Confessions of a Non-Tree-Hugger

mother nature

As I write this, my eyes are starting to resemble those of a fancy goldfish, and I’m sneezing in multiples. I never sneeze. The roof of my mouth feels like it’s covered in burlap. It’s that time of year again, and I’m being incapacitated by ragweed- a plant, and an unimpressive one at that. Mother nature is powerful in subtle ways, and once in a while, she likes to remind me that I am most certainly not at the top of the food chain.

This is not the first time I’ve been reminded of this. I’ve seen trees fall on cars in our driveway. I’ve had to look after my dog when he slashed his foot on zebra mussels. I’ve waited out a passing tornado in a hotel lobby. I’m always the first one to get eaten alive by mosquitoes. My relationship to nature is not a perfect one. In fact, nature scares me a little. I don’t camp. I don’t hike. I don’t consider all creatures cute and cuddly.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the environment. Mother Nature and I may not be warm and fuzzy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect her work, and it doesn’t mean I wish her any harm. I may be a geeky suburbanite who’s overly-dependent on my cell phone, but I’m also a proponent of acknowledging my place in the ecosystem in an honest way. I know that I’m a little speck, connected to all kinds of other little specks. If anything, being a little on edge in the great outdoors has made me more humble about my place in the great scheme of things.

No, I will never abandon my worldly possessions to go and live in a tree house. I don’t wear dresses made of wheat and yes, once in a while, I squish a bug instead of scooping it up and taking it outside. I admire people who are all in, environmentally speaking, but it’s not me. I can still, however, recycle, drive less, eschew pesticides and support free-range farming. I can refrain from thinking that my being human means that other organisms are meant to do my bidding.  Mother nature makes me itchy and frustrated, but then again, so do a lot of other human beings, and I don’t make a habit of stomping all over them. I prefer to see her and I as oddball roommates, both doing our thing and trying not to get in each other’s faces. I just wish she wouldn’t leave all this pollen all over the apartment.

 

The Storymaker and the Elves: A Fairy Tale for Proofreaders

forest-elf-1391563

Once upon a time, there was a humble writer. He was an honest lover of words and ideas, and had toiled for years in service of the muse, struggling to create clever turns of phrases, and hopefully turn a profit. All of this toil brought eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a profound addiction to caffeine, but alas, it did not allow the writer to make a living at his craft. No matter how many submissions he sent out, he couldn’t get the powers that be to notice his talent.

One night, beleaguered and fresh out of good ideas, he decided to give up, hang up his quill, empty his ink pot and quit this wordsmithing thing. Maybe he’d teach English oversees, get a job in telemarketing, or join the ranks of the retail army. With a sigh, he turned out the lights and went to bed, his latest sloppy magnum opus splayed out over the top of his desk, dotted with angry ink in particularly trying sections.

The next morning, the writer awoke to find that same manuscript arranged neatly, his pen and ink looking alert and ready to work again. It wasn’t like theives to tidy up after breaking in, he thought as he tiptoed over for a closer look. Smartly etched into the pages were tiny correction marks, written by tiny hands. Some indicated overlooked grammar errors, some pointed to missing words, and some even made suggestions for improvements in style and organization. Feeling sheepish, but grateful, the writer set about making the changes, and when he had a new, clean copy ready, he marched it down the street to the local publisher.

The book was an instant success, and within weeks, the writer had enough money to last him the rest of the year. Bolstered by this, the writer hauled out another tattered manuscript, one that he’d abandoned to the mice years ago, and left it on the desk overnight.  To make it look extra pathetic, he rumpled the pages around and tossed a few on the floor.  Sure enough, the next morning, it stood corrected in the same fine handwriting, with the same insightful comments. Like the first manuscript, it proved to be a favourite of those in town.

Out came the rest of the writer’s past failures.  Each appeared in significantly better condition the next morning, and soon after, each became another notch in the writer’s literary belt.  When he’d cornered the fiction market in his region, he decided it was time to find out which benevolent force had helped him receive such acclaim.

Hiding in the pantry one night, he saw a group of tiny elves hunched over the pages of his latest disaster. Although they were making quick work of his corrections, they clearly weren’t happy about being there.  Their mussed hair, flushed cheeks and relentless cursing made it evident.

Feeling guilty, the writer vowed to repay them for their kindness. In anticipation of their next visit, he left a selection of miniature writing implements, a basket of mini muffins, and a small bottle of home brew. He smiled as he fell asleep, thinking he had shown true gratitude.

Evidently wee folk don’t appreciate empty carbs, and they can’t handle hooch. The writer awoke to find his manuscript befouled in unspeakable ways. The elves had left a note that was almost incomprehensible, but still managed to convey a healthy number of expletives and something about him being a rotten bastard for not sharing royalties. The wee pens and pencils he had selected for them were jabbed into the wood of the pantry door inside what looked like a crude drawing of him.

The writer may not have had a critical eye for his own work, but he could take a hint. He stopped leaving out work to be corrected. Figuring he could live quite comfortably from his previous work, he stopped writing entirely and retired somewhere in the dessert, where there probably weren’t elves.

 

That Makes No Sense: A Kid’s View of Gender

Little girl with tiger

Virginia Woolf said “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Despite the fact that I grew up in a time and place where this sort of forced anonymity had lessened, I still see it rearing its ugly head on a regular basis. I don’t think feminism has outlived its usefulness, and I don’t think it should be seen as a dirty word. We, and I mean all of us, still have work to do to get over the gender-based hang-ups that make a mess of things.

What puzzles me sometimes is how we go about continuing this work. Being female is different than it was two thousand years ago, hopefully better for most, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the progress that’s been made. At the same time, I’m not ready to sit on my feminist laurels and assume that it’s all fixed. Things have to be Pepto Bismol pink in order to be declared fit for use by females. There are still career fields that are seen as more suitable for one sex than for the other. There are still classes that teach women how to do something as simple as walk through a parking lot without getting attacked. Nope, we’re not done yet. Not by a long shot.

About a year ago, I was reading a book to a little girl.  It was about one of the first young women in China to attend university, and I thought it was lovely. The small person listening, however, was puzzled. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy the narrative or the pictures, and it wasn’t that I hadn’t read it with enough enthusiasm. She was confused because she just didn’t grasp the crisis of the story.  It had never occurred to her that girls wouldn’t be allowed to go to school, and the notion that there had to be a first, and that it was a big deal, seemed almost ridiculous to her. When I explained it to her, she furrowed her brow and said “That makes no sense.”

This is where I think feminism has to live, in that moment where the gender gap makes no sense, where the built-up layers of history are seen as something that can be easily peeled away. This isn’t innocence or naivete, it’s an untainted sort of logic. I want to somehow freeze that mindset, preserve that matter-of-factness. Someone tell me how we get big people back to their default settings, so they can furrow their collective brows and agree that in a lot of cases, “That makes no sense.”

What I Learned From Phil: An Arts and Science Love Story

Phil's birthday 2Four years ago, I wrote a book about robots- me, the consummate artsy-fartsy, who still to this day swears up and down that her relationship with technology goes no further than turning devices on and struggling to get them to do something useful.  Granted, the book was for kids, but it still required a leap of faith and a lot of research.  It was nonfiction, and I couldn’t just take poetic license as I went along. A bunch of parents, most of them as unversed in robots as I was, wanted to know more about them so they could keep up with their kids, and so I pulled up my socks and did it. I think it worked.  Soon after the book came an app, and teacher materials, and a handful of fun videos.  My little robot narrator, whom I lovingly named Phil (the first half of Philosophy, of course), has come with me in puppet form to all kinds of events, and this particular work has been recommended by the National Science Teacher’s Association.  Not too shabby, eh?

Writing about Phil was an education in tech, but it also made me realize something important about myself: I’ve always had a toe or two planted in the world of science.  I knew very little about actuators or pseudo code before working on this book, but I’d always had a strong laywoman’s curiosity about how the universe worked.  I’d long been a stargazer and was fascinated by genetics.  As an undergraduate, one of my favourite courses was physical anthropology (I still cough up random facts from it, years later). When I taught at the college level, I loved doing the lecture on Darwin and evolution. Phil made me get specific, but the general foundation had always been there.

What’s more, I was reminded that arts and sciences have a long history together.  A whole lot of the philosophers I had studied were polymaths, and the fact that they covered both ends of arts/science spectrum probably made them better thinkers in general. Since writing about Robots, I’ve worked with a lot of engineers, and the vast majority of them have “artsy” inclinations. Since writing Phil, I’ve done a TEDx talk on the intersection of arts and tech, blogged about it, and have given workshops about STEAM education.  It’s actually become a bit of a passion of mine, and I’m noticing that I’m not alone.

Most importantly, Phil really opened my eyes to the fact that behind just about any major development, invention or discovery are human beings, with really cool stories. All the science fiction I read as an adolescent should have tipped me off to this one. It should come as no surprise that I’m a sucker for really cool stories.

All this from a little cartoon robot.  Happy birthday, Phil!