Living History: Schools and Bathrooms

I’ve been working on a short story that is set in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964 and involves the Freedom Summer actions that were part of the Civil Rights Movement. When my writer’s group critiqued an early draft, one person asked me, “Who are you writing this for?”

She went on to explain that if I was aiming the story at people my age, that is, people who remember that time, the amount of explanation I had was fine. But if I wanted a broader audience — a younger audience —I should put in more detail about what things were like in Mississippi (and the United States as a whole) in 1964.

That comment made me think not just about the story, but about the many things that I know a lot about because I lived through them, whether personally or because they were major news, things that I think of as “just life” but that are, in fact, now part of history.

I am a Boomer, part of the leading edge of that very large generation of people born in the years after World War II when so many people, at least in the U.S. and probably in many other parts of the world, were desperate for a return to some kind of normal.

Like many U.S. folks of my generation, I had the experience of going through life as part of the largest cohort anyone had ever seen. The U.S. population has more than doubled in my lifetime; the world population has tripled. The post-war baby boom set that in motion.

My kindergarten class had 60 kids and two teachers; it met half a day for one semester so that they could offer kindergarten to all the kids whose families wanted it. My first grade class had 45 kids and the teacher was just out of college. Fortunately, she was a born teacher. Continue reading “Living History: Schools and Bathrooms”

Raised in a Barn: A Heist

When I was a kid we went from our home in New York City to our work-in-progress barn in Massachusetts virtually every weekend. Among other things, this meant that my brother and I got very good at packing. My father had a system for packing, which meant we had packing lessons and were supervised by my father until he was certain that we could be trusted to follow the protocol. All clothes were to be folded and then rolled into neat tubes which could then be stacked in our brightly colored duffels (mine pink, my brother’s, blue). This allowed one to pack an extraordinary amount of stuff–far more than one generally needed for a two-day weekend.

In addition to the duffels, routine weekend luggage included my parents’ suitcase, whatever luggage weekend guests were bringing, and an object that we called the Meat Bag. Continue reading “Raised in a Barn: A Heist”

Beware Fake Science News!

Barbara McClintock, geneticist

Science news articles abound, everything from the results of carefully designed peer-reviewed research studies to fear-based rumors and anti-science biased conspiracy theories. How are we to discern which are reliable, which are hype based on misinterpretation, flawed studies, and the like, and which are clickbait nonsense?

The first thing I do is look at the source. Mediabiasfactcheck and other sites provide information as to the right-left biases and factual accuracy of a given source, although not of a particular story. Science Based Medicine is also helpful. I’ve been known to search under “Is Dr. So-and-So a quack?” and get useful answers.

I also check my own reactions: Is this too good to be true? Is it at odds with what I understand about science (my academic background is biology and health sciences)? Have I seen an article in a trusted source (such as the newsletter from Center for Science in the Public Interest) debunking this or similar claims? I’ve been also known to check with friends with special expertise in the field.

The Conversation offers some guidelines on assessing the quackery scale of science new stories. Their suggestions:

1. Has the story undergone peer review?

Scientists rely on journal papers to share their scientific results. They let the world see what research has been done, and how.

Once researchers are confident of their results, they write up a manuscript and send it to a journal. Editors forward the submitted manuscripts to at least two external referees who have expertise in the topic. These reviewers can suggest the manuscript be rejected, published as is, or sent back to the scientists for more experiments. That process is called “peer review.”

Research published in peer-reviewed journals has undergone rigorous quality control by experts. Each year, about 2,800 peer-reviewed journals publish roughly 1.8 million scientific papers. The body of scientific knowledge is constantly evolving and updating, but you can trust that the science these journals describe is sound. Retraction policies help correct the record if mistakes are discovered post-publication.

Peer review takes months. To get the word out faster, scientists sometimes post research papers on what’s called a preprint server. These often have “RXiv” – pronounced “archive” – in their name: MedRXiv, BioRXiv and so on. These articles have not been peer-reviewed and so are not validated by other scientists. Preprints provide an opportunity for other scientists to evaluate and use the research as building blocks in their own work sooner.

How long has this work been on the preprint server? If it’s been months and it hasn’t yet been published in the peer-reviewed literature, be very skeptical. Are the scientists who submitted the preprint from a reputable institution? During the COVID-19 crisis, with researchers scrambling to understand a dangerous new virus and rushing to develop lifesaving treatments, preprint servers have been littered with immature and unproven science. Fastidious research standards have been sacrificed for speed.

A last warning: Be on the alert for research published in what are called predatory journals. They don’t peer-review manuscripts, and they charge authors a fee to publish. Papers from any of the thousands of known predatory journals should be treated with strong skepticism.

2. Be aware of your own biases.

Beware of biases in your own thinking that might predispose you to fall for a particular piece of fake science news.

People give their own memories and experiences more credence than they deserve, making it hard to accept new ideas and theories. Psychologists call this quirk the availability bias. It’s a useful built-in shortcut when you need to make quick decisions and don’t have time to critically analyze lots of data, but it messes with your fact-checking skills.

confirmation bias can be at work as well. People tend to give credence to news that fits their existing beliefs. This tendency helps climate change denialists and anti-vaccine advocates believe in their causes in spite of the scientific consensus against them.

 3. Correlation is not causation! Continue reading “Beware Fake Science News!”

Women’s History Month

I’m a bit late with my post this week because I’ve been finishing up things. One of the things I was finishing up was a month’s worth of wonderful guests on my personal blog.

I was one of the group of women who set up a Women’s History Month in Australia. I moved on and others took over. Those years were special to me and most years I do a celebration all March of women’s history. I ask writers and historians to be my guests, set a theme and sometimes they stick to the theme and sometimes they don’t and every year brings much joy. This year was no exception.

This year it struck me that we were all making quite big history, even those of us confined to our homes and unable to explore the greater world. The small things in life are the history. That’s what I asked of my writer-friends – the small things in their lives. I wanted us all to have some insight into how all our lives are valuable in this pandemic time. My only regret is that I had to limit the number of writers I asked, due to my own physical restrictions. In my perfect celebration of women’s history, I would have been able to include triple the number of posts and to explore more writers’ understanding of what makes the small things in life special. Sometimes it’s research they’ve done, sometimes it’s someone’s everyday – I let writers make their own choices (as I often do) and the outcome is posts so varied and interesting that there should be something for every reader. You can find the posts here: https://gillianpolack.com/blog/

I wish we lived in less interesting times. At least, because we live now, we can understand how our apparently ordinary lives are part of something very big. In fact, they’re part of many very big things. We’re not alone and we’re not unimportant.

Auntie Deborah Answers Your Writing Questions

Dear Auntie Deborah, How do I stick with my story idea and finish writing it?

Some writers can take an idea and launch it into a story while writing, but most of us can’t — or else end up revising many times to whip that shapeless manuscript into something that resembles a true story. Your description of losing motivation suggests that you, like me, need to have more structure in place before beginning.

What do I mean by structure? I need to have a hook or inciting incident — the action, situation, crisis, or decision that fuels the first part of the story. Then something goes wrong (or right, or unexpected) and spins the story in a new direction — that’s the first plot point. I need to know what it’s all building toward, and also the feeling or flavor I want to leave the reader with (sadness, triumph, satisfaction, chocolates on the pillow?). I need at least 2 or 3 characters I’m in love with, although I don’t necessarily need to know what happens to them. I write all this down, do flow charts and maybe a map or two. If I’m submitting on proposal, I’ll need to flesh it out into a proper synopsis plus the first 3 chapters, but for writing for myself on spec, that’s enough to get me going.

If these concepts are unfamiliar with you, I encourage you to learn more about storycraft and the journey from idea to plot/character/dramatic arc. Ideas aren’t a bad place to start, they’re just not enough.

Dear Auntie Deborah: My critique group keeps giving me contradictory advice. I’m at a loss as to which direction to take. Help!
 

Deborah: It is as important to know which advice to ignore as which to pay attention to! Without knowing the sources of your opinions, I can’t evaluate their validity, but — BUT — I am always leery of anyone who tells me how to fix problems in my own work. This was true when I began writing on a professional level 35 years ago, and it certainly is true now. What helps me are comments like, “I’m confused about x,” or “This didn’t work for me,” or “I don’t care what happens to this character.” In other words, careful readers marking where they had problems. Then it’s up to me, the author, to discern where I went wrong and how I want to remedy it. (This is how my publishing editor and I work together, by the way.)

My second point is that learning to write and working on a specific project are two different things. A project problem may highlight a skill you need to strengthen, but someone telling you how to improve it makes it their story, not yours, and isn’t likely to help you improve as a writer.

I wonder if you might fare better by not showing your work to anyone until it is completed to the best of your ability. Otherwise you run the risk of distorting your artistic vision to please others so much that you lose your authentic creative voice. When you are ready for feedback, seek out trusted readers (who need not be writers themselves but who have keen sensitivity to their own reactions) or writers a little ahead of you in their careers. Make it clear what kind of feedback you want: What worked for you? What didn’t? Where did you lose interest? Was the result satisfying? And leave the nuts and bolts of prose craft for a separate discussion.

Dear Auntie Deborah: I think my novel has way too much speech in it. What should I do?

Continue reading “Auntie Deborah Answers Your Writing Questions”

Family History on St. Patrick’s Day

I went out to run an errand on Wednesday and spotted someone walking along wearing a green sweater, green skirt, and green tights. None of them were precisely the same shade of green, nor did they blend in a completely harmonious manner, but they did convey a brazen greenness.

That’s when I realized that, even though I knew it was St. Patrick’s Day, I was not wearing anything green. Fortunately, I was also not wearing anything orange. This is important among those of us who can trace some of their heritage back to the Irish Diaspora.

My Irish ancestors were not Orangemen. My great-great grandfather, Florence McCarthy, followed his brother Dennis to the States in about 1850. They were McCarthys from County Cork.

My grandmother Omega was devoted to her grandfather. He named her — he was a scholar of classics (like my nephew, his great-great-great grandson) and taught Latin and Greek before taking a job with the railroad.

My grandmother was the only person I knew growing up who despised the English. I may have picked up her distaste from some discussion about the coronation of Elizabeth II, though I would have been a tiny child then, but at any rate it was very plain. Continue reading “Family History on St. Patrick’s Day”

We Are Stardust

The Antennae Galaxies in Collision
The Antennae Galaxies in Collision from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day

We subscribe to New Scientist, the British science magazine that provides short reports on newsworthy bits of research worldwide, several excellent columnists, and a couple of deep dives into important topics each week.

Reading each issue will remind you that our Earth is complex and interconnected and that we human beings have not come close to knowing everything there is to know about the place or, indeed, about ourselves.

Likewise, each issue will make it clear that the Universe is so vast as to be far beyond our comprehension and knowledge, at least now. We have only bits of knowledge about our little solar system, much less the Milky Way galaxy in which we reside, and both those are small potatoes within the Universe as a whole.

I also practice meditation. Of late, I’ve been meditating in the way taught by Master Li Junfeng of Sheng Zhen, which translates as the path of unconditional love, and am currently taking an online class from him to learn a form known as Heaven Earth Heart Contemplation.

When we meditate, we draw on the Earth and the Universe. As I start, I often think of the Earth – its molten core, the tectonic plates, everything from mountains to deserts to wetlands, the oceans and all the creatures – and then go out toward the Universe until I feel that I am one with the Universe.

And at the same time, I feel like I am a tiny speck in that Universe, that even the Earth is a tiny speck in it. Oddly, I find this very comforting. All those things we take so very seriously – even those on the level of life and death – don’t matter so much when I feel like this tiny bit of stardust.

That is, I come to the same place from both meditation and thinking about physics. Continue reading “We Are Stardust”

Yet Another Evacuation, The Report

I live in the mountains in a redwood forest in Central Coast California. I love this place and the deep serenity it has brought me. But there’s a down side to every locale, and wildfires are part of the ecology of this region. Much of the plant life, including redwoods, has evolved to survive and even thrive with periodic conflagrations. Humans, on the other hand, aren’t too fond of having their homes burned down, so they put out little fires, allow

Half a block from us

underbrush to build up, and are loathe to control flammable invasive species (like broom). Increasingly long, hot, dry summers that are the result of climate change turns the region, like many in the West, into a tinderbox. Last summer’s freak lightning storm ignited thousands of small fires that merged into huge ones. I’ve written earlier about my experience being evacuated and watching, day by day, as fires engulfed this area but the heroic efforts of fire fighters spared my own street.

Almost as soon as the mandatory evacuation orders were lifted, local authorities began an campaign of education and preparation for the next phase of this rolling disaster: debris flows. Debris flows are a type of mudslides.

Debris flows … are fast-moving downslope flows of mud that may include rocks, vegetation, and other debris. These flows begin during intense rainfall as shallow landslides on steep slopes. The rapid movement and sudden arrival of debris flows pose a hazard to life and property during and immediately following the triggering rainfall.1

In other words, debris flows are rivers of cement 15 or more feet high and moving at up to 40 mph. If you can see it, it’s too late. There’s no way to prepare except to get out of the way. Debris flows caused massive property damage and over 20 fatalities in 2018 in Montecito, Southern California. Our local agencies were understandably concerned.

We all studied the maps of debris flow risk and watched the weather forecast. November and December passed with only occasional gentle showers, well belong the threshold for triggering a debris flow. Some of us began to relax, hoping for a dry “La Niña” year. Old timers warned that often the real rains don’t set in until January. They were right. Continue reading “Yet Another Evacuation, The Report”

In Praise of Not-Mothers

My mother and me, 1963.

My mother and I had a somewhat fraught relationship. She was beautiful and smart and funny, and troubled (I have entirely unscientifically diagnosed an anxiety-depression disorder with a touch of OCD), and as the only girl in the family I was “hers” in the way that my brother was my father’s. Which is not to say that my Dad and I weren’t close–it was more that I was the person she reached for–and as my parents’ relationship foundered, she reached for me a lot.

Flash forward: I’m an adult and I have kids, and our goal, my husband’s and mine, was to Make New Mistakes. On the theory that making mistakes while raising children is unavoidable, even with all the love in the world. Goals are great, but not always achievable. So how did we not replicate the same unintended mistakes our parents (and in particular my mother) made?

The flippant-but-hot-untrue answer: a good deal of pre-children therapy on both our parts. But equally true: I was lucky enough to find a succession of not-mothers, women who modeled adult womanhood for me in an un-fraught way, and welcomed me to it. Continue reading “In Praise of Not-Mothers”

Color Therapy

Since about last May, I’ve been doing a whole lot of sewing. (Fortuitously, I replaced my ancient sewing machine a couple of months earlier.) Most of it has been masks. With MaskUpNM, a volunteer group, I’ve been making masks for health care workers, women’s shelters, the Navajo Nation and other New Mexico tribes, impoverished school children, and so on.

In December, the group started making scrub caps for ICU nurses at local hospitals, who have been exhausted and overwhelmed taking care of Covid patients. Many of them don’t get issued scrub caps by their employers, or only get disposable ones that are uncomfortable and wasteful of resources. After replacing my ancient serger, which seized up halfway through this project, I just finished the second round of scrub caps for this effort – 48 caps.

Continue reading “Color Therapy”