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Writing

Eyes Closed

I prepared to teach a nature poetry workshop at a local yoga studio, but it was cancelled. As a result, I have a bunch of poetry exercises floating around in my head. These can be adapted to any kind of writing as well. I think I inflicted one of them on my students a few years ago.

First Exercise: Go outside. Close your eyes. How do you know it’s spring?

This one is easy for me now that I’ve moved to Vermont and have a backyard that borders a field, a forest, and a stream. I’ve got birds trying to nest on a tin roof. Blue jays are fighting each other for resources. At night, I can hear peepers. The air does not hurt my face. It smelled like manure last weekend when the guy across the stream plowed his field.

Second Exercise: What did your house growing up/your friend’s house/your first apartment (insert dwelling of the past) smell like? What are the nonvisual reminders that you have arrived to a particular place?

My college town smelled like the cereal factory and my hometown smells like greenery. The train wailed at each of the many crossings going through my college town, and I know I’ve pulled into my own driveway in Vermont when I hear the blackbirds kicking up a fuss. The house I grew up in smelled like cool ash on summer mornings, and one house I lived in sometimes smelled like low tide. The ducks and gulls were deafening.

Close your eyes. How do you know you are where you are?

Memoir, Uncategorized

Dad Jokes

There is a joke my father used to love to tell.

There’s an astronomer, a mathematician, and an engineer walking through a field in Scotland. They see a black sheep on a hill in front of them. The astronomer looks at the sheep and declares, “I conclude there are many black sheep in all of Scotland.” The mathematician shakes his head disapprovingly and says, “I conclude there is at least one black sheep in all of Scotland.” The engineer shakes her head and says, “I conclude that the sheep is black on the side facing us.”

When I was a kid, he explained it to me, and I didn’t get it. In my twenties, I got it, but didn’t think it was funny. Now, I both get it and think it’s funny.

The engineer can only swear to that which she can verify for sure. You don’t want to build a bridge assuming the pilings are thick enough. You want to measure, design, and plan to be sure. This is how copyeditors look at the words they are paid to edit. Is there a period there? There should be a period there. But is it actually there? Would you bet your paycheck on it?

All day I read scientific papers that might as well had been in a foreign language for all I understand them. This lack of comprehension means there is nothing to distract me from how these sentences are constructed. Eventually I become familiar with the vocabulary and although I do not know what the words mean, I learn what part of speech they are, how they tend to be used in a sentence and how they fit together. I am a structural engineer of language.

Do you think the joke is funny?

 

Reading, Weather

Siberian Heat Wave

The winter of 2015 was difficult in the Boston area. It snowed two feet every few days in February. My little dog didn’t have the clearance to make it down the stairs, so I learned the fine New England art of shoveling pee trails. I felt trapped, sore, and cranky.

Around that time, I became fascinated with Norilsk. Photographer Elena Chernyshova took gorgeous photos of the cold polluted Siberian city. Normally I like to read about the Arctic and Antarctic during the summer for its psychosomatic cooling effects, but this was not a normal winter.

I added Norilsk to phone’s report of weather in various cities. It might be warmer in Charlottesville (my hometown) or New Orleans (a favored destination), but it was always colder in Norilsk. But not today.

Today it is 81 degrees, the same temperature in Norilsk that it is in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is 15 degrees warmer than it is in coastal Massachusetts. July is the warmest month in Norilsk, but this is still record breaking. July averages in Siberia range between 40 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Europe is undergoing a heat wave. Last year a Siberian heat wave woke up some anthrax viruses, which had been dormant since the 40s. Forecasters say it may hit 95 degrees above the Arctic Circle.

This is the climate, changing.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing

Goldstein’s First Law

My uncle likes to declare laws. He’ll say, “Goldstein’s First Law is don’t believe everything you hear. Goldstein’s Second Law is don’t necessarily disbelieve it either.” Then he gives you a characteristically cheeky grin. My cousins also come up with laws. We are all named Goldstein, so Goldstein’s laws vary by the one who declares them. It’s all very confusing.

This Goldstein’s First Law of  Writing is “know thyself.” I tell my students they have to understand how they work in order to get words on the page. Don’t try to write at 5 am if you are a night owl. Don’t try to write an outline when you’re really a pantser (i.e., a writer who “flies by the seat of her pants” or doesn’t figure out what she’s writing about until she is done, as per Joan Didion). You get the idea.

Sometimes, however, you are so caught up in the draft that you forget yourself. I spent two weeks at a writing residency in May. My co-resident Cathy observed that every time I said to her over breakfast that I hated my chapter, I turned a corner and had an epiphany by happy hour.

I texted her yesterday. “I hate chapter 3. That’s a good sign, right?”

“Yup,” she texted in response.

I hated chapter 3 all morning. I found myself looking for things on etsy and checking facebook ten times a minute. I couldn’t figure out where to work and drifted from porch to yard to table to couch. Anything but look at the page.

Then at noon I realized what I had been doing wrong. I moved a middle chunk to the end and fixed my major problem. The chapter is coming together. I live to fight write another day.

What are your patterns?

Writing

On Father’s Day

Father’s Day and my father’s birthday are exactly a week apart. When I was a smart-ass child, I gave my father a right-handed gardening glove on Father’s Day and its left-handed companion on his birthday. I thought I was hilarious; he was not amused.

My father died a few days before Father’s Day when I was 24 and he was days from turning 75. For years after that, I would get sullen and gloomy in June, prone to talking too much about my father and crying. I hated Father’s Day for its mindless gender assumptions (Dad grills! Dad drinks whiskey! Dad plays golf!) and for the grief it caused me.

As more time has passed, Father’s Day does not cause me acute pain. I still get mad at the gender assumptions, but the rest has faded into a dull ache. One of the things that helps is that my friends have become fathers, and it makes me happy to see them celebrated.

On this Father’s Day, I am writing about William and George Bond. This father-and-son team were the first two directors of the Harvard Observatory, working in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. George’s sister-in-law wrote the following about watching them work:

“One observer, with a sharp pencil, traced the [sun] spots as they were reflected on the paper, while the other wrote down any notes or observations . . . it was fascinating to watch the certainty and accuracy of every touch, their enthusiasm and delight in the work, and the quick response and recognition of either to a remark or suggestion of the other.”

George Bond was a single father late in his (short) life. He let his two daughters play in his office when he was working as long as they didn’t fight. One daughter described him as the kind of man who would walk around a child’s game of marbles on the sidewalk, rather than one of his colleagues, who would walk right through the game.

Like my own father, he taught his girls constellations and bird calls. Unlike my father, he died in his 40s from TB, exacerbated by cold and drafty working conditions in the observatory.

This post is in honor of good fathers, wherever we may find them.

 

(photo credit: https://hea-www.harvard.edu/~fine/Observatory/all.html)

 

Editing

A Meteoric Rise

In the seventh century BCE, Greeks thought that the weather was linked to the motion of the planets and stars. The word “meteor” was used to describe anything that happened high up in the atmosphere, and included what we would now call astronomical phenomena as well as weather- and atmosphere-related events. Thus the field of study the atmosphere and its patterns became called meteorology.

My first editing job was at the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences (or JAS as we affectionately called it). I became fond of JAS and my job copyediting meteorology. I liked to joke that the technical editor and I were the only ones who read JAS from cover to cover, and it was totally wasted on me.

My job editing meteorology eventually lead me to a second and third scientific editing position. Today I edit articles from a variety of scientific disciplines for the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. I still find myself drawn to the physical sciences, geology, meteorology, physics, and astronomy. Chemistry and I have a bit of an estranged relationship going back to the eleventh grade, but that is another story.

My robust English major/writer background and my puny (yet punny) science background leads to a lot of humor on my end as I try to make it through the my day. Yesterday I was amused by the fact that my authors were talking about a “meteoric rise” of methane concentrations in the atmosphere. It wasn’t until my second pass that I saw that it was a meteorological pun. This fact, I am sure, escaped my authors.

How do you amuse yourself at work?

(PS Keep your eye out for the Perseid meteor shower on August 11. Photo from JPL/NASA)

 

Talking about Writing

Elevator Speech

In theory, a writing residency is a good place to work on one’s elevator speech, because everyone asks everyone else what they write. Usually I say, “I’m working on a nonfiction project.” But then they follow up, “Oh! What’s it about?” Then I flounder.

“It’s a book about trying to understand my father’s work after he died.” If you know me in person, then you know he died when I was in my twenties. You know that he was an astronomer. And you know that I copyedit science but know very little about it. “Cool!” you might say and go on with your day, understanding what my book is about.

But if you don’t know me, I have a lot more to communicate. “I’m writing a book about trying to understand my father’s work after he died. He was an astronomer and I’m your classic English major type.” That gives you more context. But then I’m tempted to talk about C. P. Snow.

“In the late 1950s, physicist and novelist C. P. Snow talked about the two cultures: the scientists and the literary intellectuals, as he called them. The scientists read books and went to plays, but the literary types did not know the second law of thermodynamics was, which is the scientific equivalent of not having read a Shakespeare play. I don’t know the second law of thermodynamics.” Oops, too much information and it doesn’t even begin to cover the part of the book that is about my mother.

“My mother was a pianist, and my father was an astronomer. My book is about being the living embodiment of the third culture” only works if I have already given you the two cultures spiel. And I’m likely to do something undignified following it, such as saying, “Woohoo! Third Culture!”

This is why marketing people should write the one-sentence version of manuscripts and I should just go back to writing the manuscript. I manage to keep my dignity intact—mostly—on the page. How’s your elevator speech?