August 2017

Now that I think about it, there are many ways that this prompt might be taken–in my colleague/co-author, Ton van Helvoort’s words, it has a lot of “interpretive flexibility.” And sometimes, that flexibility is not necessarily a good thing. Because not all interpretations are benign or even innocuous, even though many are.

Let me explain… Musical instruments have always fascinated me, in part because I can’t play any with any degree of facility. That may be the reason this prompt caught my eye. Well, that and the fact that it reminded me of a scene in an episode of the T.V. show Sex and the City, where the protagonist Carrie Bradshaw (SJP) in pursuit of the eponymous goal, is “played” like a cello–by a cellist (I think) or in any rate, a musician. The way it was played, the scene was mostly amusing, in a smile- rather than laugh-inducing way, not particularly romantic or erotic, but (or perhaps thus?) memorable for all that. There was another, genuinely romantic scene in one of the later seasons, where the Mikhail Baryshnikov character plays her a song he’s written for her on the piano (another another piano-related romantic moment suddenly popped to mind: the fabulous Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges “makin whoopie” on the piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys… but I digress). The point I guess I’m trying to make is illustrated in the difference between what happened to Carrie in the two episodes–whereas she was played in the one, she was played to (or for) in the other–and that makes all the difference.

Being played has another far more negative connotation, which is what came to mind when I looked at the prompt today. It means being taken for a fool or being conned. And for me, personally, that is the worst thing someone can do to me. I can remember virtually every time I’ve been played (which is not the same as being played a joke on or teased etc etc) and I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven the folks who’ve played me either at a personal or professional level. I think it’s because more than them, it’s myself I can’t forgive for having been so gullible, to have been taken in and being played. And so there is transference of the anger. Which is not to say that I sit around plotting dastardly revenge (although I will admit to some fantasies of me fabulously snubbing these people) but I do gradually distance myself from those who played me. Eventually,  in the first case, I think indifference is the best revenge. And living well is always a good revenge as well, in any circumstance…

Gosh, this turned into a weird and sort of cathartic, self psycho-analysis rather than a fun write up about how I would like to be a violin or Cello or piano or something. But that’s the thing about writing to these prompts– they really unlock unexpected memories, feeling etc. And the write-up emerges quite different. Oh well,  until next time. For now the answer is still… (42).


The title of my post is a spin on the title of a book by Pat Conroy (of the Prince of Tides fame) which I happen to be reading write now and enjoying very much…Plagiarism? one might ask, to which I’ll offer a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s famous line about immature poets imitating vs. mature poets stealing. Actually he goes on to talk about bad poets defacing what they imitate and the good ones taking something and making it better “or at least different” but that part is not germane to this post. So I’ll defer a discussion of the American Schoolteacher to another day and post (perhaps) and get to the the subject at hand, which as the titles proclaim, is about my writing life.

What triggered this post is a description by Conroy of his writing habits. To him, “the writing life requires the tireless discipline of the ironclad routine. The writing of books does not permit much familiarity with chaos.” Funny I should encounter that statement today of all days, when earlier in the morning (many hours before Pat Conroy was in my psyche) I was thinking about what makes me tick as a writer. And the conclusion I came to, in an impassioned monologue in my head that I delivered to no-one (and would never have done so but for the inspiration) was quite the opposite of Conroy’s description: that routine for me is anathema.

I thrive, or at least my writing self does, on chaos. I mean, I can’t even sit at the same spot 3 days in a row without getting restless and losing productivity. I need to mix something up–go to a cafe (if I’ve been working at home); a different cafe if I’ve visited the same one more than once; or change the hours I work or what I’m working on. Consider my inability to keep to my once-a-week resolution on this blog. I tried I really did, but it hasn’t really worked has it. I often go several days without writing and then suddenly have a succession of entries. As a PhD student I indulged myself in what I called “productive procrastination” with at least one other major project–what became The Human Genome Sourcebook, a reference book about the human genome, which I wrote over a period of 4 years all told, with a co-author. And this wasn’t even the first book to come out of my years as a grad student–the first, another reference book on microbes, was a solo effort that I had embarked on even before I had begun my Ph.D. Of course the first year of grad school brought the progress on that book (which bears the long and boring title of Microbes and People: An A to Z of the Important Micro-organisms in Our Lives. My father wanted me to call it The World of Small Things–another Eliot follower even if unknowingly so–but the title was not up to me) to a screeching halt. But then came my first summer, which I spent with Dad as my roomie at the oddly organized, I. M. Pei designed, East West Center at the University of Hawaii, where over a period of two-and-a-half months I wrote most of the book. Again–or I should say setting the pattern for the future–following a gloriously chaotic non-schedule that entailed some midnight visits to my Dad’s office and some dawn time walks from the Math Dept. to the EWC!

My current book–about 5 sevenths (or 5 eighths) of the way in since I began writing for real and in earnest last (2016) February or March–has been yet another exercise in discipline through chaos, written in bits and pieces in cafes and friends and cousins homes  all over the world–Melbourne in Australia, London, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, Savannah (Georgia), the Bay Area, Bangalore… so far. (The proposal was written up entirely in Seoul I think). Fair enough since its geographic reach is similarly worldwide, though not quite as peripatetic. Most of the individual scientists that I am writing about–the eccentric Felix d’Herelle being the notable exception that proves the rule–were remarkably stable in their careers spending decades if not their entire careers in one place.  But there is method to my madness as the saying goes, or a consistency to my chaos. And once again I’ve found a way (actually multiple ways) to procrastinate productively with other projects, as yet too undefined, some even embryonic this.  (#43)

Somebody yesterday asked me, about my perception of the difference between a library and an archive, and how I as a historian (of science, yes I know) thought about and used them differently and I opened my mouth to answer, only to stop short. Because, you know what…? I’m not quite sure actually know. If I stop to think about it, I’m not sure there is a huge difference. After all archive to some extent, is a library, or part of one or perhaps a more specialized type of one. It is sometime even referred to as a “rare books library” as is the Beinecki library at Yale–that architectural wonder that I personally think of as a cross between the Taj Mahal and a bar of chocolate (or to use the terminology of a quirky former colleague, the “bastard child,” with which label she did not intend to be necessarily insulting as factual in that the offspring was the product of what would be an unacceptable couple in many cultures). My tangential architectural side comments notwithstanding, the only real difference as far as I can see is that archives often contain “one-of’s”–original documents, e.g. a cache of letters, personal diaries–where different libraries often have copies of the same book. Also I guess the  level of access to materials housed in the two types of facilities would be different. Minor difference all told.

Writing about this topic reminds me, I once proposed a project for a post-doc in which I characterized the genome as an archive, rather than a library — at the time I think I was gunning specifically for the “repository of relics from the past” definition of the archive. As the online dictionary I just double checked tells me (no surprises) there is considerable overlap… and a library often has a special archive section. As I should know from my work this past summer, scouring Howard Temin archives at the Steenbock Memorial Library. (#44)


My alliterative self has not been just dampened by dengue but also down-trodden, depressed, debilitated, and just downright doggone defeated (well not quite) by it. Certainly it threw me off my weekly post goal (or is that goal-post) on this blog which was lagging by a few weeks already but (I fondly hoped) almost on track to getting caught up.  And then came the horrible virus and drained my energies and flattened my resolve. Just for my personal record, this should have been my tenth entry, given I made the the once-a-week resolution on the 10th of June, but is only my 7th. I wonder if or when I will catch up.

Anyway.. inspired by blog lists on other sites, I thought I’d take the opportunity to pay tribute to a few books that have helped or are helping sustain me through the duel with dengue and with a few other challenges. Unlike earlier periods of illness and convalescence when I would read voraciously, this illness left me with a headache that made reading impossible. Luckily my trusty collection has helped and in reverse order here are some books that I’ve really enjoyed listening to over the past several months–not the the dengue weeks, but also the driving ones in Wisconsin/Minnesota and in California. In reverse order (most recent backward)

1. In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh. This book, which is still in progress actually, is  a long overdue read. I remember beginning to read it and being excited by its premise years ago (as I recall it was Aziza Ellozy who lent me a copy) but as I’ve been listening to it, I am realizing that I had barely made a dent into the book at the time. Am not sure who the narrator is — he is pleasing enough — but the book itself, what a treat! Ghosh’s shifting back and forth between the 12th century world of trade between Mangalore, Aden (in Yemen) and Cairo’s Geniza and the modern (1980s) Egyptian Delta is a pleasing device at least to my ears, but what really endears this book to me is the way it brings aspects of my own new millennial life in Cairo (2007-2011) back in such vivid detail and color. The nostalgia it conjures up is actually a false one for the descriptions of the life, speech and attitudes of the Egyptians in his book are in truth a very different slice of society than what I experienced. But nevertheless his narrative (aided and abetted by the skillful narrator) brings these people alive: I can see the guy, his grey galabeya flapping in the breeze and cigarette dangling from fingers or mouth, and hear him expounding on some aspect of life. Ghosh, being a man, was likely not exposed as I was to the numerous propositions from taxi drivers et al, that I and my female colleagues were privileged to receive, but something about the words ring so true… which I think is the mark of great writing. It transcends time and space.

2. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes. This was a random buy–I think I was actually looking for a version of the original book (The Princess Bride) itself–but one of those lucky strikes. In a day an age where I think Robin Wright has become defined by her “role of a lifetime” as the ruthless Claire Underwood, it was fun to learn about her in the days she was Buttercup, the most beautiful princess in all the lands, imperiously ordering the farmboy (the author and narrator) about. Elwes is a great narrator and mimic and while this book might seem a bit of a sentimental tribute–it is–it does bring back memories of a great film that I really love! I had a lot of fun storming the castle with Elwes and crew, learning about the figures behind the ROUS’s, and of course the famous Inigo Montoya (of the “you killed my father prepare to die” fame) and about others such as André the kindly Giant among others. Now to buy and rewatch the film itself.

3. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, an absolute delight of an irreverent romp by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I’ll be eternally grateful to my cousin Pramodh for this recommendation… and can’t think of the number of times I’d take the long way to somewhere just to get to listen to a bit more of the book. It certainly helped me stave off some of the darkest days of depression. Enough said–read it and enjoy impending Armageddon as you never will again for sadly Pratchett is no more, having died in 2015, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was only 66. A side benefit of reading this book was I got better acquainted with Queen, and not just the Bohemian Rhapsody.

4. The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family. This last one does not qualify as a book but was/is great and does not get erased from my audio device (presently my iPhone 4S)… Ever! John Lithgow compiled this collection and got a bunch of friends (stellar actors all) to read poems by a large list of his own favorites. He provides his own commentary and associations for each poet. You’ll get to listen to old favorites or learn about new men and women you didn’t know you might like. Auden and Yeats, Wordsworth and the impenetrable (to me) Gertrude Stein.. they and about fifty others are all in there. This one is definitely worth several listens.


This is not a bonafide post but the matter is irritating me enough to interrupt my actual writeup on books read/listened to vent about. Does anyone else have trouble typing words with the following letters/numerals in regular words: x — which simply won’t show up; z – which sends me off to another page or asks me if I want to leave the page, and the numerals 1 and 2 for starters? It is incredibly frustrating to be trying to type a word or a date only to have the page disappear or be taken will-I nil-I (note to self re a a subject for a a future post) to another tab on the browser. I have tried before to register a complaint about this issue but to no avail!!! ARRRGH. Someone please help.. the letters may not be that common in English words (at least according to Scrabble) but not being able to use a word or having to type it elsewhere and paste it into the tet (there is an eample– the words were supposed to be text and example) is annoying.

(Oh well, what the hey a post is a post, so this one is #46)