boat trip!

•July 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I was lucky – really really lucky – that my parents love me a lot, and for my birthday they bought me a boat trip. Starting from Longyearbyen, there are several fjord cruises that go to different outposts. Helen and I really wanted to see some more of Spitzbergen besides just our little valley. So I was very very thrilled that my parents got me the best birthday present ever! It was an all-day affair, heading up to the former Russian mining outpost of Pyramiden by way of a few other places of interest.

I’m crunched for time and about to head to the airport so I’m not sure how much I can write, but I’ll at least post some pictures.

It started off with fog, clouds, and bad weather in Longyearbyen. What else is new. As we headed out, the coast was cloaked in fog.

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But look over there! It’s sunny on the other side of the fjord! And as it happens, the other side of the fjord is where we are heading, lucky us.

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First though, a stop at some bird cliffs. Hundreds and hundreds of birds perching and nesting on the rocks, although my zoom wasn’t big enough to give you a clear shot of them. The white stuff is bird shit.

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From there we headed out a long way, past some beautiful mountains and low islands, to a glacier.

Now: we have seen local glaciers. We have seen them from above, from the side, from below where they melt out into a moraine and a messy expanse of soil and sediment and boulders. Land-bound glaciers are impressive. But we hadn’t seen, yet, a glacier that goes down to the sea. It’s a whole different animal when you can see how tall and thick and just generally massive a glacier is.

We were wowed.

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While we were approaching, the boat slowed and our guide and the crew fished a piece of floating ice out of the water. It was quite the operation. Then he smashed it into smaller pieces with a mallet and served us all some whiskey on the rocks: the rocks being 3500-year-old glacier ice. That was something unexpected.

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(Photo credit: Helen. As usual, I’m blinking.)

It was… not very good whiskey. But we gamely drank it down anyway, you know, take a hit for the team. And it’s true that whiskey really does warm you up, so no complaints there.

And then we had drawn closer to the glacier. We’re really still quite far away, which makes it insane when you realize the scale of the ice chunks and fissures in this crazy blue-white texture.

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We had a grilled lunch on the deck. Yum. And then we headed over to Pyramiden, finally.

The history is interesting and I’ll try to summarize it briefly: although Svalbard is technically part of Norway, it’s also an international archipelago governed by a special treaty. The Russians have/had several mining communities, including one, Barentsburg, which is still running. Pyramiden was originally Swedish, then sold to the Russians, who then had to dismantle it at the outset of World War II so it wouldn’t be captured by the Nazis and used as a base. They began rebuilding after the war and production started up in 1956. It was going, going, going – with a population of 1200 at its peak – until the fall of the Soviet Union. Then it gradually tailed off and was closed in 1998. For ten years nobody was there. Now, 15 people summer there running a hotel in one of the old buildings and giving guided tours.

It was fascinating.

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Seriously. Wow.

There are major questions about what will happen to Pyramiden. The site has, unsurprisingly, horrible contamination and environmental damage issues. The governor of Svalbard reportedly wants Russia to scrub the site. But Russia doesn’t want to do much of anything (the site is still owned by the state mining company), and Norway is very sensitive to putting pressure on Russia.

Another suggestion is to turn it into a scientific research station. But, of course, scientists are the people who would care the most about the environmental issues, so there’s a bit of an issue there.

It’s pretty sad to see all the buildings abandoned: many still with furniture and empty beer bottles inside. The longer it stays not cleaned up, the less likely they will ever be suitable for use again.

Two more things of note: first, we had an awesome guide. Besides these awesome clothes, he was pretty funny and very interesting. He has lived in Pyramiden for three summers and spends his winters traveling. Last winter he hitchhiked around Iran and this year he wants to go to Argentina “so I can see some green trees for the first time in a long time.”

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And secondly, we saw an arctic fox pup playing!! (These photos are Helen’s: spot the fox!)

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Well: I’ve gotta run, but that’s the news for now. We’re off to Latnjajaure Field Station in northern Sweden, where we will have communication only by satellite phone. Check in a little later for updates when we get back!

dreary.

•July 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Tio Chris recently wrote in an e-mail:

“You do have to include some rainy miserable day pictures too.  Svalbard looks like England does in movies–always sunny and beautiful and the perfect place to be!”

So, without further ado:

Oh? You wanted to hike up to that ridge and see over the other side, out over the glacier and onto the rows and rows and rows of mountains?

Hahahahahahahahaha

It’s raining.

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(and yes, that is a huge icy glacier below Helen.)

up by the bootstraps.

•July 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Amid the recent economic downturn, there has been a lot of criticism of my generation. We say we have no jobs? Well, we’re lazy; we expect everything to be handed to us; we don’t plan for the future and then complain when the future is not good. That’s why we don’t have jobs. One common refrain is “well you should have majored in a STEM field, not the humanities, and you’d have a reliable job.”

It’s certainly true that there are jobs in the STEM fields. It’s true that a degree in biology, for instance, teaches you skills like data management and statistics which may be transferable to normal jobs. Recent census data shows that only 1 in 4 people with a bachelors degree in a STEM field go on to a job in those fields. So: there aren’t that many jobs available, actually. Good luck getting one. (Also, no shock here, most of the people who do get these jobs are men.)

It’s also interesting to hear people’s reactions when I say that I am about to start a PhD program. Getting a PhD is still so respected, so mythical: people tell me that they could never imagine receiving a PhD offer, much less doing the work to get the degree. Maybe I’ll learn otherwise, but I disagree. Do you have to be smart? Yes. Do you have to have done good work in your career up to this point? Yes. But in my mind, the biggest challenge to a long-term research degree is working really hard, working long hours, and staying motivated when there is no end in sight and things aren’t going well. It can be a very discouraging slog; many people hate their PhD project by the time they finish.

But more and more people are finishing. More and more degrees are being handed out. According to the NSF, the number of doctorates awarded increases by 3.4% annually. Clearly, achieving this is not an impossible feat: it just takes a lot of sacrifices and hard work.

Hard work is something I’m good at. That’s why I feel comfortable taking on a PhD. I think I can muscle my way through. But will it matter, in the long run?

For people in our grandparents’ generation, becoming a college professor was a good, secure, respected life. By no means easy or necessarily affluent, but solidly middle-class. Things have changed. In 1969, 78% of faculty positions were tenure-track; today that number has dipped to just 33%. The good jobs are disappearing. There are three times as many part-time faculty jobs as there were then, and reports of adjunct professors who have to work at multiple schools to pay the bills, or go on food stamps. Obviously it’s not like that for every person, but it’s not good.

So once you have gotten a doctorate, the future is really no clearer or more rosy than it was before. Friends and family might consider the achievement some sort of pinnacle or achievement; the labor market might not agree.  The same NSF report states,

“The proportion of doctorate recipients with definite commitments for employment or postdoctoral (postdoc) study fell in 2012 for life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering, the third consecutive year of decline in these fields. In every broad science and engineering (S&E) field, the proportion of 2012 doctorate recipients who reported definite commitments for employment or postdoc study was at or near the lowest level of the past 10 years, 2 to 11 percentage points lower than the proportion of 2002 doctorate recipients reporting such commitments.”

Only 2/3 of PhD recipients in science fields had definite employment commitments after graduation, in 2012; this was lower (closer to 60%) for life sciences, my field, than for others. If you want to stay in academia the costs are high, as a post-doctoral position earns less than half the average salary of an industry job.

I’m still not sure if I want to go down this road all the way, to become a PI (Principal Investigator: usually a professor, someone who gets a grant is in charge of a research project). But it’s clear to me that if I do, it will be challenging. I’m confident in my ability to finish a PhD, do good work, and continue to publish papers. But is this good enough to be able to have the type of life that I eventually want to have? Being smart is not enough to guarantee a professorship.

The journal/magazine Science recently made a widget for young career scientists to figure out what their chances are of becoming a PI. I filled in the information on a whim. I feel like I’m doing pretty well compared to many people at a similar point in their masters; I have a lot of research experience both in my masters and as a technician, I have a few papers published, I have made connections. I have applied for and received my own grant funding, something which is rare for students of my cohort.

Even if I don’t become a PI (or don’t want to become a PI), I think of other dream jobs – “reach goals” – and imagine that they might have similar requirements. Want to get a National Geographic Explorers Grant? Work for a nonprofit nature research group you admire in a cool part of the world? In order to choose your own future, you need to be pretty much a badass.

So I was discouraged when I saw this.

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I’m a girl, so lucky me, I’m sitting at 6% with my chance of becoming a PI.

I have written, maybe on this blog or maybe just on facebook, about why there are fewer women in science. There are more women in the life sciences, actually, than men, at early career stages. But that changes over time. There was a great article about why in the New York Times last fall. Read it. But regardless, I’m pissed: it’s not fair that I’m down at 6% while the boys are so much higher.

6%!? With all the hard work I’ve already put it? It felt like an insult.

The cool thing about the widget is that you can toggle the different variables and see how the line changes. The most important thing, it seems, is the number of first-author publications you have. I began thinking about what I could change in the next year. I will move universities to a more prestigious one and start a PhD program. But hopefully, I’ll also publish more. Publication is a long process, so the odds that anything from my work this summer is published by Christmas is zero. There’s hope though. We have one paper in review which has actually come back from reviewers and is sitting on the editor’s desk: hopefully, with revisions, they will take it. I have two other papers in progress where drafts are already being circulated among co-authors. On those two, I would be first author – the coveted position which I haven’t occupied so far.

The thing that makes a difference.

If all goes well, by the end of the year my chances could look more like this.

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So I have to get to work. And that’s science, for you: there is no relaxing. You’re in the field in a remote location? Doesn’t matter. You have to be working on papers. Haven’t seen your family in months? Too bad, keep working on papers. On vacation? Keep working on papers.

That’s the future I maybe have to look forward to – if I’m lucky and make it through.

I knew that it was tough to become a PI. Over the last decade, getting a tenure-track job is no longer the most common outcome for PhD recipients (and to be clear, I don’t mean the most common immediate outcome: I mean, outcome at all, even after one or a few postdoctoral positions). In the biological sciences, only 8% of PhDs receive a tenure-track job within 5 years of getting their doctorate.

If you get a postdoc, the future isn’t much better. 10% of postdocs are unemployed: that’s actually higher than our country’s unemployment rate. In 2012, 20% of postdocs were handed a faculty position.

There are many pros and cons to getting a faculty position, or a tenure-track one, at that. I’m years away from deciding if that’s right for me. But the knowledge that despite everything I’m doing, I might not be able to? It’s frustrating. It motivates me to work harder, but also to hate the system a little bit.

I have pride in the work that I do. I’m not asking anyone to hand anything to me. What irks me is that for myself and the many very talented, motivated students I work with, our work is not valued.

I hate being told I can’t do something, when I know that if I was just given a chance, I’d hit the ball out of the park.

It’s the worst feeling.

Science today is not the same as science used to be.

***

On a final strange yet amusing note, here’s a predatory publishing e-mail I received today! Good for some laughs – until you think that people fall for this scheme. The paper they are asking about has already been published in an established journal, downloaded hundreds of times, and has copyright. So, nope, I’m not interested in paying you to publish it in paperback…. just no.

I guess to one extent, you know you’ve made it when you start receiving predatory publishing e-mails.

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sunny days & reindeer friends.

•July 14, 2014 • 1 Comment

The past few days of fieldwork have been pretty great. Perhaps mostly because today we finished off the point-framing, which was the major work task we had to accomplish while we’re here. After spending the day entering data tomorrow, we’ll be able to head back to the field and collect some other data on particular species of interest, but basically anything we do now is like icing on the cake in terms of research and publishing potential.

The weekend days were brutally cold and windy, although not as cloudy as the last week and not rainy like Thursday and Friday. So we considered that a win. And yesterday we had reindeer visitors!

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That was fun! Reindeer are super cute and super weird-looking. Like many of the animals which are year-round residents here, Svalbard reindeer are a subspecies of a species with circumpolar distribution (this includes both reindeer in Scandinavia and caribou in North America). They are smaller than you’d expect reindeer to be – the smaller ones are the size of a large goat. Definitely not what I remember from my trip to Finland! They are actually the smallest of all the subspecies. Their short little legs only make them look funnier when they run, with their noses up in the air and their eyes bugging out of the black fur around their faces.

Today was special for another reason, mainly, it was sunny and amazingly beautiful! Still a bit windy but simply the nicest day we’ve had. To be able to look down the valley and have it be perfectly clear… the colors were completely different than anything we’d ever seen since arriving here and overall, it was just a remarkable day. After we finished our own work we walked down to a site where they had run the same experiment in a “wet” environment. It was very picturesque but while gingerly making our way over the crumbling boardwalks, built in 2003 with usually just one nail at each end of each board, we were very happy that we work up on the “mesic” meadow site instead.

Here are some pictures from today! Click any photo to enlarge.

 

birthdays & holidays.

•July 6, 2014 • 1 Comment

Happy fourth of July from the very cold Arctic!

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Friday was one of the colder days we’ve had…. 5 degrees C, which isn’t that cold, but it was very windy. And doing plant surveys (which I’ll post more about some other time) means you’re not moving. If we had been hiking, I would have been in tights and a long sleeve shirt and probably sweating. But sitting there counting plants or taking data…. not so much. I was wearing four jackets, two shirts, tights under work pants, double socks. And I was freezing. Luckily we borrowed a thermos and have been having instant hot cocoa on our breaks, which improves things considerably.

When the sun comes out, the temperature rises several degrees and it’s pleasant. But in our week of working, I think we had a total of maybe two hours where the sun poked through the clouds.

So that was the fourth of July.

The next day was my birthday! We slept late and then wanted to go hiking. There is a series of hikes around Longyearbyen called “Topptrimmen“: each has a box with a logbook, and if you complete all of them in a summer I think you get a little badge or something (I’m not sure, honestly). That is what we wanted to do. So we picked out two places over near the Isfjorden coast which we could do in one fell swoop, and got excited about seeing across the fjord to the big mountains and glaciers on the other side.

However, as we drove, and then started to hike, it became clear that we definitely weren’t going to see anything from the top of the mountain. The cloud ceiling was 100 or more meters below the summit.

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Also, that river that we would have had to cross… Helen and I had strapped our rubber boots to the outside of our backpacks in preparation. My rubber boots, as you can see from the top picture, are all. We crossed all the channels of the braided river quite carefully, gingerly because the rocks are slippery and the last thing you want is to fall into a freezing cold river. But the last channel of the braid was something else. It was brown and angry and fast. It was probably deeper than my boots were tall, although we didn’t try too hard to find out. Mainly, between the slippery rocks on the bottom and the strength of the current, we wussed out. It wasn’t worth getting wet to go up a mountain where we probably wouldn’t see anything anyway. So we crossed back to the original side of the river and continued walking up the valley – named Bjørndalen, Bear Valley. I got a big kick out of this because I work in biathlon where the most successful athlete ever is Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, one of the most amazing competitors I’ve seen in any sport. Every time I put a Norwegian news article about him through Google Translate, it says, “Bear Valley said…” And here I was in Bjørndalen! Hiking Ole Einar’s namesake valley. (I’m sure it was actually named after polar bears, but whatever.)

Despite not being an epic or difficult hike and having practically no elevation gain, it was beautiful and nice to see around the corner from town for the first time. Cecilie, a friend of my supervisor’s who is actually our age and studying to be a pilot in Tromsø, came with us. It was a good girls-only adventure.

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Side note: hiking with a rifle is a pain in the ass, but a total necessity here. We still haven’t seen any polar bears, which is just fine, thank you.

Other notes from the hike: we saw some Svalbard ptarmigan, or grouse, which were really cool. They were by the exit of an old abandoned mine and at first looked exactly like a chicken. We were convinced that it was a chicken and began wondering, “what are they doing here? they would freeze in the winter!”

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But actually… they are Svalbard ptarmigan, closely related to rock ptarmigan on mainland Norway. They are the only birds that live here year-round! Badass birds.

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The birthday finished up by roasting a chicken for dinner, and then having some raspberry cheesecake pieces from the grocery store. Not too fancy of a birthday, not too exciting, but pretty happy. When you’re on Svalbard, expectations change a little bit. Also, I’m turning one of those random numbers that nobody cares about.

“Do you feel older?” Helen asked last night before we went to bed.

“No,” I said.

 

Svalbard day 1.

•June 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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On Friday morning Helen and I woke up very early (separately: her at her aunt’s house in Södermalm, Stockholm; me at my hotel by the train station) and went to the airport. We checked our bags and the giant styrofoam box of soil coring equipment that I was bringing as a favor to a researcher in Uppsala instead of them having to ship it. And then we were off! First to Oslo, then to Longyearbyen.

There were some adventures immediately. When we checked in, we were told we’d have to collect our bags in Oslo and bring them through customs, since we were continuing on a domestic flight from there. Makes sense: I have to do that every time I go to the U.S. (and Norway is not part of the E.U., so it wouldn’t be surprising that things flown from other parts of Europe would need to be examined). So we got to Oslo, followed the signs for “domestic connections” which took us to the baggage claim, and found…. our bags never showed up.

I eventually went to the SAS help counter.

“Hi, we’re flying to Longyearbyen, and our bags never came off the belt?”

“Oh, they’ve been checked all the way through! You didn’t need to collect them here!”

Okay then. Back out – to the departures hall – and back through security. Then, we checked out gate assignment and found that it was in the international hall. So, moral of the story: Svalbard may be a Norwegian territory, but it still counts as international!

I was surprised when we boarded the plane that it was actually a bigger plane than the one we had on our Stockholm-Oslo leg. And it was almost full. I’d imagined the Longyearbyen airport being a tiny thing – maybe like Visby – but that was not the case at all. So we arrived with a lot of other tourists and locals, our bags never had to go through customs, etc. Standard travel, only we ended up in a faraway and crazy place!

We got our rented car – a big black jeep – and went to the university, where we checked into our room in the Guest House. It’s really nice. More space than most places I’ve seen elsewhere in Scandinavia and they’ll even clean it for us once a week! Very cushy, not like I was expecting for Arctic research.

Since we don’t have our polar bear training or our rifle yet (we get all that on Monday), we couldn’t get up to much trouble this weekend. We mostly walked around the town, which is protected from polar bears. You’re not allowed to leave the town limits without a rifle. It was pretty cool though. First of all, we saw reindeer just hanging out…

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But also, that first evening, a lot of lovely scenery.

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And a lot of snowmobiles. More snowmobiles than people here!

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Today, we slept very late (we were both exhausted) and then went to the Svalbard Museum. It’s a pretty cool museum about the history and nature on Svalbard.

Something I learned from Helen’s research that cleared up longstanding confusion: Svalbard is the name for the whole archipelago of islands here. Spitzbergen is the name of the island we are on, which is the biggest one. So there. I guess I should be more specific with my words in the future.

After that we went for a walk along one of the roads out of town. The first challenge: it is nesting season for Arctic terns, and they nest right along the edges of the road. Thus, when you walk by, they believe you are attacking their nests. They fly at you and apparently will peck your head. We didn’t believe this, but began walking and were quickly attacked by birds (no injuries were sustained, but it was scary). We felt like idiots and went back and grabbed a pair of the long red plastic poles which are provided. You can’t use them to fend the birds off – they are a protected species – but if you carry them vertically in the air, the birds can’t fly as close to you and won’t attack your head. They will, of course, still fly pretty close and make a lot of squawking.

I still think Arctic terns are among the most beautiful birds.

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After walking a bit, we came across a sled dog kennel. OMG, so cute.

dogsRight after this, we saw a packed nesting ground for common Eiders. As we were marveling at how many there were – literally, they blend in so you don’t notice them at first but all of a sudden we saw what must have been at least 100 of the birds, hunkered down in the dirt/vegetation – a huge seagull came along. One of the eiders must have gotten up from her nest, because the next thing I knew, before I could even process what was happening, the seagull was flying to the edge of the group, and it had a fluffy thing in its beak, and then I saw it land and gulp down a duckling.

Yes. I saw a seagull eat a duckling. That just happened.

Carry on.

The rest of the walk wasn’t so eventful, just beautiful. We reached the end of the polar bear protection zone and headed back.

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There’s not much to do in Longyearbyen that doesn’t cost an excessive amount of money, so I’m not sure how we are going to occupy ourselves tomorrow. The mountains look amazing, but without our rifle we can’t go hiking. So, we can’t wait until Monday when everything gets straightened out. footer

 

calm before the storm.

•June 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I have to admit that now that I have a PhD position secured, I’m a little bit less motivated about my continuing work on my masters. Am I excited to head north to Svalbard and Lapland? Heck yeah! But the logistics, the thesis-writing, the rule-following, all seem like extra annoyances now. Plus there’s the fact that I’m apparently in for a horrible round of paperwork, since it’s nearly impossible to enroll in a PhD program in Switzerland without a copy of your masters diploma in your hands. That makes it really tough to go directly from a masters to a PhD, immediately – the inevitable paperwork lag really ties you up. Sadly, schools don’t usually print out a diploma and hand it to you at the actual masters defense. Thus, I’m in for a world of pain. I’m looking forward to stability, but realizing that it might not come until a few months after my actual PhD start date!

And in between then and now, I have a lot of fun and a lot of stress to look forward to.

So, I’ve been relaxing in Davos and savoring the last bits of my freedom. Yes, I’ve been working on a manuscript with Julia and Christian – it’s almost ready! – but there’s been lots of fun things, too, from the morning run up Seehorn pictured above to lots of nice breakfasts with Julia. This morning it was strawberries and croissants on the balcony in the sun; a few days ago my parents sent me maple syrup, so we took the opportunity to make pancakes and bacon. YUM. Thanks so much, mom and dad!

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Working on manuscripts probably isn’t most people’s idea of relaxing, but I’m trying to treat myself to a few nice things because we won’t have them for the rest of the summer. We also had a great night out on the town watching World Cup action: first with an Italian colleague (her team lost) and then with all of Davos (Switzerland also lost, tant pis). I got a latte at Kaffe Klatsch, the Davos favorite. I bought Movenpick ice cream. Julia and I drank wine and watched goofy television. I baked banana bread; I made grilled cheese sandwiches. We cut fresh basil into our pasta sauce. I gorged on local Swiss cheese.

My mind is preoccupied trying to tie up a lot of loose ends before I disappear over the precipice for the rest of the summer, but these things are making me happy.

 
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