Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

There is a picture in a book I read about the trail builders in the White Mountains back in the 1800s; there are women and men in the picture, the women in heavy woolen skirts, and they are taking a break from their labors, sitting on boulders and looking away from the camera. The book described the notorious steepness of New Hampshire’s trails, and explains this with a character commentary on Yankees. For them, work and play were, if not synonymous, then entwined. On these idylls away from Boston, the trail blazers tramped into the woods, and, seeing a summit they’d like to visit, cut trails straight up. Shortest linear distance, with no switchbacks or grades to accommodate horses, just a track from point A to point B, come streambed, come rock ledge, come Triassic syenite or volcanic bedrock. The building of the trails was their recreation, if not a pleasure. These Yankees sought strenuous exertion and usefulness. I am an heir to this regional culture, suspicious of hedonism, which I define as anything where personal enjoyment overbalances utility. Friends have recommended and invited me to spa treatments, massages, mani/pedis, but I have always declined. What I do instead is go to the dentist.

There is an outward similarity between the spa and the dentist: the reclining in a padded chair, the turning over of control, the quiescence and resignation to be ministered to. Someone will turn her whole focus to one part of your body, and the rest of you will recede while she labors. I went to the dentist for a crown. I’d never had one, and was unclear about what the process meant, or what the crown itself was. The dentist and the assistant passed things back and forth across the space above my face, and the side of my head pressed into his flank when he reached for something on the far side of me. There were clicking sounds, and the drill’s whir. Then he used a sort of camera that he dragged all around my teeth, and up on the computer screen beside me emerged a 3D rendering of my molars against a black background. The topography emerged pixel by pixel, as he maneuvered the camera into the cramped spaces at the back of my mouth. It was like watching a documentary of deep sea exploration, an abyssal plain and mountainscape glimpsed through the lens of a remotely operated submarine. There was something unnerving about the picture, my teeth and jaw with the cheek and tongue sheared away. There was a feeling of seeing something not meant to be seen, or only seeable once something has gone badly wrong. Like deep sea fishes dragged to the surface and deformed and disfigured by the pressure difference. Like the toad I saw on the sidewalk in winter after a brief warm spell that must have tricked it into emerging, and where it died when the temperatures dropped again. Someone had stepped on it, and its innards, pearlescent as the inside of a mussel shell, were extruded from its mouth. He’d literally been downtrodden, had literally spilled his guts and would never make any sound again, and what was smeared on the sidewalk were the parts that are only revealed when you’re dead. My tooth picture was like that. I lay in the chair thinking of the phrase “obtain her dental records,” blandly technical, but summoning the same kind of dread as “dragging the lake.”

The dentist worked for a while, and then took another topography. The tooth needing the crown startled me. It was ground down, a burred nub, shortened to a squared off bolt in my jaw. The tooth itself had been drilled away, atomized, floating in submicroscopic bits around the room. I didn’t realize this was what a crown meant–replacing the whole top part of the tooth with a porcelain facsimile, shape and color matched to the original, while the original dissipated in a spindrift of saliva and rinse water.

I was left unattended for a while then, my mouth propped open on a plastic wedge, while some kind of cement dried. A timer counted down the minutes, and the dentist went to check on another patient. I thought about my ground away tooth, and my missing atoms, and about Democritus, the ancient Greek who proposed that everything, humans included, was just a temporary assemblage of particles that would eventually fall away from each other again, lose form, and dissipate. I contemplated this until, alone in the chair with no one wielding a suction tube, my saliva began to pool at the back of my throat. I could not close my mouth to swallow. I turned my head to the side, trying to keep my airway clear. Panicky, I pictured my larynx slowly subsumed by the rising tide. I pictured Tiger Lily tied to an anchor on the rock in Peter Pan as the water lapped and overtopped her. I sat up and pulled out the wedge and spat and alarmed the assistant who peered in and cried, “You can’t close your mouth!” I dutifully laid back, replaced the wedge, and calming again, thought how desperately, how dearly, I hold my atoms together. How, when threatened, keeping this assemblage of particles gathered in the form that is recognizably me draws all my focus and attention, until I am barest, narrow, instinct. No one’s teacher, no one’s friend, no one’s mother, no one’s wife, just a collection of matter around the endangered breath, and fear.

The dentist came back and popped the temporary crown in place over the ground down nub. He told me to be careful of it for the next few days, to treat it gingerly. That there’d been a fracture in the tooth that he’d repaired, but that the jangly nerve beneath would remember for a while. I would need to come back in two weeks for the permanent crown, which would be crafted in a lab somewhere to look just like my old tooth. He turned me loose and I went home and over the next hours the numbness gave way to an ache and heat in the jaw, and I avoided that side whenever I ate, and I was a satisfied Yankee, sore and tired, having spent useful hours doing something that needed to be done.

The permanent crown is in now, and it is a reasonable facsimile, though smoother and glassier than my real tooth was. The scan of my jaw is stored as bits of data on the dentist’s computer system until someone calls it forth, if they ever do. His little camera turns its light on some other person’s dental arcade, their seafloor trenches, and then afterwards what is meant to stay in darkness returns to darkness. But I remember the picture, my teeth with their cragged surfaces gray and cold as the moon. Only everyone has seen the moon, pocked and pitted, distinguished by its damage. My tongue seeks out the side of my lab-built tooth, sleek, impervious to decay, a shade brighter than the old one, and I wonder where my atoms are.

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Free, solo

Once a year, in June, I hike up Mount Isolation in New Hampshire to survey for the Mountain Bird Watch. It’s a citizen science project, so we are all volunteers contributing sightings, and sometimes I think it’s because you couldn’t pay anyone to do this work. Isolation lives up to its name in one respect: it’s seven miles from the nearest road, which is pretty far in New England wilderness terms. Last year, I took that shortest route in, but this year I opted for the longer Davis Path. I was seeking the brain calming effects that ten solitary trail miles usually brings.


For the first couple of miles, the trail is well used, leading to a spur at Mt. Crawford with good views of the Presidential Range. Most of the men I met along the way felt compelled to ask me questions that were so consistent and predictable, it seemed I was auditioning people who had studied a common script: “Camping out overnight? Are you alone? Where you headed?” Some asked out of curiosity, some bewilderment, some from concern, but it is universally creepy to be asked details on these things by men I don’t know. The people who would need to know where to look for my body have already received my itinerary, so I offer evasive or misleading responses to these men. Some go on to offer advice, which I benignly accept, despite my extensive experience in the wilderness. I did aid a father and daughter who had wandered off trail onto the ledges in finding their way back, listening to the aggrieved man bewail the lack of trail markings. I refrained from explaining that wilderness areas have deliberately limited signage, and at the next trail junction, we parted ways.

The last group I encountered before I passed into the farther reaches of the wilderness beyond the popular trails looked to be made up of four or so women in their 60s and 70s. As I stepped aside to let them by, I heard a reedy male voice from the back of the line saying, “and then the market collapsed, just like the market for sheep in New England back in the 1800s…” and so on. The women “mmmm-hmmmmed” and “really?”-ed along ahead of him. One of them, seeing me, almost said “good morning” and then stopped and said, “No, it can’t STILL be the morning, can it?” “Oh no,” I told her, “You are well into it now.” She smiled, and they all paraded past, his voice uninterrupted.

After that, I walked seven more miles to my camping spot without human contact. The trail gets vague in places, and wandered down a stream bed a while before realizing my error. I circled around, retracing the trail, searching for the broken end of it, briefly bushwhacking through a spruce stand before I picked up the trace again. In other spots, the ungroomed trail would disappear straight into a wall of balsam, becoming less a trail, and more a faith-based initiative in plunging in and through, hoping to set my feet invisibly right.

Some trails permit an easy rhythm of steps, and let the mind wander, but the Davis Path depends strenuous attention. The rigors, though exhausting, were what I craved. My mind has trouble staying where it is, instead slipping forward into the potential catastrophes of the future, or sliding backward to lament past acts. It lurches and wobbles like a person learning to roller skate. Hard trails dictate presence of mind. At the higher elevations, there was still, intermittently, snow pack, and places where moose had traversed it and punched through the crust with their enormous hooves. Mud pits and snowmelt sluices soaked my feet and legs to the calves.


Davis Path in June. No way through but through.

I planned a stop on Mt. Davis to see the views and eat something, but the moment I stopped moving, I was beset by black flies. They filled my ear canals and nose, and lodged in the canthi of my eyes. I could feel them in my hair and crawling up under my shirt cuffs. I scarfed my food and bolted back down the spur trail and kept moving. It was only five o’clock when I pitched my tent and crawled in seeking respite. For hours, I read and listened to the drone and pelt of insect bodies against the nylon.

The Mountain Bird Watch survey protocol requires a start time well before sunrise, so by 3:30 am I was on the trail again. At my first survey station, the dawn filters into the space left by a massive blowdown of trees that happened several years ago. All in the same direction they lie prostrate toward the east. Too dark to see much at that hour, I mainly listen for the birds. A white-throated sparrow announced itself and received a reply from a rival. A hermit thrush called at the very edge of my hearing. A Swainson’s thrush called close behind me and as I noted it in my data sheet, I heard a thrum of wings and felt wings brush against my pant leg. I turned around to see the Swainson’s on a branch ten feet from my head, one leg thrust in front the other, still, and staring at me, as I was at him, neither of us quite having expected the other.

x0Gi64HOSjePvCBBL5cMqQThere were five more stations to survey after that, and by the time I was done, it was past seven and I started back down the trail to go home. I mostly moved fast enough to keep ahead of the flies, but in the wet places the mosquitoes would rouse themselves at my passing. Their whine sometimes sounds like a suggestion of human voices, and I calibrate my time away from society by what feeling that elicits. Early in my hiking trips, the thought of engaging anyone in conversation, however briefly, fills me with tiredness, or sometimes dread. After a day away, I handle the prospect with more equanimity. Every time I mistake mosquitoes for people talking, the last line of Prufrock springs into my head, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown,” and then I puzzle over that line for a quarter mile or so.

The way back out is as long as the way in, but I was tired, and fly-bitten, and my thoughts mostly  narrowed to, “Can someone come and carry me?” But there were times when the trail was easier, where it was dry, where the thin veneer of glacial soil had worn away off the bedrock under decades of human traffic, and where the trail is like that, I think I am walking on an enormous skull with the skin split open and I am in the wound. I remember a fragment of a poem a student a year ahead of me in high school had written. It was left on a table in my English classroom, and it was about the goddess Athena. I remember only one phrase, “gray-eyed Aegean girl” and nothing else, except my astonishment that a girl my age had written her own poem, that she had dared to, that she claimed herself a poet, and written about this wise goddess born straight from the mind of Zeus, a headache from the very beginning.

KS2jCOksSMKmW95+5oDwwwThere isn’t much of that easy sort of trail on the Davis Path, and I was relieved to get back to the lower miles where I began to encounter people again. I could gauge my proximity to the trailhead by how dirty and tired people looked, so when I met a family, a man, a woman, and a teenager, looking utterly crisp and chipper, I knew I was almost done. The man stopped me and asked about the bugs. “Pretty bad,” I told him, and his face fell. “The moment I stopped to take in the view, I was under siege. It happened on the nice sunny ledges too.” He frowned and said, “That’s not what I read online on the trail reports. Online people said the bugs were bad on other trails but not this one.” He stared at me, and I shrugged. My face, I would discover later, was streaked with blood, and there were raised welts around my neck and along my jaw. My ears were swollen twice their normal size, their whorls and helices looking shiny and rubbery red, like a poor first attempt at balloon animals. My hat where it had been in contact with my ears was bloodstained. “I don’t know what to tell you. They are really terrible. Disfiguring, in fact,” I said to him. His wife was silent but looking more and more concerned. “Well, online no one said anything about that.” He questioned some more, and I told him where I’d been, and how long I’d been out. Finally I said, “I wish you the best, but it is the flies’ time out there. We are only interlopers.” The wife’s eyes tracked me, almost pleading, as I turned to go.  As I walked away, I felt the calm surety that always comes after exhausting myself in the wilderness. Whatever that man said or thought was not my concern, and could not trouble me. I existed fully in the moment I inhabited, sore, bloodied, blistered, but with my mind at ease, neither in front of me nor behind, and with my skates fully under me now.

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I’m now five or so weeks into my teaching semester, and my own kids even longer into their elementary school year. Simon, our five year old, boarded the school bus for the first time in August. I’d thought I might feel at least some little twinge: our younger child off to school, no more babies for real now. But I felt no particular emotion (aside from the sense of freedom that came with his getting on that bus). When I tell people that, many of them appear a little unnerved, as if it indicates an overall lack of sensitivity to the passage of time, or to the bittersweet nature of kids growing up. As to that last, so far, it’s really only been sweet since I genuinely disliked caring for babies and toddlers. From here on, I suspect it may get harder.

With our elder son, we focused on the firsts. With our younger, the lasts. It’s a typical pattern, and one probably partly responsible for the defining personality characteristics of birth order. I am attuned to all the lasts in my second child like I never was with my first son. A couple months ago, Simon said, “Wow, now I can have gum like a big boy,” and it must have been that he’s gradually stopped using the phrase “big boy” or I wouldn’t have noticed it this time. But he doesn’t usually talk like that anymore, and he hasn’t used the term since. I was, at that moment, I think, listening to him describe himself as a big boy for the last time, and as he stopped calling himself one, he became one.

Kids aren’t good at understanding these subtle and slow sorts of shifts. They like the grand gestures, the clear delineations. One day, when Simon was much younger, I was carrying him down the stairs and reciting a poem to him. “And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful, or in agony all the time?” and before I could give the next line, Simon blurted, “in agony all the time.” It had to be one or the other, and I suppose he heard more music in that one.

This fall, I started a new job on the science faculty at my local community college. I moved into my office, set up my science books and my posters of marine life, and settled into my schedule teaching chemistry. Settling down to something has never been my strong suit. After my undergraduate degree in English literature, I went off to veterinary school for a general sense of how animals are put together, and how they fall apart. After that, teaching biology, animal science, and now chemistry. Unlike my colleagues with PhDs, my knowledge has never delved very deep, but has stretched very wide, my interests ever broadening. I couldn’t settle to one thing, drill down the way they needed to, become immersed in an exclusive subject. This job though, has an air of permanence. I’ve signed the pension papers with every expectation that I will be here no less than ten years, and hopefully far longer. I have stepped onto the tenure track. If all goes well, I will still be teaching here in thirty years.

across disciplines: drawings in the science halls.

Across disciplines: the drawings in the science halls.

Some people, when they hear about my educational trajectory, assume I got my English degree and then came to my senses and found something more practical, more marketable.  But I have been veering like this all my life. I have a notebook from when I was 11 and assiduously recorded everything I heard on a PBS special about neuroscience. By high school, I had vague ideas about being a writer instead. At the end of college, I thought maybe a poem-writing veterinarian– the animal doctor version of William Carlos Williams, but I could find fewer and fewer people who said anything aside from “pick one.” The English background was a benefit of course (“We need more scientists who can write,” one professor told me) but it was meant to be only background. Whatever I settled to for my graduate degree would be who I really was intellectually.

My office is on the third floor of the science building, but our hallway shares space with the art department. Our big corner classroom is a studio, and the bulletin boards outside are a revolving gallery. This week, it was figure drawings, skeletons in charcoal, and paintings of some large, bovine skull. Some of my colleagues find it irritating that so much of our hallway is consumed by art, but I love it. I’ve spent this first fifteen years or so of my adult life deflecting off one thing and veering into another. The longer I stay in this job, and the greater the proportion of my life I devote to science, the more I wonder what happens to that humanities part of me. The English major part that was not, despite what anyone thinks, a frivolity, or a luxury I indulged in before I got down to serious, marketable work. I am fortunate that I also love science, since the gods right now are smiling down on science education. Blessed be the STEM instructors. But I will always have my secret affinities, however many years of science teaching may encase them. Science is what I do, it’s what I teach, and I love it. But the humanities are who I am. And when I wonder if that true self can survive this commitment to a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, I suppose I know it will. It’s not a choice after all. Things grade into things. Little boys become big boys, a writer teaches science, and what we call everything is not always by its true name.

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Cape Cod walk 1

Last week, I traveled to the outer Cape for a work venture. I had a lecture to give at 10am Thursday morning, and several hours to myself the evening before. Arriving in Orleans around two in the afternoon, I stopped at Rock Harbor Beach to pass the time until I could check into my motel.

For much of the year, winter specifically, which sometimes seems to last six months here, I get a lot of good-natured ridicule from friends living in warmer regions of the country. “Why stay there? No one likes winter up there. They just say they do,” they say. “You could live here, in southern California/South Carolina/New Mexico/etc. and visit New England when it’s nice.” This is out of the question for me. Born and bred here, I don’t stay out of habit, or inertia, but out of love. New England’s weather is sometimes cantankerous, cross-grained and ornery. But when it’s good, it’s very nearly perfect.

On Rock Harbor Beach, everything was all golden sunlight with a brisk wind. I walked a quarter mile down from the parking lot until I saw no one else. I don’t sit still often as it does not come naturally to me, but on my own, with no children to entertain and no one to talk to, I settled into the side of a small dune to watch the gulls.

IMG_4870They weren’t doing much, just standing or sitting, arrayed in their phalanx with their faces into the wind. Some were sleeping, some staring at their feet for several seconds at a time. Occasionally, a new arrival would glide in and drop soundlessly into an open patch of sand. Occasionally, there would be a squabble for it. Back in July, I was out working in a gull colony on Appledore Island in Maine. These birds are not stupid, and my threatening, alert presence in the colony, racing around catching chicks and taking their blood,  was unsettling to them as a jackal in the nursery. I took hits to the head, and was repeatedly bombed with feces. But when the chicks are fledged and have moved on, the parents move on from the island too and now these birds were tolerant of my close presence, my downcast eyes and posture of slouching indifference.

A couple days before, my biology students had taken an exam on evolution and natural selection. I noted a common theme in many of their answers–they took “survival of the fittest” and the Darwinian struggle for existence to mean the biggest, baddest organism always wins. In their minds, evolution was all clashing antlers and broad-shouldered males grappling for dominance in a spectacular show. I thought of how I might convey to them that survival and reproduction, the only parameters that matter to natural selection, are often dictated by something silent and invisible. Sitting and watching the gulls doing nothing at all, or subtly jockeying for position, is watching it unfold. Somewhere, in the dark gonads deep in the body cavity of each gull, cells divide, the replicating mechanism makes small errors, and some are not corrected. Cells that will form next year’s chicks are altered from the parent, and the alteration will hurt, or be fatal, or do nothing at all, or confer a tiny advantage. All this wondrous machinery ticks over invisibly.

IMG_4868As I walked back, the sun was behind me, warming my back under my fleece jacket like a pelt of brown fur. It’s not that this kind of perfect warmth can’t be had any other way; the sensation is the same as sitting close by a wood fire. But by a fire in winter, to feel that same warmth on your back, you have to turn from the light and out at the wan daylight, or, more likely, the long dark that overtakes most of the hours. Right now, this time of year here, the sun is still both warm and bright, slant-angled in its decline and beginning its withdrawal, but still high enough. It is the most beautiful place on Earth, I think, New England at this time of year. I admit, I feel the nervous bracing in myself, looking into the wide maw of winter on the other side of this, but winter has its spare pleasures too. And while maybe it’s true that the mere word February strikes a chord of weariness in me, the deep gratitude I feel when the first wood frogs begin quacking in the icy pools in early spring is an exquisite pleasure that cannot be bought any other way, and one I would not trade it for a whole grove of lemon trees in the backyard.

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I’m back to school now, teaching biology as usual. My students are the usual mix–ages range from 17 to 65, surnames from Almadini and Agosto to Palazzi to Zanillo. The diversity extends to their aptitude and their interest as well, since I teach at a community college and we turn no one away, provided they’ve graduated high school or gotten a GED. Some of them are earnest and hard working but lacking any mental spark. Some special few have all three. Others are dull-witted, surly and uninterested.

My own kids are back into the school routine, and they delight in helping me grade assignments. Malcolm, in particular, likes to sneer, “Sorry student!” as he marks an incorrect answer in red pen. Their immersion in my teaching plans and grading meant it was no surprise that they would play Teacher and Students on their own time. I was listening to them the other day, and their exchange is a thought-provoking and insightful look at science that veers perilously close to a Monty Python skit. I will leave you with it.

In borrowed glasses, Malcolm perfects his look of derisive disgust at your poor answer.

In borrowed glasses, Malcolm perfects his look of derisive disgust at your poor answer.

Malcolm: “Students! Do not touch that fox.”

Simon: “That’s not physics!”

Malcolm: “OK, what is physics then?”

Simon: “It’s if something floats or not.”

Malcolm: “OK, that fox does not float. And don’t touch that pig.”

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There is a layer of grime on my skin so thick I can scrape it off in long curls. On my pants, which I have been wearing for three days now, there are coffee and syrup stains, and the long gray and white streaks of gull feces. A few flecks of blood have dried to brown. The pants are a catalog of our two activities on this island: banding gulls, and eating. We do sleep, but not well and not long, given the heat and the cacophony of the gulls.

We are here on Appledore Island in Maine for one week to band gull chicks and to take blood and other unmentionable samples for a study at M.I.T. As of this morning, we had captured, banded and sampled over 400 birds.

This island is home to breeding colonies of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, and to a full field research station called the Shoals Marine Lab. Birds and undergraduates, PhD students, and high schoolers all manage to coexist here, though not entirely peacefully. Out in the colonies at the cliff verges on the Atlantic, you can get clocked in the head with concussive force for approaching a gull’s chicks too closely. We are always approaching too closely.

A07. (Photo by Nick Lovasco)

A07 patrols the porch. (Photo by Nick Lovasco)

Nearer to campus, the gulls are more accustomed to human comings and goings, and are less wary and defensive. Some grow so habituated to humans that they acquire names. At least, human-given names. There is an old bird who stands on the porch of the dining commons most of every day. He has lost most of the feathers around his eyes, giving him a crazed aspect. The colors of his bill are faded and washed out, and the webs of his feet are shot through with holes. He was banded several years ago, and wears a green anklet reading A07. For his habit of stealing the food of unsuspecting porch diners, he has been called “Peanut Butter Cookie.”

Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee this morning before my departure for the mainland, I sat under the baleful glare of A07 and wondered if this might be the last time I ever see him. He has a mate again this year, and young, but he may not make it through another winter.

Yesterday, I was out tidepooling, picking up crabs and shrimp when I saw a green band rolling in the waves. It read H01, a bird banded a few years ago, and now, evidently, dead, its body decomposed and worried apart enough for the band to have fallen off the bone. For an unbanded bird, indistinguishable (by us) from any other bird, death is perfect oblivion, one more bird in millions who have lived, fledged, foraged, mated and died, unmarked and unremarked upon by humans. We knew a bit about H01, and slightly more about A07. Most birds have no name for us. Some few have a name in science, and fewer still a colloquial name. They all have a secret name, of course, or what passes for a name in their country and lets one bird know its mate and its enemies, its chicks or a stranger’s, at a far distance and among hundreds by its shape or its cry, its posture or its flight pattern. What they use for names, or rather, instead of names, is a pure and unsolvable mystery, species to species. Every year, we watch a short span and a thin sliver of their lives, another generation, until the young fledge and the adults move on, with no further apparent connection to their offspring. They each move off to their wintering grounds and their daily habits, one essentially identical to the next, at least to our eyes.

How little we know of the world.

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On Friday night, a Painted Turtle showed up in the backyard and began digging holes. I assumed she would promptly lay eggs. I forgot that turtles do nothing promptly. By bedtime, she had listlessly wandered off, leaving several half dug funnels in the dirt. Saturday morning, she was back again, and this time deposited a passel of small white eggs and then tamped the dirt over them with her hind legs. She stalked slowly off to our little pond, her shell making a soft clack against the rocks as she scaled them.

She's done laying eggs now.

She’s done laying eggs now.

That same morning, Malcolm and I were on our way to the grocery store when we came upon another Painted Turtle partway across the road. I stopped in the street, put on my hazards, and climbed out to move her. A car came up behind us as I stepped out and I help up my hand and mouthed, “Wait, please.” Picking up the turtle and stepping out to walk the rest of the way across the road, the car swerved out in front of me, grazing my knuckles with its sideview mirror. Though this was disconcerting, the closeness of our encounter afforded me an opportunity to look both passenger and driver directly in the eye and clearly mouth, “You are an asshole.” The turtle began urinating on me.

After the turtle was safely across, and Malcolm and I were walking the grocery store aisles, I thought of the turtle again, and the driver. Turtle urine squelched in my flip-flop as we considered microwaveable pouches of rice “ready in 90 seconds!” Two minutes is too long to wait for rice, and 30 seconds is too long to wait for a turtle to be carried across the road.

We are only one of evolution’s recent innovations, and turtles are its time-tested and ancient success. When our mammal ancestor was some terrified tree shrew fleeing the steps of enormous dinosaurs, there were already turtles. When it’s time to nest, they plod out of their ponds and seek high ground, crossing our roads with none of the manic indecision of squirrels, but with a constant, measured pace.

I approached her a bit less closely.

I approached her a bit less closely.

Yesterday, a snapping turtle showed up in the yard too. She raised herself up on surprisingly long legs and stalked around the yard, now and then lowering her snout to sniff the ground. Finding a gravelly spot by the garden beds, she spent four hours plowing up the ground. She didn’t lay any eggs, and eventually walked off again. She may come back, or she may not. She was my companion as I worked by the window all morning, and I looked up at her constantly. One of my chickens came by and approached the turtle as if to peck at it. The turtle froze and raised her broad head. The chicken froze, feathers pressed close to her body, head cocked. Each eyed the other, and I watched them expectantly. Then the chicken withdrew and walked away pecking at grass seeds. The turtle went back to rearranging the dirt. Nothing happened all morning. No nature special scenes of white, ping-pong ball eggs dropping from beneath a turtle’s tail, no violent tangle between reptile and bird. The turtle came to the yard, dug in the dirt a while, and left. The chicken walked around, eating. By the pond, a snake looked out at the rain from under his accustomed rock. Most of the time, nothing happens for hours. A turtle teaches patience, if we can sit long enough to notice.

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Welcome squash bugs!

IMG_3125Our house is moderately infested with squash bugs*. They are the stalking, brown, elongate bugs that move into heated buildings with the first frost. I know they aren’t good; they feed on plant juices and I suppose they could harm my houseplants. But they don’t seem to be doing a lot of damage, so I permit them to stay. They are capable of flying, but generally walk, plodding stoically across the floor where I often almost step on them. It’s amazing the amount of foot force they can withstand. They seem to be all in a prolonged process of dying, and they flail on their backs, or droningly fly and then thwap into the sides of things, or people’s faces. They turn up in the sink, the bathtub and on the couch. Their weird, antennaed heads crest my book while I’m reading in bed. In one macabre incident, I reached for the handle of the bathroom faucet, not seeing the bug on its underside. A surprisingly loud and rich crack sounded, and I looked down to see a bug stomping off with only five legs, a tiny, exoskeletoned drumstick under my finger.

I’m not particularly gentle with them, and they are quite satisfying to flick away. I don’t particularly try to avoid them when vacuuming, and they give up a faint smell of carrots when they’re sucked into the bag. But I don’t strive to remove them either. As I watched one make a lunatic flight into my arm and bounce into a laundry basket, I realized why. Short days, snow, the cold. They don’t keep us inside, but outside, it’s so quiet. Nothing drones and seethes like insects, and without them, it’s a quiet world. The crickets that stowed away in the basement woodpile in the fall are long dead, and only the squash bugs are with us now. I’ll take what I can get of the movement and the noise.

*entomology note: “bug” has a very specific scientific meaning, and refers to a particular kind of insect. Squash bugs and stink bugs are both true bugs. Lady bugs are not. They are beetles. I have, at various times, had squash bugs, stink bugs and lady bugs in my house. But, as my friend Michelle rightly pointed out, most of the bugs in houses around here this time of year are Western Conifer Seed Bugs. But that just doesn’t have the right sound to it, for a blog post. So I cheated a bit.

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…he’s going to fill it with urine and leave it on his bedside table.

Test tubes at the bedside.

I knew this vaguely, but now recognize it as a certainty. After a lab exercise in my biology course last week, I brought home a slew of glass test tubes. Normally, we dispose of these at our college, which I always hate to do, but it’s challenging to fully remove every trace of toxic chemical from the tubes, so I am mostly resigned to it. Last week’s experiment, however, involved only yeast, sugar water and some very poor quality moonshine (in the successful experiments). So, I cleaned the tubes and hauled them home.

The next day, I noticed Malcolm had placed a few of the tubes in a glass jar on his nightstand. Most were empty, but one, I noticed, contained the telltale  yellow, refractile swirl of urine. “What’s this?” I asked him, knowing already. “An experiment,” Malcolm said quietly, eyes downcast. Asking again, I saw him take in a sharp breath, and his face crumpled. “It’s pee,” he sobbed. “I wanted to be a real scientist and take a sample.” All at once, my vision closed in at the edges, and I was no longer seeing only Malcolm, no longer parenting only Malcolm, but myself too, decades ago. The same weirdness, the same tendency to collect oddities, dead animals, bones and scraps of fur, and that alongside the first-born child’s desperate need not to offend, not to anger, not to disappoint the grown-ups. To always be good. My brain rifled through all the possible responses to this situation, trying to find the correct one. The fact is, I am neither surprised nor upset by a tube of urine on a nightstand, and I handed it to Malcolm saying, “Good scientists clean up their lab space after the experiment is done. So please go wash this and put it back with your lab supplies.” So he did.

When this is your mom, you’re probably destined to keep urine filled test tubes by the bed.

I know that there are certain unavoidable things that make first-borns the way they are, and middle children, and babies. I know that birth order is a strong driver of personality–perhaps the strongest. And Malcolm is the first born child of two first borns. That leaves our second son outside our circle, and sometimes we all three look at him with a bewildered mixture of fascination and shock. He’s only three and I have no idea how I will parent him when he’s a teenager. I know that we are unconsciously forming Malcolm into the classic first born and Simon into the classic youngest. But I can’t stop it from happening. So I hope I am at least instilling in Malcolm that it’s ok to do science experiments, and try things without always having approval for them, and that the disapproval of grown-ups is not a soul-crushing event to be seared into his memory. But I remember vividly every teacher or aunt or Girl Scout troop leader who ever reprimanded me since I was four years old, so I know there’s partly no way around it. The best I can do is the best I can do. Try to help Malcolm navigate being a first born, and try to understand Simon somehow. After all, it could very well be the worst Malcolm ever does to keep a scientific specimen. We first borns can be serious, hard-core goody-goodys. Simon, on the other hand, oh, Simon. I cannot begin to imagine the things I will find him collecting over the next 15 years. And only a few are likely to be containable within the walls of a test tube. But I strive. I always strive.

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Last month, I was reading a study that saddened but did not surprise me. The article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported on a experiment designed to assess the gender biases of science professors at research intensive universities. While women are studying science in larger numbers now, and numbers of female PhDs are also on the rise, they are not joining the ranks of professors in the numbers we might expect. Most of the time, this gets attributed to the tendency of women to off-track their careers to have babies and stay home with the kids or work only part-time. This is clearly true; I, for one, am waaaay farther behind in my career development than my husband, who has never gone part-time to tend the children. I am only just now starting to think of an actual career; he’s been a full time lawyer man for about eight years.

Despite this clear disparity, the authors of the new study were interested in whether or not gender bias among college professors might be holding female students back even before graduating. In their experiment, they presented several biology, chemistry and physics faculty members with essentially identical job applications for a lab manager position. The applicants differed substantively only in their gender. The results of the study showed a subtle but definite bias toward male applicants even when all experience and qualifications were the same. Professors offered a lower salary to female applicants, tended to rate them lower in perceived competence, and offered less mentorship than males. Consistent with previous studies, the faculty members described the female students as more “likable” than the male students, but this likability did not convert to professional advantage or even parity. What was particularly striking to me, as a female instructor in biology, was that female faculty were as guilty of favoring male applicants as their male colleagues. Even in biology, where women majors outnumber men in undergraduate programs, female faculty will tend to favor the male students on the basis of their perceived superior ability. This undermines our Pollyanna faith that women entering the sciences will tend to pull still more women up and along with them.

So, do I do it too? I don’t know. That’s the nature of subtle bias; you don’t know you’re doing it. I know I have biases; I tend to judge my students mainly on how they dress (students showing up in pajamas or velour tracksuits with “Juicy” written across the ass tend to equal stupid in my knee-jerk reactions), though what role unconscious gender, racial, or ethnic bias might be playing, I just don’t know.

Right about here’s where the creepy dude was hanging out. Probably I was right to be nervous.

I was thinking about just this subject while out for a run on a local rail trail. Not many people were around, and as I rounded a bend, I saw a dude sitting on a bench in fatigues and work boots smoking a cigarette. I was wary, but smiled at him as I passed, and he just stared at me, tracking me with a wolfish, predatory sneer. I could feel all the vestigial hackles on my neck rise, and I felt my long buried African primate ancestor stir inside me, looking for a tree to scurry up. I had to pass the same dude on the way back, and was nearly sprinting by the time I got back into the safety of the downtown. I don’t know if this guy was as malevolent as he seemed to me, and it occurred to me that I judge most men to be a threat, at least when I meet them in a semi-secluded spot while running. Not all men, certainly. The tubby Indian guy on his cell phone at the other end of the trail raised no such alarms. Nor did a pair of scrawny Chinese teenagers. Nor the white gay couple walking their impeccably groomed Tibetan spaniel. So was my fear actually a warranted female guard response to something real that I was sensing? Or do I assign threat too broadly?

As I relaxed my pace up the hill into the comforting crowds, I remembered Obama’s famous “race speech,” the one where he described his white grandmother, who dearly loved her half black grandson, but would cross the street when a black man approached. I love my houseful of boys. I certainly don’t hate men; I married a really good one, after all, and I’m trying to raise a couple more. But I often get the same kind of unease when passing a man on the street that Obama’s grandmother seemed to feel about black men. That’s the similarity that troubles me. Because, after all, people who cross the street to avoid black men will tell you about the statistics on crime, and the numbers of black men in prison for murder or assault compared with white men. But it’s still racist to cross the street. And I can tell you all day long that about 100% of rapists are men (and, rape, after all, is what we women are all actually worried will happen to us, more than murder, actually). So yes, the statistics bear me out on that. But that hardly means all men are bent on assault. Not even most men. So what’s with my overactive fear trigger? I don’t know. But I’m willing to bet, you’ve got one too.

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