Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What I learned from reading a copy of The New Yorker every day (except weekends) during Lent in 2014

Part 1 (of maybe 3?): Why I did it. 

I’m not a big traditionalist when it comes to Lent. Observing some discipline—giving up something or even adopting a healthy or positive habit—ranks at about the same place as making resolutions at the end of December. I’m more likely to observe either custom if I already have something in mind that I want to do.

This year, as I was taking stock for my “I want to read everything in my house before bringing new things in” project, I noticed I have a lot of back issues of The New Yorker. My sister bequeathed some of them to us in 2005 or so, when she was subscribing; we nabbed others in our book club’s “white elephant” gift exchange a couple of Christmases ago. I also have a current subscription, a gift from my brother. Although I read a lot (in both its “often” and “quantity” senses), I can’t keep up.

It would be possible, in theory—if I were someone else entirely—to simply recycle issues, new and old, without reading them. But you know, each issue has a short story. And I write short stories, and I like to read them, and these are “free,” having been paid for already. Add to that the incentive of all the rest of the articles: lots of interesting nonfiction! So, me being me, ditch an issue unread? Not possible. (One can transcend only so much of one's upbringing. Maybe.)

Ash Wednesday: here we go. I made some ground rules.

* Read one issue a day, but only weekdays, because weekends were for catching up.
* Choose each day’s issue at random. Because I was self-conscious about all the structure I was imposing on this project already, I introduced an element of surprise! The issues were in a giant stack that had been moved a few times, so the chronology was mixed, and I drew from the middle, top, or bottom, as the spirit moved me. Not mathematically random but not bad for a devotee of order.
Finish each issue before starting the next. If an issue had an article relevant to my nonfiction project, I marked the article, read the rest of the issue, and then put that issue with the other materials for that project to read carefully later.
* Repeat for 33 days (Ash Wednesday through Good Friday).

And that’s it! It was a great learning experience, both in terms of content from the articles and from the experience itself. 

What made this project work well for me now was the “random” element. Because I didn't read issues in any sequence, I was never tempted to search for follow-up letters about an article. Although it would have been interesting to see who had critiqued what (if anything) about a particular article, I didn’t want to take that time. Bad if serious scholarship had been the purpose of this project, but good since finishing was important.

Naturally, because I am also human and gaming systems is human nature, “choosing at random” became “pick a thin one, not one of the perfect-bound double issues,” which I also decided was okay.

And Happy Easter, I did it! I didn’t actually read a full issue each day. At one point, I read Friday’s issue on Sunday night, having powered through two others that same weekend. But usually I didn’t have more than one issue to read on a weekend.

So now I have 33 issues to recycle in some way. A few issues I’m saving for specific purposes; others will leave the house in some manner. And later, I’ll share more about specific things I learned from the project.

But at the moment, two snowshoe hares, with colouring somewhere between winter white and summer brown, are eating breakfast on our front walkway. A true sign of spring, calling me to watch.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Making Sense of Making Sense (of Alzheimer's)

Mosaic, a science publication for the (UK's) Wellcome Trust, recently published a narrative summary by Michael Regnier about Alzheimer's and research. Here's the link (and check out the resources listed at the bottom, too).

Aside from my ongoing interest in Alzheimer's (links to my personal essays "Home" and "All I Can Say" are on this page), the article is interesting because of the way it's written: It uses detective fiction as a frame. Here's a link to a description of the writing process.

Fascinating stuff, for so many reasons. As Regnier says in his "how I wrote this" extra, it's hard to imagine a time when detective fiction didn't exist.

A semi-disturbing element of the story (not its main focus): the nature of competition in scientific research, and the fallout thereof.

The idealistic side of me wants to believe that competition in science is somehow "pure" and disinterested--that all involved are working for the best interests of patients and caregivers and families. However, my practical side acknowledges the reality: of course money is part of the story. Slowing the disease process, to say nothing of finding a way to "cure" or prevent it, apparently requires drugs. Drugs = money. Research projects, whether basic or applied, also cost money. Money, a finite resource that must be allocated in some way.

Also, researchers have to "eat and heat." Some marry and raise families. They have parents who fail and need their care; some, in turn, become parents who fail.

Sometimes I picture a lab tech grabbing a sandwich at what should have been the end of her shift but isn't because processing an extra batch of samples each shift means getting results that much earlier...
which lets her lab meet an earlier publication deadline
which helps secure an extra $100K in research funding
which produces results leading to a collaborative project with a drug company
and maybe just maybe it's THIS drug that proves effective.

And because she's a numbers person as well as a people person, the disease statistics--millions of people with the disease, each of whom has family, all of whom are waiting for good news--may haunt that lab tech.

So I hope she thinks of us, when she thinks of us, not as suffering people in need of her pity, nor as impatient family members wishing someone would do something.

Instead, I hope she recognizes we're a giant cheering section, urging her on.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Lately, I've been expressing my inner scientist. I've been doing experiments!

While clearing out a storage area, I found one of those amaryllis bulbs you sprout indoors. I remembered vaguely buying it as a gift and losing track of it in the "clean up for Christmas" rush. What I couldn't remember was how many Christmases ago that had been. So rather than throw it out, I stuck the bulb in the dirt, put it in the sun, watered it, and waited.

This morning, I poured the remains of "maple" "syrup" into a red plastic dish and set it out on the snowbank near the bush (or rather, where bush will grow in a couple of months). We've seen bunny and squirrel tracks there and fox tracks elsewhere recently. We don't like the syrup, and rather than throw it out, I thought I'd see if anyone else likes it.

For the first months of 2014, I've been hunkered down working on long-term projects. As April came around, I felt restless--many other ideas were pushing at me. And because they were so respectful in requesting my attention, I listened. I've carved out a little time here and there to piddle with those ideas. And the rest of the time, I'm hunkered down with those other projects, still.

So sure, the bulb was a non-starter. Not a huge surprise. We threw it out when we were cleaning up for company. And if it happens that nobody in the animal world enjoys this poor excuse for syrup, oh well. Might as well have a little fun before throwing stuff out. Plus, negative results are information--next time, I won't wait so long to plant the bulb; next time, I will examine the syrup in the checkout cart more carefully.

That's the attitude I'm trying to take to these smaller, sorta different writing projects. I'm not even sure what the equivalent of "negative results" would be--perhaps listening and experimenting in this way would no longer be fun. In any case, the point is to do the writing. Who knows what these pieces might grow into. Perhaps their only purpose is to be written, and if so, that's more than okay, too.

I don't know the outcome--I'm not supposed to know. That's why scientists call it an "experiment." And artists call it "creating" or even "playing." And both groups think it's "fun." As do I.
Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Last time I was out skiing, several weeks ago now, I wrenched my knee. My usual form of recuperating from something like that--ignoring it till it goes away--hasn't helped. Shocking, I know! I'm now deliberately and safely walking and doing a few select and gentle exercises to ensure that my leg muscles heal and strengthen. Skiing is finished for the season, for me--even if we again find that sweet spot of enough snow and warm enough yet cool enough temperatures.

And bonus: now that the sun is up for 12 hours a day, the roads are clearing. Often, I can walk at a challenging pace without fear of twisting my ankle (which I did in November) or falling (ditto). Even today, after yesterday's dump of ice and snow, I will be able to get out and get moving.

When I'm outdoors these days, I no longer fret about wearing too many layers. I don't care if I appear gnarly or girly (go girls!); I don't care if others might say I'm "overdressed." I will wear enough to keep me warm--and top it with a layer of wind protection, even if I don't strictly "need" it. The ends of my fingers and toes thank me when I protect them adequately, and when I'm warm and the gloves are no longer necessary for the return trip--well, that's what pockets are for.

My point is this: the more I can let go of how I think I "should" be able to interact with winter in my (gently) aging body, the more I can respond to reality. And here are several of those realities: I like having warm fingers and toes; I have to take the vitamins instead of just buying them; things don't heal when you ignore them; conscious attention to exercise is necessary because just running around isn't enough; the weather is what it is and I can either shake my fist at it or enjoy it however I can.

Call my responses "concessions" if you will. I call them "how I make the best of the latest Spring I've ever experienced." And yes, these concessions are metaphors for writing: all I can control is what I do. So I write. I revise (and revise and revise some more). I submit. I live and read and love and gripe and laugh and eat and exercise and meditate. And I write.