Wednesday, December 7, 2011

St. Nicholas, Pray for Us!

Someone (and it was't me) left three bags of chocolate coins in our group's printer room yesterday (06Dec11), the very same day as St. Nicholas' feast day.

To me, it seems very unlikely that this gesture was not a salute to the traditional story of St. Nick's fourth-century gift of three bags of gold coins to the father who otherwise would have had to sell his daughters into slavery.

Fittingly, the chocolates were left anonymously, just as St. Nicholas had done.

If I had been the one to bring the chocolates, it would have inconsistent with the story for me to explain it to others. But since I hadn't been the one to offer the salute, I was able to explain the chocolates' significance to two colleagues.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In the Face of Flak

My colleague "Jamie" has recently been challenging and subtly belittling me in a variety of areas (my computer programming technique, my data collection methods, my grammar, etc.). There is a great temptation for me to be spiteful towards him. But I instead resolve

(1) I will stand up for myself when it is necessary for the good of the project or to defend my good name. But otherwise, I will accept criticism quietly.

(2) I will be grateful for others' encouragement when they observe Jamie's tactics. But I will not complain about him in their presence.

(3) I will try to keep a light-hearted attitude as I interact with Jamie and other colleagues. But I will not fight scathing or cynical sarcasm with sarcasm of my own.

May all those saints who grew through patience with those around them please pray for us!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Goals for the Day

"Goal: Save one person from a missile every day." I saw this written across the top of one of my old notebooks this week.

When I first started my job, I worked on a project that was related to missile defense. Of course, I didn't have any direct involvement with any of the systems. But I liked to pretend that I did, as though I really could "save" an individual from a missile, in order to make my contribution seem more tangible. It sounded heroic, dramatic, important, and it was broken down into a single day's effort.

A few years later, I switched positions, and now I might write, "Goal: Prevent one person from contracting dengue fever every day," or "Goal: Keep one plane crash from happening every day." Again, I could herein have a tangible and dramatic "aim."

However, I have come to think that a goal with a different tilt might be even better. While I think that the outcome of my work is meaningful and important, the way in which I do my work might also be very important. I want to do a good job technically, but also to do a good job at charity.

Along these lines, I might write in a notebook these days, "Goal: To share the love of Christ with at least one person every day," or "Goal: To be distinctly joyful to at least one person every day." Within a single day's effort, may I pursue this goal as best as I can.

Friday, November 18, 2011

An Office of Prayer

At Mass this morning, Fr. Jose Raul asked everyone to remember that a church is a "place of prayer." This inspired me to think of my office as a place of prayer as well.

Of course, an office is not the same as a church. But I think that it has the potential to be a more prayerful place for me. Here are some initial ideas:

(1) I don't need to check my personal email account any more than once or twice during the day. Very seldomly do others need to contact me that suddenly. Ultimately, checking for email may be a way that I seek a connection with others. During these times, perhaps I can seek a deeper connection with God.

(2) I don't need to check the news as often as I do. Some days, I might not need to check it at all. On my way home, I can hear it on the radio. At home, I can read the newspaper. Rather than seeking the moment-to-moment sensation of world events, perhaps I can seek the ignition of the Holy Spirit.

(3) I don't need to eat at work when I'm not hungry. Sometimes, I do this as a way to mentally take a break. If anything, at these times, perhaps I can seek to be fed by the grace of Christ.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Imitation Aim: Patience With Others

A meeting ended this morning and this conversation took place:
* "Joey" [to me]: You can ask either me or "Chuck" about X since it seems like we're on the same page.
* Joey [to Chuck, facetiously]: Hey, are you getting tired of that yet? I mean, are you getting tired of us being on the same page? We're usually not.
* Chuck: Oh, oh no, I think that it's great.
Chuck and I have been working a lot together. Joey is overseeing our work. Often, Joey seems to come up with his own ideas and disregard our ideas. Joey generally has sound ideas. But sometimes it is difficult to swallow his eagerness to switch the approach.

If Joey had asked me those questions instead of Chuck, I probably would have glared at Joey and said something like a smart-aleck.

I admire Chuck's patience with Joey, particularly since I know that Chuck has suggested that he is often leery of Joey's ways as well.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Repugnant Means, Meritorious Acceptance

The other day, I came across another idea from Fr. de Caussade which seemed like a match for my time in the office ("Abandonment to Divine Providence" 48):
[The Lord's] love wishes to unite itself with us ... That is his supreme purpose, and to accomplish it he uses ... the most unpleasant and most delightful of happenings ... The more naturally repugnant to us the chosen means, the more meritorious is our acceptance of them. So every moment of our lives can be a kind of communion with his love.
"Repugnant" is the word that jumped out at me. In long meetings, on uneventful afternoons, with assignments which change repeatedly, would such description ever fit how I regard them? (It's likely.)

Once again, I resolve to face such moments with perseverence ("meritoriously"). After all, they may be my means of growing in love for the Lord.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Surprising Question

"Are you a religious man?" I was asked by "Carl" this afternoon.

(1) "What?" I first thought to myself and, "Oh no!" Were all of my efforts to be a man of faith in the workplace that muted? As an undercover missionary, was I placing too much emphasis on the "undercover" and not enough on the "missionary"? If Carl hadn't been in doubt about whether religion was important to me, why would he have asked?

(2) But then I also thought perhaps his question signaled the opposite. Perhaps in asking if I was religious he was indicating that he had observed enough in me to suggest that I am religious. Perhaps I act in such a way that I made it comfortable for him to ask such a question. Perhaps his question suggested that I am being an undercover missionary just the right amount.

Carl's question arose a question that is still unsettled for me. What is the "right amount" of missionary to be in the office? How obvious should it be that I am a man of faith, a man who loves Christ?

Note: When Carl asked his question, I had been telling him about my audio book about the philosophy of science, and he wanted to tell me about a book that he had read that asserted that there was no inconsistency between science and the Bible. Presumably, it also contained some philosophy about science.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

St. Mary of the Mills, Pray for Us!

This morning, I awoke earlier than expected, and was able to go to 6:30 AM Mass at St. Mary of the Mills Parish on the way to my office.

There are many good aspects about this parish, such as their Tuesday Adoration hours, at which I can stop on my way home from the office. But my favorite of them all is their patroness.

I do not know if "St. Mary of the Mills" is an actual title for the Blessed Mother. An Internet search on this term exclusively yielded pages from the parish website. More likely, the parish name is intended to be "St. Mary" and when it was founded it just happened to be near the mills. (This website gives an interesting recap of the parish's history and includes the picture below.)

Nevertheless, I like to think of the name as part of a special devotion to Our Lady and it will remain "St. Mary of the Mills" all as one for me.

While I do not work in a paper mill or steel mill, I still like to consider my office job in the context of such physical labor. My desk and computer are my "mill" where I put forth my intellectual "sweat."

May Our Lady pray for me and my colleagues as we go about this work.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Parable of the Engineers

Though I studied mathematics and I call myself a "mathematician," a lot of my job is effectively engineering. When I heard this morning's Gospel (Mt 25:1-13), I thought about engineers:
Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, `Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps....
In the following six verses, the Gospel finishes with the foolish maidens trying to obtain their oil, not being able to obtain any, and ultimately missing the bridegroom. At the same time, the wise maidens went with the bridegroom into the marriage feast.

As I listened to this Gospel, I thought about how the wise maidens' attentiveness and preparation had been very important. Because they prepared, they were able to meet the bridegroom (a parable for being with Christ in Heaven, I think).

On some level, just about all of engineering involves preparation: thinking about how a process should be designed, how interruptions should be handled, how a certain tool might be used and could be made more useful. Intrinsically, engineers must plan ahead.

Faith, on the other hand, can often seem to run contrary to planning. It is not that a faithful person must not or should not plan. However, having faith in the Lord often requires willingness to put aside one's plans.

Consequently, it seems to me that preparation is often looked down upon through the lens of faith - again, not as a necessity, but in practice.

Therefore, when I heard this Gospel, I was happy to make the connection between preparation in Heaven. Of course, "planning" for Heaven and planning an engineering process may often be fairly different. But I like having the parable as a context within which I think about my planning at work.

Can my engineering planning help me to become better at planning ahead for Heaven?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

That To Which Trust Leads

When "Maury" gets excited, he uses all sorts of language and sadly he sometimes uses the Lord's name in vain.

I feel like I don't know him well enough to yet confront him, but I would like to let him know that it makes me feel badly.

In the meantime, I continue to try to do a good job at the work that he assigns me and to generally build trust between us. Maury is someone with whom I'll be working closely for at least several more months.

Eventually, I hope that we can get to a point where the conversation naturally leads to the Lord's name. Here's how it might go:
* Me: Hey Maury, how about that Steelers-Ravens game?
# Maury: Oh come on, don't start that again!
* Me: OK, OK, I'm just kidding. But there is something that I wanted to mention.
# Maury: Oh yeah, what's that?
* Me: The name of the Lord is something that is really important to me. And sometimes, when you get real excited when we're talking about the system, you use the Lord's name almost like you would a curse word. I'm guessing that it's something that you probably don't even think about. But it does throw me off and does make me feel badly....

Friday, November 4, 2011

Another Chance

I've spent all morning in a hurry. I've been a few minutes late to everything that I've tried to do. I've groaned at long red lights. I've sighed heavily when the school bus in front of me put on their blinkers. I've allowed myself to become totally distracted.

But now I am at work, and I have another chance.

I have another chance to undertake the tasks in front of me, one at a time; another chance to be patient; another chance to look beyond myself and see how I could relate to others; another chance to relax, and to rest in the present moment; another chance to move forward, in the Lord's peace.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Conversations (part I)

Every once in a while, I'll eat lunch with colleagues. Since a few of us spent all day at an off-site meeting, today was one of those days.

Sometimes, my colleagues say things that are interesting. Other times, they say things that are inspiring. Sometimes, though, they say things that are downright appalling.

E.g., from today, the conversation included descriptions of live-in boyfriends, the positive sides of divorce, and jokes about pornography.

If I knew my colleagues better, I would be more confident that speaking up clearly, offering an alternative viewpoint, would be the right thing to do.

But for almost all of them, I don't know them very well. At best, I am still early in a "building a relationship" stage.

Also, I don't usually have too many chances to talk individually with any of them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Art of Balance

Here are the top 3 reasons that I have printed a half-dozen paintings and taped them to the office wall facing my desk. Each print is between two and five inches in each dimension.

(1) My sister Gina is a trained artist and I've received from her a refined appreciation for artwork.

(2) In most of my work, "good" is defined objectively and precisely, e.g., by exceeding a numerical threshold or satisfying a set of criteria. I think that the art on my wall is also "good," albeit in a totally different way, and I think that this balance is important.

(3) I've chosen a few paintings, like "A Farmer's Garden in Simsbury" (Thomas Worthington Whittredge, 1875), which express work in a way that balances my work in a different way. During the day, I don't till the soil or pick out weeds. But I like to recall the connection between such physical toil and my own intellectual toil.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pro-Life Colleagues

Of the forty members of my group (including me),

* 3 have children in-utero
* 5 more have had children born within the last year
* 4 others have had children born within the last two years

This means that thirty percent of the group has a child younger than two years old.

Hooray for the youngsters! Hooray for their parents!

I know that my parents sometimes received flak for having five children. I will do my best to support my colleagues who are having children (while waiting for my own turn).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Adding a Song to the Message

Seemingly, part of building relationships with one's office colleagues is "sharing a part" of oneself with them.

On my personal telephone, I have a singing voice mail message, which changes according to the time of the year or my own personal interests at the time.

E.g., my current voice mail message on my personal telephone is set to the tune of "Johnny Appleseed":
The Lord is good to me,
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me
The things I need,
The sun and the rain, and an
Answering machine!
The Lord is good to me.
Many people who call seem to like these singing messages.

What if I had a singing message for my work phone? Over the years, I've developed plenty of answering machine jingles with content that would be completely "office-appropriate." E.g., to the tune of the Chili's baby back ribs commercial:
If you leave a message, I will
Call you back, call you back, call you back.
Please leave a message
And I'll call you back.
Some could argue that this would be completely unprofessional. But I think that it would bring a smile to my colleagues.

Note: You may recall that my current office voice mail message already gotten positive reviews. C.f., my 06May11 post. How much more would be gained by adding a song?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hallway Encouragement

I have known that my colleague "Agnes" was Catholic. But we'd rarely discussed our faith.

Today, though, out of the blue, she sent me a message with the subject "Fw: Marriage in Maryland Needs Your Support Now."

Preceding a detailed request from the Maryland Catholic Conference, she included a brief note:
Phil, Not sure if you if support this point of view but if you do make your voice heard. Agnes
I think that it is very good to be able to share perspectives on this kind of issue with colleagues, and to be able to support each other even at work.

Therefore, I was very pleased to receive Agnes' message.

Monday, October 17, 2011

An Extra Ounce

I had a pretty disappointing weekend, during which some exchanges didn't work out at all as I had wanted, and right now I am feeling fairly glum. I didn't sleep well last night and I'm physically and emotionally weary. While my work provides some welcome distraction, in an office by myself is one of the last places where I want to be.

There is a temptation for me to allow this restlessness to trickle into my interactions with my colleagues. Or, even if I am able to maintain a professional level of courtesy and attention, I feel like I'm on a steep slope of not bothering to seek to treat them with the love of Christ.

On the other hand, however, I suppose that it is possible that my sufferings could actually enhance my efforts to treat them with Christ's love. In a sense, my sufferings could be an "extra ounce" to add to specific efforts to show them respect, genuineness, and concern.

Amidst my tough times, I have decided that I am offering my sufferings to the Lord's "discretionary fund," to be used for the benefit of whoever He wishes - and I suspect that it is possible that some of my colleagues could be among the recipients.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Being "The Guy Who ..."

Yesterday morning, I went through the wringer as I gave a dry run of a presentation to my colleagues. They were picky as could be - They didn't like the size of the plots, the style of the font, the order of the slides.

Their critique ultimately will help me to prepare for the external presentation that I am scheduled to give next month. But it is nevertheless somewhat overwhelming.

About halfway through the ninety minutes of scrutiny, I felt about ready to call it quits. "OK folks, I get the point, I need to completely start it over, Can we just skip the last ten slides? I'm ready to go check my email and eat lunch." At least temporarily, I wanted to forget that this presentation existed at all.

But then I took a deep breath. Trying to be an undercover missionary makes these situations a little different.

It is bad enough to possibly be "the guy who has a prayer card on his office wall, but is incompetent at presentations." But now I was also on the verge of being "the guy who has a prayer card on his office wall, is incompetent at presentations, and also gives up in the face of criticism."

Instead, I would rather be "the guy who has the prayer card on his office wall, might not be perfect at first, but works hard to do his best." So I did my best to attentively field their suggestions.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Commonplace Praise

Months ago, my sister Gina gave me a book called "Abandonment to Divine Providence" and insisted that I should read it. I started to read it, but only made it few a few dozen pages.

This evening, I restarted reading that book. In the very first reflection, Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade includes a comment on the Blessed Mother that caught my attention:
No matter what her jobs were - ordinary, commonplace, or seemingly more important ones - they revealed to her, sometimes quite clearly, sometimes obscurely, the activity of the Almighty and were an opportunity for her to praise God.
Tomorrow at work, when it seems as though my jobs are ordinary or commonplace, I will try to be attentive anew to the activity of the Almighty and to allow those jobs to bring praise to Him.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Happy Birthday Mary!

As it has for the last three days, it was pouring rain this morning, so I scurried quickly beneath the overhang.

I hopped over a few puddles, then went into the Dunkin' Donuts in the shopping center next to my office, and I bought a box of 25 munchkins.

Just before 9 AM, I arrived at my office and put the donuts in the room where everyone goes to pick up the papers that they've printed. Everyone knows that food left here has been offered to everyone.

By 11 AM, the donuts were gone.

Happy birthday Blessed Mother!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day!

Some may point out that one of the main points of weekday work is to point to the leisure of Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. We work during the week in order to better celebrate Sunday.

Therein, a day to commemorate labor and its productivity may be too much, may misplace the spotlight, and may miss the point.

But I think that celebrating Labor Day actually is quite in line and has a very good point. By not going to work today - instead, I'm at home with my family in Pennsylvania - I indeed hoped to point towards the intrinsic value of my weekday labor, which is importantly linked and points to Sunday.

Indirectly but also uniquely, Labor Day has pointed me to Sunday and therein has helped to point me to the full importance of my work.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hosting a meeting, with a servant's heart

When several collaborators from Peru came to our laboratory this week to find out more about what we were doing with their data, some folks on our project seemed a little irritated to have to devote so much time to the meetings. But "Bill" took it in stride.

As the meetings began, Bill made sure to ask our visitors, "We are very grateful that you have come so far and we want to make sure that your visit is as worthwhile as possible. What do you hope to take away from these meetings?" Attentively and deliberately, he was giving them control. He was positioning us as "servants" to their needs.

Earlier, the question had arose about what we should do at lunchtime. Should we all pay for ourselves? Should we try to charge the lunch to our project budget? Bill was emphatic. "They are our guests. We will treat them." Ultimately, he treated all of us from his own money. Again, his actions bespoke a servanthood towards our collaborators.

On a technical level, the meetings were very helpful. But perhaps the most important things that I learned were from Bill's example. If I am ever in his position, towards the front a meeting with international visitors, I will try to follow his example.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sharing well what I know

In a 2009 encyclical on love and truth, Pope Benedict XVI wrote
Knowing is not simply a material act, since the object that is known always conceals something beyond the empirical datum. All our knowledge, even the most simple, is always a minor miracle, since it can never be fully explained by the material instruments that we apply to it. In every truth there is something more than we would have expected, in the love that we receive there is always an element that surprises us. We should never cease to marvel at these things (Caritas in Veritate, #77).
I have the opportunity to learn a lot of things and gain a lot of knowledge during my work. What lies beyond my empirical data? In what ways to I acknowledge the "minor miracles" of my knowledge? In what ways do I "marvel" at the things that I learn in my job?

To do my job well, I must share much of what I know, openly and effectively. But, beyond this responsibility, how do I share a sense of wonder with my colleagues? How can I do it in humility?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

My birthday!

Today is my 28th birthday, and I took the day off from work, as an act of celebration.

Claire and I went to Mass this morning, then on a hike along the Potomac River in Virginia. On the way home, we had burgers at Fuddruckers on H Street and made a quick trip to the Portrait Gallery. Tonight, I will return to Chinatown for a Holy Hour of Adoration for young adults ("Christ in the City"). In a few minutes, I might go for a jog. I have also been writing postcards and listening to bluegrass music. Today is a festival of all of the things that I enjoy and are important to me!

It is not as though I have a surplus of free time right now in my job. I might go into the office on Saturday to keep pace on a few projects.

But the Lord has showered me with many blessings and I would like to do a good job acknowledging them. Being able to work is one of those blessings, and in some indirect but definitive way, not going to work today is a way for me to acknowledge it.

"Thank You, Lord, for the gift of my life, the gift of another year past (and the hope of another year to come), and the gift of a birthday."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A holiness witness

Earlier this week, at morning Mass, Fr. Tappe spoke of our opportunity "to give witness to the holiness of Christ by the holiness of our lives."

"Yes!" I thought "I am called to be Christ's witness in my office place," and there I must be holy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The power of a voice mail prompt

This morning, a colleague began his phone message by thanking me for me "wonderfully pleasant" voice mail prompt. He said that it even made him want to change his own voice mail prompt.

To be honest, I don't even remember how my voice mail prompt sounds. I probably haven't changed it since I began working at my current job nearly four years ago. But I'm glad that at that time I took the time to make the prompt something positive.

Having a cheerful voice mail seems to have been a simple way to make a difference.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

An office missionary "convention"

I was recently forwarded the details about an upcoming retreat at the "Laity Lodge" in rural Texas. Here is a description:
Our retreat will draw together a group of 50 people from across the country who are committed to vocations in the marketplace. Ten will be senior members, like the CEO, and 40 will be junior members, like the young entrepreneur. For four days we will talk and think, pray and eat, by God's grace forming a community of practice that will work to recast the Church's understanding of vocations in the marketplace-deepening visions, developing apprenticeships, all with the vision of transformation. Not a small task.
It is very encouraging to me to see this acknowledgment of the potential spark within an office or a "marketplace" brought forth by people seeking to be holy amidst and through their "ordinary" vocations and professions.

I am grateful for those who are taking the time to think more deeply about it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

To be an office worker of mercy

After teaching my 8th grade CCD students about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy a few weeks ago, I have been trying to incorporate them in my own life.

I wrote them out and taped the list to the inside of my closet door. At the end of the day, I try to check the list and ask myself, "How have I been able to be a man of mercy today?"

In my job, I think that there is often the need to "bear wrongs patiently," one of the spiritual works of mercy.

One situation, in particular, that comes to mind is my colleague "Jake" who has repeatedly attributed an idea to me that isn't actually mine but is his.

Albeit, it might be more offensive it he were to do to the opposite, but at the same time I don't particularly like this idea and would have preferred for him to have kept the ownership.

From one angle, I imagine that he is crediting the idea to me to spare himself of the responsibility. (I could be completely wrong.)

Nevertheless, to object or to initiate a discussion over who contrived the idea seems to not be the right move. It would be an unnecessary challenge to his perspective and would not seem to bring Jake any benefit. Instead, each time he (wrongly) cites me for this idea, I am seeking to patiently bear it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A "Catholic difference"? (Part 3)

My uncle recently sent me an article about Jack Griffin. He was the CEO of Time Incorporated (publisher of Sports Illustrated, Time, and People magazines). Then he was fired. Among other possible causes of Mr. Griffin's dismissal, one article mentioned his Catholic faith:
Griffin, who is a Roman Catholic, made some in the company uncomfortable by referring to his faith during meetings and interactions with subordinates, two execs told The New York Times.
In previous posts, I have mentioned the difference that being Catholic might make in an office. In this case, did being Catholic make the wrong kind of "difference"?

Or was it the case of something separate? In the article from my uncle, the phrase "unable to gain the faith of his employees" caught my attention. On one hand, perhaps Mr. Griffin courageously gave witness to his faith even at the expense of his professional standing.

Indeed, I take encouragement from the example of someone unafraid to share their faith, even explicitly, within their office.

But on the other hand, perhaps it was this inability to build a rapport with his colleagues that made the witness of his faith more "distant" to them.

With this possibility in mind, I also take heed of the importance of building genuine relationships with others who ultimately be encouraged by another's faith.

In any case, I again pray for the grace to balance courage and prudence within my mission field.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Imitation aim: Thoughtfulness

At the office, I would like to be more like my colleague "Audrey."

She led a small project that recently finished. I was part of the project. A few days ago, I and others received handwritten notes from Audrey. Mine included,
"Thank you for your contributions to our small testing team ... Your upbeat spirit and fun remarks helped carry us all through longer testing activities ... Best wishes to you as you continue working towards your goals ..."
This unnecessary but significant act of humility and thoughtfulness made an impression on me. It certainly was a way to share Christ's light within an office.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Office fooling!

One year ago, on April 1, I emailed the colleagues in my hallway:
As you may know, every year, Washington DC hosts a very popular “Cherry Blossom Festival,” featuring the striking pink and white blossoms from the trees donated by Japan in 1912 as an act of goodwill (c.f.,

You may also know that in the evenings, inspired by an adventurous appetite, I have recently begun studying at a local culinary institute to become a non-dessert pastry specialist.

This year, I decided to combine the local festival with my new trade and made a full batch of “Cherry walnut marshmallow raisin scones” to share. (Yes, this is an original recipe. “Cherry trees” and “cherry scones,” do you get it?)

Because of the presence of both walnuts and marshmallows, it is important to keep the scones slightly chilled. Herein, I have left several dozen in the small cooler with the orange top in the printer room. Please give them a try if you would like!

Then, I put the small cooler with the orange top in the printer room, empty except for a note that said "April Fools!"

As people filed into the printer room one by one, I listened with amusement from down the hallway. "Oh man, he got me!" I heard, and "Well, those scones were sure 'low-calorie.'"

On the whole, I think that it brought many people a good laugh.

+++ +++ +++ +++

This year, I tried a different approach. Instead of playing a joke, I did what I had joked about last year.

I made cherry bars this year, and to my colleagues, I wrote,

This year, I really did make cherry walnut oatmeal bars. Feel free to stop by my office to give them a try. Since I never did actually enroll in a a culinary school, maybe you can give me some tips on my recipe.

Ironically, some of them were determined not to be fooled twice and didn't believe me at all this year. But by now most of them have discovered the truth. I've certainly gotten them thinking, and I think that it again has had a positive effect.

I think that having a light-hearted spirit in an office is a good way of indirectly sharing the joy of Christ.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A "Catholic difference"? (Part 2)

I am thinking of two people.

The first person is a member of my parish. This is where I meet him. He is a nice guy. I see him at Mass on Sunday. Later, I realize that he too is a mathematician and works for an employer similar to mine.

The second person is a colleague. I have met him at work. Like others in our field, I respect his technical expertise. Later, I find out that he too is Catholic. Occasionally, I go to Mass at his parish on my way to work and see him there.

In a sense, I may think of the first man as "a Catholic who happens to be a mathematician" and of the second man as "a mathematician who happens to be Catholic."

Is there a difference?

For me as a fellow Catholic, there may be no difference. I recognize the necessity for a Catholic to integrate his faith and his work: to be a "good Catholic" on the job and to do well at a job as an expression of the values of faith. Both of these men are valuable role models to me.

But if I was not Catholic, would there be a difference in the potential for these men to be an "undercover missionary" to me?

Monday, March 21, 2011

A "Catholic difference"? (Part 1)

One of the speakers at the retreat that I attended this past Saturday was introduced as a psychologist. Taking the microphone himself, he clarified that he was not just a psychologist but a Catholic psychologist, and added "and that makes a big difference."

When I am asked about my job, I say that I am a mathematician. What if I were to add, "and I am a Catholic mathematician"? Would that make a big difference?

Or at the times when I mention that I would in an office, what if I were to add, "and I am a Catholic who works in an office"? Would that make any difference?

Unlike the field of psychology, where Catholic doctrine may make an explicit contribution, I do not know that any actual mathematical ideas can be characterized as "Catholic." (Am I overlooking any?) Therefore, in practice, I probably would not mention my Catholicism when mentioning my occupation.

But, even if the actual mathematics that I do is not influenced by my Catholicism, is the way in which I do that mathematics at all influenced by me being Catholic? To be a Catholic mathematician who works in an office, what would that mean?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jesus and the Modern Office Man

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Philadelphia was this statue behind St. Charles Seminary.

In it, Jesus is flanked by a kneeling gentleman in a double-breasted suit with a stethoscope around his neck and a book at his feet.

Initially, I assumed that the gentleman was a saint and that the stethoscope meant that he had been a doctor, and I scrunched my brow to think which 19th or 20th century saint had been a doctor.

To the contrary, though, the seminary residents told me that "Jesus and the Modern Man" was erected in the early 20th century and that the man was simply a representative "modern man." The stethoscope and book were symbols of the most modern things of that time.

Though I was slightly disappointed with this explanation (even asking two separate residents just for confirmation), I still found the notion of a man amidst modernity walking with Jesus to be both fascinating and energizing.

In a sense, it was as though the man not only carried this modernity in his possessions, but also incorporated it into his relationship with Jesus, even perhaps therein making that relationship fuller.

(It sometimes seems to me that modern elements can impede our relationship with Jesus. What a challenge to use them to assist that relationship! What an insight!)

A hundred years ago, medicine boasted many of the most cutting-edge technologies. What technologies would join it today? I like to think of the technology with which I'm surrounded at my office and the related ideas as being among this group.

Could I picture myself at my desk in my office in this modern man's place? Can I use these modern elements to grow closer to Jesus and to help others in the same?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bearing an ashen cross

A few years ago, around this time of year, I had the following exchange at work with "Lindsay":

Lindsay: [Visibly baffled] "Ummm, I think that there's something ... I mean ..."
Phil: "Pardon me?"
Lindsay: "Do you know that you have like dirt or someting on your head?"
Phil: "Unh hunh. Sure. Those are ashes. Today is Ash Wednesday. The ashes used to be in the shape of a cross until I accidentally smudged them."
Lindsay: "Wow. Oh yeah. I think I've heard of that."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Urgency for the ordinary

St. Jose Maria Escriva, in 1967, added new urgency and new encouragement to efforts to grow in holiness while on the job:
Either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find Him.
This week, I will strive anew to find the signs of our Lord and to find Him amidst my office work.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The toothbrush walk

Soon after I started my full-time job, I went to the dentist and learned that I had a cavity. It was the first cavity that I had received in fifteen years. Determined not to get another, I took a toothbrush to work and began brushing my teeth every day after lunch.

Typically, it is after I brush my teeth that I take the long way back to my office. It is by this route that I pass the offices of many other of my colleagues. Perhaps around 1:30 or 2 PM they have come to expect the sight of me strutting by with a toothbrush in hand or even propped in the front pocket of my shirt.

Generally, I try to stop to talk to at least one colleague each afternoon. I may tell them about one of my projects. I may ask them about their families. I may discuss some humorous trivia. I may answer a question about the latest riddle posted on my board.

Seeing me carrying a toothbrush down the hallway probably already gives them a dose of amusement. ("Why in the world is he carrying around that silly toothbrush?" they may ask.) But I hope that the substance of my visit also brings some light-heartedness to their afternoon.

I think that visiting my colleagues after I brush my teeth is a good way for me to connect with them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thinking about an office Rosary

At Case Western Reserve University, we had a group that prayed the Rosary every night at 9:30 PM at a picnic table outside the dorms (or in a lobby in the winter).

At North Carolina State University, I was part of a different group that increased its frequency each semester, eventually meeting to pray the Rosary outside of the student center each weekday afternoon.

In both places, praying the Rosary amidst studies was an edifying routine. I think that it helped my faith. I think that it also helped my studies.

Could a similarly regular Rosary group be formed at my current research lab? What would it be like to pray with others amidst a workday? How might it help our laboratory? This possibility has been on my heart for several years.

If such a Rosary group became an officially recognized organization, we could reserve conference rooms and meet there. Alternatively, we could try to find a distant table in one of the cafeterias. Where else could we meet?

Perhaps we could meet once a week during lunchtime. Or, we might find it more practical to meet in the morning. Are there other times that would work better?

How willing would fellow Catholic colleagues be to participate? Would potential conflicts with deadlines, meetings, or experiments deter them? Other groups meet for Bible studies or prayer groups during the day (I've been to some). Would there be more aversion to a formal prayer like the Rosary?

"For all the intentions of our laboratory, of our sponsors, of our supervisors, of our colleagues, and of their families, ..." For these things, we might pray.

Next to my desk, I have a small Marian prayer card on which I have written, "Mary, Queen of the Office, pray for us!" May she also intercede for the fruition of this Rosary group idea, if it please her son.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The chance to be friendly

A heavier-set fellow with a bright red sweater and energetic blond hair moved about the banquet hall. Eight months ago, I had met him at a Nationals baseball game with our lab's "Young Professionals Network." What was the chance that "Sam" would remember me? I debated whether I should say hello to him.

At the game last May, he had come by himself, and indicated that he knew very few colleagues after recently starting to work. I'd had a choppy but persistent conversation with him then. By now, maybe he had gotten to know more colleagues and was less "on his own." Then again, he appeared to have come to this large lunch gathering by himself. Maybe he would appreciate if someone like me reached out to him.

A Gospel choir sang loudly, followed by an exuberant historical reenactor. If I tried to say hello, Sam might not even hear me. He might be caught by surprise. He might not understand me. We might try to prolong the conversation but not know what to say. He might feel as though I was only saying hello because I was feeling sorry for him and feel badly about that.

I watched Sam finish his lunch, then move on to dessert, and to a cup of soda. If only he had already left, it would have solved my dilemma. (Since he wouldn't be there, I couldn't say hello.) But instead, I was the one to leave.

Walking back to my office, I realized that I hadn't been thinking ahead about being friendly when I arrived at this lunch gathering. Instead, I was mostly thinking about eating lunch as reasonably quickly as possible so that I would have less time to make up later in the afternoon. But being friendly to a stranger might have been the most meaningful thing that I would have done all day.

"Lord," I prayed, "I'm sorry that I might have missed a chance to be an encouragement to another. I'd like to do a better job at this. If You would like me to reach out to Sam, could You please help me to run into him again?"

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Coffee mug conversation

This afternoon, I made some hot tea in a mug that I had brought from home. The outside of the mug says, "Before you act ... Talk to God first!" My colleague "Ada" noticed it and commented.

Ada: [reading aloud] "Before you act, talk to God first."
Phil: "That's what it says."
Ada: [chuckling] "What if you don't believe in God?"
Phil: "Well then, I guess you'd need a different coffee mug."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Contributions, both material and spiritual

Dengue fever, an excruciating illness common to tropical regions, has flared again in Peru. One of my projects involves trying to predict when such outbreaks will occur. As I gather data and brainstorm which calculations would be best, perhaps I can pray for those who are stricken with this illness.

If our results are able to accurately predict an outbreak, measures may be able to be taken to reduce the disease's spread and resources may be better positioned to aid those who are stricken. My work might materially lead to help for them.

But by offering my work on this project as a prayer for their intentions, perhaps my work can also spiritually lead to help for them.

On this project alone, I can think of others for whom I might prayerfully offer my work: for the public health officials who have collected the data that we're using, for the computer scientists who have developed the programs that we're using, for other researchers whose earlier findings we might use, for the organizations that are financially sponsoring this work ...

May my good work receive meaning anew by undertaking it with a prayerful spirit.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A plus for the Cross

At the end of an email message, it is common for my colleagues to use different abbreviations (e.g., "B." or "af") or symbols (e.g., "-Shane"). In turn, I have begun to use my own symbol at the end of some message. Sometimes, I may use a plus sign. That is, I might sign my messages as "+ Phil."

It would be interesting to know whether my colleagues have noticed this symbol and what they think about it.

Perhaps they perceive it is as a normal variation on the common practice of using a symbol. "Hmmm, this is interesting. Most people use a dash or a squiggly in that spot. But he is using a plus."

Or perhaps they chalk it up as another idiosyncracy. "Hunh, he posts riddles on his hallway board and keeps a cylinder of oatmeal at his desk. He is a quirky guy. Using a plus must be another quirk."

Or maybe they consider it a little more deeply and perceive it as an assertion of optimism. "Well, he always seems to be trying to be chipper and he has a nerdy sense of humor. Perhaps using a plus sign is his way of encouraging 'positive' attitudes."

But how many people see the plus sign as a form of the Christian cross? "I know that he tries to be a faithful Christian. I have seen those little spiritual pictures on his wall. Maybe the plus sign is like a cross for him. Wow, I wonder if it could be."

In much of my personal correspondence outside of work, I close messages with "Christ's peace be with you" or "God bless you with a great day." Can this plus sign in my emails in the office be a subtle way of bringing the glory of the Cross to it?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What good are my calculations if I cannot ... ?

"Feliz ... ano ... nuevo!" I mentioned to one of our building's cleaning workers the other day when she came to empty our trash cans. I was proud to have identified how to say "Happy new year" in her native language.

"Gracia," she smiled, and added something else which I didn't understand. But I think that she was pleased that I had made the effort to carry on the conversation in the language with which she was more comfortable.

Then yesterday, another of the cleaning workers pulled me aside on my way to my office in the morning. He is one with whom I talk almost everyday. "Amigo," he said, "Can you do me a favor?" It wasn't a large favor at all, but I was pleased that he trusted me to help him with it.

There are at least a half-dozen cleaning workers that I know on a first-name basis, and I think that they are happy to see me and I am happy to see them (even if it is a challenge sometimes to think of what to say).

Establishing a friendly rapport with such colleagues who might be overlooked and others treated lukewarmly, I think, is one of my greatest accomplishments.

On days when none of my technical work seems to reap any progress, I hope that I am always able to say, "Today, I shared Christ's love with the janitors." If I cannot be charitable with them, what good are my calculations and brilliant ideas?

Monday, January 3, 2011

A pause to pray

For centuries, the Angelus has been prayed at noon and 6 PM (and midnight if you are a college student).:

(1) "The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary."
(2) "And she conceived by the Holy Spirit."
(1 + 2) "Hail Mary, full of grace ..."

(1) "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord."
(2) "Be it done unto me according to Thy word."
(1 + 2) "Hail Mary, full of grace ..."

(1) "The Word was made flesh."
(2) "And dwelt among us."
(1 + 2) "Hail Mary, full of grace ..."

(1 + 2) "Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His passion and cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection through the same Christ our Lord. Amen."
In this famous Millet painting, the workers of the field are pausing to pray the Angelus. Though it sometimes takes some effort to break from what I am doing, I receive great encouragement to join them and the many others who have added and are adding prayer to their workday in the same simple way.

I try to pray the Angelus every workday at noon. If I am still in my office at 6 PM, I try to pray it then too. (But hopefully I've already left for home!)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A chance to be heard

Almost 5000 people work at the lab where I work. More than half of them have an "account" on our "internal social network." Through this network, each person has a "dashboard," from which they can "follow" colleagues, join a variety of "groups," and even maintain their own "blog."

Whenever any member submits a blog post, it is visible on the "mainpage," able to be seen by anyone (whether or not they are a "follower"). Most people use their blogs to pose technical questions like "What software tool would be best?" or post links to news stories such as "This company will soon begin making a new type of sensor."

But "Greg" has a blog that is a little bit different. On his blog, he posts reflections on a "Scripture of the day" or shares "words of encourages" or narrates recent "conversion stories." Courageously, he shares his Christian faith in a place where it isn't necessarily expected (or intended).

In a sense, Greg is like me: missionary. Moreover, he and I share the same "mission field": a secular research lab which doesn't have an appointed chaplain or other formal means by which the Gospel can be shared. Seeing his blog has made me wonder. Should I start a blog similar to Greg's?

Whereas Greg posts general Christian encouragement, I could focus on specific truths and celebrations of the Catholic Church. Granted, not every colleague likely checks this social network regularly. (I'd guess it's probably closer to ten percent.) But every blog post is immediately given high visibility for those who do check. Is this my chance to be heard?