Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

“Perched on the Strange Cusp of History”: Hope, Despair, Science, Love, Quaran-Streaming…

| 15 Comments

I sometimes feel despair when I read the news in the morning. Maybe you’re feeling it too, but for different reasons. Can you and I possibly get to a place of collective hope? Where we can together be proud of our country and also have the energy to keep forming a more perfect union?

“We’ll get through this,” said one of my friends.

And I am reminded – our society can afford many things, but it cannot afford despair.

For today, I offer you Mary Jo and Maddie Shankle, one at home in Nashville and the other abroad at Bangor University in Wales, both of them navigating the present and dreaming too of the future…

Hi Mary Jo and Maddie! Thanks for spending some time in the Bacon Neighborhood!

Let’s start right here, right now. Where are you? At the moment you’re answering the interview questions, what does this particular day look like?

Mary Jo: I know it will take me days to write this post, but as I begin Steve and I are up in Sewanee for the weekend and it has been as enjoyable as it has been productive. He caught 15 rainbows on the Elk River (I slept in); we painstakingly (and I must add fearlessly!) rescued two garden snakes ensnared in landscape netting; I took out no less than two wheelbarrows worth of weeds from the garden; we did some grilling, and we did some chilling. Crazy kids that we are, we climbed out on a rooftop and a friend captured the moment recreating a photo from 30+ years ago.

Maddie: I’m at Bangor University in Wales, UK completing a MSc (Master of Science) degree in Physical Oceanography. That’s the physics of how the ocean flows, which has big implications for climate. Today it is sunny, no clouds, blue sky. I would say that’s uncharacteristic of UK weather, but we’ve actually had lovely weather here all spring – in fact it seemed to start right when we went into lockdown! That was March 23rd, and as I write this, it’s June 2nd – day 71. Restrictions are starting to be lifted, though. As of yesterday, you’re officially allowed to meet up with people from other houses (in small groups) and some non-essential shops and banks have opened with certain restrictions. I’m looking forward to going on walks with friends!

OMG photo from Maddie – so beautiful –

and photo from MJ. Can I book a flight to Wales tomorrow?

What did you do yesterday? What will you do tomorrow?

Mary Jo: Yoga. Headstands. Weeding, weeding, weeding. Walking, walking, walking. Riding my bike all over town. When I near a house of someone I know I desperately text “Are you home?? PLEASE come out on the porch and say hello!!!” Soaking in the tub when it’s needed and soaking up the sun when it’s shining. Our two Jack Russell Terrorists and Rhodesian Ridgeback ‘go on with their doggy life’ so I open the door and I close the door and I open the door and I close the door and I open the door again.

 

Not that you asked, but I’ll also share what I am not doing… not baking, not doing puzzles, not sous-vide-ing gourmet recipes, not playing backyard sports, not making artisanal cocktails, not having family game night, not online shopping, not writing the next great American novel, not crafting, knitting, scrapbooking, nor DIY-ing, and not fighting over wifi bandwidth with quaran-teen-ers because we ain’t got none. Despite a big March and April lull in my husband’s work as an anesthesiologist, he still went/goes to the hospital everyday so I am alone and the house is quiet. And yes, I am jealous and sometimes resentful of those who are sheltering in place with their entire families.

There, I said it.

And while I am in a confessional frame of mind, remember my boastful declaration back in my March Bacon post about cleaning all the closets and organizing all the drawers? Yeah, well, that hasn’t happened. Sorry, not sorry, Marie Kondo.

Maddie: Unfortunately, this won’t be an interesting answer. We’ve just completed the second semester of our MSc program (it’s only one year), and we’re all doing our research dissertations over the summer. Yesterday and today (and every day this month pretty much) I’ve been writing a literature review of my research topic, which is about how retreating sea ice in the Arctic will expose more open-water area to winds, making the water column more turbulent and mixing up more nutrients to fuel primary producers (the bottom rung of the food chain). I’m basically reading all the past research on the topic to learn what is already known which helps me decide what I need to figure out in my project. I’ll turn that in on Friday.

What is your state of mind?

Mary Jo: That’s a broad question. Like so many others I know, my temperament is often colored by the weather. As I type this it is sunny and 75, so ostensibly I am good.

Genuinely however, my current state of mind is deeply troubled and by the current state of our society. Systemic oppression of so many, economic inequity, homelessness, injustice and mass incarceration, rampant unemployment, the opioid crisis, gun violence, healthcare and education disparities, domestic abuse, national leadership utterly lacking reason, honesty, and compassion, a pervasive climate of ignorance and arrogance, hate-full ideologies… racism, nativism, ageism, sexisim, xenophobia, homophobia (feel free to insert your own sound bites here… all the additional -isms and -phobias). Good lord, are we yet to a tipping point? What will it take?? A PANDEMIC??? Oh wait, got one.

Maddie: I would say it’s not much different than normal, other than I’m getting a little antsy staying in my room so much. I’m still doing all the school work and research I would’ve been doing anyway (all of my research is done on the computer, writing code and running physical models), so nothing’s really changed about that. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of good things going right now, which helps keep my spirits up. I’m enjoying the research I’m doing for my MSc degree, I’m excited to start a PhD in the fall at St Andrews in Scotland, I still get to see my friends on socially-distanced walks, and I can talk to my family every day. I guess occasionally these past few weeks I have felt a bit robbed; I’ve made great friends here and it’s been hard to lose so much time I could have spent with them (especially in this beautiful summer weather). But honestly that feeling goes away when I think of seniors who’ve missed their graduation, or grandparents who are isolating and cannot meet newborn grandchildren. What am I saying – I think of people who’ve lost loved ones and I don’t feel so robbed anymore. I’m really doing fine. When I start thinking about how devastating this disease has been for some people, I really feel for them. I also worry about the future and climate change. I read an article about global warming suggesting the one trait humans have to protect them against infectious diseases – the ability of our bodies to have a fever – could become obsolete. Basically, if a pathogen passes to us from a species that does not have this trait, our immune system can usually tackle it because the pathogen has not adapted to survive the fever our body puts out. However, if global temperature continues to warm, that’s just pushing pathogens to evolve and adapt to survive in hotter and hotter conditions, making our fevers a weaker and weaker defense to use against them. AND, think about this – pandemics are just ONE impact of continued global warming. So yeah, this pandemic has really made climate change weigh heavily on my mind, because between extreme weather events, water scarcity and drought, sea level rise, and the global movement of climate refugees produced by all these events, I think we are definitely in store for many such catastrophes in the coming century.

How do you stay in touch?

Mary Jo: Telepathically, of course. I continually ‘talk’ to Maddie every day as has been my habit for years. It’s what mothers do, yes? Whether or not she is receiving or blocking my daily psychic missives/clairvoyant correspondence/messages/wishes/prayers/benedictions remains to be seen. In actuality though, video chatting via WhatsApp has been a great boon. It is good to lay eyes on her. I archive our conversations and photos back and forth… it is my lazy woman’s journal, just as FB is my photo scrapbook. I am guilty of sending her waaaaaay too many links, memes, FB memories, etc., but she doesn’t let on it annoys her. Once a week or so, I send a snapshot of one of Mary Laura Philpot’s “Penguins with People Problems” cartoons!

Only recently did I discover on WhatsApp one can send a recorded voice message and we have so much fun with that, sharing private jokes and being completely silly and sometimes catty with one another. When it comes to sarcasm and mockery, there is no doubt she is my daughter!

Maddie: Pretty much through random, sometimes long, sometimes short, WhatsApp calls. WhatsApp lets you call, text, and video call anybody else with the app just using WiFi, so it’s good for staying in touch while abroad. In college, I used to call my mom out of the blue almost every day, usually on long walks to classes across campus. Now, it seems she’s the one usually initiating the calls. Not that I don’t enjoy her calls; it just seems she really needs to see and hear from me during this difficult time, which is more than understandable.

When will you eat out in a restaurant? When will you go to a bar (Maddie)? When will you go to a fundraiser (Mary Jo)?

Mary Jo: Restaurants not so much these days as we are trying to economize, but I sure do miss it. Super sad Swan Ball was cancelled. I know firsthand how hard the chairwomen and auction chairmwomen worked on it. Fingers crossed the Symphony Fashion Show will go on as planned in August. I want to support the cause as well as the chairwomen, and as frivolous as it is, I want to get dressed up and feel girly again. And mark your calendars, friends, Mary Gambill and I are steadily at work chairing the Hermitage Gala on October 30th.

Maddie: I don’t understand the question… as soon as they open, of course! I expect I’ll be able to enjoy a meal out before I can go back to a pub though because they are scheduled to open later than restaurants. I have really missed and been dying to have a full English breakfast, or a Sunday roast… a big family meal served at home or at restaurants with meat, vegetables, and – the best part, Yorkshire puddings filled with gravy. I cooked a Sunday roast for the family while home over Christmas which was great! I think restaurants are supposed to open here with social-distancing in place (assuming the reproduction rate of the virus continues to decline) starting in July, and then I’m keeping my fingers crossed that pubs might open in August!

Where do you think you might be next June?

Mary Jo: I hope we will be sitting right here on my porch with family and friends reminiscing…”It seems unreal to believe that this time last year our collective future was so uncertain. Wasn’t it all so bizarre? But we’ve come out okay on the other side, haven’t we?” Or maybe we will be in a field of Scottish bracken and heather or waist-deep salmon fishing while visiting Maddie. It is nice to daydream.

Maddie: I expect I’ll be in St Andrews, working away at my PhD. There’s no Memorial Day holiday in the UK! My PhD will be similar to my Master’s degree, but instead of studying how the ocean flows in the modern, it will study how the ocean flowed in the past! Believe it or not, it was different – this usually has to do with how warm the Earth was at different times in its past. Sometimes ocean circulation changed in response to climate change, and other times, changes in the ocean lead to changes in the climate. It’s very interesting, and if we learn about how the ocean influenced climate (and vice versa) in the past, it’ll help us understand how we expect the climate and ocean to change in the future! My research involves measuring the chemical composition of what’s basically the tiny shells of ancient phytoplankton that have been living, dying, and raining out on the seafloor for millions of years – this is how we can learn what conditions in the ocean were like millions of years ago. I study how acidic the ocean was millions of years ago, which is tied to atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Ocean acidity can also be used to track certain types of circulation – for example, deep water is usually more acidic than shallower water, so if you see a big acidic signal in your record, you might think that a lot of deep water was upwelling in that region for some reason. So, next Memorial Day, I’ll probably be wearing a clean suit in a chemical lab measuring chemical composition of hundreds of tiny shells! Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? (Don’t worry, if the weather’s nice I’ll be sure to head to a pub with some friends at the end of the day, provided nothing goes wrong in the lab!) 

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?

Mary Jo:

Books (some print, some Audible):

~ read Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” because the gauntlet was cast. I look forward to getting around to the sequels. 

~ dove deep into Nicholson Baker’s “The Anthologist”, a fictional love letter to Poetry with a capital P in which the narrator is consumed with PROSODY! ENJAMBMENT! BALLAD STANZA! DACTYL! TROCHEE!, ASSONANCE! METER! LYRICISM! IAMB! FREE VERSE! DIRTY LIMERICKS! THE PAEONIC FOOT! ALLITERATION! CAESURA! MORE FREE VERSE!  Those are just the terms explored, don’t even get me started on all the Poets discussed. Heady stuff indeed for any poetry enthusiast. Try not to mind the protagonist; his neurosis is almost charming if you squint.

~ made quick work of “The All of It” by Jeannette Haienm having been given the book by a fly-fishing-friend. The narrative is engaging enough and I enjoyed the lovely, lilting language. (ALLITERATION! see, I can’t get “The Anthologist” out of my head). I suppose one must admire an author who can stretch out over a dozen pages the simple(?) act of catching a fish. Book is in hubby’s hands now.

~ recently cannon-balled into “Ulysses” because if not now, when?? Nine chapters in, it is thus far as elusive as it is allusive. But you know what, I am just letting it wash over me without worrying whether I get it all or not. The writing style suits me as I have been living in a stream of consciousness and internal monologue for effing months now, haven’t you?

~ next in the queue was going to be Cathleen Schine’s “The Grammarians” which Jen lent me months ago, but I am now compelled to take a long hard look at my choices and pick works that will challenge and instruct rather than just entertain. I need to candidly examine my bookshelf (as well as my conscience). Is it myopic? Is it whitewashed? Does it need decolonizing?  https://www.npr.org/2020/06/06/870910728/your-bookshelf-may-be-part-of-the-problem

 Current quaran-streaming:

~ finished “Killing Eve” season three

~ started “Laurel Canyon”

~ impatiently awaiting season three of “Derry Girls” although Maddie and I will wait and watch it together. 

Also rewatching movies that transport: 

~ “The Endless Summer”

~ “Samsara”

~ “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

~ “Lawrence of Arabia”

~ “Seven Years in Tibet” (my advice is turn off the sound… totally unnecessary as the scenery and a young Brad Pitt are enough).

Maddie: I’m watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, in part because there’s a lot to be learned from drag about self-love and having ground-shaking confidence in yourself, but also definitely in part because reality television is ridiculous and fun.

My parents and I have split the cost of a subscription to the MasterClass series, so I’ve been watching classes on scientific thinking and communication with Neil deGrasse Tyson and on cooking with Gordon Ramsey.

I’m also reading the fourth book in a fantasy series called The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, which I learned about from my grandfather. Reads more a bit contemporarily than Tolkien/Lewis fantasy. Would highly recommend it to anyone who loves the fantasy genre!

What have you learned about yourself in the Time of Corona?

Mary Jo: I’ve learned I will be able to not only tolerate but truly enjoy my husband’s company once he retires and is underfoot all day, although I will admit it helps that I have another decade to warm up to the idea. I’ve learned that I can be alone and still. Okay, maybe not still (#lifegoals) but I have found there can be a passion yet in going nowhere and doing nothing.

Maddie: I’ve learned that big historic events can and will happen in my lifetime. You already sort of know that, but the gravity of it doesn’t hit you until such an event actually happens. This pandemic could have happened in any other generation or time period besides mine, and it would have just been another entry in the history book. I was too young to remember much about 9/11, so this is the first big historical event I’d say I’ve lived through, besides Barack Obama’s election. I don’t know if it’s changed me in any way, but I feel I have an improved understanding and greater appreciation of how turbulent the world is. Things happen that you can’t plan for – that’s not just an adage. It’s how the world works.

What have you learned about the place you live?

Mary Jo: Do you mean Nashville? Thinking back to the March tornado, I reflect that Nashville is a resilient city. It is a compassionate city. It is a generally conscientious city, meaning people’s willingness to follow curve-flattening measures and by doing so thus-far preventing a surge.I am relieved and proud that Nashville demonstrations have remained relatively peaceful. It is a beautiful city; our parks and greenways are an immeasurable treasure and I can not wait to get back to Cheekwood and the Frist.

Do you mean my house? It’s not that bad of a place to hang out. Making the bed everyday is a worthwhile activity. Vacuuming can be oddly satisfying. Music helps fill up empty rooms.

Maddie: This is difficult to answer because I really only interact with a handful of friends here in Bangor. So everything I’ll say is based on interaction with a very small subset of people and really not representative of Wales or the UK as a whole. I mean, my friends haven’t really changed during the pandemic. We haven’t drifted apart, and we’re pretty much behaving the same around each other, even if we’re 2 meters apart now when we meet up. As for living in the UK in general, I and probably a lot of political scientists and commentators much smarter than me would say the US and the UK are going through very similar experiences right now. Both have extremely polarizing leaders at the helm who are both more suited to showmanship and bravado than the hard work and gravitas merited by their offices. Both leaders have also rallied their followers around similar nationalistic ideology. Interestingly, though, despite all their similarity the US and UK diverge in their reactions to coronavirus – I feel like the UK has respected and reacted to lockdown better. I’m not saying it’s been perfect here in the UK (it hasn’t), and I know the people of the US have different pressures felt by them that are not so salient here in the UK (such as the outrage around the death of George Floyd) which is making lockdown difficult for them. However, as far as I know there have not been major protests about people’s rights being infringed by this lockdown enforcement, as there have been in the US. On the other hand, there’s a considerable fraction of the population here that believes covid19 is being caused by 5G towers. There are crazies everywhere I suppose, haha.

Are you more yourself or less yourself in the Time of Corona?

Mary Jo: I am more my true self now than ever before, full stop. Corona causation? Corona corollary? Corona coincidence?

Maddie: I still feel like me – just with weird circumstances going on around me. I have good days and I have bad days, but that’s no different from life before Corona.

Unexplained rage or aggression?

Mary Jo: MOI? Absolutely not. Any rare bouts of rage and aggression are perfectly explainable, justified even. Just ask my spouse; he doesn’t dare disagree. 

Maddie: Nope, except when my code fails to run, which happened all the time before corona anyway, haha.

Drinking more or less?

Mary Jo: I plead the fifth (while I reach for a fifth).

Maddie: I live in the UK and the pubs are closed. I’m definitely drinking less than when they were open.

What gives you hope or encourages you?

Mary Jo: I take encouragement from something as simple and elemental as the little Plague Garden I planted far too early in April. Remember it dropped to the low 30s middle of the month? Conventional wisdom is never plant until after Tax Day but I just could not wait. I wanted to tend something I had a hand in creating. This will sound mawkish yet it is true… I longed to protect and nurture something fragile and vulnerable. I needed to control something. The tender tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers survived the frost and now thrive. The lettuces, though, are starting to bolt because of the longer days and the increasing heat and are not long for this world. The vegetable garden along with the annual and perennial flowers reminds us that Nature is the greatest teacher. I remember, remind, and repeat: what is fleeting can yet be cyclical. The sun will rise and set as the world spins madly on, and for everything there is a season. Fingers crossed and prayer mats out, so be it with Corona.

Also this…

“We are now perched on a strange cusp of history, a time when the world feels like it’s been turned upside down, and nothing is quite as we imagined. But uncertainty is always a precursor to sweeping change; transformation is always preceded by upheaval and fear. I urge you to place your faith in the human capacity for creativity and love, because these two forces, when combined, possess the power to illuminate any darkness.” ~author Dan Brown

Maddie: If I can say this without sounding pretentious, science and human innovation. This virus is one of the most powerful forces on Earth right now, and yet we have the capability to wipe it out – we can develop a vaccine, and drugs. Thinking about the scale of destruction of this virus, it blows me away that we can actually beat it.

Cheers, Maddie and Mary Jo! I’ll drink to you both – to your hopes – and to both love and science. 

15 Comments

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.