Saturday, December 15, 2007

Generation gap

My son Eli (14) and I went to see I am Legend this afternoon. I'm not here to review the movie, although I'll say Will Smith and his dog are ++++ and the zombies are meh.

Throughout the movie you hear Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." That's the one that goes, "Don't worry/'Bout a thing/Cause every little thing's/Gonna be all right." At some point he tries to explain why Marley is Great to the first non-infected human being (Alice Braga) he's encountered in over 3 years. She says, "Damien?" (Marley's son, of course. And all of a sudden you really begin to appreciate the age difference between the two characters.)

So after the movie I think to educate Eli about Marley. He says, "Oh, yeah, that was that "Don't worry, be happy," song, right?

Um, no. Bobby McFerrin has considerable talent, but he's no Marley. And they're not the same. Not at all.

Try playing both songs, back to back, to appreciate the difference. Even Eli, in his oblique way, acknowledged that there might be some differences between the songs. And Eli HATES to admit that he's wrong.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I got your ice cold Nugrape

One of the benefits of being forced to use my slow and sometimes cranky old iBook is that its iTunes has some music I'd forgotten about. Like this gem from the Nugrape Twins, available on Open Source Audio: I got your ice cold Nugrape. [Note: does anyone know how I can just upload a song from my iTunes here?]

Recorded in 1926 by the Nugrape Twins, it was probably an advertising jingle for Nugrape pop, popular in the South. But what a jingle, with lyrics like these: "What's that makes your lips go flippity-floppa/When you drink a Nugrape you don't know when to stop./I got your ice cold Nugrape."

I discovered this gold nugget, by the way, courtesy of the fantastic Oxford American's 2006 music issue. I've made a point of buying the past three music issues; they're generally filled with overlooked/little known musical treasures. All having some connection to the South, of course. Sometimes I think I'm a Southerner at heart.

yada, yada, yada

Well, it's been an interesting week, to say the least. I made the final pass over the manusript and sent the approprite sections to the scientists I interviewed. Tony flew in from Geneva on Friday evening, and we had our big annual holiday bash on Saturday evening. People always ask how many people come to our party, and I honestly have to admit that I don't know. Over a hundred? And this despite the freezing rain. Eli and I took a whole lot of dead soldiers out the the curb for recycling last night, I can tell you that much.

I learned that one of my guests at the party reads my blog! (You know who you are.) I have to apologize for my momentary brain freeze when I first began talking to you.

Sunday we cleaned and went to a funeral visitation for the father of one of Eli's friends. A sad, sad thing for two teenage boys left without their dad. I suspect that the Christmas season will be rough for them for many years.

Tuesday was my birthday! Tony took me out to dinner at Bacaro, as restaurant we like a lot. I ordered an appetizer made with beef tongue, among other things. I'd never had tongue, although as a kid I'd been licked by many a calf tongue on the farm. Apparently Tony's grandfather used to make a pickled tongue regularly, so he grew up with it. Anyhow, it was DELICIOUS! So was my roast chicken with greens and mashed potatoes. How homey does that sound?

Tony flew back to Geneva on Wednesday. He's beginning to make this transcontinental travel thing look like commuting. Fortunately, he comes home for good next week. Well, for good until he goes back to CERN, but he won't be staying for such extended periods!

This week, my wonderful MacBook Pro was attacked by a Leopard--the new, super-duper operating system, that is. First the hard disk icon disappeared from my desktop, then the Finder wouldn't launch, and after an hour and a half on the phone with the Apple tech support people (who suprisingly seemed not to know about this problem, even though people were discussing it on the boards), he advised me to archive and re-install Leopard. But first I had to make room on my hard drive. And that's when I got the blank blue screen. So I took my computer to the doctor, who will hopefully make it as good as new. Words of advice? Back up your data! (I did; that's why I'm not going crazy now.) And don't get Leopard...yet. I think it's still got some serious bugs, even though I really like a lot of its features.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

Mathematical crochet

I'm itching to go see the Hyperbolic Crochet Reef Project, currently showing in Chicago until December 16. According to the Chicago Reader, it's a crocheted model of the Great Barrier Reef that doubles as a model of hyperbolic space.

Doesn't it just look so cool?! I'm working on an as-yet undisclosed crocheting project (Christmas is not too far away, you know) that I think will be very cool but nothing even remotely approaching this level of creativity.

Here's an interview with Daina Taimina, a mathematician who invented hyperbolic crochet as a way of illustrating certain mathematical concepts. Like this hyperbolic pseudosphere:

Here's how Taimina describes a hyperbolic space: "The easiest way of understanding it is that it's the geometric opposite of a sphere. On a sphere, the surface curves in on itself and is closed. But on a hyperbolic plane, the surface is space that curves away from itself at every point."

I love it when art meets science.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Growing old with dignity

The other other day I passed an elderly man--I'd put him in his 80s--wearing a luxurious, jet-black toupee. Not only was it an outrageous rug, but it seemed to mock the worn, frail man underneath. I had a couple of condescending thoughts about an old man's vanity and pathetic attempts at holding on to youth. It can't be easy to grow old, I thought--and let it go.

Today, I'm afraid I contributed to another old man's sense of the indignity of growing old. The father of one of our neighbors has been living with them for the past few years now. He's one of those old guys who is constantly doing something--from my perspective, it's always yard work. You can tell that he enjoys it, even though every move is slow and deliberate. Last summer, I mentioned to John that his father-in-law was amazing--I'd even seen him up on their roof.

John sighed. "He's not supposed to be up there," he said. "He really worries us sometimes."

Today, I looked out of my window and saw the old man up on the roof, clearing it of leaves with a leaf blower. I watched in horror as the old man slowly advanced from the flat part of the roof to the slope. He paused often, calculating his movements. I couldn't say anything to him; we'd never exchanged more than hello and goodbye pleasantries. I kept my eye on him, already planning on what I'd say if I had to call 911. I called John on his cell phone instead.

"John," I said. "I hate to be a meddling neighbor, but your father-in-law is on the roof again. And I know you don't want him up there."

"I just blew the leaves off the roof yesterday!" John replied, obviously exasperated. "I'll be right over."

I continued to watch until John arrived a few minutes later to get his father-in-law off the roof. John put the ladder away--probably hid it--and the old man set to work blowing the few leaves left on the ground.

I know I did the right thing, but I can't help but feel that I laid yet another brick on an old man's load of indignities.

Now playing: Juillard String Quartet - IV. Allegretto con variazioni
via FoxyTunes

Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving thanks, part 2

I just found out that The Good, the Bad, the Slimy: The Secret Life of Microbes will appear on the Science Books & Films 2008 "Best Books List." SB&F is a critical review journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and according to the email they sent my editor, this is their most popular issue.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Giving thanks

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It's not because I love turkey so much (I like it well enough), or because I'm a big fan of the pilgrim story. No, it's because this is a holiday that's all about spending time with family and friends. Nearly every year for well over a decade now, we have spent Thanksgiving weekend with our friends Patty and Chris and their kids. For years, we rented a house big enough to hold the two families in Galena or some other town between our home and theirs. For the past couple of years, we've made our way to their home in St. Peter, Minnesota, where Patty has a gallery that of course has to be open on "Black Friday."

We are all very well aware of how rare and wonderful this kind of friendship is. Patty reminded me that when we first met, I was younger than her oldest daughter Becca is now. (I was 29; Becca is 30 and a family practice doctor.) We've seen each other through the sadness of the death of a loved one, the happiness of graduations and a wedding, and many marathons. And through it all, we've remained friends, and I'm happy to report that my kids look forward to spending Thanksgiving with the Conlin-Gurney clan as much as I do.

Our Thanksgiving always features the battle of the cranberry sauces. Tony always makes his traditional family recipe (found on the back of the cranberry bag). Chris opens a can of cranberries. Patty usually makes some sort of elaboration on Tony's sauce. I generally make a cooked cranberry sauce, although one year I was foolish enough to make Susan Stamberg's "Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish" (in addition to fresh cranberries, it involves an onion, sour cream, sugar, and horseradish). And each year, we vie to win the battle of the cranberry sauces. Here was this year's lineup, plus a few pictures of our sweet kids with their sweet cat:

Monday, November 19, 2007

My blog's readability level

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Hmmm. My editors at Enslow always have to remind me to make my writing simpler because, you know, my books are for kids.

I'm a geek?! Oh.

It never occurs to me that I have geeky tastes until someone else points them out to me. So, for example, Alison and I were both happy to find that the SciFi Channel was running an X-files marathon on Friday while she was lying in a hospital bed and I was not getting any revision work on my Antarctic book done. And she said that her friends think she's incredibly geeky because she has the complete X-Files series on DVD. Well, that's a whole bunch of fun if you ask me.

And then I read that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, puts little labels on the spines of the books in his home library with Library of Congress numbers and he keeps them all in LOC order. Now, he acknowledges that's "unbelieveably geeky," and maybe it is, but if you ask me it's just brilliant and I may have to do that myself, because our shelving system has gone all to hell lately and Alison had to tell me where our copy of Moby Dick was.

Need I tell you I'm intrigued by Amazon's new electronic book reader, the Kindle? Toni Morrison loves it! So does Neil Gaiman!

Now playing: Ryan Adams - These Girls
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Travel writing

I'm writing this on the plane as I head home from the second of three Wednesday to Sunday (or Thursday to Monday) travel weekends in a row. And while it seems ungrateful and uncaring, to say the least, to complain about spending so much time on the road when the first long weekend was spent on a Roman Holiday with my newly 50-year old husband, this weekend with my daughter while she was in the hospital with pneumonia (she's better now, thanks for asking, and recovering at home), and the coming weekend eating turkey and hanging out with our Minnesota friends, I have to say that I'll be glad when I can stay home for, say, four days in a row. Because having turned in Volcano Scientists, I have this little thing called revisions for my Antarctic Scientists book to do.

(Picking up now at home, because obviously I couldn't post on the plane.)

That said, while it was difficult to do much real revision work past the first chapter, I did get a chance to catch up on some reading. I finally got around to reading The Book Thief, by Makus Zusak, which was a Michael A. Printz Honor book for 2007 (a young adult literature award, named for a Topeka, Kansas librarian, who knew?). One of those wonderful, moving books with three-dimensional people who love and and hate and transgress and sometimes forgive. Narrated by Death, who is really not as bad as we make him out to be ("Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me."), and he guides through a whole lot of bad stuff through the Holocaust. It was one of those books where I found myself trying to hide my tears in the hotel restaurant, on the plane, or in my room not at all. It was also one of those books where I found myself reading shorter and shorter increments as I neared the end; partly because I didn't want it to end and partly because I was afraid of what I'd read.

Just read it. At the risk of sounding like Death, trust me. I think it will be added to my top 25 books for our Latta/Liss top 100 fave list. Something will have to go in its stead.

Now playing: Joni Mitchell - Answer Me My Love
via FoxyTunes

And then, in completely different vein, I read Dairy Queen, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, all in a day's trip. Here are some things I loved about the book: it gives a pretty good description of life on a small family farm. The narrator, D.J., is 15 and 16 in the book, and she knows how to milk cows and rake and bale hay. She takes over the farm, basically, when her dad develops problems with his hip. Why don't we get more books about kids who live on farms?

Well, why don't more people like me, who grew up on farms and know a thing or two about rural life, write about it?

That's a good question. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some of us, well, me, wanted to put that part of their lives behind them, no matter the cost. That life bears re-visiting, I think.

I love the fact that she decides to go out for football, bucking all traditions in her small town, if not in her football-start family of men.

I love the fact that she flunked English and doesn't read much. I think that too often YA writers find themselves writing about young misfits who loved to read...oh, wait, that would be us, the writers, huh.

And I loved the fact that a large part of the book deals with the fact that her family does not know to talk about their problems, keeping silent about their wants/needs/thoughts until it's too late. I think this is a large, and largely unadressed problem, especially in rural families. We just didn't talk about feelings or any of that crap much, it just wasn't done.

What I didn't love...well the writing was not especially spectacular, although it was fine. And I think that her mom and dad had some issues that were left too much up in the air, even leaving open the chance for a sequel (which there is). But these are minor things, and if you're looking for something to appeal to a rural readership, this is a good bet.

And I think I should know.

Now playing: Shawn Colvin - Twilight
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, November 15, 2007

One sick puppy

What do you do when a doctor calls you at 11:00 a.m. from hundreds of miles away to say that your 19 year-old daughter needs to be hospitalized because her pneumonia is not responding to oral antibiotics and her blood oxygen levels are low, her white blood counts high, and her pulse too fast? You gnash your teeth for not being there to hold her hand, and then you begin to make plans. By 5 p.m., you are at the airport, having booked a flight to Minneapolis, arranged to have someone take care of the dog, someone else to take care of the cats, and a third set of very kind someones to take care of your son. You cancel and reschedule appointments, you bring your work and hope that you can actually get something done.

She's fine.

She's responding to the antibiotics and improving; the doctor said she could probably go home tomorrow afternoon. I'm glad I came. News flash: you never stop worrying about your kids.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A tattoo tale

Oh, and there's a funny story about the tattoo...I wanted to surprise Tony when I came to visit him in Rome, so I told everyone who knew both of us that it was a BIG SECRET so please don't email him and say something like, hey, what do you think of Sara's ink? So a week and a half before I leave for Rome, I went to a party, someone took pictures and posted them on a photo-sharing website. I was in a couple of them, no big deal. I forwarded the link to Tony to show him what he'd missed.

I get email back from him: "I can pick out 'said' and 'will' on your left arm, which sounds a bit like Molly Bloom. Care to explain??"

Busted! But you know, this is why I love the man. Well, among other reasons.

Now playing: Thelonious Monk - Crepuscule with Nellie (Take 2)
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I'm back!

OK, as promised, I've returned to my blog. I sent Ben, my editor at Enslow, the completed volcano scientists Manuscript on Monday, November 5, and on Thursday left for a whirlwind weekend in Rome to celebrate Tony's 50th birthday (a few days late). It was a wonderful, romantic weekend. Our only obligations were to eat, drink, enjoy each other's company, and walk around Rome. A little bit of heaven. Here we are at the Forum (a funny thing happened on the way there...we got lost).

I think I also mentioned some sort of surprise that I'd announce after Rome...some of you already know about this. I got the tattoo I'd been thinking/talking about getting for years now. I knew I wanted to get something literary, but I didn't know what I wanted. I had originally thought I'd like to get an anklet with some sort of literary quote. After a lot of research, I settled on Molly Bloom's closing words to James Joyce's Ulysses: "and yes I said yes I will Yes." I've always thought of that as a affirming, life-embracing quote. Excellent! But what typeface? That led me to literary tattoos and typographic tattoos. But when I happened upon Ina Saltz's book, Body Type: Intimate Messages Etched on Flesh, I saw my quote in a lovely typeface (Vivaldi) and a triangular configuration that I fell in love with. Just in case you're having a hard time figuring out the body part, it's the upper part of my inner forearm.

All of this research eventually led me to an online article from The Believer. Oh, man, I see an obsession coming! Or at least a theme for a book!

I'm already planning my next tattoo. After all, I have yet to get that anklet I'd been talking about, and I know what I want now....

Now playing: Mariza - Primavera
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I'm interrupting my self-imposed moratorium on blogging while I'm trying to finish my book for two very important public service announcements.

My good friend Lu, voice of Speak and wonder dog/service dog-in-training Belle, is running a half marathon in January to raise money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. Here's a little bit of background:
As many of you know, my husband, Joe Finnegan died of complications from Crohn's Disease in January, 2004. My son, Ben was also recently diagnosed with Crohn's.

When those around you suffer, there's such a terrible feeling of helplessness. To combat that helplessness, I have joined the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation (CCFA) Team Challenge and will run the ING Miami Half Marathon in January, 2008. I am raising money for this very important cause and I'm asking you to help by making a contribution! Please use the link in this email to donate online quickly & securely. You will receive email confirmation of your donation and I will be notified as soon as you make your donation. I thank you in advance for your support, and really appreciate your generosity!!
I encourage you to become one of Joe and Ben's Crohn-ies! (Hey, that's Lu's joke, not mine!)

I also wanted to call your attention to another worthy cause, Robert's Snow. Just this past August, Grace Lin, children's author & illustrator, lost her dear husband Robert Mercer, to cancer.

When Robert was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, Grace was inspired to write and illustrate a book, Robert's Snow, about a mouse not allowed in the snow. After the book was published in 2004, Grace gathered childrens' book illustrators to create special snowflakes to be auctioned off, with the proceeds benefiting sarcoma research at the Dana-Farber Institute. Since 2004, the Robert's Snow auction has raised over $200,000.

You can help fund cancer research AND buy some very cool artwork here.

We can't all run a half marathon or create works of art, but we can all do something to help fund research to help cure diseases that affect those people we know and love.


Now playing: The Cat Empire - Hello

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Your eyes were are bigger than your stomach!

...And don't bite off more than you can chew. Two phrases I heard often while growing up. An apt illustration, especially given the fact that the little fish was dead when discovered.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I've been squashed!

OK, an image to entertain you while I'm busy doing some real work. A neighbor left this squash on my doorstep this morning. According to my bathroom scale it weighs 7 pounds, but it seems heavier. The hand...well, that's a prop from a failed science experiment. caraf knows all about that one. I'll write about that someday when I recover from the trauma. But New Scientist SAID it worked!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ain't the internets great!?

Well, yes, they are. Sometimes the internets are pretty great, in fact. Case in point: I got to know Lu, aka Speaker, service dog trainer extraordinaire and terrific Mom, via my running buddy caraf. I'd met Lu, briefly, and not in any really meaningful way, at a local race years ago. But we really only got to know each other through reading each other's blogs.

This past week, Lu came to CU to visit her son, a student at the U.I. She took some time to see Gracie and me as well. My internet friend became my face to face friend in no time. Thanks, Lu.

This may be the final entry in my blog until the first or second week in November. Until then, I'm going to be focusing on my finishing my volcano scientists book. But I'm going to meet Tony in Rome for his 50th birthday the weekend of Nov. 9, and then after that I may have a body modification (no! Not plastic surgery!) to report... And that's all I'm going to say.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Think pink

If you have been inside a grocery store this month, you are probably aware the October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.

Now, I think that breast cancer awareness is a good thing, I really do. And while I do like the pink M&Ms...

...this just seems wrong:

Yes, that's 10 pink boxes of hamburger helper for $10! And one of the risk factors for breast cancer would be...a high fat diet.

I'm becoming tired of pink. The Pink for the Cure campaign not only trivializes an important issue, but it ties it into foods of dubious nutritional value.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Miss Pickerell!

I got a blast from the past in from a little throwaway comment in the Style section of today's New York Times. Bergdorf-Goodman in NYC is selling wallets and change purses made from vintage library-bound children's books. (I'm dying for one of these. But they're not cheap.)

"There's a lot of amazing drawings and imagery on old book covers," Ms. Cagle [one of the creators of the line] said, speaking of buckaroos, heroes in tricorn hats, bewigged kings, arkloads of animals and goofy titles like 'Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars.'"

I had completely forgotten about the Miss Pickerell books--and I LOVED them! Miss Pickerell goes out to her pasture to visit her pet cow one day (first reason I liked her) and finds a rocketship (second reason). Somehow, she boards the ship, which is headed to Mars. Science adventure ensues. The first book in the series came out sometime in the 1950s, and when the original author Ellen MacGregor died, Dora Pantell took over (keeping MacGregor's name on the book, however).

There are a bunch of other Miss Pickerell books, including Miss Pickerell on the Moon, Miss Pickerell and the Geiger Counter, and Miss Pickerell Goes Undersea. And although I do not remember this title (I did a little research on Amazon), I felt that Miss Pickerell may have jumped the shark with Miss Pickerell Tackles the Energy Crisis. My heart sank a little when I read that.

I realized that Miss Pickerell is Stella Brite's grandmother.

Chicago marathon

Well, it sounds as though the Chicago marathon was hellish this year. It was so hot (reaching 88 degrees) and humid that they closed the course around noon, although it sounds as though many runners kept on going anyway. Worse, it was so hot that the faster runners were using a lot more water and Gatorade than expected, leaving a couple of the early aid stations completely dry by the time the 4-4.5 hour marathoners came along. One guy died.

I think they did the right thing to close the course, but it seems to me that running out of water and Gatorade has got to be a huge black eye for the organizers. They knew it would be terribly hot and should have arranged for more fluids.

All I can say is, I'm glad I didn't run this year's marathon from hell. Instead, caraf and I ran 9 miles this morning, admired a couple of GINORMOUS pumpkins on display in a local community garden, and ate some yummy watermelon while we iced our respective sore spots afterwards. Here's to running buddies!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Bumper sticker blogs?

OK, so you guys have pointed me in the direction of some great grammar police blogs, and for that I am thankful. Now I have another, perhaps greater challenge for you. Are equal to the task? I think you are.

I have a work-in-progress that's back of the burner right now, but I'm still in low-level in research mode for it. It's a road-trip novel, and I'm collecting interesting/funny/incongruous bumper stickers. Especially bumper sticker that seem to collide with others on the same vehicle/with the driver/with the car. At some point, I'm probably going to start taking pictures. Any leads?

One of my daughters pointed out that my car, a Prius, sports the trifecta in liberal commentary. I've got a rainbow strip across the back window, a Darwin fish, and a yellow "Support the troops/bring them home" magnetic ribbon positioned above my gas tank. Wait, wait, I'm not getting all sanctimonious on you, I know that bumper stickers are as much about the car driver you want to be as much as it is about the person you are. And I know that my too-big old house is an energy sinkhole. But I guess you could say that my car projects my ideal world. I think lots of people feel the same way.

Any bumper sticker anthropologists out there?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Seasonal spam

It's October, I just received a very important email from GhostControl, and I discovered that
Three houses in your neighborhood have had high amounts of spiritual activity. Our instruments show strange energy radiating directly from your home.
Woah! Fortunately for me, I can click on a link to find out if my house is haunted. Which I'll do...when...ah, never. Why not? Because I KNOW my house is haunted, man! It creaks at night, and there are lots of spiderwebs in the basement.

Come on, spammers! You can't get your Halloween act together before October 2? Does this mean I won't be receiving helpful messages about increasing Santa's penis size until December? Don't make me wait, spammers. It's October already. Get your acts together.


Sunday, September 30, 2007


I like the new template, what do you think? I have long felt that the old template was too in-your-face, the typeface too big, even though I liked the informal look.

I went for a fabulous run in lovely Allerton Park this morning with my running pal caraf and this caught my eye:

There was something about the vulnerability of that little sock--pinker than it appears in this picture--that made me stop and whip out my camera. (Yeah, that's the kind of serious runner I am.)

I picked it up in the hopes that we'd encounter its uni-socked owner, in Mom or Dad's backpack ahead of us on the trail, busily removing the other sock. No dice. So now I have a lonely pink baby sock in my Prius, and I can't bring myself to throw it away.

One last image. Just as I was writing about the pink sock, I spotted a red-tailed hawk (I think) in our backyard. Here it is:

I do hope red-tailed hawks don't eat koi. I've heard horror stories about herons discovering backyard ponds. It's welcome to my rabbits, though.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

50 years ago

It's the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch and the birth of the space age. Just a few entries ago, I wrote about how I was struck by the number of scientists I interviewed who wanted to be astronauts as kids. In an article in a special Space Age edition of today's Science (NY) Times, Shirley Malcolm, now an ecologist and director of education and human resources at the AAAS, said of being in high school at the time,
We stopped having throwaway science and started having real science...Here I was, a black kid in a segregated school that was under-resourced--Sputnik kind of crossed the barrier.
As it happens, black students crossed another barrier 50 years ago in Little Rock, Arkansas, an event that is sharing headlines with the launch of Sputnik. I was really struck by the juxtaposition and what it means about our society. In the fall of 1957, we (or the Soviets, actually) were beginning to explore space. We watched as the federal marshals escorted the Little Rock Nine into Central High School, past a hostile white crowd chanting "Two, four, six, eight, We ain't gonna integrate!"

Is the integration of a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas on the same scale as the Sputnik launch? For many black kids forced to attend substandard schools, the answer may have been yes.

The really sad thing is that Sputnik and the Little Rock Nine are sharing headlines today with the Jena Six. It seems that improving race relations is as hard as rocket science.

Monday, September 24, 2007

National Punctuation Day

Holy Cow!!! I just found out that today is National Punctuation Day, certainly a day to warm the heart of all the apostrophe pedant's like me. I wish I'd known about this earlier, if I had I would have gone out on a little punctuation error hunting expedition and snapped a few photo's with my "camera."

Instead you'll have to content yourselves' with this picture, I snapped in Belize last year. And remember, English is the native language in Belize, so its fair game.

Who among us wouldn't like some spiritual liquor now and then.

OK, how many punctuation errors did you catch in this entry?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Raffi kids grown-up, well, er, almost

I am among the legions of parents who listened and sang along to Raffi when their kids were wee young'uns. And, like many of those parents, I heaved a sigh of relief and bid him a hearty farewell when the wee ones graduated to the Beatles and Rolling Stones and, eventually, to their generation's music.

Seemingly overnight, we moved from Raffi to System of a Down; from ditties about beluga whales to protests against the Armenian genocide. And Raffi was a thing of the past.

Or so I thought.

As it happens, Raffi kids grow up. And they make videos like this:

Bananaphone video

Thanks to Eli, to has the Bananaphone song stuck in his head.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What inspired you?

I've had the opportunity to interview a lot of scientists lately--seven for the Antarctic Scientists book, and six out of a proposed seven for the Volcano Scientists book--and each time I asked, "How did you become interested in being a geologist/astrophysicist/volcanologist/(fill in the blank)?"

I've been struck by the number of people--perhaps one-third of my subjects--who said, "Well, when I was a kid, I really wanted to be an astronaut." And then, of course, the space program was scaled back, or they realized that they were too near-sighted or (sadly) the wrong gender, and their interests shifted. What all of these successful scientists had in common is that they had this intense interest in exploring the unknown, and to my generation, space was the great unknown.

What I'd like to convey to today's generation of kids is that while they may never be astronauts, there is still a wealth of scientific frontiers that we're just now beginning to explore. The second largest influence on the scientists, I think, was Jacques Cousteau--no surprise, because the ocean is a largely unexplored frontier. Scientists are continually discovering new forms of life in unexpected places, from boiling hot springs at the bottom of the ocean to icy lakes high in the mountains. Physicists probe the nature of matter to understand what happened just moments after the Big Bang, and molecular biologists are beginning to understand the ways in which genes influence behavior and health.

Who--or what--inspired you? (This question is not just for scientists!) Mine was the movie The Fantastic Voyage, so of course I became an immunologist.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


There's a "top 100 songs the year you graduated from high school" meme that's going around in the blogosphere amongst those of us who are searching for things to write about other than what we're having for dinner tonight. And while I'm not going to reproduce the entire list here or tell you which ones I loved/tolerated/hated, let me just show you the top ten songs from my graduation year, 1979:

1. My Sharona, The Knack
2. Bad Girls, Donna Summer
3. Le Freak, Chic
4. Da Ya Think I'm Sexy, Rod Stewart
5. Reunited, Peaches and Herb
6. I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor
7. Hot Stuff, Donna Summer
8. Y.M.C.A., Village People
9. Ring My Bell, Anita Ward
10. Sad Eyes, Robert John

Hmm...what do you think we were doing that year? Note that Robert John's "Sad Eyes" is #10. You knew that all that fun couldn't last, didn't you?

I was at a Barak Obama rally today (stay with me here, this will eventually be music related, which is not to minimize the importance of Barak) and ran into a friend who just came from a sale of the people who used to own Record Service. Remember when there used to be independent record stores, before Borders/B&N/iTunes? Oh, yeah!

Well, I hustled on over to the sale, where I picked up a bunch of CDs for $2 each. And at such prices, I felt free to do a little exploration. So I picked up a Hootie and the Blowfish album, their third I think, titled "Musical Chairs," which came out in 1998. For reasons I will explain in a moment, this band had completely slipped under my radar at the time (unlike every single one of the songs on my graduation year's top ten!). I recognized the name, I thought I might like them, but I was pretty clueless, really. So I bought the CD. And loved it!

Hootie and the Blowfish, as it turns out, falls into that abyss of bands who happened to be popular either when I was a) in graduate school, and either busy trying to find a cure for autoimmune diseases, working on my thesis, or playing pickup softball and drinking in bars after the softball games; or b) into my Chicago folk-music phase; of c) having babies and learning the words to Raffi songs. There's really just this huge black hole of my knowledge of popular music, and I blame it all on graduate school and having babies.

Anybody else have a similar experience? Come on, you know you do. You don't have to have gone to graduate school or had babies to respond, you know!

Friday, September 7, 2007

A sad day

One of my favorite authors, Madeline L'Engle, has died. She was 88. The New York Times article reporting her death quotes her as saying,

“Why does anybody tell a story?” Ms. L’Engle once asked, even though she knew the answer.

“It does indeed have something to do with faith,” she said, “faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

What you chose to say will indeed continue to matter cosmically, for a very long time, Ms. L'Engle.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Julia love

I hope you won't mind if I indulge in a bit of Julia idolatry. I'm so glad my daughter Caitlin transferred to Smith, not only because it's a terrific school that I think she'll love, but also because it's Julia Child's alma mater.

Which led me to tell her the story of how I came to correspond with Julia. When I was a staff writer for the American Oil Chemists' Society, I wrote a couple of articles about gourmet oils (remember, this was the early 1990s). While my article mainly dealt with the industry's response to growing public interest in gourmet oils, I wanted to ask some chefs about the types of oils they used. I sent Julia a letter, not really expecting an answer. Graciously, she sent me a typed response.

I dug it out of my files, and here it is:

Basically, she said: I use olive oil. I taste it before using it. For certain purposes, I use walnut or hazelnut oil.

In other words, nothing fancy, but always good. You were the best, Julia. You taught us all how to enjoy really good food.

Caitlin told me she thought that the cafeteria at Julia's house was now the "Healthy Options" kitchen. Which I think may have made Julia want to weep.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


I hope my teenage son doesn't see this, even though it looks like lots of fun. Good soundtrack, too. But I do wonder how the high-fiving guy broke his arm.

Goodbye, Mr. Peet

I was enjoying my morning coffee--Peet's, which we have shipped to us from Berkeley--and reading the paper when I learned that Alfred Peet died at the age of 87. Peet was the godfather of gourmet coffee and mentor to an entire generation of coffee entrepreneurs, including the founder of Starbucks.

When I began dating Tony, I was your typical midwestern coffee drinker--that is to say, I drank lots and lots of weak coffee that came out of a can. It was typically brewed in a percolater, and you could let that puppy run all day long, and as far as I was concerned, it was good to the last drop. Tony, on the other hand, mail-ordered this fancy coffee called Peets from Berkeley, where he went to graduate school. I thought it a bit silly, even snobbish, to be honest. Mail ordering coffee beans, which you then had to grind every morning? Sheesh.

But I was pretty fond of Tony, and it wasn't long before I grew to be pretty fond of Peets coffee as well. I even went so far, as few times, as to bring some Peets with me whenever visiting a non-Peets household. (Sorry, Mom and Dad. Talk about a coffee snob!) When Tony was on sabbatical at U.C. Berkeley and we were living in Oakland, I visited the original Peets (pictured above) fairly regularly.

Now, of course, good coffee is fairly easy to come by--and I'm not talking about the Starbucks on every third corner, although even that is better than the stuff we used to drink. And we owe it all to Alfred Peet.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nonfiction=vegetables, fiction=dessert?

The August 25-31 issue of the New Scientist has a special section on science in fiction (not science fiction), including reviews of new books by Richard Powers, Alan Lightman, and Andrea Barrett, three writers I admire greatly. There is also an essay written by Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher of science. Her novels include The Mind-Body Problem, Strange Attractors, and Properties of Light, none of which I've read but sound interesting.

She writes,
While I always loved fiction, as a child I thought of it as frivolous, pure make-believe. When I was given my first library card at the age of 6, I even made a rule to try to keep the seductive things from enchanting me too thoroughly and making me go soft-brained.

Every time I visited the library I allowed myself to take out one work of fiction. To balance it, I had to take out a book that was good for me, something I could learn from. I forbade myself from reading the storybook before completing the good-for-me book.
Obviously, as one who writes about science for kids, this disturbs me. Aside from the fact that the writer imposed this rule on herself at the age of six (six!), I'm dismayed by just how early we absorb the lesson that nonfiction is good for you, like brussels sprouts, and fiction is just candy. Where do we get these ideas? Is it because kids' science books aren't as well written as fiction? Is it because learning about the natural world seems too much like school?

Fortunately, Goldstein goes on to write that she's come to view fiction and non-fiction a little differently:
I have come to believe, over the years, that literary fiction is remarkably suited to grappling--as philosophy and science grapple--with the difficulties of reconciling objective truth with inner points of view.
What do you think? Is nonfiction your vegetable (not to diss vegetables, you know I love 'em!) or your dessert?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Big Tuna

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the poor half marathon and how it gets no respect, even though it's a 13.1 mile race, for god's sake. And of course it all stems from the name. Half marathon=1/2race. So I mentioned this to my husband just home from Geneva, jet-lagged but still on his game, who said, "Why not call it a 'Thon'? Which means 'tuna' in French, and so you could call it the 'Big Tuna.'"

I like the sound of it, don't you?

So, as far as I'm concerned, I'm running a Big Tuna in Indianapolis in October.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Writing and yoga

Another Lesley MFA soon-to-be alum, Celia Jeffries, will be co-leading a "Writing and Yoga Retreat in Guatemala for Women" February 9-16, 2008. I would really really really love to go.

Consider this description:

Join us for a week of writing, gentle nourishing yoga and a special art workshop. Each day begins with yoga, followed by a gourmet, vegetarian breakfast as we overlook the blue waters of Lake Atitlan. We will write most mornings and evenings, visit local pueblos for a deeper connection with the Mayan culture, and find time to nap in hand woven hammocks.
I think it might be time for another yoga for writers workshop here on the prairie. What do you think, 'ara?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Website updated!

So I just got the latest version of iLife, and some much-needed new features in iWeb (the software I used to create my previous web pages) prompted me to update the whole thing: Let me know what you think--I think it's a lot more fun! Most of the content is the same, although I've updated the stuff about living in Geneva. Are there any glaring errors or links that don't work? The photos page is obviously under construction (there's nothing there yet).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Half marathon = Whole race

I just listened to a great feature on Bill Littlefield's radio show "Only a Game." The reporter, Karen Given, says that the half marathon is the ideal race distance, and I heartily agree. It's long enough that you have to train for it with a certain level of commitment, but unlike the marathon, it doesn't totally beat you up. People cheer for you, whether you're running 13 miles or 26, and you usually get a medal. And you can walk like a normal person afterwards.
It's apparently the fastest-growing race distance, and but it doesn't get the respect it deserves.

Starting with the name. It's not a full race, it's a half marathon. It's what you do if you can't run the full marathon, right? Clearly, we need another name for the 13.1 mile distance. And no, I don't buy the Indianapolis approach: Mini-marathon. A little condescending for a 13 mile race, I think.

I've run five marathons now, and I don't think I'll run another one, even though I sometimes talk about it. I trained for two marathons since those five, and I was sidelined by injuries each time. I ended up not running at all for weeks or even months at a time. But I've run several half-marathons, most recently the Geneva 1/2 marathon in May, and I've never gotten injured training for one.

So now I'm training for the Indianapolis (ahem) 1/2 marathon, October 20. Let's hear it for the 21K!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Braided hair

Two posts on a Friday night, and that tells you something about my social life. But I did make it out this evening to hear a great alternative bluegrass group called The Greencards, part of Krannert's OUTSIDE at the Research Park Concert series, which is, as noted previously, an oddly wonderful venue for such music.

But, as with the previous post, I digress. I really want to share this video, "Braided Hair," by One Giant Leap:

I "discovered" this song (much in the same way that Columbus discovered North America, right?) when I was in Geneva and took advantage of the free download of the Independent Spirit Music Award winners from eMusic. And although I'm not usually a fan of hip-hop, I liked this song a lot. I hadn't realized it was part of a larger project, worth looking into, I think.

Thanks to Endicott Studio for the Mythic Arts for the link.

The Road

I finished the latest Harry Potter book at Lake Tahoe (I'm with the epilogue haters, but was pretty happy with it otherwise) as well as the other book I was reading: Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Murder, and Civil Rights in the Jazz Age--an excellent account of racism and murder in Detroit, 1925. The book really clarifies the way in which racist fears developed in the industrial North after WW1; Clarence Darrow took on the case shortly after the Scopes Monkey trial and won. Even though I've done tons of research for my YA novel in progress, about a white boy who witnesses a lynching in Indiana, 1925, I find it continually rewarding to read nonfiction about race relations in the early 20th century. It's easy to forget just how socially acceptable overt racism was at that time, not just in the South but in the North as well. And I guess reading these accounts keeps reminding me that my story is worth sticking with, after all these years.

Alert readers will note that the title of this post was "The Road," that being the title of Cormac McCarthy's latest novel. I got sidetracked because I was telling you that I had finished both of my books on the Lake Tahoe trip, and I needed a new book to read. I had initially resisted reading The Road, despite glowing, even gushing reviews. I had tried to read the first book of McCarthy's Border trilogy--The Crossing, I think, and found it slow-going and terribly pretentious, and never finished it. I have known several cowboys, and NONE of them talked the way McCarthy's cowboys talked. But I was at a bookstore in the Las Vegas airport, where the slot machines are plentiful and excellent, if you like that sort of thing, but the bookstores are perfunctory. So I bought The Road, and I'm telling you, it's the bleakest book I have ever whipped my way through. In case you hadn't read about it, it's about a father and son making their way across a post-Apocolyptic America, in which they scavenge food and defend themselves against the other few survivors in search of a good source of protein.

But it's also about a father's deep love for his son, and hope that flies in the face of all logic and evidence, and that's what kept me reading. Now I understand all the hype about the book--and I guess I'm glad that the Las Vegas airport bookstore had little else to offer. Because I hit the jackpot with this one.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A fine romance

Caitlin and I just returned from a wedding at South Lake Tahoe. The night before the wedding, I took a bunch of pictures of the sunset over the lake, and I think they turned out pretty well.

The bride is the daughter of one of my very best friends, and the tale of how she and her husband met and their subsequent courtship is the stuff romantic movies are made of. They were both at Lake Tahoe to do a Century (that's 100 miles) bike ride for Team in Training, which raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Both of their lives had been touched by leukemia or lymphoma, and Tyson (the groom) gave the "you can do it!" inspirational speech. There was instant chemistry, and by the time they left Tahoe, they had exchanged phone numbers. Many, many long phone conversations later, and only a few visits, they moved in together, and eventually tied the knot.

Abbey's step-father Chris, a lay Presbyterian minister, married them. It was a small-ish and very personal affair, held in a grassy area overlooking Lake Tahoe.

Congratulations, Abbey and Tyson!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The ideal reader

Stella Brite, bless her heart, has introduced me to some terrific and interesting people. Take Danielle, a 15 year-old girl who, along with her dad, was looking for a book about dark matter. Turns out that Danielle, an "alethiometrist/pirate/idealist" is a huge fan of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials books. So not only did she inspire a woman to make an alethiometer pocket watch, but she recently scored an interview with Laurie Frost, the author of The Elements of His Dark Materials: A Guide to Phillip Pullman's Trilogy. She asks some terrific questions, including,
It's late 2003 or so and you are pretty involved with your project. You find yourself falling asleep one night at your desk. When you wake up the next morning you look up to find Mary Malone's Cave in place of your PC and Lyra's alethiometer sitting inches away. Which one will you communicate with first? What will you ask? Why?
You don't know how much I love this level of involvement in a novel! Some of you may remember that The Golden Compass was #1 on our family's top 100 (92) books.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Brian's novel

I sure am glad there isn't a Stewie in my family:

"Everybody learns the Hero's Journey isn't always a happy one?" cracks me up.

Monday, July 30, 2007

There's more to Beatrix than bunnies

I rented the movie Miss Potter this weekend, and while I generally enjoyed it, I was disappointed that not one mention was made of her early scientific work. During her teens, she made scientifically accurate drawings of botanical specimens as well as the cute animals that made her famous. She was especially fascinated by lichens. A Swiss botanist, Simon Schwendener, had proposed that lichens were actually algae and fungi living together in a symbiotic relationship--an idea that was treated with contempt by most contemporary scientists.

But her careful study of lichens led Potter to share the Swiss botanists' conclusions. In his wonderful and entertaining book, Liaisons of Life: From Hornworts to Hippos, How the Unassuming Microbe has Driven Evolution, Tom Wakeford writes:

At first, Beatrix was unperturbed by this opposition. Her uncle, the chemist Sir Henry Roscoe, had confidence in her and her belief in Schwendenerism. He urged that she give a paper at a scientific society, such as the Linnaean. Housed behind a grand facade in London's West End, the Linnaean Society was an international forum for naturalists and evolutionary biologists, as it had been when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace had announced their theories of evolution there earlier in the century. But while Roscoe could contribute to the society's proceedings, Beatrix was, like all women, barred. Although now in her late twenties and gaining a reputation for her acute observations of nature, she was not even allowed to attend the society's open meetings. Her uncle eventually won the right to read her paper at a meeting of the society himself, but the official record of the meeting has been lost. We can only imagine the mixture of smirks and tut-tuts that greeted her findings. Beatrix, already a shy and reclusive character, recorded in her diary her feelings of humiliation at her treatment. Worse was to follow.
Ridiculed for having the audacity to have such radical theories--and a woman, too!--Potter soon abandoned her scientific studies. Potter and Schwendener were right, of course, and by 1929 H. G. Wells and Julian Huxley wrote that "a lichen is no more a single organism than a dairy farm is a single organism."

Back to Miss Potter. I know that a movie can't tell every story, but I think that this aspect of Potter's life is important--not to mention fascinating--enough that it merited at least a scene or two.

Re-visioning the revision

After several a couple of spectacularly unsuccessful weeks spent trying to revise the novel to re-submit to my agent, I came to the realization that I was going about it all wrong. I had thought it would be a matter of massaging the manuscript a bit, inserting a few scenes, strengthening a couple of characters. All the while feeling discouraged, because I sensed that the manuscript was going to seem very jerry-rigged indeed.

And then I understood that it would have to be completely re-written. Completely. Oh, I'd have the same cast of characters, with a least one new one. But they'd have to change considerably, as would many of the defining scenes.

I spend a couple of days moping about this, until I realized that a complete re-write would be considerably easier than trying to rassle and hog-tie my current version into shape. Plus, I decided to use Scrivener, a terrific piece of software that bills itself as a project management tool for writers, to develop the new story. So far, it's working! Tra-la-la!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Post-post Harry Potter blues and...there's more to life

OK, I haven't really earned that title yet, because I haven't gotten my hands on the book, so it's more like the post-post Harry Potter release blues. But I have to say that Friday night here in Champaign, Illinois was quite a happening place for someone who just came from Switzerland, where nothing much ever seemed to happen.

Yesterday, singer-songwriter Patty Larkin did an outdoor concert at the U.I. research park--a very nice space indeed, but oddly incongruous when you consider that Larkin and most of the other alt-music folks they have booked there are performing in an academic-corporate research park. But it was the kind of thing that reminds me of the strong sense of community here. You couldn't throw your voice without hitting someone you know. She was great, witty, a talented singer, but perhaps not in her finest voice because she had a cold.

Then I went home and cooled my heels for a couple of hours until it was time for the H.P. party. What fun--especially when we got to go home! I'm urging my son to finish his copy so that I can get my hands on it. And in the meantime, Caitlin bought an English language copy in Madrid this morning at 9:30 a.m. and finished it 12 hours later. She said that there was NO fanfare about the release in Madrid--a real disappointment to her. When she finished it, she said, she felt like someone had died. Not the characters in the book, of course (well, a bunch of them die, apparently), but this whole narrative that she and many of her friends had grown up reading. She said that one of the appeals of the series is not that it's the best YA fantasy series ever, but that there's this shared experience of reading something fun with your peers.

"Like the 'One Book' things you do for college, except you WANT to read it, right?" I asked.

"Exactly!" she said.

This warms my heart.


You're One Hundred Years of Solitude!

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Lonely and struggling, you've been around for a very long time.
Conflict has filled most of your life and torn apart nearly everyone you know. Yet there
is something majestic and even epic about your presence in the world. You love life all
the more for having seen its decimation. After all, it takes a village.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

OK, One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books ever. But I don't feel as conflicted as all that. And my love life...decimated? Not by a long shot!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Writing in the ER

There's an interesting interview with Chuck Palaniuk on a CBC show called The Hour. He said that he has written every one of his books in public: in airports, gyms and health clubs, in hospital emergency rooms. Here's what he said about writing in the ER (I transcribed it rather quickly, so it's not entirely word for word accurate):

Emergency rooms are filled with emotion. Every time you get to a really dramatic scene, you just look around and say, OK, that is what my character is doing with her hands. You have all of this physical business to choose from. Plus, you have people calling the taxi after their father has just died of cancer. You have this fantastic stressed language; you're steeping in this incredible stew of emotional reactions.

I think that's brilliant, if a little creepy. But that's what fiction writers do, isn't it? We observe others and we take what we can use: the crooked teeth that show when the homeless man smiles, the way a particular teenager moves as he slouches across the room. We're vultures and proud of it.

Listen to the interview if you have 11 minutes to spare. He tells a hysterically funny anecdote involving fake severed bloody arms about 3/4 of the way through.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The pre-post-Harry blues

I'm anticipating the last Harry Potter book, and already feeling sad about the fact that there will be no new H.P. adventures to look forward to. Not that this sets me apart from thousands of kids, adults, and the entire kidlit industry.

And so, a week before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, readers are left to wonder...what next? The Champaign-Urbana News Gazette ran a long feature article in their "Living" section about Harry Potter. [Joan alert: there's a nice picture of Christine Jenkins and the first six H.P. books, and several quotes.] A sidebar listed the reading recommendations for Harry Potter lovers from local librarians and bookstore buyers. And here's what interested me. There were the usual recommendations, many of them excellent, for other fantasy books: MG, YA, and adult. But one recommendation, by Elaine Beardon, the children's librarian at the Urbana Free Library, caught my eye: My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George.

This is a book that I loved, loved, loved as a kid. It's interesting, though, that a nature adventure would be appear in a list of books that might appeal to Harry Potter fans. Although, if you think about it, a kid living by himself in the woods is pretty much a fantasy. Anyhow, the concept of being totally self-sufficient and in control of your own destiny is one of the most powerful YA themes.

It's not surprising that one of my other favorite books as a kid was The Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. Man, how I wanted to be that girl. Only maybe with a few Harry Potter books to keep me entertained.

Which leads me to the NYT review of book 3 of Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, Soul Eater. The reviewer references Harry Potter in the first two words of his review, suggesting that this is another offering that would appeal to fans of Harry Potter.

Interesting, again, because this book doesn't appear to be anything like the H.P. series--it's set 6,000 years ago in Northern Europe, at the end of the last Ice Age. It's almost as if reviewers who really like new books have to reference Harry Potter, however much of a stretch. That said, this sounds like a terrific series, and I have to say that I don't mind at all if the new fantasy trend is the historical/nature adventure.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I learned a little lesson in tolerance this week. My parents came to visit a couple of days ago (and no, it's not what it seems, bear with me here), along with my daughter Alison and my good friends Ken and Joan and their extremely sweet and cute 11-week old son Walker. Which is to say, we had a pretty full driveway, and when I had to take my husband to the airport on Thursday morning, my parents' car was the only one that wasn't blocked. Which means that I had to drive a car with a "W '04" sticker in the window.

I wished I had remembered my funny nose/glasses/mustache disguise.

While I have learned to tolerate these foibles in my parents, I still find myself thinking unpleasant thoughts about other drivers of cars proclaiming their support for The Shrub. Now, I'll give those people the benefit of the doubt. I'll think, well, maybe they're just borrowing their parents' car.

And now that they're all gone, even the fleeting stomach virus that struck an unfortunate few of our full house, it's just my son and me. All of a sudden it seems very quiet. I tell myself that this means I'll be able to get lots of work done.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Dorothy, I don't think we're in Switzerland anymore

Top ten ways I can tell that I'm not in Geneva anymore:

10. The guy at passport control in Chicago is chatty and friendly in that Midwestern sort of way.
9. Among the piles of mail I find an expensive 4-color, heavy glossy stock catalog called "Simply Amish," featuring, among other things, a picture of a candlelit table set with wineglasses and beautiful coordinated dishes. Oh, the irony.
8. I have cat and dog hair on my clothes.
7. And on the floors as well.
6. I can do laundry whenever I please! (In our apartment building, tenants are assigned a 4-hour time slot in which they can do laundry, once a week. This is apparently very common in Switzerland.)
5. Stores are open on Sunday!
4. I strike up conversations with strangers.
3. The steepest incline on my running route is a short stretch on Russell street.
2. A good, farm-raised chicken doesn't cost you a wing and a leg.
1. Most importantly, I get to see my friends and family.

It's good to be home.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Au revoire, Geneve!

This is my last evening in Geneva, and is usually the case with such things, it is kind of bittersweet. We ended it the same way we began, back in January, with a wonderful dinner in a nearly deserted restaurant a few blocks away from our apartment. I had fantasized might become our regular neighborhood hangout. (It didn't, but it's not the restaurant's fault.) It was just one guy who served as host, waiter, and chef, with an assistant who did little more than bring him plates and olive oil at appropriate moments. And he gave us some Limoncetta on the house at the end of the meal. It's one of those things that made me--almost (see yesterday's entry)--feel wistful about leaving.

So in the tradition of bookending things, my last entry from Geneva will be about my (still) terrible French. David Sedaris wrote one of his hilarious/tragic essays about living in France in a recent New Yorker ("The Man in the Hut," June 4, 2007). I was pleased to learn that although he has been living in France much longer than I've been in Geneva, his French still sucks and he avoids conversation whenever possible.

He imagines that prison, being a total immersion kind of atmosphere, would be an excellent place to learn French:

"'d have your little conversations. In the cafeteria, in the recreation room or crafts center, if they have them in a French prison, and I imagine they do. 'Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the glaze I've applied to my shapely jug?'
Of the above, I can say, 'Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the...jug?' ... In French, such things have a way of biting you in the ass. I might have to say, 'Do you like the glaze the shapely jug accepted from me?' or 'Do you like the shapely jug in the glaze of which I earlier applied?'
For safety's sake, perhaps I'd be better off breaking the one sentence into three:
'Look at the shapely jug.'
'Do you like the glaze?'
'I did that.'"

Thanks, David. Now if only I could sell an article to the New Yorker about my nitwittery.

Next entry: Champaign!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Light a sparkler for me!

Unfortunately, this is the year that the American International Club of Geneva cancelled what had been billed as the largest American Independence Day fireworks display outside of the U.S. Lackluster fundraising, I heard. I have always loved fireworks. I even watched them from the backyard the year I stayed home with my then ten days-old son. So I'll miss them this year, as well as the parade and potluck in the backyard of our friends' home after; with beer and BBQ pork butt cooked since early that morning; with exploding watermelons and coke and mentos geysers; with traded stories and expressions of amazement about our ever-taller children.

Sniffle. Next year.

Brilliant ad campaign

By the Swiss milk producers, as seen on a Geneva billboard:

Crow pose

Eagle pose

And, of course, headstand.

Using my handy Google (French to English) Translate This Page tool, I am able to provide you with the rationale behind this ad campaign:

Once more, untiring Lovely is the high-speed motorboat. Like many women currently, it discovers the benefits of yoga.
Lovely is addressed particularly to the women who, with the return of age, are more prone to the osteoporosis than the men.

Yoga and milk: many common points
At first sight, nothing seems to bring them closer communiun, and yet, yoga and milk present certain common points:

Both are daily sources of wellbeing and pleasure.

Both slacken. Milk because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid which is transformed into serotonin, our “hormone of happiness”.

Both strengthen our framework. Milk thanks to its calcium and yoga by the fact that it uses the bones, but without exaggeration. The muscular tension, the pressure and the tensions exerted carefully on the bones and the muscles at the time of the exercises of yoga have a stabilizing effect on the osseous structure. Scientific studies show that the practice of yoga increases the osseous density clearly. Thus 3 portions day labourers of milk and dairy products all the more reinforce the bones if they are associated the practice of yoga.

All the good things go by three

To meet our daily needs for calcium all in there fascinating pleasure, it is enough for us to consume 3 portions of milk and dairy products. This is why the new rule is stated as follows: 1 milk glass, 1 yoghourt and a piece of cheese each day… and three meetings of yoga per week.

What the above fails to mention is that the cheese is indeed delicious, but hardly low fat. (Not that I'd want it to be--low-fat cheese is pretty much a travesty if you ask me.) And you really have to search for skim or low-fat milk, or low-fat yogurt. And then of course there's fondue and raclette...yum. So if I'm looking a little pudgy when I return to Illinois--on Friday!!--you'll know why. But I have been doing yoga three times a week, in part because it slackens me.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Well I'll be darned!

While everybody else in the kidlitosphere is bemoaning the fact that they've been received NC-17 and R ratings from the latest blog analysis system, for using terms like death, lesbian, gay, sex, I was deeply disturbed to find that my site earns a only G rating.

Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

Apparently I was only cited for one cautionary word, suck.

That sucks, doesn't it. I was tempted to throw in a whole lot of other gratuitous words just to bump up my rating, at least to PG-13 for God's sake (hey, did that earn me anything?).


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Cat Empire: Two Shoes are not enough

Those poor Genevians who witnessed me practicing musical phonetic punctuation the other day may have seen me dancing down the street the other day with a huge smile on my face. It's not my fault; I just downloaded an album by an Australian band called The Cat Empire, and if they don't make you want to move then you're dead.

This album, called Two Shoes, recorded in Cuba, is a blend of hip-hop, jazz with fantastic and occasional (but no less terrific) keyboards, Latin, and reggae--with smart lyrics sung in an endearing Australian accent.

Here's an excerpt from one of their songs, "Party Started,"

"Chillin in the sun
With tea and milk and honey
Tea and lamingtons
That’s my idea of fun
But I do enjoy the odd occasional bottle of rum
As we learnt in the songs that I have previously sung
When its done with fruit juice at a barbecue in the sun
If the afternoon is begun with kangaroo and capsicum."

Well anybody who can find a rhyme for "capsicum" is worth a listen, don't you think?

Even my newly-turned 14 year old son and his friend liked it! I'm telling you, these guys are great. It's not writing music, but it's music to celebrate by when you've finished writing a tough passage and you want to dance around your office. It's guaranteed to make you feel happy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Charity Girl

I just finished reading the terrific historical novel Charity Girl, by Michael Lowenthal. During World War I, thirty thousand women were rounded up on suspicion of transmitting venereal diseases to soldiers. More than fifteen thousand, found to have sexually transmitted diseases, were detained for months at a time. Some of these women were prostitutes, although many were arrested for the "crime" of dressing too provocatively or being in the wrong neighborhood without an escort. They were sent to dozens of detention homes (many of them former brothels) across the country where they were subjected to hard labor, terrible humiliations, and forced medical treatment.

Lowenthal imagines a 17 year old Jewish girl from Boston, Frieda Mintz, who escapes her emotionally abusive mother and the prospect of an arranged marriage with a man twice her age to work as a bundle wrapper in a Boston department store. She falls in love and spends an impulsive night with Felix Morse, a U.S. Army private. Unfortunately, he give her more than love; when he tests positive for syphilis, he names Frieda. She is fired from her job and sent to a rural detention center.

On his website, Lowenthal writes that he spent a year researching this book, and it shows. He marries his extraordinary writing abilities with historical detail to create a story that really pops off the page. Here's a section from the scene where Felix takes Frieda to a baseball game:
Frieda munched nut after nut, cracking the next before she'd downed the last, for their flavor and because she hadn't eaten since her gumdrop snack at noon. As she gorged she read the advertisements that covered the park's far wall. Whiskey, razor blades, gasoline. Every homer wins a Delano hat! This was clearly a venue in which to persuade men to buy things. A place where men went weak and could be swayed. She was just one of just half a dozen girls in the whole section. On all sides, row after row of derby hats, like the keys of a huge Underwood typewriter. (Charity Girl, p. 53)
See what I mean? Read it for yourself. It's an adult novel, although it features a teenage character and I would recommend it to any high school reader.

Oh, and did I mention that Michael Lowenthal is one of the writing instructors in Lesley's MFA program (as well as at Boston College) and that he's a real mensch?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Going digital

A while back, I wrote about doing a phone interview on Skype, using a program called Audio Hijack Pro to record the conversation. It worked beautifully; the sound quality was much better than I've ever gotten with a cassette recorder, and very easy to transcribe. Before, I transcribed my cassette tapes using one of those foot-operated transcribers, and I'm telling you it was no fun at all. Audio Hijack makes it easy to set up your computer to record and then, later, to transcribe. So when I was preparing for Naples, I wanted to avoid that dreaded tape recorder (and transcriber) if at all possible. So I broke down and bought an XtremeMac MicroMemo so that I could use my iPod to record the interview.

On the plus side: the recording quality was great. The surprise was that, starting with a nearly fully charge, I found that I was running on a very slim red line of power after only about 1.5 hours. I hadn't anticipated that recording an interview would suck so much power. Fortunately, we were just finishing up, so I didn't miss anything.

After the interview, all I had to do was download the voice memo to iTunes. From there, it will be easy to transcribe using my headphones. So long, cassette tapes and transcriber!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A rare moment of transcendence

Some of you may have noticed that this is the second shivasana-related post I have written lately. Not to worry. I had, for me anyway, an extraordinary experience at my yoga class today. After spending the initial minutes thinking about shaving my legs, and revising my manuscript, and whether someone at the yoga center might know where to find tofu in Geneva because we have a vegetarian visiting, and my sister and her family moving to Chicago, I was finally able to clear my head and This is hard for me to do.

I focused on my third eye and my breathing, and magically, something like a dark flower appeared in the middle of my forehead. It expanded to full bloom as I inhaled, and contracted to a bud as I exhaled. It may seem a small thing, but to me, it seemed like a real breakthrough. I can't pray anymore, at least not in any meaningful kind of way, and I miss that feeling of being connected with something greater. Not to get all New-Agey or anything, but this approaches the way I used to feel when I prayed. So.

The adorable picture, is from the all-too-addictive website I Can Has Cheezburger?. I can't really explain it, except to say that the invented grammar and language is part of the whole extended joke.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Volcano scientists update

I was fortunate to be able to interview Lucia Pappalardo and Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, of the Naples Vesuvius Observatory, for my upcoming volcano scientists book. They took me to visit a recently discovered bronze-age archaeological site discovered in Nola, a town near Naples. The village was buried nearly 4,000 years ago in an eruption of much greater magnitude than the one that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D.

They say that it should serve as a warning that a similarly catastrophic eruption could happen again. In fact, Giuseppe said that the chances of another eruption occurring in the coming year is around 50%. It would not necessarily be as big as the Bronze Age Avellinian catastrophe, but he did note that the most recent large eruptions have occurred in 2,000 year cycles.

They have criticized the civil authorities for not coming up with a plan to evacuate the 3 million people living in the area in the event of a similar eruption. This has obviously not endeared them to the developers, politicians, and civil authorities who have reasons (none of them scientific) for downplaying the risk of such a catastrophe.

Their paper was published in 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; you can read it online.

Anyway, it was a great interview; they were both charming and generous with their time. I wish I could meet all of my profile subjects in person. (Not to mention visit all of the volcano sites!)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Her heart's in the right place

Caitlin and her young charges gave themselves tattoos the other day. See how much she loves her mother? Awww...

See Naples and die

Vedi Napoli e poi Muori.

"See Naples and die" was coined during the reign of the Bourbons of Naples, according to the first link that came up when I googled the phrase. It means that before you die you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples. Having recently returned from Naples, I guess I can die now, although I'm not eager to do so. Perhaps I should have postponed my trip a little longer. But I loved, loved Naples, in all of its run-down, grimy, chaotic glory. In many ways it is Geneva's opposite. If Geneva is the clean, law-abiding, orderly, and somewhat boring child, Naples is its naughty but infinitely more charming sibling.

Mark Twain had something to say about Naples, of course, in The Innocents Abroad (1869).

"See Naples and die." Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently...The streets are generally about wide enough for one wagon, and how they do swarm with people! It is Broadway repeated in every street, in every court, in every alley! Such masses, such throngs, such multitudes of hurrying, bustling, struggling humanity! We never saw the like of it, hardly even in New York, I think. There are seldom any sidewalks, and when there are, they are not often wide enough to pass a man on without caroming on him. So everybody walks in the street--and where the street is wide enough, carriages are forever dashing along. Why a thousand people are not run over and crippled every day is a mystery that no man can solve. But if there is an eighth wonder in the world, it must be the dwelling-houses of Naples. I honestly believe a good majority of them are a hundred feet high! And the solid brick walls are seven feet through. You go up nine flights of stairs before you get to the "first" floor. No, not nine, but there or thereabouts. There is a little bird-cage of an iron railing in front of every window clear away up, up, up, among the eternal clouds, where the roof is, and there is always somebody looking out of every window--people of ordinary size looking out from the first floor, people a shade smaller from the second, people that look a little smaller yet from the third--and from thence upward they grow smaller and smaller by a regularly graduated diminution, till the folks in the topmost windows seem more like birds in an uncommonly tall martin- box than any thing else. The perspective of one of these narrow cracks of streets, with its rows of tall houses stretching away till they come together in the distance like railway tracks; its clothes-lines crossing over at all altitudes and waving their bannered raggedness over the swarms of people below; and the white-dressed women perched in balcony railings all the way from the pavement up to the heavens--a perspective like that is really worth going into Neapolitan details to see.

If you replace the references to wagons with cars and Vespas carrying two or three people (including babies too young to hold on by themselves), you have a pretty good idea of what Naples is like today. Folks were celebrating because their football team, the Mastiffs, had regained their Level A status; the streets near my hotel were festooned with sky-blue banners and balloons.

On the evening I arrived, there was a celebration just down the street from my hotel (Hotel Neopolis; highly recommended BTW). A crowd gathered on via dei Tribunali, one of the three original east-west thoroughfares of the Greek city of Neapolis. On one side of the street, people set off fireworks from the high stone steps of a late sixteenth-century church adorned with pillars from a Greek temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux. On the other side of the street, in the courtyard outside San Lorenzo Maggiore (a 13th century church) a band played rousing music, young boys paraded red banners, and in the middle was a saint standing on a bed of flowers atop a car. (There's a photo above. It's not very good, because it was fairly dark outside.) I later learned that this celebration was in honor of St. Anthony of Padua, who died on that date in 1231.

How could you not love this city?