Tag Archives: work

This Monday in the Life of a First-year Biology Phd Student

Before I started this round of grad school, I had no real concept of what it meant, on a lived daily basis, to be a PhD student in the sciences. Of course, schedules vary dramatically from lab to lab and discipline to discipline, and I know things will also change profoundly from quarter to quarter and year to year over the course of my own graduate career. Still, I thought I’d document, for myself and anyone else who is curious, what life currently looks like happened on this particular Monday.

  • 5:57 am: I got out of bed, got my shit together, and biked to the gym.

This quarter I’m taking a spin class, which for trademark reasons the university rec center refers to as “cardio cycling.” It meets at 7am three mornings a week, and it is the worst thing in the world.

(Actually, considering that it consists of an enthusiastic young woman yelling at you to leave everything on the bike while loud music plays and a giant fan works in concert with the ceiling lights to create a strobe effect, it’s surprising I don’t hate it more. It does hurt like hell if you’re doing it right.)

  • 8:45 am: I arrived at my office.

Ian, a 4th-year in my lab who is both one of the smartest and one of the most patient people I have ever met (not always a pair of traits that occur together), sits across a divider from me in the same office; he is typically there when I arrive, and still there when I leave. Part of this is down to personal preference/style/work-life balance, but part of it is also that life really does look very different when you’re further along in this process. On Mondays, Ian and I usually swap weekend adventures. This Saturday he led a snowshoe with a bunch of potential grad students who were here for their interview weekend, and they learned a valuable lesson about how high up in the mountains you can go out here and still get rained on.

I spent the following few hours at my desk. During this time I reviewed a bunch of lecture notes for a class on chemical communication I’m taking that meets on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. I also read three papers for an advanced ecology seminar that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While I read the latter, I annotated each source in Zotero, the reference manager I’m using to create a personal library of relevant scientific literature. Organizing and annotating papers is a pain, but I hear it’s something my future self will be glad I did. I hear a lot of things about how my future self will feel regarding all my current actions. I have to say—I’m not her biggest fan. She’s a little demanding.

Another thing I did this morning was send an email to a professor whose class I was interested in TA-ing for in the spring. Like most of the students in the bio program at UW, being a teaching assistant is probably how I will fund my salary most of the time. I’m guaranteed a teaching job whenever I need one for the first five years, but I won’t always get the positions I most prefer. The system of matching grad students with faculty or courses in need of TAs is so complicated and takes so long that it’s starting now for the spring, just a few weeks into winter quarter. (I heard back by the afternoon; the position was already filled with one of the professor’s own grad students. This was not surprising.)

  • 11ish am: I moved to a cafe in the Genome Sciences building, which I like because it has many large windows and feels light and open.

While I ate, I started reading this week’s discussion paper for my chemical communication class. As a result of this habit my laptop could really use a cleaning, but having lunch without doing anything else at the same time is generally a luxury saved for the weekend. (Whee!)

  • Noon: I went to the departmental seminar.

Every week, the whole biology department gets together to hear a speaker—often one of our own, but sometimes an invited guest. Today’s event was particularly neat because it was a mini-seminar in which five postdocs spoke about their work in the Pecha Kucha format. After the seminar I chatted with a few friends from my cohort; as a group, we don’t see each other as often as we used to last quarter, so Monday’s seminars are one of the few times I get to catch up with folks who aren’t in any of my classes. When we said goodbye, I went back to my office, read and responded to emails, and made some notes for my biweekly meeting with my advisor.

  • 2 pm: I met with my advisor.

Even though she’s wonderful (and wonderfully direct, which is one of the reasons I think we have had such an excellent working relationship so far), I still get a tiny bit nervous before every single one of my meetings with my advisor. Today we talked among other things about how my quarter is going and discussed a potential tweak to the project I’m planning on working on in my multivariate statistics class. The analysis will make use of a dataset from the lab’s citizen science project, and I’m excited about it, but hadn’t had a chance to talk to her about it yet because she was away when I came up with the broad strokes. She sketched on the whiteboard in her office during the discussion—something that no good meeting is complete without. (I am here to tell you from this side of the door that scientists really do love their whiteboards.)

I also confessed the relative lack of progress I’m making on figuring out a clear plan for what I’m going to do in my first field season this summer—which is not a problem yet but will be relatively soon if I don’t get over my fear of being the purveyor of bad scientific ideas and just get cracking. (I didn’t confess my fear of being the purveyor of bad scientific ideas, but if I had, I’m pretty sure she would have very kindly told me I was being an idiot.)

The last thing we did before I left her office was agree on two tasks for me to complete before our next meeting. Then she decided that wasn’t enough, so we added a third task. Good things come in threes?

  • 3:45 pm: I finished up the paper I was in the middle of reading and then headed to the bird lab at the Burke Museum.

I don’t always skin on Mondays, but one piece of advice almost everyone I’ve met in grad school has offered—even if they don’t adhere to it themselves—is to make time for doing what you love. And besides getting out to the mountains and the desert and the ocean, skinning is one of the great loves of my life. Plus, even though prepping birds has no real relation with the research I’m going to be doing, learning to skin is what started me off on the journey that brought me here in the first place. It’s a little bit sacred, and so I try to go when I feel I can spare the time. Skinning also tends to help me kick things out of my mind that have been going around and around in it, and these past few days I’ve been having a hard time letting go of a situation I screwed up recently and am ashamed of. So: space for the sacred and for sanity.

Today I skinned a female Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), one of 40 specimens from the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska that the museum acquired from the Fish and Wildlife Service. She was fat and broken-winged and bloody and so molty she lost about a third of her feathers while I worked, but she was still a wonder and brought back many happy memories of her Willow Ptarmigan cousins (Lagopus lagopus) who were my camp neighbors in Alaska in 2012.

It was especially fun to prep her because she turned out to have eight developing ova inside her, including one that had started to form a shell and was likely days from being laid. I have a photo of her eggs and collapsed follicles all laid out like a red and yellow palette, but it seems kinder to show you her wing instead, in case you are also multitasking while having lunch. (Let me know if you want to see her eggs and I’ll post the photo in the comments.)



  • 7:30 pm: I walked back from the Burke to my office to get my bike, and rode home for dinner with Ross.

After dinner I spent a few minutes cleaning half the kitchen (Ross cleaned the other half), because some rotten and frankly wholly unnecessary part of my brain seems really invested in keeping the house in good order.

  • 9:12 pm: I decided, for reasons that are now utterly obscure to me, to write this post instead of going to bed.

And here we are.

A Brief Announcement, or Misadventures in Metaphor

I have something to tell you, and it’s a little bit exciting.

One way to telegraph my news would be to show you the perfect cast-off exoskeleton of a Jerusalem cricket (family: Stenopelmatidae) Ross and I found last year on a scrubby canyon slope in northern California’s Henry W. Coe State Park. You’d see, without me saying so, how I’d matured beyond my old, inflexible container and emerged a bigger, better version of myself, with room again to grow. You’d think about your own past lives, and how they weighed on you like winter overcoats before you shrugged them off and looked at them piled up beside your feet—or maybe how, unsentimental as an arthropod, you were one who abdicated your used skins at once they cracked, without a second glance.

You would think pleasantly of starting over.

Another way would be to show you my bad feet. That is, I have an x-ray of my feet (aren’t x-rays marvelous?), taken when the pain they’d caused for years became too chronic to ignore, and on which I can attempt to trace my errant and defiant bone alignments. I could show you this x-ray, and tell you that to molt is also to migrate, both words arising from the same Proto-IndoEuropean root that describes passing from one place to another. You’d understand how far I’d come already, and how much longer I still had to travel on these same crooked conveyances. Reviewing your own course, you’d think of moments when you stumbled, but kept on.

You’d cheer the journey.

These kinds of tropes are pretty enough, when they fit, and as a writer I am used to trafficking in them and shaping thoughts around them (a task which sometimes feels dangerously backward, as if images are more important than the ideas they represent). But the truth is I’ve been trying to share this with you for a while, and metaphors are only getting in my way. So I’ll just say it plainly, because it is news that doesn’t need much of a flourish.

I’m starting a PhD in Biology at the University of Washington this fall!

(It does deserve an exclamation point.)

I’m delighted and honored to say that I’ll be joining a wonderful and very productive lab run by plant community ecologist Janneke Hille Ris Lambers. The Hille Ris Lambers lab conducts research that (broadly speaking) attempts to discover the mechanisms driving biodiversity, productivity, and community assembly, and to predict the effects of climate change on a variety of ecological patterns and processes at the species and community level. People in the lab study all kinds of things within this framework, many of them working on Mount Rainier because the mountainside provides a useful—as well as beautiful—system for studying change along an elevational/environmental gradient. I’m not sure yet of the exact shape of the project I’ll propose, but I know Janneke’s lab will be a fantastic place to pose some version of the basic question that most interests me: What role do interactions between species play in determining responses to climate change? I have lots of ideas, most of which will likely turn out to be bad ones; but fortunately the program builds in a little bit of time (about a year) to read, learn, and come up with a study design that stands a good chance of working.

For now, here I am. I know that very soon I’ll be engaged in a tremendously difficult long-term endeavor, much more difficult than getting into grad school in the first place. And I can’t wait to get started. But this week I’m mainly working on trying to memorize the nomenclature of ethers, epoxides, and thioethers. I’m studying for an exam about leaf energy budgets, plant water relations, and ecosystem modeling. And I’m collecting more things I know I don’t know with every paper I read.

It doesn’t feel like molting, or like migrating. It feels, besides terrifying, quite right. We’ll see.

This Week at Tejon Ranch

I’m about an hour north of L.A. this week, on a small team helping out a U.C. Berkeley grad student with his dissertation research at Tejon Ranch. Tejon is a fascinating place, both biologically and politically—it’s a 270,000 ranch framed on all sides by four very different ecological regions, the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert, California’s South Coast, and the Great Central Valley. It’s also the largest contiguous piece of land in the state that’s held in private hands.

About 5 years ago, the Tejon Ranch Corporation (driven by entwined motives, one idealistic and one economic), signed an agreement with five national and Californian environmental organizations. The contract was designed to help the company figure out how to shepherd its land in a responsible way, and it turned about 80% of the property into a conservation area while protecting the company’s ability to develop the other 20% without the threat of lawsuit. (More details on the rather intricate agreement, which has been great for the land but hasn’t quite worked out exactly as planned so far, in this excellent Sierra Club article.)

One of the stipulations of the agreement was that the environmental groups signing it would form a new conservancy whose role would be part natural resource management, part research, and part public outreach. Felix, the grad student whose project we’re helping to launch this week, is working with the Tejon Ranch Conservancy and the university to study 15 plots along creeks in the riparian areas of the ranch.

The research has a pretty broad scope: it aims to use soil and vegetation sampling, wildlife monitoring (of particular interest are the huge population of feral pigs that plague the ranchers, but we’re also setting up a herpetological study), and geomorphological data to create a comprehensive picture of:

a) What’s out there, and
b) How it’s affected by different patterns of land use (for instance, cattle will be kept off some plots and continue to graze on others, to see how livestock management practices affect species composition and abundance. Felix’s lab is particularly interested in comparing the relative impact of specific human activities vs. climate patterns on a landscape over time).

A previous project, which is now wrapping up, covered essentially the same ground in the ranch’s grassland areas.

We drove down on Sunday (there are five of us here; Felix, his lab manager Michelle, a recent graduate, and a current undergraduate) and had our first day of fieldwork today. To no one’s surprise, it was a tremendous learning experience: It took us all day to complete the long checklist of tasks for a single plot, and if we kept going at that pace there would be no way to even come close to finishing all 15 plots by Friday, our last day. So we’ll be streamlining the protocol for the rest of the plots, and Felix will have to save some bits of the data collection for future visits to the site.

We may not have accomplished everything we had hoped to do when we set out this morning, but I think it’s fair to say we had a great day. The ranch is beautiful—full of ridged and folded hills golden with Mediterranean grasses that came here in the bellies and on the hooves of Spanish cows, now dotted with North American cows. There are oaks and willows and cottonwoods and wild grapes. The sun was pretty intense, since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day, but down by the creek we had more shade and very few bugs. I might tell you a little more about the project later on, but before I crawl into bed tonight I wanted to at least share a few photos with you from the day.

We parked right next to this gorgeous sight.

Michelle showed us how to use a clinometer to measure the grade of a slope.

This Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) was riddled with galls, which are bad for the tree but lovely for birds and other wildlife which eat the insect larvae they contain.

This is a view of the dirt road where we parked our vehicles (you can barely make out the white Conservancy truck between the trees there) from plot CH3, where we worked today.

Michelle took and pressed a few plant samples today.

On our way out of the ranch, we stopped to look at a male red tailed hawk perched on a fence post. He flew off before I took this picture, but you can still see his mate tiny up at the top of the tallest tree. We aren’t doing any bird research, but it was a good bird day. No roadrunners or condors yet, though. Maybe tomorrow.


To Be a Rove Beetle

I have a small number of tracks that I follow through the halls of the Field Museum almost every time I go there. The museum, as those of you who have visited it will know, is a cavernous structure. Its walls contain more than a million square feet of floor space, less than half of which is devoted to publicly displayed exhibits—so if you have been there, imagine how big it seems to you when you’re standing in that enormous central atrium and then just go ahead and double that feeling.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even if all you ever wanted to do was travel back and forth between two spots in the entire building—say, the doors of the West entrance and the bird prep lab on the 3rd floor—you could probably devise a near-infinite number of different routes to take.

Some might whisk you through the plant hall, others past the ancient Americas; some would wind their way around the feet of dinosaurs, others plunge you deep inside the heart of minerals. If you had an all-access-granted ID pass, no staircase, door, or elevator would be closed to you; you could make the Field your only home, and walking it your only recreation, and still you’d likely need more than one lifetime to traverse each one of the possible passageways it contains.

Me, I’ve been there close to a hundred and fifty times in the past two and a half years. And almost every single time I enter its doors, I take one of perhaps three, or, at most, four paths to get where I am going. It’s embarrassing, actually. I feel like an ant following some set of strange, self-made, incredibly persuasive pheromone-laden tracks; each week I sniff out what I left there seven days before and lay down new markers in the same old places as I crawl.

All this, friends, to explain why I have certain very favorite objects at the Field. For the things in the museum that I adore the most just happen to be, besides inherently lovely and fascinating, also conveniently located right along my ant-tracks.

The one I thought I’d share with you today is a large pair of drawings, mounted together in a single frame on a wall on the ground level, near the McDonalds. Each depicts multiple whole and partial specimens of Rove beetles: a large group of beetles belonging to the family Staphylinidae that, as far as I can gather, get their name because they’re fond of getting places by scurrying inconspicuously across the ground instead of taking wing.

(Their other common characteristic is a pair of unusually short forewings that leaves their abdomens half exposed, like teenage girls wearing midriff-baring t-shirts. But unlike most teenage girls, they’re shy, sleek little things.)

I’ve admired these drawings dozens of times, but today was the first time I stopped to photograph them, and it was also the first time I noted the name of the person who created them. He was Alexander Bierig. He loved beetles. And, as we shall see, he had something to teach me.

Alexander Bierig was born in 1884 in Karlsruhe (the prettiest fan-shaped German city you’ve never heard of). He was the youngest of the four sons of the shoemaker Ludwig Georg Phillipp Bierig, who apparently spent his spare time writing plays and poems. Nice work, Ludwig.

What I love about Alexander’s life story is that it has a wonderful sort of pivot in the middle of it; the first half of his biography is entirely respectable and sedate and conventional, and then he meets someone who changes things for him forever, and suddenly he embarks on a life of adventure! And jungles! And insects! To wit:

Respectable: After studying to be a graphic artist in his home town, Bierig spent a few years living and working as an illustrator in Berlin, where he got married. Then he moved to Paris with his wife Katherine, taught a few private art classes, drew pictures for scientific articles and books, and had his only child, a son who would one day grow up to be an architect.

When World War I began, the Bierig family moved back to Karlsruhe, and Alexander was soon called up to serve in the German army. The end of the war also marked the beginning of the end of Bierig’s staid life, because it proved impossible for him to find work as an artist in a country whose economy had been so thoroughly devastated.

Pivot: What happens next seems to have been that in 1919, some Russian friends of the Bierigs decided to move to Havana in search of work. This was a sensible enough plan, since at the time Havana was just starting to undergo two huge booms: one in sugar and one in tourism. There was definitely more money flowing to it than to Karlsruhe. Inspired, Alexander decided to move his little family to Cuba too.

In Havana, Bierig walked down some old paths for a while. He freelanced as a graphic artist, became a teacher of drawing and natural sciences at the German School, and kept giving private art classes.

He also met the person who would be his pivot: an eminent Costa Rican entomologist named Ferdinand Nevermann. Bierig had become interested in beetles while he was in Paris, and had even written a scientific paper about two species of Carabidae after he moved back to Karlsruhe. But it was his friendship with Nevermann that ignited what would become a lifelong love affair with field work, collecting, and Rove beetles in particular.

(At some point in 1923, Katherine—who didn’t like Cuba or its climate at all—moved back to Germany with their son. I haven’t been able to determine whether she was also irritated with her husband’s growing obsession with beetles, but I wouldn’t rule it out. In any event, the marriage didn’t survive the separation. Alone in Havana, Bierig befriended several other zoologists, learned everything there was to learn about Rove beetles, and began publishing more scientific papers. But it wasn’t until 1938 that his second life really began.)

Adventure!: In 1938, Bierig went on his first field trip, an excursion with Nevermann to Costa Rica. I don’t know how the trip would have been graded by scientific criteria, but by all other benchmarks things did not go well. There was An Accident. I wish I could tell you with certainty exactly what this accident was, but the small amount of literature I’ve been able to find on the subject contains conflicting details.

One story is that Nevermann and Bierig were attacked by a jaguar which pounced on them from a treetop, and Nevermann was killed, while Bierig was severely wounded. Another is that Nevermann was out collecting insects at night, by headlamp, and was accidentally shot by a local hunter who mistook his light for the glowing eyes of a large animal. One version of this second story has Bierig there and wounded, too; another doesn’t mention Bierig at all.

What is clear is that Bierig’s first exposure to field work was extraordinarily traumatic. It resulted in the death of his scientific partner and good friend. It seems to have gravely injured him. Yet one year later—clearly intoxicated by the glorious, colorful, totally overwhelming world of tropical wildlife that he’d found in Costa Rica—he returned to the same country to continue his beetle collecting. And he never left.

In Costa Rica Bierig would become a professor of entomology in San José, author dozens of scientific papers, collect approximately 26,000 individual specimens, and describe over 150 new species and over 30 new genera of insects (most of which were Rove beetles and all of which, of course, he would also illustrate). He was a field biologist extraordinaire. He was also a celebrated and often exhibited artist in his adopted country, remembered till this day for his influence on an entire generation of Costa Rican painters and illustrators.

rove beetles

The final years of Bierig’s life were not easy ones, although they had some bright spots (like the happy discovery of a granddaughter he’d never known he had). He began to lose his eyesight, became rather solitary, and finally died in 1963 after a long and painful illness. With no one to maintain them, his drawings, papers, and the tens of thousands of type specimens he’d collected began to deteriorate in the tropical heat and humidity.

Fortunately for posterity, this is when they were scooped up by the Field. And very fortunately for me, a few of Alexander’s drawings happened to find themselves (nearly 50 years later) located on one of my three or four short and unimaginative ant-trails through the museum.

As far as I can tell, Alexander was pretty damned good at roving. In tribute to him, next time I go into the Field Museum, I’m going to experiment with some different routes to where I’m going. I bet I’ll find a new favorite object or two. And if today is anything to go by, I might also find another great story to tell you.

(This is a self-portrait Alexander drew. I think he looks fantastic.)


The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I keep making mental notes about things I want to tell you, and then finding that it is suddenly midnight and I don’t have it in me to write about the ferocity of lemmings, how it is possible to hear water levels changing, why I forgive the mosquitoes their pursuit of me, what almost-fledged nuthatches sound like when they are frightened, or the way you can see rainstorms coming for hours in the sky before they actually let fall their first fresh drops.

More on these subjects later. For now, I wanted to pop in to tell you one thing:

There is at least one Great Snipe here in the mountains with the grounds to take out a restraining order against me.

Convinced she had a nest and determined to find it, I spent an inordinate amount of time today tracking and flushing, tracking and flushing, tracking and flushing the poor creature, looking each time for that longed-for circlet of dried grass containing a clutch of four perfect mottled eggs. I never saw any such thing in the locations from which she scissored herself up when I came close.

Johan has already found seven such treasures, so it’s clear that some birds are currently nesting. But after having observed that this particular female (transmitting on channel #20 on my receiver) was never found in exactly the same spot twice, I concluded that she probably hadn’t actually built herself a nest yet. I’ll go back to that spot in a few days and check again, and hopefully by then she will be well on her way to motherhood.

In the meantime, I’ll do a little penance in my head for harassing her so today.

tools of my temporary trade
Teaser view of my radio antenna. I’ll do a post about that and the rest of my equipment soon. I swear.

Prep Lab Vignette

Tomorrow will be the coldest day we’ve seen this season, but today I am in the prep lab and it is warm enough—a rare thing—for me to take off my cardigan while I work. Because I have dinner plans tonight I am wearing, instead of my usual t-shirt, a sober wool dress: warm in gray and black and with a white bar running across my torso. In a moment it will be peppered with flakes of sawdust, but for now I feel myself sleek, a version of a Laughing Gull in modish breeding plumage. I sit. I take up my birds.

A Brown Creeper starts my day. It makes me smile with how long its forked tail is, how stiff—like a rudder for a tiny boat, except no boat would move quite like I have seen creepers move, in that dance that is all scuttle and scratch up and down tree trunks in spirals, like ninjas scaling a fortress wall. To see a creeper is to see a spider, a cicada, a gecko in bird form.

The bird I am holding has coloring that guidebooks will tell you is “cryptic,” which means it’s designed to camouflage rather than advertise. The term is lyrical, but not therefore inapt. Life is a kind of war. If your coloring must speak, let it be coded. I peer into the patterns of brown and white that cover the creeper’s wings—searching for hidden meanings. Instead I find a splash of copper, rusty and bright, hiding on its back like a gift.

I touch a finger to its bill. The thing is curved and sharp but not as curved and sharp as the creeper’s toes: three-in-front-and-one-behind and each ending in long, long claws whose tips prickle and stick to my skin like Velcro just as they prickle and stick to bark. I have to pull the creeper’s toes away from one hand with the other. If I let them they would cling to my fingerprints. If I could devote the rest of my life to becoming a tree, I would let them.

The radio plays Elgar, plays Rodrigo. I hum the music under my breath. So sweet it hurts. The radio is melancholy today.

Dave, behind me, is cheerful. He has received a box. From it he draws dozens of birds, collected in South Africa ten years ago, prepared by a skilled hand, and given to the museum by a university. “It’s like Christmas came again,” he beams. The colors of these birds are startling: crimson, indigo, black with the sheen of a river at night. Olive with the sheen of satin. He lays them out in large, shallow drawers. They form a palette that would make an artist weep.

I pull my stitches closed on the Brown Creeper and clean its feathers of their final day’s dirt: all the grime it did not have time to preen away itself. To dry and fluff them with a little puff of compressed air, I walk to the opposite side of the room. I am glad for this excuse to look over Peggy’s shoulder. Peggy is the museum’s resident artist, and today she is sketching the taxidermied Snowy Owl Tom let me work on with him some months ago. Last week I put the final touches on it, filling in with epoxy the tiny gaps that formed between its round black lids and its beautiful yellow glass eyes as its skin dried and shrunk. Now it sits just out of reach on a counter, wearing a sign Tom made. “PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ME—FRAGILE! :)”

But Peggy isn’t touching our Snowy. She’s doing its portrait. I try not to be too obvious about it but I am staring at her while I dry my feathers. She’s working in pencil, for now, on a large sheet of paper as white as the owl itself. She’s drawn guide lines to help her with size and scale, and she’s working on sketching its head and wings. It looks magnificent: regal, curious, intelligent. Life-sized, or perhaps a hair larger.

The radio plays Mahler. The scientist, the writer, and the artist are listening.


On The End and What You Do Before

There are a few themes that preoccupy me in my life above all others: Death, if you know me, you know is primary. I can’t place when I first learned the word or grasped the perfect emptiness it contains, but I do remember (at the age of five or six or seven) regularly dampening my mother’s shirt with premature fits of mourning for what I had suddenly grasped would be her inevitable loss. Yes, she admitted, she’d die. Not yet, but one day. Not yet was too close for comfort.

That heavy terror is gone now —had slipped away, I think by the time I was eleven. My grandmother died that year. I spent what seemed like endless hours in the house where she lived, playing quiet games of cards with my cousins while her body was being embalmed upstairs in her room. I saw the tragedy of it touching my parents; my father especially seemed a new person to me. She had brought him forth, and now she was gone. He was a river with no source, the way I feared I’d be when I was little.

When her body was ready they brought it downstairs to lie before those who mourned her, and it was amazing to see her physical self so much the way she was before and yet so different. The same lines folded her face into rifts and valleys; the same powdery skin covered her fingers. But the smell that hovered around her, like sweet mint, was new. She hadn’t consented to housing six or seven liters of embalming fluid—a chemical brew of formalin, phenol, methanol, glycerin, and water that would preserve her flesh until it came time to burn it in a chamber where fires roared the air to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit—still, there it was now, having streamed through a small portal the mortuary workers made in her carotid artery and taken the place of her once hot blood.

Looking at her (She! The giantess with the jingling bangles and the frown like a stroke of lightning), what I felt was not tragedy, but awe. Yesterday, I knew, her muscle fibers pulled taut as she brushed her thinning hair, silver-white and soft as silk. Yesterday her nostrils flared with expectation at the scent of dinner. Yesterday someone joked that she was getting old, and set off a chain of events that began in the vibrating air about her ears and culminated in a parting of her lips and a stretching of her cheeks and a sound like laughter, and in between a hundred nerve cells transmitted their chemical signals across the minute gaps between them. Today, she was wholly untenanted. What an extraordinary metamorphosis.

The spectacular impossibility of death—the idea that all we are and ever have been, every quivering feeling and blooming idea that makes us sentient beings, will one day simply vanish from our bodies without warning or recourse—has amazed me ever since. So has the fact that, without truly knowing what death will mean for us, we live with it day after day. It is as if we stand at a station waiting for a train, fingering our ticket—knowing all along that what finally arrives could as well be a stone colussus stamping over the mountains as a chugging engine, could be a bird whose wings black out the sky, a fire that starts beneath our feet. Or rain. Or nothing. We wait, chat with strangers, pick up a bun to eat at the station cafe. With dying coming.

These contradictions are marvelous in their fascination. I would put it this way: The idea of death is a Rubik’s cube I carry in my pocket, always there to be drawn out and manipulated into a new configuration when I am waiting in line or staring into a snowy sky. After hours of adjusting I click one face into position at last and turn the thing over to find chaos flaring on the opposite side—yet I am convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that given enough time I shall put it in order.

Chicago Dreams: After Kurt Vonnegut

If I set the thought of death aside, I often take up work. I don’t mean to imply that I work particularly hard; given the choice I, like most of you, would rather do anything but, most days. But, diligent or not, I think about the shape of work all the time, because it, too, is a kind of mystery to me.

Here’s what I mean. If I am smiling at you while you hand me my croissant across the counter, I am wondering what it would be like to stand on the opposite side, days full of the beery smell and the heat of the ovens and the sound of the front door chiming as it opens and closes against the noise of the summer street. Is this work that brings you joy, or simple exhaustion? And what is the taste of it in your mouth?

If I crane my neck to see you jouncing gently down the side of a skyscraper like a water glider, squeezing its windows clean, I am wondering—try and stop me!—how much they pay you to do that and how you learned to fly and how much they would pay me to climb so high in the cold and then fall down, a little at a time. Would I exult in it? Do you? I peer, and try to tell what you are feeling.

And if you draw my blood out of me, tighten your black cuff around my arm to feel it push back at you pulse by pulse, peer in my eyes and my cells and tell me my fate, I am definitely also wondering what it would be like to do your work: the work of knowing the body and staving off death. What would my Rubik’s cube look like in your hands?

These are twin fixations, work and death. They are connected to each other for me in ways I can hardly articulate. Death, I trust I expect I presume I imagine I long to be true, is what makes sense of the work of a life, gives it a reason to exist at all. And work, I think I guess I wonder if I hope I believe, is what redeems a life in the face of death. And yet I have been very often mistaken about what work means for me.

Twelve years ago I thought I wanted work to be pleasure, that’s all: sheer pleasure. Find what you enjoy and do that; call it work if you want to, but it’s just a name. Doesn’t mean you have to sweat over it. I was wrong.

Eight years ago I thought I wanted work to be service. Find a need and fill it; maybe you’ll be good at it, maybe you won’t, the important thing is that it be important in the world. I was wrong.

Six years ago I thought I wanted work to be what I did so I could live the rest of my life. Work ought to recede into the background, leave you alone at the end of the day. This time I thought I’d finally figured it out, but I was wrong there, too. Work is more than that for me. I don’t want it to leave me alone. I want it to be a way—not the only way, but an important one—I can prepare for what’s coming.

So when I stand on the El platform in the middle of winter, or jostle my way down Michigan Avenue in spring, and you are all around me, each one of us here for not even a single systole or diastole in a single heartbeat in the impossibly long life of the universe—when I see you there, I want to shout my question to you all: What are you doing with yourselves, friends, while you wait for that other train? What work have you chosen? Tell me.

Maybe you mix water into flour, salt, sugar, yeast, pulling an invisible universe of life and chemistry into being and pushing it over a fire until it grows enough to offer me my morning roll. Maybe you teem up and down walls. Maybe you will be the one to check my heart, my breath, my blood, my brain, and see that they have each stopped once and for all. Whatever it is, I want to know.

I tell you this now because I’ve thought about both these things lately perhaps even more than is normal for me. (Normal is measured by Ross no longer being taken aback when I run through with him a new imaginary scenario of his death, or mine, or my parents, or our cat’s. I have envisioned airplane crashes, car wrecks, psychotic gunmen, sudden cardiac arrests while running, drowning in foreign oceans, and plain old getting old and losing our minds. I work through the event, the hospital, the phone calls, the funeral, the sitting in a chair, unable to sleep, the night after the funeral. I am nothing if not thorough.)

But, as I say, more than normal. That’s because on April 1, 2010, a young man I knew in college died. He slipped from a waterfall while trekking in northern Thailand and fell some 30 feet—gracefully, said the woman who was with him that day, as he had lived. He was my friend, but I hadn’t been as close to him as I might, and we had not seen each other in years. My experience of his death is not the same as what is felt by those who knew and loved him as a funny, wise, strange, dear, evolving presence in their lives. Theirs is not my grief to grieve.

What I have felt, besides a deep sorrow that someone so kind and loving is gone, is something akin to the awe that was in me when I looked at my grandmother’s body twenty years ago. It seems hardly credible that death could have come this way.

Come it did.

When my friend hit the ground below the waterfall, the impact of it sent shock waves through his head, and his brain shifted forcefully against the inside of his skull. Tissues swelled, blocking the passage of blood, which pooled instead of pumping. The long threads of injured axons sheared and detached themselves from cell bodies in the white matter of his brain, leaving no way for neuron to contact neuron. Messages, and the means to send them, died. It all happened in an instant. And in that instant went everything that was the person I knew; every muscle memory of the bear hugs he used to give, every e.e. cummings or Khalil Gibran poem that recitation locked into the networks of his cortex, every dream and every lust. First he was breathing, singing, laughing, jumping, living, and then he was not.

And because I know one day I will not, either, I find myself thinking once more about work. Oh, I prepare for death in other ways, too. I make my life with the person I love. I try to see what I can of the world. I dip myself in books like feet in the ocean, and when I emerge I am dripping with ideas as icy as the Atlantic. But these are easy choices to make. Work is the hard one.

For now, I do this. I’m working right now, if not for pay, working to find a path across these small, square keys, oily with my fingerprints. Making out of them things that are only slightly less temporary than myself. When you get down to it, spending your life writing seems a little foolhardy. But it is difficult work, and that seems to mean something.

In fact, I know that it does. I know because when I imagine that train coming in for me, and think how my cells will cease their motion and their talk and my skin be full of that sweet mint smell—when those thoughts come, as they so often do, I’m pleased to think that this is what I did before the end.