Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Opening Prompts

A recent segment on the Kathy & Judy radio program asked listeners to imagine the memoirs they’d write, and invited them to call in with the opening sentences.

My favorites were short, punchy lines -- openings that set the stage just enough to intrigue and then set the mind adrift in story possibilities:

Let me apologize in advance.

I’m my own fault.

I lived south of I-80.

These genes don’t fit.

She hit me first.

Later, I looked through the published memoirs on my bookshelf. Most of their opening lines were long and immediately specific to the story at hand. But I found three that are general enough to serve as writing prompts:

The first day I did not think it was funny. (From Nora Ephron’s Heartburn -- reportedly such thinly disguised fiction that I’ll call it memoir.)

Here they come. (From Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man.)

Life changes fast. (From Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Two Down

It took me a moment this morning to realize I recognized the sound: the year’s first two 17-year cicadas. High in a 30-foot maple I'd just walked past, one cicada buzzed a 2-second vibrato and another buzzed back in a slightly higher tone. Hooray for them, I thought, and stopped to listen.

Three mornings ago on the same route to get coffee, I’d finally seen some cicada shells scattered on the sidewalks -- a hundred maybe, over the course of a 2-mile round trip. A couple of very warm days followed, and yesterday I'd estimated a thousand shells over the same route. I’d even seen live adults and been fascinated, again, by the shiny metallic green in their coloring -- the purest gold, I’d have guessed, if gold came in green.

But this morning, not much. For all I knew, the shells I did see were leftovers from yesterday. My neighborhood is in transition, its early-20th-century houses being torn down and, along with their yards, replaced by McMansions that fill 90% of each lot. Surely, the construction had disrupted the soil and the dormant cicada nymphs. Certainly, there was less yard space to provide the cicadas with a way out. Maybe this year’s emergence of the periodic bugs would be a bust.

But no! In the tree were two who’d made it out and were home free to spend the next month mating. The noise from just those two was impressive, impossible to ignore. And some black birds didn’t ignore it; perhaps a dozen landed in the tree within moments. The cicadas continued their back-and-forth buzzing and then I heard a quick movement and one of the birds squawked.

And then silence, and the birds flew away.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Run-up to the Cicadas

Every summer, my neighborhood fills with the sound of cicadas.

Annual cicadas, I’d assumed, although now I know that few, if any, species of cicadas undergo an annual metamorphosis from egg to nymph to egg-laying adult. Instead, almost all species are periodic, having life cycles that range from 2-8 years -- most of it spent underground in the nymph stage. Only because each year brings the emergence of a combination of various species, do we hear the "annual" buzz that heralds the dog days of summer. It’s like working with fractions and lowest common denominators to predict which might be the jackpot year -- when the 2- and 3- and 4- and 5- and 6- and 7- and 8-year cicadas will all happen to emerge in the same summer.

I hope it’s not this year, because we’re just days away from the huge, synchronized emergence of a species with an ultra-long life cycle: the 17-year cicadas. I’m not surprised. I knew they were coming. I remember them from 17 years ago.

We’d bought our 80-year-old house in the fall of 1989, in an established suburb full of huge elms and maples. We happily spilled out into our yard the following spring and heard about the impending arrival of the periodic cicadas. We scoffed at neighbors who told us we wouldn't be able to hold a conversation outside amid the droning. I remember it eventually being true.

Cicadas aren’t dangerous, they’re not damaging. They’re just annoying: seriously clumsy fliers that bump straight into you instead of swerving; litterers whose shed exoskeletons form a crunchy carpet on sidewalks and patios. With estimates as high as 1.5 million cicadas per acre, that’s a lot of bumping and crunching.

Scientists predict the cicadas will return this week. I hear some have already been spotted in other suburbs. All I’ve seen so far are the signs: shed earthen casings (exit tunnels?) and emergence holes that can make a patch of bare ground look like it’s been brought to a boil overnight.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rediscovering Science

I wrote this 15 months ago as an opening to an essay:

“The progress is remarkable,” my friend Greg, a prominent researcher, tells me over lunch at a restaurant. “We’ve … blah blah unintelligible words … the genome of … so many, many more unfamiliar words.”

I stare at him.

How long has it been since I’ve heard a sentence like that?

He spears some romaine and secures it on his fork with a ribbon of chilled sirloin. I blink.

This is Greg, I remind myself—the first person I met on our first day of pharmacy school, nearly thirty years ago.

And now in his whole sentence, I recognize only the one word.

My eyes sting and I look down at my bowl of soup.

I miss science.
Since then, I’ve subscribed to science magazines, devoured fascinating new science books and published half a dozen science articles and shorts.

And yesterday, I reconnected with an amazing source of inspiration: my college organic chem professor—an intelligent, animated man renown for the funnest classes; a creative scientist who applied forensic chemistry decades before CSI. In a 30-minute phone call, we batted so much energy back and forth that I think our cell phones gained charge.

Ain’t life grand?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Losing Science

As a kid, I figured my family could have formed a country. Dad was a college administrator, Mom a paralegal, my sister a teacher. One brother was career military, another was on his way to becoming a doctor, another planned to be a priest.

“And what do you want to be?” people would ask me.

“A researcher,” I’d answer, and they’d screw up their faces: “Why, that’s not even a word!”

Researchist, I wondered?

Forced, finally (and privately), to the family dictionary, I was crushed to find them right. Nothing existed between “research” and “re-seat.”

Friday, May 11, 2007

Empty Nest

I often walk past this house.

And every time, I wonder about the long-ago teenager who lived here and shot hoops.

What's the story now?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Wake Up, Everybody

This is the first place I've admitted it: I've always had a softer spot for geriatrics than for pediatrics.

In high school and early college, I worked as a nurse's aide in a hospital, much of the time on a skilled nursing unit. During that time, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes released "Wake Up, Everybody" -- I liked this stanza best:

Wake up all the doctors, make the old people well.
They're the ones who suffer and who catch all the hell.
They don't have so very long before their judgment day
So won't you make them happy before they pass away?

I'm happy tonight, watching the Zimmers's version of "My Generation."

Friday, May 4, 2007

Rescued From Junk Mail

Woohoo!! to New Scientist ...

for recognizing that some girls like filling their brains ...

more than filling their bodies or closets.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Bad Latte!

Top 10 Ways to Ruin a Caffe Latte:

10. Steam the milk so full of air that the latte feels prepared with helium

9. Use nonfat milk by mistake

8. Use nonfat milk because there’s no whole milk ready

7. Top off with nonfat milk because there isn't enough whole milk ready

6. Top with nonfat-milk foam because there isn’t any whole

5. Top with a cappuccino-quantity of foam (see photo)

4. Top with Styrofoam rather than creamy foam

3. Use lukewarm milk

2. Omit the espresso

1. Argue with the customer about any of the above.

The barista at my new place doesn’t do any of these.