Tag Archives: Smithsonian Magazine

Phenotypic Plasticity – Big Words for BeckyLand

I was reading about phenotypic plasticity which is, according to Smithsonian Magazine, “the flexibility an organism shows in translating it’s genes into physical features and actions.”

Tree frog

Turns out, this adorable little guy can hatch early if he thinks a snake is sneaking up on him. Mommy red-eyed tree frogs lay eggs on leaves arching over bodies of water, giving her babies extra chances at life.

It made me think two things.

First, that I’m very smart if I’m reading about phenotypic plasticity.

Second, that I’m much like a red-eyed tree frog.

I, too, am responsive to my environment and show flexibility in my actions. While I don’t hatch early from my egg and drop into a pond if I feel vibrations from an approaching snake, I can suddenly pivot toward a different metaphorical path. (Know that I would in fact take a different literal path if I thought a snake was approaching, but I’m a full-grown human-type person and not developing in an egg sac. Just to clarify both my state of mind and the awesome biology of the red-eyed tree frog.)

Phenotypic plasticity ponders the age-old question: nature or nurture?

Turns out, it’s both, which anyone who has a kid or has ever been a kid always suspected.

For instance, my nature has always been one of organization and compartmentalizing. If I can label a box and throw stuff in it, all is right with the world.

But sometimes I can’t.

When I write fiction, my nature and my nurture ”” everything I’ve been taught over the years ”” tells me to take a linear path. This happened, which led to this, which led to that, and finally to the ending.

The more I do it, the more I realize I like to take detours. Like that almost-tadpole, I’m startled by approaching dangers. For me, though, it’s not a snake. It’s most often a new idea, or character, or unforeseen perfect plot point.

Just like the red-eyed tree frog hatchling that drops into the pond to take its chances there, I take my chances with the vibrations from a demanding character who grabs me by the collar and shakes me until I listen to her story.

Like froggy, I might be swimming into dangerous water with repercussions I can’t yet know. But the water’s not that cold, I didn’t get eaten by a snake, and the thrill of adventure is liberating.

I’ll swim as fast as I can with my new character into a new scene or a new story line, trying to keep my head above metaphorical water.

I wonder if there’s room in my next book for a red-eyed tree frog?

What Color Is Your Alphabet?

Synesthesia fascinates me.

Anesthesia means ‘no sensation.’ Good for when you need dental surgery.

Synesthesia means ‘joined or multiple sensation.’ Good for making your world incredibly colorful and unique. (I’m jealous I’m not synesthetic. Can you tell?)

It’s involuntary. It simply IS … just like your senses. There are many ways it manifests itself … people taste words or they feel them or they see them, rather than just hearing them.

The most common form of synesthesia is seeing letters and numbers in color. Everyone’s alphabet is different ”” rarely do two synesthetes agree on the color of letter B, for example.

This is a representation of Juliet’s alphabet:

Here is Evelyne’s alphabet …

Here is Nadja’s …

Here is Channing’s …

And here is Corinna’s …

Researchers think about 1 in 200 people have some form of synesthesia. Many don’t realize the rest of the world doesn’t see colored words or taste shapes until they get to be adults. In researching for my novel, it seems folks fall into one of two camps. When they’re very young and learning their letters, they’ll say something like, “Q is my favorite letter because it’s the most beautiful green color.” Their friend will stare at them and say, “You’re weird.”

In the second group, it’s never come up before and as adults they’ll say something like, “Thanks for the perfume. It smells so purple.” And their friend will stare at them and say, “You’re weird.”

If they’re very lucky, their friend ”” young or old ”” will argue with them. “Nuh uh … it totally smells red” or “Q isn’t green … it’s brown with white dots!”

For the majority of synesthetes, especially when they’re young, if they mention their syn and get teased about it, they’ll never mention it again. I heard from both groups in my chats with synesthetes from around the world.

Some synesthetes have enhanced spacial awareness and move through their day as if moving around a huge gauzy clock. Some have colored days of the week, but some explain it like their weekly calendar is three dimensional as they move through it. This is how Josette describes her week:

In February 2001 Smithsonian Magazine had an article about synesthesia ”” “For Some, Pain Is Orange” by Susan Hornik and it knocked around my head for years until I figured out what to do with it. I had also been noodling over setting some mysteries in the wonderful world of marching band, and the two ideas finally collided to create my main character, Dash, who is 16 and plays the tuba. He sees colored music and tastes emotion.

You’ve listened to music that makes you feel happy or sad, or it brings to mind a gritty city or a day in the country, but when some synesthetes hear a tune, it has shape and color and movement, too. This is how Malcolm sees the Bach Toccata:

Cool, eh?

Do you think you’re synesthetic? Take The Synesthesia Battery.

If you ARE synesthetic, I want to hear all your syn stories. Every. Single. One.
If you’re NOT synesthetic, what do you want to know about it? Do you know anyone who is syn? What do you think about it? Are you jealous too?

Empty Nests and Baby Birds

Recently a friend was sad about sending her firstborn off to college. I think she used the word “abandoning.” As someone who abandoned my firstborn halfway across the country two years ago and took all of a minute-and-a-half to start using her room for storage, I felt like I could offer some mature, possibly smug, advice.

I reminded her of all the good things about a child moving out. You’ll never worry about her when she gets sick or stays out late because you won’t hear about it until afterward. You won’t worry about her driving in a blizzard because she walks everywhere. You might even find they make good decisions without your advice. My daughter stayed at college and worked all summer which I didn’t think was a good idea until she made gazoodles of money ”” not anywhere near what she could have made if she’d come home. But most importantly, she’s exactly where she needs to be, doing what she wants to do, meeting scads of fascinating people, seeing a part of the world very different from where she grew up while heading nose-first into her future.

That’s what we wanted them to do. Remember?

I told my friend, “Trust me, it gets easier. As soon as you’re confident she’s safe and happy you’ll miss her, but in a good way.”

And I absolutely believe that. But I’ve never really understood the weepy Empty Nesters and have always felt the teensiest bit superior.

Until yesterday.

My daughter is home for a couple weeks before she heads to London for a semester so we went to see the movie “Mamma Mia.” There’s a lovely scene where Meryl Streep’s character is getting her daughter ready for her wedding with a song all about our children slipping through our fingers.

I sobbed.

I wanted to grab my daughter’s arm and yank her back to age three where her busy life consisted of “reading” Smithsonian Magazine to her doll and coloring. There were no meanies in her life, no term paper stress, no overseas travel, no Homeland Security, no money worries.

But I didn’t grab her or get hysterical. You’d be proud of me. No emotional scene in the movie theater THIS time. (Full disclosure: I’ve made emotional scenes in theaters before. Anyone see “Shoot the Moon” a hundred years ago? As people were filing out, they asked my friends, “Is she okay?” At the time, I accepted it as concern, but I’ve since been told it was more like incredulity. Picture someone sobbing, unable to leave the theater, at the end of “Caddyshack.” Yeah. That was me.)

So I did what all weepy moms do …. I pulled out the photo albums. Perfect infants. Adorable toddlers. Proud daddy. Enormously pregnant me. Enormously. Pregnant.

Tell me stories about your pregnancy or that of your wife, girlfriend, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, neighbor, niece, co-worker.

Or tell me stories of any Empty Nest angst you’ve had or anticipate.

As a bonus, maybe my friend George will tell the story of going to see “Shoot the Moon” with me.