Letters from Summer Camp

Here’s a link to my recent blog article on the New York Times‘ “Motherlode” parenting blog:  “Letters From Sleep-Away Camp”

Yesterday, my 16-year-old son departed, by bus, for four weeks at a camp in northern Minnesota.  I’ve already checked the camp’s website for photos, and I found one photo of him from the Opening Day.  I’m pleased to see that he arrived safe and sound.

As he posed for this photo, I think he chose body language that would convey as little emotion and information as possible.  Because he had read my blog article about letters from summer camp, he knew that I’d be studying the photo carefully.  Over the next four weeks, we will be engaged in a battle of wits as he tries to confuse me from afar with his micro-expressions.

Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 8:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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Grammar on the Moon

All the media attention for the 40th anniversary of the first walk on the moon has stirred up some memories for me.  This momentous event happened the summer after I was in 8th grade, and I remember staying up late to watch it live on TV.  It was a big deal for me then, and it still is.

However, I must confess that I’ve always been bothered by those first words spoken by Neil Armstrong:  “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  I’m afraid that those words have never made sense to me. It seemed like something was missing.

Because I was so young when I first heard them, I assumed that those words made sense to adults.   Back in 1969, I assumed that my sense of proper grammar was still undeveloped.  Over the years, however, those words have continued to puzzle me.  As a result, my confidence in my “inner grammarian” has always been slightly damaged.

Now, at last, the mystery has been explained.  As discussed in this AP article and this earlier blog post, Armstrong intended to and probably actually said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.”

I feel much better now.  My inner grammarian is finally at peace.

God’s in his Heaven –
All’s right with the world!

– Robert Browning, “Pippa Passes”

Published in: on July 23, 2009 at 10:27 am  Comments (1)  
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Unplugging from Electronics and Plugging in to Nature

A week ago, I returned from a five-day retreat, held at the Audubon Center for the North Woods. It’s a beautiful environmental education center, situated next to one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes and featuring more than 500 acres of forest, wetland, and prairie.

In addition to the natural beauty of the location, there is another notable feature of this wilderness location.  It is so remote that there is no cellular phone coverage. Let me repeat that: There is no cellular phone coverage.

As I feared (see previous blog entry), I went through TWS (technology withdrawal syndrome), a condition which often follows a long bout of NDD (nature deficit disorder).

Here are some examples of the symptoms I experienced:

  • When I wanted to know the current temperature or the forecast for later in the day, I thought immediately of logging on to the National Weather Service’s online site. Then, I realized that I’d have to figure it out on my own, by going outside and studying the sky.
  • When I met new people at the retreat, I wished I had access to Google so I could learn more about their backgrounds, interests, and professions. Instead, I had to decide which questions were really important for our conversation. I eventually realized that most of the information I would have found with a Google search wasn’t really relevant or important to our new friendship.
  • When I found myself wondering about a subject about which I had very limited knowledge (e.g, the lyrics to a song, the definition of a new word, the identification of an unknown plant or bird song), my first response was to reach for my iPhone to surf the net. Instead, I simply had to live with the uncertainties or try to figure it out for myself.
  • Perhaps the biggest problem for me was to be out-of-touch with my children. Even though my four sons are independent, resourceful, and competent young adults, I’ve gotten used to the ability to communicate with them at any time by phone, by texting, or by e-mail. For those five days, I had to trust that they were getting along fine, even when the electronic umbilical cord was cut.

In a future post, I’ll write about some of the things that I discovered, once my addiction to the online world had been tamed.

Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 9:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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What Mowing the Lawn Can Teach

Here’s a link to my guest blog article, published today in the New York Times‘ “Motherlode” blog.

I’d write more, but I have to go outside and quickly mow my lawn so that it looks halfway decent.

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 10:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking

A blog article that I wrote for the American Chemical Society’s Careers Blog was posted earlier today.  The subject, “Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking,” is described for an audience of chemists, but the subject really applies to anyone and everyone.

Published in: on April 20, 2009 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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Bonding in the Blogosphere

As I’ve watched my teenage and young-adult children the past few years, I’ve become painfully aware that they live in a different communication environment than I do. We all have access to the same tools—e-mail, voice mail, cell phone (both talking and texting), list serves, and social networking sites (LiveJournal, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace).  But we use these tools in fundamentally different ways.  My kids use Web 2.0, and I’m still getting used to Web 1.0.

Nevertheless, I’m trying to understand (and emulate) their style of communication, because it’s the Future.

So over the past few months, I’ve listened to dozens of podcasts, exchanged frequent text messages with my sons, joined LinkedIn, and started using RSS feeds to follow others’ blogs. I’m now getting all my news online, and I’ve canceled my print newspaper subscription (sorry, Star Tribune employees). I even signed up for Twitter.

But I don’t think I really “got it.” I didn’t really understand how and why these forms of communications were fundamentally different. Until February 5.  Now, I get it.

What happened last week that changed my experience of communicating?

To put it simply, I took my first real step into the world known as the Blogosphere. As part of my strategy to join the 21st century, I had recently started a blog, “The Alchemist in the Minivan.” But I hadn’t yet made any attempt to generate traffic to my site.

However, that changed on February 5, when a blog entry I submitted as a “guest blogger” was published by the New York Times on its “Motherlode” Parenting Blog. (See “Just Chill, Dad.”)

Suddenly, I felt exposed to the entire world.  After all, the New York Times website receives millions of visitors each month, from all over the world.   And some of those people might actually read my article!  As a writer, I was excited and proud.

But as a shy chemist and unassuming father living in Minnesota, where we value reticence and modesty, I was uncomfortable.  That feeling didn’t last long, however, because the Blogosphere took over.

I started seeing “comments” added to my NYT story—“comments” from parents around the country sharing their own experiences, humor, and wisdom. Fifty comments flooded in over the first two hours.

Their comments were warm, articulate, and insightful.  Some of these people followed the link to my blog site.  The number of daily hits on my website went up by a factor of 30–at least for that one day.    I was communicating and interacting, in a new way, with all these people.

And I enjoyed it! It wasn’t like talking to them face-to-face, by phone, by e-mail, or by teleconference. It was a qualitatively different type of bond—not particularly strong on an individual basis but powerful on a wide basis.

When faced with new situations, groping for a way to understand something, I often reach for a chemical metaphor. So I accessed the chemistry memory bank in my brain, searching for a chemical metaphor for this new type of bonding.

The first metaphor I visualized involved the delocalized electrons in aromatic rings, such as the electrons in a molecule of caffeine. I’ve written about that metaphor in an earlier published essay, “Coffee Chemistry,” so I kept searching for a new metaphor.

The second metaphor that came to mind involves the type of bonding that occurs in a metal. I’ll write more about this metallic bonding metaphor soon, but I first need to brush up and update my understanding (it’s been about 30 years since my college courses in inorganic chemistry ).

Where will I go to start my research?  I’ll use several of those new forms of knowledge and knowledge-sharing that have emerged in the 21st century. I’ll google “metallic bonding” and read the Wikipedia article.

Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 7:47 am  Comments (1)  
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Just Chill, Dad

How cold has it been this winter? It’s been so cold that my teenager wore a hat to school.

Here in Minnesota, in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, high school students choose their daily outfits very carefully. Many different factors can go into the decision-making process, but weather-appropriateness is not one of them.

For some reason, at my son’s high school, more than 90% of the students refuse to use their lockers. They insist on carrying all their books, supplies, and outerwear around with them from class to class. Parkas, boots, mittens, and snow pants just don’t figure into the fashion equation. (Maybe we should install space heaters in their backpacks and shoulder bags.)

Our educational system here in Minnesota (just like everywhere else) is becoming more and more cluttered with standards and assessments—for math, science, writing, and reading. I’m tempted to start a citizens’ revolt to also demand sartorial standards. (“The student will learn to observe the weather conditions, using electronic information or actual physical observations. The student will learn the properties of rain gear and cold weather gear. The student will choose the appropriate outerwear at least 70% of the time.”)

I guess I shouldn’t wait until the educational system does my parenting job for me. As a parent, I have to draw the line somewhere, even with teenagers. It’s my moral, legal, and paternal obligation.

So here are my tough rules:
• For cool weather, my son can’t wear shorts when it’s below freezing (that’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit). Sometime in late fall, he has to switch to long pants or jeans.
• For really cold weather, I insist on a hat when the wind-chill temperature drops into the frostbite zone—at -20 degrees or lower. At these temperatures, my childhood memories take over, and I can still hear my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Mathre, saying, “Wear your hat at recess. You lose 2/3 of your body heat through your head.”
• My rule for wet weather? Well, I gave up on that one. If they want to get soaked, suffer wet hair, and wear soggy clothes all day, then go right ahead.

According to the National Weather Service website, last week’s coldest reading was an air temperature is -27 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind chill temperature was -41 degrees. Scientific studies have shown that, in these conditions, exposed skin will begin to suffer frostbite in ten minutes. Just to put that amount of time in proper perspective—that’s about the time required to read seven status updates on Facebook, write four text messages, or listen to three songs on an mp3 player.

I would hope that frozen skin might be a disincentive for teenagers. More importantly, however, those bitterly cold temperatures aren’t too good for cell phones, iPods, and body piercings either.

Maybe if I make a YouTube video about frostbite, set it to some hip-hop music, and release it to the Internet, my teenager will finally get the message.

Published in: on January 24, 2009 at 10:18 am  Comments (1)  
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