Blog

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?

 

 

Reading

Between the World and Me

Booksellers are notorious (in indie bookselling circles) for not reading popular books. They are the original hipsters and prefer to buy (at a steep discount) their books without the movie cover, thank you very much. In that spirit, it took me a while to get to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Better late than never. I’ve read a ton of Coates’ articles in The Atlantic and have always loved his precise writing, and the way that he always claims the shades of what he knows and what he doesn’t know. This is the clarity I want for my students. I spent much of a rainy Memorial Day tucked away reading his book.

I’m about halfway through now, but one of the things that struck me the most was the way that he talks about craft. I was not surprised to see in the beginning his clean layout of how the United States is based on the profits and plunder of slave labor while it claims unthinking exceptionalism. This is what I expected from the book.

But I also love how Coates talks about writing. He echoes Orwell as he talks about how the American Dream (which he sees as unaccessible to many), “thrives on generalization. . . on privileging immediate thinking, and honest writing” (50). Yes! The unthinking cliche is the enemy of good thought and thus good writing. Coates also sees “the craft of writing as the craft of thinking . . . . I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately . . . a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations” (51). Amen.

What are you reading? What are you learning about your own writing?

Writing

Goldstein’s Lecture on Subject Cliches

 

Most people with a shred of critical thinking skills and writing experience can recognize a cliche. Generic, trite, overused phrases such as every cloud has its silver lining or time will tell are cliches. But there are other kinds of cliches.

Every professor will hold her head and groan at the following academic cliches: Since the beginning of time, throughout history, in today’s society, because of technology. These phrases are overused and not specific enough to communicate meaning. Students everywhere, please banish these phrases from your vocabulary. Thank you.

Last night at work, a few seasoned tutors were reading a poem as part of one tutor’s writing project. It was a descriptive poem, and did not really bring anything new to the subject.

“Looks like someone needs a Goldstein lecture on subject cliches!” my colleague said. And he was right.

Subject cliches are words that are not generally considered cliches, but become so when applied to a subject. For example, bright as the sun is a solar cliche; cozy is a village cliche; tragedy is a death cliche; and apple pie is a mom cliche (but not for my mom, who really did make the best apple pie in the world, haha).

I once heard a poet describe the sun as yellow as a tulip. Think of the creative opportunities that could replace this subject cliche. The sun is a yellow dwarf star fueled by  hydrogen fusion. It contains hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, and iron. What color is helium? There are a thousand directions a poet armed with the Internet and a love of words can go.

A cliche is an opportunity to go into more detail. I say this frequently as a teacher, tutor, and editor. In fact it has become my very own cliche. I guess I should be proud.

(Photo credit: By Hinode JAXA/NASA – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/solar-b/solar_017.html)