We've been stationed in the DC area three times now, and if my memory is correct, we had the pleasure of periodic cicadas during two of those occasions. Now, we are preparing to share air space with them again.
The latest phenomenon is called Brood X. They are scheduled to crawl out of the ground any day, and once they do, it will be a little like what I imagine when I hear of those Biblical plagues of old. Gigantic houseflies EVERYWHERE. Except they aren't as nimble as houseflies, on the contrary they seem rather stupid. They will literally fly into your face like they have no idea where they are supposed to go. Apparently those gigantic red eyes don't work very well.
Can you tell I'm not a huge fan of these cicadas? In Provence they are celebrated as part of the harvest culture. I have a pieces of French pottery that includes a cicada resting on the handle of a small pitcher, and it's cute. Cicadas sing in chorus a chorus of millions as they rest in trees, a gentle whirring sound that many associate with summer.
But here in the DC region, they don't just sing in the trees, and there aren't just millions of them. We will encounter billions of them. They will swarm in the trees with an effect on branches that amounts to pruning. They will mate. And then they will die. Their carcasses will rot, their molted husks will litter the ground like a tide of miniature autumn leaves. It will be impossible to walk without crunching cicadas under foot, either alive, dead, or dried out as a shell.
Of course what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right? So looking on the bright side, here are some reasons to appreciate Brood X:
1. They help thin trees by sucking sap from small branches.
2. Their bodies deliver a massive dose nutrients to the soil.
3. They demonstrate a physiological state called Torpor, which could be a key to sending astronauts long distances in space. (I wrote about this recently for Muse.)
4. Most kids find them fascinating. Most dogs and cats find them to be delicious.
That's all I can muster for now. I wish I could find that video I took back in -- was it 2012? -- showing a Cicada-killer wasp thrashing about on our back deck with a cicada in its grasp. Actually, it was a bit violent, so maybe better not to show that here. I'll leave you with this video instead.
We made it to Virginia. Part of me wishes I could wind back the clock and switch our choice, switch to staying in Florida and taking our chances on what might have been available to us in 2021 if the Navy decided to make us move again. But good things have happened since we moved here. I need to remind myself of that.
Both of my school-age children are now in wonderful Catholic schools. This is such a blessing, and it probably wouldn't have been the case if we still lived in Florida. The curriculum at their new schools appears to be spot on. Michael is studying the same works in his English class that I encountered when I was a high school freshman: stories by Sophocles and Poe. The standards are quite high for his performance, and teachers are holding him accountable rather than catering to his inherent teenage proclivities. And Katie is learning cursive handwriting, as well as attending class in person 4 days a week. Whenever we run into a question or hiccup, I can call her teacher to get help.
What I saw while my kids were enrolled for the first quarter at our local public schools was astonishing. It has opened my eyes to an issue that is so important in our society: the quality of children's education. Why is the teenager up the street from us learning World History by reading essays that claim Chinese culture is superior to American culture? Why are children in our public schools being taught to focus on body language in literary analysis exercises rather than being taught to read closely and understand the meaning of words on a page, or spoken words on a stage? I don't have the answer to these questions, but I'd like to be part of the solution.
Stories about science have the power to give us perspective. They show us that bigger things have happened in the history of our planet than we see now in our strange, contentious election season. They reveal geologic time scales that are orders of magnitude longer than the span of one dark and dismal year, or one human's lifetime, however long or short.
Done right, these science stories show us how humans are able to find truth through a process -- the scientific method -- that serves to separate us from our biases; serves to double and triple and quadruple check one fallible human's findings so we will not be influenced by superstition and fear, or simple error.
Here's to a new year ahead of us. A new chance to explore this world and try to consider what we learn with the optimism of our childhood, when we accepted that the world is a very big place, and sometimes things happen for reasons we don't yet understand.
Does anyone else feel like they're stuck in a Groundhog Day plot? Each morning I wake up, and before I know it the sun has gone down. Yet the last two months have lasted forever. And somehow it's been a whole year since my last blog post. I've been busy teaching with the Johns Hopkins University online program -- which is awesome, BTW -- and I've been busy with the baby (see photo at left) and my other two older kids.
Today I received an e-mail from an editor I worked with last year. Apparently the project we collaborated on is up for an award -- woo hoo! It was a curriculum series aimed at middle schoolers, and I only wrote a few pieces, but they were super interesting and turned out quite well. One is an encyclopedia article about rivers, the other is a nonfiction background article on freshwater ecosystems. I wrote a third piece, something called "terrestrial ecozone geostory," but it looks like that one didn't make the final cut for publication, because I can't find it online anywhere.
Ultimately, I had to leave this project early because I became too interested in my assigned topic, and inevitably went down "the rabbit hole" reading background before I even felt ready to write, so the pay rate for my time investment just wasn't economical. But I'm glad I had the experience of working on a large curriculum because now I have a sense of the architecture and roles that go into these projects.
And I'm so glad the editor gave me a heads up, because I had no idea the content had gone online. And of course I needed to add the new clips to my website portfolio, which triggered a whole-website-update. And that's how I lost the last 3 hours of my day. Good lord, it's time for me start dinner...
Not a lot of blog posts in 2018, eh? And 2019 has been quiet in this space, as well. But I have a good reason for my absence. And here she is...
This little muffin arrived on March 31, 2019. I could go into more details about her birth, but I'll save the story for another time, since this space is focused on my work. What I will share is that I'm considered a "geriatric mom" at the age of 41, and it was more difficult than I expected to get pregnant at this age. So I'm not taking this baby for granted. I want to revel in every coo and smile, cherish every burp and babble.
Back to business, advance copies of my third book, Bet You Didn't Know! 2 (National Geographic Kids) , arrived in the mail last week, and the book looks AMAZING! These projects are always pretty intense, but when we reach the finish line and then I'm able to hold the real deal in my hands (a year later) and admire the results of so much hard work, I can't help but look forward to starting the next one.
Last but not least, I had a wonderful experience mentoring two graduate students in the Johns Hopkins Science and Medical Writing Program this past spring. Now the program director has asked me to join her adjunct faculty for the upcoming fall session. I'll be teaching a course on various forms of science writing to a class of about 14 students.
When I graduated from the JHU science writing program (goodness, that was nearly 15 years ago!) we sat in classrooms at the Dupont Circle campus and exchanged critiques face-to-face across a table. Today the program is online, so my students will be scattered around the country and exchanging drafts with a tool called Blackboard. This means that I won't need to ride Metro 30 minutes each way to teach the course (woo hoo!), and I won't be tied to a daily schedule. (Blackboard allows everyone to access and share information during convenient hours in their respective time zones.) But the downside is that it might be harder for students to form relationships with each other, and for me to get to know them. Personal connections with other writers have been incredibly important in my career, so I hope I can find ways to overcome this challenge, both for the students and for myself.
How is it possible that we're already halfway through 2019? I can hardly believe it. Fourth of July is just two days away! This is my family's first time celebrating the holiday in Florida, so I have no idea where to watch local fireworks. But I'm not a big fan of traffic and crowds, particularly after dark, so maybe we'll just light some sparklers in our driveway. Happy Fourth of July!
Actually, I've been here for about 6 months already, but better to post late than never, right? It's the start of a new year and time to take stock of my goals in this new setting, where life so far seems to be pretty good.
So, without further delay, here's what I'm aiming for in 2018:
Where does the time go? It's been nearly a year since my last post on this blog. I guess there's no point in trying to catch you up on everything, but I do want to draw attention to a very fun project that kept me busy last year: Awesome 8 Extreme, which went on sale this week through Amazon.
We had an awesome team of writers and editors and photo researchers working together, and I'm very pleased with the final results. Look for a copy at your next school book faire or sneak a preview of the content by using Amazon's "Look Inside" feature. You'll find an example of my writing on pages 24-25.
My children stayed home with me this summer, instead of attending camps or visiting relatives on the mainland. We filled the 2-month vacation with basic instruction covering math and language arts, as well as various field trips around the island. We gathered new reading material from library each week, and we tackled a short list of new art projects that I hoped would get us thinking ... about what, exactly, I wasn't sure. But I hoped for good things.
We kicked off with a tessellation drawing project. I'd read about tessellations while working on my origami story for Hana Hou! magazine earlier in the year, so it was fun to make the connection between 3D paper sculptures and 2D pictures. Tessellations are essentially patterns. They can be found in tile installations, fabric design, gift wraps, and a bunch of other commercial uses. Here are the tessellation drawings we made at home...
Our next adventure was a trip to Chinatown in Honolulu, where we had an awesome lunch at The Pig & the Lady and went shopping for materials (aka, dead fish and rice paper) to make gyotaku, which are sometimes called "fish prints." Here are the results of that trip...
We also read lots of good books. Two of my favorites were H is for Hawk, by Helen McDonald, and The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery. But I thought the octopus book was a little too touchy-feely...or maybe too anthropomorphic, in terms of how the author treated animals. So I decided we should take a shot at cooking octopus for dinner. Here are the results of that adventure...
We learned to make flower crowns and coconut palm hats, how to roller skate and jump rope, and we even tried a few dance classes with the help of YouTube. It was a great summer!
Now it's time to get back to work. I've got some great projects on my to-do list, including new magazine stories for Muse, and a radio pitch that I'm very excited about. Stay tuned...
Good heavens, where have I been the last 5 months? Yesterday it was the New Year and now 2016 is nearly halfway finished! Truth is, I've been very busy with an after-school science club that I started at my children's elementary school.
It was an idea that I had last autumn. Wouldn't it be cool to get a bunch of kids who like science together so they can talk and play and experiment with projects that have nothing to do with grades or standardized tests? Of course, I had no idea how to lead such a group. I'm not a teacher. The only thing that makes me feel comfortable about talking in front of groups is when I'm really excited about something I've just learned. But usually, that something relates to science, so set aside my shyness and teamed up with a 4th grade teacher at the school. (Hi Mrs. Caras!)
She handled all the fundamental class-wrangling stuff with her Scary Teacher Voice. I focused on finding stuff for us to do: Building water-propelled rockets, building toothbrush robots, building pasta towers, dissecting simple machines, designing Rube Goldberg machines. It was a LOT of work, but it was also really fun.
Last month I saw an essay, "Why Science Fairs are an Exercise in Privilege," written by Carl Zimmer, whose work I've frequently enjoyed on RadioLab. Basically, he describes helping his daughter enter a science fair, but feeling just a little guilty about the outcome (her project won an award) because he knew that his special connections through his job as a top-tier science writer had paved her way.
Science fairs are big deal here in Hawaii. In fact, they're the biggest deal as far as science-focused kid activities are concerned. The Hawaii Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit group of doctors and researchers, throws almost all its public education efforts in this direction. However, science fairs aren't open to kids younger than 6th grade, so a huge chunk of the local population has very little opportunity to just play around with science.
Zimmer felt guilty about the disparity he saw in science fairs, but he didn't offer a solution. I have one: Zimmer should start an after-school science club! And don't do it at some pricey private school. Do it at a public school in a neighborhood nearby. It's easy. You already have an idea of what you can do because you're writing articles about this stuff: Giant viruses, forensic archaeology (with 5,300-year-old frozen bodies). Sure, it takes a little work and creativity to figure out how you can translate that story, that lesson, into an activity for 4th graders. I've learned this year that simple activities work best, and the kids absolutely love it. Because the kids love it, I love it, too.
Anyone could do this. It's not about giving them all the answers. It's about figuring out the cool questions and then exploring those questions with the kids. Just give them some materials -- paper and pens, simple kits, corn starch and water -- and let them figure it out on their own. Let them design their own experiments, run the test, see what worked and what went wrong, and do it all over again. That's how science is supposed to work.
Over the holiday I spotted a brilliant quote from Maria Popova's Brain Pickings feed and I liked it so much, I decided to pin it over my desk for the coming year. The source of the quote is a collection of Kenyon's writing titled, A Hundred White Daffodils. Popova's full review of that book is here.
My 2015 felt so incredibly busy. Even with the inertia of Hawaiian culture -- the way everything from street traffic to checkout lines to friendly neighbors seems determined to slow Y o u r L I F E D O W N -- I somehow managed to pile too many projects into nearly every month. This caused a sort of panic set in, almost like a ritual. How would I meet my deadline? How could I possibly find time to do the things I need (like sleep and exercise) in order to stay healthy? How could I clear the space in my consciousness to simply think about what was going on, to process the meaning and, perhaps, gather new ideas?
The answer was: I couldn't. And while I certainly learned a lot about the craft of writing last year, it was mostly in a trial-by-fire way. which isn't what I prefer. I need to clear more space to concentrate on what I really care about. I need to forget about time, about the rush to get things done according to an arbitrary calendar by which I'm often tempted to judge my accomplishments. Far better to do a small number of GREAT things in a period of 12 months than to do the alternative, which might benefit my bank account, but certainly won't benefit my inner life.
So, I'm going to try taking Kenyon's advice. I have one big project that I started last autumn, which is continuing through this coming spring. I have two other small projects that I'll keep mostly because I like those clients so much. (Also, the work is fairly interesting.) Other than that, I'm going to focus on quiet projects, the sort of work that happens in private. I'll be volunteering with the after-school science club at my children's elementary school.
I'll also be working on experimental writing projects with the small writing group I've formed with three other friends on Oahu, Last year we tried to meet once a month, to share samples of book chapters or short stories, the sort of writing that no one pays us to do. I had to back out of those meetings several times in 2015, mostly because I didn't have anything to share. This year I won't let that happen.
What a busy year it's been! So busy, I haven't had much time to keep this site updated. Here are a few photos with explanations of the highlights:
Cheers to a beautiful, interesting, challenging 2015. I'm looking forward to what's ahead in the coming year!
I write about curious phenomena around us. I also write about people who are passionate about their careers, hobbies, or life experiences related to science. This blog chronicles my journey.
©Brittany Moya del Pino 2021. All rights reserved.