An Ideal Husband: Lessons on Freelancing

Norma Bissaker and Frank Bissaker on their wedding day, 1941

The way to write? (Norma and Frank Bissaker on their wedding day, 1941/Flickr)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a freelance writer, embarking on her career, must be in want of health insurance.
Jane Austen Danielle Venton

The first time someone tells you that marrying well is key to successful freelancing – by that read “marrying into health insurance” – it’s fairly easy to laugh. It lends a scent of the Victorian to the lifestyle, and accessorizes it with calling cards and afternoon tennis matches. The second time, it’s easy to crack a wry smile. Ah yes, I’ve heard this joke before. I began to worry it wasn’t a joke when I heard it a third time. And when, for the fourth time, a professor, mentor or seminar speaker said that one absolutely must take care to exchange rings only with the employed, insured and pensioned, there set in a mild panic.

Now, I have nothing against those with steady jobs and retirement plans. Nor am I prejudiced against those with healthy savings accounts. However, as alluring as the prospect of health insurance might be, it’s hardly inducement to hop in bed with someone. Therefore, I have been formulating a post-SciCom survival plan. I thought I might share, in case it is useful or in case you, reader, have suggestions of your own to offer.

Let’s start with basics: food, clothing, shelter and entertainment. (A little distraction is, at least for me, also a requirement.) In terms of expense, housing trumps the list so nailing that down is most important. I could, I suppose, join a hippie commune or go back to being a live-in nanny, but I like the idea of having my own walls and roof. The most practical idea currently seems to be to build myself a Tumbleweed House. This company sells plans to tiny, yet complete, houses, or the pre-built houses themselves. At the moment my whimsy favors this model, The Harbinger. The very name inspires hope.


Harbinger, from the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company/Flickr

And where to put it? I hear you ask. My parents own about an acre of land on the outskirts of Petaluma. I’d like for them to think it would be a great idea if I tore down the old shop in the backyard, site of much camping equipment and fatherly tinkering paraphernalia. In its place I’d build a little picket-fence-enclosed home. Scuttlebutt is, if it is small enough, you don’t need the city permits that a full-fledged dwelling calls for (ironing all of that out is sure to be an odyssey). All I need is a self-composting toilet, some solar panels, maybe an electricity-generating stationary bike, a way to get on the internet and I’m set.

Food, of course, is also a primary consideration. The backyard already holds seven fruit trees and more can be planted. The family vegetable garden can also be expanded. We could once-again raise chickens for eggs and, coming from angler-hunter-gatherer stock as I do, there is always seafood and venison around. I do enjoy a meal out with friends, but I can accept I’ll need to eat out only on occasion. Home cooked meals always taste better anyway.

Saving on clothing is going to be less of a problem for me that it would be for, say, some of my Swiss or New Yorker friends. In this case, however, self-sufficiency is not the way forward for me. Once upon a time, I tried my hand at sewing. The ill-fated blouse was so supremely frustrating that, by the time I was done with the wretched thing, I had grown to loathe it. I don’t think I’ve ever worn that shade of orangey-peach ever again in my life, ever. Thrift and consignment stores will be in my future, as they have been in my past.

Now, I am extremely talented at getting into situations that are best survived by laughing at myself. The truth is, however, a little external entertainment is far easier on the nerves and less likely to cause injury. Fortunately my most of my pastimes are quite economical: reading, running, backpacking, going to Giants games with my brother. It would be far worse if my hobbies included, say, skiing, yachting, Swiss watches and heroin. (Full disclosure: I do actually own a Swiss watch and I’ve never done heroin.)

I’m happy to rely on the public library system for my books and movie rentals. Running is as cheap as free. With the exception of a decent three-season tent, I already own most of the needed backpacking equipment. Jeff and I always get the cheapest Giant’s tickets.
I do, I must say, enjoy seeing live music. My plan for working this into my impoverished future life is a two-pronged approach. For classical music: cheap seats! It only costs $10 to  stand at the opera. Rush tickets at they symphony are $20 For modern music: catch on to the bands before they are famous, when the tickets are less. (I’m talking to you

These plans for frugal living are only meant to be taken so seriously, obviously. But the idea of standing through four hours of Madam Butterfly is far easier to swallow than the idea of enduring a dating world where I have to include “financial security for two” along with my other requirements. It’s already a lot to ask that someone be tall, smart, funny, red-haired, a fan of MST3K and have a large and generous heart. I’m not interested in asking to see their stock portfolio as well.

SciCom is full of practical wisdom, to be sure. Some of us, though, might need to supplement our training with home vegetable gardening lessons and workshops on plumbing installation. All tips welcome.

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How to Shoot Someone

Holding a camera gives you a lot of power over your subject. When you’re shooting someone’s portrait, you can make him or her look great if you know what you’re doing, or awful if you don’t. Or, really, really hideous if you know what you’re doing and are a jerk.

I have always used a point and shoot little camera, and never fussed with any of the dials or settings beyond the playback function. In our multimedia journalism class this quarter, our instructor Lisa Strong showed us how to compose and shoot a good portrait.

As the photographer, you get to make choices about a ton of things:
-how to light the subject’s face,
-what angle to shoot from,
-what to include in the shot,
-whether to blur the background,
-how to compose the image.

But before you can get that far, if you’re new to the art, you have to cover the basics. Is your eyepiece or screen telling you honestly what the photo will look like? Is your camera letting in too little light, making the image dark,  or overexposed and out of focus giving you this?

Once you’re in focus and have your aperture and shutter speed adjusted to allow just enough light in (or have given up and set the dial back to auto), you can start thinking about what the picture is actually of. Where do you want your audience to focus their attention? A busy shot with lots of things in the background can be overwhelming or disorienting to your audience, and your subject can get lost. Is this a portrait, or a kitchen, or a big white door, or some bicycles?

The eye is usually drawn first to the brightest part of an image, which in this case could be the white door or the overhead light or the window–not the person. Also, the lighting is not helping.

So go someplace where the light will help you. Outside in the morning or evening is great.

Ok, but now there’s an ugly railing hogging the shot. So, move around and switch the angle you’re shooting from.

…keep trying…

Better. And the hills in the background are a little blurred, too. Now for the composition. Even in a portrait, the person’s face doesn’t necessarily have to be right in the middle of the shot. By scooting over to one side and getting a little closer, we get a picture that looks more put together.

But someone doesn’t look thrilled. Getting this stuff right as quickly as possible is important because unless you’re working with a professional model, your subject can get tired of being “the subject.” If the person isn’t in it with you, even the most fantastic lighting and composition does not a portrait make. So talk to them, get them laughing, make it a fun experience.

Well that’s about the best I can do so far. Getting that perfect shot is a lot harder than it looks.

Many thanks to my wonderful and very patient bf for being a marvelous model.

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Off The Grid

Over spring break, a few weeks back, I went to Mexico with a bunch of friends. More importantly, I spent several days without checking email or browsing the web. And I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really didn’t miss my lack of connectivity. At least for the few days I was on the trip.

We started off in Cabo San Lucas, which was fun, but fairly touristy (and did have plenty of access to email and the internet, though we tried to avoid those). The real trip started after that, when we rented a couple of four-wheel-drive vehicles and drove for 6 hours into the wilderness.

One of the 4WD vehicles was a 1970s Toyota Landcruiser, which was great off the road, if somewhat loud…here’s a video of one of the better dirt roads we were on:

LandcruiserBaja from Sandeepr on Vimeo.

We diverged from the highway just North of La Paz, and spent 3-4 hours on progressively worse dirt roads, driving with the desert on one side of us and the Sea of Cortes on the other. We passed small fishing villages, other campsites, and went up and down steep hillside roads.

Our reward: a pristine cove completely to ourselves.

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That’s when it struck me—I didn’t remember the last time I was completely off the grid. There was no way to call, text, e-mail anyone, or browse the web.

The first consequence of this stunning lack of connectivity was that any arguments had to be settled the old-fashioned way, without someone instantly pulling up Google or Wikipedia on their smartphones. It was like being back in the…90s.

The second thing I noticed was how much more time I had, without the constant intake of news to read or respond to in some way. It helped that camping outdoors meant I was waking up at sunrise. And between fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, and just chatting with friends our days were pretty full.

Bereft of the constant stimulation from my computer or smartphone, I started peering at every random plant, creature or rock that caught my attention.

It was also interesting to sit around the campfire at night, and get caught up on stories, since we were all seeing each other after a long time. (These stories only occasionally involved Charlie Sheen…).

Now I’m back of course, and fully immersed in the digital world again. But I’ve been trying to ease my brain back—part of it clearly wishes I was still lying on a beach, staring out at the Sea of Cortes. On the other hand, it does feel quite refreshed, and I’m trying to not let it get too distracted by the fire-hose of information that’s available online.

So I have to admit I’ve been logging in to social media sites a little bit less, refreshing my favorite news sites slightly less often, and only checking email once every few minutes rather than every 10 seconds…baby steps…

On the plus side, I’ll be going out to a desert field site this coming Thursday to watch lizard researchers at work (near Los Banos, CA, slightly closer to home).

I’ll be recording video and audio for my various multimedia projects this quarter, and with some off-roading and hiking required to get there, it sounds like I’ll get to relive a bit of spring break again.

Update: Thanks to the wonders of Google Earth I was able to find the exact cove where we camped. Here’s a short video zooming out from it:

Baja Campsite – Google Earth from Sandeepr on Vimeo.

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The Google

Google-land...the happiest place on Earth?

Several of us trekked up to Google today to see the mothership a talk by Greg Asner, from the Carnegie Institution of Science, Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University. Asner studies tropical forests and uses a variety of spiffy techniques (Google Earth images, spectroscopy, CLIMBING TREES, derring-do) to image and analyze ecosystem health and biodiversity.

The talk was great — and colorful! — but instead of writing about it, I’m posting a slide show of some of Google headquarters’ charming attractions.

The place is kind of like an amusement park, and from heated toilet seats to laundry rooms and toothbrushes in the bathrooms, it definitely has the feel of a home away from home…kind of. Oh, and the food is free, too. Pool tables and ball pits and dinos, oh my! Also, be sure to check out the real Google-doodles adorning the borderless white boards…

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The Truman Show – Bald Eagle Style

I don’t normally watch reality tv, but I’ve recently started watching one show. Filmed high up in a tree in Decorah, Iowa, two cameras record the lives of a family of bald eagles.

This weekend saw some excitement, with the hatching of two of the three eggs mom laid about 40 days ago.

Here’s a video montage of the first one hatching. It takes a while for the baby to break free. You don’t see the first hole in the shell until about four and a half minutes into the video.

Some vocabulary: “Pip” or “pipping” is the term for when a baby bird starts cracking through the shell with its egg tooth

I’ve got the streaming footage up right now, and I just saw mom, or dad (it’s hard to tell which is the male and which is the female), pick up one of the eaglets and fling it to the edge of the nest. The parent is incubating one eaglet while the other flounders around exposed.

About 10 minutes later…

Ok, the parent just tucked the banished eaglet back under its body.

Some initial google searching hasn’t come up with an explanation for this behavior. The organization running these eagle cams, The Raptor Resource Project, maintains a forum where someone has asked about this behavior. No one’s answered it yet, but I’ll check back periodically to see what they say.

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As any pet owner will tell you, lots of non-human animals have their own personalities. Even within the same species, individual animals can have specific behavioral traits, such as tendency to be shy or playful. In the case of zoo animals, knowing a creature’s personality could help zoo keepers improve its well-being in captivity and may even increase the odds of successful breeding programs.

Snow Leopard at the Bronx Zoo. Credit: joshbousel on

In a March 31 article in Zoo Biology online, researchers present the results of two personality tests on a group of snow leopards in the Bronx Zoo. In one study, “the novel-object test,” the researchers watched as each of nine snow leopards reacted to an unknown item in their enclosure. The researchers placed items like a piece of plastic piping, a round buoy or a plastic planter in an unoccupied enclosure, and then gave the cat free rein to explore.

The researchers then scored how often the cats visited the object and whether they walked, ran, or laid around their enclosure, among other feline activities. Male cats tended to visit the object more often than females, scent marked more and exhibited more exploratory behaviors. As noted by the researchers, these male traits fit with known snow leopard biology. In the wild, males have larger stomping grounds than females and they compete with other males for territory and breeding.

Snow leopard at the Zurich Zoo. Credit: Tambako the Jaguar on

The researchers also asked the eight zookeepers that care of the Bronx Zoo’s snow leopards to fill out surveys about each feline’s personality. The keepers answered questions about 21 personality points, looking at traits like “vigilant,” “calm,” “friendly” and “tense.”

In general, the zookeepers tended to agree with one another– that is, if one zookeeper thought a particular leopard was shy and anxious, then so did another keeper. The keepers assessed the personalities of 11 leopards that ranged in age from 2 to 19. While the age and sex of each cat clearly shaped its personality, the researchers saw individual differences in cats of the same age and/or sex. For example, between the two two-year-old female snow leopards, Misty and Mina, Mina scored much lower on the “anxious/timid” scale than Misty.

A few of the traits in the zookeepers’ snow leopard personality tests consistently matched up with each cat’s responses to the novel objects. The authors suggest that the quicker novel-object test could be used to determine a leopard’s disposition when isn’t feasible for  zookeepers to conduct a personality survey.

Bonus Kitteh Vocab: The Flehmen Response. Have you ever seen your cat make the “stinky face?” That’s when kitty leaves her mouth hanging open, perhaps baring her teeth a bit and stretching out her neck, while sniffing around your old shoes or a patch of grass. The scientific name for “stinky face” is the Flehmen Response, or Flehmening. Flehmening gets more odor molecules into the vomeronasal organ, a structure in the roof of kitty’s mouth that detects pheromones and other odorants.  In the snow leopard study, the scientists watched for Flehmening while the leopards explored the novel objects placed in their enclosure.

Just in case you’ve never seen a “stinky face”:

1) Gartner MC and Powell D. “Personality assessment in snow leopards (Uncia uncia).” Zoo Biology, 31 Mar 2011.

2) Réale D “Evolutionary and ecological approaches to the study of personality.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 2010

3) Wells V. “Why do Cats Make a Funny Face?”

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Surf city tsunami


Tsunami surges reach Santa Cruz, March 11 (Image: Flickr/Dan Dawson, used with permission)

The effects of Japan’s Honshu earthquake reached as far as Santa Cruz on the Californian coast. On March 11 the waves came and left tens of millions of dollars in damage to the harbor. On spring break, I wandered down to take a look. This is what I found . . .

One week after a tsunami washed into Santa Cruz harbor and ricocheted around the docks, harbor life has yet to settle. Joggers pass stretches of yellow caution tape. Men in hardhats and plaid shirts clear debris with shovels and high-pressure water hoses. Cafe patrons at the Kind Grind swap yet-to-stale tsunami stories. And, on the docks, Lisa Price’s fourth grade class walk among the boats.

Her class – each child snapped into a life vest – is on their annual O’Neill Sea Odyssey outing, run by the company famous for wetsuits and surfing gear. “Every year we love this field trip,” says Price, who teaches at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville, Calif. The students learn basics of marine ecology and navigation, such as how to use a compass. Last year her class left the harbor on the Team O’Neill catamaran and saw dolphins and sharks in the bay. This year, as the debris is cleared from both the water and the parking lot, they’ll board the dual-hulled boat, but remain dockside.

On the morning of March 11 central California was hit by a tsunami, triggered by Japan’s Honshu earthquake. Only six students attended Ms. Price’s class that day. The rest stayed home with worried family members. In the Santa Cruz harbor, surges of 5 to 6 feet left $22 million worth of damaged boats, docks and equipment. Now, in the tsunami’s wake, the harbor and surrounding community is asking how to return to their routine, and which lessons should be drawn.

Nine boats sank during the tsunami and two are still missing, presumed sunken. Dozens of others need repairs or dismantling. At the boat works, Tom McKervey fields phone calls from anxious owners. “Yeah, you’re on the list – twice for some reason,” McKervey says. “We’ll get to you. We’ve got a little triage here – we have to take care of the leakers and the sinkers first.” He replaces the handset, “One of my esteemed customers.”

McKervey, blue eyed and white mustached, manages Aquarius Boat Works – a sort of maritime apothecary and repair store. Above the dusty wooden floors the walls are lined with hooks, ropes and maps. On shelving bins of weights and floats sit next to cans of paint and tubes of Spackling paste. The evening of March 10, McKervey watched news clips of the destruction in Japan. He arrived early at the harbor the following morning to tie down loose boats and riggings. He spent the day on the docks, alternately pushing debris away from boats with a pole and running to higher ground during surges.

“All day long the images of their plight [in Japan] made me think – this is a picnic compared to what those folks had to live through,” he says. “Here only things were broken. Nobody got terribly hurt.” On McKervey’s right hand, his thick middle finger holds a row of stitches. “I got a little cut out of the deal,” he says, dismissing it. He believes he will see a change in the local mix of boaters as a result of the tsunami damage, that is his real concern.

Santa Cruz hosts power boaters, sport and commercial fishermen and sailboat lovers. “Some of these folks are working towards the dream of sailing off into the sunset,” he says. And, while it’s prominence has diminished, Santa Cruz is still a racing port. “I’m sure the harbor is going to shrink, both in people and boats. Many folks could only marginally afford boating before.” McKervey hopes the harbor will design a faster alert for boat owners, perhaps with a telephone chain, instead of relying on TV and radio. If more people had known sooner, he says, they could have waited out the swells in the open ocean.

Residents nearby responded to the tsunami in ways typical of Santa Cruz. On the day, surfers paddled out, hoping for waves worthy of a Japanese woodblock print. Onlookers crowded the bridges stretching over the harbor, boxes of pizza and six packs of beer at their side, shouting encouragement to McKervey and his fellow workers. The next week, a crowd of more than 100 packed the Community Room of the Santa Cruz Police Department to discuss preparations for the next tsunami. Some wanted to know, street-for-street, how safe their houses were. Some wanted to know where to watch the waves roll in.

Steven Ward of the University of California, Santa Cruz said he understood tsunami curiosity – the desire to head for water – and suffered from it himself. But, addressing the crowd as a geophysicist who studies tsunami’s, he urged caution. “Scientists understand the general concepts, but its hard to predict how severe surges will be – especially in real time,” Ward says. “You might expect more of scientists than we can give.”

This is both humbling and frustrating. “My feeling,” says McKervey, “is that these events show us we’re pretty insignificant – it reminds me to be grateful I’m alive.”

For more tsunami action, watch this video on YouTube posted by the Santa Cruz Sentinel. (Warning, clip contains repetitive, unimaginative and vaguely offensive language.):

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