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Science: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

It’s new-semester’s eve—the night before classes begin at the university where I teach. As I stand on the precipice of academic year 2016-2017, looking with hopeful eyes toward an always-uncertain semester, my mind wanders back to the beginning of my foray into the world of science. Tonight, my message is tailor made for the young women out there who might find themselves in a science class that they don’t want to be in. I know, it kind of sucks.

My guess (and it is an educated one) is that most of you are taking my class because 1) you have to take a science class, and 2) either your advisor told you this class fits your schedule, or you heard from someone that the class is not too hard.

There might be a handful of you who are somewhat intrigued by geology—earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides, and other natural disasters may have caught your attention via a show on the Discovery Channel, or some personal experience growing up in a hazard-prone location (AKA, California)

Mt. St. Helens ash explosion May, 1980.

Mt. St. Helens ash explosion – May, 1980. Isn’t it sexy?

For others, you may have no idea what geology is, but you figure it is easier than chemistry, physics, or biology and so why not give it a shot?

To all of you in any of these categories, I say proudly that I WAS YOU! My scientific career began the day I wandered into Geology 101 at Syracuse University, a cranky freshman English major determined to hate the class and just get through it with a decent grade. I sat in the back row in my Doc Marten combat boots, sulked, and tried not to fall asleep. (We didn’t have smart phones then so I didn’t have many options)

I wanted to be a dancer. Science was never part of the discussion when I was a kid.

I wanted to be a dancer or a writer. Science was never part of the discussion when I was a kid.

Much to my surprise, I found myself intrigued. Images of mountains and valleys and rivers and volcanic eruptions all invaded my non-science-y brain and refused to let go. It scared me a little. I thought to myself, “I might like this stuff but there is no way I can be a science major. I am not good at math or science. Science is too hard for me.”

And there it was—the phrase that creeps into the minds of bright little girls everywhere and begins to unfairly degrade their confidence:

Science is too hard.

Look, I am a scientist and I can confirm that science is hard. It is really freaking hard. But it is not TOO hard. What does that even mean, really? If it were too hard, nobody would be able to do it.

But people do it. Even people like me do it, and I was not the ideal candidate for a science program. I had always been a writer. I was interested in literature and poetry. My parents weren’t professors or engineers or even teachers. My dad was a musician and my mom was a housewife. Neither of them went to college. I always liked school, but I struggled with math and science. In high school I took advanced placement English and opted out of pre-calculus. Instead, I took “modern” math, which was a mixture of probability and statistics and other stuff that didn’t hurt my brain too much. So when I went to college I knew exactly where I was headed: I would be a writer, and to hell with math and science.

They were too hard.

Here’s the tragedy of all of this: my story is not unique. It is a well established fact that young girls are just as interested in math and science as boys are in elementary school, but somewhere around middle school girls are far more likely to utter that dreaded phrase, “science is too hard,” or its equally crappy counterpart, “math is too hard,” than boys are.

What the actual fuck.

It is just one more example of why we, as women, have to work that much harder to put this kind of nonsense to rest. We, as strong, smart, capable, unique, thinking women have to do even more to prove that we can do everything men can do, and better.

So here is my plea to all of the young women who will set foot in my sacred hall of learning this semester—

Come to crush it. Come ready to rock the hell out of some science. Come ready to show the boys what you are made of.

Me after crushing a five-day excursion in a snowy Tibet valley, doing geology for my PhD research.

Me after crushing a five-day excursion in a snowy Tibet valley, doing geology for my PhD research.

Now I know most of you will not end up pursuing science as a career. That is irrelevant. Having basic knowledge of the scientific process is absolutely invaluable to the overall impact you can have on the world around you. Understanding how data is gathered and analyzed, being able to read and decipher a graph, and engaging in critical thinking, are all skills that will make you a better, deeper, more intelligent person. Period.

And ladies, in this critical time in our nation’s evolution toward being a more equal and just place, you cannot underestimate the importance of using your voice, your brain, and your free will. This is the time to push yourselves to the boundaries of your comfort zones and beyond.

Ladies, this is the time.

I wasn’t born destined to be a scientist, but science was the best thing that ever happened to me. It took me well beyond my comfort zone and forced me to work harder than I ever had, think more deeply that I ever had, and fight harder than I ever had to gain recognition and respect in a field dominated by men. And you know what?

Doing science was hard. Becoming a scientist was the most difficult thing I ever did. But it was also the most rewarding.

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Seventeen Years Since Tibet

It has been almost seventeen years since my feet touched terra firma at 11,450 feet elevation, on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet. My first time at “high” altitude was both exhilarating, and utterly terrifying. I was embarking on an adventure that was meant to be no nonsense research for my PhD studies, but unbeknownst to me would end up being so much more. In short, it would shake me to my core. It forever changed, at least in part, who I am as a scientist, a woman, and a person.

Let’s start with the science. If you know anything about geology you have probably heard of a little thing called plate tectonics. It is pretty much the unifying theory of how the Earth works, and explains such trivial things as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mountain formation…you get the picture. The basic idea is that the Earth’s rigid, outer shell, called the lithosphere, is broken into several large plates that move around and interact at their edges, kind of like big, moving puzzle pieces. At the plates’ edges, or boundaries, is where the action is! Rumbling earthquakes, explosive volcanic eruptions, and rocks being buckled, folded, and thrust toward the sky, all happen at plate boundaries. They are by and large the premier locales for geologic mayhem.

Earth's plates. The bold black lines indicate the plate boundaries.

Earth’s plates. The bold black lines indicate the plate boundaries (continents are green).

The Tibetan Plateau, covering an area of 965,000 square miles at an average elevation of over 15,000 feet (that’s 2,500,000 square kilometers and 4,572 meters, respectively, in geek speak) is the biggest, highest, bad-assest plateau on the planet. Tectonically speaking, Tibet is on the Eurasian side of the Indo-Asian collision, where two continents collide. This collision is famously responsible for the formation of the Himalayas. You know, the Himalayas – the highest mountains on Earth? Home to Mt. Everest? Yeah, those Himalayas. The Himalayas and Tibet are the result of processes related India smashing into Asia over 50 million years ago. By the way, India is still pushing her way into Asia to this day, making this place the ONE real-life, in real time, natural laboratory for continental collision. Needless to say, Tibet is a geologist’s playground, a dream come true for fieldwork.

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The Tibetan Plateau (in red box), with India to the south and Eurasia to the north. The Himalayas are the arcuate mountain range on the southern edge of the plateau.

Before I started my PhD at UCLA, I completed a masters degree at Vanderbilt University, under the kind and gentle tutelage of Dr. Calvin F. Miller. We did field work together in southern Nevada in a sweet little mountain range called the El Dorado Mountains. The highest peak, Ireteba, is just over 5,000 feet high (did I mention Mt. Everest sits at 29,028 feet, and the average elevation on the Tibetan plateau is 15,000 feet?). The El Dorado Wilderness covers roughly 40 square miles (121 square kilometers), and would basically look like a pimple on the ass of the great Himalayas. My perspective on fieldwork was quite limited pre-Tibetan plateau. Don’t get me wrong, the work I did in Nevada was fun, interesting, and a great learning experience. But I would not have called myself a seasoned field geologist after spending a total of about four weeks of my life, spread over several trips, in the El Dorados, camping at designated campgrounds with restrooms and showers, shopping for food at the local Vons, and just generally being a spoiled suburban girl with only a slight taste for adventure.

My rock drawer at Vanderbilt. It is still there today, full of El Dorado granitoids.

My rock drawer at Vanderbilt. It is still there today, full of El Dorado granitoids.

And then, there’s the science. The science of the Himalayas and Tibet is on a scale that is hard to explain. For those who study the geology of this place, a lifetime of work is still not enough to fully understand the mysteries. Many geologists have spent years, decades even, doing their best to unravel the primary question, “When did India collide with Eurasia?” Some of the first ideas date back to the 1920s. In the 1980s an age of about 55 million years ago was proposed as the timing of contact between the continent of India and the southern edge of Eurasia, and almost 40 years later the evidence still largely supports this age. But the intricacies of what went on before, during, and after collision are too numerous, and too complicated, to have yet been fully understood. Even the Earth’s climate was not immune to the effects of the growth of the Himalayas. In other words, for a geologist, Tibet is a compelling opportunity as well as a seemingly untenable problem. How can one little lady from upstate NY, land of no topography except that left behind by moving ice, contribute anything of scientific value to this vast, overwhelming, excessively complicated geologic puzzle? And how could I do it all while keeping up with the some of the brightest minds (and toughest bodies) in Tibetan geologic studies?  I didn’t think I could.

Before going to Tibet, I went on many a class field trip. This is fall 1998, on a trip to the California coast, chilling with my future husband Paul, one of my fellow graduate students, who worked in Tibet.

Before going to Tibet, I went on many class field trips. This is fall 1998, on a trip to the California coast, chilling with my future husband Paul, one of my fellow UCLA graduate students, who also worked in Tibet.

After much debate between my advisor and the advisor of my fellow graduate students working in Tibet (who were both male), I was granted the opportunity to accompany them on their field expedition. Yes, that is what it felt like. Not that I was going to Tibet to conduct field studies of my own, but instead, more like, please don’t slow the guys down as they drag your sorry ass all over the Tibetan plateau. “If you get sick,” said their advisor, “they will send you back to Lhasa alone on a bus.” And the ever so confidence boosting, “Even big, strong guys get sick in Tibet.” I was convinced I would be the ball on the end of their chain, the molasses in their gas tank, the scarlet “A” emblazoned on their fleece jackets (“A” for asshole). I contemplated throwing in the towel, wiping the superficial smile off of my face, and revealing that I was petrified that I would die over there. Instead, I went.

Paul and me right after landing in Lhasa on my very first trip to Tibet (1999). We were both students at UCLA, and less than a year into our relationship. This is before any real 'roughing it' happened. Notice the big, hopeful smile. I had no idea what I was in for!

Me and Paul, right after landing in Lhasa on my very first trip to Tibet (1999). We were both students at UCLA, and less than a year into our relationship. This is before any real ‘roughing it’ happened. Notice the big, hopeful smile. I had no idea what I was in for!

The project had started out as me dating some rocks that had been collecting dust for six years in my advisor’s office. The rocks had been collected in 1992 from the Nyainqentanglha Range in southern Tibet. It is a bitch of a mountain range, with ice-covered peaks that reach over 19,000 feet elevation, and raging ice-fed rivers slicing through its northern and southern faces. It generates its own shitty weather, often spitting snow and rain out of its rugged canyons into the adjacent valley, with ferocity and no regard for a skinny girl’s desire to hike into its depths and unlock its secrets. I had surveyed geologic maps of the area prior to my journey, noting that they showed the range as basically one huge body of 50-60 million year old granite. Of course, the rocks I had been analyzing were apparently not tuned in to that story, and they revealed ages ranging from as old as 200 million years to as young as 8 million. This mountain range had hidden in it more than those who had mapped it from afar could have known.

Me after a week-long expedition (on foot, with yaks toting our gear) into the heart of the Nyainqentanglha range. Notice the dark storm clouds in the background - we had recently exited that canyon into the mild weather of the valley.

Me, after a week-long expedition (on foot, with yaks toting our gear) into the heart of the Nyainqentanglha range. Notice the dark storm clouds in the background – we had recently exited that canyon into the milder weather of the valley.

In Tibet, my goal was to dig deeper into the story those rocks were beginning to tell. On my first trip, in 1999, I learned what it meant to abandon normal life and live in the field. I left civilization and all contact with my world back home and went off the grid for more than 100 days. It was a crash course in integrating mapping, large-scale observations, sampling, and physical ability. I began to see the beauty of big-picture science. Going from a map of a mountain range, to a fist-sized sample of rock from that mountain range, harvested with nothing but my own strength and a heavy rock hammer, to tiny crystals separated out of that rock sample, hand-picked under a microscope and mounted in epoxy, to age information zapped out of those crystals with a 20 micron diameter oxygen beam, telling us when those rocks were nothing but magma deep in the Earth – now THAT is the power of science. That is nothing short of miraculous. That is the result of hard-working people pursuing the advancement of knowledge. Being a part of that process made me feel like a real scientist. It was an education far beyond what a classroom can deliver. It changed the way I see the world.

Me and my all-male pack - my family for over 100 days of roughing it on the Tibetan plateau. [Left to right: Lou Sang (Tibetan driver), Paul, Mike Taylor (UCLA graduate student), Me, Doje (Tibetan Driver), Zhou Young (Chinese colleague)]

Me and my all-male pack – my family for over 100 days of roughing it on the Tibetan plateau. [Left to right: Lou Sang (Tibetan driver), Paul, Mike Taylor (UCLA graduate student), Me, Doje (Tibetan Driver), Zhou Young (Chinese colleague)]

And, I didn’t get sick. (Well, not sick enough to slow anyone down). They didn’t have to send me back to Lhasa alone on a bus. And along the way, I learned a lot more than when those rocks had formed, and how that mountain range had grown, and how it all fit into the bigger picture of Tibetan tectonics. I learned about my own strength, and my own abilities (and lack thereof). Squatting on the side of a scree-covered slope, belly rumbling from hunger, rain pissing down on my soggy rain jacket, trying to locate myself on an unfamiliar topographic map, I found a side of me that I never knew existed. Like that old geologic map with only one age for the mountains, what I knew about myself up to then was only part of the story.

Stay tuned…

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Why Is Everyone Here So Nice? (And Other Kauai Quandaries)

Kauai. A small-ish island in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth, forged over five million years ago from lava spilled onto the ocean floor. The oldest of the Hawaiian island chain, the Garden Isle is home to roughly 70,000 people, and boasts a single highway that can take you from one end of the island to the other in about 90 minutes. We recently relocated here (temporarily, for a sabbatical) and I find myself in awe at the many things that make Kauai special. This place just feels different. It exudes a distinctive energy. I think it is something you have to experience, but I can share some snapshots from our first ten days, and maybe tune you in to its frequency.

Our first night on the island, my oldest was catching giant tadpoles with his bare hands in a river. (Can you feel the difference already?) A local boy, also on the hunt, approached my son and handed him a net, silently inviting a team effort. In no time they had filled the young boy’s bucket, and his father had given my son the net to keep. This small gesture seemed excessively nice to me, and I ran after the man to thank him for the net. The man asked where we are from, how long we will be on Kauai, and told us before long we would be islanders. For comparison, you have to live in NYC for a decade before you are accepted as a New Yorker. So what is it about this place that makes people so welcoming? Why is everyone here so nice? Are they happier? Is it the simpler lifestyle? Are they all high on weed? Whatever it is, there should be more of it in the world.

First day at a new school for my boys, and I am greeted by happy “hellos” from every child I encounter at drop off. My son’s class went to the nurse for an uku (lice) check. They even make lice sound cute here! After drop off I head to Hanalei beach for a jog, and much like the schoolyard, hellos come in from all directions as I pass people walking their dogs, strolling with their honeys, or having their own morning workouts. Some smile, some nod, but not one has averted his gaze, turned her head away, or refused to make eye contact. Why does everyone here greet you warmly? I don’t know, but it makes for an instant sense of community. Even the grown-ass man getting ready to boogie board nodded a hello as I huffed passed.

My son, walking home from school barefoot with a new friend.

My son, walking home from school barefoot with a new friend.

Why do grown men boogie board here? It seems a bit silly, a six-foot-tall man holding a boogie board, reading the waves, timing them, preparing for a perfect ride, like a surfer. Here, it seems, people are drawn to the sea. From surfing to boogie boarding to paddling, even jumping off the end of the Hanalei pier with utter disregard for the “Do Not Jump” signs – grown ups find pleasure in the ocean, same as children do. My son often drags me out on that pier and begs me to jump with him. Why don’t I just freaking hurl myself off that pier? I really should. I suspect before long I will, maybe after a particularly hard and sweaty run.

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Hanalei pier, one of our favorite places to play!

Speaking of which, why doesn’t exercise feel like a chore here? Back home, I run to fight middle-age spread. I run on a treadmill, while watching crappy sitcoms on Hulu, counting the minutes until it is over. If I don’t run I feel guilty, bloated, and cranky, and yet, I never look forward to it. Here, I cannot wait to get on the beach and run. I run to get to the steep and muddy trail leading to a tiny turquoise beach waiting just for me. I run because my boys think there is something to see at the end of two miles of sand. Here, running is a way of connecting with the landscape more than a chore to be completed. I suspect I would not give a second thought to exercising if I lived here, as it would simply be part of my life.

Hideaways beach, at the bottom of a steep, muddy trail.

Hideaways beach, at the bottom of a steep, muddy trail.

Driving on this island, through jungle-book type scenery, is quite pleasant. Why isn’t driving stressful here? Maybe because everyone is courteous, follows the rules of the road, and doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Windows are down, surfboards strapped to car tops, and sand wisps out of truck beds, as people coast to their next adventure. Even better, using a device while driving is not tolerated here. Period. No texting. No talking on the phone. If a cop sees you with a phone in hand while operating a vehicle, you will get pulled over. I have been here for ten days, have circumnavigated pretty much the entire island, and have not once seen someone on a phone while driving. I haven’t heard one horn honk, nor seen one bird flipped. It is the complete opposite of driving back home.

Normally, I am a massive consumer. I pump my hard-earned money into the American economy via the purchase of imperative items such as the season’s trendiest high black boots, low black boots, fringed boots, a flashier pair of black boots, and…more boots. While I don’t have a clinical addiction or anything, the amount of stuff I have in my closet back home is completely unreasonable. I could get by with a few pairs of shorts and some sandals, but I don’t. And yet, I would give up 100% of my closet to come live a simpler life in Kauai. Some sandals, a few swimsuits, and purchases limited to necessities and outdoor recreational items. Why don’t I care as much about material things here? Because…the beach. No shoes, no shirt…no problem!

Warm greetings, sun and sand, physical activity, and fewer material possessions. I think I’m destined to hang loose.

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A Home at the End of My Comfort Zone

It is often said that home is where the heart is. That usually means wherever your family is, or your lover, your spouse, your children – that is your warm cocoon of comfort. We have all heard it said in a romantic movie, “It doesn’t matter where I am as long as I am with you.” It is a beautiful idea, that the people you surround yourself with are what make a place your home. But what if you still feel like a fish out of water in the city that contains them? What if being home, the place that should be the most comfortable place of all, is actually outside of your comfort zone?

I grew up in Rochester, NY. It is green. It has four distinct seasons. There are plenty of rolling, glacial hills and babbling brooks. The Christmases of my youth consisted of cutting down our own Christmas tree in a snowy field, cheeks rosy from the cold, hot chocolate by a crackling fire, and waking up to a gleaming white landscape of snow on Christmas morning before sliding across the floor in footed pajamas to the stockings hung by the chimney with care.   It was caroling through a snowy neighborhood, bundled up, watching the moonlight and the Christmas lights glint off the icicles hanging from neighbors’ gutters. It was the Hallmark version of Christmas we see in holiday themed movies, and quite frankly it was exactly how the holidays are supposed to be as far as this NY native is concerned.

My Christmas photo from 1978, I think.  Now THAT is what Christmas looks like.

My Christmas photo from 1978, I think. Now THAT is what Christmas looks like.

As we rapidly approach the holidays, department stores already decorated in green and red and gold, commercials showing images of snowy streets lined with anxious shoppers rushing for last minute gifts, I cannot help but compare the Christmases of my youth with those of my sons’ youth, happening in our pink and tan desert home. Here, there is no snow. There are no pine trees wrapped in sweaters of snow, pointed snowcaps on their tops. It isn’t even cold. The days are sunny, warm, and dry. Christmas lights get strung on stately Saguaro cacti, some of which wear Santa caps courtesy of particularly festive residents. Lights spiral up the long, skinny trunks of palm trees, carrying their holiday glow high above the rooftops. For this upstate New York girl, the only way I can describe this holiday scene is, well… ridiculous. This is not the way Christmas is supposed to be! Where’s the cold? The snow? The crackling fires and cups of hot cocoa? Why am I sweating in my jeans and short-sleeved shirt in mid-November? Why am I still wearing flip-flops? It just ain’t right.

January 1978, outside my grandparents' house with my dad.  Winter in Rochester.  Oh yeah.

January 1978, outside my grandparents’ house with my dad. Winter in Rochester. Oh yeah.

Even without the holiday hum-drum, I often reflect on how much I have had to adapt to living life in this southwestern desert, a place so unlike my original home. If I had been told twenty years ago that I would someday be living in a place where snakes slithered across my back patio, tarantulas climbed up my exterior walls, bobcats and coyotes roamed my yard, and scorpions found their way into my home I think I would have passed out cold. I would have said there is no way in hell I could survive in a place like that. I was not a lover of insects, arthropods, reptiles, or large, predatory mammals. I don’t think I ever saw a snake in the flesh until I was a senior in college, struggling through geology field camp in the wilds of Montana. The wildest animal I ever encountered in my Rochester childhood was a field mouse that found its way into our screened in back porch, and I screamed bloody murder and climbed up onto a chair like a cartoon character. But here, in the desert, I am surrounded by critters I never would have dreamed would be part of my daily life. Poisonous arachnids, arthropods, insects, and reptiles. Predatory felines. Howling canines. For some, this is all part of life, part of being a true desert dweller, someone who has the desert in their bones, in their heart, in their soul. For them I imagine that Christmastime outdoor picnics and wearing sandals year-round is absolutely the way it is supposed to be. For me, it is just nuts.

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THIS is what winter is supposed to look like, folks. No flip flops allowed.

My soul is constantly being called back to the rolling green hummocky topography of that four-seasoned home that seeped into my bones and took hold forty years ago, especially in November, after more than six months of heat and no snowy white Christmas in sight. The desert still feels foreign to me, even though I have lived in Tucson, Arizona for thirteen years. I think that qualifies me as a Tucsonan (even New Yorkers will concede that you are a New Yorker if you have lived there for a decade). As a Tucsonan, I have grown accustomed to snakes on my patio, scorpions behind my toilet, javelinas in my driveway, and coyotes waking me at night with their howling and yelping. Instead of scared retreat at the site of a snake I take its picture and marvel at its beauty. I follow my curious desert-souled sons when they call me outside to show me a tarantula they have found, or a long line of huge red ants carrying dead flower petals to their underground holes. We crouch in the sand and examine these critters that I never pictured as part of my everyday life. I have found a way to adapt, survive, and thrive in this place, a place so unlike the one that was the backdrop of my formative years. And somehow I have found things to love about this peculiar place. The purple-pink sunsets, the bare-rocky mountains, and wildlife of all shapes and sizes, including a morning hello from a long, slithery snake.

King snake on our back patio.  Good morning!

King snake on our back patio. Good morning Tucson!

It is amazing what we can do when home has to be where love, family, and life take us. Even when they take us far from where we began.  Far from the home that lives in our memories and our souls. My soul might always long for the landscape of my youth, but I wouldn’t choose that over the home I have built with my family here in this most unusual of places.

So yeah, home is where the heart is. It might be strange. It might be beyond your comfort zone. And it might just be exactly where you are supposed to be, for now. Maybe even forever.

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Mountain Woman Excerpt Featured on FindingEcstasy

The fabulous author Rebecca Pillsbury’s latest blog post features an excerpt from my memoir, The Making of a Mountain Woman: Lessons From the Tibetan Plateau, which will be out in 2015.  As part of her feature, which she calls Voices of Inspiration, Rebecca asked me some thoughtful and interesting interview questions.  You can read all of my interview responses, and see an exclusive excerpt from my memoir, by clicking the link below:

http://findingecstasy.com/voices-inspiration-jess-kapp/

This is the very first time I have shared any of my memoir.  It is a very small sneak peek, but one I hope you will enjoy!  Don’t forget to check out Rebecca’s blog and book while you’re at it! She is one to watch.

As always, I say to you, do what you love, find your passion, and push past your comfort zone.  Amazing things can happen when you go where you never thought you could go.

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The Writer’s Blog Tour – Amazing Women Authors

I was invited to participate in a writer’s blog tour by the lovely and talented writer, Rebecca Pillsbury!  She has a new memoir out now called Finding Ecstasy, which I will be featuring here very soon.  You can read all about the book on her webpage here, and her blog tour interview answers here. Thank you for nominating me to participate, Rebecca! I am honored, and so glad we connected.

Rebecca Pillsbury, author of Finding Ecstasy.

Rebecca Pillsbury, author of Finding Ecstasy.

My Writer’s Blog Tour Interview (Jess Kapp)

What am I currently working on?

I am currently focused on putting the finishing edits on my memoir, The Making of a Mountain Woman, which will be out in 2015.  I also spend a lot of time writing pieces for this blog, and have started a collection of short stories, one of which recently won a writing award and can be downloaded on this site.  All three projects are quite different – the memoir is obviously non-fiction and strongly focused on adventure, pushing out of your comfort zone, and finding out who you really are.  The blog posts are often in this same vein, but also address issues of motherhood, women in science, and womanhood in general. The short stories are completely different, in that they are fiction, and center on issues related to women in mid-life and all of the complicated things related to such an interesting and often tumultuous time.

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

There are a lot of memoirs out there right now.  I love memoirs!   Many of them revolve around a problem, past or present, and how the author was affected by, and ultimately dealt with, the problem.  My story came out of a completely serendipitous opportunity to immerse myself in an adventure beyond my comfort zone.  It is a reflection of how that experience utterly changed me as a person.  It is also different in that I wrote the book more than a decade after these life changing experiences, and was able to reflect on my journey with older, wiser, more appreciative eyes.  I recognized what a poignant journey that was for me, and give reverence to how much I actually accomplished.  As a woman with a PhD in a male dominated science field, I bring a different perspective on what it is to be a strong, independent woman, and hopefully can inspire young women who are interested in stepping out of their comfort zone, in science or adventuring or anything else, to go for it!

 Why do I write what I do?

I love how Rebecca said it feels like she doesn’t have a choice in what she writes – I completely agree!  The memoir was just waiting to be written. I journaled every day in Tibet, and those memories just sat in a drawer next to my bed for years.  When I would tell these stories, show photos, share reflections with people, they would inevitably tell me the stories needed to be out there.  I just never felt like I was ready until I had time to really internalize what those adventures meant to me, beyond just fun, outrageous, dangerous, embarrassing adventures that made for good storytelling.  In terms of the fiction and the blog, I write about what I know, what I feel, and what I care about.  I write about things that set up shop in my brain and filter into the deepest crevices of my consciousness – things that I am thinking deeply about.  I am compelled to write about these things, they just haunt me and have to come out.

How does my writing process work?

My short stories are usually inspired by a single line, an observation, or an event, that just strikes me as beautiful or important.  For instance, the beginning of Watermelon actually happened to me – being in a grocery store and having an older woman tell me I have great legs. That was so strange and gorgeous I just had to write about it, and all of the fictitious stuff in the story just grew from that one experience.  There are other nuggets of truth in the story, like the incident with the gladiolas, and they tied well together.  Those were both, “You can’t make this shit up,” moments that had to be memorialized.  We all have these little “slice of life” events happen to us, but for me, when they happen there is almost a heartbreaking beauty to them that makes them take hold inside me and beg to be written about.  Once I have an opening line for a story, honestly I just write what comes to me.  I imagine I am reading the story and picture where the story would go next.  Once I have a draft, I go back through it many times and rework it, until it feels right.  I probably read the stories more than I write them!  With the memoir, I followed the chronology of the mini adventures and tried to tie together all of the stories with the thread of my personal journey.  The blog is inspired by things I see and hear every day, and things I imagine other women are dealing with.  I want my work to be relatable, and I hope women will read my stuff and laugh, thinking yeah, I have been there!

Continuing the Tour

I nominate my dear high school friend, fellow blogger and adventurous woman Kim Brown, as well as author and afterlife expert, Roberta Grimes, to continue the tour.  These two women are very different, but both are fascinating women with amazing stories to tell.  Be sure to check out Kim and Roberta’s websites by clicking on their names!

Kim Brown 

Kim Brown, adventurous woman and blogger!

Kim Brown, adventurous woman and blogger!

Kim Brown was born in Rochester, NY, growing up on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence seaway.   Though Kim enjoyed boating from a young age she preferred the speed and excitement of a motorboat to sailing.  Then she met a boy who liked to sail, and the rest is history!  In 2011 Kim and her sailor husband Simon bought a sailboat, Selene, and started honing their sailing skills along the south coast of England, in one of the busiest waterways in the world, the Solent!  Kim’s latest adventure involved selling up and heading out on their new 56′ Oyster, Britican, to sail the world with their three year old daughter, Sienna.  Kim is a true adventurer, and keeps a regular blog on her website SailingBritican.com.

Roberta Grimes

Roberta Grimes, author and afterlife expert.

Roberta Grimes, author and afterlife expert.

Roberta Grimes is an incredibly diverse and fascinating author, as seen by her varied portfolio of published books.  After spending decades studying nearly 200 years of afterlife evidence, Roberta published two non-fiction books; The Fun of Dying: Find Out What Really Happens Next, and The Fun of Staying in Touch.  She has also written two mainstream fiction novels; My Thomas: A Novel of Martha Jefferson’s Life, and her latest, Rich and Famous.  The first is deeply rooted in American history while the second explores the complicated life of a young businesswoman in the 1980’s.  She has also published three books in her Letters From Love series.  Roberta is a business attorney, wife, mother, and grandmother, and in July of this year co-chaired a conference on the afterlife in Scottsdale, AZ, about which she was interviewed on local TV.

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Midlife Crisis II – What Does Your Midlife Crisis Look Like?

Okay folks, I want to know…what does your midlife crisis look like? My last blog post was all about my midlife crisis, and the things I do to deal with the angst. I spoke of the power of writing about it, exposing my own insecurities with words and fictional characters. I spoke about running, something I have done since high school but only really fell in love with in my late thirties. I spoke of guitar playing, a challenge that is both frustrating and totally exhilarating. And I even sang the praises of red wine, a lovely crimson companion that helps me settle in at night and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I suspect that many of you out there have either experienced something like this or are going through it right now, and I want to hear about it! Did you discover a new hobby? Throw yourself into a new career? Have another kid (gasp!)? Get all cougar-y and take a younger lover? Maybe an older lover? Buy a revved up sports car? Take an amazing adventure? Start a deep and meaningful relationship with ice cream? Or maybe you just kept those feelings of angst at bay and went about your business, not really giving in to the midlife madness. Now that is a feat I would love to hear about.

Whatever way you dealt with it, I want to hear about it! Maybe your “crisis” wasn’t at mid life – that’s ok! I still want to hear about how you dealt with a tricky time in your life when perhaps you doubted your direction, your path, or your worth. I think it is inspirational to hear how people get past these feelings of self-doubt and move forward in some way, whether that be in a new direction or a familiar one.

Let’s get a dialogue going, instead of me doing all the talking. How about sharing some of your wisdom and perspective in the comments below! Any advice for those who have not yet come to the scary hilltop that is mid life? Anything you wish you had done differently, or would do if you could go back? Anything you are still planning on doing? If you want to share something anonymously, you can send me an email at jess@jesskapp.com and tell me you would like your story to be anonymous. I swear I will not reveal your identity if you don’t want me to. It is really scary to share, I know, but we all have something valuable to contribute to the conversation.

My younger readers, I am not trying to leave you out, and your comments are welcome too! Maybe those of you whose asses have yet to droop, faces have yet to wrinkle, and whose upper arms don’t flap like wings when you wave hello can chime in with your hopes and/or fears about where you will be at midlife. Or maybe you just want to tell us crazy older ladies to shut the hell up already and be thankful that we finally feel comfortable in our own skin and don’t give a crap what people think of us. Maybe you want to share what some of your fears and doubts are as a young woman who has not reached midlife yet. That would be fair. We forty somethings don’t have the market cornered on angst and anxiety.  Feel free to stir some shit up, girls!

Come on, ladies…get in on the convo. What does your midlife crisis look like? What might it look like? I bet it’s pretty. I bet it’s interesting. And I bet you aren’t the only one who’s been there, done that. Let’s rock the midlife crises like the strong, diverse women we are! Let’s make that midlife crisis our bitch and do something truly amazing with it.

And then, have a glass of wine, maybe a scoop of ice cream and be thankful for all of the wonderful adventures yet to come.

 

 

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Midlife Crisis #LikeAGirl – Writing, Running, Rocking, and Red Wine.

Since about my 39th birthday I have been in the throes of a mid-life crisis. I don’t think it’s commonplace for people to think of women as candidates for mid-life crises. Mid-life crisis is a term that has a negative aura around it for the sad cliché it evokes of a man in a convertible sports car with a new earring and a hot younger woman in the passenger seat. But I think women are just as likely, and more entitled, to experience mid-life insanity. Why? Because, in my opinion, it is more acceptable for men to take off, explore, work late, adventure, and separate from the family for extended periods of time throughout their lives than it is for women. Yes, some women do this. But for most of us mothers/wives/career women, we are the primary nurturers, career or not. Moms are expected to be around. Wives are expected to be around. And many of us moms choose to be around, forsaking the freedom of an adventurous life.  Is it any wonder we might get antsy?

After years of being around, caring for the kids, caring for the husband, working hard at gaining career recognition, and generally being a nurturer, there came a moment in time when every fiber of my being screamed, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” I was shaken. Even though I had a great job. Even though I had great kids. Even though I had a great husband, and a nice house, and lived in a warm, sunny place, I felt as if my life was mediocre and stagnant. I cannot explain why, I just did. For the first time in my life I felt entitled to pursue stuff just for me. Just. For. Me. The most momentous decision that resulted from this inner earthquake was the decision to write, for real. To get back to a core passion that had quietly lived inside me, like a hermit, for years, never daring to emerge lest it rock the boat. I had wanted to be a writer from a young age, and entered college with aspirations of being a reporter, while fostering my creative writing on the side. Writing is a compulsion. It is entwined with my cells. But I have always ignored it, believing that my path was clearly laid before me and all I needed to do was follow it to ensure success. But at 39, acutely aware of the “something’s missing” feeling taking hold of my guts, I decided it was time to revisit that old compulsion and give it the time and reverence it deserved. It was time to dust off the old writing skills, dig deep, and produce some shit I was proud of.

My first project was the memoir of my life changing trips to Tibet, and my transformation from sheltered suburban girl to full on mountain woman. I kept a journal every day when I was in Tibet, and a couple of years ago I re-read it with fresh, middle-aged eyes. I was astounded at how more than a decade of removal from those experiences gave me new perspective on what Tibet had meant to me as a woman and a person. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the writing of that book and am extremely proud of what I ended up with (p.s. – it’s coming out next year!).

My first trip to Tibet, 1999, getting to know a local. He wanted my sunglasses.  I obliged.

My first trip to Tibet, 1999, getting to know a local. I wanted a picture and he wanted my sunglasses. I obliged.

But perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered was my desire to write short stories. Fictional short stories seem to have taken root somewhere in my brain, and have been sprouting buds that need the light of day. I have always loved short stories. Now, at forty, I find that writing these stories allows me to explore the feelings, frustrations and frightening doubts that pop up in a woman’s mind in middle age. I don’t think many women talk about these feelings, because that would mean admitting that everything ain’t always peachy, even if you have a great job, a great man, and great kids. It is NOT CRAZY to have doubts about where your life is going, and if the path ahead is the one you want to travel forever and ever. It is not indulgent to pursue something solely for the purpose of feeling good about yourself, having fun, or just getting the hell out of your normal routine. Men do this shit all the time. Women need to. I am not ashamed to say hell yes I am having a mid-life crisis. It’s scary when you realize you are half way finished with your life and might want to do more, see more, BE more than you already are. I mean, shit, what the hell do you DO with that information!

Here’s what I am doing with that information. I am writing about it. I am writing about women in mid-life and all of the beautiful, complicated shit that entails. It doesn’t make me a bad person to explore these notions. It doesn’t mean I am unhappy, or unfaithful, or unstable. It means I am human. One of my stories will be published in a local magazine this year – it makes me giddy, and scared, and shy, and proud, all at the same time. It’s going to be out there for anyone to see. Well, shit. And, wow!

In addition to writing my heart out, I am also running, rocking out on guitar, and drinking a lot of red wine. That’s rocking a midlife crisis #LikeAGirl. Here’s to another forty years of living the hell out of this life. No convertible sports car necessary.  Cheers!

Lovin' on the guitar.

Lovin’ on the guitar.

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This Old House

I often doubt myself for decisions I make, but never so harshly as I have since this spring. Why? In March, my family moved into a new house. There were many reasons we decided to move, including getting the boys into a better school district, wanting more space, and wanting to be in a quieter, safer neighborhood. It had nothing to do with our old house, which we absolutely loved and poured our hearts and souls into when we remodeled it seven years ago. In fact, leaving that house was very difficult for us, but most of all for our two young boys who associate their young childhood with that place. When we bought the old house, Paul and I were newlyweds, and it would be our first home together. We were desperate to be in the neighborhood adjacent to campus and were lucky enough to find a small little bungalow that we could afford. The house was 950 square feet when we bought it. It was 1930 square feet when we moved out. The house was a labor of love and sweat, and held many of our most precious memories, including having two babies brought home to it, raised through infancy and toddlerhood, and starting elementary school. When we remodeled we honestly never considered that we would sell it. We had images of us growing old in that house, walking or riding our bikes to work until the day we retired, our boys coming back to visit for holidays. But somewhere along the way other considerations became significant and we began to consider a change. Actually, I was the one who was desperate for a change, and it manifested in me pushing for a move.

The old house, my kids first childhood haven.

The old house, my kids’ first childhood haven.

Why was I so desperate for a change? Well, to put it plainly, I was freaking out about my fortieth birthday looming, and suddenly felt as if my life was a thick, murky sludge of stagnant water that needed to be flushed out by a good, hard storm.   I had never thought of myself as a mid-life crisis type, always believing I would take every birthday as it came, aging gracefully and accepting whatever life had in store for me. I was dead wrong. I lost my fucking mind. I started to think of my life as half over. I began to feel as if I was sliding fast on the downslope to death, and that the only way to feel better was for something major to shake shit up.

Me and Drew on my 39th birthday, when the midlife crisis really set in!

Me and Drew on my 39th birthday, when the midlife crisis really set in. This is in the dining room of our old house.

Prior to the desperate desire to move I tried other avenues of exploration in the hopes that they would satiate my thirst for a life-changing shake up. The first exploration was guitar lessons, which are still going strong almost two years later and have been a fabulous foray away from my everyday grind. But it wasn’t enough. Another attempt came in the form of trying to land an agent for my book, before I was ready to do so. I spent weeks researching what I needed to do, how to write a great query letter, what a perfect proposal was supposed to be like, what my target market was, who was my competition, why my book was special, etcetera, etcetera, and I went guns blazing into the task of landing an agent. I actually had a lot of interest, with many agents asking for my proposal, and it all seemed peachy up until the point when I would get the dreaded, “Your project sounds fantastic but it isn’t for me. Best of luck.” What the what? I went from ecstatic highs, full of hopes and wildest dreams, to ugly lows full of, “what made me think I was a writer?” It was months of rejections, trickling in slowly as agent after agent denied my request for representation. It was gut wrenching and humiliating and mortifying and put me off the book publishing process entirely for almost a year. What logically follows months of devastating rejection about your manuscript? Buying a new house, of course.

Paul and I had discussed the possibility of moving once the kids neared middle school age, as the local public middle school in our old neighborhood was not exactly a good option, and the local charter school was an academic boot camp that even us PhDs think sounds unnecessarily intense. That meant we really had a couple of years to do this house-hunting thing. Our house wasn’t ready to be on the market anyway, and we had no idea how long it would take to sell it. But one weekend, while Paul was away on a guys’ trip, a friend of mine took me to see a house she was interested in. It was in a great area of town with fantastic views, and just so happened to be pretty close to where we already lived but still in the school district we wanted. On a whim, I asked my mother, a realtor, to do a search for houses in the area that might work for us. That night, she sent me a list, and the next day, we went to an open house. I walked in and knew that this was going to be our next house. I texted Paul, who was on his way home from his guys’ weekend, and told him, “We are buying a new house.” Balls-to-the-wall girl had reared her ugly head and I was not looking back. Somehow, this house felt like my life raft. My life-changing shake up. My shelter in the storm of a raging mid-life crisis. It gave me hope that there were still things to look forward to.

Long story short, Paul saw the house the next day and we made an offer that night. We got the house, and have been living in it happily for six months. We love it, for many reasons, even though it isn’t perfect (it leaks like a sieve when it storms, which luckily isn’t often in Tucson). But it was a breath of fresh air for this mid-life crazy lady. I doubt myself about this all the time.   I wonder if I made the right decision, to push my family into this huge change. We went back to our old house recently (we still own it – still trying to sell it), and both of my boys sighed and announced they miss the old house. I asked them if they liked it better than the new house and their immediate response was, “Yes!” “Really?” I asked. They conceded that actually, they really like our new house but they also really miss the old house. It was heart-wrenching, and made me question even more if we made the right decision. It feels like it was my decision, mostly, and here my sweet boys were telling me they kind of wished we were still in the old house. What a fuck up I am.

The new house, a desert hideaway with tons of space, critters, and peace and quiet.

The new house, a desert hideaway with tons of space, critters, and peace and quiet.

The first house I grew up in is still my favorite house of all time. My fondest childhood memories live there, as does the part of my heart occupied by my still together parents. They divorced when I was seven, but up to that point my whole life revolved around our little nuclear family in that little house. My husband feels the same way about his first house. Now, our boys feel that way about their first house. Everyone has a first home they remember from their childhood, one that secures a slice of their hearts and roots into it deeply. For my boys, it is the yellow house on 5th street that Paul and I took from two-bedroom bungalow to three bedroom family house so we could raise our babies there. As I write this, we have signed an offer on our old house, and it is likely we will be saying goodbye to it in the next few weeks. As much as we have wanted this for months, as paying two mortgages and accruing debt have not been exactly stress free, the reality of letting go of that house is deeply profound and utterly terrifying. A part of my essence is defined by that house. Twelve years of my adult life, moving through the phases of liquid newlyweds to solid four-person family, are cemented forever into the very foundation of that house. Twelve years seeped into the walls, etched into the tile, ground into the wood floors, suspended in the atmosphere around the place. How do I let that old house go while keeping those pieces of me that will live there forever? Maybe I don’t. Maybe it makes sense to leave them there, a kind of last respects paid to the place that started our family life.

But what about my boys? Moving is always hard on kids, and I expected nothing less than tears and protests and maybe even a period of adjustment during which there would be behavioral abnormalities related to settling into a new home. All of these things have come to fruition, and then some, with my youngest still, six months later, waking many nights, disoriented and scared, unable to put himself back to sleep for fear that some critter will get into the house and get him. Since moving from the city to the ‘burbs, (which, in Tucson means the desert wilds), we have had encounters with Bobcats, Javelinas, Coyotes, Snakes, Ground Squirrels, Pack Rats, Scorpions, and a Tarantula. My little guy is afraid of many of these things, and I didn’t realize how afraid until we were already settled here and the animals descended on our new abode. Imagine my despair, the mom who uprooted her kids from a house they loved, a school they loved, to drag them out into the desert wild, and plop them down among strange animals and prickly plants, all the while trying to satisfy my own need for change but not really considering if they needed the change. What a selfish mom. What an utterly self absorbed, middle-aged, addle brained lunatic I am.

Or am I? Is it valid for me to doubt myself in this instance? Or should I be recognizing the fact that hey, if it weren’t for me we never would have moved, and our kids would still be living in a smaller house in a crappier area where we weren’t comfortable letting them outside alone to play or ride their bikes? Should I be thanking myself for having the foresight to impose this change on them before an age where kids get really mean and hormonal, and making new friends is even harder than it is at ages 8 and 6? Should I be secure in the knowledge that my kids are in a better school district, with friends just around the corner whose houses they can walk and bike to with ease? I have asked my husband a million times since the move, “Are you happy we moved? Do you like the new house? Do you wish we were still in our old house?” I have asked the boys the same questions a million times. But I haven’t asked myself. I have just questioned, and judged, and blamed, and doubted myself, allowing myself to spiral into uncertainty every time one of my boys has a nightmare or says he misses the old house.

But missing the old house is healthy. And loving the old house is healthy. And moving your family to a better, safer, quieter neighborhood where the kids can roam free and enjoy the outdoors is also healthy. I can only hope that as time goes on, the boys will come to appreciate the lifestyle they can enjoy here that they couldn’t enjoy there. I hope that my youngest will come to be fascinated by the wildlife, not fear it, and believe that he is safe in our home from any wild animals that might scare him. I hope my husband will come to accept we are no longer bikers but commuters, and that it isn’t so bad considering we are a twenty-minute drive from a desert hideaway to our city workplace. But most of all, I hope we sell that old house, tuck our memories safely away inside of us, and throw ourselves into the making of memories in this new desert haven. Moving might be outside our comfort zone, but if we never moved we would never know what else was waiting for us beyond the safety of the familiar.

A house is just a house. But a home – that’s anyplace you decide is a place worth opening your heart to.

 

 

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Gone Girl

Haven’t you ever just wanted to disappear? Be a gone girl? Just take off on a personal journey and not worry about anyone else but yourself? Or maybe it isn’t even as meaningful as taking a personal journey, but just get the hell outta Dodge and take a break from reality? I have a friend, an amazing woman, who recently decided to take off for Kashmir for several weeks because, well, she wanted to. While she was there she discovered some interesting pathways she could follow in her PhD research, which was an added bonus, but she was initially driven by her deep desire to experience this place that she felt a longing for, a connection to. This all sounds great, right? Here’s the rub – she is a mother of three and she caught some heat because of her decision. She didn’t go for very long, but she still experienced judgment and disapproval. It got me thinking about being a woman and a mother and an adventurer, and how those things sometimes have a hard time coexisting, especially when women are often quick to judge and criticize other women for their choices.

Back in the 90s I used to watch the sitcom Mad About You with the incredible Helen Hunt and hilarious Paul Reiser. They played an adorable married couple, Paul and Jaime Buchman, navigating life in NYC, marriage, careers, and all of the other things young married couples must navigate. In the last season of the show they had a baby. I will never forget the scene when, before the baby is born, it hits Jaime that she is going to be tied to this child in a way that Paul isn’t. She is spinning out a bit, ranting about how she doesn’t understand why Paul won’t be able to assume more of the responsibility, and why will she have to stay home more, work less, etc. His response is, “Because you’re the mommy.” She stops dead, her face drops, and she responds with heart racing, “Oh My God, I’m the mommy, I’M THE MOMMY!” Paul immediately rushes to her side to comfort her, but calmly affirms that yes, you are going to be the primary care giver because you will, in fact, be the mommy. This scene has stayed with me all these years because I remember feeling what she was feeling in that moment, that as a woman, if you have a child, like it or not you are the mommy! You are the one who will be expected to be the primary nurturer of the child. Yes, I know there are all sorts of modern families, and more and more families are non traditional, with moms working more and dads staying home, or two moms raising children together, or two dads, and all of that is absolutely fantastic! But the bottom line is, even with the changing landscape of what defines a family, women are still expected to be around more than men. If my friend’s husband had taken off to Kashmir for two weeks, nobody would have batted an eye. After all, she would have been the one home with the children, and isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

It turns out I have many more female friends who have never left their children for more than one or two overnights than female friends who have gone on an extended adventure sans offspring. For some of them it is simply lack of opportunity. For others, overwhelming guilt about the idea of leaving the kids for a few days, or a week, or more. And for others it is simply that with the limited amount of time off that they get, they don’t want to go somewhere without their families. There are all sorts of reasons it is hard to disconnect from our kids for more than a day or two, not the least of which is our desire to be the best moms we can be. Something definitely feels wrong about packing up and taking off for a week or two, and leaving our children in the hands of someone else. But when that someone else is their father (or other parent), it seems to me it should be perfectly okay to disconnect for a period of time to foster our own personal growth. That might be in the form of two nights away with our girlfriends. It could be two weeks in a country we have always wanted to see. In the world of geology, it could even be a month away doing fieldwork for our research. In my wildest fantasies it could be a week on a beach with a cocktail and a good book! None of these situations should cause anyone to brand a woman a bad mother. But the reality is, people are quick to judge, especially when you are a mom. I read an article recently about how modern American parenting is ruining modern American marriages. The idea is that we are so committed to our children’s every need and desire that we often forget ourselves. We give up opportunities to be alone, or be with our spouses, because we think we are bad parents if we don’t put our children above all else.

http://qz.com/273255/how-american-parenting-is-killing-the-american-marriage/

I would go a step further and say as women, we are more prone to sacrificing our own needs and desires to keep the kids, the spouse, the employer, and the family happy. If putting our kids on a pedestal is ruining modern marriages, couldn’t us putting everyone else but ourselves on a pedestal ruin the modern woman?

I have personal experience with this. My husband and I are both geologists. When we were graduate students we both did fieldwork in Tibet for months at a time. We disappeared, went off the grid for 100 days at a time, blissfully unplugging from our regular lives. At the time, we were not married, we did not have children, and the disappearing was part of our work, so it was never really questioned or judged. Actually, my mom questioned and judged it, mainly because she was terrified I was going to die out there and she would never see me again. She also questioned my choice to live in a tent with no running water for months at a time, as that seemed extremely unappealing to her. Whose kid was I who wanted to go for months without a shower? Surely not hers. Anyway, taking off was accepted as part of our lifestyle back then, and we were lucky to have the opportunities that we had to do this before the responsibilities of real life crept in. Now, the responsibilities of real life have crept in, set down roots and taken over like Kudzu. You might be thinking that we stopped going to places like Tibet for extended periods of time because we have kids and jobs, and that makes sense. In fact, I have stopped going anywhere for field research, mainly because my position doesn’t require me to do field research, but also because with two young children it has never seemed opportune for me to disappear for extended periods of time, and I know I would miss the little monsters terribly. However, my husband never stopped doing fieldwork. It was never even discussed as a possibility. He misses them when he travels, but doesn’t seem to worry that his absence will fuck them up monumentally. Shortly after our first son was born he was diagnosed with a type of pulmonary stenosis. It manifested as a murmur that the pediatrician picked up on during a routine check. His aorta was too narrow and his heart couldn’t pump the blood out efficiently. This caused a build up of pressure inside of his heart. They were hopeful that he would outgrow this issue, but we had to take him in for monitoring every couple of months. He had a limited amount of time in which this needed to resolve or they would perform open-heart surgery to expand the aorta. This was terrifying to me, a first time mother, with this tiny little baby who seemed to be in perfect health. All of this was happening right before the start of one of my husband’s field seasons. Our son was diagnosed with this problem in late February and Paul (hubby) was supposed to leave for Tibet in May. We talked about him canceling his field trip but in the end decided he should go. It was only six weeks of fieldwork (yes, that is considered short for us), and even if our son needed the surgery it would be at least six weeks on a wait list before the surgery could take place. So off Paul went, with my blessing, and home I stayed with my little baby boy, a brand new mom, facing the possibility that I would be told this precious little guy would need open-heart surgery. I never faulted Paul for going in the field – we made the decision together and if I had wanted him to stay home he would have stayed home. But what would have happened if I were the one who had to go into the field for research? What kind of mother would people have judged me to be if I took off while we were waiting to hear if our six month old needed open-heart surgery? I suspect I would have been labeled a horrible, heartless mother and shamed for the rest of my days. And I probably would have believed it.

To be fair, Paul is primarily a field geologist, and fieldwork is a necessary part of his work. It is also his passion, the main reason he got into geology in the first place. I never even considered that he would stop doing fieldwork, so it is not like I wanted him to stop and he refused. His fieldwork excursions are just part of our yearly experience. The reality of fieldwork lives inside our relationship like a permanent pillar. It isn’t going anywhere. On some level I am completely fine with this – I mean, I married a field geologist after all, and wouldn’t it be crazy to expect a field geologist to give up fieldwork? Yes, it would, at least for my husband who would probably lose him marbles if he couldn’t get into the field at least once a year and flex his mental (and physical) muscles. On another level, though, I wonder why it has never really come up that I don’t get to unplug every year, for several weeks at a time, from the daily realities of being a parent. Yes, when my husband does it, it is for work, so it is not like he is taking off on vacation. But if you were to ask him about fieldwork he would not describe it as strictly work. It is not as if he grudgingly goes because he has to. He chooses to keep fieldwork as a vital component of his research because he absolutely loves it. He tells me that he is calm, happy, and revitalized after a trip to Tibet, or South America, or Egypt, or Tajikistan, or any of the places he has visited for fieldwork. That sounds a lot like a vacation to me! I believe this revitalization he feels is only partly because of the rush of the work and of being in the field, but also in large part because he can spend several weeks not being a dad, and just being a geologist, a scientist, a man. Doesn’t that sound excellent?

I have been able to escape for ten days at a stretch, which is absolutely amazing and don’t knock it till you try it. Seriously. I highly recommend it. I am lucky that I have a mother who is happy to take our boys for ten days at a time so Paul and I can adventure together. On one of these trips we kayaked the NaPali coast of Kauai, one of the top 10 adventures in the world according to National Geographic magazine. On another trip, we spent ten days exploring Uganda and tracked mountain gorillas in the impenetrable forest, a mind-blowing, once in a lifetime adventure. I am thankful for these opportunities and don’t want to downplay their importance in my life. But not once have I ever considered leaving for two or three weeks without my husband, just me, to pursue a passion, do research, or just plain unplug from life. It just doesn’t seem like an option. In fact, the first time Paul and I were leaving our son to go on a trip together, I was talking with a great aunt of mine on the phone, and I told her about how excited I was for our first vacation away from the baby. Her response was, “Oh, how nice. My granddaughter would never dream of vacationing without the kids. The kids are part of the family, why would they go anywhere without them? Oh well, whatever works for you, I guess.” Her voice dripped with judgment and sarcasm. Why would they go anywhere without the kids? Because they are human, and need time alone together to foster their marital relationship, and kids are exhausting and we all need a break from them, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be something besides mommy sometimes…etc. I was dumbstruck and didn’t reply. I also have heard, many times, from friends and family, “How can you let Paul take off for weeks at a time and leave you alone with the kids? I couldn’t do it.” Well, some of it is that I am the type of person who likes a challenge, likes to be independent, and honestly CAN do it without him. Also, everyone needs time apart, and it really does make the heart grow fonder, which is great for our relationship. And finally, I married a field geologist and never considered that long stretches away would stop being a part of our lives. But I also never really considered that I, too, would need time away. I just assumed I would be at home and that would be just fine. Mostly it is. What isn’t fine is the assumption that I will be home, and that if I am not home I am neglectful. That sucks.

Now on to a different example, fellow geologists Paul and I went to graduate school with who are married with two kids, and both incorporate fieldwork into their lives. It didn’t start out that way. It began with the husband being the primary fieldworker, and the wife being the primary care giver, and resentment started to build. She had just as much need to be in the field as he did, but as is common, it was assumed she would be home with the kids. It just made more sense. Or did it? It wasn’t making sense for her, and she told her husband that she needed more time to do her work. They ended up keeping track of every day, every hour that each of them gets away from the kids, and making sure the other gets the exact same amount of time kid free. He tells us it is hard, and that he often gets much more time away from the kids, and finds himself facing quite a debt of time that he owes his wife. But ultimately, it works for them. It keeps any resentment from flourishing. Just last night Paul and I were out to dinner with friends and someone asked me if he was planning on going to Tibet next summer. I replied that he was done with Tibet fieldwork for a while, but he would be going to northern China, or Tajikistan, or somewhere else because a year cannot go by without some sort of fieldwork. My friend commented, “He owes you quite a bit of time away, doesn’t he?” This friend is a man, and I was a bit stunned, and grateful, to hear him say that. Hell yeah, he does owe me quite a bit of time away. I don’t think I can ever cash in, though, as I would end up missing a year or two of my kids’ lives. Even if I spread them out, I don’t have enough time off of work to make good on the cashing in of all my accrued away days. But we don’t keep track, and I don’t make plans to disappear, and that is my choice, but it is also my curse. It just doesn’t feel possible. It just doesn’t feel right. Because I’m the mommy. Oh. My. God. I’M THE MOMMY!

My friend who went to Kashmir told me it was one of the most wonderful experiences of her life. She went back not long after her first trip, for a couple of weeks, and again was given hell by many people for abandoning her kids. Both times her kids were home with their father, by the way, and were perfectly well cared for. She came home a happier, healthier human being, which I would argue benefits her kids. They may not know it now, but seeing their mom be independent and adventurous will influence how they expect their lives, and wives, to be. It is especially great for her daughter to have that kind of female role model in her life. If I could take off somewhere and spend two weeks doing nothing but writing I know I would come back a happier, healthier human being, which would also benefit my kids. I don’t think I know of one woman who would not benefit from being a gone girl at some point in their adult lives, making a conscious decision to disconnect from kids, spouses, and daily life to do something purely for themselves. Whether it be work related (doing research, writing, meeting new colleagues, marketing, networking), pursuing a passion, adventuring, or just plain taking a break, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting, needing, and expecting time to yourself beyond the occasional hour or two when dad takes the kids to the movies so you can stay home alone and paint your toenails. Don’t get me wrong, those little snippets of time are a delightful treat and we should expect them (not beg for them). But we should expect more, too. And if our spouses don’t have to go do fieldwork, or travel for work, they should also expect more. Men and women, moms and dads, we all need time away from reality to recharge our souls in one way or another. Lucky for men, it seems to be acceptable when they do it. But it should be acceptable for women too. It doesn’t have to be weeks, maybe just a few days will suffice. There are no rules. The point is, we all need to take a trip, take a break, and be able to do it guilt free. We shouldn’t shame a woman for going on an adventure without her kids, or her spouse. We should applaud her for knowing what she needs and going after it. We should support her for accepting that she will miss her children, but doing something outside her comfort zone anyway because she knows it will better her life in some way. Especially us ladies…we should support the other ladies in our lives who take these chances, not make them feel worse for doing so. I guarantee any woman who leaves her kids for more than a day or two feels guilt, misses them, and worries they will feel abandoned. Women worry about that stuff. We don’t need others telling us we should be guilty and that our kids are going to be fucked up for life because we chose to take a couple of weeks for ourselves. It doesn’t seem to fuck them up royally when daddy takes off for a few weeks to bang on rocks. I think they will survive if mommy does the same. Our kids may not know it, but their lives will probably benefit too, because mommy will come home with a big, happy smile plastered on her face, and maybe a healthy glow from some sun exposure that didn’t involve chasing her kids around the zoo all afternoon.

So get out there, girl. Get going, girl. If you need to do it, do it. If you want to see it, see it. Be gone, girl. Everyone will survive and be better for it. Including you.