A Case of J-Shame

I’ve been working on a couple of essays over the last week, knowing I had to fill this space. But when the time came to post one of them, I couldn’t do it. The subject was too irrelevant, too glib in the shadow of yet another sick fuck shooting innocent people. It didn’t belong.

This is not the first time I’ve paused before posting my work, even when I felt extra good about the piece I’d written. Occasionally there’s a collective change in tone that makes the text feel out of place in any public forum. When readers’ attention has been yanked in a single direction, it’s hard to lure them back—and under tragic circumstances it feels wrong to try.shutterstock_371655298

I’d imagine that most writers who publish on the Web have experienced this awkward mental flip-flop, questioning the validity and timing of their work before hitting “post.” As one who often covers quirky animal science or, here on LWON, personal absurdities from colonoscopies to battles with beach fleas, I’ve finally named the feeling because it has become so familiar. I call it J-Shame (for Journalists’ Shame). It hits when your beat is way out of synch with a big tragic thing that’s on everyone’s mind. It shrivels your confidence and embarrasses you for not taking on something with bigger-picture importance.

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Dr. Frankenstein’s Climate


Between two and three o’clock in the morning on June 16, 1816, during a restless night in a villa on Lake Geneva, eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had a waking dream. As the moon shone through the shutters of her room, she remembered, “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life …”

Over the next fourteen months, Godwin—later Mary Shelley—wrote her vision into life. The pale student became Victor Frankenstein, the hideous phantasm became his tortured creature, and Godwin became the author of the novel Frankenstein, published in 1818 and in print ever since.

Famously, Godwin’s inspiration arrived after she and her companions, who had spent most of their Swiss holiday trapped inside by extraordinarily cold, rainy weather, decided to entertain themselves with a ghost-story-writing contest. Lord Byron—already a noted poet and notorious cad—wrote a fragment about a dying explorer. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Godwin’s lover and future husband, wrote a poem about atheism. Byron’s physician, William Polidori, wrote a poem about a vampire, which he later published under Byron’s name (and which, some argue, birthed the modern sexy-vampire story). The teenaged Mary Godwin outdid them all, creating both the first major work of science fiction and a story that disturbs us still.

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Redux: How an internet quiz put me in my place

This post first ran on January 7, 2014.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am from nowhere.

Until my husband told me this — stated it as a fact, like “it’s raining” or “the sky is blue” — I’d never had a truthful answer to a question that has always given me pause: where are you from?

“You’re from nowhere,” Dave said. His words hit me like a punch in the gut. He’d meant it as a joke, a clever way of stating the obvious. To him, my lack of roots was a sterile fact. To me, it was a gnawing wound, a loneliness I could never shake.

As an Air Force brat, I moved every few years. Before settling in Colorado, I had lived in three countries and more than a dozen towns. I was born in Texas, but we moved on before I formed a single memory of the place. My earliest recollection is of landing at a military base in Greenland and wondering who would give that name to such an icy place. I remember the swing set outside my kindergarten classroom near the Air Force Academy and the blue swimming pool in Phoenix that summer before we moved overseas, but the first place that feels anything like mine is a tiny village in West Germany—a town where I’m now a stranger, in a country that no longer exists. Continue reading

The Last Word

Author photo on Ice

June 6-10, 2016

Rose spends a month on in a ship in the North Sea, and finds herself engaging deeply with issues of scale.

A prominent naturalist lives a quiet life in small-town Washington – amassing 150,000 specimens – and his neighbors have no idea who he is until after his death.

“There ain’t nothing out here,” remarks Craig as he voluntarily skis out of sight from his tent during a whiteout.

Rose puts in a plug for animatronics, the most relatable form of robot.

Sarah keeps a box of wilderness maps, a reminder in her indoor life of a world that cannot be contained.

Photo: James Q Martin

The Map Box

Scrap mapI keep a wooden box on my bedside table.

It’s cheap – an old Yalumba Wine case that I found on a curb somewhere, with a hinged lid and a shred of price tag still attached. Usually, it’s stacked high with magazines half read, a thing seldom opened and often dusty. But in all of the houses where I’ve lived in two states, I’ve kept it within hands’ reach of where I sleep.

What it contains is difficult to describe.

Nominally, it’s a collection of maps. I found the first in 2007 at an Aspen, Colorado thrift store – a treasure of a place where you could pick up the castoffs of the rich with the scrapings from your pocket. Designer dresses crammed in the back of the 50-cent bin; $300 jackets for the price of a sandwich. Rifling through the shelves of the basement book room, my hands closed on a gallon ziplock so fat it couldn’t seal. Old topographical maps of the surrounding warren of peaks and redbanked creeks spilled from its mouth, along with several hand-drawn novelty maps of the same, and giant dog-eared Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps of deserts further west, all the way into Utah.

From then on, every map went into the box with this stack. I added the Adirondacks and the Boundary Waters. I added my own carefully folded routes from different Colorado valleys and ranges – a random scrap from a backpacking trip that passed by a steep waterfall and a beaver jaw, another from a summer of careful plant transects in alpine meadows that sparked with paintbrush and phlox. When I left Aspen for a valley across the mountains, a friend sent me half a quadrat in the mail as a goodbye. It was stained with blood, torn along the creases and marked with a terse set of instructions: Continue reading

In Defense of Bad Robots


The robots are coming. You know this. You’ve read the headlines, you’ve seen the movies. Her, Ex Machina, Terminator. You’ve seen the sleek, lithe, brilliant bots of the future. They’re sexy, even the ones that aren’t explicitly meant to be. We fear them, we’re drawn to them. Look at that smooth glass, that chrome, that unparalleled intellect, that limitless processing power.

Screw that.

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Sensory Underload

shutterstock_214666273Three years ago on about this day in early June I was stuck in a whiteout. Camped in an icebound mountain range in south-central Alaska, my buddies and I found ourselves pinned down for two days in near-zero visibility on an icefield. A heavy, snow-laden sky had come down and smothered us. As mountaineers say, it looked like being on the inside of a ping pong ball.

Packing up camp and skiing blind with sleds and ropes across snow-bridged crevasses seemed like an awful idea, so we stayed put waiting for the weather to clear. For two days we drifted inside a place with no up or down, the sun passing invisibly through the sky. Our faces lost their shadows. We saw nothing solid but our camp. In a way, I couldn’t have been happier.

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Redux: The Botanist Nobody Knew


Before dawn on October 3, 1932, in the small Columbia River town of Bingen, Washington, an 82-year-old man walked to the depot to catch the morning train to Portland. Under circumstances that remain unclear, the arriving train struck him down, killing him almost instantly.

The man had lived in town for more than half a century, and he was known as a shy, somewhat eccentric bachelor who loved flowers. Not until the Portland Oregonian published his obituary—under the headline “Famed Botanist Killed“—did his neighbors realize that he had an international reputation.

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