Murals, Ireland, and the Post I Can't Write

After having it on my life list for many years, I finally got to visit Northern Ireland. I waited for a lull between bombings. Nothing's exploded for a while, hey? Time to go!

It was as amazing as I'd hoped it would be...and far more tense than I ever expected. I mean really, really tense. If I happened to say "Derry" instead of "Londonderry," the British Loyalists would say, "So...they've gotten to you, have they? They've taught you to call it that?" If said "Londonderry," the Irish Nationalists would take me aside and tell me to rip the "London" right out of it. And that was the least of the hostilities. I dare not write what else I heard. Wherever I went, it always felt like half of the population was looking away from the other half. A powder keg about to blow.

Indeed, a bomb did go off just a week or two after I left, but since I was still travelling I didn't hear about it until much later.

I originally planned to write a post about all the various murals I saw throughout the country, ones honoring fallen heroes on both sides, ones that inspired, ones that terrified. But then I realized I couldn't write a single letter without bias, because what information I learned on my short fling through the country is hardly worthwhile repeating. I left with nothing but impressions. Impressions of men who frightened me, no matter their politics, with stories about their roles in violence and murder. Impressions of the dead castles, the green hillsides, the waves crashing steadily against the mathematical rocks of the Giant's Causeway, that pay no heed to whose feet stand or whose blood flows. I came and went as a tourist in the purest sense of the word, unable to contribute anything useful to the argument. Unable to articulate anything, really, except a great sense of loss and frustration, even though I have nothing personally at stake.

I can't write this post, you see, because I can't possibly tell an accurate version of what is happening, what has happened, in Northern Ireland. It's too complex, and I'm bound to get something terribly wrong, or oversimplify, or just plain insult. It's over my head.

What I can give you, however, before I slip down any further into my own deep morass of rumination, is


Zing! Here it is. You can, I don't know, stare at it for a while.

This was a mural in the Shankill area of Belfast. In comparison to some of the others in the area, you might consider this particular mural "lighthearted." A sign on the side reads, "There are many legends telling the origins of the Red Hand of Ulster. This mural depicts only one of these."

I think this mural depicts the "race" version of the legend. According to Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898:

"In an ancient expedition to Ireland, it was given out that whoever first touched the shore should possess the territory which he touched; O’Neill, seeing another boat likely to outstrip his own, cut off his left hand and threw it on the coast. From this O’Neill the princes of Ulster were descended, and the motto of the O’Neills is to this day 'Lamh dearg Eirin' (red hand of Erin)."

I love how in the mural O'Neill is saying, "Yay I won!" while waving around his one remaining hand.

Also he doesn't seem to be wearing any pants. Couldn't he have, I don't know, just cut off a finger? You've got to hand it to him - he was determined. I guess he handled it the best he could. It's a good thing there wasn't a seagull nearby, or he might have been caught by it red-handed. Hand to mouth, you might say. It's okay that the other guy lost, though. He wouldn't have wanted the land anyway. It was a hand-me-down.

Okay, I'm done.

The Red Hand has been used as a symbol by both Loyalists and Nationalists. So there. I'm safely apolitical. This post has been entirely evenhanded.


The Election Word of 2012

Every presidential election season generates its own special buzzword. It's a word that comes out of nowhere, maybe by the pen of some unknown reporter who, working late through the night, sees it fluttering mothlike in the light of his lamp among countless lesser phrases and makes a snatch for it, stabbing it on his pen tip, as the perfect expression of his thoughts. So perfect, this phrase, in describing the political atmosphere, the field, the best of a candidate, the worst, or whatever the particular flavor of that particular race, that soon it's repeated in other articles, on cable news networks and talk radio, by the candidates has become THE WORD.

It's a word common enough for most people to immediately understand in context, more or less, but unusual enough that no one had ever before used it on a regular basis. It begins to leap out each time it appears, a florescent marker flagging the extent of political punditry's shared consciousness.

In 2004, the year of Bush’s stand against Kerry, it was gravitas. As in, “Kerry has gravitas, but no charisma,” or “John Edwards needs to show more gravitas,” or “Bush has no gravitas whatsoever.”

Remember? It’s when we as a nation were craving seriousness and respectability in a leader. Somehow it seems like we were a lot more mature back then.

In 2008, the year of Obama's extended fight with Hillary and (seemingly) dozens of GOP candidates' fight with each other, it was throw under a bus. I suppose it shows what a catty tooth-and-nail campaign it was for both parties that THE WORD...or well, I suppose in this case a phrase...was one that represented blind ambition.

Thankfully, I can no longer quote an actual quote containing "throw under a bus." I was so sick of hearing that phrase, I think my brain purged all memories of it. I DO remember saying, "Stop saying that! There is no bus! There never WAS a bus! LEAVE THE BUSES OUT OF IT!"

Ladies and gentleman, for this election season, the campaign for President of the United States in the Year of Our Lord 2012, I am pleased to announce that the official WORD has finally made itself known.


Every candidate has been called this at least once, often by another candidate. It has now appeared in the mediums of newsprint, magazine, and television. "Feckless" it is. As words go, it's not nearly as irritating as "throw under a bus" or "gravitas," but it's still a little disturbing that it's neither a course of action nor a virtue. Yes, the word of the year is an insult, and one meaning "lack of vitality" at that.

Is it a reflection of our feeling about our nation as a whole? Do we cringe away from the very weaknesses that we fear to find in ourselves? Does it reflect four years of losing footing on the global economic stage, the loss of faith in our military focus, our inability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps? How much significance should we attach to a word that rises from our collective subconscious, a word reoccurring, like a mantra, in our popular dialogue?

Personally I was hoping for "widdershins," but I guess there's always the next election.

Choose Your Loop

This weekend is the annual spring beach cleanup in my hometown, an event that separates the passionate, determined, save-our-coast visionaries from the dry people. It's usually a day that pours rain, you see. This is Oregon, after all.

Thinking about this upcoming weekend made the reflect on something I've been reading up on lately, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the under-reported problem of plastics in the ocean.

Thus inspired, I thought for today's post I should write a photo essay* about a problem near to my heart (and my home!) - a problem that you, dear reader, should probably know a thing or two about.

*All photos are mine unless otherwise stated.

Plastics are Forever

Long ago when Hypercolor shirts and Koosh Balls were flying off the shelves, when I was but a young and innocent thing watching nature documentaries and dreaming of travelling the world, there was a cartoon that featured dancing dinosaurs singing, "Recycle, reduce, reuse, and close the loop! We can close the loop!" It popped up every now and then between TV commercials, lodging itself forever into my subconscious.

Recently I went looking for it out of curiosity. Thank you, Internet - I found it, and learned that it was part of an awareness campaign put on by California's Department of Recycling. It only aired locally, I guess, which means that most of the nation hasn't had this little earbug ("We can close the loop!") stuck in their head for the past twenty years.

Here it is. You've been forewarned:

Gosh, what a flashback. (Don't worry, I have no idea what the end means either.) That was, I suppose, my first introduction to the concept of the three R's. It aired at a time when there were no recycling facilities anywhere close to my hometown, not counting the 5 cents you could get for returned bottles. I remember looking at the little arrow symbol on the bottom of plastic and thinking, "Huh," before throwing it away. I didn't have an alternative. But the idea of "Recycle, Reduce, Reuse" stuck, if nothing else.

Fun little dinosaur ditties are a great introduction to pressing issues like overconsumption and pollution. (Much better than the alternative, "Hey kid, look at this picture of a thousand dead sea turtles!") Still, some things have to be seen first-hand before they hit home.

The first time I participated in my town's twice-annual beach cleanup, I was shocked by the amount of garbage I picked up. Detergent bottles, food wrappers, cigarette lighters, and countless unidentifiable chunks of plastic. "Where does it all come from?" I wondered. "Are the people in my area really that trashy?"

Jump forward many years, and I'm living on the Galapagos, researching wildlife. My island was at the farthest end of the archipelago, 600 miles from mainland South America, pretty much as far from civilization as a person can get. Yet it never ceased to amaze me what sorts of things washed up on the beach.

A bucket lid, bottle, broken chunks of plastic, and two albatrosses going into their courtship ritual.

It was exactly the same as back home in Oregon, but far more inexplicable. Nylon rope, a shoe, potato chip bags, PVC pipe, torn far did these things have to travel to get here? Even in the middle of nowhere, so isolated, I felt...invaded, like each piece of trash represented the person who last touched it, their ghost lingering alongside it, haunting one of the last truly wild places on earth.

A sea lion pup takes a nap inside an old tire. Photo courtesy my friend Tiff.

Plastic takes a long time to degrade even under the best conditions, but once it hits the water, that process is halted. Plastics in the ocean never truly go away. Eventually they break down into polymers, smaller and smaller bits of "microplastic" that begin to look something like this:

Microplastics. Photo courtesy C-MORE.

In 2008, C-MORE (The Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education, based in Hawaii) took an expedition to study the infamous stretch of ocean called "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch," or the North Pacific Gyre. A gyre is an area where wind and currents converge to form giant, slow-moving whirlpools - there are five of them worldwide.

The five gyres. Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Anything in the ocean that can't move under its own power eventually collects in one of the gyres. Now if you hear "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," you might, like me, be envisioning floating garbage so thick you can walk across it. Not so, the C-MORE expedition found. There's not much visible trash, but pull up a sample of water from the gyre and what you find is a thick soup of tiny microplastics drawn together from the farthest reaches of the ocean.

So What?

Until my time on the Galapagos, I never understood the true importance - and fragility - of the ocean. It seems like a mighty thing, doesn't it? Off the coast of my hometown the waves crash down in 40-foot thunderclaps, ripping boulders from the jetty and sweeping away people foolish enough to turn their backs on it. The ocean seems as infinite, impassive, and untouchable as the distant stars.

But when I lived on the island, I depended on it for everything. The only other water I had was precious drinking water stored in closed 50-gallon drums, so it was to the ocean that I went to bathe, wash my clothes, clean my dishes, and even get water for cooking. When the tide was out I could do nothing but wait. Sometimes, for reasons I still don't understand, the water returned as a foul raging current of dirt and waste, scourging the shoreline clean. There were times I was swimming when this current came, suddenly finding myself surrounded by feathers, sticks, carcasses, and brown floating objects I dared not identify. When the water was like this, it was the same as a low tide - useless.

The ocean is the dishwasher, the washing machine, the bathtub of the world. When it works right, it takes the worst of our waste and turns it back into usable minerals and nutrients. But if it gets dirty, what washes the washing machine? Hmm.

Where I lived, I loved watching the gannet chicks in the nearby seabird colony. They were incredibly curious, and would play with anything they could reach.

A feather makes a good toy.

Yes, anything, even if they had no clue what it was.

A stick? A feather? Close enough!

As adults, man-made objects continue to confuse them. They'll eat bits of trash, assuming it's food, and slowly starve themselves (or their chicks) as they fill up with indigestible plastic.

Photo by Chris Jordan, a photographer who travelled to Midway Island to document the death of plastic-filled albatrosses. Visit his site to see more.

Plastic works into the food chain in more insidious ways, too. If all of the plastic in the ocean did consist of giant, original-sized pieces, we might make some progress in gradually fishing it out. But because it breaks down into such small pieces, collecting it means collecting everything else along with it, including the plankton that form the base of the food chain. The smallest particles of microplastic are ingested by tiny zooplankton, who themselves are eaten by small fish and shrimp.

How much plastic is inside this shrimp?

The plastic travels through the food chain, unchanged, from shrimp to salmon, from herring to shark, back into the water, through barnacles, through whales, until some of it finally ends up here:

Russian roulette, seafood style.

Eating microplastics by themselves might not be such a bad thing, as long as they don't jam up your plumbing - I don't know, I haven't chewed on my crayons lately - but according to the NOAA Marine Debris Program, plastic, being a petroleum product, soaks up oil-based chemicals in the water like DDT, PCBs, pesticides, and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

No one knows for sure how much of these chemicals our bodies absorb when we eat microplastic-laden seafood, but studies are increasingly revealing their possible effects - cancer, infertility, a weakened immune system, developmental disabilities...the list goes on. In my neck of the woods, I hear stories of young orcas that wash up dead on the shores, their bodies so contaminated with POPs that they have to be handled like toxic waste. The POPs come to them through their mother's milk. (The mothers, with more body mass, can handle larger concentrations of POPs.) So what are these chemicals doing to us?

We've given the ocean, the great washing machine of the planet, the reverse Midas touch. It's poisoning whatever it contacts, including us.

Plastic fish in a plastic sea.

Go Team Us!

Now might be a good time to go back and watch the dancing dinosaurs again. Isn't pollution depressing? Tell me about it. Tell anyone who's worked as a field biologist. It's a constant cycle of fighting, falling down, and getting back up for one more fight. But we fight to protect the things we love.

So what can we do about the gigantic plastic soup formerly known as our ocean? Well, everyone's got their own strengths, their own unique contribution they can make to the problem.

Mine is teaching. I've been doing it for this entire post...or trying to, at least.

Part of the trouble is that many people simply haven't heard about microplastics or POPs or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Part of the trouble is that those who know don't care. That's where I like to jump in.

Education simply means knowing. Science is just that - from the Latin scire, "to know." If you know something, you begin to understand it. If you understand it, you begin to love it. If you love it, you will want to protect it. Maybe even fight to protect it.

So I try to share my love for the ocean with as many people as I can. I get excited when I see a piece of bull kelp, show people how to look for the delicate dancing legs of barnacles, teach them the difference between a sea lion and a seal. During my time working as an outdoor educator on a sailing ship, I got to do this all the time. There is nothing, nothing, like hearing a tough, angry inner-city kid suddenly say, "Oh man, look at those salmon jumping! Wow, you guys! Wow!"

Marine Biology - Dig It!

One of the lessons I helped design and lead was the Watershed Class. "Where's your watershed?" I'd ask. "Is it the building in your yard where you store all your water?" (Insert hearty belly laugh.) Actually, few kids even knew what a watershed was, so we'd go over the map, starting with the smallest creek and working our way up to the biggest river, the Columbia, which drains a vast part of North America.

"Is that the biggest watershed you can find?" I would ask. Sure, yeah, said the kids...and then I pointed out that the Pacific drains our watershed too. In truth, we all live in the same watershed. The ocean is downstream of everything.

The Watershed Class.

The funky little model that I used to illustrate this point was a cooking pan with wads of tinfoil covered with a plastic bag, a mini-watershed. (A good example of "reusing" trash, yay!) The water of the "ocean" started clean, then we started squirting drops of pollutants (in fact just coffee, mud, or food coloring) into different areas of the watershed, watching as they oozed down and gradually turned the "ocean" into a nasty mess. For my final act, I'd say, "Now suppose you happen to throw your candy wrapper away as you're walking home from school..." I would suddenly whip a wrapper out of my pocket and drop it into the middle of the gross "ocean," which covered it almost completely.

The best part of this lesson was that every time, every time, the kids would get extremely concerned about how I was going to dispose of the "polluted" water after the class. Surely I wasn't going to dump it over the side of the ship? I had to let them watch me empty it into a disposal bucket. Success. Success.

If you don't happen to teach outdoor education classes, there's still plenty you can do. Like the beach cleanup I'll be going on this weekend, if you see a piece of plastic lying on the ground, pick it up. Plastic is forever. It's not going anywhere on its own, except perhaps down to the ocean.

London's creative rubbish cage.

Here's an interesting solution I spotted while I was in London. The sign says, "I EAT RUBBISH! This device restores vitality to the Thames by collecting 40 tonnes of rubbish every year. That's equivalent to 800,000 plastic bottles." Brilliant, simple, and effective.

If you have mixed curbside recycling, as most major cities do, for goodness sakes, use it. Consider yourself lucky. Consider it an elite urban perk, and use it as much as you possibly can.

When I recycle, I have to sort everything into separate categories of green glass, brown glass, colored glass, tin, aluminum, steel, paperboard, cardboard, newspaper, and #1 plastics. (Seriously.) Then I drive it out to the transfer center and carry it into the trailers myself. My county doesn't offer recycling for other plastics, so I let my them accumulate in a bin at home until I have the chance to visit some other city/county/state that will take them. It's like my county tries to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to recycle, but I do it, by golly, jumping through all of those ridiculous hoops. When I remember that trash on the beach, whether it's here or across the globe, I know it's worth it.

So listen - if you have mixed curbside recycling, a service that actually comes to your house and does all that work for you...? For the love of humanity! What excuse do you have not to use it?

According to 5 Gyres, a group devoted to raising awareness about plastic pollution, "We currently recover only 5% of the plastics we produce. What happens to the rest of it? Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains 'unaccounted for', lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea."

The way I see it, plastic can cycle around in one of two loops. One is the loop the dinosaurs sang about, where plastic polymers are shaped into products, used, and reshaped into new products. Then there's the other loop, the one where plastic polymers are released into the ocean, return into the bodies of people and wildlife, and are someday released into the ocean again. In both cycles, the plastic comes back. There is no "away" in "throwing away."

The moment a piece of plastic leaves your hand, you've started it on its cycle. Which one is up to you.

Choose your loop.

A Day at the Beach

A March day, the rain has washed out
the gravel that filled last summer’s potholes.
We’re driving the beach road,
the hidden one,
the one that ends in a wall of sand.
The dunes have shifted –
this one’s grown, its ridge runs farther,
reaching out like an arm,
swallowing us up to the knee.
We climb the inland side,
walk over the edge, air beneath us,
and fall in ten-foot steps to the water’s edge.
We are not alone. The wind is here
claiming the beach for itself.
It worries the loose sand,
pulls it along in currents,
skips it across the ground,
lifts it away,
an hourglass that measures nothing.
Two crows take flight.
They bicker in the air,
with claws and wings,
claws against wings,
the way only old lovers can.
Each blade of grass has bent down,
and where it touches the sand
drawn a circle around itself
as if to say,
Here I am!
Circles within circles, hundreds and thousands,
an earnest art, a triumph
uncelebrated, unseen,
by a careless footstep, undone.
Are they playfully drawn, profound?
Both, both,
the sand captures everything,
every paused step and dug-in toe,
the curious detour, the racing beetle,
cigarettes, patience, bones, life,
all marked in the sand,
where the crows walked together
and where we walk now.
Yes, we will go, but not just yet.
The sand captures everything
and the wind carries it away.

Next they'll be trading mascots...

Denver is breaking my heart. Maybe it's their conspiracy to reverse the change that has come over me in the last ten years, my transformation from a sane upstanding citizen to a rabid sports fan willing to sacrifice three hours every day not just for baseball, but for spring training baseball. To wit...

Some dude in 2002: "There's a game on."
Me in 2002: "Meh."

Some dude in 2012: "There's a game on."
Me, now: "Holy CRAWDADS drop everything and TURN IT ON!!!!" (*foaming at mouth*)

But lately my favorite teams have been - just - dumb. If they continue along this sordid path, I'm going to experience a rapid descent back to the days of "meh," I just know it.

First it was Tebow. I started watching him when he was a Gator. For two years he was the only college athlete I knew by name. The Broncos signed him, oh happy day!, and all of the sudden I actually cared about a pro football team. (Though still less than college ball. Pro football is monotony itself compared to college ball.) Tebow had the perfect underdog story - vaulted into the limelight by happenstance, pulling out wins by the skin of his teeth, always optimistic. This is a guy who could make me root for any team.

One glorious year of that, and then...YOINK! The Broncos trade Tebow for a guy WHO GOT DROPPED FROM HIS TEAM FOR A REASON, PEOPLE. Don't get me wrong. Before Tebow made me suddenly care about the Broncos I was a Colts fan. Yes, a Colts fan, even though I live nowhere near Indianapolis, all thanks to Peyton Manning. (He's a dreamboat. Yeah. What? Plus he only *kind of* beats up children.) But no, with Peyton up for grabs Denver decides that they'd rather have a few years of slightly-improved-odds-of-winning than work with a youngster who might eventually refine himself into a quarterback superstar.

I predict that the Broncos will be kicking themselves someday soon. I'd sort of like to go kick them right now.

But I can't get too worked-up over the whole Tebow thing. Denver already numbed me to life's cruelties when they started screwing around with the Rockies, the best darn team in all of baseball. least, they were the best darn team. Today seventy percent of the names I long knew and loved (like, three years ago) are scattered to the winds across the rest of the National League. Now I'll have to go to ridiculous places like Cleveland and San Diego just to finish getting all the signatures on my ball!

When did sports teams become so mutable? Wasn't there ever a time when an athlete was born and died in the same jersey? Do team owners think that the fans value the wins more than the players? Are we all rooting for just a team name, no matter who's holding the bats and throwing the balls?

I guess this must be what the fans want, since so much of a team's success depends on local support. Maybe someone who lives in a city supports their team as a given, a matter of civic pride, whoever the players may be. For me, living 300 miles away from the nearest major league team, I throw my support to the people I like, the guy with the smile, the player with moxie. It's hard to pull for just a logo.

Stupid, maddening major leagues. Well, there's always college ball. (With players recruited from, um...far and wide across the country...)

Well, there's always high school ball. (Cold, wet, not televised...)

Well, there are always video games.

Of course the truth is that I will raise my fist and curse my pro teams for all of their Machiavellian shenanigans even while carving out vast chunks of time from my life to watch every last game. I'll fall in love with this season's new batch of players and have my heart broken again in the spring, and so it goes on, year after year, the sad cyclical life of a rabid sports fan.


I can't think of a more eloquent introduction to this post other than, "I love comics." Isn't that fantastic writing? Why hasn't the New Yorker called yet?

I love comics. Love to read them, love to draw them, love to study them as an art form (or literary form? Begin the debate!) and, heck, even love it when other people talk about them. All right, so it's a lousy introduction. But at least it's not as lousy as the following transition. This transition. I mean the...drat! I screwed up the transition!

And speaking of transitions, Mike over at super-swell comics blog "Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin" uncovered possibly the worst transition in the history of comics:

Battle Stories #5


Good heavens. Sort of wakes you up, doesn't it?

So Mike started a meme of using that last panel for other awful transitions Yes. I love it. I couldn't help making a few of my own. (You'll have to click to enlarge them, bleh.)

A Man Called Kev #3

Apologies to Bill Watterson

Apologies to kittens

Perspective!For Comic Book Artists by David Chelsea

Boy oh boy, I think I could make a million of these. That's what my entire blog is going to be from now on. Just one "Then...KOREA" after another! Thanks for the meme, Mike!

Probably an Author's Worst Nightmare

Sometimes I'm in the middle of a lovely daydream, that one where I've published a book, and though it's not insanely popular (I wouldn't want it to be) it's solid, a fine piece of work that is rediscovered and appreciated generation after generation long after I'm gone. Then I think of lunchboxes, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

See, the reason I wouldn't want to become insanely popular is because of lunchboxes. And film adaptations, and Happy Meal toys, and mud flaps. It always makes me shudder to see what mass consumption has done to other authors' characters, sort of the same, I guess, as sending your blushing, bright-eyed young daughter into the world and having her come back as a chain-smoking hooker. My reaction is to make a cringing "eeEEee" sound and clutch my manuscript closer to my breast. Posthumous publication is underrated.

Case in point:

Up until a couple of months ago I had never read Little Women. It fell through the cracks somehow. While I was visiting in Oxford I began to pass my nights cozied up in a little library with a friendly, musty old copy of Little Women I had discovered in the "American Literature" section. (A section that had, like, twelve books in it. Biased much?)

When I returned back home I merrily skipped - skipped, I tell you - to my local library so I could keep reading where I left off. There was only one copy on the shelf. I picked it up to take a look...and immediately shoved it back again. "This can't be right," I thought. "Where's the REAL version?" But no, this was it. Someone watching from afar might have thought I was fishing out a dead bird from between the books the way I picked up that copy again.

It was the real version. But this is what the cover looked like:

(click to enlarge)


I don't understand anything about this cover. What is its intent? Is it supposed to attract a younger audience? "Hey look! They have acne! I have acne too! I will now sit down and read 500 pages about 19th century American women's etiquette!"

Did they hope to "freshen it up?" If so, why then do I want to run it down the garbage disposal? I nearly didn't check it out BECAUSE of the cover. And listen, marketing people - I want to read this book. I don't have to lay down money to read it. Yet I was so embarrassed to be seen even carrying it to the front counter that I nearly bailed.

Marketing fail.

The worst part about this What can I possibly pick? Is it the fact that none of those quotes are in the book, nor even remotely what any of those characters would ever say? Is it the...liquid...spotty...substance...that seems to be juicing out all over the page? Is it the defamation of the female form? IS IT THAT THING ON JO'S NOSE?!?

Ugh. Luckily for me, once I opened the pages I didn't have to look at it any more.

And this, THIS is why I fear publication. Poor Louisa May must be tearing out her hair from up in the clouds. Oh, no, she is on the back cover:

Right. Well, she looks pretty okay with it. "MAH GOILS!" she's saying, all sweaty and proud.

Aaaaand....that's all I can say about that.

What I want to say is...

Talented musician/humorist Carla Ulbrich pretty much writes my post for me today. It's the song that goes through my head, like...all the time. Not exactly true today, but it'll do.

(If that link doesn't work you can try the video, but the audio version is much better.)

The Oxbridge Project

Oxbridge = Oxford + Cambridge. You've probably already sorted that out, but if you're from the US, I'll bet you've never heard the term before.

Yup, I'm willing to make that bet, because for the past two years I haven't said "Oxbridge" once without someone asking what it was, or thinking I'd invented the word myself, or laughing like I'd just said something ridiculous like "dinglesnorter hoppenstein." (Note to self: future name for a pet.) And that was just in casual conversation. When I asked actual professionals, a.k.a. the folks who are supposed to know these things, for advice about Oxbridge, they'd often say "Ox-whaa?" and look at me like I'd just asked for directions to Xunantunich. Few people in the US know much about British schools, it seems, and even fewer the unusual Oxford and Cambridge systems.

Hmm yes, I remember those days of innocence. When I first sat down to begin my own applications, I hadn't the foggiest idea what I was up against.

Turns out there are plenty of resources for students coming straight from high school. Entire businesses, in fact, if you happen to live in the UK, whom you can hire to hold your hand throughout the long and tangled process. As for me, an adult student, an international to boot, soon became clear that I was on my own. I was constantly haunted by a sense of ineptness, a bit like if I had shown up at a concert as the only musician who had never seen the music, but hopeful that I could "catch on" to the tune eventually.

Well, catch on I did...more or less. Now that I've navigated the complicated vettings of Oxbridge, I'm determined to help my future fellow clueless applicants by offering my take on how the whole application thing goes down.

(Spoiler alert: it's mostly a crapshoot. At least it feels that way, generally. It likely involves a dartboard.)

I'll try to mention what I wish I'd known earlier, though in hindsight these can be hard to figure out. And how you, my dear applicant, might stumble onto these posts, I can't say. I guess you'll have to get lucky with your search terms, looking for phrases like Oxbridge application, or nontraditional students, or potential punters and pubcrawlers rah! rah! rah! dominus illuminatio mea et hinc lucem et pocula sacra!

Now I'm just getting silly. But that's what Oxonians and Cantabs do. They parade around with boars' heads and walk backwards at midnight and race tortoises. Lesson number one. You must be a wee bit silly in the head. Because listen - this is crazy. Right?

Anyone who actually knows anything about the schools will surely laugh at my perspective, but there you have it. The things I'll try to mention include:

1. Where to look for help, such as it is
2. How to be an optimistic snowball in hell
3. The UCAS, or "The Form that Crushed Entire Cities"
4. The dreaded Personal Statement, or "Sounding Like a Doofus in Four Thousand Characters or Less"
5. Extra, extra, extra forms! (Read all about it!)
6. Do you think you’re clever? The INTERVIEWS

And, of course...

7. Why it's all so incredibly worth it, even if you don't get in

I’m not going to flood my blog with this, but I’ll sprinkle it in here and there. And if I don’t proceed in a logical fashion, it’s because that’s a proper reflection of my internal thought process. (As opposed to my external thought process, which is more or less non-existent.)

Take heart, good souls everywhere, whether you are in the middle of a current journey or at the beginning of a new one!

Last Day of Awards Week - Nudies for Everyone!

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! And now for a post that has nothing at all to do with Saint Patrick's Day!

I wish I had the time to create an individualized award for everyone I know, but alas, real life nips at my heels. So for my very last award, I present the Nudie! (a.k.a The Nudibranch Award)

What, you were expecting a picture?

All right, but how to choose?

Nudibranchs, you see, come in all sorts of shapes and colors. If you can imagine a crazy design, there's probably a nudibranch out there to match it. If your sugar-crazed kid scribbles out a random crayon disaster, they've most likely drawn an actual species of nudibranch.

Nudibranchs are a bit like sea slugs, though not true sea slugs. Their name nudi branch means "naked gill," referring to their exposed gills - snails without shells, one might say. They are...well, how can I describe them? They are just the coolest darn things. When I taught outdoor classes in marine ecology, one of my coworkers was absolutely nuts for the little guys. Her excitement was contagious, and pretty soon we were all nudibranch hunting. Whenever we had a few in our bucket, we'd all gather around and watch them for five, ten, twenty minutes.
Some of them drift through the water peacefully, like the Hooded Nudibranch, which smells like watermelon when you lift it out of the water. Some of them can crawl upside-down on the water's surface, clinging to the surface tension. Some eat stinging anemones and incorporate the stingers into their bodies as their own defense.And nudies are tough, man.
They can regenerate lost body parts, though sometimes it takes a while. When we kept them in our educational aquarium, they had a baffling tendency to get drawn to the outlet pipe, where they would end up getting sucked into the front of the grate until someone came along and rescued them. With their flimsy-looking little bodies, you'd think such a battering would leave them in a pretty bad way, but they always bounced back.

Some are actually rather aggressive. Opalescent Nudibranchs will fight each other in a head-to-head death match, winner eats the loser. But they're not tough enough to survive in polluted waters, and they have the bad fortune to prefer coastal habitat, where pollution is often the worst.

Nudibranchs are found all across the world, 3000 species and counting. New ones are being discovered all the time. You can have your space exploration, but I don't think you'll find anything wilder than what's right here.

Oh hey! There's a green one just for St. Patty's Day! And here I thought I didn't have a tie-in.

Because nudibranchs come in so many wonderful varieties, I found it only appropriate to use them for my final award. The Nudie goes to...


Yes, you! If you are one of the many varied, wonderful people who have faithfully read and/or commented here, then this award is for you! It's my way of showing my appreciation, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

The rainbow is there to make up for the fact that the featured Alabaster Nudibranch is more or less devoid of color. The Alabaster is a common nudie in my neck of the ocean, one of my favorites.

But if rainbows aren't you're thing, here's an alternative. The Hooded Nudibranch!


All right, so the Hooded Nudibranch looks like a teddy bear that went through the garbage disposal. In real life they are graceful masters of the water, honestly! (And they smell like watermelons. And they don't really look much like this.)

Here's another try. What about the Shaggy Mouse Nudibranch?


While it may be impossible to design a neat-looking award starring a nudibranch, that doesn't negate the fact that you, my readers, are the neatest bunch around. D'aaaw! Hooray for everyone!

Next week, blog posts that don't involve hours of drawing...hopefully.

All cool nudibranch photos courtesy the National Geographic site.

Awards Week: Day 5 - The Angry Tree Octopus Award

Today's award is inspired by one of my favorite little critters, the elusive Pacific Northwest tree octopus.

Found in the dense rainforest canopies of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the tree octopus has been driven to near extinction due to bow hunters, alkaline rain, suction blight, and over-harvesting by increasing numbers of Sasquatch, their natural predators.

(Thanks to the Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site for this rare picture.)

I've been advocating for tree octopuses (note the proper plural) ever since I set up this blog. In fact, that was THE reason I started blogging. Many of my faithful readers will remember my petition to stop the cruel trade of tentacle-related goods, like shaped rubber bands, which led KiddyTime Bandz® to introduce an Octo-Safe™ label on their entire product line (excluding red shapes.) Simultaneously I continued to post tips on mollusk photography (best time of day for lighting: 3:47 pm) and warn about the dangers of travelling in Sally Sucker-Cup Country. Indeed, many a hiker has been driven to drinking by the maddening howls of these arboreal cephalopods.

This is why we have so many microbreweries in the Northwest. Check out the bios of their founders, and see how many first started drafting after returning from the woods.

So now I'm pleased to offer on tap, for a limited time only, the illustrious Angry Tree Octopus Award.

The ATOA goes to a blogger who makes regular, frequent appearances. This angers the octopus, who doesn't like it when someone shows up more than he does. (Which is never, because he doesn't actually exist.) He would rather see a blog disappear entirely...but that's what the White Dolphin Award is for. So the octopus must go to a place he hates the most, a highly visible blog, and thus he exists in a state of perpetual indignation.

I award this award to Snarke over at Snarke, who wins it hands down. Not only does she blog like a fiend, but she also posts a vlog with equal frequency, once updating every day for an entire year. That's commitment. Really, she deserves to win this award twice. She writes about many things, but most of all the wondrous network of super-nerds that makes the Northwest such a great place to live. She is a font of knowledge for every quirky fun event that goes on in the Portland metro area. And now I know who John and Hank Green are thanks to her.

To accept this award the recipient must appease the ego of the tree octopus by blogging at least five tree octopus facts. These can be, for example, which type of tree it prefers, or its migration patterns, or what restaurant you two ate at together recently, or boxers vs. briefs. And then, if the recipient so desires, he/she can make the ATOA angry again by making it appear on someone else's blog.

Tomorrow, the last of the awards! Will it be...for you??

Awards Week: Day 4 - The Bull Kelp Award

Well, this post has certainly been a fine kettle of fish.

By now I hope you've all noticed that my awards are sticking to a nautical theme. And why wouldn't they? They're each coming from fifteen feet below, rising up out of the depths. Just like pulling up a crab pot, you never know exactly what you'll get.

At its conception this next award rose up like the mighty Kraken itself and nearly strangled me to death. At first I thought I was concocting something nice and simple. Then Blogger and its "I hate all your images, I CRUSH YOU!" interface stepped in to shrink my award to the size of a hairpin, so I had to spend an hour chopping it into pieces to make it display correctly. It's times like these when I wish I had an insanely large readership as motivation.

(Me to Self: I'm doing it for the children!)

But I didn't give in. I labored through the long night to defeat (maybe) Blogger's impossible interface just so I could go all Scott McCloud* on you today. Therefore I'm happy to announce the inauguration of the esteemed, inestimable Bull Kelp Award!


Here we go!


Giant bull kelp is one of the fastest growing seaweeds, and when they grow they mean business. They get up to 120 feet long. That round bulb, which is filled with carbon monoxide, floats the kelp to a vertical position. Imagine thousands of these all growing together and you have one of the most amazing places on earth, a kelp forest - the Redwoods, only underwater. These forests are breeding grounds for all kinds of fish. Even fine kettles of fish.

Fun fact here, if you want to see a good example of the domino effect. People hunted out sea otters from the West Coast for their fur back in the 19th century. Sea otters love to eat sea urchins. Sea urchins love to eat bull kelp, but they, being short little critters, can only reach the kelp at its base. When they chew through it, it's the equivalent of felling a tree, except instead of falling down the bull kelp just floats up and drifts away. sea otters to eat the urchins means swarms of urchins crawling across the sea floor chomping through the bases of bull kelp - massive deforestation of the kelp forests. Without the forests the fish don't multiply, fisheries start to fail, and we all end up eating tilapia.

So the next time you eat tilapia, look down at it and say, "Damn you, Victorian fashion trends!"

Speaking of eating, the urchins aren't wrong about the kelp. I love eating it too. It's crunchy and delightful. Most seaweeds are delicious, as long as they grow in clean water. (When I taught classes in this stuff, I once ate some rockweed off the coast of Seattle. Ugh. Bit of a mistake, was that.)

What does this have to do with awards, you say? Well, despite the amazing towering structure of giant bull kelp, it lacks the same kind of specialized cells found in vascular plants. A cell taken from any part of the kelp looks more or less the same as a cell from anywhere else.

Isn't science fun?

The bull kelp, one might say, keeps a consistent theme no matter how large it grows. Consequently, the honor of the Bull Kelp Award goes to a blog that maintains its theme throughout the passage of time. I've got two for you:

The first is the Misadventures of the Monster Librarian. The Monster Librarian is an actual real working librarian (for real!!) who writes on all manner of book- and library-related things, including reviews, library lesson plans, literary awards, and so forth. She sprinkles in bits of poems and reflections about her real life to keep things interesting, in case you're not as die-hard a bibliophile as you ought to be.

The second is my friend over at CatholicLand! (which, despite its name, has no "Seven Deadly Sins"-themed rollercoaster, sadly.) Although most of his posts make me want to jump up and start a theological debate, I've really enjoyed learning about the Catholic perspective through his site. It's important, I think, to see where someone else is coming from, especially as our country gets slogged down in partisanship. If you don't have enough information to argue for someone else's view, then you probably don't have enough to argue for your own.

And that's how my post somehow went from kelp to politics in three paragraphs or less.

To accept the Bull Kelp Award, the recipient must somehow figure out how to write about bull kelp while still staying true to their respective blog's theme. The gauntlet has been thrown.

Tomorrow, another award unveiled!

*If you don't know who Scott McCloud is, see footnote.**

**Oh, wait, I guess that was the footnote. Well, you person-who-clearly-doesn't-draw-comics, Scott McCloud is an artist who challenges other artists to break the normal boundaries of the panel and the page. Go find some of his online stuff and be amazed.