Of Candy Bars and Climate Change

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Leave it to my 14-year old to sum up a generation’s dismay and bewilderment in five words.

What prompted the above statement was an adult’s diatribe on how this past January had been awfully cold, and how the sheer amount of snow should convince even the dumbest climate-change believer that it was all a giant hoax. Invented, of course, by China.

Image result for snowball senate
Behold, The Snowball. We are saved.

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Alas, he was. Deadly serious. And the crux of the matter is, that both the teen and the adult stared at each other in a deadlock of mutual incomprehension. Each of them thinking:”How can you not see what is so clear, so obvious, right before your eyes? How is this possible?”

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Alas, he could. The approximately fifty year old man, who could not or would not believe that his generation might have tragically, disastrously erred somewhere along the way and handed the teenager standing there in disbelief a gigantic mess. Please don’t be serious. Tell me you’re not looking me in the eye and disavowing any responsibility. Tell me you’re not washing your hands off me. You’re supposed to be the elder, the wiser, the one who looks out for me. Tell me you didn’t sell my future for your comfort, and now explain to me I am stupid for asking what you’ve done? Tell me you’re joking. That you didn’t mean to make a mess, but now you realize what’s happening and you’re going to man up and try to fix it. Please don’t be serious…

“I can’t even.”

Leave it to 17 to express ultimate defeat in one pithy sentence.

But 14 would not surrender her guns just yet. After a brief recovery period involving the stages of denial (“He isn’t serious”) , anger (“That son of a biscuit IS serious!”), bargaining (“Maybe if I act all sweet and stereotypical good girl he’ll at least listen ….”) , depression (“I want piiiizzaaa! And ice cream! Buckets!”), she arrived, not at acceptance, but at:

“How do you talk to people like that?” 

Oh child of mine, if I knew that, we might well not have this problem.

So, although mom “can’t even” either, nor uneven (I can do odd if it’s any help), here’s what our customary after-dinner talk produced:

Maybe just KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

Image result for candy bars bagBasic: If mom brings home a bag of candy with 20 bars, and I have 4 friends over, I don’t need to be a math genius to make sure everyone gets their fair share.

Intermediate: If I need to figure out when those two trains will meet, or want to balance my checking account, or want to build a shed for the chickens that won’t collapse the first time one of the feathered darlings sneezes, I need a basic understanding of numbers. You know, so many square yards for the roof. Does a steeper angle mean more lumber or less? What angle is more practical anyways? Does anyone have a calculator? Paper and pencil?

Advanced: If I want to figure out the coalescence rate of massive black hole binaries, or what the einsteinspeed of light has to do with time dilation … I need an aspirin. Or find a university that will teach me such things, along with a large supply of aspirin. I’ll need people who studied these things for years to explain to me why the increased relativistic mass of a body comes from the energy of motion of the body divided by the speed of light squared, and why this is important. I need books. I need research. I need the shoulders of giants to climb onto and have a look around.

What in the name of Frigga’s cat has this to do with climate?

Well, it sort of is like the climb from candy bars to general relativity.

Basic: If I step outside to feed my chickens (frolicking outside their new shed I hope) and see big balls of gray on the horizon, I don’t need to be a meteorologist to smell the rain. If after a sweltering hot day the wind suddenly picks up and the sky turns dark, I need no weather channel telling me that Thor is about to start a ruckus.

Intermediate: My hometown in in upstate NY. We have four seasons. (Or two, known as Image result for shrieking brass monkeyWinter and Construction). If we’ve had snow every winter for as long as I can remember, safe bet is we’ll have snow next winter, too. If I believe my elders who say it’s been the same for them, and their elders, and theirs … I’ll just keep the big coat handy. But if I want to know whether the coming one will be rough or mild, it helps to have lived there a while. How early, or late, did the geese leave? Did we need two or three layers under our Halloween costumes? I don’t need to go to college to know that if February was “Shrieking Brass Monkey cold” 34 years out of 36, mom is likely sitting under a pile of blankets right now. But a newbie to our region might not realize that planting your tomatoes in early May is a spectacularly bad idea.

Advanced: If I want to know why the horses are giving me dirty looks even though there is not a cloud in sight, I might rely on my experience and add “muggy weather plus a weird wind” to equal “Maybe not go for a ride down by the lake just now”.  Or I might turn on the TV and see satellite images of a massive storm brewing over Canada, and know for certain  (score one for the equines though, it turned south faster than the weatherman thought). But- I have no satellites, no high tech weather stations measuring temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and I most certainly have never studied how to interpret those massive heaps of raw data. Which is why I’m constantly amazed just how often they get it right (and the express delivery of buckets and buckets of rain did arrive – from Canada with love I’m sure …)

Photograph by NASA

If I want to know why the U.S. military is worried about Norfolk and Camp Pendleton and bases in Alaska … I need another aspirin. Or find someone who can explain to me the correlation between the data gathered from buoys in the oceans and satellite images, between the Gulf Stream and the number of hurricanes in the Caribbean, between what the guys up on the ISS are measuring, and observing with their own eyes, and the numbers on old, yellowing paper that talk about summer in Queensland, Australia, in 1907.

Not enough aspirin in the western hemisphere. But lots of people who studied this stuff for years and years. Who might not know a stellar nursery from a pulsar (or in some cases, where the hell their glasses are again), but can look at a chunk of Antarctic ice and tell me how much CO2 there was in the atmosphere 400 000 years ago.

I see smart people …

So, does that mean we should just take the experts’ word on everything because they studied their respective subjects a long time and are, you know, experts?

Credit: SG Atlantis “Brainstorm”

If they’re self-respecting scientists, their answer will be a resounding NO!

If you know the very first thing about scientists, it’s that there’s nothing they enjoy more than poking holes into each others’ hypotheses, theories, statements, papers, and offhand remarks about why deep dish is better than thin crust. It’s their favorite sport, and climate research is almost akin to the Super Bowl.

If you know the first thing about good scientists, it’s that they want you to look at their hypotheses, theories, statements and papers (stay away from their pizza), double checking their numbers, criticizing their methods, questioning their conclusions. Of course, if their paper is bulletproof in the end – that is oh so sweet. But if it isn’t? New stuff learned. New data to add. More knowledge. Poking holes in the old paper just helped them make a new paper. A better one. Thank you.

If they had a credo, it might well be: “Show me where I was wrong. Tell me why you think so. What verifiable data do you have to prove … oh hold on, this is interesting. Don’t tell me you didn’t see that. It’s your own paper. Can we call that guy on the ISS to confirm the readout? Whaddaya know, we were both wrong. Unless McMurdo goofed. Call them, too. And order some pizza, it’ll be a long night.”

οὐδὲν οἶδα – don’t look at me, I’m as clueless as you

So, should I trust every hypothesis, theory, statement and paper to be 100% correct and accurate and applicable?

If I want to graduate from aspirin to vicodin, maybe.

Should I pay attention when this squabbling mass of smart people who constantly explain to each other why that equation there contains a goof of Iliad-epic proportions, and “by the way, Frank disproved that data from the Phillipines last year, catch up willya”, actually agree on something?

Maybe? I don’t know. Let me check the numbers. Florida may be six feet under by the time I’m done, but at least I’ll be 100% sure. Wait, what?


Fork Bomb :(){:|:&};:

But they’re all elitist eggheads, looking down on simple folks like me with my haphazard chicken shed and my deep, deep knowledge of Canadian goose migration. They could tell me the sky is purple and prove it, and I could tell them a thousand times to look up, “Look, it’s blue!”, and they’d call me stupid. Because data. Because complex equation that doesn’t mean squat to me (the horse seems to think there’s something to it, though…). Because lots of big words designed only to make me feel more stupid.

You know what? Maybe I should get over my insecurities one of these days. Maybe I might Image result for blueberry clipartacknowledge that a meteorologist (BIG word alert) doesn’t call them “big fluffy grey clouds” the same way I don’t call wild blueberries “weird round things, can I eat those?” (The answer is yes. Yes, you can Mr. Egghead).

Maybe … maybe they’re trying to talk to me (revolutionary concept, I know) and they assume I’m smart. That I understand, and will start poking at their numbers, asking things like “why” and “where did you get that” and “but Frank said it’s only half a degree Fahrenheit”. Maybe they think that if I don’t understand, I’ll tell them.

Maybe, if I feel stupid, I could ask myself “But can they make blueberry jam that countries would rightfully go to war for, can they soothe a skittish horse so nana can remove the splinter?” and then I would not feel small and defensive when I say: “Once more from the top please, and this time assume I have no idea what you just said?”

But, but … conspiracy! China!

Seriously, dude?


Je suis Charlie

Remember this?

Has it really been two years? Am I the only one who feels as if it happened yesterday – and a lifetime ago?


I got off work a little late yesterday and drove down to the train station to pick up my older daughter, who was not at all mad she got to stay with her German friends a bit longer (for context: I am a single mom of two teens, serving in the military and currently stationed in an astonishingly pretty area of southern Germany).

Looking for that little café nestled behind some buildings that were old when the Mayflower set out across the Atlantic, I absentmindedly returned the occasional perfunctory nods and friendly half-waves of the locals. You see, even though we’re not supposed to wear uniform, or anything that might give us away as members of the US military while frolicking among the natives – they’re not going to be fooled. This close to a US garrison, their “Ami”-radar has been calibrated and fine-tuned for 60+ years. And so when I came to a screeching halt at the quaint little newspaper stand just outside the ‘Bahnhof’, the kind elderly man immediately registered “Ah, one of them” and addressed me in English as if it were the most normal thing in the world. And for him, I suppose, it is.

“Times, Madam? We have London or New York. English magazines, too.”

But I was staring at that French magazine sitting next to something displaying a scantily clad woman and an issue of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine”.

“Oh yes, Charlie. Very funny. If you know French. 4 Euros, Madam.”

Somehow I dug the by now familiar Euro coins out of my pocket and mumbled my way through my still heavily accented German courtesies, before returning to my original mission: locate teenage daughter, forage for food, drive home.

But the magazine, and the avalanche of memories it had set loose, stayed with me.


Déjà vu – I have seen this before

The first time I set foot on European soil, I was a teenager. The Cold War was nearing its end, though none of us knew this at the time. The “Winds of Change” were in the air, but exactly which way they would blow a day, a month, a year from then … we had no clue. Terrorism was on people’s radars – the IRA, the ETA, lots of acronyms, varying causes, varying levels of concern – but it was not the haunting shadow that seems to cast its pall over the globe these days.

I remember an autumn day in London, dad and me riding the subway (sorry, the Underground. Or is it the Tube?) when quite out of the blue our train stopped at an odd looking little platform that to me seemed straight out of a James Bond movie. Or maybe a WWII film – it certainly looked ancient to a “Yankee” teenager. A voice came over the speakers, but in the low buzz of English people expressing their discontent in more or less polite ways, all I understood was that we weren’t going any further.

So we disembarked amidst Londoners who seemed to alternate between vexation and resignation, and befuddled, nervous tourists. True, I noticed dad’s frown, but was too busy absorbing this unexpected adventure to even suspect anything other than some sort of technical issue. I remember marveling at how deep underground we were, trying to count the steps of the big winding stair we had to climb to get back to the surface, trying to figure out where we were once we emerged into daylight. I remember dad’s dismay at the suddenly overcrowded streets, the iconic buses stuffed to the brim, no taxi to be had even if traffic had been moving at more than snail’s pace, and pedestrians everywhere. I remember thinking “All we need is a hot dog stand and some cursing cabbies and it’s rush hour in Manhattan” right until the first casual mention of “Bomb threat. Bloody terrorists.”

Strangely enough, I don’t remember being afraid. If I grabbed dad’s hand a little tighter, it was because my biggest fear at the time was getting separated in the press of people, all of whom seemed to know where they were and where they wanted to go.

I remember this, because I admired the Londoners for their stoicism and acerbic humor. I admired how they dealt with this major disruption – and very real danger, as I slowly came to realize after watching the news that evening – it felt as if their entire city had been wearing a “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirt.

I remembered this long after we were back home, safe and sound. Or so we thought.

(Of course to this day my dad blames the IRA for my career choice. I don’t recall wanting to race after the bomb squad that day so I might peek over their shoulders; my sole intent after what felt like crossing London on foot was to secure a mountain of fish and chips, followed immediately by scarfing down every scrap of Indian food within 40 miles. But he’s a wise man, and an amazing cook. Therefore I will not contradict him).

Déjà vu – here we are again

The woman who returned to Europe many years later was quite different from that innocent teenager. Not only had the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history taken place in my home state, but this time I was a member of our armed forces. Thanks to my lifelong fascination with chemistry and physics, and particularly the science of “Why does this go boom, but that only bounce around in odd ways?” I had followed a path similar to the one the guys in London had taken so long ago: going towards the thing everyone else gets away from (and should! Seriously. Even if it only goes “squish” in the end. Get away. Don’t try to be a hero, they’re not paying you enough. They’re not paying me enough, either, but I got all the cool toys).

And Europe, for better or worse, was different, too. Perhaps not so much the Germans, stubbornly sticking to their proverbial guns rather than real ones – the descendants of the people who started a World War now seem to have a unilateral and uncompromising distaste for the concept. But Europe as a whole felt more tense than it had living under the Soviet Union’s shadow. It was subtle enough at first – mostly politicians bickering over details. How much hijab is too much? May a minaret be taller than a church tower, and will Swiss cows object to a muezzin’s call? (This is serious, people, do not mess with Confederate cows. India may hold them sacred, Switzerland will fight you over them).

It became more heated when the war in Syria – for a long time only another soundbit on the news, another hopeful Arab Spring turned slaughter – became the breeding ground for yet another terrorist group. This time, with their sights fixed on Europe.

Then came Paris. January 7th 2015

Je suis Charlie 

Is it more scary, or less, if you already know the gamut of emotions you will run from the time you first hear the news? If you can almost clinically analyze “Yep, still in disbelief. With early signs of anger. Give it a few more hours for the grief to hit. Fuck this. Hello helplessness, my old friend.”

Is it more scary, or less, if you immediately start running your mental checklist “Who is where, anyone close to this situation, when have I last checked in with x and y, what is the threat level at this location, at that one, …”

There was relief, making its entrance right around the time anger morphed into sorrow, because this time there had been none of mine affected. But that same night I started wondering whether that was true. None of mine?


“All is forgiven”

Agree with Charlie Hebdo’s satire or not, laugh or find it distasteful, France values their freedom of speech no less than we do.

Having been born in Lady Liberty’s own shadow, I could not help but take this one personally. Not just because that beautiful lady is French, not just because I truly, deeply believe in what she stands for. Because those had been my people. Irreverent cartoonists and a somewhat cynical soldier, we might have gotten into some heated arguments had we met in a bar – but at the end of the day we shared our belief in having that argument. In liberté, égalité, fraternité.

I was Charlie.

But Paris was never the same. Even as the French – magnificently irrepressible bastards that they are – suspended their bickering they enjoy so much for a while to stand together, their world was changing.

November 13th 2015

Déjà vu – when does it end?

From #portesouvertes to “Je suis en terrasse“, Paris was defiant. But this time, the leaders could not ignore the calls for something, anything to be done and declared “état d’urgence”. A State of Emergency that was extended again and again, and still could not prevent the attack in Nice.

July 14th, 2016

No two weeks later, the girls and I went to see the horses in the Camargue, stroll through beautiful Marseille, and stuff ourselves with French delicacies far off the beaten tourist paths. We had planned this trip for over a year. We discussed whether it would be a good idea to go. We hated even asking the question “should we?”

As a mother, I was immensely proud of my girls when they went into a quick huddle and then declared like two small Generals Patton: “Toujours l’audace!”Also as a mother, I could not prevent the dark shadow stirring, the one that wanted to protect my young at all cost. The reasonable approach – there is NO place they’ll ever be 100% safe – did not weigh as much as the argument “It is well to defend a life, but should they not have one first?”, and in the end we were safe enough. Safer than we would have been much closer to ‘home’, as Berlin reminded us painfully not a few months later.

m.jpgStill, it was impossible to not see the large police presence, the soldiers keeping a watchful eye over the milling crowds in the larger cities and near the tourist attractions. It was also difficult to not overhear the locals grumbling about it. One might of course argue that grumbling is the French default state, and if they cease doing it, the midden truly is about to hit the windmill. So we asked. Me in stumbling high school French augmented by the bits and pieces you’re bound to acquire growing up a moose-hop south of the St Lawrence, my girls rather more comprehensively.

I shall not translate the profanities, beautiful and creative as they were (Really? Zig-zag? I had no idea you could do that…). But it boiled down to this: 10 out of 10 French agree that terrorist may go procreate with themselves.

3 out of 10 believe Madame Le Pen is on to something, but considering she’s a politician will surely find ways to screw it up. The police? Yes, good. Let them pull their weight a bit. The soldiers? Bah. Fat lot of good they’re doing just standing around. But they look handsome, non?

4 out of 10 felt that politicians are all idiots but what can you do. What, afraid? Bah. Well, the homegrown extremist bastards are just as worrisome as those coming in, but how do you communicate with people who live in/come to the best country on earth and want no part of it? So they must be idiots as well. You’re not, obviously, since you came here to visit and spend your money. Good for you. The soldiers and police? Would you have come without them making you feel safer? Yes? Very good for you. Have another glass. Tell your friends to come.

2 out of 10 felt that their current politicians are the worst idiots but what can you do. At least they are French idiots, though it is small consolation (yes, the “your idiots are bigger than ours” was implied. Or stated outright). The soldiers? Waste of taxpayer money.

1 out of 10 was either uninterested in sharing, too interested in sharing (I still have that manifesto somewhere), more interested in flirting with lovely American ladies than politics, or too upset about the quality of the fish to bother with silly tourists.

Their world may have changed around them, and they may have adapted (while grousing and squabbling) because that’s how you survive. But for those we talked to, living is still more important than mere survival. As our gruff horse-tour guide out in the marches of the Camargue put it “The f*ck I’ll let anyone screw my life for me. If I go out tomorrow it shall be biting and clawing, because what I have is too good to give up. You hear, mignonne? No dying before you die.”

It was yesterday. It was a lifetime ago.

What did I take home from this trip, other than a truckload of memories and excellent wine?

If I must raise my children in this age of terrorism, let me do it with courage. Let me be irrepressible. Let me hold on to the things I believe in. Let me always remember that I am not alone.

Je me souviens.

Je suis toujours Charlie.