Making time for Art

Well, guys, I think I’m going to call it.

Here we are on Day 12 of November, almost halfway through the month, and I just cracked 1,000 words on my NaNo project.

So, only 49,000 more to go.  It’s just not happening.

I had yesterday off work (just one more reason for me to thank our servicemen and women) and I had abstractly thought it would be a great time to catch up on my writing.

What did I actually do yesterday? Went to the drug store, the grocery, paid bills, renewed my car registration, did a week’s worth of dishes, set up appointments for doctors and utilities, planned dinner, and raked leaves for two hours.  All in all, a very productive day.

I did all these things because I am an adult, and I have responsibilities.  This is the way it should be, right?  Until my writing in some way contributes to the household, I cannot prioritize it.


Last Friday, I had the privilege of seeing Joshua Bell perform live with the Akron Symphony Orchestra.  Needless to say, it was an incredible performance.  He played the Bruch concerto, which I had never heard live before.  Even someone who knew nothing about music would have understood that this performance was special, would have been moved by it.  “Now that’s somebody who loves music,” said an attendee (probably one of the many darling old women in the audience) to the local paper.

That’s the magic of those who are masters of their art.

It’s nearly impossible to mention Joshua Bell without also mentioning his 2007 experiment in collaboration with WaPo’s Gene Weingarten, in which he played incognito in a DC metro station for 43 minutes.  He earned $32.17, and of the thousand-some people that walked by him, only seven stopped to listen to him for more than a minute.  Only one person recognized him; he was already extremely popular at the time, having won a Grammy and played on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to The Red Violin.

All those people that walked through that metro station, during morning rush hour—it’s so easy to put myself in their shoes.  They are focused on their responsibilities, what they have to do when they get to the office, their dawdling kid, their grocery list.  This musician is at best a frivolity, at worst an annoyance.

And yet, we are incredulous.  How could they not stop and listen?  How can life be worth living when it actively excludes Joshua Bell playing Bach on a Stradivarius from six feet away?

I don’t know.  I’m not giving up on my NaNo story.  I don’t really care about word count, or “winning.”  I have been working on this story for a year, and I just want to finish it, however many words or months it takes.

Because writing is my art, and it makes life better.

And yes, I am absolutely counting this blog post towards my NaNo word count.  Only 48,500 more to go.


Bad Biology in Marie Lu’s Champion

*SPOILERS* ahead for Legend, Prodigy, and especially Champion by Marie Lu.


As I’ve been reading popular YA dystopian series, I’ve noticed a common motif: plagues.  The Matched, Maze Runner, and Legend series all have a plot element (generally in the 3rd book) involving some kind of terrible disease that main characters are trying to stop.  This element is used for societal and ethical commentary, because these plagues were engineered and unleashed by people. However, using a disease as a plot device opens the door to biological science fiction, which is something I really enjoy…when it’s done well.

Sorry, Eureka, that's not how you pipette. Nope.
Sorry, Eureka, that’s not how you pipette. Nope.

Now, I really enjoyed Champion, the finale of the Legend trilogy, but its biology is utter crap.

The first two books, Legend and Prodigy, don’t really go into biological details, and that’s fine.  We know that Day’s brother Eden is being used as a bioweapon against the Colonies, having been infected with a virus by the Republic government.  June, who as one of the Republic’s elite has had regular vaccinations against the plague viruses, also came down sick with something as she and Day were escaping to the Colonies.

The science starts to take a turn for the worse in Champion.  First, the Colonies threaten to halt the peace process unless the Republic provides the cure for the viral plague spreading through their territory; the Republic government assumes it’s Eden’s plague and requests to study him to develop the cure.  Herein lies our first problem: who in their right mind would attack a NEIGHBORING COUNTRY with a weaponized virus without first having the cure, or at least retaining samples to study?  It’s no good if you win the war, only to kill your own population when the virus makes its way back to you, which it inevitably will if it’s as extremely contagious as you designed it to be.

This is merely a flaw of logic; it can be waved away by supposing that the Republic is a thoroughly incompetent government.  Almost exactly ¾ of the way through Champion, we reach flaws in biology.

Scientists tell June that they haven’t been able to develop a cure from Eden’s blood, because the virus attacking the Colonies is a mutated form.  The cure they are trying to develop consists of “cure particles” which attach to an infected cell and keep it from lysing (breaking) open and dying.  But the mutated virus paradigm somehow changes the way the cure particles interact with the cells, and the ones made from Eden’s blood can’t attach to the cells infected with the mutated virus…

This explanation takes at least two pages, where plenty of scientific jargon is thrown around, and none of it makes any sense.  I am not even clear on whether the “tubes” are initially part of the cure particles or the cell itself.

Viruses do work by attacking a cell, then commandeering its machinery to produce more copies of itself, then lysing the cell open to let the new copies of the virus spread.  But treating a virus typically doesn’t mean stopping the cells themselves from lysing, but rather encouraging the immune system to attack the virus itself more effectively.

Most of what we do to treat viruses relies on the principle of antigens and antibodies in the immune system.  When our body recognizes virus invaders (“antigens”), it creates specific antibodies to attach to them, which prevents them from entering cells and also helps direct other aspects of the immune system to destroy them.

This wikipedia schematic shows how antibodies bind to specific antigens with a "lock and key" model
This wikipedia schematic shows how antibodies bind to specific antigens with a “lock and key” model

The idea that Eden and June’s blood could hold the key to treatment of the virus follows this principle.  In the current Ebola epidemic, we have seen survivor Dr. Kent Brantly’s blood used to successfully treat one other patient, and is now being tried for two others, including the Dallas nurse who contracted the disease on American soil.  His blood serum has antibodies against the virus, which when transfused into another patient will help effectively tag the virus for the patient’s immune system to destroy.

So, the book’s “cure particles” seem similar to antibodies, but it has confused their target, which is the viral particles themselves, not the cells they infect.  (I still have no idea what the “tubes” are meant to be.)  Unless the setting is meant to be in an alternate universe (no indication of this in the books), antigens and antibodies would still work the same in future North America as they do now, and I doubt the knowledge regarding them would have been lost in ~100 years.

So to take that concept further, it also makes no sense that Eden and June would have to go through all kinds of harrowing tests, including taking bone marrow (?!), when all that’s needed is the antibodies in their blood.

The supposed mutation of the virus is another issue.  We find out that Eden is not Patient 0 for the Colonies’ current virus after all; the virus is actually a combination of Eden’s and the one that June had while crossing the border.  (Shouldn’t June’s vaccinations have protected her?  Was she only vaccinated against viruses prevalent in LA?  Or are the vaccinations a sham to keep the populace calm?)

Viruses mutate naturally all the time; that’s why the components of flu vaccines change from year to year.  (However, there’s no reason to think Ebola will mutate specifically to become airborne.) I don’t know how likely it is for two random viruses to combine together naturally.  It can and does happen with similar strains of viruses, like two types of influenza; it’s called “antigenic shift” and is thought to be responsible for several flu outbreaks, including the H1N1 outbreak of 2009.  But we have no way of knowing if Eden and June’s viruses are at all similar.  So the scientist’s assertion that the Colonies tampered with the virus to create the new mutated strain could make sense.

Except…there’s no scientific way that I know of to prove it.  Splicing DNA or RNA together generally doesn’t leave any kind of fingerprint, certainly not a “marker” that could be “labeled” in a cell.  Perhaps if the Colonies’ scientists added extra “foreign” DNA or RNA not found in either virus?  But the Republic scientists would have had to sequence the whole viral DNA to find it, analyze what every gene does, then develop a way to tag the foreign ones.  And I can’t think of a reason for the Colonies to do that anyway.

Lastly, where are the original researchers that did the bioweapon research on Eden?  They should be involved in making the cure, since they oversaw the development of the virus.  Instead, we have random doctors at the hospital working on Eden and Tess, and a “lab tech” explaining the science to June.  Perhaps all the lead researchers have been executed, or Day refused to let them around his brother to avoid trauma.  But for such an important project, with the future of the country literally at stake, it seems the people with the most expertise should have been called in.

All these scientific inaccuracies cannot be fully explained away by the story; the fault lies with the author.  I truly wish Marie Lu had biologists critique these pages, or even better, left them out entirely, and not just because it would have slightly increased my enjoyment of the book.  With the current Ebola outbreak and inane controversies over vaccination, it’s important for people, especially young adults, to be scientifically literate about virology and immunology.  While the bad science probably doesn’t do any harm, Champion could have been used to educate young people about how viruses work, and how we try to fight them.   A sad missed opportunity in an otherwise great book.

I am not an epidemiologist/virologist/immunologist, but I do have a degree in zoology and work in medical research.  If you think any of my science in this post is wrong, or if you have any better explanation of the virology as presented in the book, I would love to be corrected and learn more.  Also, I’ve only read this series once and I don’t own it, so please correct me on any details from the books that may be relevant.

10 years make a decade, or a life together

And I can’t make it on my own

Because my heart is in Ohio

—“Ohio Is for Lovers,” Hawthorne Heights


Our story starts sixteen years ago, when I moved to Ohio against my will and started 7th grade at a new school.

There was no gifted program, just a program called PACE which was basically an excuse to let the smart kids out of class once a week.  That’s where I met B, although I don’t really remember it.  We were in band together, too.  I made some good friends in 7th grade.  I had a crush on a nice boy, but when I realized he wasn’t very smart I got over it quick.

Everyone knows 8th grade is the worst.  I had a crush on a smarter boy, but someone told him, and then someone heard him laughing about it.  I stopped telling my friends about my crushes.  B sat next to me in computer class (our last names start with the same letter) and antagonized me by making all his Powerpoints in Comic Sans.

In high school, the band was like my family.  I also did a bunch of other activities and had actually interesting, challenging classes.  In advanced English sophomore year, B made a point of getting to class early so he could claim the one cushiony chair.  I hardly ever got to sit in that damn chair.  Junior year, he went with a big group of my friends on a trip to England led by our wonderful English teacher. After that he started hanging out with our group more.

Senior year I shared a seat with him on the band bus once or twice.  I applied to college, and picked a good university two hours away.  B chose the local State school because he didn’t even have to write an essay to apply.  He gave me high fives in the band room, and he kicked the back of my shoe when I was getting books out of my locker.  His was three down from mine (last names, remember?).  I passed all my AP tests and went to prom with a group of friends.

He was the first person to arrive at my graduation party.  We saw each other constantly that summer, and he gave me his AIM screen name so we talked online all the time, too.  We saw Spiderman 2 at the drive-in, piled with friends in the back of my parents’ station wagon.  I realized I missed him when he wasn’t there.  I realized he was the easiest person to talk to I had ever met.  Neither of us knows when we started actually dating; we picked an arbitrary date to celebrate, first by month and then by year.

Most LDRs don’t survive freshman year of college.  He bought a new car so he could drive down to see me every month, and when we got tired of blowing through phone cards he bought us cell phones.  My roommates called him “B” too (or “Bubba”) and helped him sneak into the dorm to surprise me.

Junior year I spent fall semester in Spain, which was one of the best and most difficult experiences of my life.  For him, I think it was just difficult.  He proposed to me the next summer, after I came home from another trip abroad.  The first thing I said was, “Are you serious?” which he correctly took to mean yes.  We were at the drive-in, in my parents’ newer station wagon, about to watch Pirates of the Caribbean 3.  I could not have told you a single thing that happened in that movie.

I graduated and got a job near home with my degree, which was a minor miracle at the time.  We got married in my church (six years ago this summer) and took wedding photos by the life-size X-wing at a local restaurant.  We moved into a small apartment, then a bigger one, then bought a house.  He leaves notes around the house for me to find when he goes on business trips.  He keeps me sane when I’m anxious and depressed.  He tells me he’ll read the stories I write, and he’s even learned to clean the cat’s litter box.

My parents sold their station wagon, but I have a hatchback now, and we still go to the drive-in all the time.  Ten years is more than a third of my life, and every year that proportion spent with him keeps growing.

This is basically the kind of anniversary card we give each other.
This is typical of the kind of anniversary card he gives me.

I won’t be shamed

I read YA books.  Some people believe that I should be ashamed of this fact—that it is indicative of a childish mind, and I am “less” because of it.

I read (and write) YA because it tells me more about myself.  Teenagers are pushing their boundaries, learning their strengths as they become adults.

I am already an adult, but I still have plenty of weaknesses.  Self-doubt and anxiety are my daily companions.  I can feel helpless and overwhelmed.  I like to see a character grow, find her courage, find love, find herself.  I hope to continue to do the same in my life, and this makes Seraphina, Eleanor, and Katsa my kindred spirits, and very dear to my heart.

If YA readers are suspect, what does that say about YA writers?  Much as I enjoyed my adolescence, I don’t want to re-live it.  I just want to tell a good story.  A story that makes someone happy, that makes someone see something in a new light, that gives hope and understanding.

Being an adult is sometimes overrated.  Don’t you remember what it felt like to fall in love for the first time?  To feel a sense of wonder about the world, and about your place in it?  Why wouldn’t you want to go back and re-read The Westing Game?

I read comics, and I watch cartoons, and I will be this way for the rest of my life.  I also go to the orchestra frequently, perform technical scientific research, and recycle my newspapers and bottles (sometimes from alcohol!) every week.

I own that I sometimes read for nostalgia or escapism.  I also read to learn and improve my mind.  I also read to feel.

There is enough room in life for all these things.

Introvert Challenge: Getting a Haircut

I got a long-overdue haircut this morning—a great way to start the weekend.

It wasn’t until after college that I discovered the joys of a good, salon-quality haircut.  The whole experience is so relaxing: warm towels, scalp massage, nice smells, and that feeling of lightness when you shake your head afterward.  And knowing you look good is a great confidence boost.  It’s just an hour or so of blissful “me” time (and it doesn’t involve calories in any way!).

Then believe me when I say: as an introvert, I hate getting haircuts.

It begins with making the appointment.  I have a nice salon in a nearby (kinda upper-class) suburb that I’ve been going to for a few years now, and they’re open on Saturdays, so at least there’s no big decisions involved.  So once I’ve said to myself “I could use a haircut,” all that’s left to do is…pick up the phone.

Yeah.  The phone.  My least favorite method of communication.  Below pigeons, YouTube comments, and semaphore.  I don’t even know semaphore.  Phone calls are quick conversations, so there’s not enough time to think before I have to react, and I also can’t get cues from the other person’s facial/body expressions.  I try to practice what I’m going to say in my head before I call.  Sometimes it helps.

The appointment itself is another challenge.  Think about your stereotypical hair salon: it’s like a social center, a buzzing hive of feminine gossip and laughter.  People’s hobbies, kids, love lives all in the air for anyone to hear as the stylists and customers go back and forth.  As an observer, it’s pretty fascinating.

As a participant, it’s horrifying.

I don’t really want to chat about anything very personal with a person I only see 3-4 times a year.  And while there’s plenty of time to get into an in-depth conversation as introvert prefer, I don’t think my stylist is interested in the minutia of heart disease research.  Or anime, or YA fantasy novels.  I don’t have kids to talk about, either.

I am not bad at making small talk; it’s an important skill everyone should learn.  I learned it well as a campus tour guide in college.  But it is still an effort, and 30 minutes straight (minimum) of small talk is pretty exhausting for many introverts.  I do my best not to be awkward, but it’s a relief when she starts the noisy hair dryer and I’m spared the effort of conversation-making.

At first, I jumped around to different stylists, trying to find someone I could connect to.  I felt so awkward that I was sure the stylists were like “Oh, not that girl again” if I went back to them repeatedly.  But I think this actually made the experience harder because I was starting over every time.  And it certainly didn’t help the stylists get used to my very thick hair with waves in weird places, which would probably make for a better haircut.

I do think it’s important to stretch my “extrovert muscle” from time to time—I hope it will make me a stronger person as I learn from these experiences.  Already I’m thinking about what I can do better next time.  We all know that fear is the mind killer, and for me preparation can help soothe anxiety.

Luckily, I go to a no-tipping salon, so at least that social quandary is eliminated 🙂