Exploration, Science and Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice stills

Chasing Ice starts off like a modern day disaster flick, splicing news clips of catastrophic flooding amidst footage of a spate of climate deniers. However, do not be fooled into mistaking this remarkable documentary for an environmentalist's attempt to incite panic and preach to his own congregation. The film chronicles award-winning nature photographer James Balog's (who also has an advanced degree in geomorphology) effort to collect evidence of the Earth's changing climate by documenting melting icebergs in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and other countries.

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Pulling together a group of young scientists, Balog forms what he calls Extreme Ice Survey and, using time-lapse photography, documents conditions at 18 glaciers beginning in 2007. Chasing Ice uses tangible science, visual evidence and stunning glacial backdrops to highlight the fact that we are witnessing the disappearance of these gargantuan glaciers at a breathtaking rate.

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The film also explores the challenges involved in mounting an effort this ambitious, including Balog's battle with his body's own fragility as he is forced to undergo yet another knee surgery during the project.

I'm sure the cynics among us will question how interesting watching ice melt could be, but to open your heart and mind to Chasing Ice is to have your life changed. As for its "interestingness", I fell asleep in the theater during Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Chasing Ice had me leaning forward, pretty much on the edge of my seat, and jotting down ideas once it was over for how to get this into the hands of everyone I know.

If you watch and/or are interested in learning more and taking action, the Chasing Ice site has some additional information, including what you can do about climate change. Also check out the Extreme Ice Survey site for a discussion of why glaciers matter and the different types of glaciers. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't direct you to American Rivers website for information on federal and state policy changes that can help our communities better adapt to a changing climate.

Chasing Ice is currently streaming on Netflix (among other places), so for many of you, watching it is just a couple of clicks away. Hell, I'll even stream it via a Google Hangout if there's enough interest ;-)

All photos above are screen captures I took from the film.

Sanity savers for finishing my first draft (aka how I spent most of my sabbatical)

working weekend

The idea for the novel I finished drafting on my sabbatical first came to me in 2011. Tucked into a booth at Demolition Coffee in Petersburg, Virginia, I was overcome with the need to record it somewhere, to not lose it, so I pulled out my work notebook and wrote the first three paragraphs of what I'm now calling Thistledown. It wasn't until a year and half later that I carved out any significant time to advance the story further than that.

It was such a significant portion of my sabbatical (and writing stories such an integral part of who I've always been) that I want to share a bit of what it's currently about and a few of the "tools" that kept me motivated and inspired. The copy below is my initial take on what you would read on the inside flap or back cover, followed by what I'd tell you if I had to do it in 140 characters. Suggestions for reworking these are welcome. Collaborative copy editing, FTW!

At its heart, Thistledown is about getting past all of the prickly barbs we erect to protect ourselves and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Cassie is a 30-something Baltimore native struggling to truly connect with the people and things around her. Born into a tight-knit family with a propensity for secretiveness, she has made a habit of keeping everyone, including those closest to her, at arm's length. Her struggle to deal with her grandmother's decline reawakens an interest in the family history, and old family secrets threaten to surface. Upon discovery that one of her grandmother's old cameras can capture images from the past, she finds herself thrust into a 120-year old mystery at an abandoned mill. As she falls further down the rabbit hole and learns more about the fate of the girls who worked the textile mill, past and present begin to meld, and Cassie finds herself willing to tear down the barriers she has erected in her own life.

The Twitter-friendly, I just met you on the street version...

A young woman grappling with vulnerability discovers a fantastical camera among her grandmother's things and uncovers an intriguing mystery.

or

Life is full of mystery. A fantastical camera, a 120-y.o. disappearance, and a cast of colorful characters may hold the key to unlocking it.

Okay, 140 character limits are hard! I suddenly want to rail against the invention of Twitter (just kidding...I love you Twitter).

During my sabbatical (which I've started thinking of as a wonderful preview of what retirement could be like), I focused on the last quarter of the book. I was incredibly naive going into it and absolutely underestimated how difficult writing the ending would be. Not only did I want to do a good job weaving all of the different pieces of the story together, I also failed to comprehend the challenge of writing two pretty dark scenes I had planned. To get myself in the mood, I mainlined dark, moody pop/culture.

Listening

Holst:

The Planets: Mars, Bringer of War

Lalo:

Symphonie Espangole in D Minor, Op. 21-IV

Watching

Luther, seasons 1 + 2

Sherlock, seasons 1-3

Coffee

was also fairly integral to my ability to perform.

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When I couldn't make it to the coffee shop, Coffitivity saved my life. I am only slightly exaggerating. It was astounding how much my focus increased once I downloaded this app to my phone. The other app I used is Evernote. I used to save my research, outlines, etc.

As you can see, I kept it fairly simple. I never used any fancy writing software, though I'm up for hearing why I should. The final thing that really kept me going was Neil Gaiman's voice in my head pretty much telling me to just sit my ass at the computer and write. It was particularly helpful as my mind would wander, and I would start to dream of all of these cool research trips I needed to take.

Even though the first draft is finished, I'm far from done. I've set a schedule for editing what I've currently got so that I can hopefully pass it along to a few people to read and provide cold, hard feedback. I'm committed to seeing this thing through before allowing myself to wander off into a new story.

Postcards, Pennsylvania and the things that inspire us

Wissahickon Creek

Today is my first day back in the office after six weeks off, so I thought I'd kick this season off with a new series. You've probably figured this out by now, but I am fascinated by history, particularly the smaller, intimate stories that we aren't necessarily taught in school. The rabbit hole you can fall down when picking up an old photo or random artifact is one I will readily plunge into almost every.single.time.

I was with friends this weekend at an antique mall in Hagerstown when I came upon a booth with a wall of postcards handily organized by category. By the time my friends made it to the booth, I was grasping a stack of a hundred or so postcards, flipping through them with a manic gleam in my eye. It was an entire category dedicated to dams! Let's put aside the fact that I love the fragments of personal history captured on a postcard, there is potential value in a photo or rendering of a site at a particular point in history.

The card above is postmarked January 3, 1907 and was sent to a Virginia Peale at the Abington Friends School, which, at the time, was a Quaker boarding school for K-12. As you can see from the text on the front (above), they are essentially coordinating a ride. Think of having to communicate in this way today! I can't decide if the amount of planning required appeals to me or if I mourn the difficulty in spontaneity.

After looking up Fairmount Park, I realized that I've been in the Pennypack section of it before. I actually planned a press event there several years ago. The park itself was founded in 1867 and encompasses roughly 4,000 acres in the Schuylkill River watershed. Wissahickon Creek is one of Schulkill tribs. If you look up modern day photos of this site, you will find (thanks to the protection of this parkland) that the photo looks very much the same. However, around the time this postcard was mailed, the area and industry around the stone bridge would be quite different. At this point in our history, grist, saw and paper mills peppered the river, mills that were once owned by the likes of Richard Townsend (immigrated from England with his friend William Penn and founded the Philadephia area) and William Rittenhouse (among others). Other, more modern industry (we're talking late 1800s here) were print and dye works, as well as several ice companies.

Maybe I'm a bit mad, but this simple postcard inspires me so much--from art project (who added the glitter?) to the jumping off point for a future story to research into the Quaker's settling of the Philadelphia area.

Sabbatical reading list

Reston Used Bookstore

I'm feeling bittersweet this morning. It's the last day of my sabbatical. I'm trying desperately to maintain the zen-like feelings I worked hard to discover and quell my rapidly rising heartbeat every time I think about what my inbox must look like. What better way to remain calm than to talk about books, specifically what I read while off!

You would think I'd have finished a huge stack of books, but the combination of reading weightier titles and spending so many hours writing resulted in a shorter finished pile. Here is a brief look at what I curled up with during these snowy weeks.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell - After hearing about this book for years, I finally bumped it to the top of the list, and I'm so glad I did! You can read my full write-up here. The quick and dirty summary is that a Jesuit priest leads a mission to another galaxy after discovery of other life. The story shifts back and forth between the mission itself and debriefing of the sole survivor who has returned scarred and silent decades later.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - This is a novel of split-second decisions and the impact they have. The story begins when our main protagonist, Theo Decker, is just a boy. He is orphaned after a tragic bombing at a New York museum. While struggling to get his bearings following the explosion and escape, he makes a few decisions that color the rest of his life. The story follows Theo from a wealthy Park Avenue home to the seedy Las Vegas desert and the monied world of antiques restoration and sales. I found myself rooting for Theo through every bad decision he makes and wanting him to thrive. While it seemed to drag a bit in certain sections, I dug it, and the nuggets of writing on art and antiques were enough to keep me going. If that turns you off, don't worry. This is Donna Tartt we're talking about, so it has drugs, sex, murder and deception, too.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler - This is the story of four best friends from a small town in Wisconsin and how their lives and loves still intersect years later despite the different directions their lives have taken. For me, Shotgun Lovesongs really boiled down to a moving look at male friendship with a side of introspection on what success means to different people. Butler's writing is solid and leads you along in a lyrical fashion. Lots of warm feelings upon finishing this book.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer - I picked up Cinder when my BookBub (regular email notifying you when there are e-book sales) email mentioned it was on sale. I was drawn to the potential for a dystopian Cinderella set in the future wherein she's a cyborg and a plague threatens the kingdom. After The Sparrow and The Goldfinch (weird bird thing going on there), I also needed a bit of brain junk food. Unfortunately, starting this right after finishing the talented musings of Tartt and Russell was a bit like running into a brick wall. Tartt and Russell are masters of prose, and the first couple of chapters of Cinder read a bit like bad Cinderella fanfic. Luckily, I ended up being stuck somewhere with only this e-book with me and picked it back up. If you end up getting this one and are willing to stick with it past chapter six (page 48 on my Nook app), you just might get hooked. At this point in the story, Meyer diverges from the Cinderella formula and definitely snags my interest. I enjoyed the direction she took the story and don't want to spoil it for those you who may read it. Just know that this is a series (books 1-3 are already out), and it ends on a cliffhanger. I enjoyed the book enough that I'll buy book two (Scarlet)...again, brain candy kind of read. Also, if you're looking for a second opinion, my friend Steven also read Cinder with me and experienced a similar trajectory (disappointment-->interest).

For more of what I'm reading currently, you can add me on Goodreads or listen to That's What She Read!

Amtrak: a writerly recap

Grain-fed outside of Fort Worth

All of the great Twitter buzz about Amtrak needing to institute a writing residency (which they later did) had me laughing to myself. Don't get me wrong--it's a lovely idea! I've been a romanticizer of train travel from way back. I bought my first North American rail pass on Amtrak in early 2000 (maybe 2002/2003?) and spent that December traveling to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then later down to Dallas, Texas. The idea was to spend the time writing on my way to visit family and friends, and it was awesome. The train was comfortable and not overly crowded. I met such interesting people, including a fellow budding writer looking for quiet inspiration, gazed at whatever landscape we were passing in the observation car and dined with strangers. I can't say that I got a lot of writing done, but I left inspired and fulfilled.

In fact, it held such warm memories for me that I decided to travel to Texas via Amtrak again in December 2011. I can't decide if the marked difference in my trip was the result of more people looking for a railway adventure or the fact that I was roughly ten years older and in need of more comfort in my life. Instead of a romantic journal across a swath of America, laptop and idealism in tow, we're talking Lord of the Flies and a descent into madness. Before I re-read my Twitter account of the trip (below), my initial inclination was to offer a bit of reality for all of the starry-eyed dreamers. However, after reading through my notes and thinking back on the trip, it occurred to me that even in its most uncomfortable, trying moments the trip provided me with stories, rich characters and the knowledge that this girl will book a sleeper car for anymore long train journeys. So, go ahead, sign on up!

Departure // Washington, DC to Austin, TX

Train travelogue, hour 9: I have read (a lot), drafted one blog post, and carried on one lengthy conversation. #thrilling

Train travelogue, hour 10: Once again demonstrated my prowess at changing into comfortable evening attire in a bouncing train restroom.

Train travelogue, hour 22: 2 Bigelow teas, 1 Starbucks Via, water. Caffeine deprivation is a concern.

Train travelogue, hour 28: Shooting video clips from the observation car and continuing to change my mind on where I'm hopping off in TX.

Train travelogue, hour 34: Spending time in common areas has led to interaction w chatters. Do believe I've heard my first line of the trip.

Train travelogue, hour (almost) 36: There is now banjo playing in the observation car (as we roll through the ozarks).

Train travelogue, hour 39: Found a corner of the floor to curl up in. Hoping for sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 45: My seatmate finally got off the train, so I'm trying to hold onto my solo seat. I. Need. Sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 49: Stopped in Dallas, I feel my final destination is within reach. Also, After the Apocalypse is my #FridayReads.

Train travelogue, hour 52: It will prob disturb you that I think I look better than I should after this long. http://t.co/KzXxOG96

Train travelogue, hour 55: Here.

Return Trip // Austin, TX to Washington, DC

Train travelogue, hour 4: Close to Fort Worth. Spotted what appeared to be starving cows a couple hours back and am still haunted by them.

Train travelogue, hour 8.5: Watching mating rituals in a condensed setting makes me realize even more that I'm not cut out to randomly date.

Train travelogue, hour 9: The observation car is like a crazy, mad bazaar. Screaming children, conversations in at least 4 diff languages.

Train travelogue, hour 11: Have I told you that some serious drinking occurs on trains? They sell booze, and people very much byob.

Train travelogue, hour 14: Seatmate got off in Little Rock, and I survived the new influx of passengers. Safe for at least 2 hours. Sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 23: I survived the night and was rewarded with sunrise glancing off the St. Louis arch and a dusting of snow.

Train travelogue, hour 27: I'm about an hour away from Chicago and in desperate need of this layover.

Train travelogue, hour 30: I take the train in order to people watch and absorb atmosphere. However, Chicago's Union Station is my own hell.

Train travelogue, hour 33: My people watching has stooped to a new low. Am periodically peering over at my seatmate's salacious chat convo.

Train travelogue, hour 34: Broken, I reached for the wine. Yes, folks, I have been driven to drink white zin by the train.

Train travelogue, hour 38: Honestly, I'm super prickly. Just stopped in Indy, and a family of about 30 loud assholes boarded. #midnight

Train travelogue, hour 46: Not even wine could salvage what we had. The train and I have broken up.

Train travelogue, hour 49: Outlook brightened by conversation with a nun about bears and dancing in a meadow at night. Also, waterfalls.

Train travelogue, hour 54: Running 2 hours behind schedule. Disembarked in Staunton in favor of rental car. Fuck this (chanted internally).

Low-risk radicalism: install a tiny public library

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I'm prone to love almost any idea based in the sharing of books or what we're reading. If I have to engage in small talk, "what are you reading/OMG you should read" is my comfort zone, and I find the idea of leaving surprise books for people ridiculously appealing. I've been itching to install a tiny "library" in public for more than a year, and when I noticed these trellises in a high-traffic area outside my local Caribou Coffee, I finally decided to make it a priority.

The library itself is actually just an inexpensive mailbox purchased from Home Depot and appropriately decorated. It doesn't hold a ton of books, but it's the perfect size for something that may wind up stolen or taken down by stodgy property management (like my last public installation, which disappeared in less than 24 hours). Maybe this is just a trial run for filling this tiny space with books!

I tucked the following books into this library: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis. This means I can buy more books, right? (P.S. I did.)

If putting up your own tiny library seems like too much effort, consider something like BookCrossing and leave a copy of a book in a random location.

sabbatical week 2 + 3

I finished my first quilt! It's so not perfect, but I love it.
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My own version of Chasing Ice. #mustseedoc
La Colombe, 02.22.14

It's mind boggling to think that the first month of my sabbatical is over. There is a tiny part of me that is filled with anxiety at all that I haven't accomplished. I haven't even touched my business plan, still haven't whipped this blog into shape, continue to labor over the ending of my book, and haven't solved all of the world's problems. Screw empowering anxiety. Let's put doubt aside and focus on what I have gained. 

It's not true that things remain dormant in the winter. Do you remember that personal growth I mentioned a few weeks ago? Tiny buds of change have taken root inside me and are threatening to full-on bloom like a motherfucker. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night with new items for my work to-do list or in a cold sweat from worry that some politico is going to kill my project. There has been no festering anger over someone's stupid decision, and the vise (aka stress) gripping my heart has released its hold. Don't get me wrong, I'm not like many of you who dream of quitting your "day job" or escaping the "cubicle". I don't have a cubicle, and I freaking love what I do. I eat stress for dinner and convert it to fuel...to action. Still, it can be tiring and unhealthy.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've let go of the proverbial reins, handing them off to capable coworkers. I fill with a mama-like pride I didn't think possible as their brief texts or emails come through with tasks from my to-do list that they've knocked out of the park and have passed on the opportunity to review reports I'd previously planned to make sabbatical time for. These may seem minor to you, but if you were in my heart, you'd know just how huge these are.

Instead, there has been Russian-themed birthdays and dancing and snow. I've sewn my first quilt, watched four documentaries (all awesome), finished House of Cards, and laughed at Jim Gaffigan. I've written chapters and thousands more words and consumed copious cups of coffee. I've even made time for real life things working 50+ hours a week hasn't allowed for--like doctor's appointments and calling the IRS and talking to new men (I think you call it online dating).

I've got roughly four more weeks left. Let's see what we can make happen!

Pain which cannot forget...

robot and bunny

Often the books that affect me most deeply are the ones in which I struggle to frame why the book was so impactful and why it should be devoured, posthaste, by everyone. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is one such book, which, if you've heard of the book at all, you'll know is both a relevant and ridiculous goal. Relevant in that it is a book written to be impactful and to make you think about life's tougher questions, topics that are tackled over and over again in self-help books and spiritual tomes.

Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the will of God in a world full of hateful acts and immense suffering? 

Ridiculousness in that the book has hardly gone unnoticed. Since it was published in 1996, it has won several awards and generated plenty of reviews. Of course, when you find yourself thinking about a book with tears streaming down your cheeks as you drive to a meeting in Annapolis, you kind of don't care about all of those other articles and just need to work through it on screen for yourself.

I realize I've probably painted a picture of this dark, preachy novel, but it's not that at all. The story is told through the discovery of life in another galaxy (the planet Rakhat) and the Jesuit priest, Father Emilio Sanchez, who mounts an expedition to meet and learn more about this alien race. He's joined by a diverse cast of characters (agnostic, atheist and Jesuit alike) who have been his family for years. It flashes back and forth between the discovery in 2019 and 2059/2060, when Sanchez has arrived back on Earth. As the only survivor of this expedition, he has returned an incredibly broken man (both physically and spiritually) and is being asked to account for what happened while on Rakhat. Those who rescued him reported back that he was found acting as a prostitute and had killed a child.

Over the course of the novel, we learn of the great beauty and depravity experienced on the expedition. It touches on issues of faith and fate and intent, and provides a glimpse into the anthropological study of cultures. There are even parallels to be drawn to atrocities like slavery we've seen in our own culture.

A couple of days after I finished The Sparrow, I found myself reading a post on Sojourners by Catherine Woodiwiss called A New Normal: Ten Things I've Learned About Trauma and found myself drawing parallels between Woodiwiss's advice and the Jesuit priests who ministered to and, at times, interrogated Father Sanchez upon his return. Because, let's be frank, trauma is probably the kindest way to describe some of what happened on that trip.

The Sparrow is a page-turner that gives you plenty of weighty issues to chew on, but maybe that's just me. I definitely recommend it. Let me know if you read it so that I can put together a Sparrow drinking party discussion club.

How to listen to podcasts

Let's file this under things that may seem obvious but aren't. Not everyone knows where to find, and how to access, podcasts. Maybe the newer versions of iTunes threw you for a loop (it did me), or perhaps you adamantly refuse to join the cult of Mac. Either way, I've had to walk enough people through how I listen to podcasts that I figured a quick explanation might be warranted.

Let's start with how I do it. I listen to podcasts exclusively through my iPhone. I'm either bopping along with my earbuds jacked in, pretending my phone is this decade's version of the '80s boombox and rocking the 'cast out loud, or with my phone sitting in the cup holder of whatever vehicle I'm driving. I listen to 90% of the podcasts I follow during my 2-3 hour (RT) commute or while driving to one of my many out of town meetings or field visits. Needless to say, I probably have quite a bit more time than the average person to listen to podcasts.

Step 1: Podcast app

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Download the Podcasts app from the App Store. To find it, I just searched for 'podcasts', and it was the first to come up. You want the one put out by Apple. I'm sure there are others that will also work, but I like this one.

Step 2: Searching for podcasts

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Using an app like Podcasts will allow you to subscribe and keep track of all of the various things you'd like to listen to. To add your favorite podcasts, click on the magnifying glass at the bottom of the screen to search for the various feeds. Type in something like, oh I don't know, 'thats what she read' and hit the search button. Click on the image under podcasts toward the bottom of the screen, and it will direct you to basic information about the feed, an episode list, and a button to subscribe (upper third of the screen). Click subscribe.

Step 3: Adding episodes

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Once you've subscribed to a podcast, you can listen and manage that feed by clicking 'My Podcasts' at the bottom of the screen. The feed you just subscribed to should be listed alongside the other podcasts you dig. When you first subscribe to a new feed, you'll find the app adds only the most recent episode to your list. To add more, click on 'Add Old Episodes' for a full list of available episodes. Simply select all the ones you're interested in by touching them and clicking 'Add' when done. When you're done listening to an episode, you can clear it by swiping to the left across it and selecting delete.

Step 4: Listening to episodes

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You have a couple of options when listening to a podcast episode. If you're like me, you don't really have a desire to download a lot of data to your phone or may not be near a wifi connection to download a longer podcast. I like the ability to stream episodes right from the app and listen this way almost exclusively. Just click on the title of the episode and press play once you see a screen similar to the one on the left. Depending on your settings, you may have to verify that you wish to stream this episode over your cell network.

To download an episode, click on the little cloud with the down arrow. I'll load up on a few episodes this way if I'm traveling to a more remote location or am headed on a long flight. Be wary of your episode settings. I turned off the auto-download feature to preserve data.

That's the gist of how I manage all of the podcasts I listen to. It just so happens that a new episode of That's What She Read is live for your listening pleasure. It's one of our dinner club episodes, and our guests include Scarlet, Randi, and Steven!

If you've got an Android phone or are just looking for an alternative app, you can download Stitcher. Once you sign up, you can browse stations or type in the name of the podcast in the search bar. Click the name of the podcast to pull up a description and other details. Add it to an existing (or create a new) playlist by selecting the + symbol near the top. You can find this and other podcasts you add by selecting 'My Stations'. Unlike the Podcasts app, it will add almost all of the available episodes to your playlist, and the episodes are all streaming. To listen, click on the episode title you want to play.

There are, of course, other apps for listening. This post lists a few. Road test a couple and figure out which one works best for you. You can also stream podcasts directly from their website. I use Podbean for each of my podcasts, and you can download or listen directly from the respective podcast webpages.

Don't forget to subscribe to That's What She Read if you're into books and the reading life, and of course, we're chatting all things Gilmore Girls every other Friday on Friday Night Dinner!