Monday, April 4, 2016

Volunteering in Austin | Spring Break 2016

Last semester, while I was just getting my feet under me during the whirlwind of graduate school, my department chair sent out an email. It was a forwarded message about a spring break volunteer opportunity through a campus organization called Mizzou Alternative Breaks. I was still harboring a dream of visiting friends during spring break so I quickly google'd when my friends would have their spring break.

As it turned out, no one had a spring break that lined up with my late spring break. So, on a whim I filled out the application. Part of the application had a blank with the instructions 'tell a story'. I wrote a sarcastic instructional manual on how to leave a social gathering in a way that ensured maximum awkwardness, a story that was in no way shape or form derived from anything that had ever happened to me. Of course not.

Somehow, barring my admitted social awkwardness, I was accepted into one of the two graduate student volunteer trips and found out that I would be traveling to Austin, TX to work at a vague organization with even a vaguer name.

Fast forward to last week, and I found myself in a huge van on a 16 hour car ride to the wonderful city of Austin along with six other graduate students from a variety of programs. We were going to the Center for Maximum Building Potential to volunteer doing...something, to be determined upon arrival, for the week. The Center is a place that specializes in green architecture, so they work as environmental consultants on building projects, they design sustainable buildings, they come up with new green innovations, and so much more. When we arrived, at half past midnight, we saw our living situation for the first time.





Suffice it to say, camping would have been more luxurious. As a kid, I always wanted to go camping but I have since grown out of that phase after realizing how many bugs would be involved. Our sleeping quarters, which I called the chicken coop, didn't exactly have four walls, had cute little raccoon entryways that the raccoons definitely took advantage of, and was inundated with 'nature'. From the constant hazy cloud of mosquitoes to the copious amounts of spiders and bugs, we were never truly alone.

This little guy set himself to catch some sun outside our bunks and stayed that way for hours. I wanted to pet him but refrained myself. 
There's a saying from the mizzou alternative break organization: be gumby. This apparently derives from a local business whose logo has character which is similar to the air-filled creations that wave around at used car lots. You know, the ones which flap back and forth kind of creepily? The saying basically means to be as flexible as those waving figures.

Well. If there was an award for the most gumby trip (and there should be) then my group has it in the bag! All week we were faced with unexpected challenges. From the ice cold showers (which eventually warmed up to manageable cool showers even bordering on room temperature) to the amazing abundance of wasp nests (including, but not limited to, the wasp nest inside the coffee pot, which forced us to be innovative in the way we brewed our coffee each morning), my group rolled with the punches.

Don't worry, we found a way to brew coffee. Priorities man. 
We were split into three groups upon arriving, with each group assigned a project. After mentioning that I had been glancingly associated with laying concrete during my mission trip to Honduras I was assigned to work with two other students building a ramp on a set of stone steps leading into the Center.


Now, the way the Center works is not the way I learn best. We were thrown a basic idea-- hey, go build a ramp-- and then left to our own devices. We pooled our little-to-none construction skills together and got to work. I still see ramps whenever I close my eyes. It was stressful, confusing, but the bottom line is, at the end of the week, there was a stone ramp where previously there had been none.

Mixing up concrete is the worst.
After nine hours of construction work I look like a 90s boy, 
Working 9 hour days doing construction work on little sleep with the beginnings of a cold taught me a couple things. The most important lesson?

Just how privileged I am. You see, this physically challenging job, hauling rocks and beams, mixing concrete, picking up 50 lbs bags, etc, was a one week exception. This was not just a normal Tuesday for me, as it is for many people. I have the luxury of being able to choose to follow my passion of getting a PhD, a passion that has me working a cushy, indoor job.

 I don't have to worry about breathing in concrete dust day in and day out, wondering just how effective my mask is. I don't have back pain from constantly lifting and breaking open bags of concrete.  This week was physically challenging for sure, but it is book-ended by an job that pays me to follow my passion. When I'm going through midterms it's easy to lose sight of how lucky I am; my spring break was a refreshing reminder.

We had to load these stones onto a pallet and then unload them onto the ramp. It is mildly unsurprising how unprepared I am for manual labor. 

We made our lunch at the center and cooked a couple of campfire dinners.


The fire might look impressive but those flames are due to some quick burning kindling. I know little to nothing about making a fire, and was never able to get this one to burn well.


We ate a couple of dinners out, and discovered this amazing taco place that I'm still dreaming about.

Just look at that perfection. Is a Torchy's in Columbia too much to ask for?
We had a day off at the beginning of the week we used to explore Austin.

An outdoor graffiti art gallery which is constantly evolving. 
Look at those fresh, clean faces. They didn't stay that way for long. 
This cute mural was actually the hardest to find; we drove in circles for a while before finally stumbling upon it.

And that's about it! I'm really glad that I ended up on this spring break trip; it was a last minute whim that definitely paid off. Happy as I was to be in Austin, I'm also happy to be home. I'm currently reveling in the luxuries of my apartment-- hot showers, a bed that has cushion on it, the utter lack of bugs, and not having to be on my feet all day. My legs are spotted with various bruises of all shapes and sizes but the one with the best story is definitely the bruise on my hand which I garnered after getting it stuck in a working concrete machine. That was the most terrifying five seconds (though in my reference frame it was an hour long ordeal #physicshumor) of my life but I escaped with ten fingers that work, so all is well!

As always, thanks for reading! 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Jan-Feb Book Roundup

Looking for some books to check out? Looking to procrastinate from that assignment you were supposed to start yesterday? Looking for some pretty pictures of book covers?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions (and even if you didn't) then you are in luck! I'm taking a break from obsessing over the new Hamilton soundtrack (okay, who are we kidding, I'm literally listening to the album as I write) to list off the books I've managed to read since the semester started. I found that writing posts like these help me better remember what books I've read and how I felt about them. 

Today, I have two categories of books-- one autobiography and several historical fiction novels for you to peruse. So, without further ado...

Autobiography

The Only Pirate At The Party 
By Lindsey Stirling and Brooke Passey 

Lindsey Stirling is my favorite violinist-- she is a YouTube celebrity whose videos have millions of views. She mixes the traditional sound of a violin with hip-hop and other fun genres. Anyway, when I found her autobiography as an ebook from my library I downloaded it. It was a quick read and really interesting. I enjoyed reading about her life and struggles to make it as a musician. 


Historical Fiction

With romance!
Dawn on Distant Shore 
by Sara Donati 

This is actually a sequel to a novel I've written about before. It follows the struggle of a frontier family as the father discovers he has very powerful Scottish relatives who want to use him as a pawn in the complex religious and social struggles in Scotland. The cover looks rather cheesy, I know, with all the talk of 'epic romance', etc. However, I found the story captivating, and difficult to put down. I can't wait to go get the sequel-- the story is starting to shift to the next generation and I'm excited. 


With murder! 
India Black 
by Carol Carr
This a fun story of a prostitute who runs a brothel and gets involved in saving the British government from a political scandal. I enjoyed the twist on the normal Victorian murder mystery novel. There was only a minimal love subplot which I liked because nothing felt forced. That being said, these Victorian murder mystery novels are becoming a bit repetitive; I don't know if I'll pick up the sequel. 




The Ghost and Mrs. Muir 
by R. A. Dick
This novel wasn't historical fiction when it was written in the 40's. I saw the 1947 movie a while ago and ever since I learned it was based off a book I wanted to read the book. This was a short novel and a quick read. Recently widow'd Mrs. Muir and her two children move into a house on a bluff overlooking the sea. The house also happens to be haunted by its former owner, a salty sea captain. It was a good story, and I like to sprinkle in diverse books into my bookshelf, as I don't often read books from the 40's. I used the inner-library loan to get this book, which is one of my favorite things to do. For those of you who don't know, you can request just about any book, as long as some library in the US has it, and the book will be shipped to your local library. For me, the entire thing costs 50 cents which is a crazy bargain! 
My next in the series of "novels that inspired great films" will be the novel which inspired Foreign Correspondent (1940) which is one of my favorite films. It was based off the stunningly imaginatively titled Personal History by Vincent Sheean. 

That's it! That's all I've managed to read this semester. If I wait until the semester is over to compile a book list I'll inevitably forgot what I read at the beginning. I just made it through the first exam week-- I had to proctor and grade 300 exams for the class I TA on top of having three assignments of my own due, and halfway through the week was my birthday. 

Which means I'm 23! I toyed with the idea of writing a nostalgic/predictive post but suffice it to say, I've entered the realm of boring birthday numbers-- no one counts down the days till their 24th birthday ;) 

Now, I'm back to learning every word to every song on the Hamilton soundtrack. It's a new (off?) Broadway musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton and it's surprisingly absolutely amazing. For the record I think I would kill it at playing Eliza. But alas, my future is in a lab and not the stage. 

Thanks for reading!  

Saturday, January 9, 2016

My Etsy Shop: An Update

You may remember, around a year ago, I opened an Etsy shop. I discovered how surprisingly easy it was to create watercolor marbled mugs and figured I would try and sell them online.

Spoiler alert: this isn't a rags-to-riches story. I did actually sell one mug-- and I realized that I wasn't going to be able to make any profit with shipping costs as high as they are. So, I took the mugs down, and figured my Etsy days were over.

Skip to present.

I don't really do New Year's resolutions, but I do make new semester resolutions. Every time I start a semester I start out with such lofty goals. I'm actually going to read my textbook before class. I'm going to go over my notes and not just when I have to when doing homework. I'm going to spend spare time reading academic papers related to my tentative research area.

And, every time I get a couple weeks into the semester, these goals mysteriously disappear. The textbook is only opened when I'm stuck on homework, and my class notes are put away after class and not pulled out till the next class. And don't even get me started on the papers/textbooks I need to be reading for research!

So, I decided to set myself up for sucess and make (and use) a weekly planner. Before the week starts, I'll plan out exactly what I want to get done during the week. I'll be specific on the paper I need to read, the chapter in the textbook I need to study. It'll also help me become more organized with meal planning, something I never fully got the hang of last semester.

I wanted something simple, with plenty of room to write out homework deadlines, meeting times, and all my goals. I also have an obsession with water color; mix it all together and you get the following weekly planners!



I can't believe I have a watermark on something I made. What has my life become? I contemplated making it say "haha suckers" but figured that would be too antagonistic.

I made the weekly planner in three new and exciting colors! (how's my pitch going?) Blue, green, and black&white for those trying to save their poor ink supply. Check them out!

I'm excited to use them. I know I'll hole-punch them, but I haven't figured out how exactly I'm going to store them. A binder is too bulky for what I want, I might find a folder, or make a cardboard cover like I did with my journal. And maybe this post will hold me somewhat accountable, and I won't let my goals fall by the wayside this semester!

One can always hope.


Friday, January 8, 2016

6 Books to Check Out in 2016

I've spent my break exploring some really good books-- my latest obsession is a site called Goodreads aka the best thing ever. It literally comes up on my computer before Google. That's how much I use it. It's a site that helps you keep track of the books you'e read/want to read. It also helps me find books I love. I rounded some up books to recommend that I've read and loved recently!


by Anthony Doerr
10/10
I'm not the first to rant and rave over this book. It's a mammoth, 530ish page novel that I read in two days (or so). It tells two stories, one of a blind French girl, the other a young German orphan boy and weaves their stories into the tapestry of WWII. What makes this book unique (to me) is that it refused to turn a blind eye to the complexities of being a German in WWII. It doesn't hide behind the label of evil which is often cast (rightfully so) upon Nazism. It forces you to hear the story of the German solider just as much as you hear the story of the blind girl living in a captured French town. You don't have to sympathize at all with the German boy's story but you have to hear it.

Beyond that, the writing is beautifully lyric with metaphorical phrasing that really sticks with you. The author skips past cliches and deals with the harsh realities of the war. The story skips from the girl to boy but also skips in time-- a feature I loved but can be offsetting to some.



By Jasper Fforde
8/10
Part wish fulfillment by the author, part detective drama, this novel takes place in an alternate universe where literature takes on a religious like importance. Rather than going to the movies, one would go to a live showing of Richard III, put on my audience members because of course everyone and their mother knows, and loves, every line to the Shakespearean play. The ideas presented are wonderfully fresh, even if the writing can be a little lacking. The characters weren't fully fleshed out, but I just loved the universe they lived in so it was a fun read. 




By Cassandra Rose Clarke
10/10
A Tale of Love, Loss and Robots really sums the whole thing up-- even if I am partial to the Oxford comma ((which would make it A Tale of Love, Loss, and Robots)) but maybe the author's going for something really meta with the omission of the comma, thereby grouping 'loss' and 'robots' together more intimately. This beautiful, expansive novel follows Cat, the daughter of a 'mad scientist' starting when she's a little girl meeting her new live-in tutor, a robot who acts and looks quite human. You watch as she grows up and makes decisions, some good, some heartbreaking.

The novel reminded me of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro in the fact that there is a lot of stuff going on in the background. There's the creation of sentient(?) robots, activist groups fighting for rights for the robots, an apocalyptic history which turned part of the US into a wasteland and created deadly hot summers but none of those things are the main focus on the book. Rather, the book is about people, about relationships-- about, like I said, love and loss. The writing was beautiful in a melodic sort of way. I hate to say more because one of things I love about reading is discovering what is going on while I read it. But yeah. Go and read this amazing, albeit somewhat depressing, novel. 





8.5/10
Like I mentioned, I hate reading summaries. On the back of the book, on websites-- I do my best to avoid them. What I do instead is read the first sentence or so of the summary, just enough to try and get a feel for what the book will be like. If those couple of sentences sound promising, I get the book from my library and try it out. 

A Darker Shade of Magic was good, but quite different from what I expected. The first couple lines of summary on Goodreads talked about a universe where multiple, parallel Londons existed, and certain people could travel between them. This idea, I found quite fascinating and picked the book up. The novel did indeed have that, but that idea of multiple Londons was mainly used as a means to an end for the plot. It was well written and captivating but I would call it traditional high fantasy(think typical, medieval fantasy), rather than the innovative sci-fi/fantasy hybrid I had imagined it would be. 





By Sara Donati
9/10

I read this epic historical fiction/romance novel last semester. I downloaded it from my library and thought I would give it a try. It's size was daunting (800ish pages?) especially during the busy semester. I was hooked from page one. This novel is about a 'spinster' (she was in her 20s but this is set in the late 1700s) who travels over the America where she is thrown into among other things, the strained relationships between the settlers and the natives. The romance was well written-- if a bit rushed, they married where I would have started dating, but perhaps that can be chalked up to historical accuracy. The writing really transports you to the New York wilderness and you quickly become attached to the characters, which are pretty well fleshed out. It is a long novel, but the plot is fast paced so it doesn't feel like you sloughing through 800 pages. I was quite sad when I reached the last page, but I recently found it is the beginning of a series! So I'll be checking out the sequel soon.




 Afterworlds
 by Scott Westerfield 
Stars: 8 / 10

I've always had this weird prejudice against Westerfield, author of the Pretties/etc series. I'm not sure why; I never really liked the Pretties series. However, I was looking for an ebook to read on my library's ebook website and this was the first title I saw. I thought the plot was intriguing so I downloaded it. 

I read the entire novel in a day or so-- it was like candy; easy to read and hard to put down. The novel is really meta; it's about a young girl who wrote a novel during NaNoWriMo, something I appreciated since I did NaNo a couple of times during high school. Half of the book is her going to New York City and trying to make it as an author, editing her novel, etc. The other half of the book is her novel-- titled Afterworlds. I thought that premise was really intriguing. How does knowing, in a very concrete sense, that Afterworlds is a work of fiction change the way we approach it? In one chapter the girl talks about her difficultly in writing a certain scene of her novel; the next chapter you read that scene. It definitely causes you to interact with the work in a different way. 

The novel had some issues but I really enjoyed reading it.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

And that's it! Six books you need to check out. If you're looking for a light, quicker read, see Afterworlds. If you're into historical fiction then All the light we cannot see is a must-read. If you're into romance then you have two options: Into the Wildnerness and The Mad Scientist's Daughter though the latter can be rather heart breaking. And if you're looking for something really different and inventive please read The Eyre Affair, bonus points if you're a Jane Eyre fan!

Thanks for reading! ((I feel like there's a pun to be made here....))

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Looking Back: 2015

2015.

How do I sum up my last semester of college? Freak snowstorms, free coffee, new haunts. There was the horrid, long wait to hear back from my grad school applications. There was the surprise snowfall on my birthday, the spontaneous Taylor Swift dance party in the field. 

It was pretty awesome turning 22 with this surprise--and PERFECT--cake
Then, there was that epic road trip to Florida for spring break-- an amazing vacation we partially chronicled through vlogs (get ready for me to rock my one dollar aviators!). Needlessly to say, my vlogging career did not take off. 

I discovered some great books-- such as American Gods by Neil Gaiman, such a game changer. Blair and I nearly stranded ourselves in a doomed icy journey to pick up Anna at the airport. We were barely a block from the apartment when we realized that sliding over the dark icy roads was not a good idea and headed back in defeat. 

I discovered Brooklyn-99, after ironically writing up a report on its failings to represent the spectrum of femininity in the same approving manner it afford the spectrum of masculinity for my brief stint in a feminism class, and my life is not the same because that show is EVERYTHING. 

And then, in May, I graduated with a BA in Physics with a minor in French. Which is crazy. I have a degree! I often forget that as I'm so focused on the next step, my final degree. 

I spent the summer with my lovely Bryan-- our reunion was primarily anti-climatic as the affection lay mostly on my side. ((I retook a horse riding class that I had taken a coupe of summers ago and was paired with the same stubborn lovely brown horse)) I turned my back on the new kid for one second and the next thing I knew all the horses escaped their fields and were frolicking in their new found freedom. I relearned how to lope and how awful it was to change leads (Bryan never did listen to me). 

And then, in August, I moved to Columbia to pursue my PhD in physics (biophysics most likely). It was my first time living alone-- meal planning and grocery shopping is a far cry from the cafeteria I had grown accustomed to. I taught my first labs-- and I think the kids kind of liked me! I took three classes, and somehow managed to finish with a surprisingly respectable GPA. 

I explored the parks around Columbia, finding some cool trails. And I spent countless hours on the phone and skype calls with friends living too far away. 

I've spent a large part of my Christmas break reading books-- I might rummaged together a post listing some of the recent gems I've stumbled upon. 

I'm not one for resolutions, just reflection. 2016 should hold more physics courses and summer research! Who knows what stories I'll have to tell one year from now. 

Thanks for reading! :) 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Sudden Silence

Alternative title: I guess it's break? 




This morning I woke up to snow. Not much, mind you. Barely a dusting collecting on car hoods and rooftops. The snowflakes cruised on by my window, borne on a strong northern wind. I dream of the day I'll look out my window and see an expanse of nature. But for now, I'll settle for bushes, a parking lot, and the occasional squirrel. I'm still a student after all, though this whole getting a paycheck thing has been amazing. 

So today marks the beginning of my Thanksgiving break! I'm not the type of person to skimp on my eight hours of sleep-- ever! The closest I've come to pulling an all-nighter was one absolutely miserable computer science assignment which had me stumbling to bed around 2 am. However, there is something to be said about the bliss of sleeping in, even if, when the alarm blares, I technically have had my eight hours of sleep. 

I'm excited about my first (massive) solo road trip coming up on Monday. I'll be traveling down south to spend Thanksgiving with some relatives – – as my parents were inconsiderate enough to be (safely) in France till Christmas. Six hours with just me, the road, and an audiobook of my choosing. Oh, and a AAA card in my back pocket. 

By some weird fluctuation of the universe, I don't exactly have homework over the break. However, I am excited to finally have time to devote to my biophysics reading. I've been swamped with either work, or a need to take a break from physics, and haven't read as much as I would have liked. 

The sun is threatening to come out and soon the snow will be whisked away. That's alright-- I have loads of laundry to do and a library run to make. After all, I can't let the beauty of the past interfere with my appreciation of the present. 

It'll snow again, mostly likely before I leave for Christmas break, and it'll be a rich, deep snow that'll have me griping about wet shoes and messy roads. Until then I'll enjoy the delicate balance of fall and winter, a patchwork quilt spread over my city. 

After Thanksgiving break, I have two weeks of classes and then finals. Though to be fair, I only have one final during finals week – – my other classes have take-home finals before the week of finals. And then, poof, my first semester of grad school will be completed! Only nine more (hopefully) after that. 

A couple years ago, I wrote Thanksgiving post in which I don't believe I said that I was thankful for it all. So in parting, I am thankful for a challenging, but not overwhelming first semester, the friends I've made here, my beautiful apartment with a cheerful little fireplace, and the friends I have scattered around the world. 


As always, thanks for reading :)


Saturday, October 31, 2015

My Life Thus Far and other random tidbits

I believe in random capitalization. Just call me Margo from Paper Towns.

I was going to write a blog post this morning. After all, I just entered the crazy post-midterm part of the semester where strangely enough I'm suddenly more busy than before. Who wants to work on an impossibly, devilishly hard take home math exam when you could just write a blog post instead?

Then, I read my friend Sami's blog post. I would prefer you to read it after you've read mine-- or else your standards will be impossibly high. She literally quotes Dickinson and writes such beautiful metaphors I feel like I have a unique, small window into her life.

And I could totally quote some poetry here-- I've been rereading my favorite poem anthology called She Walks in Beauty curated by Caroline Kennedy.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
Lord Byron

But I'll admit, I don't have the skill to weave beautiful feelings and expressions into this poem, to describe my life in such a way as Sami does. 

So I wasn't going to write a blog post this morning. After all, I knew it wouldn't be like hers-- and I loved hers!

But then I looked at my math exam and figured almost anything would be more fun than that, so here I am. 

Side note, I don't necessarily consider myself a "math person", a random fact which throws many people off. After all, I study physics! How can I not be a "math person"? But doing math for physics is very different then just a strict math course; one is a means to an end, the other is just plain difficult. 

The other day at Praise Team practice ((I sing in the band at my church)) the pianist asked me if grad school was like what I thought it would be. I just stared blankly at her, trying to remember what my expectations were. Yes? No? It's...different than I expected. I have more free time than I had anticipated, and labs are so much easier than I had thought. 

I was so worried my lab students would ask super difficult questions about the set ups-- derivations of the equations, etc. Ha, no. My lab students are algebra based which means they don't want to be physics majors. Most of them are there to quickly fulfill a requirement and then get out. 

I don't mind teaching the labs-- after a quick pre-lab lecture, I mostly just meander through the room, helping each group out. Grading the lab reports-- now that's a different situation. I have around 70 students total, which means I have 70 lab reports to grade each week, on top of my own homework and responsibilities. 

Taking three courses is manageable, but definitely not easy. I never feel that I have enough time to fully think about what I'm learning-- it can be a scramble to just get everything done. 

One thing I really enjoy about my program is that it is highly research oriented. What that means is that they are not too crazy about grades-- you do the work, take the exams, and you'll end up with a B. That's it. Classes are important, but research is more so. I'm already dreaming of the day when I'll be done with classes and can just do research. 

Speaking of research... When it comes to academics, I'm the type of person who throws themselves head first into a subject without looking back. If I could have signed up as a physics major before starting classes at Hendrix, I would have. I wasn't entirely sure what physics as a whole would entail, but I knew I wanted to major in it. I've no experience in the realm of biophysics, but I know that's the area I want to get my doctorate in.  I've meet with one the professors here already about research-- and now I have a textbook and tons of papers to read, which is exciting! 

It's almost November and it's crazy just how quickly the semester has flown by. It reminds me of my freshmen year in undergrad-- I feel like I blinked and it was Christmas. Not that I'm complaining-- I can't wait to go home for Christmas, see my family and my cats! 

I'm going to wrap this odd, slightly rambling?, post up by promising to post again soon. I felt like a brief update was warranted. Next time, I'll talk about the struggles and excitement of moving to a new city and starting over. 

See you then!