Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Back in business

Well, friends, my family has departed. It was a good visit, and I learned that I like Oregon so much better when the people I love are in it. A week of traveling with family was a good chance to rediscover all that is good about this state - the landscapes, the rivers, the wineries, the mountains, the small towns, the lakes, the valleys. I'm actually proud of how well I know my way around here.

Now that I've cleaned my apartment and drunk the last Diet Pepsi in my fridge (Mom's go-to beverage), I'm back to sciencing. I started yesterday by catching up with my labmate, Caitlin, and touching base with my adviser. Apparently, while I was busy galavanting around the state with relatives, Caitlin managed to fix two old pieces of equipment just by reading the manual. Score two for her.

We actually spent a good part of the day yesterday packing up boxes of lab equipment to ship to the U.S. east coast. Our adviser, Craig, has a research cruise coming up next week, and a number of OIMB students and scientists are going. We're flying to North Carolina, boarding the ship, and heading north. After three weeks at sea, we'll end the cruise in Massachusetts and fly home. I'm pretty excited for the trip, but it means I have a lot to get done before I can leave town again.

I'm spending this week processing data, hopefully collecting more data, and packing, packing, packing!

Friday, June 26, 2015

A family visit: Part 2

Showing Grandpa and Fran an ascidian at OIMB. Photo by Angela Meyer.
Grandpa and I at OIMB. Photo by Angela Meyer.
Grandpa and Mom at Simpson Reef, outside Charleston, Oregon.
Photo by Frances Brock.
The interior of the historic Egyptian Theater in downtown Coos Bay.
The theater was built in 1925 and was under restoration when I first
moved to Coos Bay in 2012. Restoration is now complete and the
theater is open again, so we stopped in for a tour. 
The original organ pipes from the 1920s are still in use
at the Egyptian Theater in downtown Coos Bay.
Photo by Angela Meyer.
The entrance to the Egyptian Theater says
"Through these doors pass the most wonderful people."
Grandpa and Fran at Seven Devils Brewery, downtown Coos Bay.
Photo by Angela Meyer.
Crater Lake
Wizard Island, in Crater Lake
Mom and I at Crater Lake

Thursday, June 25, 2015

My mother's eyes

It's not a current photo, but believe it or not, the image at right is my favorite picture of my mom and me. We took that selfie in Chicago in 2010. My mom and I both love musical theater, so while I was still living in Michigan, we made several short trips to Chicago to see Broadway musicals performed by traveling theater groups. On this particular trip, it was Billy Elliot, but we've also seen Cats and Wicked together. I love this photo so much because it captures a spontaneous and joyful moment with my mom. We had just arrived in Chicago and were heading out to dinner when we discovered it was raining. Pouring. Buckets. Cats and dogs. A deluge. We debated for a long time whether we should take a cab or brave the torrential rain, but in the end, we decided to be hardcore. We donned our rain coats and documented the moment with a photo. You know, in case we didn't survive.

I showed this picture to a friend in college, and her immediate reaction was to say that my mom and I have the same smile. I had never thought much about our resemblances before, but after someone else said it, I realized it was true. I have my mother's smile.

Now that my mom has been in Oregon this week, I've had a lot of time to notice the things that we share. Personally, I think I got some of her best features. Mom gave me life; she gave me her blue eyes and her blonde hair. She passed on to me her organizational skills and her powers of discernment. She is the source of my unrelenting optimism.

Mom has always been one to see the good in everyone. She gives second and third and fourth chances, even when they're not deserved. She makes sure everyone is included, even the runt and the outcast and the new kid. She cannot stand a bully. My mom cares for those who can't care for themselves, and she has a heart much bigger than her body.

I try to emulate my mom in a lot of ways, and I was reminded of her positive qualities all over again today. We spent most of the afternoon strolling through downtown Coos Bay, and even though I've walked those streets a thousand times, today, I got to see them in a new light. I saw Coos Bay through my mother's eyes.

Mom loves the cute, historic downtown. She's so much better than me at noticing new businesses. We stopped in at an interior design store that had opened in the past few months; she pointed out to me countless others I had never noticed. Trust me, there were plenty of jokes about me needing to get out more, but my point is that there's a lot more going on in Coos Bay than I ever realize. New buildings are being renovated; the farmer's market has expanded, and we even stumbled on a new construction site being surveyed. By the time we walked home, I was convinced Coos Bay was actually a really cool place to live.

It's so easy for me to get bogged down in this place. It's so easy for me to bury my head in my work and lose sight of what's going on around me. It's so easy for me to focus on the minor frustrations, the awkward conversations, the people I would rather do without. I spend a lot of my time in Coos Bay feeling frustrated, tired, and lonely, but it is for exactly this reason that I need my mother's eyes.

It's because my generally conservative opinions are rejected in Coos Bay that I need my mother's eyes. It's because anyone I get close to is bound to move away that I need my mother's eyes. It's because I've never really felt accepted around here that I need my mother's eyes. It's because a Ph.D. is a marathon, not a sprint, and I have at least another year ahead of me that I need my mother's eyes.

It's because her love and her optimism and her positivity always triumph that I am grateful for my mother's eyes.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A family visit

Several months ago, my mom approached me about scheduling a visit in June. She wanted to show my grandpa, her dad, the state of Oregon. He had never been to Oregon before, and it made most sense for him to see it before I graduated. We seized the moment, scheduled flights, and now they're here! Grandpa brought his dear friend and companion, Fran, so the four of us met in Portland last Friday and are seeing all the Oregon highlights together. Check it out!

Mt. Hood, as seen from the OHSU campus, in downtown Portland
Mt. St. Helens, as seen from the campus of OHSU, in downtown Portland
Grandpa and Fran in downtown Portland. Photo by Angela Meyer.
Oregon's state capitol building in Salem
Mom, Grandpa, and I at Oregon's state capitol. Photo by Frances Brock.
A sidewalk tile outside Oregon's state capitol building 
Elk, seen feeding along Highway 38, outside Reedsport, Oregon
Grandpa, Fran, and I with the elk. Photo by Angela Meyer.
An elk scratching himself with his antlers outside Reedsport, Oregon.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Before they left

When I first arrived in Coos Bay three years ago, I was given a strange piece of advice. Don't get close to anyone, they told me, because as soon as you do, they'll move away. Learn to let go of friends, they told me, because nobody sticks around Coos Bay for long. You will begin to measure time in goodbye parties.

The population of this town actually has a high turnover rate, mostly as a result of the jobs that are available. Coast Guard non-rates move in, do their duty for 2-3 years, get the training they need for a more advanced position, and move out. Wildlife observers and state park employees work on a seasonal basis. The local newspaper and television station are both staffed by recent college graduates who move away as soon as they get a better job elsewhere. Even the graduate students stick around for 5 years at the most. A good portion of the town turns over every few years, and at times, it can feel downright tumultuous.

Sunset over the hazy Pacific, 14 June 2015
I've recently found myself using phrases like "when N still lived here" or "before M graduated" to describe when certain events took place. Granted, I've also used "since I got back from Norway" plenty of times to describe the ways that I've changed, but that's a topic for another post. I actually had a surreal moment the other day, as I realized I was doing exactly what had been prophesied to me three years ago: I was measuring time in goodbye parties.

Well, today I added another benchmark to my temporal scale. A couple that I met soon after landing here in 2012 had their farewell gathering. They're moving north to Seattle, and now I can describe events by whether they happened before or after R and A left.

Huddling around the bonfire
We had a small gathering at their house. A vegetarian, gluten-free potluck dinner accompanied by craft beer. We watched the sunset. We built a bonfire. We played games. We said our goodbyes.

The evening was pleasant enough and provided me with some closure. I had barely seen either of them in the last year - you know, me being abroad and all - but still, R and A were part of my Coos Bay story, and I was part of theirs. Maybe I'll see them again; maybe I won't. Either way, I can hold onto the stories we share, the anecdotes they star in. And I can tell you about the sunset- and bonfire-filled evening we had before they left.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The art of detachment

"She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come." - Proverbs 31:25

This sentence appeared in my brain this morning and hung there like a picture on a wall. A fixture. A permanent installation in the gallery of my conscious mind that I could gaze at whenever I wanted. I enjoyed it.

I was on my way to OIMB's Boathouse Auditorium, about a 10-minute walk down the street from the main part of the campus. If anyone asked, I would use the excuse of a pleasant morning stroll, but really, I just had to move. I was more than a bit excited, and sitting still at my desk just wasn't going to cut it. The wind chilled my arms and had its way with my hair, but being surrounded by that kind of energy somehow helped the energy inside me to dissipate.

You see, I had just arrived at the lab and checked my e-mail. It doesn't sound like a particularly exciting activity, but I had been waiting on several critical messages. One quick scan of my inbox revealed that plane tickets for an upcoming research cruise had been successfully booked, that a colleague on a different continent would help me find the data I need for a project, that a proposal I wrote for ship time was under consideration, and that I had been awarded a scholarship I don't remember applying for.

Well, would you look at that!

Giant leaps on four different fronts, all before 9 am. The irony of this morning is that I've been taking a lot of time off lately. I've actually hit a lull in each of my five simultaneous projects because I've been waiting on other people to answer my e-mails. Usually, when one project gets to a point where I need someone else's input, I shoot off a message, then whip out another project and go at it. I work on that one as long as I can by myself, then continue to seamlessly rotate my projects until one of them gets finished. Somehow, in the past week or so, I've gotten to the point of needing input for all of my tasks. All of them. That means lots of e-mails, to lots of people. And lots of waiting.

If I were wiser, I would see my lull as a blessing, a chance to unplug, to do something different, to allow the seeds I've planted to grow and bear fruit before I harvest. The only problem is that I've never been one to take a step back or be patient.

I'm trying to learn. I'm trying to master the art of detachment, of letting things happen in their own time. It's a heck of a lot more strenuous than hot pursuit, but maybe someday, I'll get it. It always seems to be just about the time that I step back and actually go home at 5 that things start happening for me. It's like the people on the other side of the internet can feel my lengthening breaths and choose only then to respond, once I've sufficiently relaxed.

It was a banner morning, and at least some of my projects are moving again. I'm grateful for the progress, but there's also an important lesson to be had: sometimes taking a leap forward means taking a step back.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The view out my window: Part 2

South Slough Estuary, seen from Charleston, OR

Coos Bay during a calm early-morning low tide
View of the coastal mountain range from highway 42
The Umpqua River, seen from Scottsburg Park, along highway 38
McCullough Bridge, North Bend, OR

Monday, June 8, 2015

As good as it gets

If I could pick a musical quote to open this post, it would be "Daniel" by The Bee Eaters. It's a sprightly C-Major blend of fiddle, cello, mandolin, and hammered dulcimer. It's bright, exuberant, chord-pickin' folk, and it's exactly what my weekend sounded like.

I spent it in the Corvallis area, at the home of my dear friends, the Hansens, Sephra and Lee. The Hansens used to live near Coos Bay, and we met at church. Every few weeks, they would invite me over to have dinner and hang out on the beach. I taught their daughter violin, and they took care of my car while I was in Norway.

There are a lot of parallels between the Hansen family and mine. Both Lee and my dad are engineers. The Hansens lived in Michigan for 6 years, just a 2-hour drive from where I grew up. Their kids are 5 years apart in age; my brother and I are 5 years apart. We share a love for Arnold Palmers, barbecues, and movie nights. We're the same in countless details - down to the fact that Sephra and my mom use the same laundry detergent, and both families have mastered the art of squealing into church at the last possible second.

You can maybe understand why visiting the Hansens feels a bit like going home. To me, their house is an oasis of all things familiar in the midst of this wacky, eclectic state. I step through the front door, and immediately, I'm transported back to my conservative suburban childhood, when the most important things in life were God, family, and school - in that exact order.

Sephra and Lee have never been anything but good to me. They feed me; they let me do laundry; they insist I'm always welcome, no matter how busy they are. They're the closest thing I have to family around here, and I love them for it. Let me tell you, friends, when the front door opens and a toddler squeals my name, when his sister tears like a bandit across the grassy field at Kinder Park to hug me, I can't help but wonder what I did right in life to deserve this. The Hansens are four genetically-related gemstones, and they are by far the best thing about my life in Oregon.

It's Sunday night in the Beaver State, and this weekend was just about as good as it gets.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Don't waste it

Like bronze bells being hit with a soft mallet, my alarm rang me to consciousness. 5:30 am. Rolling over, I was pleasantly surprised to find the sun already streaming through my blinds. It was bound to be a good day. I drove to the lab in leggings and a fleece, then pulled on rain pants and thick socks at my desk. Hair up. Boots on. Show time.

Healthy sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus
The morning's mission was a survey of Pisaster ochraceus, the ochre sea star, to assess the extent and severity of sea star wasting syndrome in Coos Bay. Not familiar with sea star wasting? It's a terrible disease, whereby sea stars suffer lesions, deteriorate, lose their arms, and disintegrate into a pile of goo. In the past few years, it's run rampant along the North American west coast. Check it out in more detail here and here.

A wasting sea star. In the words of my high school
biology teacher, the immortal Lee James Koski,
"That's a bad day in the hood."
The sad thing about sea star wasting is that for a long time, the cause of the disease was completely unknown. Scientists sampled the wasting stars but couldn't find any new or unusual pathogens. It appears now that the disease is caused by a densovirus that has been present and common in the environment for years, but which for some reason has recently turned nasty and virulent. A lot of questions remain, but there has been some progress in understanding the disease. Read more about recent discoveries here and here.

Our job today was to survey the sea stars in three quadrats at OIMB's Boathouse and record the size, color, and disease state of each. These same three quadrats have been sampled multiple times per year in order to establish a temporal trend in the prevelance of the disease. We went to the dock during the early morning low tide, slipped past a fence, powered through thick brush, climbed down a steep rock face, clambered over algal-covered cement pilings, and made our way to the quadrats.

OIMB faculty members Nora Terwilliger and Maya
Wolf Watts surveying sea stars in close quarters.
Sometimes in the intertidal, you have to designate wave watchers to keep track of the ocean swell and make sure everyone stays safe, but the water was so calm today, we all got to work. We split into pairs - one to observe the stars, the other to record data - and crouched as low as we could to the concrete habitat. It was close-range, meticulous work.
Right away, I noticed a hollowed-out cave that had upwards of 20 sea stars crowded into it. There was no way I could measure and visually assess all of them in such a small space, so I pulled out a few stars and spread them on the ground. I called out to my partner: "Brown, 1 cm, 0" - a healthy juvenile star. "Purple, 5 cm, 2" - a pretty diseased adult, with lesions on multiple arms. Then the worst: "Purple, 7 cm, 4" - a dead star, mostly disintegrated, a sad sight to see.

Actually, we found a lot of healthy sea stars. There were numerous small juveniles, all perfectly intact and lesion-free. Every zero we recorded was an encouraging sign, a glimmer of hope that the next generation of stars might be healthier than the last. No matter what happens, we'll be back to monitor again in a few months. Long live Pisaster ochraceus!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

In the Coos: Part 2

Now for part 2 of my Oregon-y weekend! Just one Oregon-esque experience would not constitute a weekend of Oregon-ness, my friends; nay, two are required! And ah, what different experiences they were.

Saturday evening, I sped home from the lab, changed my clothes, and headed out to the Seven Devils Brewery, just a few blocks from my house. Seven Devils is owned by an OIMB alumna, and it's become the officially unofficial hang-out for Coos Bay's young, educated faction. I got dinner with two friends, one of whom I hadn't seen in a shamefully long time, and then walked with them to the evening's main event.

What is this main event, you ask? For what purpose had I broken speed limits, broken bread, and donned an extra-special outfit? Ah, dear friends, it was none other than a community contra dance!

(What the heck is a contra dance?)
Swing your neighbor! Photo by Laurel Hiebert.

Well, I'm glad you asked! Contra dancing is the grandfather of square dancing, and it's performed in two long lines. Male-female partnerships are the core unit of the dance, but the members of each pair are constantly changing. In fact, in a contra dance, you dance with a new person every three seconds on average. There's a caller, who is responsible for leading the dance by giving oral cues. He or she stands at the front of the room and calls out "Swing your neighbor" or "Do-si-do" or "Gents, left-hand turn." Each contra dance progresses in regular patterns, but even with the regularity and the caller telling you what to do, it can still get pretty chaotic. Ok, more than a little chaotic. It's all-out bedlam.

And I love it.

A smattering of contra outfits. Yes, I really left the house
like that. Photo by Laurel Hiebert.
There's a very specific culture that surrounds contra dancing, at least in Oregon. Anybody can ask anybody to dance. If there's an unbalanced gender ratio on a particular night, the better dancers will switch sides and do the opposite gender's part. All ages are welcome, and we get everyone from spry retirees to their 8-year-old grandkids showing up. Absolutely every outfit goes. People show up in jeans and tank tops, flowing hand-made skirts, button-down shirts, or dresses. I for one have made it my personal mission to wear a different ridiculous outfit to each contra dance, and this goal has lead to me to some very interesting thrift store buys. My dress on Saturday night was obnoxiously retro - it looked like something out of Megan Draper's closet - paired with orange suede fringe boots. Other dancers were in 19th century gowns or the clothes they wore to work.

As amazing as all of this must sound, it's still not the best part. Contra dancing is incredibly fast-paced; in fact, it's relentless. The endorphin highs are the bomb. You are bound to sweat, and you are bound to lose your place. Thankfully, there enough people around doing the exact same steps that if you forget your spot or lag behind, someone will pull you along. A contra dance is not a competition; it's not a place to show off. It's a community effort, and we either all succeed at it, or we all fail. Trust me, I've been in more than one train wreck, but every time, we somehow find the beat again. Contra dances are folksy and community-based and eclectic, and so undeniably quintessentially Oregon.
The band for the night, called Treehouse. Yes, that is a
climbing wall behind them; we were in the high school gym.

In the Coos

Is it possible for one weekend in Oregon to be more Oregon-y than another? Because if it is, I'm pretty sure I just had the most Oregon weekend known to man.

OIMBers quietly meditating.
It started at the lab. Each year, OIMB grad students have the opportunity to plan a weekend workshop or short course on a topic we find interesting, and this year, we invited UO administrator and professor Lisa Freinkel to lead us in a workshop on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I had zero experience with mindfulness practice prior to the workshop, so it was a learning experience for me. We did a lot of meditating. We practiced focusing on our breath or the sound of the waves outside to clear our minds. We laid on the floor and mentally scanned our bodies for any points of pain or tension. We ate breakfast together in silence.

Though mindfulness has strong ties to Buddhism, it started as a therapeutic technique in hospitals and doesn't necessitate a Buddhist practice. One of the exercises we did was actually just examining a raisin, pretending we had never seen a raisin before. We took a solid half hour to notice every detail of the shriveled fruit - its brownness, its wrinkliness, its sweetness - then ate it as slowly as possible. It was definitely a new experience for me to be so keenly aware of a single fruit, but it was valuable all the same. Mindfulness can reduce stress by making a person more aware of their own physical and emotional reactions to their environment. We talked about the increase in our pulse rate when we open our e-mail, our knee-jerk reactions to sensitive sentences or phrases. We talked about self-defeating thought patterns, because in Lisa's words, "Once you notice a pattern, its days are numbered." Merely being aware of our physiological reactions to stress can help reduce them.

The workshop was an interesting experience for sure.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The view out my window

"Sometimes you just have to take your hand off the throttle (hand, not foot - this is a plane, cars are boring), and just enjoy the view out the window. Just enjoy the view, because if you keep pushing too hard, one day you will look up and realize it was all just a blur." - Andrew Sweetman
Cape Arago's north cove, just outside Charleston, Oregon
Sea lions at Cape Arago's north cove

Simpson Reef, just outside Charleston, Oregon
The rugged Oregon coast