a try.

(H/T OTR.)

I hope you all had a fine Septuagesima Sunday! (Septuagesima=Seventy; it's roughly seventy days before Easter and three weeks before Ash Wednesday. In the old calendar those three weeks are a kind of pre-Lent, to get ready.) An interesting effect of this time is that I'm feeling more appreciation for things I might be giving up. :) I read on some blog (can't remember where) that you should figure out whatever's impairing your communion with Christ, and that should be the thing you fast from. Sounds like great advice. I also need to read the Pope's letter for Lent this year; I've heard it's about fasting and it's good, so I will recklessly link to it without having vetted it.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

7 Nun Pictures for 7 Quick Takes Saturday

Here's Jen's post of quick takes for this week.

I think I'll do something a little different this time. My quick takes shall all be pictures, and to make it more interesting they'll all be pictures of nuns, and to make it more interesting still they'll all be pictures of nuns I have personally met.

I'll tell you right now what all the nuns I've known had in common: they were joyful.

1) Here's a group of us with the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. They do nursing, teaching, and retreat work-- I think the nuns who work in the hospital have white habits so they'll look more nurse-like. Incidentally if you live in Southern California and want to do a retreat, their house in Alhambra is lovely and they always have good (orthodox!) speakers. One of the priests in my parish is going to direct a big ol' eight-day Ignatian retreat there in July.

2) The sisters staff a medical center in Duarte and sometimes they take their wheelchair patients out for a stroll on the path outside. So the city of Duarte was sporting enough to put up this sign. :) One of the sisters is demonstrating for us.

I know a couple at church whose only child is one of the Carmelites, and they're so proud of her. I love to hear them talk about it.

3) The Missionaries of Charity don't seem to have an official website, but there's here and here. They have a convent in Lynwood, California, where I used to spend every Thursday afternoon answering the phone and door for them while they had their weekly day of prayer. I stopped it when I started working again, but I miss them. This order is an amazing work of God. It started in 1948 when Mother Teresa left the order of teaching sisters where she'd been happy for eighteen years, and walked out onto the streets of Calcutta with nothing but the clothes on her back, determined to found a new order to serve the poor as Jesus had commanded her to do. Now there are about 5000 sisters worldwide. I had the great luck of being at their convent on the day Sister Nirmala visited-- she's been the head of the order since just before Mother Teresa died. They're truly an international crowd, from all continents. In Lynwood they visit the poor, feed the homeless, teach catechism to children, run a home for pregnant woman with no place else to stay, and perform other deeds of mercy. A priest told me that of all the American women who try their vocations with the MCs, only about one in twelve perseveres to final vows. Apparently the lifestyle is too trying for those who've grown up rich.

4) Some friends and I dropped by the convent of the Sisters, Servants of Mary in Oxnard. They have a beautiful apostlate: they all become nurses and at night they go out to private homes where there are sick people who need round-the-clock care and can't afford it. That way the family of the sick person can rest, and they do it for free. This order and most of their members came from Mexico, but they'd like more American vocations. Everyone in the order needs to learn both English and Spanish.

They served us a delicious lunch and chatted with us and they were so friendly and sweet. They have their own way of hugging-- embrace on the left shoulder and then again on the right-- I got hugged that way about ten times. :) As you can see we mostly met the postulants and novices, because the sisters usually sleep during the daytime.

5) This woman here is so much fun: Sr. Guadalupe of The Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Boston. She once told me her whole vocation story which essentially had me laughing for forty-five minutes straight. St. Peter Chanel was her parish before she entered religious life, so I see her there when she comes home to visit her family. But normally she's surrounded by all the other people who want to talk with her.

On the occasion of this picture we were meeting with a group to discuss the Diary of St. Faustina. Of course St. Faustina (who died in Poland in 1938) was from this very congregation, so Sr. Guadalupe has the Diary half-memorized. Normally Fr. Larry would lead our discussion, but on that night he got Sr. Guadalupe to come and then made her do all the talking, and it was fascinating to listen to her enthusiastic commentary. I kept thinking what a privilege it was to be there.

6) Here's a group of us visiting the cloistered Dominican nuns of Corpus Christi Monastery. We spent one night there; I was sorry it wasn't longer for I didn't get nearly enough time just to hang around the place and chant the Liturgy of the Hours with the nuns. Also they fed us ridiculously well, and even though we all agreed it was too much food, we all cleaned our plates at every meal. In this picture we were having breakfast with some of the nuns, which meant the extern sister (the only one who leaves the cloister area) set up a table for us in one of the visiting rooms, and the nuns gathered on their side of the same room and chatted with us. We got a fair bit of time to talk with them even though they never left the cloister and we never entered it. :)

7) Here's the back of the extern sister as she waters the front yard. I love her big flowing veil.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The How-To Book of the Mass

Michael Dubriel, a Catholic author and blogger, died suddenly a few days ago, as announced on the site of his wife Amy Wellborn, also a Catholic author and blogger.

I'd forgotten until today, but Dubriel wrote a book I really like: The How-To Book of the Mass. I read it two years ago when I'd just decided to become Catholic and I knew I needed to get a handle on the Mass. There seemed to be a lot of meaning in it that I was missing; the gestures and words would flow by in a stream so swift I couldn't catch and examine any of them. Dubriel's book was exactly what I wanted. He explains all the basics I didn't know and was too shy to ask-- how to genuflect, how to cross yourself with holy water, even why some Hispanics look like they're kissing their hands after making the Sign of the Cross (turns out they're making a little cross with forefinger and thumb and kissing that, as a sign of devotion). Then he also explains the theology of the Mass, the Sacrifice and the Real Presence, with heavy use of Scripture and quotes from the early Church Fathers. For each part he usually says something about its development: what it looked like in the year 300 A.D., what the Eastern Catholics do at this part, what Scripture it's taken from, what Pope stuck this prayer in there and why. And he writes quite a bit about how to enter spiritually into the Mass. One very useful recommendation along those lines was to kill your ego, especially if there's something about the way the Mass is being offered that you don't like. :)

It was a much richer book than I'd hoped for, given that it's written in a simple familiar style and looks like part of the "For Dummies" series. A few weeks after finishing it I started going to Mass every day-- mainly because I found a great parish (and even more mainly because of grace), but I know Dubriel's book helped.

Incidentally, I'd recommend it as therapy for traditional Catholics who love the Extraordinary Form of Mass but want to cure themselves of retching at the thought of the Ordinary Form. This book is entirely about the OF, and although it won't make you love the OF better than the EF, it does make the most of what the OF has got. Most opponents of the EF are so pleased to emphasize the hermeneutic of rupture as applied to the OF, but this book emphasizes the OF's historical continuity. It also plays up the ways that participation in the OF can be spiritually fruitful, and how to have a "full, active, and conscious participation," not superficially but interiorly.

So anyway, having been reminded that Dubriel wrote this book I loved, I feel a sense of gratitude and am sorrier for his loss. I highly, highly recommend the reading of his last column, which seems to have been written at the inspiration of God for the comfort of his family. "The big lie... is to think that if we say all the right prayers and live correctly, then nothing bad will ever happen to us."

Stop increasing my culpability!

I had lots of repetitive pipetting to do in the lab yesterday, so I got out my iPod and listened to about seven sermons back to back while I worked. Aren't podcasts wonderful? Like having a radio station that plays only exactly what fascinates you at every moment. The sermons were great, except for one that pretty much stated flatly that every decent eligible committed Catholic has a religious vocation. How could that work? I'm still trying to make sense of it. (Update: I guess that particular preacher had been looking at the flow chart Joe mentions in the comments.)

But anyway, in one of the other sermons the priest challenged his congregation to a certain difficult and praiseworthy task-- I won't say what. He said he wanted every confirmed Catholic in the building, no matter his age, to have made some progress within a year. He pointed out that all are called to this, that it's desperately important, that there's really no excuse not to. "I'm as serious as a heart attack," said he.

"Ha ha," I thought, "those poor suckers who heard that sermon-- now there's no getting out of it!"

Then it occurred to me that I was hearing the sermon too. Stupid podcasts.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Peanut butter brownie cups

Continuing my parade of gluttony in advance of St. Valentine's Day, I made some peanut butter brownies recently which were such a hit with me that hardly anybody else even knew of their existence before they were gone. :)

I got the recipe from Bake or Break. It calls for making the brownies from scratch and baking in full sized greased cupcake tins. But I used a brownie mix instead, and poured it into paper cups in mini cupcake tins. The paper cups saved me some work, though they had to be peeled away from the brownies slowly and carefully. I think the mini size is much more suitable for these very rich brownies. I had to increase the bake time to about 25 minutes; I guess my mix was thicker than the from-scratch recipe would have been.

After baking the brownies I smooshed down their centers and spooned in some melted peanut butter, then sprinkled peanut butter chips and chocolate chips on top. One box of brownie mix made about thirty of them. It was pretty time-consuming. The eating went a lot faster.

Seriously, I think I'll avoid making these too often in the future. When I make a normal batch of brownies, I eat some and then think, "Okay... that's enough for now." But with these, I kept thinking, "Peanut butter! Brownies with peanut butter! Let me peel and eat another one!" It wasn't pretty.

Mother Teresa's got something to say to you :)

"God has plenty of money. It's just in your pockets."

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Really tough penance for Lent

I mean, tough for a wimp like me:

To give up all reading or websurfing while eating, and just take my meals while sitting at a table doing nothing else. How amazingly boring would that be? I never eat without reading. And it would have the added benefit of reminding me three times a day that it's Lent and I'm trying to do penance and refocus on God.

I'm not promising I'll do this, but I'm thinking about it. Now to find an amazing cupcake recipe to make before Lent hits. :) I want something interesting and gourmet but not requiring actual skill.

LASIK surgery

I had it three years ago. Ready to lose your breakfast? Here's a picture of my bloody eyes the day after surgery. :)

My prescription had been -9.75 diopters, which is very nearsighted indeed; you could put your hand three feet away from my face and I wouldn't know how many fingers you were holding up. Contacts were dry and bothersome and my glasses were dorky (Coke bottle thickness, back when Coke bottles were made of glass), so one fine day I suddenly decided it was time to plunk down a small fortune and risk my eyes to a laser beam.

For the operation they dosed me with Valium (thank goodness), marked up my eyeballs with some kind of pen (!!), laid me down under the machine, and had me stare at a little light while the computerized laser did its thing. I sang hymns in my head and tried not to think about my cornea getting lased away. There was a ring thing pressing hard on my eyeball to keep it still, which was darn uncomfortable, but it didn't hurt exactly. My mom watched a zoomed-in video of the whole thing on a monitor in the waiting room, and she declared it fascinating. It was soon done; they taped shields over my eyes and as Mom drove me home I opened my eyelids just a little bit. There was a milky haze over my vision, but I could read the license plate of the car in front of us. It was like a miracle.

Here's me when I got home-- immediately afterward I went to bed. :) I had a number of side effects from the surgery, some lasting quite a long time, but my vision is about 20/20 now and it was SO worth it. It's hard to even recall that there was a time when being blind as a bat was a big part of my identity.

Here's a little story. On the weekend before the LASIK, I had a date with a guy I wanted to know better. This was a great boon because I was too keyed up about the date to spare any worry for the surgery. You're supposed to abstain from contact lenses for a week before having LASIK, so I showed up to meet the man in the big ol' Coke bottle glasses. Needless to say, I made sure to let him know in course of our conversation that I'd soon be getting rid of the glasses altogether. To my delight he called a few days later and asked me out again for the following weekend. So on our second date I was glasses-free-- but with the hideous bloody eyes! No one had warned me about that possible side effect; I guess it's rare. My eyes never hurt but they sure looked painful. I was supposed to meet the guy in a dim restaurant too, and my vision hadn't settled and in that light I couldn't tell one person from another, so I wandered around with my Frankenstein eyes for a while and then took a seat in the entrance to let him find me. Fortunately the bloody eyes only lasted a few months (about as long as the relationship.) If you're thinking of getting LASIK, my advice is to avail yourself of free consultations at more than one place, and if they tell you different things, find out why.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Merry Candlemas Day, or whatever you're supposed to say!

Forty days after Christmas, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem, and so on February 2 we have the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. The law given to Moses was that every firstborn son in Israel belonged to God, and his parents had to buy him back, so to speak, by giving God a young sheep or goat, or a pair of doves if they were poor. This feast used to be called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, because the mother was ritually purified on the same day as the child was redeemed. I know a woman named Purificación; probably she was born on February 2 in some Hispanic culture. In England, this day was colloquially named Candlemas because of the custom of blessing candles and lighting them to carry in procession.

The Office is lovely today; we had a bunch of Psalms about God coming to His Temple. "Lift up your heads, O ye gates; the King of Glory shall come in!"

It's the official end of the Christmas season (or maybe just in the old calendar? I haven't time to look it up), and though most Catholic churches took their decorations down at the Baptism of the Lord on Jan 11th, I was in a church yesterday that was still decorated to the hilt, making Christmas last as long as they were allowed. Kind of nice to see one more nativity scene. :)

I am most seriously displeased that some heavy metal band went and named itself Candlemass and has taken all the top Google results. On the other hand, I'm tickled to discover that Groundhog Day seems to have evolved from Candlemas! Check out this old rhyme:

If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas day be shower and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again.

Here in L.A. it's very fair and bright and even warm. We've been having a beautiful winter.

Some Candlemas pictures! Click for big versions. The first is "The Presentation of Christ in the Temple" by Tintoretto. He has more than one mother and child. You'd expect the central pair to be the Virgin Mary and Jesus, but the pair on the right look so radiant that I'm not sure. The second is from the St. Columba Altarpiece by Weyden, and you can see the basket of two little doves that Mary and Joseph are offering to redeem their son. Both pictures have candles prominently positioned.

I just learned from Fr. Schnippel that Feb. 2 is also the Day of Consecrated Life (the link explains very briefly why), and Benedict XVI said yesterday, "I invite everyone to thank the Lord for the precious gift of these brothers and sisters, and to ask him, through the intercession of the Madonna, for many new vocations, in the variety of charisms with which the Church is rich."

It would be fun to write about the custom of the Churching of Women at this point, but I probably won't have time. My laptop's all infected with something and I can't even get on the internet with it, and only the internet can tell me how to fix things-- so I'll be back here at my parents' house tonight figuring that out. Now I'm off to work.