Friday, February 18, 2022

Flash Friday ~ My Rocket Scientist Alter Ego

I googled myself earlier this week, to see if my book, Uphill Both Ways, was showing up in the results yet (it was, but not until the middle of page two). This gave me a chance to check in on my name twin.

I have an unusual name, and as far as I can tell, only one other person on earth shares it. He's a man, and I believe he's originally from Italy. This may explain why he got stuck with Andrea, which in Italian might not be the feminine version of Andrew, but an ordinary everyday unisex name. We may even be distantly related. My twice-great-grandfather was born in Trieste, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time but is now part of Italy. I'm no expert on the ever-shifting borders of Europe, and I attribute my father's father's part of my heritage, variously, to Slovenian, Yugoslavian, and Austro-Hungarian. Why not add Italian to the mix?

I've known about my name doppelgänger for as long as I've googled myself, which I don't do frequently (I'm not that big a narcissist) but do do occasionally (as research into the effectiveness of my self-promotion as a writer). The first time may have coincided with my first publication, in 2008. So the other AL and I are old acquaintances, in a stalkerish kind of way.

Beyond our names, we have nothing in common. He appears to be some kind of aerospace engineer. I've never clicked on the links to his research articles and profiles on various platforms (I'm not actually a stalker), but phrases like "computational scientist" and "fluid dynamics" and "mathematical plasma astrophysics" pop up in the teasers to the listings on Google. I feel like there's a great joke in there somewhere: "Do I look like a rocket scientist to you?" "No, but the guy on Google who shares your name does." It needs some work.

I wonder if rocket scientists google themselves, when they're not busy doing rocket science? I mean, even mathematical plasma astrophysicists need a break now and then, right? And if my name twin googles himself, does it rankle him that his research articles on fluid dynamics alternate in the results, in almost a one-to-one ratio, with essays about motherhood? Or does his mathematical brain see some kind of beautiful symmetry in the listings: man/woman; numbers/words; the endless vacuum of space/the endless vacuuming of the living room; launching rockets into the stratosphere/launching humans into adulthood? 

I think my twin and I have more in common than it might appear at first glimpse. I have no idea what fluid dynamics is, but I'm going to believe it has something to do with the mysterious ways of the universe, where very unlike things come together in surprising ways.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Book Stack ~ January 2022

I thought of giving this series a new name in 2022. I also thought of discontinuing it. But I still have a very tall stack of books to get through, and this is my only way of tracking what I've read--I've tried keeping a reading journal, and I don't follow through. I'm abysmal at keeping up with my Goodreads list (also, do I really want the Amazon corporation to know every last thing I read? No.).  Plus, several people have told me they've gotten book recommendations from my lists, so why not keep on sharing the love? So this is it, the inaugural post of another year of trying to get through all the books I own while really buying new books to read instead, just like this.

I decided late last year that the best way to get through my book stack was to prioritize reading books that had been given or loaned to me by friends, so I started the year reading two of the books I got for Christmas. 


I started with The Mystery of Charles Dickens by A.N. Wilson, because everyone's in a Dickens mood at Christmastime. This is a biography, but not written in the usual "he was born here, he did all these things, then he died" linear progression (no doubt there are a gazillion of those out there already), but rather is arranged by several "mysteries" about Dickens's life and his personality, and it was totally fascinating. I did not know much about Dickens and had not read much by Dickens before reading this. Turns out that, like Tolstoy is described by George Saunders's in A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, Dickens was an extremely moral writer but not as moral of a person. He had high ideals about society, but was an ass to his wife. His ideas also lingered around the populist range, and so did not extend to equal rights to oppressed minorities (he considered British people superior and was sympathetic with the Confederate South). He was also an extremely troubled man, due to his childhood traumas, and also a gifted literary genius. And basically a rock star. People would line up to hear him perform his works. I like seeing up close how complicated people, especially people who are so canonized, really are.

Another book I got for Christmas, also featuring a renowned literary figure from history, was Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, which reimagines the events that led to the death of William Shakespeare's son, Hamnet (which in some way inspired the writing of Hamlet, but I'm less clear on the connection). This was interesting on so many levels, not least of which the way that plague was viewed at the time (how lucky to be an author who comes out with a plague novel at the beginning of an actual plague!), as well as the experiences of the women in Shakespeare's life (W.S. himself is not named in the book, and plays a fairly peripheral role compared to his wife, mother, father, sister, and children.) It turns out that he was probably a bit more moral on the page than he was in real life too. 


The next two books weren't gifts and they weren't from the stack. I bought Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life last summer after hearing it extolled on the #AmWriting podcast several times. It's a lovely little book and I wish I'd been handed it a lot earlier in my writing journey. Still, there's much to be gleaned at whatever stage of writing one's at. I'm still trying to put the advice of "write 1,000 words five days a week for the rest of your life" into process. It's tough, but a good goal to shoot for.

I picked up a copy of Bad Tourist by Suzanne Roberts for my trip to Mexico. I envisioned a lot more time spent reading than actually took place, so this is the only book I finished there, but it was the perfect book to read on a trip. It's a collection of travel essays, so it was fun to read them while I was actually traveling (although what a different style of traveling: lounging on a resort beach chair reading about near death experiences with motorcycles and unclean water in remote parts of Latin America. Also, the essays, many about the author's adventures in dating and hooking up, were a lot sexier than my middle-aged-ladies trip. Roberts's latest book, Animal Bodies, just landed in my mailbox and I'm excited to read it next!

Friday, February 11, 2022

Flash Friday ~ Reef


I float in the warm, salty water of the Caribbean Sea. Above me, clear air, blue sky. Beneath me, clear water that appears blue at a distance. The cove is shallow, the bottom pale sand, dark rock, and coral. I recognize brain coral from my field guide, greenish and furrowed in cranial folds and wrinkles, but much bigger than I imagined, each one bigger than a hassock. The fan corals actually fan, back-and-forth with the action of the waves, not stiff like a paper fan, but in a smooth, sinuous fashion like the tail of a fish. The other corals, the branching in filamented ones, move with the water, too, and all this movement surprises me. Though I'd known coral to be a living creature, I expected it to be stiff and brittle, the way it is in museum cases, failing to recognize those frozen-in-time specimens are mere dead husks. The long black spines of urchins bloom among the coral like bundles of slender chopsticks, and flower-like shapes form bouquets, only I don't know enough to say if they're coral polyps or sea anemones. 

I know so little about this undersea world that the fish that flash past in singles and pairs and threes and schools, strike me as mythological creatures brought to life. Of course I've seen tropical fish in nature programs and aquariums, but I don't think I truly believed in them until I plunged into the water and swam among them. It's not just their improbable colors in outrageous arrangements of stripes and spots that make them appear otherworldly; it's their nearness. I could, if I wanted, reach out and touch a passing fish. Even the more shy and wary ones hover a few yards away. No binoculars or zoom lenses needed.

Our guide, Juan, points to a crevice in the coral, and I see an electric blue fish sparkle with neon blue spots. Three fish shaped like an iron, white with wine-colored strips, fan past. Schools of pearly fish with blue and yellow markings congregate and disperse. Three enormous club-shaped fish with bulging eyes hover near the sandy bottom. A fish smaller than a grasshopper swims past. Small fish, big fish, fish in every imaginable, and unimaginable, color combination move about on their private, fishy business. I skull my hands, follow the contours of the reef--the swim fins are too bulky and cumbersome to bother with--and take it all in. The water is warm and buoyant; floating is effortless. I've never felt more at peace in my life.

I feel absolutely no fear, but I raise my head now and then to keep track of the location of the guide, our boat, and my companions and to clear water from my snorkel. One of these times I notice big black birds with long, knife-blade wings and long, scissored tails wheel in the sky. Magnificent frigatebirds, one of the birds I'd hoped to see when I came to the Caribbean. I float on my back and watch them until I remember I'm here to see the reef, and I roll back to the underwater world, overwhelmed with abundance. 

A ripple of energy runs through the schools of pearly fish with blue and yellow markings, and I realize Juan, hanging from the back of one of the boats anchored in the cove, is feeding them, bits of chum shaken from a net bag. The fish whirl around him, grabbing at bits of food that rain down. I notice pink feet paddling an arm's length away, and I see a brown pelican plunge its enormous mouth-bag into the water. I don't know if it's going for the whole, live fish or for the fish bits, and I'm not sure how I feel having such a large maw grabbing indiscriminately for food so nearby; I tuck my hands well out of the way.

Three sting rays, the largest the size of a card table, the smallest a notebook, join the scrum, flapping along the bottom like living magic carpets, hoovering up the fallen fish food, flipping and turning with amazing agility. When the food runs out, the scrum disperses, and I turn my head to come face-to-face with a sea turtle. It's a small one, maybe the size of two snapping turtles, and it hovers in the water vertically, it's head up, its back legs down. Its black, shoe-button eye looks into mine, and I think I'm going to have a moment of connection, but the turtle turns and paddles away on short, flippery feet as some guy in red trunks chases it with his underwater camera. 

Juan leads us back to the boat, gets out to warm up, and tells us we have a half hour to explore on our own. I paddle back toward the reef, noticing now that what look like rocks might once have been coral, and that where the coral does grow, chunks are broken off here and there, and that there's a greenish haze of algae over the whole thing. Maybe that's normal in a shallow reef. I don't know enough to know, but I do know it doesn't look as pristine as the reefs in nature programs. And though Juan told us to keep our feet up so we wouldn't hurt ourselves, he didn't mention not hurting the coral. The dude chasing the sea turtle was just one of dozens of obnoxious tourists who no doubt visit the reef every day. And some of the fish who were there only came because they were fed.

I skull along the edge of the reef, taking in the magical colors and shapes, the overwhelming feeling of peace, and wondering how I reconcile that one of the most peaceful, spectacular nature experiences of my life has also a somewhat contrived expedition to a diminished seascape.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Flash Friday ~ Extraordinary Days


I'd planned to go birdwatching my first morning in Mexico, but I didn't make it farther than the balcony of my hacienda, where a cacophony of new and unfamiliar birdsong filled the new and unfamiliar trees. I sat with my binoculars, my journal, my bird books, and a cup of tea and watched as great-tailed grackles, great kiskadees, Yucatan jays, a Yucatan vireo, an Altamira oriole, a golden-fronted woodpecker, and a plain chachalaca paraded through my temporary backyard. These are, no doubt, the crows, blue jays, and cardinals of the Yucatan Peninsula, but to me they were rare and wondrous sightings. On the ground below, a Mexican  agouti--a cat-sized rodent that looks like a guinea pig that swallowed a squash and is trying to walk on stilts--traipsed past the swimming pool. 

The trees, vines, and shrubs planted in the lush and meticulously maintained gardens and all things you might buy at the garden center to keep in a pot, only super-sized. Coconut palms grew right out of the sand on the beach, just like they do in cartoons. Beyond the walls of the resort, the jungle grew in a dense, impenetrable tangle. Over the next several days, I watched a troupe of howler monkeys parade across the tops of walls (tiny ones clinging to their mothers' bellies) and saw white-nosed agoutis nose among the tables of an outside dining area. I sat in the plaza one morning and watched two actual parrots steal a woodpecker's stash of seeds from the hole in a dead palm tree. I snorkeled in the warm, salty, and buoyant water of the Caribbean, watching schools of sequined fish flash among the coral, anemones, and urchins. I snorkeled in the cold, mineral water of a cenote, where sunlight filtered blue in the water, tiny fish nibbled at my skin, and scuba divers disappeared into a deep, scary cave. 

I purchased junk food in a Mexican grocery store, where real shoppers bought plastic bags of raw pork, packets of dried chiles, and heads of iceberg lettuce. I practiced my extremely rudimentary Spanish by asking every shop owner in the contrived local marketplace, "Tienes los sellos para postales? Donde esta los stampitos?" With no suerte (selling stamps, or sending postcards, it would appear, is not the done thing).

I rode a rusty bicycle among the Mayan ruins at Coba and followed its song to the most spectacular bird, the black-headed trogon (see above). With each "bop, bop" of its tune, it would splay its black-and-white striped tail feathers in a V, while staring at me with that intense blue-ringed eye. 

This is why we travel, is it not, to find the extraordinary in what, to the people who live there, are likely ordinary, everyday experiences? To shake up our notions of what's expected and see the world through new eyes?

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