Sunday, March 30, 2014

We Are the Champions, My Friends

Work is going really well-- mainly because of the awesome team of collaborators I have assembled.  Two of them visited from the States this week, and since it was their first time in Kenya, we had to do some fun things, while also working hard to prepare for the advanced workshop.  First to arrive was Julia (pronounced Hoo-lia), a former student of mine from back in the day when I was a post-doc at Lewis & Clark.  In May, she graduated from there, where she was a star student working with my friend&colleague Greta doing research AND was a lead singer of a band called The Dancing Hats.  Basically, she's my idol.  

To welcome her to Kenya, and to celebrate our dear friend&colleague Maureiq's birthday, a bunch of us (including Jeff who was in town from Portland and Jason who is our friend&colleague from work) went out to the Nairobi-equivalent of food carts for supper.  They are actually food stalls, which are even better than food carts because, while still in a parking lot, you don't even have to walk around the parking lot to peruse all the options!  About 25 menus are brought right to your table in a cacophonic flurry, from which you can order some impossible-to-predict amount of food, which you then have to pay for in a series of endless small transactions, while simultaneously digesting your portion of the feast, with one of many fresh-squeezed exotic juice combinations.  It is super fun and super delicious.  This was followed by a late night game of Cards Against Humanity (you can visit their funny and abusive website here, download the game for free, or suggest new cards).  Have you played it?  If not, do.  It's hilarious.  Not-exactly-blog-material type of hilarious.  Maureiq was the unexpected, but absolutely undisputed, champion of our game-- though she will deny it if you ask her.
Happy Birthday Maureiq!
Later in the week, we took another break from the grind and wanted to wish my old roommate Nasimiyu a fond farewell (she is moving to Ethiopia), so a gang of us went to my local (The Waiyaki Way Lounge) to check out their new karaoke night.  This was my first time doing so in Nairobi, which is hard to believe because I love karaoke.  Of course, what most people don't realize/admit/capitalize on is that everybody loves karaoke.  Even people who claim to hate it, love it (they just want to be begged more). Live band karaoke (where you don't sing along with a slightly muzaked, slightly shortened version of the song "in the style" of the most famous artist to ever record it, but instead you actually sing whatever you are going to sing with a BAND, LIVE, standing behind you, FOR REAL) is the best thing ever invented, other than sabbatical.  Sometimes, when famous musicians do unexpected covers, I think it is them expressing their love of live band karaoke, with themselves as the live band (e.g., Jeff Tweedy's rendition of the Black-Eyed Peas). To illustrate the point that anyone can and should do it-- on the little slips of paper you use to sign up at the Waiyaki Way Lounge it says-- "If You Can Walk, You Can Dance.  If You Can Talk, You Can Sing."  I, of course, would argue those are ridiculous prerequisites.
Greta & Elliot bringing down the house (center), 
flanked by me & Jeff and Julia & Nasimiyu debating song choices.
Anyway, anyone who knows me knows that I am a fan and has maybe even seen a performance of my signature song (Try A Little Tenderness).  I think it might be on youtube somewhere actually but I am not going look for it and, even if I did, I am not going to link it-- it scares the uninitiated.  Our mötley crüe sang a wide variety of songs-- including a couple of raps which were really impressive (we thought!)-- and the customary array of classic hits and ballads.  Greta, my dear friend&colleague who was visiting sang a rousing duet with our new friend Elliot, and were crowned the winners in the competition for the night.  That's right folks, we ARE the champions.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Blurred Lines and Gratuitous Selfies: A Sign of the Times

I swear I have been working hard-- too hard for a sabbatical some might even argue...  but there is lots of fun also shoved into the nooks and crannies of every day and, thankfully, the line between work and play is pretty blurry for me (I won't give links to the video referenced here-- if you want to find it, you can google as well as I can...).  Last week, for example, I went and gave a talk at the Nairobi National Museum.  Technically, this was work, but I had so much fun that I took a selfie with Jacob, the curator of the snake park at the museum and my host, after the seminar.  Professionalism, shmofessionalism. Thanks for the awesome invite Jacob!

Then, this past weekend I went north of Nairobi to the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains to check it out.  This is a region of Kenya I have spent very little time in, but it is essentially the breadbasket of the country-- extremely beautiful quilt of forest, small-scale tea farming, timber plots, orchards, and lots and lots and lots of vegetable farms.  Where we were was overlooking a gorgeous river flowing down the eastern side of the mountains, which fulfills my bliss requirement of being within earshot of running water.  I suppose, technically, there was no real work involved in this excursion-- but I thought a lot while hiking.  That counts, right?

The hiking was a must, anyway.  We have been spending really long days at the office prepping for the advanced workshop.  But Leah is a great musical influence, and has introduced me to all kinds of awesome dance, hiphop, and rap music which makes jamming at work way more fun  (my favorite new artist-- Hoodie Allen).  The best general tip so far: a website where people post mixes they made (  I can listen to all the guilty pleasures and acoustic rock I want, without knowing exactly what will come next which I don't enjoy nearly as much.  Listening to rando mixes doesn't adhere to Robin Hilton's rules on Mixtape Etiquette (read his passionate treatise here, if you are interested) and it isn't as good as Lake CDs, but until summertime comes it'll have to do.  Hot off the press gratuitous selfie of me and Leah burning the not-quite-midnight oil between jams, below.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Train Depots, Thumbs, and Bus Stations.... Anticipation is Half The Fun

As you might guess, I enjoy traveling.  The age old cliche ('it's the journey, not the destination') is not only true, it can be hiked up a notch-- it is the imminent departure!  I love travel hubs, crossroads, port towns, ferry crossings, airstrips, a full tank of gas in a rental car, or even a bustling taxi stand.

Here in East Africa, bus stations are especially colorful and fragrant.  People are hustling everything from snacks and sunglasses to live chickens.  This ensures that travelers can reach their destinations either nourished, or with the expected offerings for their hosts.  Buses don't depart until they fill (maybe an hour or so after their scheduled departure time), and many of the less reputable ones look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book once they are topped with all the cargo they'll transport in addition to human passengers.  The bustle, the colors, the yelling, the hurry up and wait-- all this adds to the excitement of an upcoming trip.

The Kampala bus station (which is really just a giant area where buses are parked) in Uganda.

The old train station here in Nairobi hasn't changed much since it was first built, in 1899!  Only 3 trains a week depart from it, meaning it is mostly a relict for tourists and people with lots of time to kill, but I so love traveling by train I decided to book a compartment when GP came for New Year's a couple months ago.  Requirements for train travel in Kenya: strong stomach (the food was terrible, and I am *not* picky) and a dear friend who loves to play cards.
Me and GP about to get on the Crazy Train in Nairobi headed for the coast.  Not 17 hours, but 22 hours later (plus 2 engine break downs and, eventually, a disembarkment to catch a matatu [mini bus] for the last leg) we reached Mombasa, our destination.  For reference, the bus ride would have taken about 7 hours, total.

By far, bodabodas (motorcycles) are my favorite way to get from place to place here (and everywhere else too).  They are cheap, they can squeeze perilously through traffic jams, they can off road, they are often driven by guys with hilarious hats (occasionally helmets, but not as much) and big puffy jackets to protect against the cold, even when it it about 80 degrees out.
Before he knew I was taking a picture.  And then after.

Or, you can go with whatever mode of transport comes along first!  In my experience, when hitchhiking, it always helps to 1) ask nicely, 2) clearly state where you want to go, and 3) wear a red dress!  I have accumulated quite the karma debt over the years because of kind hitchhiker-picker-uppers, and it one that I fully intend to repay.
My signature hand-written signs have worked all over Europe, the US, and East Africa (this one says "Nairobi please!"  One has to make sure the font is big and clear enough to be visible to fast-moving cars and that one is standing in a spot where it's easy to stop so they can pick you up.   

Speaking of hitchhiking, I am giving a science talk to the public (kind of like the Science Pubs and Nerd Nite talks I have given in Portland over the last few years, which I enjoy so much).  If you are in Nairobi, come if you can!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Introducing The Dragons

Oooh la la it feels good to be back in blogging form!  Today's post is to introduce my dragons-- the three students I have been working with, and spending almost every waking our with, and learning with, and puking with (giardia, not Tusker), and enjoying life with the last few months:  Caitlin, Maureiq, (me), and Leah.  I have always claimed to have an eye for talent (I once even threatened to become a baseball scout, but biology is just too lucrative fun to give up as a career), but this time I have outdone myself-- not only are each of them wonderful as individuals, we have all become great friends.

I affectionately refer to them as my dragons (and they call me Khaleesi, inspired by Game of Thrones... one of our occasional evening indulgences) because they are the most fantastic, fierce, talented team I could ask for in order to convert my overly ambitious pipedream of a workshop schedule into a successful reality that surpassed even my own often wildly optimistic ideas of what could be.  Each of them has a unique set of gifts, which has been fun to watch develop as we have worked together the last few months.  But really, they can all do everything-- and together they have made something that might have been good, into something awesome.  Outside of work, they are also amazing artists (visual and martial), dancers, singers, bakers, paddlers, athletes, and adventurers.  They are fun, funny, and fearless.  Can you tell how grateful I am for their contributions?  I hope they also know.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Resurrection

As you know, this blog has a regular feature-- the flashback post (example).  Given the 2+ year hiatus since my last post, flashing (back) is going to be a very common activity, as Schaackmobile (the blog) celebrates Lent by starting its slow ascent from the ashes....

Let's start with today though:
I am writing from my office in Nairobi, Kenya.  I am so profoundly enjoying my sabbatical here, it's hard to capture the experience in words, but photos help.  I arrived in October, and almost immediately lucked into an apartment affectionately referred to as the Tangerine Dream Penthouse (the TDP for short, aptly named given the color scheme, I think; ours is the apartment, literally, at the end of the rainbow).
The TDP has a great view and is right across the street from where I do most of my work (you know I hate commuting by car!) in a neighborhood called Uthiru, which I love.  As you can see (below), Uthiru is bustling with life and is full of rainbows (even double rainbows), although no one really freaks out about them here.
My sabbatical gig involves doing a series of bioinformatics and genomics workshops (we have just finished 4, of 5) and a bunch of different research projects.  I have a couple of students from the US working and living with me and they are awesome-- talented, fun, energetic, and excited.  I also work with Kenyan students and researchers who are out of this world-- I am inspired and impressed everyday that I am here.  Here is our workshop group photo (power posing, of course) after we wrapped up at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha last month.  Who has that much fun doing bioinformatics?  We do, that's who.
Our latest project is ambitious-- we are sequencing the whole genome and transcriptome of a lepidopteran crop pest, Busseola fusca, that is responsible for the destruction of up to 1/3 of the maize in East Africa every year.  Given that this is the staple food in the region, understanding the biology of the organism (and therefore how it might be controlled) is critical.  This has been the focus of a great deal of research for over a century, but the genome has yet to be sequenced.  Many collaborators, and the graduates of our workshop series, will be working together over the coming months on this major effort.  Here is a pic of the larvae (left), and Gladys Bichanga, a collaborator on the project, and a link to a recent write-up about parts of my role, specifically, in the project in the Oregonian (although there are 50+ people involved who were not mentioned in the piece).  It is a serious honor and major thrill to be here-- doing this project, working with these folks, learning all these new things.  As usual, come visit!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Family and Just Like Family

So, I have been feeling really grateful for being here lately-- perhaps because of the holidays, and the unfamiliar ease with which that meant I got to see family this year. Our traditions have shifted away from presents entirely to annual handmade Christmas cards, of which I am posting a tableau of this year's bounty. It was so great to be in Eugene with the fam, enjoy a nice meal, and enjoy the act of giving someone something you've thought about and concentrated on just for them.

In my apartment, the art and photos have started to go up. I realized recently-- I don't have any art for art's sake. Not one piece. All my decorative wall hangings are of sentimental value-- made by friends, painted by family, photos, pieces brought back from far off places. At first, it occurred to me that this might be seen as bad, since I am not putting things up because they are great, I am putting them because they are important to me. Then I thought I about something I heard recently-- that when you own art and put it up, you cease to really look at it. So then I thought my sentimental collection of the decorative arts might not be such a bad thing afterall....

Here's one example: the yearly group photo from South Haven where my family spent the summer each year since before I was born (this one taken in the summer of 1972 predates me-- my mom is in the black scoop necked shirt with my father standing slightly to the right of her). Once I came along, these folks become my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. I love this picture because it reminds me of those days, and the many of the extended families that have been so important to me in the various places that I have lived since then. So, although I am very, very happy to be near my family family, the many kind people I have met in Portland so far are just as clutch for my happiness-- I am grateful for both.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Like a Phoenix

Schaackmobile (the blog) triumphantly returns. Schaackmobile (the lifestyle) is still on hiatus, as I slowly spread the tentacles of my existence from the smallest room in my apartment. Schaackmobile (the album), like Wilco (the album), is still just a glint in its mother's eye.

As of late, I have taken over more of the apartment, and even have all the art and photos unpacked and perilously leaning against boxes and walls as I figure out what half of my colorful collection will decorate the homestead and what half will decorate the other homestead: my office. Ahhh, the office. Where have I been this semester? In my office. I decided to trim the hedges in terms of activities so as to optimize the chance of survival this semester, and guess what-- I am giving the final on monday! That means I have survived intact and that blogging, and other highly superfluous activities, might be okay to re-introduce into my daily regimen, one by one.

Back to the inaugural comeback blogpost: I am excited to share the revival of yet another long-dormant pastime: Hwatu! (pronounced like it's spelled)
I threw a party last night, and a colleague in the Chinese department who is actually Korean brought me a gift! A set of cards to play the Korean card game Go-Stop-- a very fun gambling game that I learned from an old friend, Franklin, many years ago in Spain before the abandonment of the peseta for the euro (pesetas were great for very low-stakes gambling as they were worth a fraction of a penny and you could end up with quite the jingle-jangle in your pocket by the end of the night if you played your cards right.) Playing your cards in the game of Hwatu, however, involves animatedly slapping them down on the table and yelling expletives in Korean. Or at least that's what Franklin told us. And so we did! Not having any real idea what we were saying and horrifying Korean-Americans who would overhear our exclamations when we played the game in cafes to pass the time... I am eager to re-learn the rules and host a game soon.... the cards are beautiful (pictured here, with my latest coffee table book) and the fact that I am actually thinking about using the living room means my case of Stockholm's is almost cured. Wanna come play?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sunshine Feeding Daisies

Where does time go? Seriously!

Last I wrote, I was settling into Portland life and getting ready for classes to start. Well, they started, and the settling in continues. I moved into my sweet bachelorette pad, only to be struck with a mild case of Stockholm syndrome-- which is to say I lived, with all of my belongings, in the tiny half-bedroom off the bathroom for the first month, rarely venturing into the rest of the apartment. After 3 years of living small, I was in love with it, and spreading out though an entire apartment had little appeal. In the last week, I have convalesced to the point of sleeping in the actual full bedroom, but I still haven't sat on the couch. I suppose it is not a bad thing to have loved trailer life so much, is it?

Classes have started, though I am not teaching until the second third of the semester. While I can, I am writing and finishing grants, preparing to teach, reviewing a paper, meeting students, doing faculty-esque type things, and trying not to let any of my colcollaborators down to terribly badly. I also am having a little fun. I went to Seattle and inherited a ton of Daphnia gear from my relatively-new-but-have-know-him-a-long-time friend Brooks Miner. He lived in Seattle with his wife, Anna Coogan (a very talented singer-songwriter) until last week, hence the need to run up there and get the goods that will launch my new lab.

This past weekend I went to my dear friend Steve's wedding in Council Bluffs, IA-- home of the almost famous squirrel cage jail, which I meant to go see but didn't. Next time I go to Council Bluffs! Steve and his wife, Kelly, are fellow Lake Weekend attendees and the two of them, in addition to their many other wonderful qualities helped make this year the Year of the Human Pyramid Trick! Instead of just your run of the mill double head stand (which we did do, of course-- Rodenbeck on the left, me on the right), we went for the whole kit and caboodle this year and involved a whole crew in the quest for better tricks (Kelly bottom left, Steve on top of her; me bottom, right with Rodenbeck and his Herculean grip keeping the 2 tubes together, Turpin on top of us, and Shane as the flyer). I think we made it look easy. I assure you it was not.
The wedding was very fun, and I came back exhausted. Despite that, I couldn't miss out on a chance to go see John Prine with my family last night in Eugene, so I hustled down I-5 to meet them and catch his show for the first time, and it was SO fantastic-- I cannot recommend it enough. And if you haven't listened to your John Prine albums in a while, dig 'em out. And if you don't have any, email me and I will send you some. He is a charmer. And an old guitar hand from Bloomington who I have seen many times, Jason Wilbur, plays lead guitar for him so it was fun to see a familiar face in a new place. Given that John Prine's songwriting is solidly grounded in the school of 3-chords (maybe 4) that I also adhere to with dedication, it is a special pleasure to listen closely and focus on the lyrics, from which the title of this blogpost was taken. Absolute poetry, and the stories he told in between, mostly about where the songs came to him from, were so funny and interesting. My mom, my sister, and I all loved it and-- to our collective surprise I am sure-- kind of loved seeing it together. Serenaded by John Prine for the evening... can't ask for much more than that.

Last thing-- tonight I went and saw that amazing play, The Method Gun, that I blogged about last year after a quick trip to Austin. It was amazing, again! So much so that, after it was over, and the cast came out for their second bow and then ran off stage, I caught wind of them (ltierally) as they ran behind where I was sitting to go backstage and recover after the performance. I turned and caught two of them-- tapping them on the shoulder (the very handsome ones, just by luck)-- and had the pleasure of paying them this compliment:

I said, "I've gone to two plays in the last 5 years." One of them paused quizzically, and said "...Yeah??" And I said, "And they were both The Method Gun." We high fived, and they continued their trot back stage. See it if you can.