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'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")
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 in the freelance world.
©Brittany Moya del Pino 2018. All rights reserved.