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An Unknown Star

I’ve just finished a series of books about three extraordinary women. They hail from different time periods, different parts of the world, and different fields. Despite that, they all have two things in common: they broke new ground in their careers, and their achievements—and their names—are largely unknown. Their stories resonate with me for different reasons, which I’ll also share. Beginning this month, I’ll acquaint you with these women one at a time in hopes you’ll find them as interesting as I do.

In 1912, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s school principal told her she was “prostituting her IMG_0886gifts” by aiming for a career in science. Fortunately, young Cecilia didn’t listen. Payne-Gaposchkin became an astronomer, an expert on the cataclysmic nuclear explosions of white dwarf stars known as novae (plural of nova). As important as that work remains, her greatest contribution to the field is something very different: she demonstrated that normal stars—everything from our own sun to the stars at the edge of the universe—are composed of hydrogen and helium, with hydrogen far and away the most abundant element.

Unfortunately for Payne-Gaposchkin, her conclusion about the composition of normal stars contradicted conventional thinking of her day. Two distinguished astronomers, Henry Norris Russell, director of the Princeton Observatory, and Harlow Shapley, her faculty advisor and director of the Harvard Observatory, convinced her to attribute her results to an anomaly, rather than sticking with what the data demonstrated. Four years later, Russell reached the same conclusion as Payne-Gaposchkin had by a different method, and while her name was briefly mentioned in connection with the discovery, Russell has historically received credit for it.

However disappointed Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin may have been with that series of events, she spent the next 50 years working at the Harvard Observatory. She was the first person to receive a doctoral degree in astronomy from Harvard. In 1956 she became the first female advanced to the rank of professor at Harvard, as well as the first female to chair a department. Fellow astronomer Virginia Trimble writes in her introduction to Payne-Gaposchkin’s memoir that her “scientific record is remarkable by any standard.” Longevity aside (she published papers from 1923 to 1979), she remains among the very few astronomers to solve a major problem in the field as part of a doctoral thesis.

As outstanding as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s achievements are, what I find most fascinating about her is that she persisted in the face of challenges that would have defeated almost anyone else. As the only female in advanced physics at Cambridge, she was ridiculed by professors and students alike. At Harvard, she was repeatedly passed over for positions for which she was the most qualified candidate. And when Donald Menzel succeeded Shapley as director of the Harvard Observatory, he was so appalled by how little she was being paid that he immediately doubled her salary.

Toward the end of her career, Payne-Gaposchkin wrote that being a woman hadn’t impacted the intellectual side of her life. But she went on, “On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage….It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.”

As an educator, I’m very supportive of recent initiatives to recruit more women into the sciences. But reading Payne-Gaposchkin’s memoir made me wonder about the challenges these young women face. I consulted my daughter-in-law, an astrophysicist, to get her take on the issue. She delivered both good news and bad. She indicated that the situation has greatly improved from Payne-Gaposchkin’s time. “Outward sexism still happens,” she commented, “but it is not institutionalized.” As for the negative, “People like to say that the gender imbalance in science is generational, but if that were true it would have been wiped out a couple of decades ago.”

My daughter-in-law went on to talk about the fact that she and her female colleagues are reminded daily that “they need to be louder and more forceful if they are to be considered contributors in science.” Why does that approach dominate, she wondered, instead of one where we teach men to listen better? Like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, she is doggedly persistent, but it saddens and angers me that some things have changed so little.

Check the public library for Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s autobiography as it is absurdly expensive to purchase ($51.27 in paperback on Amazon). I can’t figure that one out, but it sure won’t help raise her visibility. Stay tuned for the next installment on remarkable women you’ve never heard of—this Frenchwoman was widowed at age 27 during the Napoleonic wars, and she became the most successful entrepreneur of her time.

Home Is Where the Hearth Is

The dog’s internal alarm clock rings every morning between 6:45 and 6:55. He ambles into my bedroom and shakes hard enough to make his tags jingle. That’s the first sound I hear on winter mornings, unless we’ve had snow overnight and the plow is clearing my street.

The dog and I make our way downstairs, and I don a heavy coat and boots to take him out in the back yard. There’s so much snow now that his constitutional is limited, which isn’t a bad thing for either of us because of the cold. Afterwards, I fetch his breakfast, start boiling water for tea, and then build a fire. The hydronic heating system in our house is set very low, and we rely on the fireplace to keep the temperature comfortable.

I start the fire the old-fashioned way with paper and kindling. Some mornings there are still embers from the night before, but oftentimes the flue is cold, and it takes considerable effort to warm it up and get the kindling going. Usually by the time the water for my tea boils, the fire is crackling.

There are days when I think it would be nice to turn a key and let a gas jet do the job, but mostly I find the ritual comforting. I’m not alone. Rituals involving fire have been found in virtually every religion and culture on the planet since the beginning of recorded time, and many of them still exist in one form or another.

In Catholic churches, churches of the Anglican Communion, and Lutheran churches, fire is a key element of the most important service of the liturgical year, the Great Vigil of Easter. Congregants gather outdoors in the darkness on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. A fire is kindled, and the Paschal candle is lit from that fire and then carried inside the church to light still more candles. In the Jewish tradition, women light candles and recite a prayer to mark the beginning of Shabbat each Friday just before sunset.

One of the loveliest rituals involving fire was observed in ancient Greece. When a couple IMG_0886married, the bride’s mother lit a torch from the hearth in her home and, followed by the newlyweds, carried it to their new house. There she lit the first fire in their hearth, consecrating the new home.

For thousands of years the hearth was the heart of every home, and on winter mornings that is still the case in my house. The ritual of stacking paper and kindling, lighting it and watching smoke rise up the chimney, is a form of meditation for me. I’m no Luddite—I don’t want to give up electric lights, hot water at the touch of a tap, and other modern conveniences—but in that first moment when the flame catches, before the business and busyness of the day kicks in, I relish the connection with those who lived in caves, in cliff dwellings, and in sod houses and sat before a fire as I do.

The Sweet Spot Inside Your Head

There’s still turkey hanging around in my fridge, but Thanksgiving is in the rear view IMG_0886mirror, Christmas on the horizon. In the twilight zone between sleeping and waking this morning, a mental readout of the tasks that need to be completed in the next few weeks flashes by like a mileage sign on the highway. Suddenly I realize I haven’t written a November post and it’s the last day of the month.

Gripped by a sense of urgency with potential topics doing the jitterbug inside my head, I catch myself an instant before I pour tea over my oatmeal. That’s a good thing for two reasons: I didn’t have to toss out my oatmeal, and the near miss helped me put the brakes on the Runaway Brain Train.

If you’ve read my posts over the last several years, you know I am fascinated by discoveries about the brain. Neuroscience and related fields are producing a cascade of information about how and why certain things happen in our heads. That notion that we only use about ten percent of our brains turns out to be a myth, but a lot of pretty crazy discoveries grounded in solid science have recently emerged.

Thanks to David Rock’s Your Brain at Work, I know what’s happening inside my head at a chemical level as I narrowly avert that breakfast disaster. And I also know what to do about it. In simplest terms, the urgency I felt about the unwritten post produced a flood of dopamine and norepinephrine in my brain. Dopamine is released when the brain encounters novelty, something unexpected or new. Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, shows up when we are fearful. Too little of this dynamic duo and we’re bored; too much and we’re anxious and stressed. It turns out there’s a sweet spot where that mix is just right. And peak performance, whether mental or physical, depends on hitting that sweet spot.

Back to the near miss with the oatmeal. As I set the teapot aside I realize I’ve blown right by the sweet spot. Now the most urgent task is to reduce the torrent of dopamine and norepinephrine to a more reasonable trickle. David Rock suggests some easy strategies to accomplish this: go for a walk or spend a few minutes focusing only on sounds, for instance. I chose the latter because I had a warm bowl of oatmeal waiting. The main thing is to be mindful of what’s happening in your head. Of course, as longtime researcher John Teasdale wrote: “What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.” In this, as in so many things, practice makes perfect.

Dopamine and norepinephrine may not be the only chemicals we can change in our brains. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy claims that changing your body language changes the mix of testosterone and cortisol. Although the research remains controversial, if you haven’t watched Cuddy’s TED talk about the chemical effects of the Wonder Woman pose, cue it up now. There’s a reason why it’s the second most viewed TED talk to date.

Neuroscience also tells us that our brains devour glucose and oxygen at a phenomenal rate. Which means once you’re hungry, high level intellectual work is temporarily off the table. We all sort of know that instinctively, but it’s been verified in the lab as well.  So I’m heading down to make a turkey sandwich. Oh, and one more thing—that whole turkey, tryptophan, sleepiness connection that someone’s Aunt Mildred always brings up on Thanksgiving? That’s a myth too.

Take Your Brain for a Walk

IMG_0886As the dog and I took our three-to-four-mile daily jaunt this morning, I realized there is a great deal of similarity between dog walking and my writing work. Sounds strange, I know, but keep reading.

Without a long walk every day, I can’t live with Harley, my hyperactive two-year-old German Shepard/terrier mix. Harley gives me a pass only for pouring rain or a blizzard, neither of which has occurred very frequently of late here in drought-stricken California. My enthusiasm for our walk waxes and wanes, but by the time we return my mind is clear and my body feels better too.

In a similar vein, I have a hard time living with myself if I don’t work on one of my current writing projects every day. (Unless I’m on an awesome trip, like my recent expedition to Iceland.) Frequently my mind is muddled when I sit down; instead of a definitive path there’s a faint trail obscured by a jungle of doubt and uncertainty. Shaping my thoughts into some organized form is about as pleasant as the first half mile of Harley’s walk—which is to say, not pleasant at all. And yet when my scheduled writing time is over, my mind is clearer and as long as I remember to get up and stretch every hour, I feel better physically too.

Walking Harley and writing are both forms of exercise. It would be easy to categorize the two activities as serving two entirely different functions—one focused on the body, the other on the brain. Yet research shows that physical health and mental health are inextricably linked, that physical exercise benefits the brain, and by the same token, mental exercise benefits the body. Don’t believe me? Here are two articles, one from Harvard Medical School and the other from the New York Times, and a couple of books, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, and Brain Rules, that discuss these findings.

Scientists are quick to point out that they’re not sure yet whether one form of exercise benefits the brain more than others, so for now, I’ll stick with dog walking, plus seasonal extras like hiking and cross country skiing. There’s also debate about the types of mental activities that foster physical well-being. Research performed at the University of Texas by Dr. James Pennebaker shows that writing can provide both psychological and physiological benefits, and work done in New Zealand shows that writing can lower cortisol levels and boost immune function. Stay tuned for further developments around this topic.

Two final notes before I head off with Harley. First, if you’re still reading this—yay!—and thank you. I’ve been blogging for more than five years now, and even when it feels like I’m just talking to myself, I enjoy it. Of course, I hope you’ve found an interesting or entertaining tidbit along the journey with me. And second, I’m always on the lookout for great blogs, and I recently discovered a winner called Brain Pickings. It’s written weekly by Maria Popova, the Futures of Entertainment Fellow at MIT. Smart stuff for smart people. That’s you, right?

Food Fight

Today I’m reporting from the front lines of the Eat Locally and Eat Seasonally movements that have swept the country, including the mountain hamlet I call home. The best and most obvious path to local and seasonal eating is, of course, to grow your own vegetables, but here at 8,000 feet almost no one does so with any measure of success. Fortunately, fresh-from-the-field produce is now delivered to Mammoth Lakes weekly from small farms located near Fresno. There are countless articles, videos, and television shows extolling the virtues of eating locally and/or seasonally—gold stars and a macramé plant hanger for those who do both!—but it’s not all heirloom tomatoes and tiny, tasty carrots. Below I’ve detailed what I have discovered to be the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly about local and seasonal eating.

IMG_0886The Good: The fruits and vegetables I buy weekly from Abundant Harvest Organics are picked one day and trucked to my town the next. I don’t get to choose what’s in my box; the farmers do that for me. But I can add items I want or want more of. If they’re, you know, seasonal. The melons are sweet, the basil is fragrant, and how about that heirloom white eggplant! In short, buying locally grown, pesticide and herbicide-free produce has never been easier, and cutting out the supermarket middleman keeps prices reasonable.

The Bad: I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I have a hankering for something out of season. I know pomegranates rather than peaches are in season, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting a peach. Also, I’m obligated to cook what’s in my box since I draw the line at throwing food away (okay, except for one item—see below). But what if I’m not feeling like patty pan squash again this week? Sometimes the siren song of the local Von’s store is more tempting than others. The plus side of this issue is that I’m learning to use items I normally wouldn’t buy, like lemongrass. And Abundant Harvest provides recipes for whatever’s in the box that week, which is a good thing since I didn’t have a clue what to do with that lemongrass.

The Ugly: Two words: lemon sorrel. In the summer I also buy greens from a local organic farmer, and “tart, assertive” lemon sorrel appeared in my bag week after week. I tried using it sparingly in salads, but it pretty much overpowers all the other greens. According coverto an article in the Huffington Post, during the Middle Ages, before Europeans had access to citrus fruit, sorrel was used to lend a sour flavor to dishes. And “sour” is by far the best adjective for this leafy green. The article went on to say that “Sorrel has been making a comeback.” Not in my kitchen. I confess that more than one bunch went straight to the trash.

So, lemon sorrel aside, what are the takeaways from all this? Supporting local, family-owned organic farms is a good thing and so is learning to cook with the seasons. Eating locally and seasonally is not necessarily more convenient, though. There are, for example, no prewashed greens in handy bags or plastic containers. But perhaps putting convenience ahead of health and taste is where we started going wrong years ago.

 

Joyful or Joyless?

In the fall of 2012, I wrote about lessons I’d learned from backpacking over the summer—the most important being to ditch everything but the absolute essentials. When I applied that same idea to the stuff in my house, I was surprised how much the clean-out IMG_0886binge lifted my spirits. My own experience suggests that the title of Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is spot on. And since Kondo’s book became a bestseller almost immediately, I guess I’m not the only one who’s discovered that de-cuttering clears minds as well as living spaces.

Last year, my husband and I took the additional step of downsizing our living arrangements. While we didn’t join the small house movement by any means, downsizing nevertheless necessitated an even more rigorous round of tidying up. And it wasn’t just clutter that had to go, but pretty much half of everything we owned—the piano, most of our big furniture, bric-a-brac, even tools and garage items. If you’re part of a household in which the garage is sacrosanct, you can imagine the angst that caused.

Space is at a premium in our home now, which means anything we buy has to be evaluated on the basis of three questions: Do we really need it? Is there space for it? And even if there is, will we use it enough to justify the space it will occupy? If two of three questions get thumbs down, we pass on the purchase. I won’t claim we’re clutter free, but we’re definitely living lighter than we have in the past.

For those of us embarking on the final third of our lives, there’s an added benefit to de-cluttering and tidying up: everything we dispose of now means less for children or other loved ones to deal with after we’re gone. If you’ve cleaned out a house or apartment belonging to a deceased relative, you already know how physically and emotionally exhausting it is to sift through their belongings and decide what to save, what to donate, and what to throw away. Doing some of that now will be a tremendous gift to those who survive you.

Marie Kondo urges us to ask a single question of every item in our homes: Does it spark coverjoy? I’d never thought of the stuff I own in those terms, and I was shocked at how much of it sparked anxiety rather than joy. Once I’d separated the joyful from the joyless, bagging the latter up for the thrift shop became a breeze.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is available on Amazon. So is my novel, Yard Sale.

The Wild Year

They’re here in droves this year, their dirty clothes, matted hair, and body odor badges of honor in the quest to conquer the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT, which stretches 2,663 miles between the Mexican and Canadian borders, is the Holy Grail for long-distance hikers, and our little town of Mammoth Lakes has historically been a resupply point for PCTers. This year the usual trickle of hikers has turned into a deluge thanks to Cheryl Strayed and Reese Witherspoon.

Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, charts the course of her journey on the PCT. Reese Witherspoon, looking better after what is supposed to be a couple of months on the trail than most of us do after a couple of days, plays Strayed in the recent movie. Think Eat, Pray, Love on the PCT and you’ll get the gist of Strayed’s memoir.

Most of those who tackle the PCT spend months, if not years, researching, training, and preparing for the hike. Strayed, by her own admission, made a few trips to REI and hit the trail in boots a size too small with a ridiculously overloaded backpack. She ran out of water, got lost, and trashed her feet—all in the first weeks of her three-month journey—but she shrugs off a long list of poor decisions with a “Gee, it was bad, but I survived,” attitude. At one point, a woman with whom she became friends on the trail nicknamed Strayed the “hapless hiker,” an understatement if there ever was one.

Strayed had a history of risky behavior that included heroin use before she took to the trail. But on the PCT, or anywhere in the backcountry for that matter, risky behavior by a single individual puts others at risk as well. Every year search and rescue teams from California to Washington are called out to locate and extract lost, injured, and, in some cases, dead hikers from the PCT. Often those extractions take place in rough terrain that endangers the lives of rescuers. While accidents can happen to the most prepared of hikers, more often than not, it’s stupid decisions like those made by Strayed that trigger a rescue operation.

Based on what I’ve seen and heard so far, the Wild year is going to set some records. Reports indicate that large groups of people—eighteen in one case—are hiking together, something the PCT was never meant to accommodate. Despite the fact that hikers are supposed to pack out every piece of trash, from toilet paper to peach pits, litter on the trail has increased substantially. Stops where PCTers have historically been allowed to camp are taking in the welcome mat, and it’s hard to blame them. Conquering nature, rather than enjoying and appreciating it as sacred space, has become the dominant metaphor; Bear Grylls has replaced John Muir.

I’m sure Cheryl Strayed did not intend to spawn the kind of destructive behavior we’re seeing on the PCT this year, but if the trend continues, more stringent regulations will inevitably follow. Which raises a fundamental question: To what extent can we regulate wilderness areas against overuse and abuse before they’re no longer wild?

If you’re interested in exploring that question further, find a copy of Roderick Nash’s classic, Wilderness and the American Mind. Or if you want more about the Sierra Nevada, minus the copious navel gazing in Strayed’s work, read John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. (It’s less than a dollar on Amazon.) Both of those books, as well as my novel, Yard Sale, are available at Amazon.

In Praise of Great Teachers

This past week, a Facebook friend from high school posted the obituary for Margurette Troutman, an English teacher who impacted the lives of hundreds of students in Tyler, Texas during her long career. Mrs. Troutman’s unwavering intellect allowed no room for sloppy thinking or laziness, and, as an English teacher myself, I now know that she worked even harder than we did. In his post about Mrs. Troutman, Gene Barron wrote: “Very few ever possess such a Gift for reaching high school students at this difficult point in Life.” Again, having walked in her shoes, I know the truth of that statement.

Gene and I also chatted about other two other terrific teachers we shared in junior high: Twila Kimbrough and Mrs. Hendrix. That we remember these three women and the difference they made in our lives more than forty years later pretty much says it all.

Mrs. Kimbrough, in particular, played a critical role in my life. She was my English teacher twice during junior high, and she became a friend and mentor I continued to visit after I’d moved on to high school. Years passed, and though I thought of her often we lost touch until 2006, when I was preparing for a trip to South Africa. In preparation for that journey, I pulled out my battered, seventh-grade copy of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, which we studied with Mrs. Kimbrough. Rereading it, I was struck by the degree to which the book and her teaching had shaped my thinking about discrimination and inequality, and I marveled at the courage it took to teach that material in Texas during the early seventies, when racism was still very much a part of the air we breathed.

In our exchange of messages about this trio of amazing teachers, Gene wrote that it seemed less certain “one would get three or more enlightened English teachers in a public school system in Texas in 2015. I hope and pray, however, that those teachers exist outside elite private schools.” I’m hoping and praying along with Gene, because great teachers and life-changing classroom experiences should be part of every student’s education, not just those who attend elite private schools.

As a final note: after finishing Cry the Beloved Country again, I felt I had to find Mrs. Kimbrough and tell her that I am a different—better—person because of her teaching. Thanks to the Internet, I located her, and we have enjoyed several years of lively correspondence. She expressed gratitude that I’d gotten in touch. I assured her the gratitude was all mine.

My novel, Yard Sale, is available at Amazon.

Stranger than Fiction

The Wolfpack,” director Crystal Moselle’s documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month, is proof positive that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Moselle’s film tells the story of six brothers who were locked inside their family’s shabby four-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side from infancy to adolescence. Their father held the only key to the front door, and he kept it locked. Some years the boys were allowed outside three or four times, other years not at all.

The Angulo boys were home schooled by their mother. In their free time, they were allowed to watch movies nonstop on DVDs their father bought at a discount or borrowed from the library. By Moselle’s reckoning, the boys have seen upwards of 5,000 movies.

Initially the movies provided the Angulo brothers a means of escape from their crowded apartment. They transcribed the scripts of their favorite films and acted them out. Costumes were constructed from thrift shop clothing; props fashioned from materials scrounged in the apartment. Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight Rises were two of their favorite films, largely because there were enough parts to go around.

As the boys became adolescents, the movies assumed another role.

In one of the pivotal scenes from the film, Batman stands tall against the dull light filtering through a grimy window. “Wearing this costume gave me the courage to go outside,” Bhagavan Angulo says solemnly. As the camera gradually zooms in, you realize the black mask is papier-mâché and Batman’s weapons are cardboard and aluminum foil. The vest, he reveals a moment later, is made of yoga mats cut and sewn together.

At their best, movies entertain, enlighten, and perhaps disturb us. It is rare indeed that a film manages to do all three, but Moselle pulls it off. She allows the boys to tell the story; there is no narration, no judgment save theirs—and yours as you watch. Which is part of what makes the movie so compelling.

“The Wolfpack” captured the grand jury prize for best documentary at Sundance and will begin playing in theaters on June 12. In the meantime, check out the brothers reenacting scenes from one of their recent favorites, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” on Facebook.

My novel, Yard Sale, is available at Amazon.

Missed Opportunities

I struggled up Lake Mary Road on my cross-country skate skis, heart pounding, breath sawing in and out of my lungs. For the hundredth or so time, I wondered what had possessed me to take up skate skiing—a full-body, intensive cardio workout even on a day when the snow didn’t feel like carpet under my skis.

Just as I thought about tossing in the towel, I heard my swim coach’s ear-piercing two-finger whistle interspersed with shouts of encouragement in my head. Johnny Griffith has been dead for close to forty years, but it’s still his voice I hear when I need it most.

Johnny was brutally honest with me about my potential as a competitive swimmer. “You’re not the most talented kid in the pool,” he said, “but you don’t have to be. You just have to want it more than anyone else.” Johnny also had all sorts of nuggets he’d share right before it was time to climb on the starting block. “Remember,” he’d say, “the fastest girl in your heat puts her suit on one leg at a time, just like you do.”

Johnny’s encouragement and his belief in me influenced more than my competitive swimming career; it changed my life. I learned how to persist even when the odds of succeeding were long. I learned how to find that last bit of energy even when I thought the tank was empty. And I learned that giving it all you’ve got matters more than winning. Those lessons stuck, and I’m a different person because of Johnny.

I quit swimming in high school, and then left for college without telling Johnny how much he meant to me. By the time I really understood the impact he’d had on my life, he was gone. And the saddest part is I know how much a few words would have meant to him, because students I taught and mentored have come back to tell me what a difference I made for them.

I hope every kid out there has a Johnny Griffith in his or her life—a parent, a teacher, a covercoach, or a neighbor who provides the kind of support and encouragement that changes a life. And I hope if you have or had a person like that in your life, you thank them for being there. I missed that opportunity with Johnny, but I promised myself I’d never make that mistake again. Maybe that was the most important lesson of all.

My novel, Yard Sale, is available on Amazon.