Rust, Beer and Burritos: Interview with Jonathan Waldman

Csuk-12052010-L1003923I met Jonathan Waldman when we were both magazine interns. We had a lot in common–we both got really into working on the magazine’s science column, and we were both really big fans of burritos. (He later sold me a shirt that featured a burrito-powered bike). When I ran into him at a conference a few years ago, he told me about his old sailboat, Syzygy. The boat had been totally rusty, he said–and it had given him an idea for a book.

Rust: The Longest War, a chronicle of corrosion covering everything from the Statue of Liberty to the humble beer can to the adventures of a rust photographer (whose lovely image you see above), came out last month.  And I’m using this as an excuse to talk with Jonny about rust, mustaches, beer and burritos. Here’s the [slightly edited and condensed] conversation we had over Google Docs:

Cameron: I guess I should say first that I feel dumb about rust.  I remember asking my dad about it after finding a rusty ax in our yard, but I came away with the sense that rust was something that only happened to cars on the East Coast where the roads were salted, and wasn’t something that would ever affect me much. But then you just wrote a whole book about it, and it’s more than just corroded tools and the undersides of T-birds, isn’t it?

Jonny: I think that’s how we all feel about rust–just dumb enough that we allow familiarity and shame to mask the feeling. I mean, if I see it all over the place on pretty much everything, there can’t possibly be more to it, right? Because we all see it, and it’s not like there are people sounding the alarm left and right. (But, behold! There are such folks, behind the scenes!) Such is the hazard of learning to think of rust in high school as a chemical reaction. If you’re a chemist, maybe, it all worked out — but the rest of us filed away rust in our brains as something super-duper-boring, along with titration and trigonometry. Continue reading

Double Play: How the Yankees Ruined My Feng Shui

If I had this view, I wouldn't care about the curtains.
If I had this view, I wouldn’t need curtains.

I don’t make decisions easily. When it comes to home décor, I can revisit a rug or bedspread five times before dismissing or buying it, usually with remorse one way or the other. Online shopping makes it worse. Oh, the hours I’ve spent toggling between web pages, Googling in search of a better price, rethinking entire rooms because I like a particular throw pillow that doesn’t match what I’ve got. (I’m aware that this is an embarrassingly First World problem. Forgive me.)

Buying curtains, I found out recently, is particularly excruciating. At first I had thought, perhaps, I’d make them. I bought a sewing machine a couple of years ago, with big plans. But I’m impatient, and not terribly skilled at sewing, and I knew lopsided curtains would look lame and sad. So I went shopping. Continue reading

The Last Word


April 13-17

Ann on a recent Nature study linking dragons and climate change: “The authors recommend the obvious — increasing research in consumer-friendly fire-resistent clothing — and further suggest that monarchs desist from running around conferring knighthoods.” A sharp-eyed commenter notes publication date.

Michelle on a disease affecting couples living in tipis and other small, off-the-grid structures: “it doesn’t take too many solo rounds of hand-washing dirty diapers to kill the romance of modern homesteading, and bring on critical NOMWITTH.” Michelle notes that while this post was first written in 2011, the disease’s status has not changed.

Helen on traveling“Bits of my soul are pinned to a garden in southern Japan, a pasture in North Wales, and a river in Minnesota. And there’s one little piece on a quiet farm in western Colorado, in a sea of sage and juniper.”

Richard on solar eclipses, past and future“watch for the shadow, wait for the cooling, and listen for the sound of wildlife—not the unnerving absence of birdsong, but the one that interrupted my own reverie: the release, from hundreds of humans staring up, of individual variations on the word ‘Wow’.”

Frequent guests Judith Lewis Mernit and David Grimm talk about dogs, humans, and the gaze between“I believe I have engaged in some mutual gazing with a squirrel or two. Squirrels can really stare a person down, though I suspect they’re tripping more on cortisol than oxytocin.”

And we’re delighted to welcome a new Person of LWON: Jennifer Holland.


Dragons, which predate photography, in artists’ impressions: courtesy of Shutterstock





New Person of LWON: Jennifer Holland

two dogs look out of a windowI got to know Jennifer Holland when I started working down the hall from her at National Geographic. My tenure there was brief and deskbound. Jenny, on the other hand, is the kind of writer who travels the world to get up close to adorable nudibranchs and terrifying dragons. Then she puts the words together all nice and makes everything sound pretty. She’s also written a string of bestsellers about animals who are best friends; the first was turned into a series of wall calendars. But what she really likes, I gather, is chilling at home with her dogs (left) and husband (not pictured).

You may remember Jenny from her guest posts about living with pain (ow) and the pre-colonoscopy experience (ew). I’m thrilled that she’s joining us and can’t wait to see what she writes next. Her first post as a Person of LWON will appear on Monday.

 Photo: Jennifer Holland

Guest Post: We Gaze at Dogs, Dogs Gaze at Us, Is It Love?

15282278241_d6c048c20b_kYesterday, scientists reported that dogs have found an unusual way to steal our hearts. When we stare at our human infants and they stare back, we both experience a rise in the hormone oxytocin, which has been linked to trust and maternal bonding. Now it appears that dogs have hijacked this hormonal response, causing our oxytocin levels to rise when they stare at us, and vice versa. The researchers claim that this behavior may have played a critical role in dog domestication, but is the study all it’s cracked up to be? Judith Lewis Mernit (editor at High Country News and animal watcher) and David Grimm (editor at Science and animal writer) hash it out.

Judith: David, you’ve written a thorough and super-engaging book about our relationship with domestic animals,  Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, and you often write about the science behind domestication. What do you make of the findings of Miho Nagasawa, et al in their study, Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds? Do they make a strong case that humans and dogs get an oxytocin rush as they gaze into each other’s eyes? In your book you have an experience of meeting wolves where you’re instructed not to stare at them. But as you also go on to show how dogs have evolved in ways that set them apart from wolves, ways that allow them to coexist amicably, for the most part, with humans. Is the “oxytocin-gaze positive loop” these researchers describe another example of that co-evolution?

David: Hi Judith, I think it’s an intriguing study, though I think it’s heavy on speculation. Continue reading

There Goes the Sun

That’s me in the Black Sea, waving. (You might have to squint.)

During a total eclipse of the sun, the landscape darkens. But you knew that. What you might not know—what I didn’t know, anyway, when I observed a total solar eclipse on August 11, 1999—is that the experience comes with a lot of other sensory overload.

I found myself thinking about that total eclipse while reading about the one that was visible last month—visible, that is, if you were among the few eyewitnesses in the high northern latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1999, though, the path of totality cut across the heart of Europe and the abdomen of Asia, ranking it among the most-watched total eclipses of the sun in human history. I myself saw it from the deck of a cruise ship in the Black Sea, courtesy of a magazine that paid all expenses—round-trip air to Athens, cruise passage, ground transportation—in exchange for an 800-word article. (Plus the fee for writing the article.) (Those were the days.) While I clearly remember the sight of the moon’s disk slipping in front of the sun’s—somewhere I have a tape recording of my on-the-scene musings, which, as I recall, consisted mostly of “Wow”s—I also can conjure, just as vividly, memories of what I didn’t expect. Continue reading

A Sense of Many Places

Two women sniff a fruit tree.
Two of the People of LWON investigate a fruit tree.

In the past half year, I’ve traveled a lot.

I’ve always traveled a lot. Until recently there’s been a heavy emphasis on longer trips: going to live in a foreign country or hang out on a ship for a few weeks or months. In the five and a half years I was freelancing, time was basically limitless, but money was tight. Now, thanks to a steady office job with an employer that is friendly to the idea of three-day weekends, I’ve been able to start taking short trips to visit friends around the country.

I have a love-hate relationship with travel. There’s the expense and the packing and all that time squeezed into a sardine can with wings. Also, I love home so much, it’s hard to leave it.

Christie, one of the People of the LWON, has written thoughtfully about staying home. For all of 2010, she stayed within 100 miles of the farm where she and her husband live in western Colorado. If I were to clumsily condense Christie’s message, it would be something like this: Stop traveling so much. Be at home in your place. Get to know your neighbors.

But, if I took her advice, I wouldn’t get to hang out on her farm.

Continue reading

Redux: Not One More Winter in the Tipi, Honey

What is it about modern homesteading that drives so many women mad?

This post originally ran July 14, 2011.  NOMWITTH, however, hasn’t changed, not one bit.

There are a lot of ways to shrink a carbon footprint. Bike instead of drive. Eat low on the food chain. You know the drill. Where I live, in the boondocks of Colorado, a lot of people — myself included, but I’ll get to that in a minute — go on a carbon diet by purchasing some cheap land, rigging up a few solar panels, and getting off the grid.

Most of these people are well-educated, well-meaning, and idealistic, determined to build and garden their way toward some version of a better future. But after living here for more than a decade, I’ve noticed a disturbing susceptibility among these modern homesteaders. I’ll call this recurring disease Not One More Winter In The Tipi, Honey (NOMWITTH).

Here’s what happens: A couple arrives in our valley, young, strong, in love, and full of plans to build an ultra-energy-efficient house out of straw bales, rammed earth, adobe bricks, or, heck, used bottlecaps. They set to work with equal enthusiasm, buying land and setting up temporary quarters in a yurt or a tipi. The weather’s good, the views are great, and the new house is humming along.

But at some point, the weather turns, or the project slows. Or a baby arrives, and everything gets more complicated. For whatever reason, their brio fades, NOMWITTH sets in, and what was once a joint project becomes a battlefield, XX vs. XY. In mild cases, help is hired, the house gets a roof, and all ends well. In more serious cases, one person — inevitably XX — splits town for a fully-furnished condo with central heating, leaving XY alone with the low-carbon dream.

I’ve seen many couples, and carbon budgets, fall prey to NOMWITTH, and the predictability of its gender roles has always bothered me. Women may have different strengths than men, but we don’t lack for toughness — we demonstrate that in feats ranging from mountain-climbing to childbirth. So why does NOMWITTH always seem to strike women first?  Continue reading