Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Texas Traveling: Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock
Photo via im me

We traveled far and wide when I was growing up, but the only legitimate hike I can ever remember doing as a family was climbing up Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, Texas. Honestly, I have no idea what possessed us to stop. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to tire two annoying kids. Whatever the reason, that majestic rock embedded itself in my conscious and became a bit of a mile marker in my life. I found myself revisiting it later in life, first, with my friend Audrey and later with my brother. Standing atop that pink granite rock felt powerful.

Enchanted Rock rises 1,825 feet above sea level which, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is akin to a 30 to 40 story building. Not too shabby for Texas. Evidently, there are more than 40 different climbs you can do and a whole slew of information about what you can and cannot do when climbing. However, there is a fairly straightforward (though steep at times) trail up the front of the rock for those who aren't rock climbers (raises hand).

Enchanted Rock. Texas. Years Ago.
Look how young we were! I'm the one with the red hair in the photo near the top.

If you love a good story, the rock is shrouded in mystery and legend. Visitors talk of seeing spirit fires (flashes of light) at night and how groans and pops have been known to permeate the night. Don't worry, it's just the rock expanding and contracting with temperature changes. If you prefer something a bit more lively, just ask the park rangers about the legend of the young Native American maiden who is said to haunt the rock.

While Enchanted Rock pales in comparison to some of the west's more famous rock features, it's worth planning a day trip to Fredericksburg for those making the trek to Austin. Both Enchanted Rock and Fredericksburg are in an area of Texas that historically had a large German settlement. If you choose to spend some time in Fredericksburg proper (and you should), there are a ton of shops as you stroll downtown, wineries known for use of the famous Fredericksburg peach, and several German restaurants worth a try.

A word to the wise, consider a trip to the rock in the spring or fall to avoid the scorching Texas heat on this bald rock and arrive early to ensure you make it in (particularly important on weekends).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Creatures of Habitat: Adventures in Mapmaking


Awesometastic maps by Herb Lester Associates.

I signed up for a fun new class a couple of weeks ago, Map Making: Learning to Communicate Places Beautifully. It's my first Skillshare class, and I'm thoroughly stoked! I'm a huge fan of maps and will admit to being one of those troglodytes who decried the spread of GPS and e-mapping. I don't like having a machine telling me each step to take. Have you ever had one of those things change its mind on you? Also, what if I want to see where I'm headed? Too complicated! Give me a paper map to plot my course on any day. Can you tell I have a frustrating experience with Google Maps on Friday? :-) The one nice benefit of having a map in my phone is that I suddenly look like less of a tourist when I'm trying to figure out where I'm going in a more urban environment (i.e., where I want to look cool and like I fit in).

This class isn't about turning you into a cartographer. It's more about exploring the beauty and creativity mapping can unleash.

How does this fit in with this month's Girl Goes Green theme?

As part of the class, each student creates a project to develop as they move through the lessons. I'm a huge fan of the way maps allow us a creative outlet for communicating concepts (beyond the traditional "this is how you get from Point A to Point B), so I decided to work on creating a map of the various creatures (both human and aquatic) that have relied on the Patapsco River throughout history. Here's a brief write-up I created to kick off my project...

The Patapsco River Valley was first settled by the Piscataway tribe and home to what are crazy historical fish like American shad, alewife and blueback herring. As Europeans moved in, the valley became a hotbed of industrialization with textile and flour mills littering its banks and small mill villages popping up. While traces of much of this history is gone, the modern day valley still provides habitat for thousands of park visitors each year who float the river, picnic along its banks and cast a line for those historic fish. I want my map to illustrate the rich life this river brings to the region and the human and ecological communities it serves.

Plus, as you guys can probably guess, I'm totally making a coffee map of Northern Virginia if this first project doesn't wind up looking like a hot mess.

P.S. You should totally take the class with me!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

My story as told by water, part IX

summer sun

I have always despised the burning, choking sensation of chlorinated pool water rushing in through the nostrils. Sadly, it took me years to master not breathing through my nose. Imagine being the girl with the flesh-colored nose clip through those formative, awkward* years. Luckily, this skill developed** shortly before I joined a swim club held at one of the local high schools while I was in grade school and attempted to swim competitively.

Just as I was not particularly outdoorsy, I was not especially sporty either. However, I'm fairly certain the attempt to ensure some type of athleticism is a prerequisite for being an American youth. Out of all the athletic activities of my youth, swimming was the thing I seemed to fail the least at.

I was never the best. I don't recall actually winning any races. I do remember not sucking--brimming with a bit of confidence for receiving a ribbon for placing in breast stroke. A contradiction even at that age, I strove to collapse in upon myself walking around the pool to hide my thick middle and, yet, had an internal confidence (nee cockiness) for even being part of the club and competing. In the water, I was free, unencumbered by clumsiness or extra weight.

Recently, the orthopedic surgeon advised me to leave the treadmill behind and once again take up swimming to avoid further damage to my knee. While I've certainly swam laps here and there in recent years, this will be the first time in decades where I've actually attempted to train. Thankfully, I've got a handy new app to get me swimming a mile in six weeks and the confidence that I can still do that fancy underwater flip and keep on going.

*One could argue that I'm still in my awkward years.
**There is the slight chance that my brain has switched things up in order to protect the innocent and that it wasn't until much later I gave up my nose clip. Ah, the joys of the aging brain. I suppose we'll never know. The horror, though, of a swim meet with a nose clip!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Exploration, Science and Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice stills

Chasing Ice starts off like a modern day disaster flick, splicing news clips of catastrophic flooding amidst footage of a spate of climate deniers. However, do not be fooled into mistaking this remarkable documentary for an environmentalist's attempt to incite panic and preach to his own congregation. The film chronicles award-winning nature photographer James Balog's (who also has an advanced degree in geomorphology) effort to collect evidence of the Earth's changing climate by documenting melting icebergs in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and other countries.

Chasing Ice stills

Pulling together a group of young scientists, Balog forms what he calls Extreme Ice Survey and, using time-lapse photography, documents conditions at 18 glaciers beginning in 2007. Chasing Ice uses tangible science, visual evidence and stunning glacial backdrops to highlight the fact that we are witnessing the disappearance of these gargantuan glaciers at a breathtaking rate.

Chasing Ice stills

The film also explores the challenges involved in mounting an effort this ambitious, including Balog's battle with his body's own fragility as he is forced to undergo yet another knee surgery during the project.

I'm sure the cynics among us will question how interesting watching ice melt could be, but to open your heart and mind to Chasing Ice is to have your life changed. As for its "interestingness", I fell asleep in the theater during Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Chasing Ice had me leaning forward, pretty much on the edge of my seat, and jotting down ideas once it was over for how to get this into the hands of everyone I know.

If you watch and/or are interested in learning more and taking action, the Chasing Ice site has some additional information, including what you can do about climate change. Also check out the Extreme Ice Survey site for a discussion of why glaciers matter and the different types of glaciers. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't direct you to American Rivers website for information on federal and state policy changes that can help our communities better adapt to a changing climate.

Chasing Ice is currently streaming on Netflix (among other places), so for many of you, watching it is just a couple of clicks away. Hell, I'll even stream it via a Google Hangout if there's enough interest ;-)

All photos above are screen captures I took from the film.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Girl goes green for Earth Month!


I'm pretty green most of the time, but I try not to go off on "lunatic fringe" rants (because, when you do what I do during the day, you do get lumped into that category) too often because the guardians of the Internet tell me that running a blog means I have to have a limited number of categories. ;-)

An.y.way, there will be no rants this month. Instead, I will share...
  • some awesome documentaries for the environmentally conscious;
  • a couple of books that I think will appeal to everyone from your treehuggers to someone who just loves the outdoors;
  • one of my favorite outdoor temples;
  • another My Story As Told By Water; and
  • what being "pretty green" means to me.

Let's figure out how you can embrace the planet in your own way this month!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gilmore Girls, Season 1 Report Card

Gilmore Girls S1 Report Card

Our Gilmore Girls, season 1 report card is ready for sharing! Scarlet and I finished up the first season with episode 14 of Friday Night Dinner: A Gilmore Girls Podcast, which went live this past Friday.

And, ladies, don't fret about the lower scores. You need room to we know you do!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

West with the Night and Beryl Markham's exploring, sassy awesomeness

I have my friend Sara to thank for introducing me to Beryl Markham. I was skeptical when she first pressed her memoir, West with the Night, into my hands, but for years I've harbored the desire to spend a year or so living and working in Africa, so I decided to start reading and see where it took me. Thankfully, Markham's exhilarating life and way with words was the type of book that I virtually lived in.

Originally published in 1942, the book chronicles her remarkable, early life. She was known as an adventurous pilot who became the first person to fly non-stop from Europe to America and the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. While her stories of learning to fly are fascinating and her description of actually crossing the Atlantic wrought with tension, it's her life as a whole that I find so motivating.

Imagine being a woman in the 1920s/1930s and how limited your options supposedly were. I don't know if anyone tried to hold Markham back, but if they did*, she clearly told them to shove off. Not only was she an accomplished aviator, she was amazing with horses, becoming Kenya's first female licensed horse trainer as a young adult. She also seemed to own her sexuality, living passionately and supposedly carrying on several well-known affairs throughout her life.

If you're looking for something awesome to dig into during Women's History Month (or, let's be real, any month), pick up a copy of West with the Night. I made sure to share my copy and spread the love, pressing it into another coworker's hands last week.

*I read the book several years ago, so I've lost some of the finer details.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sanity savers for finishing my first draft (aka how I spent most of my sabbatical)

working weekend

The idea for the novel I finished drafting on my sabbatical first came to me in 2011. Tucked into a booth at Demolition Coffee in Petersburg, Virginia, I was overcome with the need to record it somewhere, to not lose it, so I pulled out my work notebook and wrote the first three paragraphs of what I'm now calling Thistledown. It wasn't until a year and half later that I carved out any significant time to advance the story further than that.

It was such a significant portion of my sabbatical (and writing stories such an integral part of who I've always been) that I want to share a bit of what it's currently about and a few of the "tools" that kept me motivated and inspired. The copy below is my initial take on what you would read on the inside flap or back cover, followed by what I'd tell you if I had to do it in 140 characters. Suggestions for reworking these are welcome. Collaborative copy editing, FTW!

At its heart, Thistledown is about getting past all of the prickly barbs we erect to protect ourselves and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Cassie is a 30-something Baltimore native struggling to truly connect with the people and things around her. Born into a tight-knit family with a propensity for secretiveness, she has made a habit of keeping everyone, including those closest to her, at arm's length. Her struggle to deal with her grandmother's decline reawakens an interest in the family history, and old family secrets threaten to surface. Upon discovery that one of her grandmother's old cameras can capture images from the past, she finds herself thrust into a 120-year old mystery at an abandoned mill. As she falls further down the rabbit hole and learns more about the fate of the girls who worked the textile mill, past and present begin to meld, and Cassie finds herself willing to tear down the barriers she has erected in her own life. 

The Twitter-friendly, I just met you on the street version...

A young woman grappling with vulnerability discovers a fantastical camera among her grandmother's things and uncovers an intriguing mystery.


Life is full of mystery. A fantastical camera, a 120-y.o. disappearance, and a cast of colorful characters may hold the key to unlocking it.

Okay, 140 character limits are hard! I suddenly want to rail against the invention of Twitter (just kidding...I love you Twitter).

During my sabbatical (which I've started thinking of as a wonderful preview of what retirement could be like), I focused on the last quarter of the book. I was incredibly naive going into it and absolutely underestimated how difficult writing the ending would be. Not only did I want to do a good job weaving all of the different pieces of the story together, I also failed to comprehend the challenge of writing two pretty dark scenes I had planned. To get myself in the mood, I mainlined dark, moody pop/culture.

Holst: The Planets: Mars, Bringer of War
Lalo: Symphonie Espangole in D Minor, Op. 21-IV 

Luther, seasons 1 + 2
Sherlock, seasons 1-3

Coffee was also fairly integral to my ability to perform.


When I couldn't make it to the coffee shop, Coffitivity saved my life. I am only slightly exaggerating. It was astounding how much my focus increased once I downloaded this app to my phone.

The other app I used is Evernote. I used to save my research, outlines, etc.

As you can see, I kept it fairly simple. I never used any fancy writing software, though I'm up for hearing why I should. The final thing that really kept me going was Neil Gaiman's voice in my head pretty much telling me to just sit my ass at the computer and write. It was particularly helpful as my mind would wander, and I would start to dream of all of these cool research trips I needed to take.

Even though the first draft is finished, I'm far from done. I've set a schedule for editing what I've currently got so that I can hopefully pass it along to a few people to read and provide cold, hard feedback. I'm committed to seeing this thing through before allowing myself to wander off into a new story.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Postcards, Pennsylvania and the things that inspire us

Wissahickon Creek

Today is my first day back in the office after six weeks off, so I thought I'd kick this season off with a new series. You've probably figured this out by now, but I am fascinated by history, particularly the smaller, intimate stories that we aren't necessarily taught in school. The rabbit hole you can fall down when picking up an old photo or random artifact is one I will readily plunge into almost every.single.time.

I was with friends this weekend at an antique mall in Hagerstown when I came upon a booth with a wall of postcards handily organized by category. By the time my friends made it to the booth, I was grasping a stack of a hundred or so postcards, flipping through them with a manic gleam in my eye. It was an entire category dedicated to dams! Let's put aside the fact that I love the fragments of personal history captured on a postcard, there is potential value in a photo or rendering of a site at a particular point in history.

The card above is postmarked January 3, 1907 and was sent to a Virginia Peale at the Abington Friends School, which, at the time, was a Quaker boarding school for K-12. As you can see from the text on the front (above), they are essentially coordinating a ride. Think of having to communicate in this way today! I can't decide if the amount of planning required appeals to me or if I mourn the difficulty in spontaneity.

After looking up Fairmount Park, I realized that I've been in the Pennypack section of it before. I actually planned a press event there several years ago. The park itself was founded in 1867 and encompasses roughly 4,000 acres in the Schuylkill River watershed. Wissahickon Creek is one of Schulkill tribs. If you look up modern day photos of this site, you will find (thanks to the protection of this parkland) that the photo looks very much the same. However, around the time this postcard was mailed, the area and industry around the stone bridge would be quite different. At this point in our history, grist, saw and paper mills peppered the river, mills that were once owned by the likes of Richard Townsend (immigrated from England with his friend William Penn and founded the Philadephia area) and William Rittenhouse (among others). Other, more modern industry (we're talking late 1800s here) were print and dye works, as well as several ice companies.

Maybe I'm a bit mad, but this simple postcard inspires me so much--from art project (who added the glitter?) to the jumping off point for a future story to research into the Quaker's settling of the Philadelphia area.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sabbatical reading list

Reston Used Bookstore

I'm feeling bittersweet this morning. It's the last day of my sabbatical. I'm trying desperately to maintain the zen-like feelings I worked hard to discover and quell my rapidly rising heartbeat every time I think about what my inbox must look like. What better way to remain calm than to talk about books, specifically what I read while off!

You would think I'd have finished a huge stack of books, but the combination of reading weightier titles and spending so many hours writing resulted in a shorter finished pile. Here is a brief look at what I curled up with during these snowy weeks.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell - After hearing about this book for years, I finally bumped it to the top of the list, and I'm so glad I did! You can read my full write-up here. The quick and dirty summary is that a Jesuit priest leads a mission to another galaxy after discovery of other life. The story shifts back and forth between the mission itself and debriefing of the sole survivor who has returned scarred and silent decades later.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - This is a novel of split-second decisions and the impact they have. The story begins when our main protagonist, Theo Decker, is just a boy. He is orphaned after a tragic bombing at a New York museum. While struggling to get his bearings following the explosion and escape, he makes a few decisions that color the rest of his life. The story follows Theo from a wealthy Park Avenue home to the seedy Las Vegas desert and the monied world of antiques restoration and sales. I found myself rooting for Theo through every bad decision he makes and wanting him to thrive. While it seemed to drag a bit in certain sections, I dug it, and the nuggets of writing on art and antiques were enough to keep me going. If that turns you off, don't worry. This is Donna Tartt we're talking about, so it has drugs, sex, murder and deception, too.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler - This is the story of four best friends from a small town in Wisconsin and how their lives and loves still intersect years later despite the different directions their lives have taken. For me, Shotgun Lovesongs really boiled down to a moving look at male friendship with a side of introspection on what success means to different people. Butler's writing is solid and leads you along in a lyrical fashion. Lots of warm feelings upon finishing this book.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer - I picked up Cinder when my BookBub (regular email notifying you when there are e-book sales) email mentioned it was on sale. I was drawn to the potential for a dystopian Cinderella set in the future wherein she's a cyborg and a plague threatens the kingdom. After The Sparrow and The Goldfinch (weird bird thing going on there), I also needed a bit of brain junk food. Unfortunately, starting this right after finishing the talented musings of Tartt and Russell was a bit like running into a brick wall. Tartt and Russell are masters of prose, and the first couple of chapters of Cinder read a bit like bad Cinderella fanfic. Luckily, I ended up being stuck somewhere with only this e-book with me and picked it back up. If you end up getting this one and are willing to stick with it past chapter six (page 48 on my Nook app), you just might get hooked. At this point in the story, Meyer diverges from the Cinderella formula and definitely snags my interest. I enjoyed the direction she took the story and don't want to spoil it for those you who may read it. Just know that this is a series (books 1-3 are already out), and it ends on a cliffhanger. I enjoyed the book enough that I'll buy book two (Scarlet)...again, brain candy kind of read. Also, if you're looking for a second opinion, my friend Steven also read Cinder with me and experienced a similar trajectory (disappointment-->interest).

For more of what I'm reading currently, you can add me on Goodreads or listen to That's What She Read!