Fear of Flying

November 28, 2014 | Comments: None Yet - Post a Comment

Categories: Feminism, Lady parts, Outer space

Watched an episode of the PBS series Makers: The Women Who Make America today. I laughed, I cried. For real. It closed with the story of (I’m checking the post-it where I scrawled notes while watching) Marlene Martinez, an engineer who works for Lockheed Martin. She’s the daughter of Mexican migrant farmers who picked sugar beets in Washington state during her childhood and now she’s working toward going to space. Writing sequences that will help NASA’s Orion mission to Mars. She talked about how she was hoping to build up enough intellectual capital so that when decisions were being made about who to send to space, she’d be one of the chosen. NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, and has since relied on the private sector (which includes companies such as SpaceX) to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. The president of SpaceX is a woman named Gwynne Shotwell. At first I only heard the last name: whoa. Then it sounded liked they’d said “when shotwell.” Into space.


The episode opened in the 1960s, talking about how when the U.S. space program was formed they kind of didn’t know how to choose who to send to space. Pilots seemed like a good bet. And then they narrowed it down further. They had to be jet pilots. There were no female jet pilots in the U.S. military—women weren’t allowed. It was like NASA was a clubhouse, said one of the women interviewed, with “no girls allowed” scrawled on the outside. But some people, including a Dr. Lovelace (another interesting name, right) realized that there could be benefits to sending women to space. He’d dug through records from all over the country to find women who had their pilot’s licenses. The ones he selected were called the Mercury 13.

One of the Mercury 13 being tested

Each pound that the rocket had to propel, for example, required fuel, and women were often shorter and lighter—think of all the savings. And, it turns out, many women scored better than the men on the battery of tests that Dr. Lovelace put them through. He discovered that were able to spend much more time in sensory deprivation settings, not just tolerating the floating quiet, but enjoying the calm (Wally Funk spent a record 10 hours in the tank, out-testing John Glenn). One woman spoke of a test in which she had to maintain visual focus on a target while 20 degree water was shot into her ear canal. Everything shook until her body warmed itself. And then the Women in Space program was discontinued by President Johnson because there was the idea that choosing to send women to space would make the United States look weak to the USSR. Two of the women who had been prepping to become part of the space program (quitting jobs, packing up families) went to Congress to protest.

The 35 New Guys, male and female

In 1978 NASA picked a new group of 35 astronauts who would train to go to space. The group was called “35 New Guys” and included 6 women: Shannon Lucid, Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Anna Fisher, and Sally Ride. Once, one of the male new guys put a snake in Resnik’s purse. NASA engineers were concerned about how the women would urinate in zero gravity (before deciding on—duh—diapers, they devised a device with several parts that would snug up to the vulva…it leaked and was uncomfortable). They were concerned that if the women had their periods their menstrual blood would “back up” into their fallopian tubes. Sally Ride was chosen as the first women to go to space, and when she picked up her equipment for the trip she was surprised to find an overabundance of tampons—she kept tugging and the tampons kept coming, like a garland or string of flags. She and the other five female new guys laughed. It was clear a man had packed the bag.

Mummies, Nostradamus, and Ebola

November 29, 2012 | Comments: 1 Comment

Categories: Childhood, Obsession

I was a strange kid, fascinated by a set of kind of morbid subjects-Egyptian death practices, Nostradamus, ebola-that often interfered with my ability to sleep. I was probably seven, for example, when I found myself lying in bed at night terrified that ancient Egyptians were going to creep into my room and mummify me. I was particularly concerned about the part where they would stick a hook up one of my nostrils to stir my brain around and then drain it out of my nose. I read about that in a book.

I learned about Nostradamus a couple years later, on a network television special. Apparently this man with a beard and robes had predicted pretty much everything in history, and it wasn’t looking good for us. There were lots of roiling clouds in this special, as well as a generalized sense of doom that probably didn’t faze anyone over the age of twelve.

Ebola came a few years after that. I had look for newspaper articles to write about for the “current events” part of my social studies grade, which is how I read about a relatively large ebola outbreak in what was still Zaire. I think it was the hemmorhaging that got me. That, or the small pockets of blood that would form beneath the skin of a victim. I used to know everything about ebola, read every book I could convince my mom to check out of the library for me, could even recite from memory all the dates of outbreaks and the percentage of people who’d died and how scientists thought the virus was transmitted (direct contact with infected bodily fluids). I was giddily horrified.

Imagine my guilty delight, then, when I recently read that researchers at the University of Manitoba had found evidence for the interspecies airborne transmission of ebola-like something out of a horror movie. Apparently four macaques contracted Zaire Ebola after being allowed to live in the same space, but never touch, infected piglets. “The evidence that the virus got from a pig to a monkey through a respiratory route is good,” said Glenn Marsh, a molecular virologist uninvolved with the study, in the Science News article I read.

In honor of this discovery, here’s a play about ebola I wrote in grad school.  This one goes out to the students in my science writing class.

HALI sits on the floor, leaning with her back up against an oversized brass bed-the only thing in the room. She is balancing Laurie Garrett’s book The Coming Plague on her lap. The pages of the book are projected on the wall behind her; we see that she’s reading about ebola.


I wonder what it’s like to be one. A virus, that is.

At this moment the stage goes dark and the bed disappears. All is silent and black except for a light on HALI in the center, thinking, until-


[singing from offstage]


Looks up, startled.




Jumps to feet.


Starts to stream onto the stage. There are dozens of them, people dressed in red leotards with very tall, floppy, hats that sway and bend in the wind as they run around haphazardly.
Weeeeeeeeee don’t care
who you are.
We will get you



From above.
my dear
is a nasty thing.
You shouldn’t mess
with nature
I always say
you humans always do.


I don’t want a mess, I’m only 12. I just want to know how something so small can be so angry?


The process
is simple
stop trying
to make it
like you:
to a cell
a virus is
a worthy opponent.


Wearing blue leotards, they begin to file onto stage in straight line, holding hands and forming a circle in the center. When settled, they look around and see the ebola viruses hiding in the corners of the stage.


Several members of the EBOLA CHORUS start to creep up towards the CELL CHORUS, wearing menacing looks on their faces and wiggling their hands like monsters. The rest of them sing:


After attaching to the surface of the cell, the virus enters it through endocytosis-


A what?


A trick!
A trick!

The members of the EBOLA CHORUS that were behaving like monsters crash into the circle that the CELL CHORUS has created. As a result a few members of the circle move to form a smaller circle that extends toward the center of the cell, allowing the ebola virus to occupy space that is both within and without the cell.


We’re not alive
it’s not our fault.


Then, the outside of the virus and the cell membrane fuse, releasing the nucleocapsid into the cell.


The what?


-the core of us!

A member of the EBOLA CHORUS is allowed past the blue line of the CELL CHORUS.


Perimeter compromised!
The lights go off.
Lights up.


After that, the virus forces the cell to replicate the proteins that make up its genes, thus creating many new viruses.
While the lights were out the extra members of the EBOLA CHORUS have packed themselves into the space inside of the CELL CHORUS circle. They begin jumping up and down and pushing at the circle.


Not alive! Not alive!
We just want
to use you.



But if you’re not alive, why do you want to make more of yourselves?

Rushes at the CELL CHORUS as if trying to save it. She starts beating at the blue circle, trying to get to the viruses. After a few moments of this, she succeeds, but cannot do anything in the face of the dozens and dozens of red-clad members of the EBOLA CHORUS stampeding past her to fill the stage.


Do not
ask why!

The lights flicker and for a second go off. When they come back on, there are small groups all over the stage: single members of the blue CELL CHORUS are being attacked by members of the EBOLA CHORUS. Sometimes punches swing; several forms of martial arts can be seen.




You shouldn’t mess with nature
I always say
you humans always do.

The lights go off.

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While You Were (Are) Waiting…

August 8, 2012 | Comments: 1 Comment

Categories: Music, Soundings

…I made a playlist for Soundings.  It’s more like a bunch of vaguely ocean-related songs, some of which resonate with the book, but stay tuned for a very exciting & pithy new blog post!  Be sure to check out the last song on this list, which is by my talented and delightfully-named former student Olivia Rose Muzzy.  Oh, and sadly there are no whale songs on this list, but if someone sends me a link I’ll update the post.  Isn’t there a Seal song with whale sounds on it?!  Or was that dolphins?

Have other song suggestions?  Post them in the comments section.


Billie Holiday

“How Deep is the Ocean”

I’ll tell you no lie

How deep is the ocean?


Bobby Darin

“Beyond the Sea”

It is near.

Beyond the moon.


Otis Redding

“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”

I can’t do what ten people tell me to do,

so I guess I’ll remain the same.


Ted Leo

“The Crane Takes Flight”

But don’t you let them tell you that you’re wrong.


Frank Ocean

“Swim Good”

Im’a try to swim from something bigger than me.

Kick off my shoes and swim good,

swim good.


Team Dresch

“Uncle Phranc”

She told me if I go in the ocean

I’ve got to know it’s the shark’s world.


Marine Girls

“Marine Girls”

Try so hard

Try to be

What every girl should be



“Watercolours into the Ccean”

I took a picture

I was sick of motion

Of watercolours in the ocean


Arthur Russell

“The Platform on the ocean”

I hear the sound of the white caps

out on the ocean


Patti Smith


wave thou art pretty

wave thou art high


Olivia Rose Muzzy

“Oceans/Field Dance”

find a new way to lead us.

i have been lost.


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What Would Marie Tharp Do?

July 24, 2012 | Comments: 2 Comments

Categories: Feminism, Marie Tharp, Publishing, Soundings


While traveling, Bruce often wrote short notes to Marie on the backs of postcards. During the late 1950s through the 1960s, he signed them “MOB,” which stood for “Mean Old Bastard.” In 1965, Teddy Bullard was one of the world’s most respected geologists; today he is considered one of plate tectonics’ founding fathers.

When I was in high school some of my peers wore bracelets with the letters “WWJD” embroidered on them. I spent a lot of time staring at these bracelets without knowing what the letters stood for−or asking any of my friends (none of whom wore the bracelets) to tell me. But I was daydreamy, and I loved acronyms, so I’d stare and invent possible word combinations: World Wrestling Junior Division? Walruses With Joke Dictionaries? Work With Judicious Dedication? Nothing I came up with seemed capable of inspiring such devotion; this went on for at least six months.


Imagine my delight, then, when I finally discovered what the letters WWJD stood for: What Would Jesus Do? A few seconds of delight, and then…huh, I thought, hmm. I had no context, because except for a couple years when I’d accompanied my aunt and uncle to church so I could get dressed up, I’d mostly been raised a heathen. My daydreaming attention quickly turned elsewhere.


I’m 29 now, and don’t know if high school kids still wear these bracelets, but in the past few years I’ve had occasion to think about them again, putting my own spin on their sentiment when it strikes me. What Would Rachel Maddow Do? I ask myself when I’m trying to be a sharp but funny journalist. When my writing isn’t going so well, and I’m having trouble figuring out how to structure some paragraph or chapter, Joan Didion is the person who comes to mind−what would she do, I ask myself. Lately, though, one person’s name comes up more than the others; What, I ask myself, Would Marie Tharp Do?


Soundings, my biography of Marie, was released a week ago, and in the days leading up to its publication I thought a lot about the responses Marie received when she showed people her early maps. On first glance, her partner, Bruce Heezen, called her revolutionary 1952 discovery of a rift valley on the Atlantic Ocean floor “girl talk.” A few years later, when Marie had traced the rift valley for approximately 40,000 miles across the ocean floor, Maurice “Doc” Ewing, the director of the newly-formed Lamont Geological Observatory (where Marie and Bruce worked), oversaw a press release in which he and Bruce took nearly all of the credit for the discovery; the newspaper articles that appeared as a result followed suit. And when other scientists saw Marie’s initial maps many of them thought that the rift valley was fake, an instance of the young whippersnappers at Lamont trying to be geophysical provocateurs.


In other words, Marie was not lauded. Not in 1952, when she made the discovery that allowed the theories of plate tectonics to be developed. Not in the early 1970s, when these theories began to be included in geology textbooks. Not in 1977, when she finished work on the first complete map of the ocean floor, a map that revealed−for the first time−the 70 percent of the Earth’s surface that lies under the sea. Not in the almost thirty years that she lived after that map’s publication. If you’d endeavored to collect the words written about her by 2006, the year she died, you’d have something like a packet or novella−nowhere near fitting for a scientist who transformed the way we understand the Earth.


But there’s little evidence that Marie was angered by what little recognition she’d received. In fact, during the five years I spent working on her biography, what I saw again and again was a woman who simply didn’t give a damn what other people thought of her. She did her work, and it was important work; people could take it or leave it, but she was always proud of what she had done, she always knew exactly how it had shaped the science that had come after it. What I’m describing, I suppose, is confidence.


Last week I was talking to a friend about how Marie didn’t appear to need external validation; I wished, I told my friend, to be the same. Soundings had come out the previous day, and while it was exciting, it was also kind of anticlimactic: I had known its publication wouldn’t be accompanied by fireworks, but I’d also hoped I would wake up feeling different, that something in me would shift, becoming better or stronger. I’d thought that those things might happen because now perfect strangers could read what I’d worked on for five years. Maybe, I thought, it would be like what some women say happens after they give birth: they see the baby and everything changes. Magically, they are transformed. They become mothers, seemingly in an instant.


Except I don’t think that’s what really happens. I think that’s the moment when the situation becomes real−the baby that was hidden for such a long time is now wailing or staring them in the eye. I’m guessing that’s hard to ignore. But what happens when what you produce has been visible (albeit not in glossy, finished form) for years and years?


When I think about Marie I realize that when the product of years of work has been silently wailing at you for years, you don’t get a single transformative moment. Marie did the bulk of her work during a time that people like her (by which I mean women) had an ice cube’s chance in hell of getting the recognition they deserved; she knew that she would have to be her own main source of validation. I’m fortunate to live in a different time−but I also know that there’s a lot to be said for self-validation. For realizing that publication won’t transform me, that the work was doing that all along, as I learned and read and wrote about what Marie did.

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Coming Soon

July 12, 2012 | Comments: 1 Comment

Categories: Uncategorized

Hali’s blog posts will be coming soon … stay tuned!