Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Coral Cores for Science

I spent last week in St. John, US Virgin Islands, on what my friend Lauren called a “Mama Science Vacation.” That was a great term for it – a vacation from our overwhelming house renovations, and from Southern California traffic, and spending 90% of my brain capacity calculating when Ryder might next need to eat or sleep or use the toilet, and feeling guilty I didn’t have enough enriching activities planned for him. 

This week gave me a chance to reconnect with my adult self, think deeply about science, and see wild coral reefs again in person for the first time in more than a year. It’s amazing how enriching it is to be physically immersed in the environment I’ve been studying mostly remotely for the past decade. Today I saw the most extensive stand of Acropora cervicornis,  the endangered “Staghorn coral,” that I have ever witnessed. These corals used to dominate shallow Caribbean reefs, along with their relatives Acropora palmata, or “Elkhorn coral.” But both species of Acropora all but totally died off decades ago from a disease that swept through the Caribbean. Today, we saw not only thriving large colonies of adult Acroporids but also lots of juveniles – and interestingly these were often growing on dead colonies of the same species. This recalled a study I read (which of course I can't find, now) that found coral larvae of particular species preferentially settle on dead colonies of their own kind – perhaps because of some lingering chemical cues those skeletons exude?

This doesn’t have any particular bearing that I can think of right now towards my own work, but I find it really fascinating.

So, what have we been doing here in St. John? The short of it is that I’m starting a new project in collaboration with colleagues at the University of San Diego, where I’m aiming to tie records of past water quality based on coral skeletal chemistry to data they have been collecting using sediment traps and other instruments. You might remember that corals build their skeletons from chemicals in seawater, and slowly grow larger over time—thus, their skeletons record changes in water quality. Annual changes in skeletal density also provide a lovely chronometer for these chemical records. If we can tie these recent records together, I can extend records of runoff farther into the past (perhaps a century or more) using core samples from large old corals. To see if this idea will work, the first step is to collect short cores from living corals to tie to the sedimentology datasets. Hence, this trip.

Coral cores are collected using an underwater drill by divers using SCUBA equipment. Scientists either use a hydraulic drill driven by a hydraulic engine in a boat at the surface, and long hoses that deliver the hydraulic fluid down to the drill. These rigs tend to be giant, heavy, and awkward. I helped collect cores from fossil corals on land using a hydraulic drilling system at Tabuaeran Atoll way back in the dark ages of 2005, and quickly learned that unless I was going to bring along a bevy of much stronger people as field assistants, this wasn’t something little me could handle. I opted for a pneumatic drill, driven by compressed air – these drills are much smaller though less powerful (so it takes longer to collect an equivalent core length).

The cool thing about pneumatic drills is that they can be driven by an on-ship, gasoline-powered air compressor (ideally), but if this is unfeasible, they can also be driven by SCUBA tanks. Theoretically this shouldn’t be a big problem—if you have gotten to a place set up for SCUBA, there should also be a supply of tanks available to use to drive the drill. Shipping around 200-lb air compressors is, on the other hand, rather difficult and expensive. So for this trip, I opted for the SCUBA tank option.

The trip was thrown together somewhat last-minute, though it had been in the wings of planning for more than a year. Suddenly, various logistical issues came together and made it necessary to jump and get the trip organized. I was able to gather two worthy field assistants – my friend Lauren Freeman who I knew at Scripps, and a grad student at USD named Whitney who had spent at least part of the past 7 years at the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS), where we were headed.

We converged in St. Thomas, where we rented much-too-large of a car and drove across the island, stopped to stock up on groceries and then get WD40 at Home Depot (how civilized), took the car ferry to St. John, and again drove across that island to VIERS. There, we settled into a 2-bedroom ensuite cabin with open, screened sides, a small kitchen, and an open air shower out back. Multiple cabins sat in the jungle encircling a large open area with picnic tables and a fire pit, all connected by elevated boardwalks ready for the rainy season. We slept to the sounds of tree frogs and insects, and the intermittent heart-stopping crash of mangos falling on the corrugated metal roof.

The first day consisted of getting the ladies oriented to the coral drilling gear, getting ourselves oriented to the workings of VIERS, and identifying sites to target via snorkel. We were able to swim around most of Great and also Little Lameshur bays, looking for the right sized colonies of the right coral species at the right depth. After discussions with the folks who oversee permitting for the Virgin Islands National Park, and following preliminary scouting Whitney had completed last year, I had decided to target a coral called Siderastrea siderea, or “Massive Starlet coral,” partly because it is more abundant than the coral I’ve worked with previously, Orbicella (previously Montastraea) faveolata, and partly because it seems a bit hardier than Orbicella. Coral reefs are in bad shape around the world these days, but particularly in the Caribbean. I believe that some collection is Ok for scientific purposes that are justified – but I still would rather minimize my small collection footprint. I aimed to do this by taking samples from corals that have shown evidence they may persist into the future amongst the onslaught of human impacts (sediment and nutrient runoff, overfishing, and climate change are the biggest culprits).

The next day, we got to work. It was—how shall I put this—basically complete underwater chaos. The tanks were lighter underwater than we anticipated and kept trying to escape off into the blue, the 50 foot air hose turned into a bird’s nest and got tangled with the tanks (which we’d daisy-chained together with a rope), nobody had enough dive weights on for this kind of work and couldn’t easily stay put at the target coral, the surge didn’t help things, and we hadn’t yet worked out how to communicate efficiently underwater. Thus we wasted huge chunks of time writing long epics on our dive slates and getting confused by one another. The worst part was that the drill ate up much more air than we anticipated – each tank was only lasting about 6 minutes. Using 6 SCUBA tanks to drive the drill, we collected a measly 2.5cm diameter, 4cm long core over the course of 2 dives, which took in total about 4.5 hours (including loading and unloading the boat at the dock, motoring to the site, mooring, getting geared up, etc.). It was not looking good for my goal of collecting ten 10cm-long cores in the 3 remaining diving days we had that week.
That evening my friend Rich—who had done some dive-tank-driven coral coring the previous year with my gear—gave some suggestions over email for improvement. The major idea was to float the tanks at the surface: because the air metered out of the tanks wouldn’t be under additional pressure from the water, the same volume of air would be delivered at a slower pace, and each tank should drive the drill for a longer time. We also decided to make a bridle with dive weights to hang over the drill; we were using a smaller, lighter core barrel than I had previously used, and we thought that the weights might help the coring move along at a more reasonable pace. The skeleton of Siderastrea was much more dense than Orbicella, so I had expected things to go slowly – but not ten times more slowly, as they had our first day.

Floating the tanks at the surface using a lift bag worked—but it was also chaotic. One person had to corral the tanks together (they were daisy-chained with rope but the currents and waves made them each constantly try to escape) and change the regulator from one tank to the next as they emptied. This turned out to be rather exhausting and caused much skull-banging and seasickness for the tank exchanger, but we were ecstatic to see that each tank now lasted about 12 minutes. With the lead-weight bridle and the tank flotilla, we were able to collect 2 whole cores in the time we’d taken the previous day to collect half a core. Things were looking up.

Each dive, we improved. We next commandeered a small kayak to hold all of the drilling tanks, which made things much easier (except when it capsized close to the rocks). Importantly, our underwater communication improved, and Lauren and Whitney quickly figured out what tasks needed to be done and developed their own drilling techniques to combat the surge while avoiding damage to other parts of the reef.
We finished collecting all ten cores with a day to spare, so were able to go out with a local retiree who knows practically every inch of Coral Bay – the adjacent developed watershed in which I plan to collect future cores to contrast with the runoff history in the undeveloped watersheds of the National Park. He took us snorkeling to identify future collection sites for another trip, plus to see the secret spot where we were staggered by prolific thickets of Acropora corals.

This fall comes the next fun part: geochemical analysis of these precious and hard-won samples at my new lab at UMass Boston. I can’t wait.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Responsible construction practices

I’ve taken an extended break here lately to focus all spare moments (when I’m not engrossed in childcare) on work and house renovations. But now summer is here, classes are over and I can perhaps breathe and blog a little before starting a new full-time job in the fall.

Today’s post is comprised of imagined conversations between the former owners of our house. It was (apparently, based on dates from newspapers we’ve found – there are no official records we can find) built in the late 1940s, then added onto and remodeled sometime in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, we think. We’re going through and updating and repairing again.  

In the 1940s Encinitas was mostly rural, and our house was probably a small 1-bedroom bungalow on several acres of farmland. Now the land has been subdivided into housing and some remnant greenhouses from the farming era are in the process of being converted to housing as well – darned good schools and lovely Pacific Ocean!

Why yes, apparently rain made the news in the 1940s, too. And people also used kid leashes (or a "walking harness," here)
Cast of characters
1940s – 1950s
Merl – 1st homeowner
Ethel – 1st homeowner
Hank – Merl’s buddy

1960s – mid 1980s
Bob – 2nd homeowner
May – 2nd homeowner
Sally – daughter

late 1980s - 2013
Doug – 3rd homeowner
various cats

Scene 1: The original bungalow

Hank: [helping lay hardwood flooring] “Well, Merl, looks like we’re outta building paper.”
Merl: “Dang. Ethel already went to town in the car. Lemme go see what I can wrangle up from the kitchen.” [comes back with stacks of newspapers]
Hank: “Oh sure, those should work for the underlayment. Farmer’s almanac? You got the latest edition? Some pretty good feed deals advertised in there.”

Merl: “Hey Ethel, I had a few leftover slats of wood from tearing down the outhouse that I couldn’t fit in the dump load. So I just threw ‘em out in the front yard. Perhaps you could plant some nice succulents over the top?”
Ethel: “Sure, Merl. How thrifty of you!”
Merl: “Just be wary of the nails, I didn’t bother taking them out.”
Ethel: “Oh, you scoundrel! Well, I’m sure they’ll just rot into the ground after a nice light rain.”

Scene 2: The first remodel

Bob: “Hey look, May – a pile of construction debris is hiding under these succulents! That’s convenient. I’ll just add our leftover concrete from the demolition.”
May: “Great idea, Bob! That would be pricey to take to the dump. I’m sure it’ll just break up and become part of the soil in no time!”

Sally: [having her infant hand and foot smooshed into wet concrete] “huh? wahhhh!”
May: “My gracious, Bob, that is just the cutest remembrance. Don’t forget to scratch in the date. And let’s write our last name over there.”
Bob: “That really completes the walkway. I love how you thought of cementing the beach cobbles into the sides of the entry pad, too.”
May: “And so convenient how the walkway and pad just run straight down the front yard hill and into the door!”
Sally: [thinking] Gee, I wish I could talk and alert them that rain water will also run straight down the hill and into the front door like that. Alas!

In the 1940s, people hosted dinner parties and kids blew out birthday candles! Woah!
Scene 3: The third remodel

Doug: “You know, Scruffy? Cat doors are for sissies. I’m just going to cut a hole in the wall here between this exterior storage closet and the rest of the house, and then take off some of the screening on the outside, and you can go in and out as you please!”
Racoons/possums/etc.: [some time later] It was so nice of Doug to provide direct access to the crawl space under the house, storage area, and even the kitchen when everyone is sleeping! And just look at all this comfy insulation material beneath the floors we can use for bedding. Let’s all move in, kids!

Doug: “Watch out, Rascal! I’m just going to throw this mirror down from the second floor into that dirt pile, better move!”
Rascal: “Meow.”
Doug: “Ya know, it’ll be easier to just throw all of the construction debris off the roof into the dirt in hindsight. Bagging it up and lugging down the stairs is so exhausting. Look out! Here come some broken tiles and nails!”

Doug: “I’ve been thinking, Rascal. What if I feel like welding upstairs as well as downstairs? I might as well run some more 100-amp wiring up to the utility room while I’m at it, just in case!”
Rascal: You’re building an airplane in the living room; what on earth will you build upstairs?! Well, at least it will probably be fun to climb on.

Doug: “Hey  Pumpkin, could you use another broken surfboard for your scratching post? This one seems a bit shot. I’ll just grab one from under the house.”
Pumpkin: “Meow.”
Doug: “Here you go, little guy. I just stuck the old one back under there, too, in case it comes in handy. I did also happen to catch a glimpse of what I think may have been poor Rascal’s remains, too. I always wondered what happened to him. Oh well!”

Doug: “It sure would be terrible to get the house fumigated for termites. They have taken quite a liking to the wood siding, but I just can’t bear to think about those horrible chemicals killing all of our arthropod friends, and what about all of the mice and rats that have taken up residence in the walls? We don’t want to put them out, right Pumpkin?”
Pumpkin: “Meow.”
Doug: “I sure hope one day you learn to chase after them, though – that would seem fair. In the meantime I’ll just let them continue to eat the electrical system and nest in the insulation.”

So, what is the advice I can offer from these made-up reflections? Don't consider the future owners of your house when you do strange things like install a partially-finished low-voltage wiring system that no one else can work with. It's more fun to just let them redo everything again! Yeehaw!

Early version of Skymall?

Friday, 28 February 2014

How to help me, as a woman [attempting to remain] in science

This week, there are two conferences going on that I wish I was attending: 2014 Ocean Sciences (#2014OSM on Twitter), and ScienceOnline (#scio14). I’m not there because I don’t have any funding to go there. I don’t have any funding go to there for a number of reasons, part of which are my own damn ignorant fault, but partly because of some funky stumbling blocks that have tripped me up (and, I dare say probably others in my situation), threatening to derail me from my intended path to be a scientist (and/or science communicator, maybe?—but that’s a topic for another day).

There is so much talk of the leaky pipeline, and discussion about how to plug up the hole to keep more women in science for longer. We drop like flies after the PhD.

There have been some excellent ideas for tackling this problem (see links above, for instance), but I have thoughts to add on things that would (maybe) help me avoid leaking out to work at Starbucks, or being a full-time mom until my kid goes to school and I’m too disconnected to re-enter the workforce. I hope this doesn’t come across as a whiny rant; my intention is really to detail the mechanistic problems that I am personally facing following my dream.

The common thread that ties all of these ideas together is that as an adult, particularly an adult with a kid (or more than one!), life requires money. This thoughtful blog post points out some major issues why (marine) science lacks diversity: life as a scientist apparently requires sacrifices of both money and time. When I was younger, it wasn’t as big of a deal for me to work for minimum wage, or even volunteer, to gain experience in science.
I have a lot of experience doing this, and I like it. I have less experience being a barista, or a parking lot attendant, but I'm still allowed to apply for those jobs, if I want to.
But now life is expensive. Housing, transportation, food, and – most painful of all – good childcare consumes all available funds we may have, leaving my ability to pay someone to care for my child while I work for free, much less my ability to pay out of pocket to attend conferences totally impossible. Yet if I want to remain in science, these are the things that (I believe, perhaps I’m incorrect?) are necessary – I have to keep publishing, and I would sure like to remain alive and kicking in the face-to-face conference-networking arena – but how can I possibly justify either of these things when I’m currently working part-time as an adjunct and part-time as a mom (and part-time as a renovations contractor on my house—but that’s a different story)?

So, what are my ideas to help combat this?

1. Don’t place limits on time-since PhD in job advertisements
Since graduating, I’ve taken 9 months “off” for family obligations. During these times, I was not being paid yet continued to work as much as I could on publications, data analysis, and writing a book, while taking care of my family. I’ve also had, up to now, about 9 months of partial employment during which I have continued to do research in my (not very abundant) free time because I care about it, and because I very much want to remain competitive for “real” science jobs. But, all up I’ve been a PhD-holder for about 4.5 years, and can no longer apply to a host a job opportunities I’ve seen because I’m too “advanced” in my career.

But why? If I really want to do another post-doc because it is housed in a lab that does work I love, and it would allow me to continue doing research during more than 1-2 hour nap-time blocks each day, and I’d be a good fit for the position, why does it really matter when I graduated?

2.  Let us apply for funds to attend conferences, and give us the student/high school teacher rates
Plenty of conferences set aside funds to bring students, high school science teachers or researchers from less-developed countries in who otherwise couldn’t afford it. This is wonderful. But I am currently much less able to pay to attend a conference than I was as a student, because:
(a) the registration fees are higher
(b) I have to do something with my kid – pay to bring him along, or pay for extra childcare the week I’m away, or pay to fly him to his grandparents’ for the week, etc. (The key word is pay)
(c) There is no graduate or development office from which to beg for money to fund my conference attendance

3. Offer good, afforable childcare at conferences
When I was breastfeeding, I attended two conferences with my son in tow. At that point it was cheaper (no cost on the domestic flights) and physically easier (no pumping and desperately missing him) to bring him along than to place him in full-time childcare at home. At the more-important (more relevant to my field) conference, there was no childcare at the convention center, and all childcare places in the town that I called were booked solid. So we paid out of pocket and my husband took days off work he could come with me to care for the babe for half the day and work remotely for half the day, and I took the kid with me to half the day’s sessions. Sucky.
Yes, that is 6-week-old Ryder in an ergo as I present two posters and answer emails during a week-long pause in my maternity leave to attend AGU. I look somewhat less approachable than the lady on the left (Photo by Rachel Borgatti)
4. Let us apply for money from special pots
I know, this makes it seem like I think I am special, and shouldn’t have to compete with everyone else for money. But really, do you think that my proposal—written exclusively during naps and at 10 pm when I am also sleep deprived and half my days are spent doing brain-cell-destroying activities like explaining why the kid can’t have chocolate for breakfast—going to be as competitive as someone who gets to sit in a quiet office and spend time actually reading journal articles (what’s that?) and thinking about science (what a concept!)? I’m doing this as well, but I’m not holding my breath.

Several countries have recognized that we might need a little help, and I applaud them and am very jealous:
Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain:
The Wellcome Trust, career re-entry scheme, Europe:
Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship for flexible work, UK:

For a number of super obvious reasons (i.e. it’s really unhelpful to be evicted when you baby is 2 months old because you failed to pay the rent after taking your 6 weeks unpaid leave). Come on now.

Well, that’s all I have time for. What do you think of these ideas?

Monday, 24 February 2014

How to talk to journalists as a scientist, and not make them hate you

Before I left Australia, I got to participate in a day-long media training event with Science in Public. A group of post-docs were chosen to learn from journalists in radio, print, and television. I had previously been interviewed a few times for articles, and I mostly felt like an unprepared idiot. With a small amount of training, I feel a lot more comfortable about the idea of both speaking coherently with non-scientists, and not ending up giving an accidental foot-in-mouth quote that makes me cringe to read/hear later on.

Today, I’ve asked my friend and radio-journo Jennifer Macey to give us her thoughts on ways scientists can provide good interview material to journalists, for everyone's benefit. [I’ve added some bits in, too]

Jessica: Who is the professional Jennifer Macey?

Jennifer: I report for the ABC's news and current affairs programs, AM, The World Today and PM. These are broadcast around Australia on the public radio [Australia’s version of NPR]. I've been a journalist for almost 20 years (eek) and although I am a general reporter - reporting on everything, I have a particular interest in environment and science yarns.

Jessica: What’s a typical day at the office for you?

Jennifer: The morning shift starts at 5:30am and the editorial meeting is at 6:15am, where the reporters pitch/suggest story ideas to our producer, who then considers them and assigns us one. We then have an hour and a half* to read the scientific paper and ring our contacts or the number on the bottom of the university or institute's press release. We hope that they are still awake in the US or Europe, or wake them up if they're in Australia. We ring every mobile phone number in our contact list related to that subject matter to find another scientist who can add a second voice. We email them the paper so they can make a considered comment before they've even had breakfast. Do a short interview for 10-15 minutes. Pick the best quotes, cut them out. Write a script. Record script. Edit out the bloopers and cut and paste it all together, in time for the 8:00 am show. Phew!  

The midday show allows three hours to prepare a story and the afternoon show gives us a whopping four hours. A typical story can be anywhere from two and half minutes to four minutes long. That is not a lot of time to explain a complex scientific study and may explain why science stories can sound simplistic to an experienced ear.

*I cannot even fathom reading a paper in this amount of time to then explain to my cat, let alone the entire country; yet the journos do this, PLUS interviews and story-producing to boot. These people are amazing.

One of my first interviews was conducted over the phone while I breast-fed this little critter in the back of my car in the pouring rain. This was not an ideal way to focus and come up with thoughtful answers to the reporter's questions.

Jessica: Ok, so maybe we shouldn't blather on for 20 minutes about background leading up to the point out our work.

I’ve also learned that it’s Ok for scientists to contact journalists directly with story ideas. How do you typically get your ideas for new science stories?

Jennifer: I subscribe to a lot of science email notifications from Universities and via the Australian Science Media Centre (AUSSMC), which compiles science papers and gathers a bunch of responses from experts along with their contact details. The AUSSMC is a journalist’s best friend, and makes the frantic search for comments much easier**. But I also get updates on upcoming science articles from Eurekalert. These are usually strictly embargoed. We also subscribe to alerts from Nature etc.

Sometimes scientists will even contact me and say they're working on something and we can prepare something in advance to coincide with the embargoed release. Or our producer may see a science story on another news site and we'll do our own version of the story with new interviews. Generally, we come up with the idea and broadcast it on the same day. Occasionally we do stories in advance but that's pretty rare. The number of times a press officer at a university or a medical institute has said to me, "Oh no, Dr. so-and-so is not available, but she'll be back next week…" Sorry—next week it won't be news anymore. 

**If you would like to be interviewed as an expert regarding a scientific publication in your field, you can sign up to be on various expert databases—particularly if you are a woman or under-represented in your field, go sign up and get your perspective out into the media.
Some examples:
American Geophysical Union:
National Science & Technology News Service:
Minority Postdocs:
Australian Science Media Service
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
Am I still considered an expert ocean scientist if I can get seasick underwater?

Jessica: Going into an interview, you generally already understand the story or scientific finding—something I didn't know until recently! When you put together the story, you also do most of the science-explaining for the audience. What are you hoping to get from the interviews you conduct?

Jennifer: Initially, I want the scientist to briefly describe the process of the study, and what significance or what impact this discovery will have. Even if I do have an understanding of the science, I still need the scientist to explain the study or the discovery in simple, layman’s terms. Sometimes I need an explanation from the beginning so I can be sure I understand it myself and can then interpret it for our listeners (sometimes we're translators!).

I also always love interesting details, for instance that the scientist was looking for a certain gene and accidentally stumbled on some new bacteria. I also like to see the big picture—who cares? Or even something very basic, like for a coral scientist to simply describe the beauty and expanse of the Great Barrier Reef.

Words that paint pictures in the listener’s head are the best way of conveying science stories. Here's an example from a story that I did about the Brood II periodical cicadas that emerged last year. The imagery is so great - comparing cicadas to a boy band that will be as loud as an aircraft - loud and slightly annoying!  

JENNIFER MACEY: And will they be noisy?

MICHAEL RAUPP: Oh they're going to be extremely noisy. This is a big boy band. It's only the male cicadas that sing, and their sound levels will approach about 90 decibels. This is the sound of a jet aircraft, a very loud lawnmower, or in this case, because these are just teenagers, they're 17 years old, it's about as loud as a rock concert. 

We were really excited to learn that the munitions littering our study location--where we were manually pounding metal pipes into the seafloor--were no longer live. We also learned some cool science stuff.

Jessica: What are some other ways scientists can be more helpful to journalists during interviews?

Jennifer: Think about your audience. I've described what a radio current affairs journalist is looking for. Radio news journos who have 45 second stories with a 15 second quote have different needs. Newspaper or magazine journalists also have different requirements. We have a pretty smart audience, but a science journal or a magazine that focuses on one subject will have more discerning, informed readers that may need less simplified explanations. 

Also, the phone lines in America are rubbish, it's like ringing a developing country. You need to get them upgraded.

Jessica: Thanks, Jennifer! For other ideas to make your time talking with journalists more effective and efficient, check out training events and blog posts by organizations like COMPASS (in the US) or Science in Public (in Australia). For instance, the COMPASS “Message Box” is a great way to organize your thoughts so you don’t trip yourself up during an interview by getting lost in your own brain and forgetting your point.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Conversations with Ryder

Ryder: Wheels! Airplane. Vroooom. Cars. Fast.

Me: Ah.

Ryder: I ride in the airplane?

Me: Yes, sometime.

Ryder: I go airplane! I go airplane! Drive in mama car to airplane?

Me: Oh, sorry bud. Not today, but another day we’ll go on an airplane.

Ryder: Airplaaaaaaaannnnnneeee!!! Waaaahhhhh!

Me: (shit) Ryder, let’s go outside and look for pine nuts!

Ryder: (eyes me suspiciously) Pinenuts?

Me: Yes, let’s go find some.

Ryder: Shoes?

Me: Oh yes, we should put on shoes.

Ryder: Mama wear shoes?

Me: Yep.
"My thoughts on the conflict in Syria center on the obvious need to wear more silly hats."

Ryder: Ryder wear shoes?

Me: Yes, you can wear shoes too.

Ryder: Monica wear shoes? Daddy wear shoes? Grammie wear shoes?

Me: Yes, they are probably wearing shoes right now, too.

Ryder: Helicopter?

Me: Um, do you want to bring the helicopter toy?

Ryder: Yeah. Upstairs?

Me: Ok, let’s go upstairs and look for it.

Ryder: Go upstairs! Go upstairs! Ryder go upstairs! Hold hands?

Me: Ok!

(small respite of quiet as he focuses on this task)
"Bus coming? Bus coming? Bus coming? Ride on the bus? Ryder go on the bus?"

Ryder: (arriving in bedroom) Poo.

Me: Need to use the potty?

Ryder: Poo on floor.

Me: Um, no. We don’t poo on the floor.

Ryder: (running around maniacally) Poo on book! Poo on car! Poo on bed!

Me: (sigh) Would you like to use the potty?

Ryder: No, thank you.

Me: (quietly die of adorable and gratefulness to sister-in-law for teaching him this phrase) Ok.

Ryder: (finds helicopter) Pinenuts?

Me: (wishing he had forgotten this, because there really are no pinenuts in the vicinity) Ok! Let’s go! (crap)

Ryder: (as we go out the front door) Mama daddy Ryder house. Daddy work? Daddy work? Daddy work? (I am futzing with my keys or shoes or something and not immediately responding to his question, so he just repeats it over and over ad infinium)

Me: Oh, yes! This is our house, and daddy is at work.

Ryder: Ryder work?

Me: One day you’ll go to work, when you are older.

Ryder: (does not comprehend time yet. Blank stare for a moment, until he sees a bird) Bird! On tree! Bird fly on road? Bird fly on road?

Me: Um, I don’t know if the bird will fly down to the road. Would you like that?

Ryder: Yes. Bird fly on road. (Big smile)

Perhaps you understand why I get nothing done around the house. I’m not sure how people do it—those who seem to be able to mop the floor while baking a double batch of flax-quinoa muffins and paying bills and responding coherently to their children’s discussions about life. I do admit, sometimes I just try a little “uh-huh?” while trying desperately to focus my attention on something else, like calculating whether to do laundry that day or not. But this lovely creature of mine is persistent, and unamused by stupid responses (I imagine him thinking: Lady, I asked you a direct question about whether you the green helicopter can fly faster than the red one. “Uh-huh” is 
clearly not an acceptable answer).

Monday, 6 January 2014

Roadtrip with a toddler

I hope you survived enjoyed your holiday season. We got to spend time with a lot of lovely people further north in California, but that meant that we first had to get there. The 2-year old and I drove up to the Bay Area a few days ahead of the husband, which terrified me.

Sometimes, simply driving the child to daycare is about as pleasant as taking a final exam for a class you forgot to attend, or running to the train station with your luggage in the hot sun because the taxi you ordered failed to arrive: equal parts frightening and exhausting. I am not known for exceptional skill when it comes to driving (exemplified by my various slow-moving smash-ups as a teen), and a child screaming in the backseat is not particularly helpful to automotive focus.

Yet, we are still alive and the car is intact. How did we survive the trip? With a little planning and a lot of luck:

1. We broke up the trip. It’s unlikely we would have made it in one shot to NorCal, just the two of us, without someone going insane. Happily, there were friends to visit and impose upon along the way, making the longest day of driving “just” 6 hair-pulling hours.

2. Ryder naps in the car. This gave me about one and a half hours of blissful quiet on the drive, which I filled by listening to NPR and feeling a little bit like an adult for a while.

3. I distracted him with special treats. He’s currently obsessed with lollipops, which is perhaps the best sweet obsession possible: they are cheap, they take forever to eat, and they don’t melt all over the place. The only downside is that they are rather sticky, and once the child figures out that he can lick the lollipop and then smear a layer of sugar all over himself and the carseat, it gets messy. Another hit was an individual serving of Lucky Charms. Mining out the good bits kept him busy for a 30-minute stretch near the end of day two.
Watching the Rincon parking lot bathrooms get powerwashed: a favorite stop of the trip, according to Ryder
4. His grandmother sent him special battery-operated vehicles with buttons that make irritating siren/engine noises, just in time for the trip. I didn’t give an inkling they existed until we got in the car: one was revealed the first day and one the second. The helicopter was a hit, and he was basically entertained by it from Encinitas to Orange County—a small miracle. Sadly, the Lifeguard truck was not as interesting, and he threw it out of the seat and started wailing for me to “push the button” and eject him from the carseat about 5 minutes into the ride on day two. 

5. He likes to make art. Other excellent grandmother finds include a small, two-sided whiteboard, with special (washable!) whiteboard crayons, and a set of vehicle-themed stamps with (washable!) ink and a pad of paper. These lasted a good 30-ish minutes.

6. He likes to demand that I make up and sing to him various songs. These are often very specific: “please orange airplane car song,” and I am really not that good at this task, so I find it slightly tiresome, though endearing. Also I usually forget the song I made up last time, but he wants me to repeat it the same way. Happily, he seems semi-interested in starting to sing himself, so I spent a lot of time redirecting his demands and encouraging that.
Integrated cupholders: perfect for separating out the boring "oat" bits from the actual edible part of Lucky Charms

7. Weird car-driving-dancing to random disco music in the Central Valley: tiring while trying not to swerve off the road, but effective for a little while.

8. I tried, and failed miserably, at making him a special game (idea courtesy of my friend Makela) in which he could “fish” for toys and snacks and things on the floor of the car using a magnet on a string. Probably should have tested this out ahead of time, because the orientation of the seat meant that anytime he actually got something hooked on, it would hit the carseat and fall off before he could get it into his paws. Adding frustration to the mix of being bored and hot and stuck in a rigid seat for hours on end was not my most brilliant move.

9. Counting electrical poles lasted about five minutes.

10. We stopped a lot, for lunch and stretching-breaks and coffee and dipping our toes in the cold Pacific. It helps not to have a rigid schedule, and it also helps to have some idea where the hell you are and where you might stop. At one point I became lost in discount-furniture land and had to use the bathroom in a creepily quiet shop obviously not set up to cater to the customer’s bodily needs.

11. I did in fact bring a tablet with kid’s movies loaded onto it, and was ready to deploy it if all else failed…but I didn’t think to check the batteries. Not good to hit “begin emergency entertainment sequence” stage and realize it is non-operational.  

So, what are your tricks for making driving with a toddler survivable?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Happy Habits

Today I bring to you a guest post from the inimitable Dr. Lisa Munger, a friend and ocean-science colleague living a Hawaiian-based existence (of which I am often jealous) involving cuddling large jungle spiders and listening to marine animals and things. Enjoy!


I’m getting a little tired of all these “habits of happy people” articles circulating around.  It’s as if cultural anthropologists, after careful scrutiny, have determined that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who are happy and those who are not.  You can recognize the Happies by their filmy white dresses that ripple in the breeze as they strike yoga poses on the beach at sunset.  They do things differently.  They have HABITS.

But you?  No, clearly you are just some normal, run-of-the-mill, depressed, stressed-out, grumpy schmoe, a.k.a. a “Non-happy”. You have to sit in traffic and deal with nincompoops and worry about all the things that are wrong with the world like all the rest of us.

This is them.
This is you.

Well, in my expert* opinion, you don’t have to be happy to be happy. In my expert* opinion, happiness coexists with whatever state you’re already in right now.  Stop putting happiness on a goddamn pedestal.

So without further ado, here are 5 things most anyone can do, right now, whatever mood they’re in, to feel happy while you cram junk food in your face or scowl at your computer or whatever else.  They aren’t really even habits, unless you do them a lot (or, as they say, “habitually”).  You can do ‘em as one-offs, except for maybe #3.

 1) look at pictures of cute animals on the internet.  Sometimes they have funny captions.  They say it helps you get work done, too!

2) lighten up. There’s a lot of heavy shit out there, and you can easily occupy all your time being outraged and worried and overwhelmed by all the things that are outrageous and worrisome.  But that’s not happening because the world is truly an awful place; that’s happening because you are hard-wired to be alert to threats and scared by them. If you don’t balance that tendency out, those constant stress hormones will whittle away your being from the inside.  Don’t worry; there’s plenty of funny and beautiful and heartwarming shit out there too (see # 1). Go find it.  Laugh. A LOT.  SRSLY.

3) have awesome friends. Friends who think the same stuff is funny as you (a sure sign of awesomeness).  Friends who don’t judge you, friends who you have an equal exchange with (of energy, of intellect, of whatever).  If you surround yourself with awesome people it will heighten your level of awesomeness by association. This includes virtual friends. There’s really no need to keep reading a constant stream of complaints from that one person you know who always seems to be a victim, or that other person who always wants you to freak out that the world is ending. Go for the people who post funny cat pictures (see #1).

4) eat and drink the good stuff. Not specifying here whether that’s kale or a magnificent bacon cheeseburger (see #1—oh wait, j/k).  Up to you;  I’m just sayin’, go for quality. Personally I’m a big fan of top shelf tequila.

 5) go the fuck outside. There’s weather and plants and animals (see #1) and stuff.  It’s neat.

The end.  Happy habiting!  (In case you missed it, it’s really all about cute animal pictures—see #1).

* I am not an expert.  In anything**.  I just google.

 **(From Jessica: Unless of course you count a PhD as a sign of being an expert in something.)