Farmville Inspiration

Way back in 2009, soon after another blogger on invited me to join Facebook, and I joined, I used to play Farmville. Since I no longer do so, I feel like I can admit it now, like I’m in recovery. Other people apparently have the same idea: “still exist” is one of the top google autocompletes for “Does Farmville . . .”

Even then, I knew the game was taking time and energy from more important things, things like practicing my instrument, socializing, even work. That’s why I am semi-serious when I characterize it as an addiction: it wasn’t trivial to stop playing Farmville, even when it was demonstrably interfering with my life. I was finally able to stop when I analyzed what I was getting (or thought I was getting) out of the game: spatial and temporal organization, order, and cleanliness.

I realized with a shock that my farm was prettier, better organized, and more peaceful and relaxing to be in than my real-life house.  My farm had become my happy place, my retreat from everyday anxiety. I also realized that I had made it this way, intentionally or not.

I was a little embarrassed by this realization, but it also gave me hope. My farm was actually pretty nice, and I had made it that way. If I could do that with a cheesy Farmville farm, I could also do it in a real house. I deleted the app and started to work on organizing my real house. It was a work in progress, until we moved this summer, but I did feel more connected to our old house once I started focusing and working on it rather than the virtual version. It had become such a part of me, I was sad to leave it.

I’ve had a similar virtual/reality tension between writing and music for the past 9 years. Most of the time, they’ve been correlated: more blogging, more practicing. The same traits that keep me blogging–curiosity, creativity, analysis, enjoyment, being a glutton for punishment (just kidding)–also keep me practicing.

But here in this new house, this new life, this new orchestra, they are starting to de-couple. Why? Because I’m trying to write more, and differently. When I started my violin blog it was pretty stream-of-consciousness. I just wrote down whatever was in my mind, without much planning or even much editing. I’d notice other people with writing schedules and I’d think, “eh, too much work. I’ll just write when I feel like it.”

Then I wrote a novel during NaNoWriMo a few years ago. Now I feel like I’m almost there, almost ready to declare it finished and send it to an editor, maybe try to publish it. But I’m not getting myself over that hump. I also felt like I wanted to blog about more than violin, so I started this blog here on Word Press. All of the sudden I feel like I have too many writing commitments.

Practicing the violin, too, is getting more complicated. My new orchestra is at a slightly higher level, musically, than my former orchestra. I mean no disrespect to my former orchestra, and I picked my current orchestra in large part due to perceived similarities in concert cycle and repertoire to that group. Maybe it’s just that it’s unfamiliar, I’m not sure. All I know is that everything seems to be moving quickly and I don’t want to be left behind. But every day the clock moves too fast and I want to pull it backwards. I still haven’t practiced yet today, for example.

I want to get back to that sweet spot, that Farmville inspiration, where I can take the creativity nurtured in a virtual medium and carry it into real life.



Pluto’s Heart

Sunday was my husband’s and my 18th wedding anniversary. It was our first anniversary in California, but otherwise there is nothing particularly special about the number. It snuck up on us a bit, leaving us to make plans at the second-last minute. One of the nice things my husband planned to do was come to church with me.

I have gone to church regularly since becoming a Unitarian-Universalist as an adult. In fact, the first UU church I ever joined was in California, Neighborhood Church in Pasadena. The UU churches here aren’t the direct Bostonian heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing. I’m not going to walk into a Messiah sing here and find myself sitting next to one of Hosea Ballou‘s violin-playing relatives (this really happened to me in back in Massachusetts). Out here, churches appear to be closer to the 6th UU source, Earth-Centered traditions. I’d been in a spiritual wilderness before I joined Neighborhood Church, and what I most remember about it now are the redwoods it was nestled in. I felt peace there among those trees, and welcome, and protection, and most importantly, relief from pressure, judgement, competition, and the need to be socially “on” at all times. The trees had been there long before all that, and would be there long after all that was gone. Although I wouldn’t have used this language at the time, the trees accepted my inner introvert, and I was grateful.

My husband and I were married in a UU church a year and a half later, but he’s generally not a churchgoer. Born and raised in Germany, he and his father formally resigned from the state church. Both my husband and I have PhDs in scientific disciplines (he, computer science; I, neuroscience) and both of us carry a strong skepticism towards fundamentalist religion and unscientific thinking. I found this outlook compatible with Unitarian-Universalism, he did not. I also found I wanted, and needed, the community of other seekers I found at a UU church, and he did not. After we were married, I continued to go to church almost every Sunday, and he did not.

Perhaps surprisingly, this has worked okay for 18 years. He comes to church occasionally, to see me and/or the kids play music or celebrate a milestone. I like it when he comes. Sometimes when he’s not there, during a service I will stand holding a hymnal by myself, and look around at whole families, families in which both parents are there every week singing from a shared hymnal, a little wistfully. But then I remember an alternative that proved unworkable: having a significant other who was a true believer in a religious orthodoxy that was more important to him than my feelings or experiences were. Having a significant other who needed me to change my beliefs in order for the relationship to work. I know how painful that was, because I lived it. I can’t turn around now and do that to someone else, certainly not someone I love. I turn back to my hymnal, and keep singing by myself.

So this week when my husband wanted to come to church on our anniversary, I hoped it would be a good service. The church that I’ve started attending here is promising. The people are all quite friendly and I enjoy the minister’s sermons. Plus, outside of the church, there are redwoods.

plutodogThis week’s sermon was about Pluto, called “Pluto’s Demotion and Religious Devotion.” Before we left Boston we went to see a big exhibit at the Museum of Science about Pluto. It was right when the New Horizons flyby was happening, and I remember the pictures that came back, especially the one with the heart. My college classmate, Kenneth Chang, a New York Times science reporter, covered it. In fact, my Facebook feed was full of people giving Pluto some love. But a sermon about Pluto? The fifth UU source (in a tie with the 6th source for my favorite): Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit. They get points for taking on this potentially scientific topic in the first place.

backinmyday_fullpicSo, I’m sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in the sermon. It started out strong, pointing out that at first, before Copernicus and telescopes, there were 7 planets: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These were what human observers could see with the naked eye. Earth wasn’t on the list, since it was thought to be in the center. What follows is an old, familiar story: scientists find out new facts, perspectives shift. Earth and humans move further and further away from the center of things. This trajectory encapsulates what I’ve learned over the years about the “conflict between science and religion:” when religious people talk about it, it is assumed to be self-evident that this de-centralizing of humanity is a Bad Thing. When scientific people talk about it, it seems to be generally assumed and self-evident that this de-centralizing of humanity is a Good Thing. I find these assumptions can get in the way of productive conversations and greater understanding. I’d like to have a conversation about the topic in a way that doesn’t insult my intellect or condescend to my sensibilities, in order to understand why Darwin had to defend the “grandeur in this view of life.”

I rarely have such an opportunity, and I didn’t get one this Sunday morning. Instead, I was told what’s wrong with scientism and what’s right about humility. Perhaps the minister was trying to get at the second half of the 5th source, the warning against “idolatries of the mind and spirit.” I agree there about the virtues of humility, but scientism is another story. I looked up this AAAS blog, “What is Scientism?” afterwards, because I had forgotten what the word meant. I never heard it during my scientific training, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a scientist use it. While the author of the blog, Thomas Burnett, gives a thorough history of the word scientism and claims that it is a strange but useful word, I don’t find his arguments convincing. For example, Burnett simply assumes that statements from scientists such as, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (from Carl Sagan), or “We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little” (from E.O. Wilson) are self-evidently alienating and bullying without ever explaining why he thinks so. The point of view expressed in the sermon was similar: science is just another way of looking at the world with no more validity than any other and to say otherwise is scientism (another Bad Thing), lacking in appropriate humility. The changes in the accepted number of planets, in Pluto’s status in particular, and people’s reactions to those changes, were cited as evidence for this claim.

wonkaSorry, but I’m still not buying it. It’s not because I don’t believe that everyone, including scientists, is biased. And it’s not because I believe that scientists are better people than non-scientists. The minister cited a number of examples of biases affecting both beliefs and behavior in the case of Pluto. I found these examples interesting and informative. I didn’t know, for example, that Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, was a UU. And I hadn’t thought of it before, but he was also the only American to have discovered a planet. As an American UU, sure, I’m proud of Clyde Tombaugh, and want to remain so. Back when I was in 6th grade, I learned that my very elegant mother just sat upon nine pins. I don’t like that one as much since I’ve become a mother myself, but my delight at imagining puffed-up authority figures being skewered is still alive and well. So yeah, I see these biases in my own thinking and in that of my tribe. I wish Pluto was still a planet. But crying scientism still seems like a strange response.

The problem for me with the “scientism” critique is that people who like to use the word seem not to understand what science is. Like Willy Wonka in the meme, perhaps they think “science” is some anthropomorphic entity that has a will of its own and can say things. Or they think that because scientists, like all humans, are biased and imperfect, the scientific method itself shares the same biases and imperfections, just writ large–the sum of all the flaws of its practitioners. But that’s not it at all. The second half of the 5th source says that the results of science are a warning against, not a feeder of, idolatries of the mind and spirit.

As we were driving home, my husband pointed out that the Pluto debate turns on definitions, not on science, and I agree completely. The word planet has been given a new definition several times in history, but that hasn’t changed the objective nature of what Pluto is or the scientific method by which Pluto is being studied. The newest definition includes 1. the shape of the object (that it has to be massive enough to be round) and 2. that it has to clear its neighborhood of other objects. This new definition excludes Pluto from planethood, much to many people’s disappointment. But not all. DumpedMeFor a gleeful salvo from the anti-planet camp, read Mike Brown’s book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. Brown is the Caltech astronomer who discovered Eris, another dwarf planet that is larger than Pluto. His discovery started the astronomy community down the road to “demoting” Pluto and ruining it for the rest of us who liked our 9 planets and our quaint motherly mnemonics.

Well, you could look at it that way. Or you could look at it as Brown does: as a new, exciting discovery about the universe. In this view, we haven’t lost Pluto, we’ve gained Eris, and Ceres, Haumea and Makemake, and a whole Kuiper belt full of strange and wonderful objects. “Praise him for showing us that stargazing, far from being a dead science, is a living, changing wonder,” says Benjamin Wallace about Mike Brown. And Mike Brown still loves Pluto.

If this had been my sermon, I would have focused on the wonders and new worlds that new scientific knowledge and changing definitions can open up to all of us. As UUs, we could even bring in for discussion the changes in definitions of other important words and concepts in response to new knowledge. Maybe it’s that I had marriage on my mind that anniversary day, because I kept expecting the minister to mention it. The most recent change in the definition of that word and concept, marriage, to include same-sex couples, has delighted many people (including me) but has also caused controversy and hurt on a scale far larger than anything Pluto has to offer. The analogy isn’t perfect, but to me there is a strong parallel in how both definitions, of planets and of marriage, have evolved to be more precise, and also to take into account facts about the universe that were not previously known or understood.

According to Burnett, the definition of scientism given to us by historian Richard G. Olson, “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern,” is so broad as to be “virtually useless.” I disagree. Rather, efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern are exactly what what we are engaging in and should be doing more of. Definitions sometimes change and evolve because of a traditional scientist working formally in a laboratory. But they also change and evolve when the status quo isn’t working for someone, somewhere, who may or may not be a formally trained scientist. Trained scientists or not, these folks make an observation (or have that observation thrust upon them by circumstance) and formulate a hypothesis about a better way, gather evidence in support of their hypothesis in the form of empirical observations and experiments, including lived experience, and then try to convince others on the basis of that evidence. Definitions change and evolve because of these people’s hard work in bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

The opposite of arrogance and idolatry, coping with these changes in definitions has taught us humility in the face of what we did, and still do, not know.


Nova Vista

One of the things I miss most about my life in Belmont is the Philharmonic Society of Arlington. I was the creator and admin of the group’s Facebook page, so I can recite this by heart: “The Philharmonic Society of Arlington, Inc., established in 1933, consists of three performing groups, The Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, The Arlington-Belmont Chorale, and The Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus.” Yes, you read that right: 1933, which makes it older than many professional symphony orchestras. The orchestra performed a mix of old favorites and premieres by local, living composers. We also provided playing opportunities for a diversity of musicians, from adult starters and re-starters, to professional music teachers, to up-and-coming Young Artists’ Competition winners.

I don’t feel up to recapping the last 8 years of my time there right here right now, but I blogged about a lot of it while it was happening, from the first rehearsal, to becoming concertmaster, to my first real solo with an orchestra in the Tchiakovsky “Mozartiana” suite, my stand partner who became a chamber music partner and one of my best friends, a fond farewell to a beloved senior conductor, and finally a new start with a fresh face on the podium.

I don’t think it really sank in until this morning, though–until I shed a few tears here at the computer–that that chapter of my life is over. Tonight, the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra has the first rehearsal of its 82nd season, and it will be without me.

When I told people that I was moving, I got plenty of recommendations for orchestras–so many, in fact, that I wasn’t sure what to do with them all. I felt overwhelmed. Many of the recommendations centered on the conductor, which I understand, since the tone that the conductor sets is very important. Names I don’t know, don’t recognize . . . I can google them and find out how many awards they’ve won and where they’ve studied, I can see which orchestras have recorded CDs, who has the best reviews, and who has the most professional-looking website. I can see where they rehearse and how far that is from my house. But none of that was helping.

Way back when we were first talking about moving, I just looked on the web for orchestras that rehearsed in the general area of Mountain View and Sunnyvale. I found one called the Nova Vista Symphony. I liked the name immediately: I pictured standing on a mountain and looking out into one of the many valleys around here with their green (or brown) rolling hills. I also liked the fact that they played with a chorale sometimes and had a Young Artists’ Competition. They had the right number of concerts–not too many, not too few–and a mix of repertoire, both familiar and new, with different types of challenges. The website said they had auditions, and when I inquired I was told I should prepare 1 fast piece, 1 slow piece, and a 2-octave scale. I took this seriously and started preparing. I figured a 3-octave scale would be fine too.

Not sure which instrument I wanted to play, I thought about viola again. I brought my viola with me on the plane and shipped my violin, because I couldn’t carry on both instruments. I practiced the viola in the guest apartment we were staying in while we waited for our furniture to arrive so we could move into the house. I played the 3rd movement to the Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D, and recorded it for the Adult Starter and Restarter Facebook group. I wrote about my viola as a cherished object for a blogfest that I was trying out. I met up with a buddy from the Facebook group, and we tried to play some chamber music, as well as sight-read the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia and the Barber Adagio in his large fencing studio in Redwood City with You Tube accompaniment projected on the wall.

The furniture, and the violin, finally arrived, and life kept accelerating. Our kids started school already on August 17. My daughter was asked to switch to viola in school orchestra and she has taken up the challenge. She needed a viola to practice at home, and so I loaned her mine. I also volunteered to be an assistant soccer coach to get my 12-yo son a spot on a team. Team practice schedules reduced the number of hours available for violin and viola, and conflicted with rehearsals of the South Bay Philharmonic, another group I had been considering, Through all of this, I heard no more about an audition, until last week. I got an email from the personnel manager of the Nova Vista Symphony saying that I had enough experience they didn’t need to audition me, and the first rehearsal was a week from then, i.e. last night. They included a list of the repertoire, which included both the William Tell Overture, and Eroica, two of my favorite pieces of all time.

I could interpret this in different ways–after all, not everyone wants to always be playing old favorites that they’ve played before–but in this time and place, it felt right. In this strange and wonderful and horrible season where everything is slippery, and is changing too fast, and I’m grieving one too many losses and goodbyes, it felt like coming home to see and hear and be part of these pieces again. I brought my violin and my little folding stand, and parked it there in the back of the firsts, shook the rust out of my fingers, and said hello to my old friends.

EGBOPP: taking soccer-mom-hood to a new level

In the past, I have referred to myself ironically as a “soccer mom.” Both my kids have played soccer, and one of them still does.

I say ironically, though, because it’s not a natural fit for me. Growing up, I never played any team sports. I was 2 years ahead of my school classmates and graduated high school when I was 16. I’m also old enough that there weren’t as many opportunities for girls to play youth sports back then. When talking, or even thinking, about why I didn’t play team sports, I tend to emphasize those aspects of the experience–that I was younger and smaller than everyone else, that there was sexism–with the fond hope in the back of my mind that if I had grown up in a different time or place, things might have been different for me too.

But that’s debatable. Furthermore, the past is the past. We’ll never know whether I could have successfully played a team sport as a kid. All I have is now. When I was in my mid-20’s, in graduate school, I went skiing in Lake Tahoe. I remember riding up the ski lift with a woman who told me that she was there because, for her 50th birthday, she had learned to ski. I also remember thinking something like, “wow, good for her, she’s still doing new things and putting herself out there at such an advanced age!” Well, I apologize now for any internal condescension I might have felt. Because here I am now, a few months before my own 50th birthday, learning to play soccer.

Before the move to CA, I felt I needed to make sure that my 12-year-old son had some activities outside of school when he got here. He played soccer in Belmont so I looked online for a soccer team. I found a couple: AYSO region 45 in Mountain View, and a private competitive league. Of those, AYSO seemed to be the most like what we were used to: a reasonably priced, recreational town league that competes with neighboring towns and has boys and girls divisions. And, just like back in Belmont, it was run by a small number of super-dedicated and amazing volunteers who had way too much to do. Furthermore, registration was already over and my son was on the wait list. I emailed the competitive team and let them know we were interested. But then, a few weeks later, I got a familiar-sounding email from AYSO: “Help, we need coaches!” And if you agree to coach, your child is guaranteed a spot on a team. I decided to do it.

Fast Forward a few months, and practices have started. My son’s team has bright yellow uniforms and is called the Wasps. I’m an Assistant Coach under a British Head Coach, Coach David, who likes to use words that sound like they are straight out of Harry Potter: striker, sweeper, stopper, keeper. (In Belmont, we just called the players forwards, midfielders, and defenders.) And he’s very experienced. Which is good, because our team has two assistant coaches, both of us moms with kids on the team, neither of us with soccer experience.

There are two major ways in which my soccer experience has been different here so far. The first is that individual teams have to paint the fields.


Field-painting machine
Insert spray can and roll with it!

You mean fields don’t just magically paint themselves? Oh, right, this isn’t Quidditch. You use one of these little machines, put in a spray can, and follow the lines that someone else (hopefully) laid down last week. When I got to the field, there were still some people playing, but they understood what we needed to do, and let us have at it: three parents rolling these carts around in the fading twilight. One of the coaches on the field who didn’t know me even took the trouble to thank me for doing this, and he reminded me to be sure to paint the penalty spot. “That often gets forgotten!” It was fun. And it gives you a better idea of where all the lines are and how far they are from each other. I will also note that the school where this field is, which my son does not attend, is within walking distance of our house. Unlike the school he does attend. Such is the crazy school districting in CA.

The other aspect that is different from what I did before is the training classes. In Belmont I assisted too, and I got occasional emails about the existence of coaching classes but no one checked up if I took them or not, and I decided that I was too busy. Here, if you volunteer it’s required that you sign up and take a training class appropriate to your level. There was one on Labor Day weekend. When I signed up it seemed very far away, and “it’ll be good for me,” I thought. But as Labor Day approached, I got nervous. “Any plans for Labor Day weekend?” people were asking. “Uh . . . yeah.”

The weekend dawned and it soon became “so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Or maybe an EGBOPP. That was one of the many acronyms that they gave us so that we could remember equally many lists: lists of attacking principles, defending principles, mission statement, vision statement, red cards, yellow cards, laws of the game. It was a little like being back in high school. I even made flash cards, because there was a test at the end.

I chose to highlight that particular acronym here, because that is the acronym for the AYSO philosophies, which I think are worth memorizing, and repeating: Everybody Plays, Good Sportsmanship, Balanced Teams, Open Registration, Positive Coaching, and Player Development.

I support all of those philosophies and think they apply equally well to other youth sports and activities. So it’s an organization I’m proud to support and be involved with. I hope keeping these philosophies in mind can help me be a better educator wherever I am involved with youth. This is not the impression I had of most youth sports/activities when I was growing up. Everybody plays? Player Development for all players, even the less talented? Not really. Some things do appear to have changed for the better.

Admit it, I’m a Writer

Back when I first did NaNoWriMo for real, in 2012, I had bronchitis and did some preparation for the event in bed before November started. I took time that I haven’t had, before or since, to read the forums and comment. One set of threads that struck me as particularly silly at the time, especially in my codeine-addled state, was the discussion of whether or not to call oneself a writer, especially if (like me), one hadn’t published anything yet. I thought it was silly to spend so much time and mental effort on that question when one could be actually writing something. A few commenters agreed with me; I got the impression that there were others out there that felt the same way, but I probably didn’t see them much because they were too busy writing their own novels. Reassured, I turned to something I found more interesting: designing the cover for my novel (which gave me the idea for how the book would end–so, a worthwhile activity, regardless of whether the actual design ends up being used or not), and taking a nap.

Later I realized later that this phenomenon isn’t unique to writers. I’d run into these questions of self-definition before in other communities where I’d participated, especially but not limited to online forums. Who gets to call themselves a violinist? a scientist? A feminist? Again I approached these discussions with skepticism; they seemed a little clique-y, more focused on keeping out the riffraff than doing anything useful.

But now, fast forward three years, and I’m finding my way in a new place. I’ve been enjoying meeting new people and everyone I’ve met has been friendly and interesting. It invariably comes up: what do you do for work? It’s easy to tell them about my husband’s job at Google. This town is sometimes known as “Google View” (right up the 101 from “Appletino”). And so far, my work story has been this: my part-time employer, Science From Scientists, just opened a new office in the SF Bay Area and I was able to transfer there. So, I am a part-time science educator.

This is all true, as far as it goes, but SfS is a part-time position. Even when the school year starts, I’ll probably only be at a school once a week, if that. In Belmont, in addition to SfS, I also worked at an educational start-up called the Innovation Institute. Here I don’t have that job. And my kids start school tomorrow. Looked at from that vantage point, of working at a school once a week, and my own kids being out of the house for the school day, my week looks rather empty. In reality, though, it’s not. It feels full, crammed to overflowing.

I think it’s time to come clean. What I really want to do with that time I’m not working in education is to finish editing my novel, get it into publishable shape, submit it to publishers, and if that doesn’t work out, self-publish it. That pretty much sounds like something a writer would do, doesn’t it? Hmm . . .

The thing is, even with reduced work commitments, I’m still having trouble finding time to write. I’m not blogging as much as I want to, and my novel is languishing. I look at all the things expected of me as a parent, as a new resident of the area, as a customer, and I feel like throwing up my hands. People don’t respect my time. But how will people know to respect my writing time, unless I tell them? Unless I honor it as much as I do my teaching time and my parenting time? It’s time to start telling people that I’m a writer. Maybe those NaNoWriMo threads weren’t so silly after all.

My kind of exercise

A friend recently posted this graphic onto my Facebook wall:


While I’d much prefer to practice the violin for an hour than to run a mile, I’ve never been that interested in calories, or especially in counting them. I don’t need to lose weight. What I seem to need is harder to pin down.

Growing up I was more or less a stereotypical nerdy kid who spent most of her time reading and wasn’t good at, and didn’t like, sports. Being 2 years younger than my classmates, and a late bloomer, didn’t help either. I have a number of memories of school gym class that are probably best left unwritten about. My high school was relatively enlightened, however, and by 10th grade they allowed students to choose individual activities like weightlifting and swimming to meet the PE requirement, which I did in the company of a similarly non-athletic friend, and never looked back.

I’m also old enough to remember big discrepancies in athletic opportunities for girls vs. boys. Good feminist that I am, I’ve watched and applauded the change over the past 40 years or so. It seems to have been a positive development, at least for other people. (Go Carli Lloyd, you are awesome!) For me personally, though, I have to say it’s been rather mixed. Some friends my age have stories of discovering hidden athleticism in adulthood: they’ve found out they love dance, or aerobics, or yoga, or lifting weights. There’s Zumba, there’s spinning class, there’s HIIT. And a lot of people–a LOT of people–seem to love running. Whereas I have a dirty little secret: I am not one of those people. I’ve tried most of these activities and I still don’t like any of them. In this one area, I’m actually kinda nostalgic for the bad old days when I had an excuse.

I did manage to do one sort of athletic thing in high school: the breaststroke. Back then being able to do a decent breaststroke was enough to earn me a slot on the school swim team. Even better, I didn’t have to do any flip turns. I swam two events: the individual 100-meter breaststroke and the breaststroke leg of the medley relay. I usually came in either third or last, but I came in third enough times to earn a varsity letter. I still have that letter, and the jacket I wore it on.

But, except for the swimming test my alma mater, Princeton University, required me to pass as a freshman, and recreational splashing around in the pool, lake, or ocean with the kids, I haven’t really swum in over 30 years. Whenever I set out to try, I’m reminded of several things:

1. Chlorine. It irritates my skin, eyes, and nose, and turns my hair green. Forget contact lenses. One drop of chlorinated water and my eyes are on fire.

2. Cold water. Enough said.

3. Weird strokes that I can’t really do. Three or four of my childhood summers were spent at Audubon and Clearfield Recreation Centers in Williamsville, New York, struggling to learn how to do the front crawl, the stroke that some people refer to as “freestyle” and most people apparently refer to as, just, “swimming”. While I can now do a decent-looking front crawl for 1-2 pool lengths, I still don’t really understand why anyone would want to. (Especially when they could be doing breaststroke, sidestroke, or elementary backstroke.) And I will spare readers my feelings about the butterfly, except to point out that when I attempt to do it I look and feel like a whale beaching itself.

4. Goggles. I’ve never had a pair that didn’t leak or a way to dive in without having them fall off my head. And, see #1.

5. Flip turns. See #1 and #3. Breaststroke doesn’t use them. Another point for breaststroke! And finally:

6. Anxiety.  I have anxiety about most aspects of swimming, and especially about being underwater. I enjoy it to a point, but I get winded easily and when I feel like I can’t breathe it gets worse. I got trapped underwater during a senior lifesaving class, and failed it. I still occasionally have anxiety dreams about swim meets, too.

But here I am, in California, in an apartment complex with a pool. The past week I’ve been swimming in the afternoons before dinner, and perhaps surprisingly, I’ve been looking forward to it. I bought some prescription goggles a couple of years ago that I never used in Belmont, and they are surprisingly decent. I can actually see the end of the pool and not crash into it and jam my finger. I don’t dive in off the side or anything so radical as that, but they stay on as I breaststroke back and forth. And they only leak a little bit, in one eye. The chlorine in this pool isn’t too bad, and the water is warm.

I wish I could say I am loving it so much that I am not even hearing the voices that tell me I’m not swimming enough, not doing it intensely enough, that I probably still look like a beached whale, or at least like a dork out there doing these slow breaststroke laps. I even let those voices talk me into some front crawl laps, just to see, but I got tired pretty quickly and went back to breaststroke.

I’m just doing it while it’s fun. When it’s not fun anymore, I stop. And, the pool is especially beautiful at night.


Postcards From the Drought

We aren’t living in our new house yet, because we are still waiting for furniture and contractors to finish. But we already got a warning on our front porch:

Warning for watering on the wrong day

We go over there most days to supervise contractors and check things out, but we hadn’t ever seen the sprinklers running. They were on a mysterious timer in the garage. The greenness of the lawn did suggest that they were still on “realtor” setting to make the house more attractive for selling. This confirmed it. I turned the system off completely. One of the contractors showed me how to turn it on manually if I want to, during the approved times, but I’m not sure I should.

This past weekend we went to another CITO geocaching event. I brought Hallie. We found our first caches in California not long after getting off the plane the first weekend. We were even FTF on one of them, and while we were there looking for it, we met a young cacher who told us about this event this weekend, at the Lexington Reservoir. (All these Massachusetts town names keep coming up: not just at the Lexington Reservoir, but also near our new address on Beaumont Square. When we say “Beaumont” to people, they hear “Belmont,” our old hometown. Not only that, but Beaumont Sq is within walking distance of Cambridge Ln, Waltham St, Newton Dr, Woburn Ct, and Waverley Pl. Coincidence?)

Lexy Reservoir today

The reservoir looks low, and another cacher and longtime area resident confirmed it. He said that when he was younger they used to be able to waterski and fish on this lake.

Dry creekbed

We filled our small bag with trash pretty quickly and decided to find some of the other caches in the area. One was called “gravity overcomes friction” and you needed to climb up a hillside. On the way up, we crossed what looked like a dry creekbed.

I had to find a way up that avoided the bushes to keep my legs from getting scratched. The view from near the cache zone was worth it!

View from near the cache. Friction temporarily overcame gravity!
View from near the cache. Friction temporarily overcame gravity!

I’m going to end with another picture of a path, because I’m still not tired of pictures of paths and roads 😉 You can see how everything is not green, even now in the middle of summer.

The road less travelled . . .
The road less travelled . . .

Sparking joy: a viola to cherish

This is my official post, about a single cherished object, for The Cherished Blogfest.

Family Portrait
Family Portrait

While I was decluttering in preparation for the move, people told me about “that book.” You know, the one on the best-seller list. Only keep things that “spark joy.” This process is supposed to be liberating, focusing your mind on what’s most important. Sounds great.

But then, there’s my violin: the violin that spent years in the back of various closets, from Princeton to Palo Alto to Pasadena. I was asked, more than once, “are you ever going to play that thing again? Why don’t you get rid of it?”

This was not an unreasonable question. I was in graduate school, getting my PhD in neuroscience. Perhaps more relevant, the violin did not spark joy. I’d had bad experiences in college—a failed audition for the university orchestra, followed by a flood of shame about both the failure and my emotional response to it. In my mind, I had not only failed, but had been so lacking in resilience, that I’d let it crush my spirit. Maybe decluttering the violin would have been the sane, humane, thing to do.

Instead, years later, I found myself living alone in my own apartment after breaking off an engagement. The violin re-emerged in the move and this time, it sparked something different: hope. I took it to a repair shop where it was restored to playing condition. I bought it a new, high-quality case. And I started taking lessons again. I found a group to play in that didn’t require auditions. And the joy was back. Not just like that. There may have been a spark somewhere, but it took serious effort to rekindle the joy. That joy lasted me through my postdoc up to the birth of my two children. But the violin went back into the closet when they were babies and toddlers.

When I started playing again most recently, I decided to try something new: the viola. A viola is a lot like a violin, but larger, tuned a fifth lower, and with a richer, darker sound. When I picked up a viola for the first time, it was both an old friend and a fresh start: no baggage, no failure and shame. Nothing to lose.

Playing the viola at the Farmers' Market
Playing the viola at the Farmers’ Market

Early on in my viola “career,” I had another unsuccessful audition for an orchestra. But this time I chalked it up to experience, and found another group to play in. I met people and formed a string quartet. I made new opportunities for myself. And then, through playing the viola, I was led back to the violin, now feeling comfortable on both instruments and able to switch back and forth between them as needed.

So, which do I cherish more? I’d rather not have to decide. If I hadn’t kept that violin, I probably would never have bothered again. I am grateful that I didn’t declutter it. But since I have to pick just one, I’ve chosen the viola. It helped me find my voice, and rekindle the joy for good.

Playing my viola in Boston's Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs
Playing my viola in Boston’s Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs

The Cherished Blogfest

So many new things are happening right now for me: new state, new house, new colleagues, new orchestra. And, on my relatively new blog, a blogfest. What is a blogfest? Well, that’s what I want to find out.  It’s certainly new to me.

The Cherished Blogfest Badge

Bloggers participating in this blogfest are writing 500 words about the most cherished object in their possession, and visiting the other participants’ blogs. The Cherished Blogfest is hosted by Dan AntionDamyanti Biswas, Paul Ruddock, Peter Nena, and Sharukh Bamboat.

I have had a lot of time to think about this question (and in a unique way) over the past several weeks, because I have been doing major decluttering, getting rid of possessions in preparation for a cross-country move.

My old Nancy Drew collection
Martial Arts Equipment
The Bitty Twins
BoB TV timer

I realized that it was going to be hard to pick just one thing, and that I cherished a lot of things. So it was important to me to find them good homes.

But now that we’re down to the end, to the empty house, what did I keep? What will I carry with me on the plane, being unwilling to be without it for the time it takes the moving van to drive from Boston to California?

Not surprisingly, the answer is, my viola! Since I have to say it in 500 words, I’ll write the official post next.

Golden Age

Everyone says that decluttering is supposed to be therapeutic. So why don’t I feel that way? Instead of experiencing the “life-changing magic of tidying up,” I feel like telling Marie Kondo to go stuff it.

There have been some fun, bright spots in the odyssey to divest myself of possessions that I won’t need in CA: the mother/daughter pair who came to get my freecycled collection of vintage Nancy Drew books; the friendliness of the workers at the Hazardous Waste Drop-off (cheerfully taking bleach, paint thinner, burned out CFLs, and no-longer-rechargeable batteries off my hands); the little boy who picked out a new toy car and little girl who fell in love with an artisanal stuffed bunny made out of soft alpaca fur. The prospect of new kids rummaging through an old tub of Barbies and again putting beautiful dresses and little shoes on their funny-looking plastic bodies and feet. Watching the kid I gave an old Connect 4 game to play it over and over with his friend and his mother. I even learned something about landscaping: one woman came to take large old cardboard boxes because she’s using them to cover over and redo her yard, kill weeds, and put fresh soil on top. The processes and interactions that I dread are invariably not as bad as I have made them out to be in the anxious hours between 4 and 5 am. Even disposing of a recalled de-humidifier and getting a check for it looks like it will be relatively straightforward (although it will cost $20 of that check to be environmentally responsible about the disposal).

We went to Boston’s Museum of Science yesterday, a last visit to see a couple of cool things they had on exhibit: the Science of Pixar, Exploring Pluto, and a movie about living in the Age of Airplanes. It was intended as a nice break from moving, and in many ways it was, but the Pixar exhibit also brought me face-to-face with the endless supply of junky plastic movie-tie in toys that I’ve been dealing with over the past weeks.


We haven’t bought a Happy Meal or equivalent in a long time, but the plastic lives on, and there’s something unseemly about the durability, complexity, and ubiquity of the toys. They’re in the basement. They’re in the playroom. They’re in the attic. They’re in tubs and drawers and toy organizers, in bowls and on shelves. Many of these toys are strange creatures or contraptions of one kind of another: body-less heads with big neotenous eyes and open mouths, silly expressions, crazy hair, wild colors. At the Pixar exhibit, you can see exactly how those expressions were designed, made and realized, and even make some yourself. There are complex mathematical and engineering equations describing curly hair, and cheese, and the trajectory of a waving elastic arm. A group of earnest, diverse, interesting people show up on screens labeled “Working at Pixar” to tell visitors about their jobs and how much they love those jobs. These jobs are mainly about pixels and films, animated characters and virtual lighting, but It’s brought home to me that designing those toys must be somebody’s job too, and so is actually making the physical objects. And somehow, because of that, it feels like these toys, junky and ridiculous and missing parts though they may be, deserve a better fate.

I didn’t know what to expect from the IMAX movie, called Airplanes: A World in Flight. As museum members, we had free tickets that we needed to use up, and this movie was showing when we were available, so we went. It turns out that the movie makes a compelling case for how aviation brings us closer together, makes our world smaller, and enhances cultural understanding. “Every age is a golden age,” Han Solo’s voice tells us. “Appreciate the age you live in.” The movie is interspersed with gorgeous pictures of the African Savannah, of Rome, of Las Vegas, and it ends with our future home: the San Francisco Bay area, the City, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, blazingly lit up at night, planes flying overhead, music from James Horner. It’s a beautiful movie, hopeful and optimistic, showing us lovingly and at length the goldenness of our age. Typical for me, I teared up at the ending, which shows a family greeting each other as one of them gets off a plane in the SFO airport, coming home to loved ones from a time away.

The film also had a section on flowers from Kenya being delivered to Alaska by plane. The script followed these flowers from initial cutting to vase on someone’s table in Anchorage. Planes make this kind of thing possible too, and while the movie was careful to maintain a positive tone, I was kind of appalled. These flowers only live 14 days from cutting. All the work, the fuel, the resources spent to fly them to Alaska where, in less than two weeks, they’ll be compost. This kind of thing happens with food, too, and is often discussed negatively: instead of eating out-of-season foods flown or trucked in from halfway across the world, people are told they should eat locally-produced foods bought at farmers’ markets. It’s better for the planet, and for your health. Coming from where I’ve been for the past month, awash in “stuff” that was probably shipped in from another continent and that I would have been better off without, I’m predisposed to think this way. I tear up often these days; it’s embarrassing.

What’s especially hard to understand and process, for my little brain, is what to do with this information now that I have it. Perhaps my tears are about something more than missing Boston. I read an article this morning, shared by a distant friend on Facebook: The Great Grief: How to Cope with Losing our World.  “The notion that our individual grief and emotional loss can actually be a reaction to the decline of our air, water, and ecology rarely appears in conversation or the media . . . It is as if this topic is not supposed to be publicly discussed.”  I can try to buy flowers locally (or pick them from my garden). I could even boycott cut flowers altogether, since, unlike food, they are not necessary for survival. But in general the whole system is so big and complex, and the supply chain so long it’s hard to even know where to start. If I boycott Kenyan roses, who am I helping? There’s also something wonderful about being able to get roses from Kenya. Kenya is proud of its airline and the people who work there in the flower industry are happy to have good jobs. That choice might hurt rather than help.

I too will be getting on a plane in less than a week. I’ve done my share of flying, for both business and pleasure. My carbon footprint is not small. I have always loved looking out of airplane windows to see the clouds. I took these pictures, of Mt. Rainier and Diamond Head, last year when we were on our way from Seattle to Hawaii for a vacation. That I am one of the few humans in all history who can take such pictures, that I live in such an age, is awesome, humbling, and sad at the same time.


The Brain—is wider than the Sky

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