Saturday, December 22, 2007

Thoughts at the Winter Solstice

Today is it. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, we see less of the sun than any other day of the year. The sun has paused in its long trek toward my southern horizon and beginning tomorrow, it will begin to creep northward again. This is my favorite solstice. While I do need the change in seasons, I feel very content here in the well of winter. I love the darkness and the cold. I love the trees that have dropped their leaves and a sky that looks overcast and gray. But in reality, I think that what I really love is the contrast that I can create in the winter. I love building a fire in our fireplace and cozying up on the couch with my family when it's miserable outside. I love knitting warm hats and mittens for my children. I love making soups and hot chocolate to warm us and I love the way that the aromas of these warm foods, the pumpkin spice and roasted turkey and potatoes, hang over my house like a blanket. I know that this part of myself that loves the winter is a result of living the affluent life that I do. I am afforded the opportunity to build up an illusion of control over the natural elements. I can keep myself and my family warm and safe in our cocoon while it's freezing outside. This must be why I love winter like I do. I love feeling the cold bite of freezing rain on my nose only because I know that in a few minutes, after I open up the door that leads to the warm golden glow of my home, I will be warm. It's an illusion, I know, this control that I think I have. But for now, it's something that makes me happy.

We went to a winter solstice party last night which was very nice. They had a labyrinth set up in the back yard, made of tiny candles that outlined the path, and had someone softly playing vibraphone bells off in the distance (this family is a fairly well-know celtic rock band so they have a very nice assortment of instruments and talent. It was beautiful.) I walked the labyrinth by myself, and other than starting out the wrong direction and finding myself needing to jump around from path the path to find the correct one to lead to the middle (I wasn't the only one - I kept running across one of my past YRUU kids that was doing the same thing) it was very peaceful. I think the idea of a labyrinth is to clear your mind by the repetition of steps. Once I found the right path, I didn't need to think about where to walk next - I simply quietly and slowly strolled around within the candles with the soft bells dancing around my ears. I was able to let go of thinking about what presents I still needed to buy or what to make for the Christmas Eve party we'll be going to, or what to pack for our trip to Texas. My friends had a yule log set in the middle with a basket of branches beside it. I attached a branch to the log, looked up at the night sky, deeply breathed in the cold air and the smell of the campfire that was burning off in the distance, and put my spirit in a good place to start the new year.

Inside the house was full of food and wine and cider and friends who were sharing details of their lives and laughing and enjoying the company. I wonder why the pagan traditions have become so misunderstood and feared? There is a huge array of faiths and spirituality under the umbrella of "paganism," some of which I relate to, and some of which I absolutely don't. In my personal experience (which I freely admit is limited), I have seen those who claim paganism as their spiritual home to be deeply in love with the natural earth and committed to taking care of this, our home, I've seen their recognition of the importance of humans caring for each other, and I've seen a curiosity about and acceptance of other religions. I also feel a kinship with humans from thousands of years ago who noticed the track of the sun and, in the pagan tradition, celebrated the winter solstice as marking the return of the sun and the goodness that it brought to their lives (i.e. food). While I don't agree with every nuance of their lives or spiritual traditions (as I would say for all friends from all religious persuasions) I feel a marked gentleness and openness from my pagan friends that is often absent in some people from more modern and mainstream religions. My wish for the new year, marked by the clock of the sun which has been turning much longer than the human species has been around, is that this gentleness and openness and true compassion for our fellow humans will one day become more common than the judgmental and sanctimonious attitudes that I too often run across in everyday life.

Happy Solstice to you all.

Monday, December 17, 2007

while I was away...

Taken from where the deck will be:

...and from the backyard:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

home again home again jiggity jig

Hello!!!! I'm in the process of rejoining normal life, post-meeting.

First, the AGU (American Geophysical Union) meeting in San Francisco was OK this year. It was much too huge, which is my complaint year after year, but that's OK. There's something kind of comforting for me to be around 15,000 people just as geeky (or more so) than I am. We were all over SF this week. Made me happy. It's funny how comfortable I feel around science-types. I say "funny" because there really are several distinct science-types of people from students to academics to civil servants to managers (I feel a blog entry coming on this one day) but I can meld with most of them. Scientists are an interesting, unique breed. Overall, they're mostly innocent and quite trustworthy. Seriously. I'm trying to find the right unifying description. Passionate? That may be it. And it's not just for science. These folks are highly passionate about whatever it is that trips their trigger. Science. Politics. Hiking. Rock climbing. Music. Wine. Theater. Literature. Star Trek. Whatever it is, there is loads passion there...which is probably the key to why they have subjected their careers to the difficulties inherent in scientific research. You've GOT to be passionate about it to survive this business.

There's a general observation I'd like to make about climate change after being at the conference. There really isn't any discussion left on a scientific level about whether climate change is occurring or whether humans are the cause (that's pretty much an enormous DUH.). Those questions aren't even on the radar anymore in the scientific world for the reason've done that one. Scientifically, it's answered. Science has moved beyond that into "what will the future look like" and "What can we do to alleviate the major problems?" sort of level. (This is a link to the Real Climate discussion of the meeting, Check out all 7 "dispatches" from AGU for a summary of some of the climate change sessions about things like geoengineering consequences and Tipping Points. PS - I didn't get to go to these sorts of sessions because I was too busy. More about that later.)

There remains some level of disconnect with the general public - the key question is what that level is and what amount of attention and worry I (we) should expend on it. Is this a very vocal, very small minority that can be safely ignored (i.e., science can move on to addressing the relevant questions and attempt to make progress?) Or is does the vocal minority have journalists and the media by the ear enough that we as scientists need to still be concerned with the level-zero issues (i.e., convincing the public that there is not a global warming conspiracy.) Is that even an issue for scientists? What level of social responsibility do scientists really have? Once the science has been investigated, does it really become the responsibility of scientists to address the politically-driven debate of today's world? Scientists aren't socially equipped to do this. But besides the obvious question of "who else?" I feel like it's our moral obligation. I just don't know the appropriate approach.

It's hard for me to definitively comment on where the public perception is in relation to the scientific one. The scientific position (on the level-zero climate change issue) is quite clear and easy to gauge, but the general public's position is very difficult for me to understand. I'm on the internet a lot which is heavily biased to extremists, so I read a lot of the vocal "deniers" arguments (which can SO totally and easily be debunked point by point - so tiresome ... check here if you don't believe it. BIG yawn.) Despite that, the fact is that there seems to be a not-insignificant number of normal folks who still think there are valid questions about whether humans are causing climate change. Am I wrong? Is my perception skewed because of where I live and from spending a lot of time on the internet?
I've had a few intelligent people articulate very wrong perceptions about climate change to me recently, and *that* scares me more than the extremists. (e.g., no it's NOT arrogant of us to think that humans could change the climate. It has nothing to do with arrogance and everything to do with understanding the facts behind what factors have contributed to the climate over the last century. And no, this current change is NOT driven by natural causes - we have , in fact, investigated all this and found those contributions to be well below what the observed temperature changes have been)

It's always strange and hard for me to move between this uncertainty in "normal life" and my scientific life, where everyone is so solidly and scientifically on the same page. Damned politics. Or whatever it is that has made "people" distrust science suddenly.

On a totally personal level, this meeting was a lot less fun than previous meetings. I *worked* 99.5% of the time. I was either trying to put together my talk or was recoding our model to constrain HONO for a student I'm helping, or was checking the NO to NO2 photochemical balances compared to measurements in response to "issues" from Harvard, etc. etc. One one hand I felt very useful. On the other, I was tired and ready to collapse.

One night (after my talk), GC and I did take a break and sat up at the lounge at the top of our hotel. I got there early enough to grab a table right by the windows overlooking the Bay Bridge and the SF Bay at sunset. Nice. We bought a $65 bottle of wine and enjoyed the view and talked and talked (about lots o' things). I needed that, and so did he, since he's going through some personal stuff that's very tough.

Oh. My presentation, you ask? There are two distinct components to it. The content was great. I got mobbed afterwards by several researchers who wanted to discuss future work we could do. There was a lot of positive interest. Made me feel great. I've got lots of stuff to think about and work on. The second component: the delivery? I get a solid D- or an F. My voice was shaky (even *I* could tell), and the little red laser pointer I used? It's only lucky that I didn't blind someone with my shaky hand. I sucked. Yes really. I did. Big time sucked. I have a phobia of public speaking. I admit it freely. Everyone in that room knows it now, too.

Don't try to make me feel better. I really did suck. As a scientist, I'm OK, or at least passable. As a public speaker I totally suck. I could HEAR it as it was happening. It's a sad, sad thing, and helpless to stop. It's like I was an observer and I could tell I was crashing but was helpless to stop it. Train wreck.

But it's OK. That's my personal little demon to learn to get along with. Plus, that nice bottle wine and the sunset over the bay helped. All in all, I'm really very glad to be home.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

movies and games

We went and saw The Golden Compass today. What a fascinating movie! And that Lyra ROCKS. She's one of the best girl characters I've seen in a long time.

I can't say that I'm surprised by the present controversy surrounding this film because of the anti-religious bent. Honestly, it doesn't come out all THAT obviously in this particular movie. I hear that most of the concern is based on the worry that children will be enticed to read more of this series, which from what I understand, is supposed to become much more blatant in its atheist themes. Worse, I have heard that it is very anti-god (which is different from being atheist. It really is.) You know, despite being an atheist myself, like Pullman, I can't stand one group of people attacking another purely from difference in spiritual beliefs (or race or sexual preference or whathaveyou), so I was all set to come out and surprise people with my support of the complaints. I, however, don't find that I can do that. I did not get the impression that this movie was attacking christian spirituality or god, but was making (strong) statements on organized religion, and more accurately - mind-controlling powerful organized religion. And that, I just have no problems with. I just don't see the concern at this point. Perhaps, though, I should read more of his books before making any strong statements. In any case, it was a nice afternoon and I enjoyed the movie. (We took five kids with us and got two huge tubs of popcorn and had a great time sprawled out on the back row, which is the best kept secret of movie theaters - LEG. ROOM.)

Now I just need to share a funny conversation we had in the van on the way home. The characters are me and DH (two adults sitting in the front two seats of the van, trying desperately to politely tolerate the ridiculous banter and loud laughter of the children behind us.) Q and E, my two darlings, and Q's friend Neal (we left the other two children we brought behind at the movie theater because they misbehaved.)
Anyway, Q and Neal were busy putting the empty popcorn bucket (lined with butter of course) on their HEADS (bleah. Showers tonight). They were giggling wildly and being nutty kids. I heard the following conversation: "Oh OWWWW! Stop laying there! That hurts!!! Oh now I really have to wee wee!!!!!!!" (laughter, laughter, laughter)
E: "Neal, do you have a wee???"
I choked and immediately said "EEEEEEEE!!!!! That is SO inappropriate! What are you thinking????" (and various other indignant disciplinary phrases). OMG. I couldn't believe my sweet 9 year old was being so raunchy!!!!


E: Mom, I was asking about if he had the game Wi.

Which I totally believe. It took her a while to figure out what I was ranting about. Poor girl.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Sorry. I do realize that no one is as interested in this as I am, but look what I found when I got home today! Wooo hoooo! There will be another big window that size on the wall that's not up yet, and the other one (leading to the deck) will have glass french doors. Sunshine!!!!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

the wizard of something I suppose


I'm coming up for air for a brief moment. Here's what's going on. As my faithful readers know, "Wonderboy", who is/was the lead of our small research group, went onward and upward to a temporary (2 year) stint as a science manager up at HQ some time ago.
brief aside here!!!! During a visit from dear ex-neighbor Brad, recently, we had a big "say hello to Brad and give him lots of hugs (that last part was for me who was missing the brother I never had but ended up in fact having despite his moving halfway across the country)" party at a friend's house and Wonderboy was there. (didja get that last sentence?) Somehow, after several glasses of wine, someone mentioned that I had a blog, which was most interesting to several colleagues, including Wonderboy. In a brief instant of bad-judgement, I TOLD Wonderboy that his pseudonym was, in fact, "Wonderboy." Damned wine. He hasn't mentioned it again, so we're all just pretending it never happened.
Anyway, as a result of his absence, I've had to take over the position as group "lead" and act as our liason with other groups. We're a very small group (3 people) with a smallish focus, but we're one that does extremely valuable work (in my totally unbiased opinion). As a result of being smallish and in today's climate of drastically dwindling money for atmospheric science research (yes, REALLY, you global warming skeptics!!! News Flash!! There's NO MONEY in this field anymore!), we need to be very careful to keep ourselves visible so we don't get caught in the giant "sucking into the void of no money/no viability" that smallish research groups are often finding is their fate in this science-unfriendly political climate. This, in turn, means that I have found that I must be willing to spend MUCH of my time on doing extra work (on extremely short notice) for other research groups to "prove" how valuable we are. Now these other groups are invariably very nice people, and very polite and kind, and very good scientists. I value and enjoy working with them. I enjoy chatting on the phone with guys from US coast to US coast from universities and government agencies and such. The egotistical side of myself is also loving the fact that they know who I am and know to come to me. BUT.

This ultimately means that my own research has been put on the back burner while I busy myself proving our worth to the research world.

Now I find myself 3 days from leaving for my conference and my talk for said conference is um....not well formed. More accurately, the TOPIC of my talk is not well formed. Yikes. I have officially but politely held off further requests for model runs by saying we really "MUST" talk about it in San Francisco, I have some great ideas about your work, so let's wait until then, yada yada yada. Meanwhile I am breathing into paper bags and banging my head onto each and every desk in the house and office while desperately trying to retain an air of confidence and "can-do" attitude to keep myself from dissolving into tears. I'll get about 1 hour of Wonderboy's time tomorrow while I'm putting in an extra day of work. I'm trying not to think about actually having to stand in front of my colleagues and say "Um....hi! You all are so pretty!" It'll happen. It always does. Right? I wonder what people would do if I got up there and cried? I could show pictures of my kids or talk about our latest PTA fundraiser.

So today as I was busy spending 5 hours doing what I thought would take 30 minutes, I was briefly thinking about how much I love my work. Seriously. This stuff makes me so happy. I *HEART* my work. I wonder if people know how incredibly UN-romantic science can be and if they really understand how it can be so attractive to people (like me) despite its most decidedly unromantic splendor? For example, I spent hours today looking for a bug in my code because I instinctively felt that the results didn't seem exactly right. My instincts ended up being right (*heart heart heart*), but it did result in a long several hours of meticulous and unexciting decoding. I can't explain why it makes me so happy. It's something like the satisfaction of sucking up the balls of doghair that frolick across my hardwood floors into the vacuum. I feel like I'm shaving off the rough edges and slowly but surely revealing what IS. In all seriousness - I do feel like this.

So there you are. You've been wondering why I've not been posting anything and I regale you instead with the wonder of vacuuming hairballs. It's all perfectly clear to you. Right? (Just like my talk will be to the dozens of colleagues who skip the coffee to come hear my fantabulous insights.)

Bang. Bang. Bang. Pay no attention to the individual in the corner who is banging her head against the desk. She is simply a poor pseudo-representation of the wizard of oz. There's lots of fluff. And loads of wannabe power. There's even a little bit of oomph. Be kind to her. Because she really does mean well and her heart is in the right place. Especially, be kind to her if you happen by her talk at AGU next week. Tell her she's amazing and she rocks. She will smile at you and buy you wine if you tell her that.


In the midst of my personal imploding, the construction on our new room goes on:

The foundation is done. (btw, that's not snow. It's white sand).
The cinder block portion (on the NEW foundation) is the side where the new deck will be attached. The cinder block portion on the existing house is due to us being cheap when we added that first addition and went with cinder blocks in the back of the house rather than extend the brick all the way around. I kind of regret it now, but oh well. Most of it is getting covered up with the new room anyway.

I was worried that it looked awfully small when it was just the footings, but it's looking like a nice-sized room to me now.

In other news, daughter E had a FABULOUS birthday and birthday party. More about that later. I'm off to SF in a few days. No, my talk is not even almost ready. Which is why this is going to be a very short posting. Just wanted my good friends out there to know I'm alive and barely kicking.

Happy holidays, all!!