Category Archives: random

Have notebook, will travel

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of my writing offline — longhand, in notebooks. I’ve had more free time to write than I’ve had in years, plenty of things to write about, and very little desire to be chained to my computer, or even my iPad. Although I’ve always done most of my “pre-writing” (notes, outlines, etc.) longhand, I’ve recently regained an appreciation for longhand composition. It’s slow. It’s messy. It’s interesting to see how things come out on the page when there is no backspace key to interfere. It breeds attentiveness. And it’s portable. Now that I keep a notebook at hand for more than just taking notes, I find myself actually going places to write. I try, at least once a week, to get out of the house and write somewhere else. Here are some of my favourite writing places:

1. Coffee Shops

Some would call this cliche, and to a point, I’m inclined to agree. But the advantage of this being so familiar is that people hardly seem bothered by some solitary stranger hunched over a notebook while nursing a latte. It’s a nice way to start a writing day.

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2. Bookstores & Libraries  

Because books. What can be more writerly than a place full of books?

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3. Under the shade of a palm tree  

Or any other vacation spot. I have become a total believer in writing vacations. They’re the best. In fact, going on a writing holiday was what started me on the habit of going somewhere else to write, to start seeing even the most familiar places in new ways.

4. The park 

Outdoorsy! The thing I like about writing in the park is that there are always people around, but it never feels busy. There’s much to be said for wide open spaces…or wooded paths.

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5. Planes, trains & automobiles

Okay, well I can vouch for planes and busses. I did try writing on a train from Lausanne to Paris once, only to discover that trains make me sleepy. However, a cross-Canada train trip is still on my bucket list, and I thought Amtrak’s new writers-in-residence program was a great idea. Writing in transit is like a retreat unto itself — new people, new scenery, and hours at a time with nothing better to do.

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6. The racetrack

I stumbled onto this one by accident, sort of. I was wandering the fairgrounds last weekend, in search of mini-donuts and a story, when intermittent showers forced me to seek shelter. It was post-time at the track, and I happen to love horse racing. Win-win. (Or is that win-place-show?) Anyway — turns out the track is a great place to write. You get two minutes of racing every half hour, there are plenty of people to watch, and when people see you with a notebook and a racing form, they just think you’re a really avid racing fan. Which I am. Really.

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7. Home

Recently, I’ve done some rearranging so that I can have a writing space that’s not the same as my computer work space. Because sometimes home still is the best place…or at least my cat thinks so.

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What are some other good writing places?

Writing and the maker mindset

The other day, I attended a public lecture by Mark Frauenfelder, creator of Boing Boing and editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine. The talk was about the popularity of do-it-yourself technology projects and the growth of so-called “maker culture.” It’s a fascinating topic to me, not so much because I like to build things myself, but because I’ve always looked at science as a way for people to engage meaningfully with the world around them. Science is all about finding stuff out, and there’s no better way to do that than to take something apart, tinker with it, and perhaps even solve a problem with it. Today’s makers, whom Frauenfelder describes as “broad spectrum enthusiasts”,  are not much different from the curious amateurs and natural philosophers who did science before we ever thought of science as a professional activity. Maker culture thrives on people sharing ideas openly and collaboratively improving one another’s designs, without the same barriers that often thwart open innovation models in professional science. And perhaps best of all, making is becoming increasingly accessible to people of all ages and all interests, in a way that professional research isn’t and perhaps never will be. It’s kind of exciting, seeing this resurgence of popular science.

Now, this will sound a little strange, but while my interest in maker culture comes from my interest in science, as a scientist, I never considered myself much of a maker. Of course there were many times in the lab when I had to come up with creative solutions to problems for which there was no ready-made, off-the-shelf protocol or apparatus; that’s just part of being a scientist. But outside the lab, at home, I don’t mind admitting that I’m somewhat less resourceful about DIY projects. I’ve tended to direct my creative energy to other pursuits — to writing, mostly. Does that count?

Going into Frauenfelder’s talk, I wouldn’t have thought so. But in the Q&A, someone asked him whether he’d found it difficult, transitioning from mechanical engineering to journalism, and his response felt immediately familiar. He described how, as an engineer, he would often work on a project for a year or more at a time before seeing a tangible outcome, while journalism allows him to keep moving, feeding his curiosity with new projects all the time, without being stuck on one thing for too long. It certainly sounded consistent with what one would expect from a broad spectrum enthusiast — a maker — as well as many writers I know, including myself.

One of the reasons I never wanted to get a PhD in science is that I didn’t want to specialize. The idea of spending 4-5 years on one project didn’t excite me at all. I enjoyed being more of a generalist. I liked being exposed to a lot of different ideas and projects and people — and the deeper I went into my own research, the more isolated I felt. With writing, I get to ask more questions about more things. I get to tinker with ideas and words — which may not be as sexy as building gadgets with a 3D printer and DIY electronics kits — but it’s all creative problem-solving. It’s all making something out of nothing, learning more about how it works as we go along. It’s the maker mindset.

If you’re not familiar with Frauenfelder’s work, I highly recommend checking him out — you might want to start with his TEDx talk, here:

 

Libraries: the great, unseen, can’t-miss attraction

One of the unexpected advantages of going on a writing holiday, I’ve discovered, is that it takes some of the urgency out of being a tourist. The pressure to see and do as much as I can has been tempered greatly by the fact that my real purpose for being here is to give myself time to write. Don’t get me wrong, the sightseeing has been fun too, but the other day I was standing in a rose garden amid a busload of bona fide tourists who seemed to be in such a hurry to see everything that I’m not sure they saw much of anything at all — and I actually felt a little sorry for them. (I mean, if ever there was a time to literally stop and smell the roses?)

I knew coming into this week that I would not be trying to see everything. I deliberately chose a destination with plenty of options, but kept my mind — and my schedule — open. Today, for example, I ventured off in the general direction of one of the local “must-see” attractions, but stumbled instead into the public library, where, after a brief delay due to a fire drill (during which, I got a terrific lunch recommendation from a random library patron), I settled into a wonderfully peaceful morning writing in the stacks.

Now, to a tourist on a sunny day, there are probably dozens of more exciting things to do than hang out at the library. Truth be told, I think I was secretly counting on it. I knew as soon as I walked in that it was going to be more satisfying than navigating herds of camera-toting tourists, Instagramming their way through the guided tour.

I think you can tell a lot about a place by its libraries. I might be biased, having spent my own formative years under the influence of a pack of librarians (which is kinda like being raised by wolves, but without all the howling at the moon). But I think libraries are just honest, down-to-earth places. Unlike most tourist traps, libraries strive to put their best foot forward to everyone, all the time, and without the underlying profit motive. Libraries are about adding value to the community, in the broadest sense of both words.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to roam an unfamiliar library, but the kid-in-a-candy-shop sense of wonder never really fades. It’s like grandma’s apple pie (or cookies, or pot roast, or whatever your grandma happens to be famous for). The scent of a library — somewhere between that glossy new cover smell and the musty vanilla character of well-travelled books — evokes some of the best memories of my childhood. It’s calm, but not too quiet. And though the layout is instinctively familiar and readily navigable, every library possesses its own distinctive, for lack of a better word — personality.

Whenever I visit a new library, I like to get a feel for the collection. I start in non-fiction, usually around the 020s (because librarians pick the best books about themselves — I once stumbled upon an enchanting anthology of library love stories on just such an adventure). I mostly cruise through the 100s-400s, although I might pause on some of my favourite topics (363.31 – Censorship, 370s – Education). And then I do a thorough rooting through the 500s, the 600s, and the 800s — wrapping up, wherever possible, with a nostalgic thumb through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (808.882). I took it out on a librarian’s dare once when I was thirteen, and dozens of borrowing periods later (and probably some long-forgiven fines), it’s still my favourite book to just sit and flip through at random. (Though oddly enough, I still don’t own a copy…)

If I ever manage to get my head out of Bartlett’s, then it’s off to fiction. It’s always interesting to see how libraries organize their fiction — sometimes alphabetically, sometimes by genre. Then reference, periodicals, local history, special collections…who says libraries are not “must see” attractions?

Today, however, I found a quiet nook in the late 700s, somewhere between stringed instruments and games of chance, sunk into some words of my own making, and didn’t look up until lunch time, when I saw this quote painted above the library’s main entrance:

You see, I don’t believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that has been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians. ~Monty Python

Yup, that’s my pack. Wherever I go, there they are.

Ocean waves, creative flow — coincidence? (I think not…)

When I was thinking about destinations for my summer writing getaway this year, every place that came to mind had one thing in common: the ocean.

I didn’t exactly plan it that way, but then again, I probably didn’t need to. Just as some people are naturally attracted to mountains or wide-open spaces, I am (instinctively, it seems) drawn to the water. I love everything about the ocean — the salty sea breeze, the soothing white-noise of waves breaking on rocks, even the way the light shimmers across the surface, causing mirage-like reflections that ripple and fade with the current. I could sit and watch it for hours.

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I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about the ocean that seems conducive to creative endeavours. Perhaps it’s just the natural ambience that relaxes the mind and sharpens the senses. But I’ve often wondered if there’s more to it than that. Water is embedded in the very language we use to describe creativity — from “tapping in” to “filling the well” to the whole concept of creative “flow.” And I can’t help but imagine that Kafka’s famous quote, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” applies as much to the writer as to the reader.

Or maybe it’s that the ocean reflects an inescapable truth about ourselves — that what lies on the surface, whatever its character, is but a glimpse of the life within. There’s a whole world below the surface — colourful, diverse, and mysterious — that remains unseen by most people. Maybe the ocean connects us with that part of ourselves — the place where stories live.

I’m not sure what it is, but I do know that whenever I’m here, I’m as close as I can be to finding out. This…is my happy place.

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In defence of the short story

Years ago, as a beginning writer, I hated short stories. I didn’t like reading them, and I didn’t like writing them. Like many young writers, I aspired to something with a little more substance, something that a reader — and a writer — could get lost in for awhile, and come out a little different on the other side. I wanted to tell big stories, and well, big stories needed space, right?

I wrote three novel-length manuscripts by my early twenties — none of which were very good — before I learned to appreciate the power of writing small. As I moved into writing non-fiction, I fell under the influence of journalistically-trained editors who made a bloodsport out of hacking 1000 words into a lean 450. In time, I learned that their goal was never to make a big story small, but to distill its “bigness” into such a small space that it almost can’t help but burst off the page.

Only then did I develop a true appreciation for the short story. I don’t think I’ve read an “epic” novel since. And really, what’s the point? If it’s any good, it will morph into not one, but a whole series of 3+ hour movies, in 3D. Because, you know, it would suck if we missed any of the painstaking detail.

To be fair, there have been some pretty awesome film adaptations of short stories too: Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain jump to mind, as does The Shawshank Redemption, which happens to be one of my favourite movies of all time.

But short stories still don’t seem to get the respect they deserve. The other day at lunch, a friend of mine shrugged off short stories as something writers anthologize when they don’t have enough material for a real book. (Ouch.)  Another lamented that too many short stories are actually too long, existing in a literary purgatory between the concentrated power of short fiction and the sustained meatiness of a novel.

I took this as a challenge to bring together some really good short stories — not necessarily the “classics” we were subjected to in English class (Sorry, Hemingway) — but more contemporary examples that I’ve enjoyed.

So, in the category of fun, light reads — here are four of my favourites, in no particular order:

1. How to become a writer, by Lorrie Moore (~2,500 words)

This may be my favourite short story of all time. The first time I read it (in English class, believe it or not!), I immediately fell in love with its unusual brand of second-person snark. It’s witty and ironic, but also unapologetically real.

2. Exchangeby Ray Bradbury 

Ray Bradbury is perhaps best known for his futuristic — and sometimes dystopian — tales, but he was above all a library lover. He once described libraries as “the biggest blasted Cracker Jack Factory in the world” and urged writers to “snuff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”

In other words, he’s one of my heroes.

Exchange, which was recently featured on Selected Shorts, perfectly captures the essence of what it’s like to grow up in libraries, among library people — and how no matter where you go, a library can always feel like home.

3. Unprotected, by Simon Rich (~1,250 words)

A clever coming-of-age story from an unusual point of view. Honest and funny.

4. The Undertaker’s Chat, by Mark Twain (~1000 words)

OK, this one starts to tread on “classic” territory. Reminds me of Six Feet Under.

I should note that none of these examples actually fits within the sub-genre of “flash fiction” that I prefer to write in. The definition of flash fiction varies, but it’s usually in the range of 300-1000 words. I like writing flash because it’s suitable for timed writing exercises — you can hammer out a draft in an hour — but it’s still technically challenging. It’s an art of fast writing and careful editing —  a fine balance between preserving the initial energy of a story and trimming it down to its purest, most essential form.

But that’s another story…

How my favourite poet introduced me to my favourite editor (or…vice versa?)

April is National Poetry Month. As many of you know, I’m not much of a poet, and not much more a reader of poetry. It seems I struggle with everything that makes poetry, well, poetic. There’s either too much freedom in form or not enough, counting syllables one minute, dropping capitals and punctuation the next. As in art, there is a fine line in poetry between what counts as a masterpiece and what looks like someone kicked over a paint can. I’ve never really gotten it.

And yet, the most memorable book of my childhood — not my first book, but the book I can still largely recite from memory — was a book of poetry. My first grade teacher used to read every day from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I still have my copy, faded and worn and much loved, with my name etched in practised elementary school scrawl on the inside front cover. The book is home to some of my most beloved literary characters: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (who would NOT take the garbage out!), Ickle Me, Pickle Me, and Tickle Me (who went for a ride in a flying shoe), and dear old Reginald Clark, who was afraid of the dark, and begged each day, “Please do not close this book on me.” (which of course we did, every day before lunch time…and I still do, as a rule, anytime I feel the need to look up a Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich.)

It’s a book that’s lost little of its charm over the years.  Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I discovered the book’s dedication, “For Ursula” referred to the legendary Harper & Row editor, Ursula Nordstrom, the woman who, over the span of a fifty-year career, revolutionized children’s publishing. Ursula Nordstrom not only nurtured some of the greatest creative talents in 20th century children’s literature (e.g. Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown – to name just a few!), but she also dared to publish what she called “good books for bad children,” shattering the strict moralistic standard of children’s books in favour of books that catered to the real emotions and imaginations of children.

Nordstrom began her career at Harper & Brothers in 1931, when she accepted a position as a clerk in the College Textbooks Department. Although Nordstrom expressed an early interest in writing, she did not join Harper with any immediate ambition to become an editor. Instead, she climbed the ranks as an assistant to her friend, Ida Louise Raymond, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls. When Raymond retired from the post, Nordstrom was named her successor, and would remain in a leadership role within Harper for the next forty years, amassing a long list of notable firsts: she published one of the first juvenile books handling the subject of menstruation (The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh) and the first novel for young readers that explored homosexuality (John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip). And when Maurice Sendak’s picture book, In the Night Kitchen, was censored and burned because it depicted a nude boy, Nordstrom publicly decried the “mutilation” of the book and maintained that “it is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.”

Though widely revered by authors, artists, and librarians, she sometimes faced staunch criticism from self-proclaimed authorities on children’s literature. One such critic, Anne Carroll Moore, famously asked Nordstrom what qualified her to be a children’s editor, given that she had no formal education, no children, and was not a teacher or librarian. Nordstrom was undaunted, replying matter-of-factly: “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.

Her letters — many of which have now been published as a collection — are an absolute delight to read. Most are letters between her and her authors and artists, which capture the special bond she had with them. But there are also letters to her readers — mainly children, but also some critics — which are as heartfelt and honest as many of the books we grew up with, thanks to her.

It’s difficult to imagine that Shel Silverstein — who began his career as a songwriter (most famous for Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue“), and whose poems were originally published in Playboy — would have gotten a second look from any other children’s editor of the time. But Nordstrom actually helped convince a reluctant Silverstein that he should try his hand at children’s poetry — and I love her for it.

Because what fun would have been growing up without Me Stew and The Loser and the Crocodile’s Toothache?  (I think I’d rather have been eaten by a boa constrictor!)

Happy Poetry Month!

 

Five common grammatical mistakes explained with pancakes

Tuesday, March 4th (March forth, get it?) is National Grammar Day. This year, it also happens to be Pancake Tuesday, the day when we’re all supposed to confess our sins and stuff ourselves with pancakes before Lent.

I’m not so crazy about Lent, but grammar and pancakes? On the same day? You mean I can make pancakes in the shape of punctuation marks for…um…educational purposes?

So, here we go — five grammatical sins explained with pancakes:

1. Using “comprised of” when you mean “composed of”

This is my all-time biggest grammar peeve. Frequent readers and former lab-mates will have no doubt heard me rant on this before. When you are describing the parts that make up a whole, for instance, the ingredients in a pancake, you might say, “Pancakes are composed of eggs, milk, and (because it’s a Monday night and I’m lazy), pancake mix.” Or, you might say, “Pancakes comprise eggs, milk, and pancake mix.” Either of these would be correct.

You would not say, “Pancakes are comprised of eggs, milk, and pancake mix.”

The word comprise means “to include,” so when you say “comprised of,” it’s like saying “included of.” It’s gibberish. It’s painful. And I’m pretty sure a unicorn accidentally steps on a kitten somewhere on the internet every time you use it. You wouldn’t want any murderous unicorns on your conscience, would you? Good. So please stop the madness.

Just remember, the whole always comprises its parts:

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2. Plural-possessive confusion

The other day I saw a sign that said, “WANTED: Auto’s dead or alive.” Of course, we all know they really meant “autos,” as in more than one automobile. So why the wayward apostrophe?

Here’s the rule:

  • If you are making a plural (i.e. more than one of a thing), you don’t use the apostrophe. (e.g. three pancakes)

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  • If you are making a possessive (i.e. signifying that a thing belongs to someone), then you use the apostrophe. You do not use the apostrophe to signify a plural, unless you want to be stabbed with a fork, like this:

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  • Exception to the possessive rule: “its” — see #3 below for clarification.

3. Confusing “its” and “it’s”

“It’s” is a contraction of two words: “it is.” As in: “Look, it’s a pancake!”

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“Its” is a possessive signifying that something belongs to “it.” As in: “You spread butter on its surface.”

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4. Fewer vs. Less

We’ve all seen the express checkout line at the supermarket that reads “15 items or less.”  Now, I’m with Stephen Fry on this one — for the sake of keeping the express line moving, I can let this one go. But if you aren’t sure when to use “fewer” or “less,” here’s the rule:

  • If you can count the thing, and you can reduce its quantity by countable amounts, then you use “fewer.” For example: “Two pancakes are fewer than three.”

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  • If you can’t count the thing, you use “less.” For example: “I have less pancake batter than I had before.”

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5. Where punctuation goes relative to quotation marks

OK, I’ll admit, this one can be tricky, because the rules are sometimes different depending on where you are and what style you’re using. In the US and Canada, the following rules are most commonly used:

  • Periods always go inside quotation marks.
  • Commas always go inside quotation marks. (Revision 3/4/14: my original pancake comma was backwards! Eeep! All fixed!) 

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  • Semicolons and colons always go outside quotation marks.

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  • Question marks & exclamation marks go inside quotation marks if they form part of the direct quote; otherwise, they go outside.

Okay, now here’s my confession: This post was supposed to be about seven deadly grammatical sins. But all these pancakes made me hungry. So I ate them. :-)

Resolution Zero: Ten things I did this year that were better than my New Year’s resolutions

I have issues with New Year’s resolutions. For starters, the new year doesn’t, by definition, stay “new” for very long. By my estimation, the new year only lasts until about the third week of January, when residual holiday cheer and New Year’s resolve is subsumed by the grim reality of at least two more months of bitter cold and darkness. Second, of all days to make a fresh start, why January 1st, the universal day of hangovers, sleep deprivation and Honeymooner’s marathons?

I’m also annoyed with the commercials. We spend the entire holiday season eating and drinking in excess, while simultaneously being bombarded with ads for exercise machines, fad diets, gym memberships, and the countless other products that seem to crawl out of the woodwork in time to cash in on our newfound but short-lived New Year’s willpower.

For the last few years, I’ve done little more than go through the motions of setting resolutions, which is to say, I’ve sat down with a friend and we’ve dreamt up outlandish things for each other to do that we know neither of us will actually get around to doing. None are out of the realm of possibility — I could go on a moonlight picnic or I could get my handwriting analyzed, but I could also just as easily make myself a peanut butter and tofu sandwich at midday and read my horoscope.

Stranger things have happened, and without any resolving on my part.

The other day I thought — rather than resolving to do a bunch of stuff I probably won’t do, why not celebrate all the random things that did happen that I couldn’t have planned for?  Isn’t spontaneity the spice of life?

So here, in no particular order, are some things I did this year that I probably would never have resolved to do — and probably wouldn’t have done if I had:

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1. I made mittens. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering the Great Costume-sewing Adventure of 2012, in which I spent 10 days hand-sewing a Snoopy costume that I completely improvised despite having no practical sewing experience, I felt redeemed by my little mitten project. It only took three hours, two attempts, and one incredibly patient textiles student as my guide, but look Ma, two hands!

2. I drank iceberg beer, got “Screeched-in”, and attended my first fashion show — in rural Newfoundland.  I also got to spend three days with some pretty awesome people, learning about topics we care about, with no acronyms, jargon, biochemical pathways, or crimes against PowerPoint. Long may yer big jib draw!

3. I convocated (again). Or is it “convoked”? In either case, I guess the third time’s the charm — I won the Dean’s Medal for academic excellence in my program. And while GPA-based accolades make me a little itchy at this stage of my career (I just don’t think that GPA means that much outside of the classroom), I must admit I’m glad I had a reason to attend the ceremony. A lot happened in the three years between my MSc and my professional writing diploma, and academic recognition aside, it was the right time for a bit of symbolic closure on the whole transition. Onward!

4. I stopped for geese. And a wayward cow crossing the road in Idaho. Just one footnote on all of the great times shared with friends this year. I don’t often get the opportunity to say so without sounding mushy and sentimental, but I have amazing friends — my life wouldn’t be what it is without them — they’re like a family unto themselves.

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5. I learned to juggle (sort of). It would be more accurate to say that I learned a strategy for learning how to juggle. Whether any actual juggling takes place depends on how coordinated I can manage to be on any given day — but that hardly matters — it’s still fun. This is what happens when you spend a weekend hanging out in a freezing tent and the juggling club happens to show up. (and no, it wasn’t a circus tent!)

6. I took up running, and kind of learned to like it. Which is monumental, considering how much I hated it when I started. I still cannot claim to be a very strong runner, but the grinding monotony that I detested so much in the beginning has slowly given way to a more satisfying, even peaceful routine.

7I watched a campfire debate that looked a lot like this: 

The final score? PhD: 1, Person who “saw a program”: 0. Sitting by the fire watching the sparks fly: priceless.

8. I didn’t publish…and I didn’t perish. This year, there were no impact factors, no citations, no  arbitrary and nebulous measures of “productivity” — and it was probably the most creative, productive, and meaningful year of my career to date. Now more than ever, I wonder — what could science be like if everyone focused less on publishing and more on creativity? What could happen if everyone had just a little more time to slow down and think?

9. I gained a new appreciation for mathematics. This might come as a surprise from a former scientist, but I’m not really mathematically-minded, at least not at a theoretical level. Calculus was my Achilles heel as an undergrad — so much so that I once summarized a lecture in physical chemistry as “blah, blah, magic, answer!” No amount of professorial wand-waving helped — it wasn’t until I got deeper into biochemistry and into the application of the concepts that they made any sense at all. Consequently, I went through my entire scientific career viewing math merely as a tool, until this year, when a first-year undergrad explained fractals in a way that made the math inherently interesting, accessible, and really quite stunningly beautiful. Cool.

10. I took an extended holiday. Well, three weeks may or may not qualify as “extended” depending on your definition, but it’s the longest voluntary, non-conference related, e-mail and guilt-free holiday I’ve ever taken. Two weeks in, I am definitely more than 66.67% relaxed and refreshed. :-) Maybe Santa does exist!

Happy holidays, everyone! Onward and upward in 2014!

In which stuff happened, I disappeared, more stuff happened, and now my house is clean.

There’s a quote floating around Facebook right now by Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” It’s timely — as I search for a simple way to explain my six-month hiatus from the blogosphere, I can think of nothing more succinct than to say that 2013 has been a year that answered. That it answered in the tone of Alex-Trebek-as-Yoda (“Sorry, I am, but in the form of questions, your answers must be.”) is oddly typical and rather beside the point — but that’s a different story.

I can’t say much about what happened, only that after spending the last few years in a state of transition, preoccupied with questions about my future, I was confronted with a situation that served up, among other things, a jarring reminder about the power of being fully and intentionally present. It forced me to take a step back and begin to notice all of the things that get in the way…fear, uncertainty, perfectionism, cultural notions about the way things are “supposed to be,” and perhaps most powerfully, the walls we build around ourselves to guard against all of this interference. It made me realize, somewhat paradoxically, that the answer to the perennial question of “what comes next?” is really quite simple:

Make more space for what matters now.

Everything has been changing at such a whirlwind pace over the last couple of years, and while it’s all been for the best, I felt like I needed some time to catch up with myself, to take stock of where I am now, and to clear away the things that no longer fit. It’s amazing what we accumulate over time without even noticing — the habits of mind that emerge innocently enough, but then just clutter things up from a lack of purpose, like subconscious drawers of mismatched tupperware. (I’m serious — how do you end up with so many square containers and round lids? It’s like the second law of microwavable, dishwasher-safe thermodynamics.)

If you’ve ever tried to tame the tupperware drawer, you know that as soon as you start rummaging around, things inevitably fall out and get messy. Sure enough, early on in my quest to “declutter” — before I knew that’s what I was doing — I was reintroduced to the work of Brene Brown, a researcher who studies messy topics like vulnerability and shame.  She, rather helpfully (or so I thought, until I saw it), compiled a list of key themes that emerged from her research — ten “guideposts” that describe wholeheartedness. 

I read the list (from The Gifts of Imperfection):

  1. Cultivating authenticity — letting go of what people think
  2. Cultivating self-compassion — letting go of perfectionism (uhoh…)
  3. Cultivating a resilient spirit — letting go of numbing and powerlessness
  4. Cultivating gratitude and joy — letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark
  5. Cultivating intuition and trusting faith — letting go of the need for certainty (double uhoh…)
  6. Cultivating creativity — letting go of comparison (or, why I chose writing over science)
  7. Cultivating play and rest — letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self worth (Hello, Academics Anonymous?)
  8. Cultivating calm and stillness — letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle (calm? still?  and not anxious?  Hahahaha! *cringe*)  
  9. Cultivating meaningful work — letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to.”
  10. Cultivating laughter, song and dance — letting go of being cool and “always in control.” (Song and dance? She’s kidding, right?)

My immediate inclination, after I finished choking on #7, was to dismiss the whole list as too icky and self-helpy, in a “the world needs more hugs and let’s all chant Kumbaya” kind of way.

But the more I thought about it — and acknowledged my own vulnerability toward the process — the more it began to ring true, not as a sweeping prescription, but more as a handy set of behavioural substitutions: do more of this, less of that.   Let go of the things that get in the way to make space for the things that matter. Isn’t that what I’d been trying to do all along?

So I spent the better part of four months writing my way down the list. It’s been a journey of sorts. I’m still not sure if it ends with a newfound sense of “wholeheartedness”; so far, all I’ve gleaned is a deep, contradictory need to “embrace the mess,” figuratively speaking, while feeling an overwhelming urge to — very literally — purge and reorganize my entire apartment.

But…I suppose there’s more than one way to sort the tupperware.

Ten papers demonstrating unequivocally that scientists have a sense of humour

Of all the adjectives that come to mind when you think of academic or scientific writing, there’s one I’d bet sinks to the bottom of the list regardless of the audience. You might think a paper is unintelligible, incomprehensible, jargon-filled, complicated, detailed, sometimes exciting, often boring, but certainly not funny. I mean, science is serious business, and no researcher in his or her right mind would dare compromise citations for laughs.

Or would they?

Every year the scientific community waits on the edge of its collective seat for the announcement of the IgNobel Prizes, celebrating real research that “makes people laugh, and then think.” The lucky winners become the laughing stock for awhile, but the giggling is often followed by a sober realization: “Someone actually studied that? Seriously?”

Part of what makes the IgNobels so unabashedly funny is that often, they start out with a completely serious question. Does a person’s posture affect their estimation of an object’s size? (Apparently so, especially if you lean slightly to the left). Can a doctor accidentally make your butt explode while performing a colonoscopy? (Turns out it’s rare, but I’m sure…um…relieved that they did the research).

What’s a little harder to find in the scientific literature are examples of researchers being intentionally cheeky. But such examples do exist, and they call out for a Top 10 List.

Here it goes:

10. The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of writer’s block.” (D. Upper. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 1974)

The reviewer’s comment on this paper sums it up best: “Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen — yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper’s failure.” 

Which is precisely what other investigators set out to do. That it took 33 years and a research grant of $2.50 underscores the scope of the problem. Writing, it seems, is hard.

Many papers tackling such a difficult problem are lost to researchers outside of the discipline, but the beauty of Upper’s pivotal work is that it can be readily applied to different fields. Consider its recent application to a study in molecular biology:

Screen shot 2013-06-25 at 5.55.09 PM

Excerpt from Lorenz et al. (2011) ViennaRNA Package 2.0; Algorithms for Molecular Biology, 6:26 (Click to enlarge)

Only time will tell whether science will have the last…or first…word on this mystifying phenomenon.

9. “Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?” 

What at first seems like just another paper full of jargon about faster-than-light particles reduces to a simple and elegant conclusion: “Probably not.”

8. Synthesis of Anthropomorphic Molecules: the NanoPutians” (Chanteu & Tour, Journal of Organic Chemistry, 2003)

They drew stick figures. With molecules!

Ever vigilant, however, of illustrating their nano-peeps in a way that would not be representative of their equilibrium state, the authors add this caveat: “…the liberties we take with the nonequilibrium conformational drawings are only minor when representing the main structural portions; conformational license is only used, in some cases, with the NanoPutians’ head dressings.”

Science…solving bad hair days, one molecule at a time.

7. “Trajectory of a falling Batman” (Marshall et al., Journal of Physics Special Topics, 2011)

This study is exactly what it sounds like. They analyzed the path of a falling Batman to determine whether our beloved caped crusader could indeed survive on a Batwing and a prayer. Their grim conclusion? Splat.

Or, as the authors put it (albeit far less eloquently in my opinion): “Clearly gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slow down is used, such as a parachute.”  Noted.

6.  “The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute” (Lim et al, British Medical Journal, 2005)

Don’t you just hate it when your co-workers steal all the teaspoons?  If you’re a real scientist, you don’t get mad. You get a publication!

5. Chicken, chicken, chicken.

There are few things more satisfying in science than publishing a really important paper, and then being asked to present it at a really important conference. This is one of those truly remarkable papers that must be seen to be appreciated.

Now, you might think that a study such as “chicken chicken chicken” could have little application outside the poultry world. But you’d be wrong. Indeed, I know at least a few people who have adopted “chicken chicken” as the universal code word for a scientific talk that has gone on way too long. So here’s my public service announcement to researchers everywhere: if you’re ever speaking and the audience starts muttering “chicken chicken” to themselves, they’re not hungry — they want you to stop.

4. Santa and the moon” (Barthell, CAPJournal, 2012)

Do you remember when you were a kid on Christmas morning, and how you carefully examined the wrapping paper for its scientific accuracy before meticulously unwrapping the toy you’d been waiting for all year?

I totally thought so.

This one belongs in the category of “You might be a scientist if…”

Parents: If your child ever exhibits signs of trauma from the inaccurate portrayal of moon phases on wrapping paper, it might be time to have a serious talk about graduate school. Might I recommend this book at bedtime?

3. Absolute dating of deep-sea cores by the PA(232)/TH(230) method and accumulation rates: a reply” (Journal of Geology, 1963)

Sometimes, despite their best efforts, scientists make mistakes. Luckily, when this happens, there are usually other scientists happily willing to point it out. Such was the case with this paper, in which some scientists pointed out an error in the original paper, and the authors simply replied, “Oh well, nobody is perfect.”  Gotta admire their honesty.

2. Two body interactions: a longitudinal study

Who says romance is dead? Nothing quite says “publish or cherish” like a marriage proposal embedded in a scientific paper!

1. 20 more hilarious scientific papers in five minutes.

Thanks to Seriously, Science?  (or, the artists formerly known as NCBI ROFL).

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