Sunday, May 28, 2017

Every day is the first day of the rest of our lives

I've always loved reading Julie Zickefoose's blog (if you don't read it, please do). Her writing, which I am also overjoyed to own in Letters from Eden and The Bluebird Effect, makes me feel so peaceful. Her prose comforts me, and the photos of her beautiful home and family in Ohio give me a sneak peek into a life that is measured by the seasons that it takes for a fawn to grow, and the annual tides of flowers blooming and receding. There is something so calming about the rolling hills she calls home, and something even more heart-warming about the deep love she clearly has for those same hills.

I used to think that in order for me to live that serenity, I would have to leave the city, and create an oasis for myself like the beautiful one that Julie has. But as a student at Berkeley, skipping town obviously wasn't an option. I resigned myself to thinking that as long as I was stuck in the city, I couldn't be happy. Let me tell you though, being unhappy got old really fast. Maybe one day I can have my own gentle hills and and sunset-lit walks with a dog - but until then, I can't run away. I have to stand my ground, and figure out how to be happy today. Here's my game plan: I am going to figure out every single thing that makes me feel good, and real, and at peace, and I am going to make a life out of all of those things.

Today, the top of the list is living with Alex. Living in the same space as her, and learning how to fit both of us in our tiny kitchen, and figuring out how to share one bathroom, feels... right. It feels good. And at the same time, it feels revolutionary. I never imagined, when I felt alone and afraid in middle school, that I would one day share an apartment with my partner, who I love. But we do. Alex and I living together is simple, and so completely normal, and it blows me away every single day.

We're here. We live in a studio where the fridge doesn't open all the way, and the electricity goes off if we use too many appliances at once, and we get to do whatever we want, and I love it. I am thankful for every single moment. Here's to more moments that any of us, and all of us, can be thankful for.

A mural on Ashby Flowers, a flower shop near our apartment.

Helios enjoying our new (big!) backyard.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Hurricane Ioana

It's been a busy month.

On April 23, I presented my senior thesis, "She Loves the River: Women Environmental Activists for Bay Area Watersheds," in front of friends, family, the thesis instructors, and my mentor, Professor Carolyn Merchant. And so did the rest of the graduating class of Environmental Sciences majors! It was an incredible experience to present the thesis that I've been breaking my back over to so many of my loved ones, and realize that I am actually very proud of what I've done.

The week after my thesis presentation, April 24-28, was my last week of classes as an undergrad. It still blows my mind that I'm done with going to lectures at UC Berkeley. Unless I end up coming back to take classes for fun, or for graduate school, I'm done trudging around campus with a backpack that's way too heavy and a planner that's way too full. And that is SO exciting - but also kinda sad.

April 28, my partner and I got the keys for our apartment. Not only am I moving out of the apartment that I've lived in for 3 years, which is a big deal, I'm moving in with my partner, which is an even bigger deal. In the two weekends since then, we've been running around collecting furniture and making the place feel like home piece by piece. As of today, we have a bed! And trash cans! And rugs! And cups! Woohoo!

On the next Friday, May 5, my entire thesis was due. My class met one last time as a group to eat cake, give hugs, and complain and congratulate each other at the same time. They were a good group. I hope we meet again. (I guess that's what college reunions are for!)

Today, after months of hunting for a job post-graduation, I got a job offer that I am jumping on and not letting go: I'm going to be a Seasonal Interpretive Naturalist at the Aquarium of the Bay starting this summer! The story is a confusing one, but this is actually the 2nd time I've been offered a job at the aquarium. The previous time was in February and I couldn't accept it. This time, you bet I'm accepting it.

Tomorrow, I take my very last final.

This Saturday and Sunday, I will walk in my university-wide Commencement, and my college-specific Commencement. I've got the gown and cap and everything.

I'm not trying to brag by writing all of this out. I'm writing this out because I can't even believe how many incredible milestones have happened in the last month - no, 3 weeks! I'm trying to convince myself that it all really happened. It's hard to wrap my head around how so many good things have happened so quickly... but I guess they must have!

It feels like I've been waiting for this moment forever. I've been thinking about what it would feel like to be done for ages. But at the same time, it's hard to actually come to terms with being done. This is a chapter of my life that is coming to a close. Yes, it was was way more difficult than I could have imagined, but UC Berkeley has still been the most significant period of my life so far, and I know it will remain important to me for the rest of my life.

Maybe it will be easier to close this chapter once I've walked across the stage and hugged my parents and friends afterwards. That's what Commencement is for, isn't it? I'll tune back in after this weekend and let you know!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

It's almost time to say goodbye

I'm going to miss working in the MVZ.

I have so many feelings about the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. The overriding one is love. I've adored this museum ever since the first moment that I stepped through its lobby. It was on Cal Day (UC Berkeley's annual open house), which is the only day of the entire year that the Museum is open to the public. My dad and I came together in my senior year because I was still deciding between UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. UC Santa Barbara pulled at me - how could it not, with its miles of beaches, and beautiful ocean views, and incredible ecology department? But I knew I had to give Berkeley a chance, so to Cal Day we went.

I can't remember how we decided to visit the Museum, but I do remember the instant that we followed the crowd in and I found myself in a space that felt too magical to be real. There were people everywhere, but more importantly, there were specimens - real, actual museum specimens - out on display and I fell in love. I remember stepping over to a cabinet with specimens of waterbirds displayed on top and just looking at them, until one of the undergrad volunteers stepped up to me and struck up a conversation. Her name was Alma, and she worked on research about birds. I decided in that moment that if I came to Berkeley, I had to work in the museum. I wanted to be just like her.

My decision wasn't made quite that easily. I remember struggling to decide between SoCal and NorCal, between beaches and bays, between biking to class and taking the BART to San Francisco. Eventually I chose Berkeley, for too many reasons to describe. But from the moment that I moved into my dorm freshman year, I knew I had to join the Museum.

I found the email address for Monica Albe, the MVZ's volunteer coordinator at the time, and sent her a message that I wanted to work in the museum - ASAP. The volunteer application process had actually already closed by the time I emailed her, but she opened it back up for me, and I visited the MVZ for the second time ever in order to attend a group interview for one of the volunteer positions. I wanted to start out with bone numbering, but I said I would do absolutely anything, so I ended up in pest management.

From the very first day that I showed up for pest management and met my Pest Detective partner, Kei-Lin Ooi, I was hooked. We worked together for an entire year cleaning cabinets of birds, and then every single shelf of eggs (we only broke one egg each).

In my second semester of pest management, Monica remembered that I had mentioned that I might be interested in working in a lab, and she recommended me to Carla Cicero, the staff curator of birds. Carla invited me to work in her genetics lab on a project sequencing the genomes and microsatellites of Steller's Jays. (It was through Carla that I met Alma again and told her that our conversation changed my life.) I worked in that lab for two and a half years and met some of the researchers who I respect most, including Irene Chang, Lydia Smith, Zach Hanna, Bryan Bach, and Phillip Skipwith (who I've only ever called Skip, so that's weird to write out). These are the people who I worked with in between classes, over the summers, way too late at night, and way too early in the morning. These are the people who taught me everything I know in the lab.

I started taking Prep Lab classes as soon as I could. When I had first found out about the MVZ, I looked it up online, and all of the information on their website absolutely bewitched me. My favorite part was the tab about the Prep Lab. When I took my first semester of Prep Lab Class under Shelby Medina, I somehow fell even more in love with the MVZ. Preparing museum specimens made me feel like I was part of the magic. I didn't know there was anywhere on the planet where I could learn how to prepare specimens. The truth of the matter is that there really aren't that many places where undergrads can volunteer in preparation labs. I had struck gold, completely accidentally. I think everyone could tell that I had gotten the prepping bug, and eventually I helped teach Prep Lab class for one semester as an Undergraduate Student Instructor.

After two and a half years in the genetics lab, I trained two of my friends, Ann Nguyen and Kei-Lin (my old Pest Detective partner-in-crime) to replace me in Carla's lab, and I focused on the part of the Museum that I found myself drawn to more than any other: the Prep Lab.

I pretty quickly advanced from the normal Prep Lab Class to Advanced Prep/Bird Skinning with Anna Hiller (who coincidentally is from the same town as me, and knows my brother). I took Bird Skinning for a year and enjoyed it more than any other class I took at UC Berkeley, although California Mushrooms and my senior thesis class are close runner-ups. Eventually, Anna applied to grad school, and Bird Skinning found itself without an instructor. Terri Barclay, the Prep Lab Manager, and Carla asked me to teach the class with another student, Andrea Rios-Dominguez. They let us think about the offer over winter break between 2015-2016. I still remember the Skype call between Andrea and I where we asked each other if we really thought we could do it.

We started co-teaching Bird Skinning in January of 2016, and have continued to teach it ever since. She left to work in the field just a few weeks ago, and now I am teaching Advanced Prep/Bird Skinning all by myself. It still blows my mind.

And through all of these years, I've been able to volunteer at numerous Cal Days myself, first under Monica Albe, and then LeleƱa Avila, two of the kindest and most enthusiastic women scientists I know. I will always be grateful for the chance to be what Alma was for me, for some other young person with stars in their eyes and museums in their heart.

And now I'm about to leave.

I can always come back to volunteer. It's not as if I have to leave forever. But I will never again be an undergraduate in the MVZ. I know that this is the way with things. Undergrad is never supposed to last forever. But... I love this place. Working in the MVZ has been an incredible experience, far more incredible than I could have ever imagined on that Cal Day in 2013. The MVZ made me happy even when everything else sucked. I've learned more here than I learned in most of my classes (sorry!). And it's honestly just fun to be here. I love being able to collaborate with my friends on projects that I think are way more fun than they are work. I love being able to contribute to current and future research just by volunteering in a Prep Lab. I love working with museum specimens. I love talking to the graduate students and the curators about their research and their careers and what they think is coming next. I love walking through the doors of the museum and the Prep Lab and realizing that I have a place here. I will miss every single inch of this space.

But now that my time here is coming to an end, I think the most important thing to say is that I am infinitely grateful to every single person who took a chance on me and let me work here. Every single name in this entry is not just a name. These are my friends, my mentors, my colleagues. These are the people who I will remember forever, even when I have forgotten the names of the classes that I took or the papers that I wrote. The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology is too important to me for me to describe in words.

But I can say this:

Thank you.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

In non-school-related news

I forgot to post this news here, but it is good news indeed!! (At least for me.)

If you want to read more of my writing, you can now access it in actual book form! In a real book! With pages! And a spine! And even a cover! And fantastic illustrations by Robert A. Braunfield! And stories written by 36 other incredible birders and naturalists, including birders way more famous and cooler than me! I'm talking about Good Birders Still Don't Wear White, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Through some incredible stroke of luck, I got to participate in this incredible project. Thank you to Ted Floyd for asking me if I wanted to write a chapter, and thank you to Lisa White from HMH for letting me actually write one! This was such a fun and exciting process. I can't wait to do it again. (Because yes, I do really really really want to write and publish more. Baby steps!)

So if you happen to get a copy of Good Birders, flip on over to page 159 to read my chapter, "More Than Skin Deep: Working in the Prep Lab at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology." I hope you like it!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

One month to go...

On May 13, 2017, I graduate.

Looking back on college always leaves me feeling bittersweet. Yes, I've learned more in these last 4 years than I ever have before. Yes, I will probably never be in such an intellectually challenging space again (unless I go to grad school). Yes, I have met people and made personal and professional connections that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Yes, I got the chance to explore a place, and a life, that I could only attempt to imagine while I still lived in my hometown.

I know more about myself now. I know what I can survive, and how much I am capable of achieving. I know how much potential I have within me to achieve more.

But the side-effect of knowing my own potential is that I'm ready to explore what I'm capable of outside of UC Berkeley. It's time for me to leave and do something else. God knows 4 years of college is enough. There is still a fever in me to learn, but for now, I've learned as much as I can from readers and bibliographies and tests. Every time I go to class, I can feel that there is so much for me to learn from the sky, and the ocean, and my own two hands. This graduation means that I am passing from being a student in a university, to a student of the world. I can't wait to wake up 20 years from now and realize who I have become, and what I have done, as a citizen of our entire planet.

A short list of things I want to do after I'm done with school:

Get a bike and ride it
Learn ASL
Learn to bake
Make things with my hands

(The dream would be to have chickens and bees, but we'll have to wait and see...)

So thank you, UC Berkeley. Thank you to my professors, and classmates, and every single building that held my classes. You've made me into the person I am today. I could never describe exactly how much you mean to me. But it's time for me to go.

One month until we say goodbye...

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My Last Spring Break

Exactly what it says on the box. Here are some memories from one beautiful day of my last Spring Break as an undergrad, and probably ever, when my partner and I went to Natural Bridges State Beach:

Brandt's Cormorants on Natural Bridges' famous rock arch.

A cormorant with a piece of very dangerous prey - kelp. 

A Black Phoebe darting around the brackish creek entering the ocean.

The same Phoebe, in between flitting after bugs.

Alex on the Monarch Butterfly Trail.

Thank you to Alex, and to my parents, for a lovely and loving week. I'm so happy that I was able to spend my last Spring Break with the people who I love most.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Green gifts

I moved around a lot as a kid, so when we finally settled in Davis in 2004 and got a house in a cul-de-sac surrounded by other houses in other cul-de-sacs, the concept of suburbia was very new to me. I remember watching a movie when I was a kid that pivoted on the horror of suburbia, of cookie-cutter houses, of cookie-cutter lives. I didn't get it, even though the blueprint for my house was only one of a dozen blueprints for houses in my neighborhood. One of my best friend's houses was the same as my house, but flipped. When I walked into my own house, the stairs near the door climbed to the left. When I walked into hers, her stairs climbed to the right. Her room in her house was my brother's room in my house. But I never thought for a moment that those similarities were something to dislike, or something to be horrified by. Maybe it's because I was friends with kids who were Polish, and Indian, and Chinese, and Cuban, and although the outsides of our houses might look the same, the inside of our pantries very much did not. Or maybe it's because I just didn't spend much time inside at all. I was either lost in a book or lost outside. The architecture of someone's house wasn't really a factor when I had my mind on fantasies or grasshoppers or the fantasies of grasshoppers.

My bird of suburbia: the Northern Mockingbird. October 27, 2012.

When I was outside, I never paid much attention to the horizon. There were too many things to look at underfoot and overhead to waste time looking straight ahead. Why be eye-level for a human when you could be eye-level for a slug, or a robin? If you wanted to find me, you had to look under bushes, in creeks, in trees. The first two spots that I fell in love with in my cul-de-sac were both at its tail, where it butted up against a greenbelt that all the neighborhood kids ran down and biked around and whooped along in the summertime, and I explored by myself in the wintertime.

One of my favorite hide-aways was a tall conifer whose head leaned just the slightest bit over the sidewalk. My neighbor, a boy my age, was the first one to show us that it could be climbed. He and my brother would scale up into it and yell down at me and the littler kids, crowing about how tall they were. I remember staring up at them and hesitating, caught between jealousy, curiosity, and fear, until curiosity finally won and I crawled up, shaking and whining the whole time. The first few times, I only climbed up when they were already at the top, so I had to stop when I reached their feet halfway up. Eventually I gathered my pint-sized courage and climbed up alone, and discovered the adrenaline of being high enough off the ground for it to hurt if I fell. I would look up at the sky until I got dizzy with the sheer depth of it, then look down at the ground until I gave myself vertigo, then just close my eyes and sway with my tree's weight. When I finally climbed back down, my hands would be icky sticky black with sap, the kind of sticky that didn't come off for at least a day. One winter, an even stormier winter than usual, a particularly powerful gust ripped the tree right off of its stump. I walked outside the next morning and saw the men of the cul-de-sac discussing how to chop it up and realized immediately that I would never feel that same dizzy vertigo again. For years, I climbed every tree that I could find. I've never found one that made me feel like I was rooted right into its xylem and phloem like that one did.

My other favorite spot was a hole underneath the bushes opposite my favorite tree. Only a small kid could crawl under the outer bushes and into the clearing inside, so all the small kids did. It was hard to sit comfortably, but if you could find a way to sit without puncturing yourself on a branch, the whole world shrank down to just that little airy dome. The light that filtered down through the top layer of the bush dyed everything green. As interesting as it was to look around and examine all the little twigs and leaves and breaks in the bushes, it was even more interesting to listen. Here, I could hear all of the birds and bugs shuffling around me. I've never been much calmed by silence. I've always found more solace in the noises of tiny creatures scrabbling in dirt for their breakfasts, and wind ruffling leaves. Maybe I left a little part of myself in that tiny hiding spot, just listening, and breathing. I haven't tried to climb back into it in years. I don't think it would be right to try. That's a spot for kids to learn that although dragons and fairies might not be real, there are things that are even better in the bushes outside. It would be rude to try and learn that lesson again. One mustn't test the limits of the gifts that one has been given. After all, I already know what's in the bushes: sparrows, and lizards, and little kids hungrily searching for magic.

White-crowned Sparrow. January 7, 2014.