The beginning of 2015 has been discouraging for me. A series of fellowship applications and interviews elevated my hopes for this year, but not one has panned out, and now I am left with a plan vacuum. After so many coin flips having landed in my favor in the past, I’m sure I had a bad run like this coming.
In theory, there is nothing to lose by applying year after year for these opportunities. Play the numbers, I am advised. Persistence will pay off. But in my case I simply detest one key aspect of the process: the reference letter. Continue reading →
With a calendar and Google Earth on my computer, you’d think I wouldn’t need the horizon any more, but I find I need it more than ever.
After 15 years living in the same house tucked into the West Elk Mountains of western Colorado, I moved this winter a few hours southwest into mesas and canyons looking from the edge of Colorado into Utah. The first thing I did in February, as if out of habit, was start noting the sunset position on the horizon. It was south over the rims of the Dolores River, and week by week I watched it roll north, approaching the La Sal Mountains, a set of snow-topped Batman Wings on the farthest horizon. Last night I stood outside at about 8:15 pm, daylight hours having drawn notably longer, and I saw that the sunset was now firmly in the house of the La Sals. I was beginning the first steps of feeling at home, knowing where I was in the spin and swing of the heavens.
Living in a place of big horizons and sharply rendered landmarks is like having your own Stonehenge. The landscape naturally sets up alignments with the sky that people have recognized throughout time. The Southwest is decorated with pre-Columbian rock art placed where lunar and solar cycles manifest onto painted or pecked images, casting light and shadow through gaps in the rock. The whole landscape was a calendar and people recognized it with their art. Continue reading →
Recently, in the sumptuously warm waters off Maui, a woman went out snorkeling, got separated from her two friends, and was killed by a shark. Her body was found floating facedown about 200 yards offshore; the wounds on her torso told of her tragic end.
Considering how many of us spend time in the world’s oceans, unprovoked shark bites are pretty rare (fewer than 100 worldwide annually, according to the International Shark Attack File), and deaths by shark are even rarer. Writing about these animals some years back for National Geographic, I read that more people die under a toppled vending machine than in a shark’s mouth. (People get really mad when their Doritos get stuck.) While I’m not 100 percent confident in that statistic, it makes my point. Continue reading →
Three years ago, I wrote a post about having children. I was trying to decide whether I wanted one. I wish I could say that writing that post helped clear the fog of indecision, but that isn’t what happened. I continued to struggle and debate. And when that didn’t lead to a clear answer, I began to drunkenly poll people at parties. “Do you think I should have a kid?” I’d demand, taking a swig of my gin and tonic.
One moment I’d be swept up in the nostalgia of my own childhood. I’d imagine the pleasure of taking my daughter camping in the same hills where I camped as a kid. I’d show her how to roast the perfect marshmallow, how to light a fire, and how to pull off leeches. And the next moment I’d be sure I couldn’t manage motherhood. My hips were clearly built for bearing children, but my personality isn’t suited to raising them. I’m impatient and selfish and foul-mouthed.
A year and a half ago, my husband and I moved out of our cramped Brooklyn apartment. We bought a house in the Midwest, close to family. We adopted a puppy. We planted a garden. All signs pointed toward procreation. Yet I still couldn’t fully commit to the idea. So in December, when a pregnancy test delivered a single blue horizontal dash, I was relieved. But seconds later a perpendicular line appeared, transforming negative into positive, absence into presence. I stared at the plus sign dumbfounded. And then I began to cry. Continue reading →
Once upon a time, a beautiful girl lived in a not-so-faraway land. She was dreadfully abused by her mother, who was wicked as well as mentally ill. She was abandoned by her father, who was also wicked and mentally ill, and who had no job and nine cats. She had a wicked brother, but that part of the story turned out to be too terrible for even this fairy tale.
The girl was dreamy, impulsive, and traumatized, a good singer, and obsessed with dancing and dress-up clothes. Let’s call her Cindy.
Cindy is related to me through her mother, but her mother had cut off contact with our family when I was young, before Cindy was born. Through the magic of Google-stalking, I discovered that Cindy’s mother and I had coincidentally moved to the same part of the country. I could tell from various clues online that she had had children, and that they were very poor and had occasionally been homeless. I tried for years to contact her.
A few years ago, during a period of relative calm and lucidity, Cindy’s mother finally responded to one of my messages and agreed to see me. Cindy’s mother and I reconciled, and I bonded with her children. I made sure they wouldn’t go hungry anymore or be kicked out of their home, and we ate Chinese food together, and we all lived happily ever after.
One of my favorite people lost her mother last week, and my friend’s heart-breaking loss left me reflecting on my own mom and how much she means to me. I love my mother for more reasons than I can articulate in one small blog post, but three of my most cherished photos go a long way to explaining it. Continue reading →
All this week Last Word on Nothing is geared toward Mother’s Day, which is next Sunday. Tell your mother you love her and share some of our posts, things are about to get maternal.
Pictured above: my mother.
I held her cold hands in mine, rubbing warmth into them as she crouched behind a rock stack. A wet, July wind was blowing in off the Bering Sea and we’d taken shelter in a hunting blind on a treeless cape of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. A couple weeks before this trip, I’d asked her if she wanted to come with me to an island 3 degrees below the Arctic circle between the coasts of Siberia and Western Alaska. Without hesitation, she’d said yes. I told her I didn’t know where we were going to stay, landing in a Yup’ik subsistence village with no infrastructure for travelers. She still said yes, not a pause to think about it.
This is what is like to be a science writer’s mom, and to be an adventurer’s son.
A scrappy, short animal of a woman, my mom is missing half of two fingers on one hand and a small portion of a third. It was a table saw accident. She used to make a living building furniture, sometimes working too late at night. I rubbed her bony, rough hands just like I did when I was a kid and we’d be on the snowbound side of a mountain in a howling wind, tears welling in her eyes from how cold her fingers would get. Continue reading →