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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.

Tibet_globe_2

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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An Open Letter To My Students, On The Eve Of A New Semester.

It’s the night before we will begin our short adventure together. Like some of you, I have first day jitters. Not because I am nervous about teaching in front of a group of more than 200 strangers (I have done this many times), but because each new semester carries such promise – the potential to inspire, excite, and engage so many bright young minds. As a teacher, nothing feels better than connecting with the people who will move us forward into a bright future, filled with new ideas, innovations, and ground breaking discoveries. Yes, you are the people of whom I speak. You are the ones who will take us into the next wave of exploration.

For some of you, science has always been on your radar. Maybe you started collecting rocks as a kid, or love the discovery channel, or went to space camp. Maybe you grew up near the beach and dreamed of being a marine biologist. For others, science is boring. Geeky. Nerdy. Uninteresting. Maybe it is even scary. And some of you believe that science is “too hard.” Well, check this out – I WAS YOU! I never wanted to pursue science. I was quite happy to be a writer and leave the science to the uber-nerds. I didn’t believe I could do it.

But here’s the thing: I was wrong about science. Science is so freaking cool! It isn’t just cool, it is the way we ask and answer all of the important questions of our world. Science is how we will solve the grandest challenges we will face in the next 10-20 years, and believe me, they are grand. Lack of clean drinking water, the need for clean energy, climate change, disaster relief, overpopulation, hunger, and disease – ALL of these issues are real, and have already begun. Guess what will help us with these problems? Prayer? Nope. War? Don’t think so. Smart, hard-working people coming together to do science and figure this all out? YOU GOT IT!

For me, being a scientist wasn’t always easy. In fact, some of it downright sucked (General Chemistry, anyone?). But I have never once regretted becoming a scientist.

Now, I know not all of you will become scientists. I respect that we all have different interests, strengths, and talents. In fact, I am envious that you have your entire lives ahead of you to choose your path and follow your dreams! It is such an exciting time. Regardless of your plans today, I ask you for this small favor: come to class with an open mind, a courteous heart, and the willingness to learn something new. For only in this way do we become better people. Every bit of new knowledge you gain, every new skill you master, makes you a deeper individual. It makes you stronger. Knowledge is power! I promise as your instructor to do my very best to keep it interesting, and answer your questions to the best of my ability. Will you, as my students, promise to simply give it a chance, respect our time together, and maybe even try to learn a little something? Oh, and promise to ask questions when you want to know more. I love that.

Now ladies, this is a special part just for you. You have no idea how important this time in history is for us women. Well, maybe you do, but I want to reiterate. The time for women to rise up is now. The time for us to be, do, and say EVERYTHING we can is now. The time for equality is now. Science is not just for old, white men. Science is for everyone. It is for you.

Women are bringing it big time, in all sorts of ways. And not just in science – whatever you choose to pursue, bring it! Bring your A game. Push yourself to the very brink of your ability. Then push farther. You are strong. You are smart. You are valuable. You have what it takes.

Oh and by the way, you can be a scientist AND be a girly girl if you want. You can wear high heels, do your hair, wear make up, and still be an archaeologist digging in the dirt, or a physicist doing thought experiments. How about a professional athlete, or a doctor, or a stay at home mother, or an astronaut on the first mission to Mars. Don’t let anyone tell you your clothes, your hair, your sense of style, or anything else makes you less of a valuable resource, a serious contributor, or an independent person.

So ladies, my special request to you is to bring your very best to class. Show everyone what you are made of. Because in this time of change, this time when women are rising up, speaking up, and taking charge, you are an important part of the process. Don’t just be the pretty girl in the back row with 1,000 Facebook friends and perfect hair – be the kick ass woman who will run the next groundbreaking company, find the cure for cancer, or write the next great American novel. Or maybe even answer one of our biggest scientific questions.

Welcome to my class. Let’s rock the hell out of some science.

Sincerely,

Dr. Jessica Kapp – scientist, teacher, mother, wife, runner, guitar player, girly girl.

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Saved By The Blues Special Sneak Peek

After reading this book, you’re going to want to dance.”

blues-dance-photos-evrim(Photo by Evrim Icoz)

I don’t know about you, but just looking at this picture makes me want to dance.

Blues music is known as the soundtrack of heartaches and hardships, but the practice of singing, playing, or listening to the blues has always been used as a mechanism to transform tragedy into beauty. So it’s no wonder that the powerful emotional response blues music evokes evolved into a dance form—and a thriving subculture.”

So begins the back cover description of the lovely Rebecca Pilsbury’s latest book, Saved By The Blues.

RebeccaPillsbury-739x1024

If you have never listened to blues music, really listened to it, you are missing out on a visceral experience that is sure to move your soul. Rebecca writes about people whose self expression is unleashed by the deep power of blues music, and the connection between two people giving themselves over to such a raw, partnered dance.

At its core, the stories are about the healing power of blues dancing.

Here’s the rest of the back cover synopsis:

Blues dancing is an intimate—and oftentimes healing—partner dance with a largely uncharted, yet widespread, global movement of dedicated followers. Partner dancing can be powerfully transformative by providing an outlet for self-expression, physical exercise, and community building. But the blues emphasizes vulnerability—its close embrace position combined with the soulful music of the blues offers an even deeper curative quality.

This book shares personal stories of nearly forty blues dancers from around the world—from North and South America, to Europe, to India and even the Middle East. Learn how blues dancing has helped people:

  • Overcome social anxiety and fear
  • Ease symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome/fibromyalgia
  • Experience relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Regain mobility after severe back and knee pain
  • Recover from divorce or relationship dissolution

Dancing doesn’t just heal on an individual level. When two partners share just three minutes of intimacy and connection, there can be a mutual exchange of the purest form of love and acceptance—an expression that carries into our lives off the dance floor. Read Saved by the Blues and be compelled to see where the blues can take you.

Rebecca is a candid and emotional writer, whose words lay bare her innermost struggles and revelations. She doesn’t hold back, in her writing or her dancing, and this book will inspire you to free yourself from self-doubt and express yourself with abandon!

There is one week left to donate to the Kickstarter to get this book published and into the world. If you would like to participate, go here:

Kickstarter for Saved By the Blues

If you are simply interested in reading the book, check back here, or on Rebecca’s Saved By The Blues facebook page, for a release date and details on how to order one.

This book will inspire you, entertain you, and cause you to think deeply about your own self expression. I, for one, can’t wait to read it!

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Mommy Kryptonite – What brings this mama to her knees?

Being a mom is hard. We never get a day off, and are usually the default parents, expected to manage all manner of domestic difficulty no matter what else is happening in our lives. Moms are amazing at stepping up, rising to the occasion, and handling all sorts of crap. From poop to boogers, whining and tantrums, PTA meetings, volunteering at school, supervising play dates, and tween heartbreak, moms often deal with the lion’s share of it, and most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.

But what if an inevitable aspect of motherhood caused a physical reaction, making it difficult, if not impossible, to step up? What if you had a sort of mommy kryptonite? Turns out, I do. Puke. Vomit, barf, upchuck. I know, nobody enjoys puke, but for me, dealing with puke is not just unwelcome, but a true anxiety that affects my ability to do my job as a mother.

This anxiety has a name – emetophobia – the intense and irrational fear of vomiting, vomit, or anything vomit related. This phobia is quite common but doesn’t get a lot of attention, as it hasn’t been researched extensively. In fact, up until last year I had no idea this fear of mine was a true phobia, and was convinced I was just crazy. I thought I was weak, and could control it if only I would stop being so silly. This feeling was often reinforced by my husband’s reaction to my fear, which could include eye rolling, sighing, and saying things like, “oh come on, it’s going to be fine.” Yes, it is going to be fine, but phobias and anxieties don’t work that way. You don’t simply tell yourself it’s going to be fine and POOF! – You’re good to go. Anxiety is a bitch. It pops up at the most inopportune moments, like when your kid is sick and needs your full attention. It wreaks havoc on your mental and physical abilities. In my case, all it takes is three little words – “My tummy hurts,”- and I find myself cramping up and running for the bathroom. Yes, it is that fast and yes, it is that real. I end up on and off the toilet until 1) It becomes clear that the child will not in fact be vomiting, 2) I have sufficiently emptied myself out and have nothing left to lose, or 3) The child starts vomiting and I have no choice but to get in the game and help that barfing boy.

As a rational human being, a scientist no less, I understand with complete clarity that statistically speaking, the likelihood of my child barfing on any given day is extremely low. In fact, over the past nine years of motherhood I have had to deal with full on barf-fests only three times. That is an average of once every three years, which ain’t much compared to all the other stuff us mothers have to deal with on a regular basis (think whining, back talk, bad attitudes, stepping on Legos, snotty noses, making lunches, and other annoying stuff). I know I will survive it when it happens, because I have before. But emetophobia is not rational. I think about barf every day of my life. Some days it is a fleeting thought. Others, I find myself wasting real time worrying. If my son isn’t hungry at dinner I fear he is sick. If he poops more than once a day I worry he has a bug. It is utterly exhausting and completely ridiculous, and I have absolutely no control over it.

Last weekend, my nine year old got hit with a stomach virus. He woke me at midnight to tell me he wasn’t feeling well, and by 1 am he had vomited all over his bed, down the side, and on the edge of his nightstand, splatter hitting the wall and making its way to the far recesses under his bed. I had never seen so much vomit. My husband slept through the whole thing (because for some reason dads don’t seem to hear this stuff happening the way moms do). And somehow, in between my own trips to the bathroom, I managed to clean it all up, and spent the entire night sitting with my sick kid, rubbing his back, emptying his barf bucket, reading to him, and being his comfort. This may sound silly, but it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. By 6 am, my poor baby dozing in his bed, I was exhausted and on the verge of tears. But I wouldn’t have changed a thing. See, I want to be there for my kids, no matter what, especially when they are sick. I know what it feels like to be waiting to vomit and feel scared, and I don’t want my boys to go through that alone.

And so, this emetophobe pushes herself out of her comfort zone, and finds a way to function in the face of her kryptonite. This doesn’t mean I am special. It simply means I am a mom. And the next time one of my boys says those three little words, I will no doubt panic, hit the bathroom…and get on with the job of being there for my sick kid.

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Home for the Holidays

Do you remember that feeling of getting up Christmas morning and rushing out to the living room to find cookie crumbs on the plate of cookies you left out for Santa, a stocking full of tiny goodies, and a colorful clutch of presents under the tree? Do you remember how great it felt as a kid to sit amidst a pile of crumpled wrapping paper, cozy in your footie pajamas, and try and decide which new toy to play with first? Now, do you remember that feeling of utter despair when your parents said it was time to get dressed, pile in the car, and drive the hour and a half to grandma’s house? The agony of walking away from your new, shiny toys heaped in a pile of destruction around the tree, victims of a Christmas tsunami, was impossible to describe to the adults around you, who probably already thought you were an ungrateful, spoiled brat as you whined about not wanting to go anywhere on Christmas day. While I can fully understand how this scene could elicit thoughts of spoiled rotten children who should really just be thankful that they have any presents to begin with, I remember this feeling and sympathize with it wholeheartedly. That is why I am not berating my kids this Christmas season when they tell me they are not happy that my husband and I are dragging them off to Hawaii for the holiday when they just want to be in their own house. I get it. They just want to be home for the holidays.

A perfect Christmas morning in Tucson, 2010.  PJs, a tree, and presents.

A perfect Christmas morning in Tucson, 2010. PJs, a tree, and presents.

Some of you are probably thinking, wait, what about the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, and the religious significance of this day. I can admit that for me, Christmas is not a religious thing. While I did grow up in a Catholic family, and did attend church fairly regularly (along with religious education classes and retreats with our church youth group), religion did not take hold as one of my core adult values. I am more a disciple of the Treat Others as You Would Have Them Treat You philosophy. I think what purged the churchgoer out of me was the day I was sitting in the back pew at Christ the King church in Rochester, NY, (the church where my parents married, where I was baptized, where I had my first communion, penance, and confirmation, and where my father and both paternal grandparents were memorialized in lovely funeral services by the same priest who confirmed me), and a TV was wheeled onto the altar to show the parishioners a video about the importance of tithing. The message that in order to be a good Christian you should be pledging at least 10% of your salary to the church did not sit well with me. That day I found I was losing my religion. But Christmas, a supremely religious day, has always held its appeal for me, not because of the baby Jesus, or even the gift giving and cookie baking, but because of this feeling I so vividly remember from childhood. The feeling of togetherness, my parents beaming as I tore through my presents. The feeling of falling snow, warm fires, hot cocoa, and Christmas music playing on the stereo. The pure joy of no school for two weeks, and spending long, chilly days safe and toasty in pajamas, under warm blankets, discovering the new dolls, coloring books, and other treasures found under the tree. It was, and still is, a time of year that elicits a warm fuzzy feeling in me.

It was this feeling that was so rudely interrupted when the time came to get dressed up in our Christmas finest and make the long drive to grandma and grandpa’s. I always knew we would have to stop somewhere along the way, either to pick up something for the celebration or put gas in the car or buy beer, and I hated that too. I would sigh in the back seat thinking, for God’s sake, if I have to go out in the cold in my dress, tights, and patent leather Mary Janes, the least you could do is be ready to go! There was always a church outing at some point, and to a kid with a house full of new stuff just beyond their reach, well, that was a torture beyond words. (The one exception was the year my cousin Dani, a toddler at the time, yelled out Hallelujah at the top of her lungs during a silent moment in church. Come to think of it, I think she was wearing footie pajamas. It was awesome. A true Christmas miracle.) Don’t get me wrong, I loved the mischief my cousins and I would get up to. But being torn away from my little green house full of comfort and joy was a real bummer.

Now I live in Tucson, AZ where there is no hope of a white Christmas, snow falling outside the window while sipping cocoa by the fire, and the warm, fuzzy feeling is harder to grasp. As such, it made perfect sense for us to take advantage of the kids’ vacation time and hop a flight to Hawaii, where Christmas is green and bright, the sun to shine by day and all the stars at night. I mean, if it is going to be 75 degrees F and sunny on Christmas we might as well be on the beach, right? But I had forgotten how much it means to a kid to be in their own home on Christmas day, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but sit in the wreckage of unwrapped gifts clad in comfy PJs. Because I am not experiencing Christmas as I did in my youth, complete with reindeer footprints on the snowy rooftops and icicles glittering in the sun, I somehow lost, for a moment, the memory of that warm, fuzzy feeling and how important it is to a kid. I forgot that a desert Christmas is the Christmas my boys are growing up with, and to them, being in our desert home on a warm, sunny day is a perfect Christmas. They still want to wake up in their own beds, run to the stockings by our fireplace (even if there is no fire crackling inside), slide on socked feet across the tile to the vivid packages beneath the tree, and spend the day immersed in the joy of that happy holiday feeling. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but sit surrounded by family and new goodies, and discover the presents they waited all year to get. And this year I am doing to them the exact same thing I couldn’t stand when I was a kid. Our decision about Christmas plans was based on what we wanted, not what they wanted.

I realize this all sounds superficial. No discussion of the birth of Jesus. No church. Just a day of unapologetic materialism. But my kids do know the story of Jesus’s birth and why Christmas is even a holiday to begin with. They have asked me the question, “What does Santa have to do with Jesus?” A very valid question that is difficult to answer. Every year we make them sift through their old toys and choose stuff to donate to kids who are less fortunate than them. We give money to charities and we drop new, unwrapped toys in the collection bins around town. We try to do at least a little bit to heighten their awareness of how lucky they are. And this year we thought they were the luckiest kids on Earth going to Hawaii for Christmas. But you know what? Their disappointment is valid. Yes, it might seem spoiled and bratty, but to them, just like it was to me, Christmas is about that feeling. Not church, not Jesus, not even presents. That feeling of being home. And so, I promised my boys that next year, and for as many years as they would like, we will stay home on Christmas. No planes, trains, or automobiles on Christmas day. No beaches. Not even the short drive to a grandparent’s house. Just our pink and tan desert abode, surrounded by mountain views, blue skies, and cactus warmed by the sun.

It won’t be like the Christmases of my youth, but it will be perfect, because they will have that warm, fuzzy feeling that only comes from Christmas at home.

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Follow You, Follow Me.

Today, I watched helplessly as my number of followers on Twitter began to slowly dwindle. I watched the number tick down over the course of the day, and couldn’t help but wonder why it was bothering me.

Okay, here’s the situation. In the past few months I have gone from invisible geology instructor living in relative obscurity in Tucson, Arizona, to aspiring author putting her private thoughts on display while trying to gain followers that might actually like her work. It is fucking weird. Less than half a year ago I believed that nobody would ever be even remotely interested in anything I had to say. This feeling was not unfounded – try teaching a science class to a theater full of non-science majors with mobile device addictions. It is a strange feeling to care about how many people want to hear your stories, read what you write, and generally engage with your thoughts and experiences. While I am opinionated and love a good debate, even with a PhD in geology I defer to other geologists, believing that I cannot possibly have knowledge that they (or anyone else) want to hear. I mean, who the fuck am I?

But after my first meeting with a publisher, to discuss how to approach publication of my first book, a memoir, his suggestion was to build a platform. What the fuck is that, you might ask? FOLLOWERS! People who get to know you and your work and want to read more. A great way to do this is to blog, he said. My reaction was typical – why would I do that? Anyone and everyone has a fucking blog these days. Some of them are great, witty, fun, and well written. Others are utter garbage. Blogging seemed like the trendy thing for sassy women to do. It seemed predictable. Why would I want to be lumped in with every other woman putting her thoughts out into the world just because she can? I am a nobody, and I certainly don’t think I am a somebody (like many of these people must). Followers? Seriously. FOLLOWERS? This sounded like a cult. Like people in long, flowing capes swaying and chanting while drinking something dangerous (Kool-Aid?) out of paper cups. It all sounded hokey to me.

I am discovering that the truth is, when you have an unusual and amazing story to tell, if the story is interesting and well written, people might actually want to hear it. Chances are it will speak to someone. When I had that initial reaction, my inner skeptic had not yet realized the beauty of the blog – spreading ideas of all sorts to people far and wide to start a discussion, a movement, a support group, or simply a network of like-minded people to learn and share with. Not to mention being able to write, really WRITE, anytime, anywhere, and publish it for anyone to see and critique.  So here I am, several months later, with a blog and a twitter handle (what the hell does handle mean, anyway), and a separate Facebook page for me the author (not me the person), and a glossy preview card about my memoir that I can hand out to total strangers, and a link to a fictional short story I wrote that lays bare all of the fears and emotions of a 40 year old woman, and a stomach that flutters when I gain a new follower and drops when I lose one. Not because I think I should be followed, but because another potential connection was lost. As this semester comes to an end, a bunch of my students who followed me just for the exam hints I would post to my twitter account are unfollowing me. I totally get it, and it is fine, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment each time my number goes down. I seem to have become a fan of the Kool-Aid.

Look – all of us, at some point or another, have something interesting to say. We all have stories to tell. Some of us choose to write about them in gory detail, accepting that we are sharing some of our most private thoughts and experiences with complete strangers. Others choose not to share at all, preferring to keep their experiences to themselves. The beauty of human diversity is that we all have such varied experiences, and we all interpret those experiences differently. The way I felt during months living in a tent on the Tibetan plateau is completely different than someone else (say, my mother) might have felt in that situation.  I can imagine, for example, pooping on a mountainside while listening to the wind blow and staring at the stars, while liberating to me, likely would have terrified her into a coronary thrombosis situation.  Either way, great story.

And so, what I have to say about motherhood, career, science, being a woman in science, mid-life, marriage, adventure, and stepping out of your comfort zone IS worth saying. It may not appeal to everyone. Nothing ever will. But I know a thing or two about this shit. For all of us struggling writers, hoping to find an audience who will eat up our words, all we can do is put it out there, and have faith that someone, somewhere, will relate to our stories, and drink the Kool-Aid with us. It’s not narcissism. It’s not delusions of grandeur. It’s sharing the human experience, in whatever way works for you, and hoping your words will have an impact on someone. Maybe those words will spread some knowledge, joy, or just the feeling that we are not alone in this crazy little thing called life. I will share with you, if you will share with me. I will support you if you will support me. (Kumbaya…and all that shit).

I will follow you…will you follow me?

 

 

 

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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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