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God Save Texas

I recently listened to Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas on a couple of long drives across the Great Plains. The book fit with my contemplative mood and the rolling hills of Middle America flying by.

Wright is a native Texan and journalist, who won a Pulitzer for his book on Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11. God Save Texas is part memoir, part history, celebration of Texas and critique of its many flaws. Just like me, Wright has a deep but ambivalent love of our state. The culture and history and natural beauty and politics of Texas all draw me back and repulse me away from home.

We claim Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson. But also produced Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott, Rex Tillerson, and Rick Perry. We have the hallmarks of the American West – canyons (Palo Duro), mountains (Guadalupe), deserts (Chihuahuan), and ocean (Gulf of Mexico) – but none quite as deep or high, dry or dramatic as states further west. We were proudly independent, until we had the choice of ending slavery by accepting an economic bailout from Britain or joining the United States. Texas chose slavery. And, let me tell you, I did not learn that until reading this book, despite multiple courses in Texas history growing up.

Texas represents opportunity. The state economy weathered the Great Recession relatively well, and now bustles with tech businesses, fossil and renewable energy industries, tourism, healthcare, and research. It is deeply red and “politically immature” as Wright calls it. But the state is slowly, oh so slowly, turning blue and progressive. The 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate is a lesbian Latina, the first major party candidate in the state to be openly gay or Hispanic. Beto O’Rourke is giving Ted Cruz a run for his money for Senate. Texas is majority minority, since 2011. And Texas culture can’t be beat – a melting pot of the Deep South, American West, and Mexico in its music, literature, art, cooking, and architecture.

Wright, ultimately, can’t see himself living anywhere else, for all of Texas’ flaws. Nowhere else is home.

I am a postdoc in Minnesota, and am still trying to figure out the next moves in my career. Scientists, whether they are academics or working in other capacities, do not routinely have much flexibility in the location they land in, most of the time.  I love exploring places, and want to try living in new cities, states, even new countries.  I miss Texas. I have things that remind me of home – a print of a grotto in the Hill Country, a bottle with sand and shells from the Mustang Island beach, a candle that smells like bluebonnets. But I don’t, in the end, have much desire to go back, though. The state has changed too much from where I grew up, although many of those changes are for the better. Wright says he and a friend couldn’t “have lasted in Texas if it were the same place we grew up in, but we’re so powerfully imprinted by the culture it’s impossible to shake it off.” That imprint will stay with me, but the state is changing both too fast and too slow for me to want to return for now.

I visited recently, and everything felt different than the imprints I carry around in my head. The grackles still made ungodly, mechanical croaks as they flocked around the ferry in Port Aransas, but Hurricane Harvey had devastated the town. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, but the old school building down the street is being converted into HQ for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.  It takes longer to escape the Hill Country McMansions, but the old cedar breaks are still heady with the scent of juniper. Fracking development continues to transform south Texas from flat, empty expanses of bad roads to busy highways dotted with drilling platforms and semis. None of these changes are bad or even very new, strictly speaking. It just all adds up to an Uncanny Valley version of home.

Plus, Texas is already too hot. I can’t imagine what 2°C of climate change will do.

God Save Texas encapsulates how I feel about Texas, how strange and great and problematic and frustrating the state is. Wright ends the book with a tour through the state cemetery, where he and his wife go to pick out their burial plots amongst other Texas luminaries such as Barbara Jordan, the astronaut Eugene Corman, and Ann Richards. He could have chosen to live somewhere else, may have been someone else – a player in Washington or big man in Hollywood. But, Wright reflects, he would not have been home.

I am thinking of my own path differently, as I navigate finding my next position and future career. Maybe I won’t be home. But I’ll take the pieces of Texas that I love with me.

Writing Goals, Take Two

I’m re-posting one of my first blog posts (not that there’s been that many!) as inspiration for this year’s #AcWriMo. What’s AcWriMo, you say? You can find out more here, but it was inspired by National Novel Writing Month. A bunch of people (academics, in this case) banding together, across the world, to try and get some writing done.  

The below post was written over a year before I finished my PhD, so a little of it is outdated. But the sentiment holds true. The only way to accomplish your writing goals is to sit down and do it. Otherwise, life will sneak up and things will never get done. You’ll never find a day for nothing but writing, so chip away at it, a little at a time. It’s like science – sometimes you’ll move forward in leaps and bounds, but a lot of your progress will be incremental, building on what you had before. And that’s a good thing.

My goals for #AcWriMo:
•    Write one hour, daily. Three hours on Wednesday. Preferably more each day
•    Complete Response to Reviewers for paper #1
•    Submit paper #2
•    Write proposal for special issue paper
•    Continue to refine materials for faculty applications
•    Write an actual blog post

Good luck, and happy writing!

Original post:
When I want to procrastinate, which is all too often, one of my top strategies is to engage in “career development.”  Looking for jobs that I might be qualified for, poking around www.sciencecareers.org or the Earth Science Women’s Network (www.eswnonline.org), or reading columns on Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle.  And the blogs.  Oh, the blogs.  So many.

Of course, the advice in many of these resources on becoming a successful academic, or really any type of scientist, boils down to one thing:

Write.

Write more.  Write every day.  Every single day.  Treat it like a meeting – have at least a half hour of your day blocked out to write.  Just get in the habit.  Practice, practice, practice.  Don’t get distracted.  Turn off your internet.  And WRITE.

I know this.  I’ve known this for years.  A couple of years ago, I went on a kick of consuming a bunch of books about writing.  I read everything from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to Josh Schimel’s Writing Science.  Stephen King’s On Writing and William Zinsser’s Writing Well.  Strunk and White.  Science Writing and Communication.  And guess what they said you should do?

Write.

When I was 17, I tried to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for those in the know).  Hundreds of thousands of people participating, trying to pound out 50,000 words in the month of November.  That’s 1,667  words a day.  Up through this sentence, this post is 240.  I made it about half way through my novel, then stopped for a couple days and could never pick it up again.  I still argue that November is a terrible month for this – how does anyone write during the chaos that is Thanksgiving?  Nonetheless, every few years I try again.  But I have never been as disciplined about it as that first time.  Sure, I can pound out that much pretty easily on any given day, but not day in and day out.  Establishing that habit, that pattern, is key.  I learned that in high school through my failed novel, and it still holds true.

Writing science is different, of course.  Getting a paper done is not so much about hitting a word count every day, as it is about finishing an idea or section.  That might be the entire methods section (which I did a VERY rough version of yesterday for one paper) or it might be just a short paragraph in your discussion.  Or the carefully phrased research questions in a proposal.  Or the abstract as the cake topper to your (mostly) finished work.  The point is, though, to get through something.

So, that’s my goal for 2015.  Not to write a novel.  Not to get ~1500 words a day.  But just to write.  Every day.  At least half an hour.  For now, it can be anything – a blog post even!  But, especially as I really get down to writing that pesky dissertation, more and more of it will be science.  

Happy Mapping!

Walking down the beach, it’s easy to lose perspective.  I live on Mustang Island – a long, skinny barrier island on the Texas coast.  When I first moved here, I’d stroll down the beach and think, “I’ll turn around when I reach that condo.”  Only for the walk to my marker stretching over two miles, rather than the half mile I’d originally thought.  The building stood out amongst the dunes, but each step – each minute – didn’t seem to bring me that much closer to my goal.

Finishing my Ph.D. feels a little like that, sometimes.  Until recently, each step did not always seem like it advanced me towards the end goal – my dissertation.  Now I’m barreling towards the end, approaching rapidly.  But I’ve been thinking and talking and writing about one overarching project for so long, it is easy to lose sight of what makes my work exciting. 

So I really appreciated getting a reminder of how cool my job is the other day.  I’d been emailing with a colleague, who kindly supplied me with some watersheds GIS data and signed off with “Happy mapping!”

I love maps.  I have a map hanging for every wall in my apartment.  One of my labmates still gives me a hard time for how giddy I was when USGS had a $1 map sale a few years ago.  A friend just yesterday commented on my notebook, adorned with a copy of the first geological map – also featured in an excellent book by Simon Winchester called “The Map that Changed the World” (which you should read).

Organic matter in the Kolyma River in Northeast Siberia

Organic matter in the Kolyma River in Northeast Siberia

 Really, mapping is much of what I’m doing in my dissertation.  I’m mapping organic matter in the giant Arctic rivers.  These maps give us information on how tributaries of the major rivers might differ; how much the rivers’ chemistry changes over the season; even how some rivers may have changed over the past thirty years.  That is a pretty cool project.  And “happy mapping!” was a nice reminder.

A week of DOM

Well!  That was fun.  I’ve been back about a week, (mostly) caught up on things I’ve missed, and now seems like a good time to talk about my trip.

First, shortly after uploading the last post, I realized my computer charger was missing.  Unfortunately it didn’t turn up at either the conference or the hotel, so I was without a computer for over a week.  Typing up a blog post on my phone was not appealing.  Hence the lack of updates! Although, thank goodness for technology.  I was still able to keep up with email and work on a review from my tablet (How many devices do I have?  Too many).

DOM in the Ob River.

DOM in the Ob River.

Anyway, the meeting was fantastic.  I’ve been working to use satellite imagery to map the amount of organic matter in major Arctic rivers.  A sample from the Ob River in Russia is to the left.  I don’t get to hear from other folks in the remote sensing community too often, which makes meetings like these very important.  It’s a chance to hear what criticisms you might get when sending your work out for peer-review; suggestions to improve; enthusiastic questions from people interested in your work; and (hopefully!) opportunities to collaborate with anyone doing complementary research.   This meeting in particular was great for all these types of discussions.  It was intended to be a small conference, only about 80 people.  Which meant that there was plenty of time to talk about everyone’s research during breaks, at dinner, or over drinks.  Usually all three. 

I usually go to the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting – 23,000 scientists descend upon San Francisco every December.  Volcanologists and planetary scientists to atmospheric chemists and glacial hydrologists, every discipline of earth science attends.  I enjoy the scale of it, and nowhere else do you get the opportunity to hear about such diverse topics.  But I have to admit, the intimacy of one room of DOM specialists compared to the small city of all stripes of geoscientists, was a nice change. 

Sopot itself was a neat town.  I didn’t have the chance to explore the larger adjacent city of Gdansk (formerly Danzig), but we did wander around Sopot quite a bit, with a few of the local Polish researchers taking a group of us to a spot or two.  The hosts of the meeting organized a barbeque one night, that featured a whole boar.   Everyone from south Texas to Poland likes a pig roast.  Afterwards, we migrated to a bar on the beach, and watched ships move across the Baltic Sea as the sky darkened.  We had a few visitors too – the ubiquitous hooded crows and a red fox that wandered around the beach, begging for food.  All in all, a great week!

A lovely gradient of colored organic matter concentrations in a variety of local Polish beers.  We're going to make our own brewery: St. Mary's Stout to the  Lawrence River Lager, all named after famous waterways and their respective color.  

A lovely gradient of colored organic matter concentrations in a variety of local Polish beers.  We're going to make our own brewery: St. Mary's Stout to the  Lawrence River Lager, all named after famous waterways and their respective color.  

Poland!

Greetings, from the International Workshop on Organic Matter Spectroscopy, from Sopot, Poland!  I'm here for the week, then going to hit a couple other spots around Europe.  It's my first time out of the country that is NOT for field work, so I'm pretty excited!

Of course, my visit could have gotten off to a better start.  Mainly because I'd been in my hotel room for about 20 minutes and this showed up:  Giant House Spider.  Too fast to get a picture or squish it, but it was about 1.5 inches across.  I like bugs and I yelped.  According to google, not venomous (thankfully).

The park across the street from the workshop

The park across the street from the workshop

Still, I've very much been looking forward to this trip.  It will be a good chance to present my research, get some feedback, and talk to other folks who also want to discuss organic matter and little else for 4 days.  Plus, Sopot is a beautiful spot.  

After this, I'll be going on a (nerdy) vacation, to take advantage of being on this side of the Atlantic.  I'll try to post a few updates about that, and this workshop!

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

We started off the workshop today with a tutorial on drEEM , a MATLAB tool that uses PARAFAC.  This is a method to take the optical properties of organic matter, specifically fluorescence, and identify common chemical components. Dissolved organic matter is a bit of a black box - we don't actually know much about its structure or properties; this is one method to try and shed some light on that black box.  I don't know a whole lot about drEEM or PARAFAC yet, but the workshop was definitely helpful. I at least have a starting point!

The really exciting (for me) stuff starts tomorrow.  We'll have three days of researchers sharing their findings on colored dissolved organic matter in high latitudes.  I'm in the first session of the day, talking about remote sensing of DOM in large Arctic rivers.  More on that - after I present!

RIP Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett passed away this week.

I chronicle my life by the books I read, and few authors hold as prominent a place as Pratchett.  His books are funny and cynical, warm and pointed, comforting and probing.  I laughed with these books, and grew up with them.

I read Good Omens when I was 13 or so.  I couldn’t stop talking about it – I was a wee atheist, then, and had not actually told anyone that I didn’t believe in any god.  Good Omens poked fun at religion, alternating between vicious, uproarious criticism and a more gentle, good natured “isn’t this ridiculous” voice.  I knew the authors agreed with me, even if they did not say so outright. 

My overenthusiastic prattling about this book also led to the first time I was told to censor myself – a relative thought that the storyline I described would be offensive to some born-agains at Thanksgiving.  I bristled at that - the same way I do now when it’s suggested I keep my opinions to myself – but I kept the peace.  Terry Pratchett’s book affirmed my worldview, and led to the realization that not everyone would tolerate that view.

Soul Music, Hogfather, Mort.  Equal Rites, Maskerade, Witches Abroad. Eric, The Truth, Going Postal.

What other fantasy book titles reference a John Knox’s tirade against women leaders (Monstrous Regiment)? Or who models their entire plotline off of a Macbeth joke (Wyrd Sisters)?  Who sums up an entire theory of economics and why poor people stay poor with a boot metaphor (Men at Arms)?

Neil Gaiman wrote an eloquent memorial for Terry Pratchett, in anticipation of his passing from Alzeimer’s.  You should read it.  The fury and anger he describes are there in Pratchett’s writing.  These were books that helped me through being a teenager, that shaped my philosophy.  But also kept me from being too cynical, too down on humanity.  He was humane and hysterical.  That’s a rare combination, and the world is a poorer place without him.

And now to go re-read Hogfather and Feet of Clay.

A Humerus Tale - among others.

I tripped outside my house and broke my ankle this weekend.

Yes, you can laugh, particularly if you’ve known me a long time.

But, see, I was overdue.  I haven’t broken a bone since 2008.  And really, this is by far the least spectacular of my skeletal injuries.

When I was a toddler, I fell down the stairs.  1990 or so.  And I broke my collarbone.  Luckily, I don’t remember this.

I do remember, however, breaking both my arms six years later.  Imagine little Claire, running around at the Zilker Park Kite Festival, in a bright red skirt.  I tripped, landed face forward with my arms crossed in front of me.  I believe each arm had multiple hairline fractures.  A couple of splints and six weeks later, I was as good as ever. 

Another six years, another injury.  I rode horses most of my life, and in 2001 started at a new stables.  I should have realized that this place was not great when I was thrown three times in a six month period.  Still, I wasn't hurt and I persevered until May 2002 (I don’t generally think of myself as stubborn, but maybe I should rethink that).  Then I started riding Scout.  He was a really beautiful horse, well-trained.  But he had been abused and was very skittish.   As long as you didn’t try to touch his head, he was a doll and perfectly mannered, if a little prone to start at sudden noises or movements.  It took two of us to bridle him.  I worked with him twice with no problems, and felt for the first time like I had really started to become a good rider. 

The third lesson I rode him, though, was in an arena with many other students and horses.  He spooked, I came off, and found I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg.  I passed out at one point.  My mother and instructor loaded me into a golf cart to get me to the car.  Despite this, I insisted on going home, not to the ER.  Friends were coming over for a movie party!  I would sit on the couch and not move – if my leg still hurt in the morning, then we could go to the hospital.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get out of the car when we got home.  When we did get to the ER, EMTs had to use a backboard to slide me out.  This, of course, is how I broke my femur – the thigh bone.  A spiral fracture in the middle, and a hairline fracture at the top inside the hip joint.  I spent the summer recovering from the break and surgery - my leg is now reinforced with titanium.  I started high school with a cane.

Six months later, I was riding again.

And it was great!  I switched barns twice, but both places were wonderful.  I fell off once, but in a six year period that is not bad at all.  And, no injuries at all.

Until 2008.

My summer plans were amazing.  I had a job with Texas Parks and Wildlife.  I was leasing a horse for cheap from a woman who was spending the summer in China.  I was going to Siberia! 

The first time I levered myself on to Sterling, he took off at a trot the moment my butt touched the saddle.  Not very good manners, but nothing I couldn’t handle.  He calmed down after a couple of loops around the arena, and we had a pleasant ride.  However, the next time I rode, I asked someone to hold him for me.  He did not react well to this.

I had just barely mounted when he tried to take off.  Foiled by the woman holding his bridle, he reared and spun instead.  I remember coming off, curling as I fell to avoid hitting my head on a rail.

I knew my arm and shoulder were messed up.  One of the other riders gave me a ride to the hospital, since I was definitely not in any condition to drive.  My orthopedic surgeon said my upper arm bone shattered like an 80-year old’s – ortho surgeons are not known for their bedside manner. 

Really, it was just a very high impact event – I don’t have a calcium deficiency or anything.  But, I am that much closer to being a bionic woman.  A plate and thirteen pins now hold together my humerus. 

And once again, six months later, I was back in the saddle.

I don’t ride anymore.  I would love to, but graduate school in South Texas does not lend itself well to such things.  Someday I'll get back into it, when I have the luxury of a postdoc salary – all $40,000 of it.  It has been almost seven years, however, since that last broken bone.  Apparently, I’m on a schedule.

Which brings us to this weekend.  No dramatic story.  Just tripped and landed wrong, resulting in a "non-displaced fracture of the lateral malleolus".  That’s the outside ankle bone, which doesn’t actually bear any weight.  I have a giant boot, and crutches that I don’t use as much as probably should.   But, it will heal cleanly and quickly, so I'm mostly alternating between laughing at the whole ridiculous thing, and annoyed that walking upstairs is such a pain in the ass.

Next time, more science!