I’ll Miss You Summer

SchoolWalkMy son’s new school supplies shine too brightly in the corner of my office. It’s the standard fare: glue sticks, soon to be dried out felt pens, a rainbow of highlighters, a cheap pencil sharpener made in China. The exercise books lay crisp and waiting to be filled with vocabulary tests and paragraphs about summer vacation. It’s kinda depressing.

Summer holiday is the best time of year for me as a writer. No more having to get up and trade PJs for pants to drop my son at the school. When I need to work until 2:00am on a feature, no problem. I just sleep in the next day until my ten-year-old boy gets up, which is thankfully around 10:00am. Time is elastic. Breakfast is late, and lunch is later. Eggs for dinner? Sounds good.

More importantly, I like to think it’s a good time for my son, too. He spends the summer dirty. His nails are jagged, and too-long with unknown substances jammed underneath. Sticks that double as guns and swords are stacked up against the stairs leading to our front door. His neck and legs are chewed from black fly bites, and his shins are bruised from falling out of the crabapple tree (I probably should have been paying a little more attention that day). It feels to me that this disheveled, feral animal is doing exactly what he should be.

The reality of the school year is a little different. Sadly, I must get dressed first thing in the morning, poor me. The boy must be roused from a coma. Snacks must be packed, volunteer hours signed up for, and cupcakes made. Extracurricular activities are chosen and paid for. The beautifully elastic pace of summer snaps back onto a schedule faster than kids on a bag of chips, and the dirty, carefree boy of summer disappears into new skinny jeans and a pile of homework. Continue reading

Guest Post: Walking With Oliver

L0028360 A surgical operation: total knee replacement. Drawing by Vir Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A surgical operation: total knee replacement. Drawing by Virginia Powell, 1997. Lettering: Total knee replacement 16/1/97 Virg- Powell Observed at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Fulham Road, London. In the foreground are trial moulds for different sizes of artificial knee, some red, some mauve, some green. Copyright The Wellcome Trust Drawing 1997 By: Virginia PowellPublished: 16 January 1997 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

In 1974, the neurologist Oliver Sacks was hiking alone on a Norwegian mountain when, coming around a boulder, he stumbled upon a bull sprawled across the trail. The bull didn’t react, but Sacks, no stranger to hallucinations, somehow imagined the animal as “first a monster, and now the Devil.” As he fled downhill in a deluded panic, he slipped, dislocating his patella, tearing his quadriceps from the knee, and rendering his leg “limp and flail… [it] gave way beneath me like a piece of spaghetti.” Unable to walk, he nearly perished of exposure before kindly reindeer hunters discovered him and toted him down the mountain.

Though Sacks survived, the worst trial was yet to come. In the wake of knee surgery, he struggled to see his unresponsive, “sepulchral” leg as his own: It “felt like wax — finely molded, inorganic and ghostly.” A phantom limb, all the creepier for still being attached. The experience unnerved Sacks, a vigorous young doctor forced into the passive role of patient. He had diagnosed the man who mistook his wife for a hat; now Sacks had become the neurologist who mistook his leg for a block of marble. “For what was disconnected,” he fretted, “was not merely nerve and muscle but… the natural and innate unity of body and mind.”

The book Sacks wrote about his bizarre and arduous recovery is called A Leg to Stand On. It’s a spare, self-contained account, not generally granted an exalted place in his pantheon. Many of his casual fans — the ones who know him as the avuncular Brit who often popped up on RadioLab to chat about face-blindness — likely don’t realize it exists. Yet Leg is his most personal book, the work in which Sacks himself confronts the same bewildered terror as his patients:

Had ever I faced a more paradoxical situation? How could I stand, without a leg to stand on? How could I walk, when I lacked legs to walk with? How could I act, when the instrument of action had been reduced to an inert, immobile, lifeless, white thing?

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Animals in their Seasons

Skull Night

Bowhunting season in Western Colorado opened yesterday, which means the rut is underway, the next season coming into view. By the time you see this, I will be sitting in the quiet of the woods with my 12 year old boy listening for bugling elk, their haunting, whale-like calls rising through dusk aspens and sea-green conifers.

Sex is happening out there, animals congregating and interacting at the beginning of their autumn mating ritual. It is the time of year that ungulates begin prancing, snorting and bugling. Soon males with their tongues hanging out will be boxing females into the trees. Antlers will be clattering (among deer it sounds like a fencing match between pool cues, while elk sound more like a battle with oaken staffs). As the rut winds up later in the fall, animals will begin their migration to lower country, impregnated and readying for winter.

One thing I should mention, my son and I will not be hunting while we’re out. Not with weapons at least. We are different kinds of hunters, paying attention to storms, sniffing the fresh animal tracks, and focusing beyond prey. I’d gladly take the meat, but we will be working with journals instead. Carrying backpacks off trail and moving our camp day by day, we won’t be under any auspices, no empirical research performed or recorded as we slip into draws and across mountain shoulders. We will be there out of personal curiosity, the way people flock to horseshoe crab spawnings or eclipses. We want to see a significant act of nature.

After a long and indolent summer, the forest will feel restless. This is when ungulate communication tightens up. Males whistle into the woods to hear if another male whistles back. The air will smell like rut, summer rains and late growth sending out raspberries and service berries while the first high mountain leaves begin to yellow. You can smell this first color. The party is just beginning. Continue reading

Guest Post: When The Ants Win



It wasn’t just the initial intensity of the pain — a hot, vibrant shard plunging into my metatarsus and radiating up my shinbone — but its duration. From approximately 10 o’clock in the morning, when I stepped barefoot onto a reddish-brown ant in my San Fernando Valley backyard, until well after sunset, the agony defeated Benadryl (oral and topical), ibuprofen, even the one-half of an expired Vicodin I downed with a shot of vodka. Baking soda didn’t draw it out, nor vinegar, nor did calamine lotion calm it down. Ice was my only friend; a series of three Arctic Ice Tundra series packs that I kept in constant rotation from freezer to foot, wrapped in a thin towel and secured with a scarf, numbed the bite. A few seconds without one and I’d curl my toes and twist my face into a muffled scream.

The consensus on my Facebook page, where I’d cast a bid for sympathy, was that I’d been nailed by a red fire ant. A red imported fire ant to be more specific, or RIFA, an invasive destroyer that showed up in California nearly 20 years ago, having traveled up from South America through the southern states in potted plants. RIFAs are bad news; they crowd out native ants, bees and lizards; they kill songbirds, bunnies and toads; they’ve even been known to take down a pig. I would have been entirely justified in my early plan to bomb the colony with vinegar and baking soda once I was mobile again, even if that particular extermination method proved to be less effective than morbidly fun.

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The Last Word


August 24 – 28, 2015

This week, words mattered – whether they be spoken between doctors, written on a page or scratched out by a centuries-old fraud. Also worms. Worms mattered too. 

Guest writer Robin Mejia takes us with her to El Salvador and an agricultural education project. Despite continuing violence there, plenty of people still focus their energy on pruning strategies or finding the right type of worm.

Two esteemed historians talk with Ann about why some languages don’t differentiate the words “story” and “history.” It turns out that there is a difference between fact and narrative. We think.

Thanks to an impossibly complex system and a horrible lack of doctor communication, Jennifer’s father’s life is put at risk. It seemed he was taking three separate blood thinners and no one bothered to check.

Christie finally lets go of her hangup with people not using the proper singular form of the word “data.” Which I’m pretty sure is “date.”

Jessa tests out her investigative journalism chops on 75 “quintals” of 17th Century codfish. Her search leads to someone called Sir Peter Pounce Bart and General Quodlibet Hookem. Which all turns out to be hokum in the end.



A Baffling Curio

quodlibet1 croppedInvestigative journalists seem awfully glamorous – delving into mysteries and catching those liars at their game. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of the aptitudes involved, so I steer clear of it. But recently I’ve had the thrill of that hunt in miniature.

It all began when an editor sent me a link to the check above, to illustrate an assignment about in-kind payment. Newfoundland was the last colony to join Canadian confederation (in 1949) and before it did, there was a currency shortage, so people kept credit accounts in the form of their primary export: cod.

The text of this check, if you can’t make it out, reads as follows:

Cashier of the Bank of Newfound land please pay to bearer seventy five quintals fourteen pounds of uncured codfish 75—14

Quodlibet Hookem (Hoskem? Hoskim?)

March 14 1689

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A Singular Data Point Is A Datum, You Idiots!

data_JustGrimesThere’s a moment when you realize that you’ve become the person you hate. For me, it happened at the dinner table.

I was telling (ok, ranting to) my husband about how my employer, FiveThirtyEight, has chosen to adopt as its house style the usage of the word data as a singular noun.

“So you’ve become a pedantic asshole?” he said.

He was right, of course. It was time to let it go. My snobbery over the usage of the word data dates back to my senior year of college. In my honors thesis, I described the results of my summer research project by using the word as a singular noun (“the data is,” as I recall) and one of my committee members had crucified me for it. His was the only negative comment I received, and it stung. I was never going to make that mistake again. Continue reading

Prescription for Tragedy

shutterstock_111707921 (1)


Not long ago my father, who is 84, had a great fall. Great meaning bad.

He doesn’t remember tripping on anything, just that suddenly he was on the floor of his bathroom. He’d hit his head on the corner of the sink. There was a lot of blood. A long hospital stay followed after surgery to drain the blood that had pooled on his brain. He recovered, with a hole in his head as a constant and ugly reminder of his unexplained collapse.

The surgeon came to see us in the recovery room. He said “Martin, no more falling. If you hit your head again it will probably kill you.”

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