Upon Losing Spock Last Friday

I remember the first time that Spock died. It was 1982 and I was a teenager. My brothers and I gasped as his coffin was shot into orbit during the final scene of The Wrath of Khan. Like most fans, we left the movie theater in shock, but also incredulous. They wouldn’t kill off Spock, would they? The fact that director Nicholas Meyer even dared to experiment with such an idea felt like a dangerous betrayal. As fans, we endured two full years of wondering whether the loss would stick.

Leonard Nimoy knew us well. It was he who directed the sequel to the above, released in 1984: one-hundred and five full minutes of The Search for Spock. Kirk and the rest of his crew, feeling as we did, stole the Enterprise from spacedock and risked everything to bring Spock back to us. They succeeded, we all forgave Paramount, and Spock was with us on the big screen for twenty-eight more years. No, the all-powerful Hollywood with its million-dollar special effects couldn’t kill off Spock. Indeed, in the end it was nothing less than God himself that could take Spock away from us.

Spock was such a popular character that Star Trek waited twenty-six years and 354 episodes before it tried to put another Vulcan on the bridge. In 1995, we met Tuvok (Captain Janeway’s head security officer) and eventually came to love him, though we never regarded him with quite the reverence in which we held Spock. And after all, even hard-core Trekkies like me will acknowledge reluctantly that the show was, in fact, fictional. Just like with The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island and I Love Lucy and almost everything else on television in the 1960s, we knew that the Enterprise and her crew weren’t real. But there was something about Star Trek that seemed so tantalizingly possible that it became to us a vision of the world that we wanted.

Spock is the scientist that I thought I would become. Maybe I wouldn’t look like the rest of the team, or even act like them, but everyone would still believe my solutions. Maybe I didn’t have big muscles and couldn’t fight anyway, but I would still get to go along on every mission, and once in a while it would be me who would save the day. This is not what I became. Spock is also the scientist that I thought I would meet. Someone who would listen more than talk, and be detached and objective. Someone who could set aside ego and emotion in order to focus more clearly on Why. A teacher or colleague who wanted to touch me, but only to transfer information back and forth from my mind. This is not who I met. Instead, I think that Spock’s world is closer to the version of Science that I am still hoping to create. A world where we work with engineers and communicators and doctors and leaders and their security forces not as consultants, but as companions – valued, trusted, forgiven and understood. But most importantly, a world of Science with a place right up front for those who are different. I finally understand why Star Trek was set in 2260 and not any nearer.

Who hasn’t wanted to reach into the grave and pull someone back? To make them understand the full magnitude of how they were loved, and to beg for their blessing one last time? A whole generation of scientists is grieving today, but mostly we will say nothing. We will go to our microscopes, to our telescopes, to our computers and laboratories while nursing a quiet ache. We will mostly not cry. But as Tuvok the Vulcan once said, “Do not mistake composure for ease.” Condole with us anyway. We are realizing that our adolescent adoration of Spock never left us because it was our very first experiment in loving ourselves.

Goodbye Spock. Even a Vulcan who lives for hundreds of years can die too young. Goodbye Leonard Nimoy. I daresay you were loved far more than you knew.

What I Say When People Tell Me That They Feel Hopeless About Climate Change

Scientists like me study carbon emissions, deforestation, ocean acidification, desertification, sea-level rise, glacial melting, landscape degradation, groundwater salination, invasive species, global warming and more.  There is very little good news to share.  Today’s environmental problems are easily big enough to eclipse our inadequate solutions.  When people tell me that climate change makes them feel hopeless, I breathe deep, and then I respond.  I don’t answer them because I have a good response, but because we all deserve at least a bad response.  Here is what I say.

What I Say When People Tell Me That They Feel Hopeless About Climate Change

First of all, I remind them that we are strong and lucky.  That our planet is also home to one billion people who live wretchedly on less than one thousand calories a day.  The fact that we are of the group with food, shelter and clean water obligates us not to give up on the world that we have compromised.  Knowledge is responsibility.

I remind them that every Age is conscripted to struggle with its own impending Armageddon.  That during centuries past, men and women railed helpless against overwhelming natural forces that poisoned the wells, spoiled the crops and robbed them of their babies.  We may discount their science as superstition but it was based on state-of-the-art observations.  Genetically we are no smarter than they were, and we may be laboring in similar darkness.  I note that the succeeding centuries did bring unfathomable solutions to even the most intransigent of these ancient plagues.  And though these solutions came far too late for many, they were not too late for all.

I stress that it matters what we teach the next generation.  That we should mourn the marring of our childhood sleep with nightmares about the threat of nuclear war.  We risk our own paralysis via the message that we have hated the Earth and so the Earth hates us.  As far as we know, this is still our species’ eternal home, and we must not alienate our children from it.

If these are my colleagues, I tell them that complaining about something is not the same as doing something about it, and that scaring people is not the same as informing them.  Then I remind myself to take my own advice.

I reassure them that my address book is full of people who care about these issues.  That the smartest people I know are dedicating their lives to gathering the data that will tell us more.  That on this very day, scores of people got to the lab early and will stay late, trying to quantify the exact magnitude of the problem.  That we are walking the fields and counting what is there and what is not.  That the ecologists who first noticed these problems could not have imagined the computers or instruments that we now use every day.  That scientists are watching and working and not just worrying.  That Science is really just as it has always been — overworked and underfunded and absolutely unwavering in its refusal to ever stop trying to figure it all out.

When people tell me that they feel hopeless about climate change, I look them in the eye, steady my voice and state that I believe all will be okay, even though we both know damn well that it may not.  Then I put my head down and I go back to work.

Next month my student graduates with a thesis project focused on crops, carbon dioxide and global hunger, which is what got me thinking.  It’s my first big foray out of rather esoteric plant biochemistry and into socially-relevant climate change research.  I also love science, and believe that it embodies all of our best hopes for tomorrow.

An Open Letter to Women On The Tenure Track

Since I know everything, I must also know how you feel.  Since I say too much, here I am telling you how you feel.
 

 An Open Letter to Women On The Tenure Track

I know how you feel.

I know that you stayed up too late last night to solve a problem that proved itself to be only more cruelly recalcitrant in the cold light of today.  I know that you’ve got an inbox full of not only formal rejections, but informal messages that what you are doing is not good enough.  From people you don’t even know.  From people you do know.

I know that you miss the people you used to work with so badly that you can taste it.  You used to be somebody’s favorite grad student and then a post-doc worth her weight in gold.  You used to be the best thing that ever happened to your department.  Now you’re a risky hire.  Now when you create something exceptional there’s no one down the hall to show it to and no one who is grateful for it.  Those people have all moved on and are suddenly too busy.  You are supposed to be too grown up to crave their approval anyway.  Instead you put the thing on your desk, stare at it, and begin to wonder if it’s any good after all.  To wonder how in the world you could possibly make another, and another and another fast enough to fill the blurry quota that you’ve been given.

I know you feel like you are putting nickels from your soul into an out-of-control parking meter, trying to buy more time in five-minute increments and digging in the bottom of your purse worried that you are running out of change.  But I also know that what you are actually doing is putting those nickels into a low-risk bank account that will come back to you with spectacular interest if you can just hold on for ten or so years.  I know you don’t believe that that this is true, or even that I really mean it.

I’m so sure that I know how you must feel.

Or maybe I don’t know how you feel.  Maybe this is actually an open letter to the me that existed sixteen years ago.  Maybe I’d walk up to that terrified, exhausted, lonely and underweight young woman and hand her this letter in a pink envelope.  Maybe I’d lead her to her kitchen table, sit her down and let her read it while I made Cream of Wheat, just like the January that her dog died when she was little, and which is easy to eat even when the world makes you want to vomit.  Maybe I’d bandage her ravaged cuticles, wipe the blood off of her keyboard and shut the damn computer off.  Maybe I’d go and sit by the door of her basement apartment, turn the radio on low just for noise, and position myself protectively between her and the world so that she might crawl into bed and finally get some sleep.  And eventually wake up having dreamed of flowers.

 

Hold on a sec — it turns out that I know how Marie Curie must have felt too.

I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on

In 2008 several animals in poor condition were discovered when a farm in western Pennsylvania went into foreclosure.  My dog was one of those animals.  A charity called Chesapeake Bay Retriever Relief and Rescue nursed her back to health and then gave her to me in 2009.  I wrote this about her.

 

I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on.

 

I don’t know why I am so cold. The sun is finally shining but I am still shivering. It seems harder to move today.

I don’t know why I hurt so badly. Everything aches, and no matter how much I lick, it doesn’t seem to help. I don’t know what to do about the hurt.

I don’t know why there’s nothing to eat. My mind is racing trying to locate the smell of something to eat. I don’t know why I can’t find anything.

I don’t know why I can’t find the people I need. Somehow I know people are the answer. I need to be where they are, but where are they and who are they? I am cold, I am hurting and I am hungry. But it is the searching that exhausts me. I will keep searching as long as my ragged body will let me.

A woman looks at me. I go near. I will go with her if she lets me. Maybe she is the answer. I don’t know what’s going on.

Now I am with people. I don’t know them, but they don’t sound angry like the others. I will show them that I am soft, like them. I will go with them.

Now I am in a strange place and I don’t know what’s going on. They are hurting me but their voices are slow and soft and they hold me. There are other hurting dogs here and I smell blood and pee. But no one is angry. I will let them hurt me.

Now I am inside with people and other dogs. I don’t know any of them. From their smells I can see that these dogs eat good things. They are soft and they do not shiver or hurt. I will be with them. We are all waiting for something, but I don’t know what it is.

I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on. But I know who I am.

I am the descendent of the first wolf whose curiosity was stronger than her fear. I puzzled over those funny animals who sat near fire, slept, rose the next day and moved on. I dared to follow at a distance and learn their patterns, until the bizarre noises and smells became familiar.

I am the one who dared to creep forward and accept a bone from your hand. I saw you show your teeth then, but you made your affectionate noise, the one you make toward your own pack when you are happy. In time I learned to imitate you.

I realized that your babies, though furless and helpless, were not prey. Because they are sacred to you they became precious to me.

I learned to help. I stayed back with the old ones and the babies and raised my voice when anything came near. I helped secure our meat, then stepped back and trusted that you would hand me a bone later, as you did that first night by the fire.

I let you scoop up my darling puppy and carry her to your friend, who showed his teeth and walked her away. I trusted your world in its ability to keep her whole and sound, to tend her wounds and let her near the fire.

I am a dog, and I know who I am. I am the wolf who dared to cast my lot with yours. And because of this I know what to do. I sniff your hand and kiss it, and look up.

 
 
Epilogue: Our “Coco” is now the #2 amateur long-jump retriever in the state of Hawaii (title in 2010).  If you give to an animal charity this holiday season, please consider CBRR&R.

An Open Love Letter to Millennial Women

I wrote this as a graduation gift for a young woman who I know.  Later we realized that I also wrote it for you.
 

My grandmother knew how to catch an owl.  She would boil the meat off for the men, crack the marrow out of the bones for babyfood, homogenize the entrails past recognition for the kids, and drink the boil water because that’s all that was left for her.  She kept bacon grease hot in an iron skillet as a Home Security System against violent intruders, usually in the form of my grandfather.  She had twelve children, except one died and the others were depatriated and repatriated by the County so routinely that the little ones eventually couldn’t ken why the big ones called her “Mama”.  I never knew her but her highest aspiration for my mother was that she should have a washing machine because sores caused by lye never really close up and heal.  I think of her every single time I do a load of laundry.

I want to tell you that I’m sorry we couldn’t create the world that you deserve.  I’m sorry we left you too few jobs and too much debt — but you know, things never have been easy.  Your world moves fast enough to leave me behind, disoriented and complaining.  I don’t know who this Amanda Bynes person is, but when I see her picture I can tell she needs a mother’s hug.  I don’t want you to get a tattoo because I can’t imagine a picture perfect enough or a phrase deep enough to merit the poor trade of your rare blood for common ink.  I finally understand why my mother was so adamant that I should not pierce my ears.  Us old ladies have been disappointed to find that we are not so different from our male masters after all, when fear rotted our love into control.  Your freedom terrifies us.  In our day, if you admitted to being a lesbian, men tried to rape it out of you.  For us, forty years of financial safety pragmatically trumped romance, and rendered purity before marriage one of many survival techniques.  I struggle and hold my tongue, knowing deep down that you know best how to live in the world that you are creating.  When you have time and pity, you are teaching me.  You are better with people than I’ve ever been, naturally friendly and sweet.  I’ve learned that pausing — any time, anywhere – to LOL at a friend’s joke is a distraction rooted in love and care.  I hope that I may live long enough to see “you’re” and “your” collapse into one word (“ur”) because you have convinced me that we can’t afford the friction of cosmetic contextual distinctions, we have too little time left with each other and far too much still to say.

The First Wave spent their lives insisting that women were not animals to be owned, traded, impregnated and discarded.  They dared to vote and experimented with pants.  Their gains seem quaint and quizzical to me now, as mine must seem to you.  The Second Wave put condoms in the 7-11 and insisted that women’s bodies were more than a vehicle for selling Coca-Cola.  Our highest aspiration for you is that you should have one male friend, your equal, who looks you in the eye and sees you as you are instead of as he wants you to be.  Because sores caused by disrespect never really close up and heal.

My grandmother died on her kitchen table when she hemorrhaged while giving birth to a second set of twins.  My mother was not born that day, it was instead a couple of my aunts or uncles, I really don’t know.  But I’ve dreamt many nights that on that day she gave birth to me.  That I am somehow the logical conclusion, continuation and redemption of her agony.  Watching you from a distance, I like to think that you were born of the pain of my generation, of our punitive divorces and meager unfair paychecks and deadly IUDs.  You are the precious daughters of the Revolution that we wanted, and of the broken-parts-missing Revolution that we got.  When I am old and sick and ugly it will comfort me to know that you are the ones running the world.  But today … today I feel pretty good and so it appears that time has not quite come.  I am offering my age-spotted hand, and you know what?  It’s surprisingly strong.  Take it, and we’ll put our heads down and walk into the wind, forward through more bad weather.

 

The Worst Part Is Not

This post first appeared as a guest post*

The worst part is not when it all blows over just as you thought something was going to finally happen.  When everything goes on as usual, except that your colleagues pass you in the hall with a wider berth.  That when all the shock and outrage dies down, the only job that changed is yours.  You used to be a valued mascot.  Now you’re a traitor.  You’ll never be Department Chair or Dean now that this has happened.  How dare you throw all the Monopoly pieces in the air – we were letting you play!  But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part is not when his wife and his employees come to you and say please don’t do this to us.  Our mortgage, our children, our paychecks are at stake.  When they ask you if you care about anything besides yourself.  When they tell you the full story, which you never wanted to know.  That there’s a rotten root of sickness and betrayal underneath it all.  That this is your big chance to be the bigger person and walk away, proving that you are actually more compassionate than you seem.  This is not the worst part.  Although that part is pretty damn bad.

The worst part is not when you see it happen all over again to a woman young enough to be your daughter.  What is the right thing to tell her?  That twenty years ago you remember holding tight to the idea that twenty years from now it would be different.  That grief and surprise are two different things, one you will feel forever, and the other you will never feel again.  That she should let this harden her towards the field, and soften her towards those she loves.  To be careful who you trust, and don’t trust any one too much, or for too long.  Trust them until you don’t.  This is not the worst part.  But it is sufficiently bad.

The worst part is not that your expectations have changed.  That you’ve given up on the National Academy, the HHMI, the Ivy League job.  It’s unreasonable to expect to be made MVP of an all-boys team.  You should just be grateful that they drafted you at all.  That your highest career goal has become to be left alone to do your job with the people that you actually trust.  This is not the worst part because maybe that’s not it after all.  Maybe it’s you.  Maybe you’re just not good enough.  Maybe it’s that huge chip on your shoulder.  Maybe … Lather, rinse, repeat.

The worst part is the pivot.  The click.  When the switch flips.  When you press down, turn the child-proof cap, and the thing breaks in your hands.  When it dawns on you that this isn’t an interview, it’s a date.  That there’s no study group, it’s a date.  That this isn’t office hours, it’s a date.  That it’s not a promotion, it’s a date.  That it’s not a field trip, it’s a date.  It’s a weird f*cked up date and you had no idea, you dumbass.  You’re just as stupid as he thinks you are.  Why are you carrying a backpack full of questions, homework, manuscripts, resumés and various other homely hopeful aspirations?  All you needed to do was to show up.  Show up for this weird f*cked up date.  Sucker.

You fight for some control.  You sit in the back and avoid male eyes.  You listen for which classes to avoid, and turn up sick before certain field trips.  You don’t exchange numbers with your lab partner.  You make sure you study twice as hard and do twice as much as they ask for.  And you slowly realize that you want this twice as much as any of the boys.  And this keeps you going, and it keeps you safe.  A good professor is the one you never met and who never knew your name.  He was smart and intense and assigned the right readings, and lots of them.  Who never knew how much he changed your thinking because you never told him.  Who gave you an A in permanent ink, that you gathered up with all the others and cashed in like poker chips for a ticket to graduate school, where the whole thing started all over again.

But the best professor was a terrible teacher.  He spoke from yellowed, cracked old notes with a thick accent for hours, unbothered by the possibility that no one understood him.  When you went to tell him that you were dropping his class his wife was with him, and they invited you in.  They gave you a cookie and asked what was wrong, and you said you didn’t know.  They said come to the theater with us, you Americans don’t go to the theater anymore.  And bring your transcript.  While they ate they said you have done well, and you are good inside, and you will change the world.  And they let me pay my own way.

 
*big thanks for letting me guest on @Drew_Lab ‘s blog “The Drew Lab” at Columbia University