Category Archives: philosophical

Resolution

I started 2015 by waxing lyrically on how each day, each hour, each moment offers an opportunity to start again. I was so glad to leave 2014 behind and begin to craft a new year that was happier and easier than the previous one.

Ha ha ha ha ha. *sigh*

Let’s revisit my resolutions and see how I got on, shall we?

1.  Complete two crochet projects by the end of 2015. NOPE! I did start a project, but I certainly didn’t finish it. I’m not too far off, and I have been thinking about it a lot lately, so maybe I’ll get around to that soon… *

The unfinished project
The unfinished project

2. Update my science blog at least once a week. FAIL! I wrote a couple of posts, which I managed purely by finding topics that I could write about as part of my full-time job and then co-opt for the blog. Despite my inability to make much progress with Anthrophysis, I have managed to write several articles for publication in popular science magazines, contribute to an academic book chapter, and review a book for an academic journal. I think I should get points for those.

3. Practice whistling at least twice a week (and learn some new songs!). NOT EVEN CLOSE. Since moving into my new flat, I’ve only whistled once, though not for lack of wanting or having time. The walls here are thin and I hate the idea of my neighbors listening in, so I am reluctant to pick up my instruments. Considering that my hall mates routinely wake me up at 4am by throwing drunken tantrums in the hall, I really shouldn’t be so timid.

4. Continue making one-second-a-day videos to document my life. NO. This project lasted all of one week before I decided that, actually, I was satisfied with my 2014 effort, and didn’t really need to repeat that for 2015.  Making the videos is interesting and fun on days that are full of unusual activity, but it’s a real chore on quieter days or when you’re unwell. I know the whole point is to gather together clips that show how every day is valuable and stimulating in its own way, but I just couldn’t face another 365 days of worrying about this.

5. Take a selfie every day (as done by Justin Peters–for philosophical reasons and not because I’m excessively vain!). NOPE! I started off pretty well and was fairly consistent for the first half of the year, but then my zest for this project slowly faded away because I had more important things to think about. In retrospect, I can see where it would have been interesting to document the whole cancer thing via the selfie project–especially the hair loss–but I opted instead to take photos of key moments rather than every single moment.

Key moment: Caitlin's first turban
Key moment: Caitlin’s first turban

6. Add variety to my workout schedule by doing more Pilates and tai chi. KIND OF. My new flat is tiny and doesn’t leave much room for these sorts of exercises. However, I have managed to squeeze some in, and I’ve been particularly enjoying the 30-day challenges posted on Blogilates.

7. Write e-mails to my family more often. MAYBE. I don’t know that I write the sort of chatty, newsy e-mails I was envisioning when I set this resolution, but I think I probably do send more total messages as a result of firing off a larger number of quick, short updates. I still need to work on writing my grandparents more, though.

8. Go birding more often. NOT REALLY. However, I have had some very enjoyable bird sightings over the course of the year, so perhaps I can go for a quality over quantity argument here. I had some great woodpecker and jay encounters while walking between the train station and hospital in Truro; I have spotted grebes and tufted ducks at Swanpool, instead of the standard fare of mallards, coots, and gulls; and I had a delightful time watching acrobatic long-tailed tits during a lunch break on campus. There were also some kinglets and bullfinches sprinkled across the year, and those species are always a treat.

9. Try a new baked goods recipe at least once a month, and take the fruits of my labor (assuming they are edible!) to work to share with my colleagues. NOPE! I think I managed to do this only once–when I made an apple cake that I didn’t want to eat all by myself. That said, it’s not like I baked and didn’t share; it’s more that I didn’t bake at all. I have, however, continued to cook, so I think I still get some culinary points there.

10. Read at least 30 books. YES! Hallelujah, I actually achieved one of my goals! In fact, according to Goodreads, I read 42 books. Go, me!

My 2015 reads
My 2015 reads

Out of ten resolutions, then, I only managed to fully and definitely accomplish one; if you give me credit for partial accomplishment of a couple others, then perhaps–if you are feeling generous–you’ll allow me to score myself 2/10. That’s still a pretty abysmal record, and a failing grade.

But you know what? I don’t feel like I failed, and that’s because, for everything here that I didn’t do, there was something else that I did do. I went to Key West and Portugal for the first time. I saw my book Flamingo published. I was nominated for three professional services recognition awards at work. I put together a puzzle for the first time in a decade. I shaved my head. I rented a car and drove myself all over Cornwall. I chatted with friends I haven’t been in touch with in years.

I was active–I just wasn’t active in quite the way I envisioned I would be. This may sound a bit like post hoc justification of what I did and didn’t do in 2015, but when I look back now on my resolutions, I can’t help but think that I might have had a less interesting, and perhaps even less fulfilling, year if I had doggedly pursued all those goals I set in January. They involve a lot of regimentation, a lot of box-ticking, a lot of work. Yes, they also involve things I love, but would I continue to love them after forcing them on myself in such a strict way? Perhaps not. I don’t know that I want to perform the experiment and find out.

I also don’t like the idea of limiting myself. For every task that you chisel into the stone of your yearly calendar, there are other activities that you may be rendering impossible by pre-emptively robbing yourself of the time and energy needed to pursue alternatives that serendipitously fall into your lap. You limit spontaneity and whimsy. Could resolutions, therefore, actually prevent you from enjoying life more fully and growing as a person? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive?

Spontaneity: visiting with an unexpected guest
Spontaneity: visiting with an unexpected guest

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know this: In 2015, for the first time since I was a little girl, I allowed myself to have whole days that weren’t planned in advance, on which I sometimes achieved nothing tangible at all–and I liked it. I enjoyed letting go and being less rigid and just…going with the flow. I enjoyed living.

I am, of course, only one person, and what works for me may not work for the rest of humanity. However, I can tell you from experience that you can get an awful lot out of your time even without a massive to-do list perpetually hanging over your head and reminding you of what you should do and how you should do it. Whatever you decide is right for your personality and circumstances, just go for it. Now. Don’t waste time. Every second is precious, and each one is an opportunity. Seize it.

*Update: As of 6:45pm, the crochet project is finished! Also, I remembered that I crocheted a small gift at Christmastime. So, actually…I think I did pretty well here. Woo-hoo!

Growing Up in Athens

In my very first memory, I am sitting in a child seat on the back of one of my parents’ bicycles, reaching out my hand to feel the warm wind pushing between my starfished fingers. It is spring or summer, and the sun is high and golden in the clear blue sky above. The location is Connett Road, the site of my parents’ first home and later the place where I would complete my last two years of enrollment at The Plains Elementary School.

I did not know it then as a toddler, but Connett Road would later come to have a greater significance in my life. After my parents relocated to the southern edge of town, they made that thoroughfare the boundary of the part of town I was allowed to traverse unattended; I could walk or ride my bike to the end of any of the side streets that provided access to Connett, but I was not allowed to cross that larger, more heavily trafficked road myself—not until I was older, anyway, and commuted to and from school each day. I still remember how my hands were difficult to uncurl from their handlebar-gripping position after cold-morning bike rides. I can also vividly recall the rainy days when I would make myself as small as possible under my umbrella, shrinking my world down to the round patch of dryness under its canopy. The inclement weather didn’t bother me, though; I always liked the fresh air and the freedom of moving from place to place under my own power.

Railroad crossing at Eclipse Company Town

It’s probably not surprising, then, that in high school I routinely found myself back on Connett Road—but on foot this time, training for cross country and track races. A visit to Connett usually meant a longer run; on rare occasions we might head up the torturously windy Lemaster hill, or do repeats on the seemingly endless driveway where Lemaster and Connett met. It was more common for us to take a right and head towards Poston Road; in my final years at Athens High, our destination was the then-new Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, which finally offered us a scenic and car-free place to stretch our legs.

By the time I moved away from Athens at the age of 18, I knew every inch of that trail between Athens and Nelsonville; I had covered it not only on foot but also on my beautiful green Giant Iguana bike, built from scratch for me by friends at Cycle Path, and purchased with money saved up from, among other jobs, cleaning dorm rooms at Ohio University. It was worth the effort, though, because I was able to explore both The Plains and Athens like never before. Somewhere near Mile 14 is where I encountered my very first indigo bunting; I immediately turned around and rushed home to consult guidebooks on the identity of this impossibly blue bird.

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Wildlife was, perhaps inevitably, an integral part of my outdoor experience in Athens: The Appalachian foothills are teeming with beautiful and fascinating species, though, ironically, I did not fully appreciate this until I left the area and learned more about its biodiversity during university classes and summer jobs in neighboring Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. Even before that education, though, I knew enough to expect belted kingfishers near the Richland Avenue bridge, great blue herons in the reeds along the Hocking, and American kestrels hunting the fields along Route 50. I knew that box turtles hid in the damp, shady areas of our yard, and that the best place to find garter snakes was out behind my mother’s herb garden. I also learned early that it was a bad idea to walk barefoot underneath the sweet gum and chestnut trees.

There were other unpleasant encounters to be had farther from home, out at Dow Lake. Although I loved visiting Strouds Run on a hot day in order to have a picnic and a refreshing swim, I was very uneasy about water that wasn’t entirely transparent; I have never liked the feeling of unseen fish bumping into my thighs, or slimy aquatic weeds wrapping themselves around my ankles. My best friend and I once dared each other to swim out to the buoys, but turned back in a panic when we reached the thick algal growth floating a few feet from our destination. I was much happier renting a canoe or a kayak and staying well away from the greenery in the water.

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Even better was visiting the lake at night (not technically permissible, by the way), lying on the shore and looking up at the mind-boggling multitude of stars over my head. While watching for meteors one night, a friend and I were awed by the sight of an owl gliding silently overhead, its black silhouette just a shade or two darker than the sky above. If I concentrate very hard, I can vaguely remember when my parents took me to a hill overlooking the shores of the Hocking River in 1986 so that I could look through a chunky portable telescope and catch sight of Halley’s Comet—an astronomical phenomenon that I will be able to see again in 2061, if I am lucky. Years later, with classmates from an Ohio University astronomy class, I drove out to the ridges west of town and was gobsmacked by my first glimpse of Saturn and its rings.

For me, however, the best ridges were The Ridges, which I first visited sometime in the mid-1980’s, when my father drove me over one day after school for a surprise outing. At the time, I had no sense of where or what the ridges were; although I had spent plenty of time at the Dairy Barn and had always been aware of the imposing Athens Lunatic Asylum up on the hill, I was too young to fully realize that the hills we were walking connected these two points. My dad and I hiked all the way to the top of Radar Hill, which, at that time, still featured structures indicating the origins of its name. I know now that our trek wasn’t that long, but it seemed like an epic journey at the time, and quite an adventure—a previously unknown wilderness bathed in warm autumn light, with no other people in sight.

CRK on Radar Hill

I didn’t visit The Ridges again for about 5 years, when it was the destination of one of the first training runs I participated in after joining the Athens Middle School cross country team. When I first began running, I couldn’t even make it from Peden Stadium to the old asylum without stopping for a breather; soon I was able to get to the trailhead, then to the first old water tank, then the second, and finally the top of the hill. I was so proud of that achievement, and it made the view all the more beautiful.

Although my teammates weren’t overly fond of the inclines and rough footing up at The Ridges, I went back often. It was a good place to see red-tailed hawks, vultures, and eastern bluebirds—the last of which being species that I would end up studying as a graduate student. On the final run that I did in Athens before heading off to college, I found my way to the top of Radar Hill at dusk and stood looking out at the rows of hills stretching off into the distance. The nearest were dark, almost black; the others were increasingly paler shades of blue, with the furthest and lightest buried in a layer of summer haze. I suspected it was a sight I would not easily forget, and to this day I can conjure memories of it as though I had only just visited the previous evening.

The Ridges from Radar Hill

Blue, however, is not the color I most associate with Athens. Despite all the copper autumns and white winters I weathered during my time there, it’s the verdant springs and summers that stand out strongest in my mind: the soft grass on the amphitheater outside Scripps Hall; the inviting shade of the College Green on a sweltering summer’s day; the banks of the Hocking River and the heads of the male mallards swimming in the river itself; the trees arching over the bikeway to form a tunnel between the access points at Currier Street in Athens and the Eclipse Company Town in The Plains. When these visions spring to mind, I can almost smell the intoxicating scent of honeysuckle and hear the rhythmic buzz of cicadas.

Hocking River from bike path

I now find myself living not only in a different country, but also on a different continent; a trip home requires a 5-hour train ride, 10 hours of airplane time, and another hour or so of driving. It’s a long way. I live in an undeniably beautiful place, but the aesthetics are very different. This is a seaside town filled with granite houses whose moss- and lichen-covered roofs provide perches for endlessly braying gulls; twice a day the sulfurous smell of coastal mud permeates the air as the tides recede, and the maritime winds set ships’ rigging clanging before seeking out the cracks around our doors and windows. There are no cheerful red Athens bricks underfoot, no Carolina wrens nesting in the flowerpot by the door, or jewel-tone hummingbirds buzzing in to sip sugar-water from the feeder in the window, or wild green woodlands beckoning for exploration. I’ve been here long enough that it has begun to feel like home—yet, at the same time, spending 17 years away from Athens hasn’t removed the feeling that that little part of Ohio is also home. Maybe it always will be, no matter where I actually reside.

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Sometimes I stand on the shore of Cornwall with my feet in the sand and I face westward, my mind traveling down through my legs, under the waves of the ocean, up over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and back down again, to the northeastern shores of North America where my ancestors caught their first sight of the continent, and finally on into the Appalachians. It’s comforting to know that there is an unbroken connection between here and there, no matter the distance or the terrain that must be traversed. Inside me, wherever I go, I carry all the sights and sounds of smells of Athens: the chickadees eating the suet my parents set out, the daffodils growing beside the old farmhouse where I grew up, the grove of evergreens at the base of Radar Hill, the cry of a pileated woodpecker on the shore of Dow Lake. There is no better proof that you can take the girl out of Appalachia, but you can never take Appalachia out of the girl—something for which I will be eternally grateful.

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This essay was submitted to Growing Up In Athens, a project aiming to compile stories from multiple generations of native Athenians.

New year’s resolutions

We can, at any moment, start fresh and do, or be, something new. Feel unhealthy? Eat better at your next meal, or get up, right now, and go do some exercise. Feel disorganized? Go sort through your inbox and put all your messages in folders, or browse through your closet and toss out all the old stuff you no longer wear. Feel selfish? Call up a volunteer organization, or visit a website where you can send in a monetary donation in just a couple minutes. Whatever you don’t like, you can begin to fix it within a matter of seconds–simply making the decision to change starts you along that path, no matter what month or day or hour it is.

And yet, there’s something so satisfying about beginning anew at certain times or on certain days. It somehow seems more logical to start that new diet first thing tomorrow rather than in the middle of today. Or perhaps you’ll initiate your new workout schedule at the beginning of the next month, and just enjoy the last few days of this month as a couch potato. It feels right that major life changes should correspond to landmarks on your calendar; the overlap seems to emphasize the importance of your personal goals. The problem, of course, is that it isn’t easy to change, and if you hesitate even just a minute or two, you may find your willpower diminishing, along with the sense of urgency that caused you to make these new plans to begin with.

The dawning of a new year is a particularly alluring time to plan big changes, not just because it’s a significant temporal milestone recognized by a huge portion of the global population, but also because it’s traditionally a time when lots of other people are also plotting to improve themselves, their lives, and the world around them. We are all motivated by both the calendar and each other, and the feeling that this is the time that we can right whatever wrongs are bothering us.

New years are like sunrises--they offer the promise of untold possibilities.
New years are like sunrises–they offer the promise of untold possibilities.

The truth, of course, is that we were just of capable of doing this yesterday as we are today or tomorrow. All the same, it’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon and make a few resolutions–even if they are kept private. For most people, I think the appeal of the ritual is probably proportional to the amount of change that you’re hoping to impose; the more work you need to do, the more help you need generating and keeping the motivation to do it. New Year’s Day has a special allure as the day when you can take the first step down the path leading to the New You.

I have to admit that 2014 was not the greatest year I ever experienced, and I am not at all sad to see the back of it. I am well aware that the hanging of a new calendar doesn’t miraculously cure me of all the ills imposed by the previous year, but it sure does feel good to see twelve clean sheets that can be filled with…whatever I want. I have no idea what the future will bring, and I don’t want to set myself up for disappointment. It’s not that I’m pessimistic so much as pragmatic–I’ve always felt more comfortable setting a series of smaller, more achievable goals, rather than dreaming too big and risking biting off more than I can chew. I suppose that’s my Teutonic ancestry shining through.

I’ve been thinking about all of this quite a bit over the last few weeks in the run up to the beginning of 2015. I always make a few resolutions–one year I made the exciting pledge to start flossing every day–but this year they seem a bit more important somehow. The recent death of my grandmother, whom everyone always describes as having gotten the most out of life, makes me more keenly aware of my own mortality, and more determined to live my own life to the fullest. I’m also eager to avoid a repeat of 2014, during which I did not manage a very comfortable work-life balance.

The shore at Looe Bar
The beautiful Cornish shoreline, which I have not visited nearly enough this year, or any other year since I moved to the UK.

 

Balance, in fact, is the very thing I am after, in all facets of life. I want to get better at playing as well as working. I want to be creative with yarn and food and music, and not just with words and photos. I want to set aside time for mental wellbeing as well as physical wellbeing. Those are pretty broad goals, and broad goals are hard to achieve, so I’ve worked up a list of simpler, more accessible goals–things I can put on my to-do list and keep track of in my calendar, thus improving my chances of succeeding. To further motivate me, I’m sharing them here for all the world to see:

1. Complete two crochet projects by the end of 2015. I have collected so much yarn, and so many patterns, and I need to put them to use.

2. Update my science blog at least once a week. I haven’t done much with Anthrophysis since I finished my postdoc, and I want to change that.

3. Practice the tin whistle at least twice a week (and learn some new songs!). I practiced enough to stop being crummy, but not yet enough to be accurately described as “good”. I wouldn’t mind being good. Maybe if I practice enough, I might even be great–though maybe that’s a goal for 2016.

4. Continue making one-second-a-day videos to document my life. Now that I’ve finally gotten used to making this a part of my daily routine, it would feel weird to abandon this practice–and it does make an excellent record of the year.

5. Take a selfie every day (as done by Justin Peters–for philosophical reasons and not because I’m excessively vain!)

Mug cozies–one of the projects I’d like to complete, even though these really have no practical purpose. Image, and crochet instructions, courtesy of Sewing Barefoot.

6. Add variety to my workout schedule by doing more Pilates and tai chi. I would really like to regain some flexibility–not necessarily as much as I had back when I was a hurdler, but more than I have now.

7. Write e-mails to my family more often. I am particularly bad about keeping in touch with my grandparents and in-laws, and they deserve better.

8. Go birding more often. Except during annual trips to the Scillies, I haven’t really gone birding since moving to the UK; I’m ashamed of how few British birds I know. I’ve just joined the BTO and RSPB, and I have purchased CDs of British bird songs so I can memorize vocalizations. By this time next year, I want to at least be able to identify all the species I regularly see and hear around town–including the migrants.

9. Try a new baked goods recipe at least once a month, and take the fruits of my labor (assuming they are edible!) to work to share with my colleagues. When I started working full-time, I started limiting my kitchen endeavors to the bare minimum of what was needed to subsist. Big, intricate dinners became a rarity, and baking practically vanished. Time to whip out the apron and put some of my new cookbooks to use.

10. Read at least 30 books–a goal prompted by author Joe Hill‘s annual book-reading resolution. Given that I usually read at least one book per week, I’m thinking this should be a fairly accessible goal. I’ve already got about a dozen candidates ready and waiting on my Kindle.

English muffins–one of the things I want to bake this year. Image courtesy of Budget Bytes, where you can also find an English muffin recipe.

If I sat around thinking long enough, I could probably come up with dozens more goals, but then I’d likely feel so overwhelmed that I wouldn’t end up achieving any of them. Ten seems like a nice do-able number, and those particular ten are important because they target issues that have been bothering me not just during the past year, but for the past several years–in some cases, since I moved to Falmouth.

I’ve realized that the process of relocating to a new country and bouncing from one strenuous job to another threw me off more than I anticipated, and, in some ways, caused me to stop being…me. You might also say that, having wrapped up my final degree and left school for the first time ever (as a student, anyway), I finally had to grow up and become an adult. That may be true, but I don’t think that maturation necessarily requires you to sacrifice all the characteristics and pastimes of your youth. Instead, I think you often just need to reprioritize and do things at different times, or maybe for less time. It’s all about moderation–or, as I said before, balance.

So here’s to a happy and well-balanced 2015–not just for me, but for everyone.

Port
Cheers!