Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Go Outside

I’m now in my second month of the job I’ve spent about 11 years training for: I’m an assistant professor at UMass Boston (I'm only counting the years after which I'd decided I wanted to be a professor - not the preceding decades). I’m completely thrilled and also terrified (do I really know whatI’m doing?). These competing emotions have driven me to spend practically every possible moment hunched over my computer, reading and writing and thinking and reacquainting myself with old data and looking for grant opportunities and figuring out what I need to buy to set up my lab and planning new projects and choosing a textbook for next semester and planning upcoming classes, and…phew. It’s exhilarating and wonderful, but also dizzying.

The one thing I haven’t done enough of is be outside, looking at the study system I care most about: the ocean. Today on my way to the office, I was making lists in my head of what today will entail, when the view from the bus stopped me. Boston harbor is a calm sheet of molten metal reflecting the sun hiding behind wisps of thin clouds. The harbor islands look almost surreally shrouded in mist, like something from a fairytale movie. Instead of walking to my temporary office, facing a cinderblock wall with no natural light filtering into the cubicle, I came down to the Harbor Walk ringing the school.
I think I'll just make a little office right here, thank you.

 Here, I can see gulls lazily drifting on imperceptible currents, wading birds looking for snacks on a sandbar slowly being exposed by a falling tide. Tiny waves from boat wakes jostle dark and glistening kelp fronds that cling to the steep rip-rap wall of granite buttressing the fill material on which the University is built. I can see through the water closest to the edge, shallow dark sediment with white shapes dotting the surface – shells? On top of a granite block holding a safety chain along the edge of the rip-rap wall, the remains of a crab are strewn; evidence of what those birds are looking for on the sandbar.

It’s surprisingly warm for a place that by some accounts will be covered over by a glacier 37 feet thick in a few months (I think New Englanders thrill in trying to scare people like me, with no real experience living in snow, away from here). Being outside in the sun and the fresh air is not just uplifting – it also reminds me why I care about this thing called the “environment.” And why I got into this career in the first place – to help other people understand what they are looking at when they go outside, with the hope that this will spark them to care deeply enough to help protect it. I also try to do my part to protect the environment through better understanding how the natural world works, and how humans are unraveling the normal mechanisms.

So I propose: whatever the weather and whatever the location, go outside today and look for something that startles you or intrigues you or otherwise makes you care a little more about this beautiful planet. 

And then go vote


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Plane travel with an almost-3-yr-old

For the past 3 months, I have a lot of flying with my little guy (not unlike other months, really…but these were relatively long trips) – now just a week shy of 3 years old. Some parts of plane travel are getting easier as he gets older: he understands and respects (most of the time) the concept of the seatbelt sign; he knows to anticipate juice (a treat for him) and other goodies like the candy I freely dispense when he starts going nuts; his attention span has grown seemingly exponentially. He is, of course, still not fully cognizant of why it’s not Ok to throw things over the back of the seat in front of him, scream at the top of his lungs when he’s frustrated, or why he doesn’t instantly receive said juice when he gets to his seat.

Here are some new tips I’ve learned for traveling with this-age kid.

Balloons become crazy-static-electricity-fied on an airplane = magic! Before he started going completely nuts and throwing them at everyone in the vicinity (at least they don’t hurt), a few small balloons lasted quite some time as we explored what they would stick to and the best way to get them fully statically charged.


Boys love cars/trains/vehicles in general. I had no idea this would be such a hit, but on our cross-US flight Ryder was amused for almost 3 hours total with a box of small cars and a 4-panel “roadmap.” Extra happily for me, he also didn’t particularly care whether I joined him in playing with the cars (something I find I am not that good at – or, let’s be honest, I find somewhat boring), and proceeded to make up little stories with the various cars and keep fully engaged for long chunks of time. I was therefore free to read snatches of a book or the inflight magazine while periodically listening to him narrating for his cars (“Oh look, you got hurt. I’ll take you to the doctor.”).

There are lots and lots of websites that will give you ideas for “busy bags.” The concept is that you put together a little activity in a small bag which will keep your child busy in boring situations like waiting in line at the bank, or waiting for mom to finish the weekly dreadlock-banishment she has decided to tackle on herself. I took the time during a few naps prior to our trip to put some of these together…and they were essentially all a total disaster. Either too easy, too hard, too boring, or too difficult to do in a cramped space. So, maybe don’t waste your time unless color-coding clothespins and punching holes in cardboard and gathering shoelaces is your idea of a good time.

You must have snacks; as many varieties as you can anticipate him wanting to eat. Of course, your child will not want any of them, and will instead demand something that does not exist on the airplane. He will only be appeased when you break down and spend $8 on a few crappy crackers and two pieces of cheese after you make up a story about how his special car loves that particular type of dried up cheese and of which he will take one bite and then say that he is full.
These car track "maps" came with a bunch of cars with non-turning wheels, which he now hates and made me donate at the Goodwill (sorry, other kids), but the maps were a hit
His special metal water bottle will become pressurized and spray water all over him, you, your neighbor, and all of the seats when you open it. This will then become an activity he wishes to repeat on all subsequent plane flights, so you’d be wise to bring along some napkins. Also they’ll be helpful for the juice he will pour all over his lap when he decides his special car would like a bath.

My child is, sometimes I think unfortunately, not that into watching movies (yet?). Even on planes that had built-in movie screens and lots of choices of kids movies and shows, he will become quickly bored. This is inconvenient to me, because I love being able to watch a movie on a plane I would never watch in normal life. So, I’ll usually resort to handing him my phone – he is entranced by the camera/video and flashlight features. Thank goodness for a decent battery life and seemingly endless storage for the 634 close-up nose photos/2 second videos of my thigh that he will take, which keeps him busy for about 30 minutes at a time. Also I think the people behind us really enjoy being intermittently blinded by the flashlight.
We have a lot of these photos now
Don’t forget books!

Playdoh and tools with which to chop up and poke holes in said playdoh are also super useful at this age. Potential playdoh tools available on planes include plastic cutlery and stabby stir-sticks.

At home, Ryder likes to draw; but not on trips, apparently. I bring paper and pens and crayons every damn time and they are immediately swatted to the floor if I bring them out. He will, however, play with glue and/or paint on a plane. The cabin attendants and adjacent well-dressed flyers love this.

And now, the most important tip: a light scarf (or actually, maybe an eye mask would work!) to block out all of the exciting visual stimulation was incredibly helpful to get R to sleep on the plane. He’s outgrown being rocked or walked to sleep, so making it boring to keep his eyes open was the only way to get him to sleep (usually after an episode of kicking me/pulling my hair/screaming or something else horrible to indicate it was beyond time).

Enjoy your travels!
The other upside of letting the kid take pictures is that you will end up with many keepsake photos for your family album