Friday, May 30, 2008

Bird brains

OK, for my pal Sminthia, who has been suffering through my prolonged silence while her DH watches Kung Fu movies (did I get that right?), I have some interesting science-related links:

The first one is New York Science Festival, which I would be attending if I were anywhere nearby. Brian Greene, a physicist at Columbia University and festival organizer, said,
“We all start out as little scientists,” Dr. Greene said, but adults often lose touch with that, which is dangerous. “Science is an element in our lives,” he added. “We need a general public that is willing to engage with the ideas of science.”
That is one of those things that I like to remind myself of when I am writing science books for young people. I really hope that I am inspiring future scientists, or at least kids who are engaged in science.

The other thing is that I just discovered an interesting website, 3quarksdaily, a collection of science, design, current affair, literature, and art. Here is a great video from the blog about the intelligence of crows. I love this:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Obama: coolest presidential candidate ever

As evidenced by this picture:

Note the shades, the patrol car in the background, his casual-yet-elegant clothing. And of course, there's the finger holding his place in a book. Other women can swoon over men in uniforms; give me a man who reads any day. And now I have a confession to make: I was contemplating photoshopping in Stella Brite and the Dark Matter Mystery for the book he's really reading (Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World, interestingly). But alas, I lack those skills.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


OK, so I had come just THIS close (imagine my thumb and pointer finger poised a millimeter away from each other) from writing farewell, friends and family. A blog suicide, of course, not a real one! It not so much that I had nothing more to write about--although living in Illinois v. Switzerland does remove some of the novelty, doesn't it?--but that there were just too many things that merited comment. How to choose? Current events (aka the primaries and Obama), writing, etc. I felt paralyzed. And when it came to current events, by the time I got around to commenting about something, it was already old news.

But then I finished reading a book titled What I learned about beauty, sex, work, motherhood, going gray, authenticity, and everything else the really matters, by Anne Kreamer. Purchased, dear reader, because I have been considering throwing off the shackles of coloring my hair monthly and going natural (aka gray). And now I think I might have one or two more thoughts to contribute before putting this blog to rest.

The good news is that going gray does not, in general, signal your eminent demise. Unless you live in L.A., unless you are Jamie Lee Curtis, role mode extraordinaire (more about that later) or hold an upper-level managerial post that values, um, experience. Academics and creative types, unless we are trying to sell to Hollywood, are just fine. And as a science writer, I kind of consider myself to straddle both of those fields.

So what bothered me about this book, which is supposed to empower women considering going gray? It's the fact that when she talks about gray-haired women whose look she admires, they are nearly always "slim," or "well-dressed," but usually both.

Well, I'd love to drop about 25 pounds, and I struggle to get dressed when the occasion doesn't call for jeans and a t-shirt. So I have a problem with Kreamer's thesis that gray hair can be awesome if you are slim dress fashionably. But I think I'm pretty fit, even though I can't help but see my mother every time I look in the mirror. So am I doomed to dowdiness?

Still, I think that I am ready to go ahead with this. When I was in Geneva, I noticed a lot of older--well, very old--women who obviously colored their hair. These 85 year old ladies would have chestnut-red hair in their coffins. At some point, sooner rather than later, I decided I would rather just go natural. Cutting my hair short was the first step. I thought it would be easier to transition to gray that way. But eventually I may very well go back to long(ish), because I like that.

So, at least for now, the blog lives. But for long? I don't know. But you've been warned, and I'll keeping checking in on your blogs.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


I flew out to Hartford, CT last week; the plan was that my parents would meet me at the airport a couple of hours after I arrived and we would drive to Smith (at Northampton, MA) to visit daughter Caitlin, and then drive up to Hanover NH to visit my niece Cassie, a first year resident at Dartmouth Medical Center. Well, we eventually got to do all of that, and we had a lovely time, but my planned three hour layover in Chicago and unplanned additional 2.5 wait for Mom and Dad in Hartford gave me lots of reading and working time.

So I started and finished a book that'd I'd been meaning to read for quite some time: the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf. Please don't berate this poor former English major for not reading Beowulf until after the movie, which I must say was alternatively entertaining and embarrassingly awful. (Hint: in the book, Grendel's mother bears little resemblance to Angelina Jolie.)

Heaney's translation lived up to its stellar reputation--no surprise. Heaney is my favorite living poet. I was struck by one passage in his translation notes:
...the poet who had first formed my ear was Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was a chip off the Old English block, and the earliest lines I published when I was a student were as much pastiche Anglo-Saxon as they were pastiche Hopkins: 'Starling thatch-watches and sudden swallow/ Straight breaks to mud-nest, home-rest rafter" and so on.
Read aloud (and, like Hopkins, much of Beowulf is best read aloud) this passage, describing Grendel's defeat:
He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain,/limping and looped in it. (975-976)
Pure Hopkins; not just for the imaginative choice of words and alliteration, but also for the rhythm and cadence of the poetry. For sheer beauty of language, there are few poets who surpass Hopkins at his best. And so, in celebration of the season which finally, FINALLY, seems to have arrived, from Hopkins' poem Spring:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightenings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Millennium Park, Chicago

Tony and I celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary on Saturday. We celebrated--a day early--by visiting Millennium Park in Chicago and eating out at the terrific MK restaurant. If you go, you MUST have a side order of pommes frites with truffle cream. You will not regret it.

Here's our anniversary portrait in "The Bean" and a shot of Frank Gehry's band shell. I've been to Chicago tons of times since the Park was completed in 2004, but for some reason I'd never had a chance to visit.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dialogue and class differences

One of the things I try really hard to do in in my fiction is pay attention to dialogue, especially dialect and vernacular. Even though my novel in progress takes place in rural Indiana, I find myself re-creating the rural Kansas dialect I grew up with. When I listen to midwestern speakers, I find that the differences are more pronounced between rural versus urban speakers than in, say, Indiana versus Kansas speakers. Believable dialogue reveals loads about the character's class, attitudes, and mood.  

So I was happy to see that there is a prolonged discussion of dialogue over at Through the Tollbooth. It's fascinating and required reading for fiction writers. She provides several links to sites devoted to dialects, including the International Dialects of English Archive from my very own University of Kansas. My favorite sound recording is of a Kansas grave-digger and grave-witcher in his sixties; both for the homey familiarity of his dialect and for the story he tells!

Also worth checking out is the Pop vs. Soda page. I'm pop, by the way. What I really don't understand is the Southern tendency to call carbonated beverages "coke." Especially since, at least in the past, that used to be R.C. Cola territory. Am I right? 

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Weekend in Indy--part 2

I stayed an extra couple of nights in Indy after the race to volunteer for the Obama campaign. On Sunday and Monday, I canvassed for Obama, talking and distributing information to literally hundreds of people. I figure I probably walked at least another half marathon over the course of those two days. (Actually, I recommend a good healthy dose of walking following a distance event; I felt great.)

I had some memorable conversations along the way.

One retired white guy who had previously been an enthusiastic supporter of Obama was now furious over the Wright affair; he said he wouldn't be voting for Hillary or Barack. He went to great pains to assure me that he wasn't a redneck racist, but...well you get the picture.

My last precinct was one of the most rewarding. Largely African-American and relatively poor, nearly every person I talked to was both a supporter of Obama and planning on voting in the primary. With the exception of one old black guy who, with a few front teeth gone AWOL, looked like he'd been around the block more than once. No, he was not registered to vote, but he had plenty of opinions. The main one being, no black man will ever be elected president. First he tried to tell me that the constitution says that the president has to be Caucasian. I assured him that wasn't the case. Then he said that white folks would never accept a black president. I pointed out that I'm white, and that there a whole lot of white folks who feel the same way I do. Then he said that if Obama were elected, he'd just be assassinated. That, I said, was a risk that Barack and Michele had decided to accept. Then he asked me for my Obama pin. I gave it to him, and I could see that even though he doubted that the U.S. had come so far, he harbored some hope that maybe, just maybe, he'd see a black man in the White House.

So you can imagine that I was more than a little obsessed with the primary results on Tuesday evening. And given his big showing in North Carolina, his close second place finish in Indiana looks a lot like a win.

via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A big weekend in Indy--Part 1

I had quite an exciting weekend in Indianapolis! I drove to Indy on Friday afternoon for the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon, which many of you know I ran this year to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Thanks to the generous people who responded--and many of you dear readers are among them--I am happy to say that I raised over $2300. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.

At the Team in Training pasta party, we heard from the mother of a young leukemia survivor who talked about how important the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has been in her son's recovery. This was one of many tear-inducing moments that evening. I was really struck then, when that talk was followed by one by a man (I don't remember his name) who had won the Mini-marathon with a time of about 62 minutes in the past and is now working with Team in Training. I know that elite athletes often disparage charity runners, or recreational runners in general, as bringing the sport down. It's a long-standing debate. But here was a guy who was really in the game, looking out at his audience of folks who were pretty fit and not so fit, and he got it. He listened to the Mom who talked about her 5 year old son who had to undergo chemotherapy, and he got it. He surprised the audience and himself, I know, as he teared even as he was talking about this cause. And that? That made me tear up, too.

The weather was perfect for the race; overcast and cool at the beginning, then warming up to maybe the mid-60s and sunny later on. I wasn't really expecting much for my performance--I'd been injured, and hadn't really trained much--and so I wasn't too disappointed with my time. If you want to know what it was, you have to look it up.