Monday, October 16, 2017


Choice is an attractive concept.  Do you choose coffee or expresso?  Do you prefer neutral or primary colors?  Do you read or go for a walk when you aren't busy.  The idea of free will is that you may choose for yourself what to do.  Nadia Boulanger, who came and conducted the Goucher Glee Club in singing Faure's Requiem when I was in college, once said, "The essential conditions of everything you do must be choice,  love, and passion."  She impressed us mightily on her visit to the US, and her mini-lectures made me fall in love with words and see humans as namers of the universe.  But I chose to rehearse long hours instead of working on experiments for my biology senior thesis.  That choose had consequences.  I still love choral music.  My thesis was okay, not spectacular.  I have retired from being a biology professor and now I'm a creative writer.

One aspect of choice that fascinates me is choice when that is the only liberty one has.  This quotation from Vic Vujcic expresses that idea well. "Often people ask me how I manage to be happy despite having no arms and no legs.  The quick answer is I have a choice. I can be angry about not having limbs or I can be thankful that I have a purpose.  I choose gratitude." I resonate to that response because I use a wheelchair a lot these days and can choose to be angry and downhearted about it or grateful I"m alive and can write and even go on hikes or outings using my scooter.  I first noticed this kind of choice when I read a biography of Anwar Sadat many years ago.  Imprisoned for political agitation in Egypt, he chose to feel at liberty to think and plan for his country once he could get free rather than feeling sorry for himself.  Later, reading Nelson Mandela's biography, I found the same concept.

In writing, one's biographical subject or fictional character has to make choices.  The kind of interior monologs  and actions towards others your subject chooses can reveal his or her character as few other actions can.  Showing us the inner conflict and decision to choose positive thoughts can make your writing memorable.


Science Awards for Women: A Sore Point  

I have written a lot over the years on NATURE's blog on Women in Science about major scientific awards and the very few women typically selected for them.  And in Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling and other places, I've written about one possible advantage women might have as scientists: they may select high risk-high reward projects that men have rejected.  

This week, National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced twelve people received Pioneer Awards, intended to recognize people who take on risky projects that pay off big.  Eleven were men, one was a women,  She was Kay The of MIT, whose work clarified the role of neuron plasticity in the amygdala in learning.  The men awarded included Feng Zhang, one of the scientists who has developed the ways to use CRISPR-Cas9 in editing of genes in human cells.  

The list implies I must have been wrong about women's attraction to risk with big rewards if the recipients were fairly selected.  In the previous three years, four, three, and five women were selected, so perhaps this was just an unlucky year for women's grants with high risk.  But somewhere along the line, as described in a semi-anonymous web posting, the process went from nomination to application.  I would argue that women find it a lot easier to gracefully agree to be recognized for risky but rewarding research than to put themselves forward has having done such research.  The imposter syndrome is well documented for women scientists, suggesting that women don't feel sure they've succeeded because of their own skills and intelligence, but feel it's been accidental and they might be found out as an imposter who really doesn't deserve her recognition.  

I recall not being willing to apply to Rockefeller Institute (now University) for graduate school because what they required was an essay basically extolling yourself and your scientific potential.  Not that I lacked confidence back then.  I seemed very confident but underneath, I cringed at the thought I might over-represent my own scientific acumen.  Somehow that never bothered some good friends (male) who applied there and were accepted.  

So it seems possible to me that the mechanism for selection of Pioneers now selects against women when it didn't so much in the past.  The Nobel Prizes (all male in science this year) are a different story!


Monday, October 2, 2017

Wisdom or Catastrophe

I've been watching a TV program called Global Spirit. Jean Shinoda Bowen was a guest there recently,  We are at a crossroads and must choose to pursue wisdom or catastrophe.  So many kinds of catastrophe could await us.  I'm reminded of a Native American concept of evil, in which today's world was started without evil but humans sent back to the previous world, asking their messenger to bring "the way to make money."  That proved to be evil or imbalance or spiritual deficiency.  When people follow that way, they are not on the path of beauty, they lose the ability to empathize with their relatives and others. 

What is wisdom?  Is it the property of gurus or priests or others who spend their entire lives on issues of soul?  I think not.  I notice that from Athena to Sophia, wisdom is often seen as a woman.  Is it motherly insight that breaks through to real understanding and close relationship to others?  Maybe.  It's a mystery, as is the soul itself.  But nourishment is definitely a function of mothers, and true wisdom is thought to satisfy better than any money-based rewards.  

Rational thought, what we seem to glorify in schools, probably has little to do with wisdom.  As a writer, and I think as any creative artist, thinking isn't enough.  Immersion in the stream of deep feeling has to undergird art or it lacks the ability to connect to others.  Wisdom, not reason, leads us to the best human state possible it seems.

Have you ever written out of rationality rather than wisdom?  How?  On what kinds of topics?


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Pandas and Curiosity about Women


Hilary Clinton's new book, What Happened, includes many insights into her campaign for president and its results.  Tucked into it, you'll also find information about what she was asked most frequently when on the political trail: what she had for breakfast, what she likes to read when relaxing, how she feels about Bill Clinton, what color and styles she likes and why. 

Rachel Maddow, in interviewing Hilary Clinton, found it fascinating that these personal details were the most frequently asked about.  Hilary
Clinton said she had once worried about this trend, but she had discussed it with others and finally concluded that the way people watch pandas is similar.  Pandas are exotic and rare but they don't do much, yet people spend hours watching them at zoos and in the wild.  Somehow, despite their repetitive and somewhat boring doings, people expect that they may do anything, and they try to be there to see it.  She thinks now that the personal inquisition she gets is similar.  Women running for president are rara avis beings, and people want to watch to see if they'll do something surprising and different.

Difference is interesting.  As writers we know that and use it in our writing.  There is a lot of emphasis in writing books on conflict as the basis of story.  I like the somewhat newer idea that a story needs conflict but it relies on building or breaking down relationships for the emotional power of the story.  The panda effect is an attempt at connection.  I did wonder why women but not men are asked these questions, but the focus on the unusual, with an anticipation of a coming surprise, makes a lot of sense to me.

Anyone have experiences or ideas about the panda effect?


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Being Another Organism

One fascinating topic for authors is to try to see the world through the eyes of another organism.  Coetzee has written a number of stories with embedded essays about animal perspectives, whether we can ever perceive the world from the eyes of a lion or a bat. 

Recently I've been very interested in sea creatures.  Not necessarily sea anemones like the one  pictured here, but octopus.  I've read haphazardly around the topic of octopus intelligence and perception, and my favorite at present is Soul of an Octopus. The ingenuity and the moods of several individuals of this species surprised me a great deal.  Some are kindly and others aloof, some are Houdinis and can ooze their entire bodies through tiny cracks to escape aquaria. The color changes they undergo can be similar to facial expressions.  In some cases, a red octopus is interested only in sex.  

I imagine that sci fi authors who write about alien shape shifters could be unconsciously modeling them on octopuses.  But how do they feel?  Clearly they'd prefer not to be caged in an aquarium.  Sy Montgomery attributes many human qualities to the individuals she got to know and described in Soul of an Octopus.  I think the choice of the word 'soul' is shocking to some, but to me it seems justified.  But I also see how a human can fool him or herself about what an octopus is thinking or feeling.  There is a barrier that remains, no matter how connected one may feel.  But exploring that barrier is fascinating to write about and to read.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Egrets and Herons at Newport Back Bay

One of my favorite spots to go in the LA area is the bay behind Newport Beach.  There's a paved road along the bay but it's one way and slow speed for cars and mostly for bikes and runners.  The tides affect what kinds of birds you can see there, but usually there are snowy egrets like this one, with golden feet.  They often hang out along the edge of the water, shuffling their feet to stir up small invertebrates to eat.  A snowy egret being still is an unusual sight.  This one was crossing the road at a time of low traffic.  My husband Mike and I discovered that across the road was a small trail through the rushes and tall grasses that from time to time shows glimpses of an egret rookery back in the hidden area.  It's fun to go in there with a spotting scope and see how the young egrets are doing.

Great egrets are a lot bigger and very stately compared to snowy egrets.  They stand and wait for a small fish or large invertebrate or frog to pass in the shallow water, then spear it up with their beaks in a flashing strike.  That behavior is much like the Great Blue Herons from Newport Back Bay.  They stand, often near but not too near other GBHs, and wait for a meal to swim past, then strike.  Both the Great egrets and the GBHs can swallow whole fish of an amazingly large size considering the size of their tiny elongated necks.  The necks bulge as the food travels down them.  Often the birds seem to be shaking their heads and necks or swallowing convulsively to get the too-large food down. 

Here are phcots of a lone great egret and a group of great blue herons at Newport.  Watching these birds changes my sense of time.  They never seem to be stressed, and after I watch them for a hour or two, I am not stressed either.  I breathe in sagebrush, hear red-winged blackbirds, and watch the water ripple, and I gaze at an egret or heron for a long time, imagining how life would feel if I were one of them.  Today's human problems fade away from my consciousness.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Welcome to the new series on my literary blog.  I’ve struggled with the format of a different web page design software for several years, but now happily return to Blogger with the help of my new web design specialist, Maddee James of  I’m excited to re-start the conversations I’ve had with you and others interested in literature, writing, and nature.

In 1725, Antonio Vivaldi published his most famous work, Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons).  The first section was entitled Spring, the second Summer, the third Autumn, and the fourth Winter.  That cycle of seasons, in that order, might be the list most people would give if asked to list the seasons of a year.

After a career in academia, I would begin at a different place, with my favorite season, fall.  To me, fall is a time of beginnings, expectations, visions of the future.

Winter is a season of amplification, opening of the boxes of secrets, working to absorb the new ideas popping out of those boxes.  Spring is when cross connections and deeper insights can begin, the bud begins to open.  Summer is full flowering of the ideas in those secret boxes, when the insights from them can be played with in many ways and related to other fields, to life, to other people.

Starting a new web page is like fall, starting off with a new set of secret boxes and a beautiful, stimulating new design.  It invigorated me to create this new website with the xuni designer Maddee James.  I liked the shiny DNA on my old site, but somehow the overall website design felt generic, not specific to authors’ needs, and it simply wasn’t exciting to look at.  I find the new site gives me the pleasure of looking at a beautiful collage, but also gives me the mental challenge of seeing the connections between the different parts of the picture.  I love to reflect on that idea, and to find how swamps, keys, and birds work together, how DNA and the ocean relate to one another, and more.  I hope you will enjoy seeing this stimulating new design too.

I’ve used the previous incarnation of this blog to interview authors of new books, and I invite authors to contact me about reading and reviewing their work.  I’ve also run an annual word play called alphabetaphilia, the results of which you can download and look at.  Let me know if you’d like me to re-start that word play or to keep the blog focused on thoughts on various topics.  I’ve taught writing spirituality and Writing Our Way Forward since I stopped blogging, and I’d like to hear if you want me to discuss some of the insights from these courses on the blog.  Also, if there are topics you’d like to bring out, I’m interested to hear about them.

Please join in conversations that interest you, but please no erotica or painful sarcasm.  Welcome!