Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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The mentor gratitude project

August 28, 2019

In a recent post, I expressed regret at having failed to directly and fully thank my primary Ph.D. adviser while he was alive.

This regret has been useful in motivating me to identify and (when possible) thank others who have been unusually helpful and influential in my professional development. I’ve previously discussed a couple of them on this blog: George Kosaly (a former research collaborator) and John Peterson (a high school social studies teacher). Here’s the rest of my (imperfect, incomplete) list:

  • Pete Farwell. My college running coach, who was great running-wise but also encouraged my creative endeavors (poems and songs) for team gatherings.
  • Dan Lynch. My undergraduate research mentor, who demystified the enterprise of laboratory research for me.
  • Mary Lidstrom and Wes Van Voorhis. My postdoctoral research supervisors. Very different styles, but both excellent scientists who also found ways to support my interest in teaching.
  • Doug Meyer. My junior high school vocal music teacher, who gave me an excellent grounding in ear training and music theory.
  • Do Peterson. A friend who, in addition to introducing me to my now-wife, has been a musical mentor to me ever since we recorded Take Me to the Liver in 1996.
  • My parents. My dad especially for informing my development as a writer, and my mom especially for being my first teacher role model.
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A chip off the old block?

August 20, 2019

SCHOOL RULES AT HOME
by Jack Crowther
Rutland Herald
October 21, 1990

Living with an elementary school teacher means:

Being asked, out of the blue, questions like, “Do we have any green cardboard?” or, “Where can I find a picture of a wheat field?” Questions cooked up overnight or hatched during housework, when her mind was still in school. Questions like, “What’s that stuff from whales that’s used in perfume — amber what?”

Living with an elementary school teacher means being expected to know the names and quirks of 15 or 20 children whom you have never met, including several with the same names.

It means differentiating between the two Chads and among Sara, Sara, and Sarah using only context clues. Obviously, Chad-who-never-finishes could not be the same Chad who wrote the wonderful seven-page story about his pet duck.

Obviously.

Living with an elementary school teacher means learning a dictionary of educational terms, all of which have different meanings than those encountered in normal conversation. Terms like “chapter.” For example:
Q. “What does she teach?”
A. “Chapter.”
Q. “What?”
A. “She’s the chapter teacher.”
Q. “What chapter does she teach, and what book are we talking about?”
A. “No, no. She’s the teacher for the Chapter I program. You know that.”

Of course.

Living with an elementary school teacher means being expected to understand, without reference to an interpreter or glossary, terms like: Title I, basal, whole language, conference (as a verb), in-service (as an adjective), heterogeneous groups, self-contained classroom and cooperative learning.

Living with an elementary school teacher means being asked to color in 17 mimeographed turkeys while watching your favorite television program. This is impossible to do, but don’t expect sympathy. She would do it herself but she’s coloring 17 Pilgrims.

Living with a teacher means finding folders, boxes and stacks of learning materials all over the house. It means posters and charts suspended from hangers in closets.

It means learning that every scrap of paper worth saving is worth laminating to protect it from flood, smudge, slush, tearing, fraying and wrinkling. It means learning that a teacher’s greatest joy in life is in pulling out from a household cranny a fully prepared unit on dinosaurs.

Living with an elementary school teacher means appreciating the many kinds of meetings that one profession can generate. There are team meetings, faculty meetings and staffings, all different. There are parent conferences, district-wide meetings, curriculum meetings, committee meetings and level meetings.

If you wonder why the teacher in your family is not promptly home at the end of a school day, she is probably in a meeting. Missing at breakfast? It must be a before-school meeting. Gone after supper? A night meeting.

Living with an elementary school teacher means seeing her off to an endless progression of workshops and courses. They represent an ongoing quest to surround and contain the world of learning, not just what to teach but when and how to teach it.

Living with an elementary school teacher means literary discussions based on leading books of the day; books like “Bridge to Terabithia” or “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Forget the New York Times best seller list. It’s not relevant to grade school.

Living with a teacher also means learning that, for many reasons, some children will not fulfill the bright promise of youth. But it also means celebrating small triumphs just often enough to nourish optimism. It means rediscovering weekly and monthly and yearly a child’s capacity for growth.

Finally, living with a teacher means a vicarious enjoyment, tinged with envy, of school vacations. It means a chance, several times a year, to witness enormous relief, tempered by the knowledge that school, like the seasons, will come again.

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Happy 50th Anniversary, Mom & Dad!

May 30, 2019

As of tomorrow, my parents will have been married for 50 years! I hesitate to say “celebrating” 50 years because, at the moment, they’re mostly working hard on moving from their current home to a new place across town. But, anyway … 50 years! In recognition of this milestone, I am posting a relevant column — one of my all-time favorites — by my dad.

******

THE MARITAL SHIP SAILS ON
by Jack Crowther
Rutland Herald, April 1, 1984

Contemplating the approach of our 15th wedding anniversary, my wife observed, “I think it’s pewter.” A pause. “I don’t like pewter. You can’t put it in the dishwasher.”

Such is the state of our marriage after a decade and a half. Sentiment hamstrung by convenience, tradition clobbered by practicality, symbolism outlawed by appliance manuals. Yet it survives.

In fact, the 15th anniversary isn’t pewter at all. It’s watches. But watches don’t go in the dishwasher either, so the point still applies. If it’s not dishwasher-safe, she has no use for it. I count myself and the children as exceptions to this standard, though a “dishwasher safe” label might improve our standing.

How to summarize those 15 years and the preceding courtship? Certain cycles have repeated themselves, as they do in the dishwasher. The quiet purposefulness of the fill cycle, the turbulence of the scrubbing, the fresh prospects of the rinse and the warm glow of the drying. It’s all there.

We met in the summer of 1967 at a public sailing club in Boston. They taught sailing and let out boats not far from the band shell on the Charles River. After you learned to sail, you taught the beginners. This offered a good opportunity for a chap to impress a young lady by showing off the arcane skills and colorful language of the skipper.

“Belay that purse,” I’d say with the authority of one who had battled wind and wave from Cape Horn to the Sea of Okhotsk.

My wife wasn’t the only female companion to sail with me on the Charles. Another possible romance had foundered when the boat had capsized. In some waters, tipping over might be as much fun as sailing, but not on the Charles. It’s too much of a working river, carries too much Bay State waste to be a swimmer’s place. An unplanned dunking was more taint than treat for my crew, and I never saw the girl again.

But I fared better with my future bride. We kept upright and avoided the treacherous Storrow Memorial Embankment.  Out of gratitude for her survival or interest, or both, she invited me over for stew.

The rest is history, though largely unrecorded until now.

I was new to the ways of love and underwent the usual bizarre changes in behavior. I made a cake and shared it with her. An ingenuous little pastry, it was yellow, one layer high and without frosting. But she loved me for it.

Well, at least she didn’t laugh.

At least she didn’t laugh loudly.

At least she didn’t laugh loudly in front of me.

Another time, I made dinner, served wine, and put on a tablecloth. Photographic evidence proves she was still smiling after the meal. She believes that I made spaghetti with store-bought sauce. That I could have pulled off such a culinary feat stretches credulity, but she’s not one to exaggerate.

Our courtship had its ups and downs. I moved to Vermont. On weekends she’d come up or I’d go down to Boston. Once we broke up for a couple of weeks. It was my doing, but I must not have liked it much. I broke down and called her up. After that things settled down a bit.

These things tend to reach a point of decision, and they did with us. I proposed. She accepted. Our parents accepted. Her church accepted. The Chicago city clerk accepted.

On a late spring day in 1969, the awesome ship of matrimony slid down the ways in a Chicago suburb and set its course, cheered by a waving throng and tacitly admonished as well: beware the conjugal straits; tempt not the storms of estrangement.

The crew of two somehow thought they could handle it. Why, they’d sailed the Charles River, hadn’t they?

 

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Early-morning poetry

May 26, 2017

Rise Up Screaming
(Advice to an Infant … or a President)

The sky is dark, but dawn is near,
And though you’re safe within your crib,
The land outside holds much to fear.
It’s time to be alarmed, not glib!

Rise up! Rise up, and sound the call —
A call to arms; a call for milk.
Unleash a nice full-throated bawl
To rouse your parents and their ilk.

The early bird will get the worm;
The early child will get the toy.
Do not give in; stay loud, hold firm!
They must attend you, darling boy.

Rise up! Rise up, and yell, YOUR way,
In any garbled form you spew.
Despite what bleeding hearts may say,
Our world begins and ends with you.

Sam, 5am

[Inspired in part by Slate’s My First Big-Boy Trip.]

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TrumpWatch, part 7: this time it’s personal

February 28, 2017

Here’s the latest in my 100-part series on Donald Trump getting under my skin.

As a white cis-gender heterosexual American man, I am rarely if ever the victim of prejudice. Thus, when Trump blames American problems on, say, immigrants, my objections are more intellectual than visceral. I don’t personally experience queasiness, sadness, rage, or fear in the way that an immigrant (or a child of immigrants, or a dark-skinned native who might be mistaken for an immigrant) might.

There’s one partial exception, though: the President’s recent comment (on Twitter, since repeated at CPAC) that the news media are “the enemy of the American people!”

When my ten-year-old son asked me about this, I found myself choking up. “My dad spent twenty years of his life working for a newspaper,” I stammered. “He did his best to gather good information and explain it clearly. What’s so horrible about that?!?” My thoughts turned to my dad’s sister, a longtime copy editor at BusinessWeek … to their great uncle (?) Robert J. Bender, who covered the White House for the United Press Bureau around the time of Woodrow Wilson … to my own forays into journalism. A few tears fell. My son patted my leg sympathetically.

At that moment, there was no room in my head for cerebral ideas about Trump’s rhetorical strategies or how they might relate to his policy goals. All I could think was: the President of the United States has insulted my family and our earnest pursuit of knowledge. That’s not really what he did, of course, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

The moment passed fairly quickly for me. Before long I resumed my status as a white cis-gender heterosexual American man shaking his head at Trump with detached bemusement. But my heart goes out to the truly vulnerable targets of Trump’s rants, who may not be able to move on so easily.

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Recent poems

December 1, 2016

Favorite Fiddle Tune

When the sundial’s shadow has faded from view —
When the red leaves of autumn are gone —
When your workshop is quiet, and your kitchen is, too,
May your favorite fiddle tune play on!

And I hasten to listen to your voice presently,
While your singing persists, loud and long,
But when the tides lift your body back out to the sea,
May your favorite fiddle tune play on!

Muggle Snuggle

No incantation keeps our stars aligned;
No wizard conjures us to share one mind.
Yet you are mine and, likewise, I am yours
As utterly as Snape was Dumbledore’s.

For Trisha, Who Is Turning 40

Is it time to retire to a spot by the fire?
Are you fed up with slogging and grinding?
Not likely, my friend! But I do spot a trend:
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Be willful! Be stubborn! Be bold and unbowed!
May your path remain craggy and winding!
Your ultimate races have yet to be run;
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Well, your mom was a fireball up to the end,
And of that we all need no reminding,
For her life-long momentum continues in you;
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Yes, you’re just like her, as your dad would concur:
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

* * * * * * *

Snape and dumbledore

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Crosscurrents of Heredity

November 13, 2016

Although my son does not especially remind me of myself, my dad does. The “My Track Record” blog as a whole is somewhat reminiscent of his weekly newspaper column from the 1980s; moreover, some of my entries seem to unintentionally recreate specific columns. For example, after posting my own musings on heredity, I checked the archives and found the following.

Crosscurrents of Heredity

By Jack Crowther

[from the Rutland Herald — September 18, 1988]

My first cousin once removed out in Guthrie, Okla., thinks my son looks like my father when he was a boy. Even though she’s only seen our son in a picture, I take her impression seriously. She knew my father as a boy, and I never met the old man until later.

I mention my cousin’s impression because it differs from my own feeling that the boy favors my wife’s side of the family. Of course, these varied perceptions are common. People pick up on different looks and traits and decide that young people take after one relative or another.

Living close to the offspring and knowing both sides of the family tree, parents can see the crosscurrents of heredity mingling in the children and in ourselves.

For example, my wife and son bite their tongues during periods of mental concentration, a trait that is traceable to her father. Biting your tongue is not something you do naturally, and to me it always seemed like a step toward cannibalism. I’m happy to chalk that one up to her side.

Sometimes the similarities between one family member and another don’t last. Our daughter started out looking a lot like my sister but then began wearing aqua. That caused a sea change in her appearance and wiped out any resemblance.

I find traits in myself reflecting my mother and father. Between my father’s hard logic and my mother’s empathy, I swing like a chimp. I ape one parent, then another, sometimes both at once. At times, I hang above the tangled jungle of life for days trying to figure out which way to go.

My wife is a worrier like her mother. And she’s thrifty like her father. Needless to say, she worries about money. It’s a dubious inheritance.

It’s easy to spot some of my wife’s and my habits and attitudes in the children. Our daughter is quick and intuitive, our son deliberate and logical, differences mirrored in my wife and me. Arguments around here are a circus of contrasting styles — like Mike Tyson going up against a voodoo priest. But that’s what makes families interesting.

Ironically, the ways in which the children resemble us parents aren’t necessarily their most endearing qualities. Some traits of the children that vex me are my own qualities.

The children, in turn, are surely vexed by parental habits they judge can only have come from outer space. For now they can’t say much, or we’ll put them to work cleaning the baseboard registers with cotton swabs.

But in our inevitable dotages certain of our traits will become exaggerated, and our children will grow bolder. They’ll quietly complain to each other that we drive them up the wall with this fixation or that nervous habit or some other quirk of character.

Even now, looking inward, I wince to see traits that one day will harden and make me an odd duck. And yet, if we look closely at our children, we can see the seeds of their own idiosyncrasies. They may be entering the years of cool judgment of their elders, but they will be judged in turn.

The circle of life turns a full 360 degrees, and some day our children will have assembled their own resumes of whims and kinks. Hardly anyone who takes the full course in life gets through with a rating of “normal.” There are simply too many frogs in the gene pool, and each of us gets a few of them. Or maybe some of the frogs hop aboard as we pass through the low marshes of life. You tell me.

Another perplexing thing about this subject is the tendency of children to defy their parents’ examples, however excellent. Actually, I find their independence reassuring.

First, it relieves us of some responsibility. Second, it makes the topnotch moms and dads look a little more ordinary.

If a child grows up into a ne’er-do-well, we can always say to ourselves, “Well! They didn’t get that from us. We did our part. The kid must be a throwback to someone in the Oklahoma clan.”

And on the occasions when our children rise above us in merit, we can salve our egos by saying: “Okay, they succeeded where we didn’t, but they couldn’t have done it without our help. The talent was there in us, lying dormant. We passed it on and nursed it to full flower.”

We can also enjoy the times when we realize that no, our children will never be as good as we are at certain things, like juggling or tree recognition. It’s easy to be generous in those cases. We can say, “That’s OK, kids, we’re a tough act to follow.”

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My odd son

November 12, 2016

Obviously, there is no single gene “for” math aptitude or punctuality or interest in rainforests. But if Mom and Dad both exhibit a certain trait, shouldn’t the apple fall relatively close to the tree?

That’s what I used to think. Then I became a father.

Two of my defining interests throughout my life, evident from an early age, have been creative writing and competitive sports. My son Phil, now 10, is almost completely indifferent to both.

Here’s me at age 8 or 9, writing about baseball, my favorite sport at the time, while vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Marathon base ball poem

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon enjoy the fun,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit a home run.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and steal a base,
c’mon, c’mon, let me see that happy face.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and catch that ball,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and catch ’em all.

C’mon, c’mon, even if your average is low,
c’mon, work hard, and you can be a pro.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit that ball,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit it over the wall.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon leap high in the air,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon ‘n catch that ball, it’s fair.

C’mon, c’mon, throw the ball up high,
c’mon, c’mon, throw it way up in the sky.

C’mon, c’mon, throw it right into his glove,
C’mon, baseball, I’m in love!

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon enjoy the game,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and be elected to the Hall Of Fame.

While it’s not the work of a young Tennyson, some craftsmanship is evident, for example, in the commitment to the “c’mon, c’mon” cadence and the clean end rhymes. I proudly shared the poem with Grandma Nancy and relished her rave review.

In contrast, here is Phil writing about a summer camping trip that he basically enjoyed:

First we drove to the place. Then we ate lunch. Then we hiked. Then we set up camp. Then we ate dinner. Then we slept. Then we ate breakfast. Then we hiked. Then we drove to lunch. Then we drove home.

When asked to provide more detail about some part of the trip, Phil offered this:

After we set up the camp Leila set up the stove named the dragon fly. Then Leila made macaroni. And we ate it. Then she made a rice dish we ate it. finally we had roasted marshmallows for dessert.

Notice the apparent lack of interest in telling the story with any humor, any intrigue, or any flair whatsoever. Which is fine — LOTS of people find writing more tedious than enjoyable. And Phil is creative in other ways (especially with Legos). Still, I would have expected him to inherit some smidgen of my wordsmithing tendencies.

Likewise, we differ greatly in our attitude toward sports, as encapsulated in this photo from last Sunday’s PNTF cross-country meet (courtesy of Win Van Pelt):

PNTF 2016

Dad kicks fiercely toward the finish while Sonny Boy (in hat) looks away, uninterested.

Again, it’s fine that he is not (currently) a jock — just surprising to me.

Of course, we do have a few things in common: a love of soft blankets and sweat pants, for example. And similar views on Donald Trump.

That’s right — the man who has fractured the country into bitter factions has brought my son and me closer together.

Here’s Phil reacting to Donald Trump during the first presidential debate: “It seems like the only thing that he cares about is money.”

Weeks later, here he is, trying to explain Trump’s plan to make America great again: “It seems like Trump wants to repair America … by bombing it.” (I’m not sure exactly what Phil meant by that, but I took it to mean that “draining the swamp,” Trump-style, might do more harm than good.)

And here’s his response to a classmate’s claim that Trump will do some good things, like lowering taxes: “His tax cuts are for rich people. What about an African family working the entire day for 20 dollars?”

Preach on, Brother Phil!

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Crowther & Crowther (2015)

June 24, 2015

Two recently completed collaborations with my 8-year-old son:

1. Green revolution: salad spinning superseded. Bricolage 33: 110-112, 2015.

2. STEM songs: not just child’s play (display case installation, Discovery Hall, UW-Bothell)

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Stephen, Be Heard!

September 14, 2014

The Dynamic Ecology and Phylogenomics blogs drew my attention to a new “must-read” article: On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed? by Stephen B. Heard (Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 7:64-72, 2014). The abstract is below.

While scientists are often exhorted to write better, it isn’t entirely obvious what “better” means. It’s uncontroversial that good scientific writing is clear, with the reader’s understanding as effortless as possible. Unsettled, and largely undiscussed, is the question of whether our goal of clarity precludes us from making our writing enjoyable by incorporating touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty. I offer examples of scientific writing that offers pleasure, drawing from ecology and evolution and from other natural sciences, and I argue that enjoyable writing can help recruit readers to a paper and retain them as they read. I document resistance to this idea in the scientific community, and consider the objections (well grounded and not) that may lie behind this resistance. I close by recommending that we include touches of whimsy and beauty in our own writing, and also that we work to encourage such touches in the writing of others.

To this nicely argued piece, I just want to add a few examples of indifference or hostility to my own attempts at whimsy, humor, and/or beauty.

(1) My grant proposals to the NWRCE and PNWRCE, 2010.

Striving to keep readers with me through the Conclusion section, I wrote:

We believe strongly in the importance of the central goal of this proposal, i.e., linking antibacterial compounds to Burkholderia proteins in a manner that will facilitate validation of new drug targets. This interest in compound-target links is not simply a fetish of the investigators involved in this project; within some pharmaceutical firms, knowing the target of a compound with activity against cells is considered absolutely vital for progressing compounds to leads.

A colleague discouraged me from using the word “fetish” on the grounds that “it reminds me of foot fetishes.” Perhaps she was right, but I kept it in as a tiny rebellion against unrelenting formality.

The proposals were rejected.

(2) G.J. Crowther et al., Identification of attractive drug targets in neglected-disease pathogens using an in silico approach, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 4(8): e804, 2010.

This paper contained numerous lists of possible drug targets. Since one of the pathogens covered was Leishmania (the cause of leishmaniasis), the paper was known internally as the “Listmania paper” throughout 10 months of writing and revising. Meanwhile, we searched and searched for a compelling title distinct from that of our first paper on the same topic … while carefully avoiding the most interesting and evocative bit that we had come up with — i.e., the word Listmania. A coauthor killed the term by arguing, reasonably enough, that a pun about a pathogen might be insensitive to the pathogen’s victims. But a “catchier,” less cautious title might also have raised leishmania awareness more effectively.

(3) G.J. Crowther, The SingAboutScience.org database: an educational resource for instructors and students, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 40(1): 19-22, 2012.

The submitted manuscript included this:

The total manpower behind this website, rounded to the nearest whole number of FTE’s, is 0, so its maintenance is kept relatively simple.

Once the journal’s copy editor got ahold of it, it became:

The total manpower behind this website, rounded to the nearest whole number of Full-Time Equivalents (FTE’s), is 0, so its maintenance is kept relatively simple.

To me, this change reduced the sentence’s rhetorical punch and humor. Yet the edited version was (slightly) clearer, and I knew better than to argue for style over clarity. I reluctantly accepted the edit.

(4) G.J. Crowther et al., A mechanism-based whole-cell screening assay to identify inhibitors of protein export in Escherichia coli by the Sec pathway, Journal of Biomolecular Screening 17: 535-41, 2012.

Our submitted manuscript included the following:

While previous studies had included beta-mercaptoethanol in assay buffers, presumably to maintain cytoplasmic beta-gal in a reduced and active state, it did not appear necessary to preserve beta-gal function under our assay conditions; EC626’s response to maltose was similar with and without beta-mercaptoethanol (Fig. 3). Thus, in performing this assay, the unpleasant odor of beta-mercaptoethanol may be avoided.

A reviewer wrote, “The sentence which includes ‘the unpleasant odor of beta-mercaptoethanol’ is not appropriate.”

Here was another chance to stand up for ever-so-slightly-less-orthodox, ever-so-slightly-less-dry writing. This time I stood my ground and got my way.

“We respectfully disagree,” I responded. “It is a minor point, but the omission of beta-mercaptoethanol provided much relief to the rest of our lab, and this is worth noting.”