October 25, 2015
It's Not "You," it's "Me." Seriously. Please.
This is how it starts:
"How was your trip to Mars?"
"Well, you know, at first you feel a little out of sorts, but by the third day you never want to leave."
No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
It's about YOU. Not "you."
Try that again, and tell me about YOUR experience.
"Yeah, Mars! At first I felt a little out of sorts, but by the third day I never wanted to leave."
See what I did there?
It's subtle. But really not. "You" speaks to a universal experience. But your experience isn't universal. (Have you really asked *everyone* who's been to Mars what their experience was like? Do you expect everyone's experience to match yours?) So when someone asks you a question, speak from your experience. And acknowledge it--nay, EMBRACE it!--as yours, and yours alone! Sure, okay, if you shared it with someone and you know they felt the same way about it, throw that in. Use "we." But almost never "you."
Here's an example of why.
(Turns out I've been to Mars too! I was just curious what you thought of your experience, not what I might expect from one.)
You: I found that by the third day I was really into it, and just enjoyed being there.
Me: Yeah, me too! I was there in '97...
You: By the third day you're really into it and just enjoy being there.
Me: I know. (Dummy. You're not the only one who's been to Mars.)
I didn't need you to impart your universal knowledge (which, like I said, you very likely don't have). I was just, like, asking for your opinion, man.
And if you do feel that you have a perspective broader than your own to add, bring it, with an acknowledgement:
"By the third day I loved it. And everyone I talked to said the same. We were all especially into the color red."
So, get out there. Go to Mars. Shop at the new store in town. Make peanut-shaped doilies out of fishing line. Just don't speak like you're the *only* one who has done it (everybody's making peanut-shaped doilies out of fishing line these days), or like your experience is the only one to be had. Even if it's something unique--especially if it's something unique--own it as your truth. Use "I" and "me." Take responsibility for it. Give your audience a chance to share their experience too. I dare ya!
[Enter cool explanatory cartoon here. Does anyone have one? It would be great if it had to do with Mars and cats. I feel like there should be cats involved.]
July 24, 2015
I'm in another challenge where I've made the goal of at least a post a week for the duration of the challenge. One thing I really like noticing and writing are scenes. Sketches. Just an impression of a something, a moment or a feeling or a whatever. Tonight, I went on a 20-minute mindful walk when I got home to fulfill one of my challenge goals, which is 20 minutes or more of aerobic exercise at least four times a week unless I'm sick. And, I'm sick. So instead, I can meditate or stretch or do yoga for that time period. I wanted to get a little bit of moving in, so I decided on a walking meditation of sorts.
Down the street from my apartment, past the park and across a bridge, there is a housing development of tidy, stacked, staggered units surrounding central lawns and playground equipment. The development is a Hispanic neighborhood, which spills into the park on these hot summer nights. In the park, an over-subscribed soccer game, a large family finishing dinner at a picnic table, teenagers tucked into the trees along the banks of the creek. On the bridge, one stands at the other side waiting for me to cross, as though only one of us could be on the bridge at a time. "Hello," I say, and he smiles and answers "Hi" and steps onto the bridge to pass me.
Across the bridge, four boys kicking a soccer ball around behind the houses despite the fact that there's a field about 200 feet away. Shouts and laughter from the other side of the houses where children are playing and riding bikes. Everywhere, there are people. Kids run through the playground. In the street, men huddle around a truck smoking marijuana. The sun's gone down but it's still light and, according to Siri, 82 degrees. I stop to read a flier on a windshield. It's advertising a forum about police and the community. At the end of the street, a girl greets me on a bike.
"What's your name?"
"Beth. What's yours?"
"Nice to meet you." Her friend is riding by too. "And what's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Jackie."
And they're on their way.
The following occurs to me, and I'm wistful. When most of us in Boulder want to do something, we go out. When these people want to do something, they go home. I do like my space, and my time to myself, but I can't help but think it would be lovely to just walk outside to a community of friends and family, chattering and eating and shouting and watching kids be kids. Living out in the open, in the summer nights.
April 17, 2015
I'm a rules person. I like to know the rules, I like it when people follow the rules, and I like to enforce the rules. I'm not saying I'm proud of this, but I do know this about myself. (There are, of course, exceptions, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll just fess up to being a rules person.)
Tonight in improv, I was that rules person. I got a little bunched up last week over people wanting to know the purpose of activities before we did them, or trying to constantly analyze or compare, but what I realized tonight is that I'm just as annoying, but about rules. I see rule breaking, and I want to fix it. It's not my job in improv to fix it. It's my job in improv to embrace it.
I didn't figure that out tonight until I was leaving, of course. I went to class despite being sick. I tucked in against the wall and watched. (So I didn't even have a chance to fail. Last week's goal averted.) Before going, I knew it might be hard for me not to interject. To just observe. It was. And the several times I did interject, or comment, I regretted it. I didn't just lightly regret it, but at the end of the night I left feeling ashamed and a little broken. I'm that person, I thought. I'm that person who can't keep my mouth shut, who always has something to add, who steps in to what should be in the instructor's domain. (This isn't new knowledge. This is old stuff. I've been that person probably all my life. And although I'm aware of it, I just keep...on...doing it.)
And it really bothered me. Last week, I felt like I failed because I didn't let go and get in there. This week, I felt like I failed because I overstepped my bounds and made people feel either annoyed or badly about themselves. They've probably already let go of it, I thought, and I probably should too.
But then I thought something else. Okay, I thought, my challenge for next week is no constructive criticism. No helpful hints. No gentle reminders. "I love the way you ___" or nothing at all. Pick out the bright spots.
When I was religious, I liked the idea that is wasn't my job to judge people. That was God's. Just so, it's not my job to judge people in class. That's for the instructors. My job is to embrace my fellow players and everything they do. One of the students today brought in a thought from a class he took over the weekend: Everyone is a genius. No matter what I think my next idea was going to be, whomever I'm working with is a genius, and what just came up is the best possible thing that could have happened.
I'm not saying it's going to be easy. My job is to judge less, and I'm just wired for it. Judge, judge, judge. (Yeah, pretty sure I'm not alone in this. And there are tons of reasons it makes sense to judge, but we'll leave that for another conversation about evolution or psychology or sociology or whatever.) Myself, and others. The judging gets in the way. It gets in the way of flow.
So there's my challenge. And a way to be more present. That's my present, to me. I hope I like it....
But before I close, let me wax poetic a bit about what it was like to be tucked into the wall. People in this class are super nice. Just a real pleasure. I sat and watched while people did a goofy warm-up, making funny noises and motions and stretching out their mouths and eyebrows. I sat and watched while people tried things they'd never done before. I sat and watched while people experimented with ideas they'd never had before. During an exercise in which you have to walk briskly around the room pointing at things and calling them something else (e.g. touch a chair and call it an elephant), I was called Statue of Liberty, ballerina, hooker, and puppy dog. (Yes, commence with the jokes. Take your pick, and very funny.) This was all pure joy. The two newbies who couldn't make class last week were amazing. Just stepped right in there. I was impressed by the lack of hesitation and self consciousness, the inventiveness, the willingness. After some games, people would say, "That was hard," but it didn't look it from where I was sitting. One of the newcomers said, at the end of the night, I just realized that with improv we leave the rest of the world out there. None of the rules apply. All the rules we're supposed to follow (a-hem), all the things we're supposed to do or be, the ways we're judged, we just leave it out there on the other side of that wall. That's pretty cool.
Yeah. That's pretty cool.
April 10, 2015
Failing at Failing
I joined an improv class tonight. It's an eight week class and I realized yesterday that I will miss *three* of those eight classes next month, and had about a day and a half to debate over whether to do it anyway.
I have a couple reasons for wanting to do the class.
1) I like acting and did improv informally for a while many years ago. It's been in the back of my mind off and on that I would give it another go.
2) I reconnected with some Ice friends who have done improv and was inspired by a couple things, both personal and professional. One of the goals that I set at the end of last year was to spend some time this year involved in improv.
The professional: Applying principles of improv to science communication is kind of a thing. Since I like improv and do and teach science communication, I wanted to be part of this thing.
The personal: A friend was talking about applying improv principles to real life, mainly in relationships of all sorts. Make the people around you look good, give gifts, listen. I was thinking improv would also help me to practice being present and attentive. When I asked for more details on the class, the description included being okay with failing. And I though god, yes, I need to learn to fail. I mean, I know how to fail, but I need to learn that failing is okay. I need to learn to be okay with it. I need to practice being okay with it.
So, even though I'm going to miss three out of eight sessions, I decided to go ahead with the class. No time like the present.
Here is the series of texts I sent to a friend in the half hour leading up to the class:
(6:31) What if I don't really like the other people in the class? What if it's lame?
(6:31) What if I don't get anything out of it?
(6:49) And I'm nervous!
(6:49) What if I'm just not on or into it?
(6:49) Then I won't get anything out of it.
(6:50) And I forgot mints!
(6:52) Found mints in my glove box. :)
(6:56) I'm wearing purple pants.
Big surprise, I survived. But I failed. In a way that doesn't even feel like a good way. I failed at failing! I didn't even fail on the "stage"--I failed to get on the stage. I can't fail if I'm not on the stage. The last game was freeze tag, which you've seen if you've seen just about any improv. Two people play out a simple little scene with big gestures, another player yells freeze, they freeze, the new player taps one of them on the shoulder, takes the same position, and starts a totally different scene. I kept waiting. For the right moment. For the right inspiration. For whatever. In the meantime, all the scenes were going on too long because people weren't calling freeze and jumping in. Rebecca, the organizer, who I did improv with long ago, was mouthing to me from her perch as the only audience member across the room: Freeze. Say freeze. Say freeze. Because if you're not playing, you're not a team player. I wasn't a team player. Rebecca picked up an imaginary brain out of her real head and set it tidily next to said head: Stop thinking.
So, I've got a lot of work to do. Stop thinking. Start playing. Stop judging. Start being. Stop editing. Start creating.
I feel like I failed tonight, even though I'm supposed to be embracing failing. Everyone else got out there, repeatedly, even the first-timers. I did maybe two scenes. With cold feet. Funny thing about improv, there are rules. There are things to keep track of. There are pressures. And the pressures are to be aware, and to listen, and to stop thinking so much. But to tap into that creative space, we have barriers to get past. One of the rules is to avoid asking questions because that leaves us at the surface and not committing. When we ask a question (What are you doing?) we're not creating, we're waiting to see what someone else will come up with. This is considered bad etiquette, partly because it's not interesting for the audience and partly because it puts the burden of decision on your fellow player. But it also robs you of the opportunity to create. In a place where it seems like there should be no rules, or etiquette to follow, we have rules and etiquette to force us to that scary, vulnerable, risky, exposing, and liberating space. We could fail. But fear of failure is what makes us truly fail. I feel more sheepish about my paralysis, about not getting out there tonight, than I would if I did something stupid. This is exactly what we're trying to break through. Not failure, but the fear of failure.
Okay, that's it. Next week, I'll do better.
April 8, 2015
Seeking Financial Advice
I just looked over my finances and did some calculations to see how long it would take me to pay off my student loans.
Bachelors degree: Paid off long ago (thank goodness)
1st master's degree: No debt--science, got and lived off my stipend (thank goodness)
2nd master's degree (yes, 2nd... hey, I'm not the only one): Debt up the ying-yang
I don't know where my head was for that second master's. I was feeling ambitious and idealistic and since I chose the local, state school over the expensive, hoighty-toighty, across-the-county private school I just didn't look closely at my finances. I figured with in-state tuition, it couldn't be that much, and also assumed there was no financial aid available since it was in humanities. Wrong, wrong, wrong. First of all, I could have applied for a TAship or RAship my first year, which I had no idea about. I blame both myself and the program for lack of communication. But second of all... I just didn't really keep tabs on my finances. That's a huge shame-on-me. And now I'm paying for it. Literally. (And, of course, I accrued as much debt as I would have at the hoighty-toighty school, but over twice the amount of time, which kept me out of the workforce longer.)
I really, really, really hate debt. I can't pay off my debt nearly as fast as I'd like. (And by as fast as I'd like, I mean, you know, like... now.) So I'd like to find some additional sources of income. Writing, maybe photography... Maybe I could write for some money in the evenings? It would have to be something not super taxing, since my day job is pretty full-on. But man, it would be nice to get these things up and done. Any ideas? Investments? Hard labor? Odd jobs? I can be odd...
March 26, 2015
I feel like before I can get on to any of the many topics I'd like to write about (volcanoes, the 35th anniversary of Mount St. Helens' big eruption, the radio show coming up next week, which is about volcanoes, and excitement about hiking partway around Mount Rainier this summer.... which I guess all amounts to volcanoes, volcanoes, volcanoes) (oh, and the value of Twitter, where I've connected with people who... um... study and work with communities around volcanoes...)
Okay, fine, here's a picture of a volcano:
[Rainier from Paradise, where I toured with my mom and aunts last summer (more photos on Flickr) and plan to hike this coming August.]
... but what I feel like I need to write about first is goals.
I started the year with that great five-week challenge. It got me to the gym, cooking, writing blog posts, meditating, and creating clear work/personal barriers (because I needed evenings and weekends for my goals).
Since then, I wrote two blog entries. In the week after the challenge.
So much for creating habits, I guess.
I've gone to the climbing gym... twice? Three times, if you count the time I was going to ride the bike but ran into Leah and Marianne and talked to them for an hour instead.
I did ride my bike home from work on Saturday (bussed there to get it), partly to facilitate riding my bike to and from work on weekdays, which I have yet to do. My bike was at work for... well, since June. How do I know? Because I rode it for Bike to Work Day. And then I didn't ride it home. (It was only Bike to Work Day.)
And sometime I think last month Jane gave me a five-day pass to her upscale gym and we did a five-day fitness challenge which turned into a four-day fitness challenge which is still pretty good, and on day four besides I so slaughtered my calves that I couldn't stand up straight for a week. No exaggeration. (Keep in mind I also have a desk job, so no good ongoing stretching and circulation during that time.) I was going to write a blog entry called Dancercize about how:
I generally think I'm a pretty good dancer until I get into a dance fitness class and then I feel like a total whitey uncoordinated suburban goof. Jane and I went to a class together and although I stole glances, I generally made a point of not looking at the four other women in the room (instructor excluded) because, well, do unto others. And, I had to have my eyes glued to the instructor to try to constantly figure out what was going on. I was smiling the whole time, I think out of equal parts amusement, joy, and embarrassment.
Later in the week, I went to a class by the instructor that Jane adores. Jane couldn't make it, so it was just me. No, really, I mean it—it was just me. Well, and the instructor. It was a snowy Wednesday evening, and apparently the few regulars weren't regular enough to come out in a snowstorm. So we flipped around some options and it was her last time teaching on Wednesday and my pass was about to run out and she said she needed a workout anyway so sure, why not, let's do a half an hour.
Amanda is a-ma-zing.
And, yes, my calves abhor her.
She went through posture, walking, ballet (which is what I'm sure killed the calves—plié, revelé), then some swing. She even broke things down for me before the songs so I had a fighting chance of keeping up. And then... well, we were having so much fun that we just kept going for the whole class.
And then, a week later, I still couldn't stand up straight.
When I told my co-worker, Sarah, she suggested this, which is of course an oldie but goodie (and much easier on the calves):
So the exercise part is a minor failure. But I'm determined to get back on track, and an even better track at that, especially as the weather warms up. Because I need to get in shape for backpacking. Which I have a revived excitement for. My since-first-grade friend Anna and I decided to hike part of Rainier's Wonderland Trail this summer and that's a great excuse for looking forward. Marianne got me geeking out on ultralight backpacking (because who WOULDN'T want a light, comfortable pack?) and I ran out and bought this and is it weird if I pack now for a short trip in August?
And there I go. I wasn't going to talk about backpacking, but I just got too excited. More on that later.
Cooking. I took a bit of a hiatus and now I'm back to it. But even better than doing it once a week, I'm doing it as needed, which is generally more frequent. Except for tonight. I was so hungry after work that I went to get tacos. (And I'm kind of more interested in putting together dry, light meals for backpacking. Since when am I obsessive?)
Mediation. Honestly, I just completely forgot about it. I was back on the mat this morning. And it was pretty nice.
All in all, it's probably unfair to call the last month a fail. I'm working toward betterment. Healthier habits and a better sense of where I want to be, and what I need and don't. I'm embracing the mentality of the ultralighters: Do I need this? No. Do I want it? Maybe. If it's not a yes, shave it off! All this stuff adds up, whether in weight or space (my overcrowded apartment) or money. I think I'm going to forego a ski pass for this next winter and focus on trying out the cross-country trails.
Everything adds up.
And backpacking doesn't cost much.
(Neither, incidentally, do volcanoes.)
February 22, 2015
As of last week, the five-week challenge organized by my good friend Jane is over. As a reminder, here's what I put myself up to and what was at stake, in reverse order:
- $100 (to lose)
- shame (to gain)
- Make a real meal at least once a week
- Post at least one blog post a week
- Move my body at least 20 minutes in a go, at least four times a week, with at least one of those sessions being yoga
Sounds like not much, probably. But, as I think I said before, I was going from nothing to something, and my goal was to establish some norms. Overall, I think it worked. And I'm glad.
Since the end of the challenge, one week ago, I've only continued with the blog posts, unfortunately. But I swear I'm going to get back on the wagon.
Jane asked us at the end of the challenge what was good about it and what was difficult. Here are my thoughts.
The power of peer networks
Jane didn't just pull the challenge structure out of thin air. She likes learning about what makes for effective goals, so it's no accident that there was money on the line and social pressure. The money at stake—not gaining $100, but potentially losing it—kept me feeling there was something tangible to keep me on track. It was, of course, on the honor system, but I assumed my peers weren't lying, and I wasn't going to either. And, ultimately, like the saying went in junior high, by cheating I would only be cheating myself. I was in this challenge because I wanted to be, and I knew I had something to gain from it. And I also knew that if I dropped out for no good reason, I would look bad. Peers. Accountability.
I liked knowing that I could do these simple things—cooking, writing, exercising. And I *really* liked making them a priority. These challenges helped shift my work-first mentality from last year to a healthier mentality balanced between work in work time and self-directed activities outside that time. These challenges actually gave me permission to live outside work. And to prioritize these things that I had identified as important, even over social activities. It helped me to realize that, as much as I love people, I really am a homebody in many ways. This is why I often don't reach out to people, and make them instead reach out to me (sorry, people). It's awesome to be alone. And it's awesome to know I can make things happen (cook, write, exercise) on my own.
I didn't even realize that last part until now. The challenge was empowering. Both because I was the one directing my time and making these things happen, and also because I got the positive reinforcement that comes with meeting goals.
Go ahead. Do it. Make yourself a small goal. Do it now.
Now complete it.
Feels good, right?
In my rougher days, I would make very detailed lists of very simple tasks and rejoice in each one completed. Make breakfast. Check! Eat breakfast. Did it! Take a shower. Okay, shower good. Get dressed. Bam! I'm a person. See what we can do for ourselves? Those of us who can do these things for ourselves, anyway? What a luxury. Take a moment to think of three things that you can do for yourself that you can rejoice in.
What I wouldn't do anyway
I wouldn't have cooked every week if not for the challenge. I wouldn't have gone to the gym to just hop on the bike. I wouldn't have written about half of the blog entries. I wouldn't have done yoga in my living room. Having the challenge was enough to get me to do these things, to think about them and plan for them. And it wasn't hard. It just took a switch. And I loved that.
The tough side
It's hard to motivate when you're sick. I was sick for an entire week. I was very glad Jane helped me make my goals more general to be attainable in case I traveled, because that also made them attainable while I was sick. For three nights, I did a 20-minute session of bedtime yoga I found on YouTube. The first night I did it on the floor in my living room and didn't even rock side to side in happy baby pose because it hurt too much. The next two nights I did it in bed. It seemed like cheating, but it at least got me in my body, in a positive and gentle way.
I was also challenged with the meal-making in that I made recipes that yielded about eight servings and had issues with leftovers. I would have to make another meal before I'd run out of the last one. Still, it got me working on a system that will save money and facilitate dinners, and lunches too. I bought some more freezer containers and I'll probably need to go for another batch. Then if I can refine just a bit how to plan the meals such that I get diversity in my food I should be good to save money and eat well.
A word on the others
I won't out everyone else on their goals, but glancing over this I think I make it sound like I was in it alone even though I talk about the importance of being in it with other people, so I want to add a few words on the other challengers. Everyone set significant challenges for themselves, and stepped up to them. People drank less alcohol, spent less money, worked on publications, exercised a lot, and cut sugar out of their diets. Two people noted that they found it easier to comply with the elimination goals (like no sugar) than the action goals. (On that note... anyone giving anything up for lent?) One of the things I really appreciated about this challenge is how people commented on Jane's master accountability spreadsheet, to encourage each other. We got to see how and what other people were doing, and cheer each other on.
I wasn't looking forward to the end of the challenge. What will keep me motivated to do these things I've started doing? What will get me to step them up? That said, I do feel like by setting the precedents I did that I will keep doing what I want to do, and add to it.
I actually gained weight rather than losing it, which was a bit disappointing even though weight loss wasn't a specific goal. I think I need to pay more attention for a while to my intake and learn what is and isn't healthy, and how to balance the types of food I eat with the types of exercise I like to do. This is a big puzzle to me. I'm picky about exercise and not picky about food. Hmmm, another revelation.... Feel free to quote me on that.
February 20, 2015
Sea of Glory: A Book Review
I finally finished reading "Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842" by Nathaniel Philbrick. I say finally because, yes, it took me a long time, but not because it was drudgery. Yes, it's non-fiction, and yes, it's a little bit of a slog, but it's also fascinating. Partly because my coworker, Lou, who lent it to me, told me that it's about a little-remembered expedition that was primarily responsible for the Smithsonian collection.
As it turns out, the expedition's haul doesn't make up the majority of the Smithsonian's collection, as I'd been telling people while reading the book (they don't talk about that part until the end) (sorry for the spoiler), but only about 1/5th. Still—1/5th. It's a lot. And it sounds like it's arguably the impetus for the Smithsonian being what it is today.
Other interesting things about the four-year expedition, led by Charles Wilkes:
- They mapped 1,500 miles of Antarctic coastline, basically confirming (without much credit) that it is indeed a continent.
- One of the things the author keeps coming back to that the expedition brought back was Fijian war clubs. Presumably because many were thrown at the crew.
- They charted 100 miles of the Columbia river and sent overland expeditions across the Cascades and down to San Francisco. This wasn't even really talked about in the book, beyond a mention. They mapped out San Francisco Bay. One of the scientists seemingly obsessively or lovingly documented languages.
- The famous geologist James Dana (whom I didn't know about—sorry, not much of a history buff, getting better) basically confirmed Darwin's ideas about how atolls form and made some nice proto-plate tectonics observations in Hawaii. I make his work seem quaint. He's was a powerhouse who made all sorts of natural history observations both inside and outside his field, and on the expedition he was still quite young.
- A lot can happen in four years and it's really hard to get a feel for it from a single book.
Overall, the book was very interesting, especially since I learned a few things about places I'd been. The Antarctica bits were particularly interesting. I didn't know that Palmer Station and the research vessel and icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer were named for the American sealer whom maybe first sailed along the Antarctic Peninsula, before anyone knew it was connected to a continent. Also, Weddell seals (fat, blobby masses of fat and fur) are named for... someone who killed them, British sealer James Weddell. As my cousin Susan pointed out, Weddell's long gone and the seals live on. So there's that.
The book was dense with information, but easily digestible information. I like that. Philbrick would leave cliffhangers at the end of chapters, keeping me turning pages. What I was a bit perplexed by as the book wore on though is that I learned quite a bit about the expedition and about exploration and trade (the expedition was spurred by the need for better charts for Americans exploiting foreign waters—a phrase the author never uses, but is the frank description: seals, whales, otters, sea cucumbers) I didn't get a good feel for the experience. The six ships sailed through extremely treacherous waters, barely making it through getting crunched by icebergs and getting tossed about by huge seas, almost crashing against rocks and cliffs and requiring long, hard, exhausting work and expert maneuvers to extricate themselves from these near misses. I got this from the text—they did hard things. But I didn't feel it. I don't know what it was like. I don't know ships, and maybe this is part of it. Ordeals were explained, but the closest I felt to being there was standing on the beach at Malolo, Fiji, watching two key crew-members get killed. Perhaps this is because the author had more "emotional information" on this event—people writing about what they saw and felt in their journals about an event that lasted maybe moments rather than hours. I knew those two men on the beach, and I watched them die. I saw their bodies in the water. It's worth noting that I didn't see anyone else's bodies, though—I didn't see the bodies of the multiple Fijians that died on the same beach, but without their friends journaling about it afterward.
Still, overall, the book was worth it. I do wonder at the value of reading books like this. How much will I retain? Is it worth the hours I spent with it? Is it enough just to light up the portions of my brain that engage in the act of reading? Will I retain an impression of the voyage that will somehow serve me, if not the details?
One thing about the book that provides major food for thought is its tale of leadership, which is really what the book is about. Charles Wilkes as a leader. Charles Wilkes as a person. How to lead, how not to lead. It's easy to say that Wilkes was a horrible leader. He was elitist, mean, insecure, rash, painfully egotistical, and often unreasonable. No one whom I would want to share space with. But as Lou, my book-lending coworker, pointed out, the expedition may not have been as successful under different leadership. Wilkes was anal, focused, and belligerent, including after the expedition when it came to producing results and keeping the collections together.
Still, I always like to believe there is a way to be a good, kind, successful, productive leader. I don't think belligerence and kindness are mutually exclusive.
Either way... Now, with my new-found understanding of 16 chapters of history, I can move on to those volcano books that have been calling to me. Island on Fire, wait, I'm coming!
February 13, 2015
I got three books today that I'm very excited about. (Okay, I got one of them yesterday.) I decided it's volcano season (now through May) and I'm going to read up. Why now? Two pressing reasons: Alex Witze gave me a copy of her new book, "Island on Fire," which she co-wrote with her husband, Jeff Kanipe, and the plan is to interview them about it on a radio show at the end of March. It's about the eruption of Laki in Iceland in 1783, which... well, here are the words from The Economist on the book's cover: "The eruption sparked the first sustained interest in climate science. But the overwhelming impression is that volcanoes have brought regional disaster, with global effects." Okay, I'm intrigued.
The other books are also volcano books. The first one I threw in the cart was "Mount St. Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano," by Rob Carson. I justified it because I'm going to be doing some outreach at and about Mount St. Helens in May, and I know some about the volcano but it certainly wouldn't hurt to know more. I expected it to be a regular-sized book, but it's a big, magazine-sized one with glossy color pictures. At first I thought, "Shoot, I never read these kinds of books." But then I started getting sucked in by those pictures. I think it's going to be rad.
The third book is "Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions," by Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders. This one is mainly because people expect me to know everything about volcanoes since I've studied them, but I don't. Not even close. So I figured it wouldn't hurt to learn a little more, plus volcanoes+people is what I've always been most interested in. At a glance, the book looks like a fun, engaging, pretty quick read. If I like it, I'll move on to their earthquakes book next.
I put a call out to Facebook the other day to ask about recommendations for good volcano books. This is what came up:
"The Volcano Lover" by Susan Sontag, recommended by Dennis Geist and Alex Witze
"No Apparent Danger" by Victoria Bruce, recommended by Nathan Becker and Alex Witze
"Melting the Earth" by Haraldur Sigurdsson, recommended by Alex Witze
"The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed 30,000 Lives" by Ernest Zebrowski, recommended by Heather Wright
and, perhaps most importantly, Nancy Trigg said, "It's not a book exactly, but there was this awesome episode of the Brady Bunch..."
Nancy, is it this one?
Speaking of which, one of our staff told me yesterday that her daughter's teacher, for their kindergarten science projects, told the class there could be only one volcano. Her daughter wasn't quick enough to get her hand up. I love it. The go-to volcano science project was so popular that they made a rule about it. It's like no Skynyrd in a guitar shop. Or, apparently, no Defying Gravity (a song from Wicked) in auditions. Except that they do allow one volcano. For an 8th grade science fair project, my friend Shannon and I made a model of Pangea. It was her idea. I was at a loss. I wasn't really into the science fair. It was one of the first cases I can remember of "good enough." I had no interest in being an overachiever (until I saw my peers' overachieving and got envious, but that didn't happen until the science fair itself). I just wanted to get it done. I wasn't that interested in science. And it showed—it was highly mediocre. What's more, not only was I not interested in the idea of Pangea, but it actually terrified me. It fed into my fear of infinity, the unknown, that which I have not and could not experience. Really, I guess it was a fear of things the indicated that I am not important. I mean, there was all that time before me, before all of us, when the world looked completely different than it does today. I think it probably indicated that there isn't intentionality in the way the world is today. And then, if there's not, where do I fit in?
And there you go. I had no idea I was going to get existential.
I'm excited to read volcano books. But first, I need to finish my current read: Sea of Glory. Will let you know about it when I'm done.
February 5, 2015
Why I Love Science Communication
In case it isn't clear, I've moved slowly over time from science to science support to science communication. I love all of it. But I especially love communication.
Someone whom I now work with once asked me why I switched into communication. I gave an answer that made it sound like I was disillusioned by my master's or couldn't hack it. I could put it that way, saying I was exhausted and frustrated at the end of my master's and not ready for a PhD, or that I'm just not that great at math, or that I'm not inspired by power systems, and some of all of that is true. But it's also true that I really, really love communication. So why fight it?
And I don't think communication is a cop-out in the least. Communication has beautiful challenges. It's a constant game of strategy and problem solving, taking information and figuring out how to best express it. And there's no one right answer. As far as we'll know, there's not even a best answer. You can't apply a model and solve for it. You just have to go. Think about your audience. How to 1) reach them, 2) connect with them, 3) motivate them, if that's what you're trying to do. I get to deal in the realm of information and people.
I took a science writing class a few years ago in journalism grad school. About half the students were in journalism, the other half in science or engineering. I ran into one of the engineering students after the semester was over and asked what he thought of the class. It was okay, he said, but I'm going to stick to engineering. He'd like to make a change in the world, he said, and he'd rather do it than talk about it.
Sure. I get it. But no need to be condescending about it. Because if no one's talking about what you're doing, good luck making a change in the world. If you can do the talking yourself, great. I know many scientists who are also great communicators. In fact, I think the trend of scientist communicators is increasing. The National Science Foundation now puts emphasis on broadening the impact of research they fund, whether it's through educational programs, informing policy decisions, or enhancing national security. Major meetings the the annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the largest meeting of Earth scientists in the world, host sessions and workshops on science communication (I'm hoping to teach one this year). People like glaciologist Allen Pope, here in Boulder, find time to tweet about their research while working on their PhDs (find Allen at @PopePolar). Volcanologist Jessica Ball writes a blog for AGU called Magma Cum Laude. My friend the glaciologist PhD candidate Gifford Wong, whom I met aeons ago in Antarctica, teaches scientists to communicate using skills learned through improv. (I'm hoping to learn to do that myself. Seriously.... fun!)
But there are still folks who either aren't so interested in or adept at the communications side, and I like to think that for those people, in particular, there are people like me. Who LOVE to communicate, especially to the public. Mi excitement es tu excitement. And, as it so happens, I love to teach. I love to teach scientists to better communicate. Which means I have to learn the tips and tricks, and then how to teach them. This is the kind of stuff I love thinking about it the shower.
In talking about doing a PhD, a friend asked me a few years ago what I think about as I go to bed at night, or as I wake up in the morning. This is what I think about: How to communicate.