Monday, May 31, 2010

Sorry, you have used up your quota of cuteness for the next five years.

Those who read about my cousin Greg's Yosemite wedding here (pictures here) might like to see what the family looks like nowadays. :) The baby is named Charlie after Greg's uncle, a fighter pilot who was shot down near Japan in WWII. He'll have something to think about each Memorial Day!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Jerusalem cross waffles

Do you know the Jerusalem cross? It's a square cross with smaller square crosses in between its arms. Looks like this:

Well, today I made waffles from Trader Joe's yummy pumpkin waffle mix, and they looked like this:

I make Catholic food even when I'm not trying. It's a charism. I can't fight it any more.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I know graffiti's an Italian word...

...but the Italians don't do it very well.

A spoiled girl's horror story

I'm back! Hopefully I'll write more about the convent later, because in this post I'm just going to rant about the travel. :)

The plan was for me and my parents to leave on Sunday night from Los Angeles and take a British Airways redeye to London, where we'd have a four-hour layover at Heathrow Airport and then catch a flight to Pisa. From there it's an hour-long bus trip to Florence and we'd arrive late on Monday night, having lost nine hours to the time change. My parents would stay in Florence for a week and tour Tuscany. I would be met at the bus station by a sister of the Adoratrices-- yes, I was considering joining an order whose name I can't pronounce-- and she'd drive me to their convent, located in a little town about half an hour outside of Florence. After a week with them I'd meet up with my parents again and we'd all bus back to Pisa and fly to London. My parents would stay in England for a week, disporting themselves in London and Oxford, while I'd have a one-hour layover in Heathrow and them fly immediately back to LAX, the Los Angeles airport. I'd have a day to recover and then return to work.

That was the plan. Needless to say I booked the flights before the volcano in Iceland erupted and started disrupting all flights into and out of England. And I hadn't heard anything about the British Airways flight crews preparing to strike either. I figured British Airways was just about the most stable, reliable, dependable airline you could fly. So here's what happened:

My parents and I arrived at LAX nice and early, and learned that a cloud of volcanic ash over London was delaying all the flights that day.

We were given free dinner vouchers, courtesy of British Airways, and after eating some airport food we took off about three hours late.

The flight was okay... long flights are always a pain in the legs, but I did manage to sleep. And British Airways knows how to serve tea.

Arriving over London, we had to circle in the air for about fifteen minutes before we could land. That was kinda fun; I recognized the Tower Bridge and the London Eye.

Had to sit on the runway for about twenty-five minutes before a gate opened up.

All the delays added up, and so in spite of the four-hour layover, we missed our connecting flight to Pisa. British Airways rebooked us for the next day and gave us free hotel vouchers, meal vouchers, and bus tickets to and from the hotel. It was a very streamlined, simple process-- they've had lots of practice since the volcano blew, I think.

Once checked into our hotel, Mom and I spent several hours attempting various ways of calling Italy from England to let people know we'd be a day late. I never did successfully get through, though in the process of trying I incurred charges totaling twenty-six pounds on my hotel phone. What did get through in the end was the email I sent to the convent using the internet on my hotel room's TV (at six pounds an hour). One of the sisters replied within the allotted hour, bless her, and she said they'd wait for my call the next day to come pick me up.

Incidentally, the most remarkable feature of my hotel room was the toilet that let you choose your own flush volume. An idea whose time has come!

We flew out to Pisa the next morning (Tuesday) and caught a bus to Florence. Once there we found my parents' hotel pretty easily-- a quaint old place once owned by the Medici family. My dad was very tired, so he lay down while Mom and I went back to the train station to call the convent. "I'll time how long this takes," said Mom, as I got out a phone card, picked up a pay phone, and prepared to wage another unsuccessful battle.

Fifteen minutes later I'd gotten nowhere, and Mom offered to go ask some taxi drivers what it would cost for them to drive us out to the convent. I pulled out my paper with the convent's address in Sieci and started to copy it down for her. Just then I noticed a young nun not far away, wearing the black and white habit of the Adoratrices and looking at me. I never saw a more welcome sight! They must have decided to send someone without waiting for my call.

I bounded up to the nun. "I'm Rachel Gray!" I told her. She smiled, "Are you from the Adoratrices? Are you here to give me a ride?"

"Um... I don't speak English," she managed to say. She had a French accent. The Adoratrices are mainly French (in spite of the fact that they live in Italy... long story), and I speak no French whatsoever. But the nun appeared to expect me to follow her, and that'd be weird behavior if she wasn't the one I was supposed to meet, so I let her lead the way to where her car was parked.

"Are you sure she's the right order?" Mom asked me as were tagging along after her.

"Who cares?" said I. I was just relieved not to have to deal with the phones any more. I hugged Mom goodbye and got into the car with the nun, and I'm happy to report that she did in fact take me to the right convent... I'd tell you about it, but this post is for complaining about travel. :)

So, after a week, the same nun drove me back to the station in Florence and I met Mom and Dad there. They seemed to have had a good week in spite of Dad's bum knee acting up. Our bus to Pisa was thirty-five minutes late. Italians.

It didn't matter because our plane arrived at Pisa two hours late anyway. It wasn't volcanic ash causing the delay this time, nor yet the flight crew strikes-- it was a malfunctioning bathroom. True story. So we were late taking off for London. And if you, dear reader, are thinking to yourself, "Didn't Rachel only have a one-hour layover on the trip back?" you are completely correct. I missed another connection! So British Airways rebooked me on a flight for the next day and then snowed me under with more free vouchers-- bus to hotel, a room in the hotel, dinner at the hotel, breakfast at the hotel, bus back to the airport the next day. Mom and Dad had their own hotel because they'd been planning to stay in London anyway. They made sure I would be settled for the night and then we all said goodbye.

The next morning I got back to the airport in plenty of time and blew all the Euros and pounds I had on something for my co-workers: little chocolate bottles filled with various liqueurs. (Like these. I took them to the lab the next day and they were appreciated.) My plane took off an hour late, but I had no further connections to make so I hardly cared.

So the final tally is that I lost two extra days because of flight delays and missed connections. I was especially sorry to lose the day at the end of the trip, since that was supposed to be my buffer day before I had to go back to work. But I couldn't complain much. British Airways put me up in a very comfy room... right here...

...and the dinner and breakfast buffets at the hotel were fabulous. None of this "continental breakfast" nonsense in England; they give you the full English breakfast, which means MEAT, and hash browns, and baked beans, and baked tomatoes, and something called "black pudding" which really is black and has a bready texture but tastes a bit like sausage-- what's in that stuff?

Okay, I just looked it up. According to Wikipedia, "Black pudding is a type of sausage made by cooking blood or dried blood with a filler until it is thick enough to congeal when cooled."

All right, then. Moving right along, it was a good hotel with all the food I could eat (I totally would have tried the black pudding even if I'd known), and it occurred to me that what ranks as a most inconvenient day of my life would rank as the most luxurious day ever for some people in the world.

Also I couldn't complain because I had this video in my head:

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Packing is my least favorite part.

Hi folks! I'm off to spend nine days visiting a convent, so please pray for me that I'll have a safe journey and discern God's will. I was going to answer lots of emails and write several engaging blog posts before going, but... um, that didn't happen. Seeing as I'm leaving in less than two hours, I suppose I'll go finish packing now. Have a great week, everyone!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

7 Quick Takes Friday, sticky toffee edition

Once again, Jen hosts the Quick Takes!


I'd like to kick things off by showing you this:

It's called sticky toffee pudding, in the English dessert sense of pudding. It's also called spice cake, caramel cake, sugar plum cake, Grandma's English Toffee Cake, and many other such names. I made it tonight. It's a spice cake with a sort of caramel sauce poured all over it. You can see where I cut out a corner to taste and the glaze collected in that corner... mercy me...


It's totally a Catholic dessert because today is Ascension Thursday, forty days after Easter, when our Lord gave his disciples the Great Commission and returned to Heaven. I find the Liturgy of the Hours is perfect for celebrating days like this. You can read about a feast day, and think about it the mystery it commemorates, but praying psalms that were chosen to fit the day feels like you're doing it, celebrating the feast day, praising God for it.

Here's the piece I cut out of the cake.


Before Jesus ascended, he told his disciples to return to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come. So they all gathered together in the upper room-- the disciples, Jesus' mother Mary, the other women, about 120 people in all-- and prayed for nine days, and the Spirit fell on them at the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which is now celebrated by Christians as a sort of birthday of the Church.

Check out the other side of the piece. The toffee glaze ran all over!


It's from those nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost that Catholics get the idea of a novena. Usually it's a set prayer asking for a particular grace or addressed to a particular saint, and it's called a novena because you pray it for nine days straight (novena = nine) . The first novena was the nine days the disciples prayed while waiting for the Holy Spirit, so the most popular novena today is to imitate them, praying on those same nine days for the gifts of the Spirit. It begins tomorrow, the day after Ascension Thursday, and ends on the vigil of Pentecost Sunday.

Did you want to see a close-up?


Here's a popular novena for the gifts of the Holy Spirit:

O Lord Jesus Christ, who before ascending into heaven did promise to send the Holy Spirit to finish your work in the souls of your apostles and disciples, deign to grant the same Holy Spirit to me, that he may perfect in my soul the work of your grace and your love. Grant me the spirit of wisdom that I may despise the perishable things of this world and aspire only after the things that are eternal, the spirit of understanding to enlighten my mind with the light of your divine truth, the spirit of counsel that I may ever choose the surest way of pleasing God and gaining heaven, the spirit of fortitude that I may bear my cross with you and that I may overcome with courage all the obstacles that oppose my salvation, the spirit of knowledge that I may know God and know myself and grow perfect in the science of the saints, the spirit of piety that I may find the service of God sweet and amiable, and the spirit of fear that I may be filled with a loving reverence towards God and may dread in any way to displease him. Mark me, dear Lord, with the sign of your true disciples, and animate me in all things with your Spirit. Amen.

There's a longer form of the novena to the Holy Spirit here.

Keep in mind, the cake was fresh from the oven and the caramel was fresh from being boiled when I poured it all over and spread it out. So you'll have to imagine this cake as very warm and moist and fragrant and DELICIOUS!


I can't neglect to mention that today is also the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. I can offer no opinion on whether the entire third secret has been released, or whether Russia has been consecrated or converted or both or neither. But it seems the main point of it all was the message that we need to pray and do penance for the salvation of souls, so that much I can understand.

I also know that after the sticky toffee cake served for hors d' oeuvres, my parents and I had a nice dinner of Swiss chard picked from the garden and chicken with rosemary polenta (the rosemary also came from the garden).


The Spurs just got swept by the Suns, so that's the end of their season. Thanks to my brilliant approach to sports fandom, detailed here, I avoided spending twelve hours of my life watching their defeat and I'll soon forget the humiliation.

Personally I'd like to see Doc Rivers coach against Alvin Gentry in the Finals. A Lakers/Celtics Finals would of course be interesting, but I'd rather not see either of them win it all, because then the Spurs wouldn't be the only team to have won multiple championships since 2003 (to pick a completely arbitrary year). :)

The cake disappeared fast.


If you want to make this cake yourself, be prepared to learn its real name. I don't understand all the fuss, but apparently there's a real prejudice out there against one of the ingredients.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Spilling sea urchin sperm, and other mishaps of biology

There's a room in our lab with three injection scopes (for shooting up sea urchin eggs with various solutions of DNA), and one fluorescent scope (for seeing where the embryos are glowing-- that tells us what genes are expressing and where). If someone's using the fluorescent scope, the lights in the room have to be off for the glow to be visible. So we've all learned to inject in the dark. It usually goes fine, but today when someone was on the fluorescent scope and I was at an injection scope, I was in a hurry. Between that and the darkness I managed to knock over my petri dish of sea urchin sperm diluted in sea water that I'd been using to fertilize the eggs I was injecting. I got sperm on the floor, the bench, my clothes... had to clean everything up by flashlight.

This inspires me to recall other incidents of my biology lab career. The first project I was given at my first real job after college was on bladder cancer. I'd look at cells from the lining of the bladder of someone being treated for cancer, and count how many cells were still cancerous. (The way to tell was to look at Chromosomes 7 and 9-- in bladder cancer cells, there's a rearrangement between those two chromosomes and you get hybrid 7/9 chromosomes.) It was part of a big ongoing project to keep tabs on the patients' progress. Pretty cool and all, but to get the cells in the first place I had to deal with something called "bladder washings". A nurse would force a bunch of saline through a catheter into the patient's bladder to encourage the cells of the lining to wash off, and then the patient would basically pee that out into a screw-top cup and I'd be the lucky recipient of the sample. I'd centrifuge this diluted urine, pipet out the cells that gathered at the bottom, fix them and drop them on a slide and incubate them with the probes for chromosomes 7 and 9, and then score them on a fluorescent scope. I explained all this to my mom. "They couldn't let you work on breast cancer instead?" she wondered.

At that same job I used to get a bunch of blood samples at the end of each day. I was working at City of Hope, a hospital that treats lots of rare cancers, and for someone who does research on rare cancer it's always a challenge to gather enough samples, so researchers coveted the blood of our patients. The patients who were already having blood drawn for tests could check a box on a consent form to allow us to keep whatever was left over and use it for our own research. I was the one who'd centrifuge the tubes of blood and save the white cell layer to be frozen for later. Every now and then, a blood sample would come through with a big fluorescent sticker: "HIV". You're supposed to treat every blood sample as if it's HIV-positive and take great care not to come in contact with it, but when you know for sure that a sample is infected with HIV, it definitely makes you concentrate a little harder!

I work with bacteria all the time-- big cultures of e. coli. It's the easiest way to get a bunch of copies of a certain DNA sequence. You take the DNA you want, mix it together with some bacteria, apply an electric shock that makes the bacteria open up their membranes and let the DNA inside, and then you just grow up the bacteria in its favorite culture medium. An e. coli bacterium can divide every twenty minutes in the right conditions, and one bacterium becomes one billion in 24 hours. Each time a bacterium divides it replicates all the DNA it's got, including whatever DNA you added to it. So you can make trillions of copies of your desired DNA sequence in 24 hours, and then there are ways to break open the e. coli cells and extract the DNA. The culture medium you grow them in smells a little bit like bread, and e. coli prefer a warm temperature, right around the average human body temperature, so in a culture room there's a smell of warm baking bread. At least, that's what I thought the first time I encountered it, back when I was a freshman biology major and didn't know what I was smelling. I remember it actually made me hungry. Now that I know what's going on and I associate the smell with billions of bacteria... yuck. I broke a flask of liquid bacteria culture once, and spilled it all over the shaker. That was fun to clean up.

Okay, but none of the above grossed me out too much. Here's what got to me (you might want to skip this paragraph.) I studied c. elegans in a genetics lab class when I was a junior. C. elegans is a microscopic worm with two sexes: males and hermaphrodites. The hermaphrodites prefer to mate with males and produce young that way, but if there are no males around they can produce their own sperm to fertilize their eggs and thus produce clones of themselves. But there's a strain of c. elegans we were studying called vulvaless because the vulva-- the orifice through which the hermaphrodite can mate and lay her eggs-- doesn't form properly. It's funny to watch males trying to mate with vulvaless hermaphrodites. They seem to get quite confused. The real problem, though, is that even though a vulvaless hermaphrodite can't mate, her eggs will still be fertilized by her own internal sperm. And the eggs start to develop into young c. elegans worms as soon as they're fertilized. But there's no vulva for the eggs to get out of the mother's body. So... can you see where this is headed? Eventually the eggs hatch inside and the young worms eat their way out. I don't have the heart to fully describe the scene, but it's pretty sad. And even sadder if you reflect that every single one of those young c. elegans is a clone of its mother, meaning they're all vulvaless hermaphrodites and destined to grow to maturity and then die in the same gruesome way, generation after generation!

If that bothers you as it did me, comfort yourself with the knowledge that these worms are tiny (only about a thousand cells each) with no brain to speak of and no capacity for consciousness like a human has. They don't know of their own horrible existence. We humans are the ones who feel sad about it because we're anthropomorphizing them.

Still unpleasant, though!

Monday, May 03, 2010

Stuff I have recently eaten

One lazy weekend at home I made myself a salad for lunch and was so pleased at the sight of it (and of the book of Lewis essays-- reading complements eating so well) that I photographed it.

Later I heated up the griddle to make pancakes, and aesthetically speaking that was less successful.

Here's a good portrait of my boss, looking a bit abstract after someone broke it in many pieces. It was rendered by one of my co-workers in white and dark chocolate and used to top his birthday cake. This post ought to be labeled "Jewish desserts" since that's what our boss is, but c'mon, I don't want to make a whole new category. :)

An excellent weekend

Here's what happened on Saturday: I drove to the evening Mass at St. Peter Chanel and picked up my friend Adonela on the way. We were chatting about the confirmation classes she teaches, and evidently I wasn't paying attention as a driver should, because just as I was ready to pull into the church parking lot I saw flashing lights in the rear view mirror. It was a cop pulling me over. She informed me I'd blown right through a stop sign on the corner, and then she took my driver's license and disappeared to write me a ticket. Adonela told me that that same cop had nabbed most of the ladies in the church office too, at that very corner. One of the ladies had tried pleading her way out of the ticket, but the officer was relentless.

Suddenly the officer came rushing back. She shoved my license in through the open window and hurriedly said, "You got lucky; I have a call to go to!" And off she went. Adonela and I looked at each other stunned for a moment, and then burst into relieved laughter.

Here's what happened on Sunday: I sang in the Duruflé concert, and as predicted I made mistakes I'd never made in rehearsal, but it didn't matter-- I had a lot of fun and was impressed by how much better we sounded with an orchestra there to play with us. The church was pretty full, which was gratifying. I wish we could give the concert ten more times, now that we've learned it! When I thanked the director he said I'll always have the Requiem with me now and I'll look for performances of it and such, and he's quite right. When I first heard it I didn't think it was as satisfying as older, more melodic pieces of classical music, but the more I learned it the more I loved it. Maybe it's an acquired taste for people like me who don't readily appreciate classical music unless it hits over the head like the 1812 Overture. Whatever the case, I liked Duruflé's Requiem better with every rehearsal and now I see why some people call it one of the most beautiful pieces that they know.

Also: went out for Thai food with the six lovely people I know who were able to come to the concert. Thanks, guys!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Duruflé's Requiem!!!

Just got back from our penultimate rehearsal for Duruflé's Requiem and I'm all hyped up! It was such fun. :) I'd practiced enough at home to know my part really well, and I'm so glad I did that; it means I'm not too nervous now. Though I'm guaranteed to make some mistakes because you never get through a whole concert without them-- probably they'll be mistakes I've absolutely never made before because I'll be distracted by the audience. But hey, it's a free concert so they're guaranteed their money's worth. :)

If you want to hear how similar Duruflé's score is to the Gregorian chant he based it on, you can go here for a video of a guy with on the organ singing the chant, and here for a performance of the Duruflé.

Um, our choir doesn't look as professional as that YouTube video, but we're good for a bunch of amateurs who just came together to rehearse about six weeks ago. :) We'll have a smaller number of instruments, which was actually Duruflé's preferred orchestration (he scored it three ways: with organ alone, with a few instruments, and with a full orchestra, and the middle way is the one a lot of people seem to like best.)

Here's a flier for the concert, and if you're reading this, you're invited. It's only an hour long and we'll feed you afterward! :)

P.S.: The Spurs beat the Mavs in six games and they're on to the conference semifinals against the Suns. Just thought I'd let you know that. :)