I've been thinking a lot about the environment lately. I've been thinking about how we measure its health and how I'm affecting the environment, directly or indirectly, through my lifestyle choices.
Hawaii is the reason these things are on my mind more than ever before. I wonder what the world will be like in 20 years, when my kids are adults and possibly starting their own families. Where will they live? In a city or in the countryside, in a seasonal climate like the northeast United States or a year-round temperate climate like Hawaii? Will the seasons in these places look the same in 20 years as they do now?
I've also been thinking a lot about books. When my husband and I went on our first date, we jumped right in with the deep questions that revealed how much (or little) we might have in common, revealing the answers that could indicate how compatible we might be as a long-term couple. And what did we talk about more than anything else? Books. Our favorite books as children and teenagers, the ones that changed the course of our lives. We talked about how many books we'd read and whether they came from the public library (in my case) or a grand home library (in my husband's). We agreed that one day, together or apart, each of us would have a home library so that our own children would never lack good reading material.
Here we are, 15 years later, living in Hawaii. Our house is small and the humidity here is treacherous for books. Still, I cannot resist the urge to buy new ones. It's partly because of the feeling I get when a package arrives from the mainland. I also buy books because, as a writer, I feel obligated to support others in my profession.
That said, I cannot afford to buy every book I would like to own, and we just don't have the space on our shelves. So we also visit the library once a week. I aim for the Newberry Award shelf for my son; the Caldecott shelf for my daughter. And we read every night. Every night, for at least 30 minutes, we read with each child, separately.
Two of the best ones that we've read recently are The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, and 365 Penguins, by Jean-Luc Fromental. Both books prompt readers to think about responsibility toward plants and animals that share the resources in our environment. Amazon does a nice job summarizing the plot details, so I won't bother writing another summary. The main point I can contribute is that both books are worth reading. If you don't have the money or the space (and space is an issue with 365 Penguins, because it's an oversized book, about twice the height of a usual book), then look for them at your local library. And try to read these books with a child, either your own or one that you've borrowed. Because kids ask questions sometimes that prompt us to see connections in a story we might otherwise miss.
I thought of 365 Penguins as I worked on my recent Backchannel story, "Cracking the Butterfly Code," which is about species habitat changes. Could we really move penguins to the North Pole if Antarctica if Antarctica melts away? And as I read The Lorax with my daughter, I thought about consumerism and how much I'm a part of that problem. It would be hard for me to stop buying books. But maybe I can buy less of other things, things that I don't really need or things that won't last. Things that aren't worth the consequences of shipping, despite how much I might enjoy getting another package in the mail.
Do you remember taking tests? Some were multiple choice, others required open-ended or (worse) essay responses. Some required pens, while with others you needed to use a number 2 pencil for so many oblong Scantron bubbles. Did you ever stop to think about who wrote the test or how they would feel while grading it? I never did. But now I have a new appreciation for that stuff, for the hours of work my teachers spent after school to help me and my classmates earn what would distinguish us from so many other kids hoping to go to college: our grades.
Last weekend I helped judge the Hawaii State Science Olympiad finals tournament. This is an annual tournament, held in conjunction with other events across the country that allow kids in middle school and high school to test their science knowledge in written exams and hands-on challenges. I remember Science Olympiad from when I was in high school, but I never joined the team. Somehow it just didn't interest me back then. Too much work, I guess. And work that might cut into my free time after school or on the weekends.
That said, you're probably wondering why I would be interested in Science Olympiad now, as an adult, and a busy one at that, with looming deadlines and a messy house and my own children who require LOTS of attention on the weekends. I saw this very question in my husband's eyes (the look = "you're crazy!") when I told him I'd be leaving the house at 6:30 a.m. to participate in the tournament, and he would be stuck at home all Saturday to manage the kids by himself.
Here's how it happened: An e-mail from the organizer of Honolulu Science Cafe asked for volunteers. I replied that I'd be happy to "help out." The HSSO director said he was so happy I wanted to get involved, and then he put me in charge of the event. When I realized what he had in mind--that this would involve more than just milling around a classroom and answering easy questions--I was terrified. "I'm not a teacher!" I insisted. "I've never written a test!" But he reassured me that I could do it. And strangely, I started to believe him.
At that time, I happened to be reading The Wave Watcher's Companion, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and the book happens to be a perfect primer for real-life examples of wave physics, the sort of stuff that should go in a Science Olympiad test. I realized this while on the phone with the HSSO director. That realization, along with his encouragement, let me to believe that perhaps it was my destiny to say "yes." So I did. And I read the book. Then I started writing test questions. I sent my exam to the physics professor who serves as science advisor to HSSO. With his help, I developed a few extra questions that tested the students' knowledge of resonance using air cannons and a pendulum. (This was the practical part of the exam.)
On March 15 I showed up for the event. Even before 7 a.m., teams started congregating on the college campus wearing matching t-shirts and setting up tables with snacks to sustain them through the day's events. They were pumped. They were earnest. Some of them had traveled to Oahu from the neighboring islands to compete. Their parents and teachers looked so proud.
I met the first round of competitors at 8:15 a.m. and we started the clock. At 9:30, the second round of competitors began testing. They were teams of two working together to solve the problems I had written. They used calculators and reference binders and took the whole thing very seriously. After everyone had finished, I gathered the tests and moved to the judges' lounge to begin grading.
My objective while I was writing the test was to develop questions that would matter to kids who live in Hawaii. I wanted them to see real-life examples, based on what's around them here, so that they could understand that science isn't just about memorization. Science is cool! What I didn't realize is that if you write questions like that--open-ended questions that force kids to apply information they may have just memorized--the grading can be very tough. Multiple-choice questions are easier and save some time, but open-ended responses have to be considered carefully. And that takes time...lots of it.
It was a very long Saturday. I returned home 8 hours after having left the house, pretty much exhausted. But I learned a lot because of Science Olympiad. I learned that kids need their parents to follow-up at home about what's happening at school. "You're learning about geometry? So tell me, why would anyone want to build a round house?" Or "Electromagnetic radiation? Huh. So what does it mean when we see a 'black light'?"
They need us to ask fun questions like this. They need for us to stay curious about the world so that we can teach them to stay curious, to go beyond memorization and ask questions about why what they're learning in school actually matters.
I also learned that writing and grading tests can be really hard. It takes a lot of time and careful thought. If I was a teacher, I wouldn't want to re-write my exams every year, and I'd be REALLY mad if I found out that someone had illegally shared the test I spent so much time developing. A well-written test demands honest effort in the test-taking.
Maybe the most important lesson from this experience is that sometimes its good to run towards fear. I was seriously scared to do this. The experience was well outside of what I do for my job, what's comfortable and familiar to me. But we only learn when we're exposed to things that are new, right? You can't grow unless you're under a little bit of stress.
Would I do it again? Probably not for an event like "Crave the Wave," which forced me to spend weeks re-learning things that I've forgotten during the last dozen-or-so years out of college. But they have another event called "Write It, Do It" that involves studying a sculpture and describing it in detail so that someone can re-build what you saw later. I think that might be a better fit for me next year.
This morning I started work with my head in the clouds, literally. The Ko'olau mountain range, which is behind my house, is often swathed in misty clouds and that's where I was. These clouds reveal how much the weather can change here on Oahu depending on where you are relative to the mountains. Someone told me once that the island has six microclimates, and I believe it. The weather might be sunny and hot in one area, but rainy and cool (coolish is probably a better term) only a few miles away. Pouring rain in Kailua? You can probably still hop in your car and go to the beach somewhere else on the island.
Anyway, I drove to Mount Tantalus today, where it was very cloudy, because I'm reporting an ecology story for an online magazine and I needed to see the research that had been described to me in an office at UH. I needed to see the native plants, to watch how the scientists set up their experiment. Plus, I needed to get out of the house. (Raise your hand if you're guilty of sitting at a computer for too long. Yep, me too.)
I brought my good camera and a notepad with an extra pen. I also brought an emergency rain poncho, thank goodness. If not for the poncho, my camera probably would have croaked in the rain. I brought an my iPhone, which I was glad to use after the rain started and my camera lens got wet. I just wish I would have remembered to use the bathroom one more time before I left the house. Hiking with a full bladder for three hours can lead to distraction.
I came across a wonderful interview with Salman Rushdie in The Paris Review. You can read the whole thing online here. So much of what he said interested me, particularly the ideas that relate to a story existing outside of the writer's head.
Elizabeth Gilbert talked about something similar in her TED lecture a few years back. And I remember watching Gilbert's talk and thinking, "Is she telling the truth? Or is she acting out a piece of fiction?" I found her comparison of stories with ghosts or spirits or something in the ether to rather weird.
But the thing is, I've been having moments like this recently. It's not that my stories were floating around in a spirit dimension. The BFG hasn't been trumpeting stories into my window during the night. Sometimes, though, I encounter a situation, or a person, and my hair sort stands on end. I feel like I'm in the presence of a Story. The Story has nothing to do with me, but it's there, and if I want to, I can try to write it. It's a little bit like recognizing symptoms of an affliction or footprints on a path.
I have to admit that this feeling has transported my writing experience out of the "work" category and into something closer to "play." It's quite exciting when you can glimpse the potential of a story, the layers and contours, but only by a bit. And you start talking to people and writing notes, and dreaming about it, and mulling it over a bit.
And then you read something that someone else has written, or may be you watch a movie. You go for a long walk. You take a spin class. And BAM: You see the story a little more clearly than you did before. But only a bit. You have to repeat the whole process over and over again, depending on how many words your editor allows and how much energy you have to keep up.
I'm going to paste Rushdie's quote below. He said it much better than I could.
"...some of my most creative moments are the moments between books, when I don't know where I'm going, and my head freewheels. Things come to me unexpectedly, and can become a character or a paragraph or just a perception, all of which can turn into stories, or a novel. I work just as hard when I'm not writing a book as when I am. I sit there and let things happen, mostly I throw away the next day what I wrote the day before. But pure creativity is just seeing what shows up. Once something has shown up, then it's more focused, and it's more enjoyable. But this in-between time is when unexpected things happen. Things happen that I previously thought were outside my ability to imagine. They become imaginable. And they come inside." --Salman Rushdie (The Paris Review, Summer 2005, No. 174, "The Art of Fiction No. 186")
"The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly. A John Updike comes along, he’s an anomaly. That’s no model, that’s a phenomenon. I sent stuff to The New Yorker when I was in college and then for ten years thereafter before they accepted something. I used to paper my wall with their rejection slips. And they were not making a mistake. Writers develop slowly. That’s what I want to say to you: don’t look at my career through the wrong end of a telescope. This is terribly important to me as a teacher of writers, of kids who want to write." --John McPhee, interview published in The Paris Review, Spring 2010.
When I moved to Oahu this summer, I was feeling pretty nervous about what the new location might mean for my writing prospects. For one thing, there aren't many science writers who live here. For another, there aren't a lot of big science funding agencies nearby. Now if I specialized in writing for the tourism or defense agencies, that would be one thing. But I don't. I specialize in writing about health and basic science (mostly biology) and human interest stories.
Last week, however, I found encouragement when I went to the local Science Cafe meeting in Kaimuki, a neighborhood on the south side of Honolulu.
(FYI, everyone here calls the greater Honolulu area "Town." I'm still adjusting to the convention. The area where I live feels much more like a town, whereas Honolulu, which is packed with high-rise buildings and taxis and dozens of pedestrians at every intersection, feels like a city.)
The invited speaker at last week's Science Cafe explained what black holes are and how they evolve to gobble stars and spawn new galaxies. He also mentioned something that's happening now, or expected to happen soon: an enormous gas cloud named G2 is cruising toward the black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and when it gets within range of the hole's gravity, the gas is expected to swirl around and send out flashes of light, slowly settling into what is called an accretion disk, which will serve as a halo around the center of what would otherwise be invisible because black holes are, by definition, black.
It was a fascinating talk. Most of it was completely over my head. Thankfully, the cool photos and videos were pretty self-explanatory. And, just as amusing as these was the way the researcher was clearly having so much fun while he worked. He used non-technical language. He made jokes. He promoted his rock album that was recorded in the 1970s. It was a fun evening with a good group of people. I'm already looking forward to next month's Science Cafe event.
Here's an interesting autobiographical piece written by Lisa DePaulo about how she approaches profile assignments.
"Do not promise anything you can't or won't or shouldn't deliver. (Especially in writing.) Basically need promise anything but fairness. Always offer to talk to anyone they think you should talk to--but never promise to not talk to people they might not want you to talk to. And try to get them to really let you into their world. Or close to it."
From Jack Limpert's blog, About Writing and Editing, posted here.
Hawaii is full of story material for those who want to write about ecology, marine biology, or agriculture. I'm sure there are plenty of stories here for me, too (because I don't write about ecology, marine biology, or agriculture--at least not yet). In the meantime, here's a video clip of a plant that I filmed while on a tourist excursion today with the kids. Our guide said this plant is called "sleeping grass."
I've seen this plant in action once before, when I traveled to Costa Rica in 2006. That was a very quick trip for a destination wedding. I had no tour guide to explain the surroundings, it was just an accidental observation that the plant folded when I touched it. Nearby, a team of ants was carrying leave cuttings across the path, just like what I'd seen on nature programs such as Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom...
Sleeping grass makes me think of nature movies again, only I'm thinking of ones like Planet Earth, which show amazing time-lapse video of forests where new plants spring up in a matter of hours, or where the leaves change from green to gold to red in a matter of days. Those fast-forward movies do a pretty good job of making plants look a lot like animals, don't they? They're not sentient beings; they're responsive, they sense, they move. And in this case, with sleeping grass, we can clearly see it.
I wonder why more plants haven't evolved to employ such quick reflexes?
I haven't posted anything here for a while because I've been engulfed in a trans-continental, trans-Pacific move this summer. That's right, I no longer live in Maryland, but currently reside in Hawaii, on the windward side of Oahu.
And traveling this far with two children, a household of furniture, and two careers-worth of legal and tax documents leaves little time for trivial matters like updating a website.
Fortunately most of the slogging is behind us. And fortunately I managed to do a little work (other than the house-sorting variety) even in the midst of this transition. You'll see two new thumbnails in the favorites section of "My Projects" that lead to feature articles published this summer, including my first feature for the children's magazine Muse, which my son has been reading faithfully for more than a year.
By the way, if you have elementary-age children and haven't read Muse, you should definitely check it out--not only because of my feature story in the September 2014 issue ("Stop Paying Attention! Improve your thinking with daydreams") but because every issue seems to have a great mix of stories about science, the world, and various "gee-whiz" items that are written to pique the fascination of bright kids.
In March I waved goodbye to my husband and children, boarded the Metro toward Union Station, and headed north on Amtrak for a five-day retreat with the Highlights Foundation, where I learned everything I could possibly want to know about science writing in the children's marketplace.
Here are some photos from my trip, including the cozy cabin where I slept and worked; one of the faculty members, who talked about structure in writing; our tour of the Highlights Magazine editorial offices in Boyd's Mills; and a book written and illustrated by one of my fellow students, Jeannie Brett.
The weather could not have been worse for this trip. I think the high temperature was in the 30s, and when the snow started to melt, it made all of the paths to and from the meeting barn a muddy mess. Nonetheless, this was an amazing experience! I learned so much, and I'm so grateful to the Highlights Foundation for offering this as a resource for writers and editors like me.
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.