Friday, December 20, 2019

For the Love of !@#$%^ Chemistry

Recently I finished reading a brilliant memoir by Oliver Sacks.
This book had languished for years on a shelf full of books that I intend to read.
I had passed it over many times, because chemistry is my nemesis; and this book,
Uncle Tungsten:  Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, is loaded with chemistry. 

A persistent antagonist, chemistry has haunted my nightmares for a half century.
The moment I see a blackboard with chemical equations enter a dream,
I know I have crossed a boundary into nightmare.

Flickr ~ Lee Nachtigal ~ License

My personal history with chemistry is checkered,
star-crossed from my first exposure to it in Grade 9.

I approached the subject with great optimism
because of a lifelong interest in science.
My teacher Mr. McLean was cool. 
Not only did he teach science,
he was the staff advisor for our drama club.

My most vivid memory of our ninth grade science class is humiliating.
I had been looking out the window at the woods by St. Mary's River,
and I made the mistake of asking Mr. McLean
if he thought trees could communicate.
After my teacher and the class stopped laughing, 
he flat-out told me no and that I'd be better served 
if I looked at the blackboard instead of out the window.

My Father (my principal), Mr. Cruickshank, and Mr. McLean (right)
Staff Lunchroom and Home Economics Classroom
St. Mary's Rural High School
Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia, Canada
A candid photo of mine in our yearbook

Yearbook, as above, 1965-66

In Grade 10 Mr. Sharma arrived from India
to teach us science and math.

That's when I hit a wall
with chemistry.
I could not grasp canceling units
when using math
to solve chemical equations;
heck, I couldn't understand
using letters in beginning algebra.

Sometimes the simplest things
become big obstacles.

But I did get that Mr. Sharma's intellect and curiosity were wide-ranging
and that he was determined to broaden our thinking.

"As much as you believe in Jesus Christ, I believe in reincarnation,"
I remember him challenging our class, wagging his finger
at a class clown who had made fun of his religion.
Off we went on a passionate philosophical debate.
We so loved bird-walking Mr. Sharma  

He one of the reasons I became a teacher.

Yearbook, Islands Consolidated, 1966-67

My senior year, Grade 11,
found me in a new village, a new school,
and with a new science teacher, Mr. Malik.

He, too, was from India,
one of many talented teachers
who immigrated to Nova Scotia
to help solve its shortage
of science and math teachers.


He found my classmates and me frustrating
because we weren't as diligent as his Indian students at our studies,
and he felt hindered as a teacher
because our school lacked a laboratory and basic scientific supplies.
He did not give into discouragement, though.  
He forged on, determined to spark a passion for chemistry in us.

I could appreciate the audacity of chemistry which sought
to explain the nature of matter, the physical foundation of the universe.

I could see the
beauty and economy
in its symbols and equations.

But regardless of how many
late nights I spent scribbling
on a blackboard at school
while my parents worked,
I struggled to manipulate its
formulas and shortcuts 
to arrive at the correct
solutions for problems. 

Onto Acadia University, Chemistry 100, and Dr. Zinck.
Chemistry 100 was the gateway course you had to pass
as a prerequisite for many upper science classes. 
Consequently, it was about the largest undergraduate course on campus.

Over one hundred of us slogged through this course 
driven onward by this strict, determined, and innovative professor
who brooked no nonsense and kept us in assigned seats
until he learned the name of every student and the face that went with the name.

I plodded on, largely lost in class, a disaster in the lab.
I scraped through pop quizzes and scheduled tests.

Then one glorious day, Dr. Zinck passed a graded test back to me ~
He insisted on handing every student his or her test.
He looked at me keenly and said, "What happened to you?"

I looked down.  I had not scored my usual D or F.
I scored 96%, a solid A!

From that day on, I was a marked student.
He moved me up front, fifth from the left (facing him)
where he could keep a careful eye on me.  
I was mortified, sure that Dr. Zinck thought I had cheated.

Horrified, humiliated, and intimidated, 
I couldn't confront him and tell him I did so well
because the quiz contained no math, only concepts.
He failed me at the end of the year-long course.

During the summer of 1968 I had a student job at Acadia's library.
By day I organized and catalogued the university's photo collection,
and by night I slaved over chemistry and its perplexing calculations
preparing to take a supplementary exam
in late August before the new university year began.

My lease on my summer apartment ended several days before the exam,
so I stayed with a friend Mary and her family,
pulling two all-nighters studying chemistry.

The morning before my Monday exam I accompanied
her large Roman Catholic family to Sunday Mass
and decided to participate in Communion, even though I was Baptist.

Strung out from lack of sleep and overwrought by my approaching exam,
I fainted as the priest held out the Communion Cup for me to sip Christ's Blood.
I pitched right into him, and he caught me on the way down.

I have no memory of Mary's parents getting me 
out of the church and back to their home,
but I do remember her mother giving me hot soup,
tucking me into bed, and confiscating my chemistry text.
I slept until the next morning and then wrote my exam.

My Baptist father joked about this incident: "That's what you get
for taking Communion in a Roman Catholic church."

Later that week I attended a Pep Rally in front of University Hall.
Who should be there but Dr. Zinck, and he spotted me right away.

He worked his way over to me and said, "You passed your supplementary exam,
barely, but I failed you anyway.  I thought it would do you good to repeat the course."

Well, I was so pissed off, that I marched into the Registrar's Office
and signed up to take Chemistry 100 again with Dr. Zinck.
I could have taken Dr. Peach's Chemistry 100 instead,
but I wanted to prove to Dr. Zinck that I was a serious, non-cheating student.

I'll never forget the first lecture of my repeat year in chemistry.
Dr. Zinck looked around and said, "I see we have a few familiar faces back." 
He looked at me and said,
"By the way, if your name is Myrtle Louise and you use Louise,
please let me know.  But I'll still call you Myrtle anyway."
Floor swallow me whole please!

I eked out a C+ in Chemistry 100 that year.

Almost a decade later, this Glutton-for-Punishment
decided to take another stab at first year chemistry,
not because I had to but because I wanted to.

I landed in Dr. Olmsted's half-year course
at Cal State Fullerton in Southern California.
Slide rules were out, computers with punch cards were in.

Google Search
My takeaway?  Along with a B!  
Some chemical reactions are not reversible,
a fact Dr. Olmsted impressed
on his own small children at breakfast
by having them toast bread
and try to reverse the reaction
by putting the toasted bread in the freezer.

Out of facts like this,
elementary teachers are born!

Chemistry and I have continued to struggle over the decades,
but I never fully abandoned it,
even if it continued to haunt my nightmares.

Why couldn't I just let it go?
Because one day during my first year in Dr. Zinck's class,
he called me up to peer into some kind of a spectroscope
and describe what I saw to my classmates.

OMG ~ I was seeing the light energy (photons) emitted by excited electrons
as they jumped from a higher atomic shell to a lower one.
I don't remember the elements in the compound being analyzed,
but I remember the thrill, the wonder of the bright-line spectra on the screen.

That was the moment I knew atoms were really real!
That was the moment I understood the passion of people 
who devoted their lives to the study of chemistry.
That moment will always be a major highlight in my life.

That was the test topic I scored 96% on. 

Spectra of Hydrogen and Helium

Looking back on my life, I like to remember my chemistry teachers
and how they touched my life, especially Dr. Zinck.

For decades I thought he was punishing me for cheating when he failed me
and that he was mocking me by making fun of my name in front of 100+ people.

After teaching hundred of students myself, I realize that 
perhaps he really was challenging me 
and trying to welcome me back to his class ~
After all, I could have slunk into Dr. Peach's section.

I like to think my chemistry teachers would be happy
to know that I was not a lost cause,
that I introduced hundreds of young children to the wonders
of the physical world and rudimentary chemistry.
We had such fun making molecules, defying gravity, 
playing "States of Matter" (a crazy game I made up),
exploring white light spectra with prisms, 
learning simple symbols and formulas
and big words like photosynthesis and electromagnetic spectrum. 

My Kiddos Working with Equivalent Fractions
Aurora, Colorado, USA
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I'm really glad that I found the courage to take Oliver Sack's memoir
Uncle Tungsten off that shelf and finally plunge into it.

Sacks spent his early childhood in northwest London just before the Second World War.
Like many children, he was separated from his parents
and evacuated into the English countryside to escape the London Blitz.
He found himself in a grim boarding school under the rule of a sadistic headmaster
and coped by escaping into numbers, plants, and metals.

When Sacks returned home after four years, 
his love of metals grew into a passionate exploration of chemistry.
Encouraged an extended family of eccentric doctors, scientists and inventors,
he experimented with elements and compounds in his home laboratory.
Sacks was determined to unlock the mysteries of the periodic table
and recreate the discoveries of his chemical heroes.

As I accompanied Sacks on this journey, I found myself
right back in Chemistry 100:  in a good way, in a wonder-filled way.
He loved chemistry and pursued an understanding of it with delight and joy,
and this delight and joy permeates his luminous memoir.
I'll read it again, simply for the love of !@#$%^ chemistry.

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

On the Bay of Fundy 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 13, 2019

Chemistry on My Mind

It's been one of those weeks, 
punctured in the middle by a miserable dental procedure.
Fourteen shots, including five in the palate, 
when I'm barely in the chair
certainly counts as a miserable start in my books! 

So my WIP post did not get finished,
but since I've got chemistry on my mind
I thought I'd share a few chemistry jokes.

Said Terry to me just now:
"I always cringe when you share jokes you think are funny,
but I love you anyway."

With that vote of confidence, here goes!

These funnies came from all over the internet,
and it's impossible to determine their original sources,
so I will simply credit Google Search.

Have a great Friday!

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Try typing while holding 
an icepack!  LOL!
Kitchen Counter
Aurora, Colorado, USA 
December 12, 2019
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

IWSG Day: Wednesday, December 4, 2019 ~ That Bolt from the Black!

It's the first Wednesday of the month,
the day that members of the
Insecure Writer's Support Group
share their writing struggles
and writing successes
and offer their encouragement
and support to fellow writers.

To visit the IWSG website, click here.

To become a member of the IWSG, click here.

Our wonderful co-hosts who are volunteering today,
along with IWSG founder Alex Cavanaugh are:
Tonja Drecker,  Beverly Stowe McClure, Nicki Elson, and Tyrean Martinson, and Fundy Blue. (That's me!)

I hope you have a chance to visit today's hosts and thank them for co-hosting.
I'm sure they would appreciate a visit and an encouraging comment.

Every month the IWSG announces a question that members can answer
with advice, insight, a personal experience, or a story in their IWSG posts.

Or, the question can inspire members
if they aren't sure what to write about on IWSG Day.

Remember the question is optional.
This month's featured question is:

Let's play a game. Imagine. Role-play. How would you describe your future writer self, your life and what it looks and feels like if you were living the dream? Or if you are already there, what does it look and feel like? Tell the rest of us. What would you change or improve?


Hi, Everyone!
My plan for this post radically changed direction when I received
an unexpected email from the IWSG administrators in mid-November.

The email informed me that my short story was selected
for publication in the 2019 IWSG Anthology Contest!

All of a sudden I was living the dream,
dancing all around, jumping up and down,
and getting a lot of congratulatory hugs from Terry.

He knew I had won only because he was sitting
at the kitchen counter near me when I discovered the email.
My immediate response to utter delight and surprise is not subtle.

How does it feel?  Like I'm really real!

No Longer a WIP Pining to Be Real!
Bartolucci's Store and Workshop
September 19, 2018
Florence, Italy
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I've been a member of the IWSG for years,
and I've admired all the writing successes of the IWSG members.
It's wonderful and inspiring to see.

Meanwhile, even though I know I'm a writer and I've written throughout my life,
I felt like a fraud.  I didn't feel really real.
I have multiple manuscripts in the works, but I haven't published anything 
other than my blog posts since I joined the IWSG.

It feels amazing to receive the honor and validation
of having a story of mine published in the next IWSG anthology.

And Terry is so damn proud of me!
He ran right downstairs to my copious bookshelves
and brought the four previous IWSG anthologies upstairs.
Then he began reading them and researching all things IWSG-related online.
It's been hard to keep my exciting news a secret from everyone but Terry, 
but I have managed to do so.  He hasn't breathed a word either.

In late August an unexpected clap of thunder broke right over our home.
I was so shocked that I shot straight up out of the high chair
I was sitting on at our kitchen counter and fell over backwards.
My legs followed my body, and I landed on my tailbone in a perfect V formation.

A Bolt from the Black!
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I interpreted that bolt from the black as a message from the Universe
to get off my butt and write that story for the anthology contest
that I had been mulling over for several months.
I received that dramatic message and got to work.
I'm so glad I did!

Terry would just as soon have me not receive
any more dramatic messages from the Universe.
He literally thought I had been struck by lightning.

I wrote my story sitting on a painful tailbone while Terry cheered me on
and placed an occasional plate of food by my computer.
He knew better than to ask me what was for dinner,
or should I take a shower or get some sleep.
And he definitely knew better than to ask me 
if I was having fun, if I was doing what I wanted to do.

And he didn't say a word when a special delivery order from Amazon
for an obscure reference landed on our doorstep.
Wisest of all, he didn't roll his eyes or make a snarky remark 
about the cost when he handed me the parcel.
Truly he is my Ever-Patient and best fan!

What would I change or improve about feeling really real?
Publish more and often!  LOL!

Someone Who Always Has My Back
At Maggiano's for Thanksgiving Dinner
November 28, 2019
Denver, Colorado, USA
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Speaking of successful and published IWSG authors, 
I recently read another wonderful book by an IWSG author:
Survival of the Fittest by Jacqui Murray.


This book filled 
my geological and paleontological heart!

I couldn't believe it!
Here was a great story starring Homo erectus,
considered the most long-lived
of all the hominid species.

They lived throughout most
of the Pleistocene Epoch,
appearing about 2 million years ago
and lasting until 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

The characters in this story lived 850,000 years ago.

Some have hypothesized  that Homo erectus did not go extinct, but may have
descendants among other hominid groups including Homo neanderthalensis.

Five Tribes.  One leader.  A treacherous journey across three continents
in search of a new home headlines the cover. 
I love a fierce story with a strong female protagonist,
and Jacqui Murray delivers an unforgettable one in Xhosa.

After my career in petroleum geology, I became an elementary teacher.
My students and I spent a lot of time discussing
text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections.

I was very happy to claim a text-to-self connection
with Xhosa, the main character and her People, 
thanks to National Geographic's Genome 2.0 Project.

My DNA contains 3% Homo neanderthalensis genes.
It makes me feel so good to think my ancestors
may go back beyond H. neanderthalensis to H. erectus.
It was fascinating and fun for me to imagine Xhosa as one of my deep ancestors.

As for text-to-text connections ~ 
I immediately thought of Jean  M. Auel's Earth's Children Series.
But I liked this book better than Clan of the Cave Bear and other books in the series.
Murray's characters seemed more authentic, like they were truly H. erectus 
and not more modern people fitted into a Prehistoric mold.

The way Murray has her characters functioning in this long ago time,
their rudimentary culture, their communication, 
their ability to adapt and survive in a violent and treacherous world, 
was a marvelous construction of how alike and unlike they are from modern H. sapiens.
I thought Murray's use of smell as a form of communication was brilliant!

And text-to-world connections ~
The physical world Murray created for her main characters
to journey across three continents was vivid and authentic.
It reflected the extensive research underlying everything in the book.

I'll be reading the other two books in this series, for sure!

Wishing you seasons greetings and happy times with your families and friends!
And happy writing too!

Our Little Traveling Tree 
on the Road in Surprise, Arizona
Christmas Eve 2018
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my family and friends
celebrating Thanksgiving this week!

May you have lots of fun as you celebrate,
and if you're traveling, be safe!
Bad weather is slamming a lot of the continental U.S.

When I was growing up, we didn't take Thanksgiving photographs.
Buying and developing film was an expensive luxury for our large family.
You might take one photo of a special event,
and you'd likely not know for several months if the photo was a good one.

I have one treasured Thanksgiving photograph of my family, 
taken in Sioux Lookout, Ontario on October 8, 1962.

Canadian Thanksgiving Dinner
Donnie, me, Dad, Barbie, Roy, and Bertie
October 8, 1962
Sioux Lookout, Ontario, Canada
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Since my post last Friday was rather grim and gut-wrenching,
I thought I'd share a little Thanksgiving humor.

        Till next time ~ 
        Fundy Blue

           Out on the Bay of Fundy
           On the Chad and Sisters Two
                 Out of Westport, Brier Island, Nova Scotia 
                 July 31, 2014
                   © M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
                   All Rights Reserved

Blogging Schedule for the Next Two Weeks:
I'm posting this on Thanksgiving Day.  
It will be my only post this week.

I'm co-hosting for the IWSG on Wednesday, December 4th.  
That will be my only post next week.

Then I'll be back to posting regularly starting Friday, December 13th.