The Last Word

Snow Shelter

January 26 – 30

In guest writer Lesley Evans Ogden’s essay meditation, an Ontario girl builds a bond with the West Coast rainforest through her trail running.

We have come to understand that Craig does nothing in half measures. When he wants to understand the Younger Dryas, naturally he drags a sled onto frozen Lake Superior and spends a night – true to Pleistocene conditions – without a tent.

Christie gives us her favorite words and reports on a few we’d all rather strike from the dictionary.

Our fates are more indebted to our names than we know. Specifically the letters of our first and last initials.

When Helen lived in Japan, she listened to a pop group called SMAP – presumably an onomatopoeic name, akin to Wham! – and Friday’s launch of the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite brought it all back.


Image: Craig Child’s not-so-cozy accommodations on Lake Superior.

What Does Today’s Possible Rocket Launch Have to Do With Japanese Pop Music? (I’ll Tell You: Very Little)

Delta II Rocket with SMAPFriday morning, if all goes well, NASA is launching a satellite with the name SMAP. As I write late Thursday night, it’s perched atop a Delta II rocket an hour up the California coast from Santa Barbara. It was supposed to launch this morning, but high-altitude winds got in the way.

Like so many things in NASA world, SMAP is an acronym. It stands for Soil Moisture Active Passive. The satellite is monitoring soil moisture, and it’s using both active and passive methods to do so.

I don’t know any more about the science than a quick perusal of NASA’s website got me, but I do know this: SMAP is a really silly-sounding name.

This is not a new opinion. I would like you to know that this is an opinion I have had more than 15 years to develop. This is not the first thing named SMAP to enter my life. Continue reading

Sam Sells Seashells By the Seashore

J medium

There’s a popular myth about Dutch last names that goes like this: When Napoleon occupied the Netherlands and instituted a family name registry, only the upper classes had such names already in use. A significant subset took the opportunity to protest foreign rule by registering under silly names like “Born Naked,” “The Criminal” and “Little Poops”. Even in modern times, after changing ones name became a simple paper exercise, the Dutch held on to their prank names.

While the truth is less exciting – any silliness likely predates Napolean, and some names only sound silly to an English ear – the audacity of such a rebellion keeps the idea of it alive. Also, the notion that families would become attached to those names rings true to those who understand human nature.

We are more psychologically entwined with our names than we realize. I’m not talking about baby name meanings, which seem to be a contemporary form of astrology. Rather, I refer to a 30-year-old field of study that investigates the Name Letter Effect. Continue reading

Sassy Smocks and Moist Panties



Words are a writer’s currency, and we each have our favorites. The first word I remember falling in love with was onomatopoeia. It had a satisfying rhythm, plus there was the delight of discovering, oh — there’s a word for that.

That joy of discovery was exactly what I felt reading Lost in Translation, a delightful new book by Ella Frances Sanders, who draws illustrations to help explain “untranslatable word from around the world” like trepverter (Yiddish for the perfect retort that comes to you later, when it’s too late), iktsuarpok (Inuit for the act of repeatedly going outside to check if anyone’s coming), cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish for a man who insists on leaving his shirt tails untucked) and tsundoku (Japanese for leaving unread a book you’ve bought, perhaps piling it on top of a stack of other books you haven’t read).

English also has no true equivalent to my own favorite foreign word: gemütlichkeit, a German term that connotes the kind of warm coziness you feel when gathered around a fire with your dearest friends, perhaps drinking Glühwein. It must exist in some language, but I’m still seeking a word to describe a dog’s joy while frolicking in fresh snow.

Many of my beloved English words are onomatopoeic ones like flicker, boing, ripple, riffraff, guffaw and clusterfuck. As a kid, my favorite part of art class was the smock. Not the thing itself, but the occasion to say the word aloud, repeatedly. Smock, smock, smock. I don’t know why I love it, but I do. I also love sassy and saucy and, especially, sashay. I could say that word all day. Continue reading

Hard Times in the Younger Dryas

Lake superior with arrowThis time last year, most of North America was buried in an unusual cold period. The jet stream had hemorrhaged in early January and the Polar Vortex that usually sits atop the hemisphere like a halo came pouring down. Known as the 2014 North American Cold Wave, temperatures plummeted, particularly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest where double digits below 0 °F appeared for weeks. Lake Superior froze more solidly than it had in decades.

That’s when I went to the Superior shore of northern Wisconsin where nearby temperatures had reached -37 °F. If I wanted to get the feel of a cold spell, I figured this was my moment. At the time, I was writing about the Younger Dryas, a cold anomaly that hit the Northern Hemisphere 12,800 years ago and continued for a thousand years. The world at that point had been gradually warming, the Ice Age coming to an end. Suddenly, within the space of a decade, ocean currents reversed in the Atlantic, probably triggered by cold, meltwater flows coming off the shrinking Laurentide Ice Sheet. This reversal sent the world back into the Ice Age, and brought the end of the Clovis tradition in North America, the climate upheaval speeding up megafauna extinctions.

I don’t like writing about events without witnessing them, so I set off across frozen Lake Superior out of Ashland, Wisconsin, pulling a sled behind me with enough gear to last several days. I wanted a taste of the Younger Dryas. Continue reading

Rainforest Drop In

LEO2I didn’t intend to fall in love with the rain forest. It crept up on me, imperceptibly at first, because the West Coast was never a place I had intended to stay. My roots were nurtured in the farmland, lakes and forests of Ontario before transplantation to the West, an alien habitat of strangely mild temperatures plus rain, rain, and more rain. I anticipated my westward migration as a transient phase. So I kept my emotional distance from this adoptive habitat, or so I thought. But recently, my strong attachment to this lush green place has become impossible to deny.

I spent my childhood in a land of predictable and obvious seasons. Summer was humid, hot, and thunder stormy. Autumn was crinkly, red-leaved and crisp. Winter was snowy and eye-icicly cold. And spring was muddy, rainy, and greenly profuse. So as I adapted to my new surroundings, one of the strangest, most disconcerting experiences was a momentary loss in time. Continue reading

The Last Word

640px-Turtle_golfina_escobilla_oaxaca_mexico_claudio_giovenzana_2010January 19 – 23

Cassandra explains why the flu shot is ineffective this year, what H and N stand for, how the virus outevolved the statisticians, and why to get the shot anyway.  A magisterially thorough explanation, and one feels better for it already.

Cameron has always liked maps, all kind of maps, maps that outline human influence on terrain, maps of holiday lights even.  But now she’s thinking about the dark places in between and surrounding the lights.

I got the flu shot, and then I got the flu.  I try to understand Cassie’s explanations and arguments but can see only seraphim and devils.  The flu is just flat-out medieval and the 21st century is very little help.

Helen’s lovely little turtles, fwip, fwip, fwipping their way down the beach to the brightest light around, the ocean.  And just like your cousins on Facebook, the turtles come back again full circle.

Richard watches the documentary A Brief History of Time. He finds out that seeing is not so much believing — because general relativity is seriously unbelievable — as it is understanding.  “Of course,” he says.


sea turtles by Claudio Giovenzana, via Wikimedia



In the 1992 documentary A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking describes what we would see if we were observing an astronaut nearing a black hole’s event horizon—the barrier beyond which gravitation is so great that not even light can escape. He invites us to imagine that the astronaut is wearing a watch, and that the second hand is ticking toward 12:00. As the astronaut gets closer to the event horizon, the motion of the second hand will appear to us to be slowing down. The closer the astronaut gets to the event horizon, the slower the motion of the hand, from our perspective. “Each second on the watch would appear to take longer and longer,” Hawking says, “until the last second before midnight would take forever.”

Then the documentary reverses the point of view and explores what the astronomer would be experiencing. That poor sap has a perspective, too. And that’s where things get weird. (Well, weirder.)

Continue reading