Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tag--I'm it

The "8 Things About Me" meme has morphed into a "4 new x 2" meme. Christine M. over at The Simple and the Ordinary has tagged me. Here's the deal:

You have to share four things that were new to you in the past four years. Four things you learned or experienced or explored for the first time in the past four years. New house, new school, new hobby, new spouse, new baby, whatever. Then you have to say four things you want to try new in the next four years.

Part one (in reverse chronological order):
1. Moved to Geneva, Switzerland, along with my husband and son. I'd say that's a pretty big one.
2. Got my MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. Another big one, don'tcha think?
3. Saw my daughters graduate from high school and go off to college. (sob)
4. Re-learned how to crochet.

Part two:
1. Get Into the Fire published, or at least accepted by a publisher. (I know how slowly the wheels of publishing can turn.)
2. Establish a regular yoga practice. It makes me feel so much better.
3. Run more races in fun places. Notice I didn't say run marathons. They're tempting, but I always end up getting injured. Half marathons are half the distance and twice the fun.
4. Finish the volcano scientists book.

And now I tag
Cara at first efforts
Lu at "Speak"

I should tag more people, but I'm too lazy.


It's hard to believe, but we only have a little over a month left here in Geneva. Which explains, I guess, our heavy travel schedule. So much to see! So little time! Two four-day-weekends in a row! So the weekend before last it was Madrid/Barcelona, where we finally got to see au pair daughter Caitlin (hooray!) and the whole family was together again. We met her family, or at least the mom and boys (check out the Madrid/Barcelona album at Innocence Abroad for pictures) and saw a little of Madrid, a lovely city. I took the picture on the left on our way to a late dinner (is there any other kind in Spain?), near the royal palace.

Barcelona was essentially a Gaudi-fest. We saw the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's amazing, as-yet unfinished cathedral, one of the apartments he designed, and a Gaudi park. This is one of those places where you think: what would it be like to live next door to an architectural landmark? (Same goes for living next to Roman ruins, or anywhere in Venice--more about that below.) When you live, work, and play amongst tourist-worthy sites, do you become jaded?

And then there's Venice (a few photos posted here on our web album--more to come). What an improbable, audacious, lovely and, sadly, sinking, city! No matter how many times you've seen pictures of Venice, you're still not prepared for the dreamlike quality of the city. Water buses (vaporetti) provide the main form of public transportation; no cars--not even bicycles!--are permitted in Venice. Narrow pedestrian streets end in blind alleys. It's like a real-life Disneyland, with all of the tourists. I heard one old Venetian lady giving a guy working on a crowded vaporetti an earful about the "touristas", but the sad fact is that without the tourists Venice would probably be nearly empty.

And in fact, it's hard not to hate the tourists when you visit a place like Piazza San Marco. The basilica is breath-taking, a wedding cake of a church, but the crush of tourists and the pigeons--the pigeons!--sort of ruined the experience for me. Apparently it's supposed to be good luck if a pigeon craps on your shoulder, so tourists buy pigeon food to entice them (filthy, disgusting boids) to land on their shoulders and make them lucky. Ever hear of salmonella, anybody? 15% of the pigeons in Venice carry it. Now that's what I call luck!

And now I'm making plans for one last major trip before we return to Champaign; this one is actually work-related. I've arranged to interview a volcanologist who works at the Vesuvius Observatory in Naples for my new extreme scientist book. She was one of the co-authors on a paper published last summer showing that there was a Bronze-age eruption of Vesuvius 4,000 years ago that devastated a village just 15 kilometers from Naples. It would have been much more powerful than the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 CE, and they say that hazard planners should increase preparations for a similarly catastrophic eruption. I plan to visit Vesuvius, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Archaeological Museum in Naples, which is supposed to be awesome, as well as the new Nola site.

BTW, if you look Nola up on Wikipedia, you learn that today most of its "territory and economy are well under control of the camorra" (the local mafia), and that one of the major activities of the camorra is the "illegal treatment of urban, chemical and industrial wastes in the countryside located in the region between Nola, Acerra and Marigliano. This formerly rich and green countryside is sometimes now called the 'Death Triangle'."


Wednesday, May 23, 2007


It is one of those truisms you hear so often that you begin to dismiss it as meaningless: that living or traveling abroad can make you understand things in a different way.

I've been thinking about this lately. Our apartment has a balcony that looks out on a small yard with several trees. There are lots of birds that we just don't see or hear in the Midwest: magpies, giant pigeons, and blackbirds. I often work at the kitchen table with the door to the balcony open, with birdsong (as well as traffic noise and children playing) as background music. For a long time, Tony and I were puzzled by the fact that we would often hear the birds singing long after the sun went down. Don't Swiss birds (with the exception of owls) sleep at night?

And then we finally understood the lyrics to the Beatles song:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night.
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.

Oh. So blackbirds really do sing in the dead of night. I guess it's just because they were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Monday, May 21, 2007


Twenty-some years ago, this guy I was dating went on vacation. He was a nice guy; we had fun together and I liked him a lot. It just so "happened" (or so my husband continues to claim) that one of my softball pals, (Tony, still my softball pal) asked me to go to the Grant Park jazz concert with him that weekend.

Well, sure, I'm always up for a concert with a pal. Before the night was over, it was clear that Tony was destined to be more than a softball pal, and I was forced to tell my boyfriend that it was over. It broke my heart when he said, "This happened to me the LAST time I went on vacation." (That'll teach you to got on vacation without your girlfriend! Tom, if you are reading this, which I sincerely doubt, I still feel bad about this.)

Not to trivialize my long-ago relationship, but I feel a little bit the same way now. The girlfriend-thieving Tony, Alison, Eli and I flew to Madrid on Thursday for a long weekend to visit Caitlin (more on that in another post), and I come back to find that one of my favorite bloggers, Miss Snark, has retired. Miss Snark is an anonymous NYC literary agent, and hers was one of the wittiest, most informative blogs about the business of writing that I've ever encountered. She had over 2.5 million hits over 2 years. Her archives are still available and worth perusing if you're interested.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Physics in the news

There was a nice article in today's NYT by Dennis Overbye about Tony's experiment here at CERN. He is on the ATLAS experiment--one of the big ones mentioned in the article. I hope to get a guided tour before I leave! Here's the link: "A Giant Takes on Physics' Biggest Questions."

I interviewed one of the guys quoted in the article--Joe Lykken--for an article I wrote for Highlights for Children about the search for the top quark. Nice guy. I interviewed my husband for the article, as well. He is also a nice guy. This was one of my first pieces of science writing for kids, and I'm still happy with it. I like the challenge of writing about "difficult" topics for kids. Meaning, nothing to do with dinosaurs or cute furry animals.

Not that I have anything against dinosaurs or cute furry animals. In fact, in my Antarctic Scientists book (just submitted!) I devote an entire chapter to paleontologists and most of another to a guy who studies Weddell seals. (They are unbearably cute.) But I also have a chapter about astrophysicists working in Antarctica. I think that too many people underestimate kids when it comes to science writing. I'm not sure if Stella Brite and the Dark Matter Mystery was a complete success or not--there are some things I would do differently if I were to re-write it--but I mean, holy cow, think of the kid appeal. Did you know that we have no clue about the stuff that makes up most of the universe? The stuff you can SEE, that's peanuts. Cool? Cool.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Antarctic Scientists

I sent off my manuscript for the Antarctic Scientists book today, part of Enslow's Extreme Scientists series. It was a little late (sorry, Ben, if you're reading this!), but it was sure nice to get it out. After a lot of angst, I think it turned out pretty well. It turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined to do some of the supporting research here, and there were family issues that complicated things. I still need to round up photos (and permissions, I suspect).

Writing this book reminded me of why I really love writing nonfiction, and in particular, about science. There is only so much I can experience in my lifetime, and I want to do it all. I'd love to travel to Antarctica, Madagascar, India...well, the list goes on. I dig scientists (hey, I'm married to one!) and their boundless curiosity about the natural world.

In the process of writing the Antarctic Scientists book, I got to learn about what it's like to camp out in -40 F weather for weeks at a time, stumble across dinosaur bones, build a telescope that can take us close to the big bang, or dig in the mud off the Antarctic coast. And I get to learn about the science while I'm at it.

Frustrated scientist? Well, maybe. But when I got out of grad school with a MS instead of the planned-for PhD, I reminded myself that some people like to learn a lot about one thing, and other people like to learn a little about a lot of things. I'm the latter, a butterfly, for sure.

To come...Volcano Scientists.

Friday, May 11, 2007


I've decided to jump in the Poetry Friday pool! I chose a poem by the late William Stafford, titled "Yes." William Stafford and I are both originally from south-central Kansas. This poem is for the survivors of the Greensburg tornado.


It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

Link to the rest of this short poem here: Zen in American Poetry (Nebraska Zen Center)


Some of you may remember my post on the inexplicably awful and yet strangely fun Tiki candy on the previous incarnation of this blog. I bought the candy solely on the strength of the packaging, which is awesome. The candy itself is, well, the weirdest thing I've ever put in my mouth. And that covers a lot. Artificial punch-flavored sweet tarts crossed with pop rocks, only really, really foamy. The Swiss are wild and crazy, I'm telling you!

I sent a package to my pal and fellow Lesley MFA grad Bryan Ballinger, who has a thing for weird food. He was kind enough to share the candy with his 3D Character Design students at Huntington College. This is the hilarious and somewhat gross result: Foaming Care Squares.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Happy day

For one thing, it's our 21st wedding anniversary! Hard to believe, I know. I wish I had our wedding pictures here so I could scan one and post it. We looked so...young. And sweet, I must say.

For another, in today's mail I got a letter from the marketing people at Charlesbridge. Stella Brite and the Dark Matter Mystery was listed in the 2007 edition of The Best Children's Books of the Year, selected by the Children's book Committee at the Bank Street College of Education.

Yippee! And now, back to work...almost done.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


Alison finished her semester at Macalester and flew into Geneva yesterday. Hooray! It's so nice to have her around, at least for a little while. She'll be flying back to St. Paul June 1 to begin her summer jobs with the Mac alumni association and at the St. Paul Borders (Lu, do you ever shop there? Maybe you'll meet her!). What a great college job, huh. Unfortunately I don't have much time to shepherd her around this week because I'm desperately trying to finish my Antarctic Scientists book. Oof. In the meantime, all of us will fly to Madrid to visit Caitlin next weekend. All of us together again, after so long. I can't wait.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Geneva half marathon!

I ran the Geneva half (or semi, as they say here) marathon today. (There was also a marathon and a marathon relay running at the same time.) After nearly a week of chilly, damp/rainy, overcast days, today was sunny and Goldilocks-warm--i.e. just right. Some highlights: running by the lake, hearing some great French-accented blues, and hearing shouts of "Allez! Allez!" and "Bon courage!" There was other great music, including some drummers and a polka band. Odder was the group of guys playing the Alphorns--those long (up to 20 feet) horns used by people in the alps to call cattle. The music was beautiful, but rather mournful for a race. In fact, it sounded a lot like they were playing taps.

I was actually quite pleased with my time, 2:17. Not even close to my PR, but not my worst either, and my training was pretty minimal this time around. I had been hoping to finish in 2:30, so you can see why I was so happy.

And, as if to make me feel bad for making snarky comments to Tony before the race about the fact that we wouldn't get finisher's t-shirts OR medals, I got instead a NICE Camelbak-style hydration pack with the Geneva marathon logo. See:

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Let's hear it for public libraries

I love Colleen Mondor, aka "Chasing Ray" and book reviewer for Bookslut and a bunch of other venues. She weighed in Tuesday about the National Book Critics Circle's petition drive to save the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's book review section, and about book reviewing in general. She doesn't have a problem with book reviews in general, just with elitism. She quotes Kathleen Parker's Orlando Sentinel column to save book reviewing
People who read books are different from other people. They're smarter for one thing. They're more sensual for another. They like to hold, touch and smell what they read. They like to carry the words around with them -- tote them on vacation, take them on train rides and then, most heavenly of all, to bed.

correctly identifying her and her editor as twits. She goes on to write:
Look, I'm fine with book reviews in newspapers - honestly my problem with newspapers for the past few years has involved their collective inability to pursue hard stories concerning the Iraq War, not if Thomas Pynchon is getting his 800th review. Yes, book reviewing is great and good and I'm all for positive discussion of books. But is newspaper book review coverage really what's keeping America literate? Is this the cause that must be embraced and written about by the country's top critics and all those earnest authors who are posting at the NBCC?

Is this the big important battle we should be paying attention to?

No. Not by a long shot.

Why aren't we all up in arms about public libraries? We read the stories about Jackson County, Oregon and feel bad - but those libraries closed anyway last month and now it's up to the residents to raise the money on their own to get them open again. And as for the Gulf Coast - do I even need to remind everyone what a mess the Gulf Coast library systems are still in? Twenty libraries in Louisiana alone are still closed from Katrina - still closed 18 months later. Has the NBCC been rallying the troops to speed up the process to get those buildings rebuilt, repaired and reopened?

What about funding for emergency book mobiles? What about increasing the hours in school libraries for the communities to use? I don't know - what about coming up with ideas to help the community get more access to books? And what about the poor kids who spend time in the juvenile justice system in the city of New Orleans? Not a library to be found in those detention centers - except the ones that volunteers are putting together on their own.

I'd encourage you to read her entire entry, "It's all about saving America."