It’s the last day of November. I have less than 12 hours to go on the NaNoWriMo challenge. In a last desperate bid to hit 50,000 words, I’m going to keep on writing all day, with just this little break to keep the blog alive. I’m still under 45,000, so it’s a stretch. Speaking of stretch, Thanksgiving was way too much eating and not nearly enough writing.

Once again, I could take a lesson from Smokey. Look at him. He’s just lying there, I’m standing right above him with the camera, and he doesn’t even budge. In fact, after I took the picture, he calmly turned his head away and closed his eyes again. I need some of that focus!

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Moment of beauty II


On a walk along the lake the other day, I came across this set of footprints. Evidence that I am not alone.

I am madly writing about Swiss postdocs, stem cells and Halloween parties. Let me just say this: all those authors who say that the characters in their books take on lives of their own and then proceed to take over your life? They’re not making it up. I sit down, prepared to write one thing, and two thousand words later, something completely different has happened. Most of the time it’s a big improvement over what I had planned. Sometimes, I just stare at the screen and think, how did that happen? WTF?

The good news is that I may actually reach my NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month.

The bad news is that this means I cannot devote much (if any) time to writing on the blog.

What do other bloggers do when they run out of time?  Well, judging from what I’ve seen out there, they do one of three things:

  1. post garbage
  2. open the blog up to guest posters
  3. post pictures

I don’t believe in polluting cyberspace. So #1 is out.

I had the opportunity to guest post on Running and Rambling not too long ago. It was great. So here goes: You are all hereby invited to contribute a guest post. I can’t guarantee I’ll post it (see #1 above), and I can’t guarantee if I do post it I won’t edit it a little, but if you can live with those possibilities, send me something (here’s the e-mail address).

(I’d ask Dave, but if past experience is any indication, I’ll get his contribution sometime in mid-2012, and that doesn’t really help me right now. But Dave, if you’re reading this, feel free to post something.)

Until I receive your masterpieces, then, I’m stuck with #3. As it happens, I often take a walk in the afternoon to clear my brain, so one day last week I took a camera along. The footprints were obvious. The rest – well, think elements. Ground. Water. Air.





The water in the lake is so clear this time of year – if it weren’t so cold I’d jump in. Maybe I will anyway.

To all my American friends, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.  This year, I’m celebrating Thanksgiving no less than three times – Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. That’s one advantage of being an expat … improvisation!


DucreuxyawnMonday afternoon, I couldn’t stop yawning. Sure, I was tired – I’ve been writing thousands of words a day on top of endless little bits and pieces of translating that keep dribbling in – but this was unusual. Later that afternoon, I saw this:

Yawning may no longer be a wide open question

Worth a click. I wasn’t aware that yawning was one of the great unsolved problems of science.

A dentist from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (Gary Hack) and a Princeton postdoc (Andrew Gallup) claim that we don’t yawn because we’re tired, sleepy, or need more oxygen.

No, they say, we yawn in order to cool down our brains. Continue reading

Spiraling down the double helix

It’s almost mid-month.  I’m at about 19,000 words, about 3,000 words behind my carefully calculated NaNoWriMo goal. (I’ve made an excel spreadsheet). I took my blood pressure yesterday and realized that stressing about keeping up with my self-imposed word count is not helping anything. In fact, my scientific approach to this endeavor – just 2,000 words a day, gives me 5 days off – is totally ludicrous. Creativity doesn’t work like that. I should know better.

Take yesterday. The central theme of my plot involves people researching induced pluripotent stem cells. Informing myself on this seemed the sensible thing to do, so I started reading. Now, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the topic of stem cells has been around forever. But did you know that human embryonic stem cells were only discovered in 1998? We’ve only known about these suckers for a dozen years? Continue reading


Just as I walked up to the metro on Saturday, the doors shut in my face. I was literally one second too late.

Damn. Steamed. I’d been working in the Starbuck’s on the Place St. Francois for the last couple of hours. Yes, I know, Starbuck’s is a big, evil chain store that sells sub-par coffee for over-par prices and manipulates people with all kinds of marketing gimmicks. But it’s the only coffee shop I know of around here where I can get out of my head and into my writing properly. If I stay at home on the weekend I’m constantly being asked for food by the resident teenagers or feeling like I ought to be doing laundry, and I can’t get anything done.

See, in a place like Starbuck’s there are a lot of distractions. Babies crying, background music, other people working and talking, low lighting, lots of people coming and going. So many distractions, in fact, that I have no choice but to tune them all out and concentrate fully on the task at hand. And Starbuck’s, evil as it may be, does have one thing figured out: how to leave you alone and not make you feel guilty for taking up space. It’s like the Apple store I went to in Albuquerque, where the Japanese guy was just working away at one of the demo computers and nobody minded. I appreciate that.

Plus I secretly want to be J. K. Rowling.

I’ve always liked writing in the midst of chaos. In college, I wrote all my essays parked in a coffee shop near campus, drinking foamy lattes and eating chocolate chip cookies. Back then, in the dark ages, that meant writing by hand on a pad of paper, like in the picture at the top of the post. Now, with a laptop, it’s so much more efficient! As long as there’s a plug and tons of distractions, I can go into my zone. When I found out J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a coffee shop, it clicked. Someday I, too, would write a blockbuster in a coffee shop.

So there you have it, people. It’s finally happening.

Anyway, back to the metro. The monitor said the next one wouldn’t be there for 12 minutes, so I went into the news shop in the metro station and browsed the magazines. I took down the Economist, put it back. I can’t read it, it’s too dense and I object philosophically to the absence of bylines. Wired  was really tempting. Then I caught a glimpse of the Technology Review hiding on a shelf behind. I pulled it out and looked at the cover.

Oh. My. God.

There on the cover of the Technology Review was a blurb that said Stem cells get personal. I may have mentioned that the novel I’m writing involves stem cells. I’d just had a bit of a block on the subject back in Starbuck’s, and I needed to do some research. I opened the article, and it was perfect. Exactly what I was looking for. How’s that for divine intervention?

I was so psyched that I went out for a run when I got home.

bare footI realize I have been remiss in reporting on my barefoot running adventure, so here’s an update for those of you who are interested: I haven’t put on a pair of regular running shoes since August. No kidding. I only wear my New Balances Minimus Trail shoes now. In fact, I wear them almost every time I leave the house for anything, I like them so much.

On Saturday, I don’t know whether it was the elation of having found the article on stem cells and unplugging the block in my writing, or the fact that there was a cushion of soft-looking fallen leaves on the ground, but I had a sudden urge to make skin-to-earth contact, and not with my face like I did last week, but with my feet. I took my shoes off and ran about 2 miles barefoot. The leaves took the worst of the bite out of the nasty little evil stones on the path.  I ran along the beachfront in Preverenges, in and out of the water, feeling like a little kid. Then when I got back to the really evil section of path I photographed on my earlier post, I sat down by the lake and put the New Balances back on.

What a great run! A lot of people had given me strange looks, but I just smiled and carried on. My feet felt so happy.

I know you want to try barefoot running, too. In another astonishing stroke of serendipity, I ran across a how-to video this weekend so you can get started in the comfort of your own living room! In honor of the New York City Marathon, Christopher McDougall, of Born to Run fame, has an article in  the NYT Magazine this Sunday. There’s a video of him hopping from one foot to the other, demonstrating how to work on your running form. If you don’t have a subscription to the online NYT, you can see the video at this blog, Hunter-Gatherer (written by a NYC barefoot runner type). Running barefoot may seem crazy, but trust me, it’s going mainstream. In a few years you’ll be thanking me for getting you started, because you will be so far ahead of all the other sad losers out there.

Images: top,  StarbuckGuy. The other one is my foot.

I can do this

Wow. I just want to go on the record here to report that writing 2,000 words a day is really tough. Last night, I was explaining the idea to Marc at dinner.

So how much have you written today? he asked.

Well, technically, 118 words. On the blog, I said.

So your first day is going to be one of your days off?

I can’t start with a day off! So after dinner last night I managed to crank out about 1,000 words. I got all the way up to where my main character leaves the office to go have lunch with the IT guy. Then I just ran out of steam.

Today I spent the morning translating, then went for a run. After my own lunch, I tackled lunch with the IT guy. I cranked away for what seemed like endless hours – and now my total is just over 3,000 words. Six pages of single-spaced text. Tons of riveting dialog.

I am already 1,000 words behind!

Well, I’m not going to waste my valuable typing muscles whining about it here. I still have four hours left in the day, technically. I can do this.

On another note, the Wikileaks guy, Julian Assange, lost his appeal (did he ever have any appeal?) and will have to go back to Sweden to face sex crime allegations. (Maybe his lack of appeal is why the sex wasn’t consensual in the first place?) Why Wired Magazine is reporting on this is beyond me, but there you have it. Word has it that documents from the rape investigation have mysteriously been leaked onto the Web…

A novel idea

Halloween has come and gone, hardly noticed here in chocolate land. Yesterday, the schoolkids traipsed by my house at lunch wearing normal clothing. It was so sad. Nobody got to wear a costume to school. (The Swiss don’t celebrate any holidays or birthdays at school, to be fair. School is for learning, not for partying.) Last night, despite my brimming basket of specially-purchased candy (I made an extra trip) we only had one group ring the doorbell. I even had a candle-filled pumpkin on the windowsill to beckon them in.

Maybe I got a bad reputation for what I did last year, when the village kids came trick-or-treating on October 30.

Come back tomorrow night, I’d said, genuinely shocked when they showed up at the door. I didn’t have any candy! (I can’t buy it more than one day in advance or I eat it all.) Today is not Halloween! The date is not negotiable!

Or maybe they remembered the year before, when I’d tried to explain Halloween etiquette. You have to say “trick or treat,” I instructed. I waited until they complied. And when you leave, you’re supposed to say “happy Halloween!”

In any case, it appears they’ve learned to avoid the snarky American lady with the ceramic pumpkin in the windowsill.

Never mind. More candy for me. Now it’s November, and as soon as I’ve saved my health by unloading the excess candy on my former office mates over at EPFL, I’m going to get down to business.

I’ve done a rash thing. I’ve signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Although the name is misleading (it’s not limited to Americans or US residents), I think the overall idea is good. You’re supposed to crank out a novel in a month. You “win” if you manage to write 50,000 words. Nobody judges your work and there are no literary prizes involved. I love winning.

How hard can it be? I figure at 1,000 words a day, it’ll take me  50 days — oops. November only has 30 days. Recalibrate.

Hey, at 2,000 words a day, I’ll get five days off!

I already crank out nearly that in translations and blog posts every month. And I’m planning to refuse work for the next 30 days and hijack my blog, at least for a couple of posts, for excerpts from the developing novel.

Here’s the premise: Twenty-something writer in university communications office (gee, I wonder where I got that idea?) interviews highly reputed scientist professor x who is studying hot topic with big medical implications. Postdoc comes in during interview, meets writer, there’s chemistry. They start dating, writer discovers by accident that there might be more going on in professor x’s lab than meets the eye, and postdoc is not who he claims to be. Writer’s geek friend in the IT department (who is secretly in love with her) helps her uncover the secret using sophisticated hacking techniques and unsophisticated sneaky spying maneuvers. Things quickly get really weird and scary for writer who nonetheless saves the day (and keeps her job).

I just counted all those words – that’s 118 towards today’s total!

What do you think? Would you like me to post a few excerpts as I go? I might eventually put up the whole shebang on another part of my publishing empire site. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

I’m going to need help coming up with names, because I’m really terrible at that. I’ll need a name for the main character, for professor x, for the head of the communications office, for the geek in the IT department, and for the evil postdoc. (He has to be Swiss, though, keep that in mind.) The setting is in the US. I’m just not comfortable with all the language issues that I’d have to deal with if I set it here in Switzerland. If I pick a name you suggest, I’ll send you a free copy once the book is published! Hopefully this NaNoWriMo will get my butt in gear so it won’t be a decade before that happens…

While we’re on the topic of writing, I found a really cool website the other day, called Nieman Storyboard. It’s “a project of the nieman foundation for the study of journalism at harvard” (no caps) that basically deconstructs really good writing to see why it works so well. You get twice the bang for your buck: first, you find out about some really fantastic writing, and second, you find out why it’s such good writing. I’m hoping some of it will rub off on me.

David Dobbs’  deconstruction of Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair article about the Greek Financial crisis knocked my socks off. I learned more from Lewis’ article than from all the newspaper stories I’ve read up to this point. It’s just so much more interesting to read what he writes. If you’re curious about the European debt crisis, read the Vanity fair article. If you’re interested in writing, read Dobbs on why it’s so great.

That should keep you busy for a while! I do promise, however, to write a post on junk DNA soon. I have some interesting stuff to share. And update you on my barefoot running progress (or lack thereof). Man, there aren’t enough hours in a day, even with daylight savings’ time…

Image: Marwa Morgan