How do I want to be?

I had the honor and privilege of participating in a social media panel discussion — Academics and Unseen Publics: Approaches to Putting Yourself and Your Work Online — at Duke University earlier this month.

As the room filled and people ate their free lunch, I chatted with my longtime blogger-friends Cara Rousseau, Jeff Cohen and Jean Ferguson, and briefly glanced at the monitor in the side room to see that the World Cup 2014 draw was taking place. (I learned later that the U.S.A. drew the Group of Death. Go Netherlands!)

When it was time to start, and since I was seated at the end of the table, I got to speak first, introducing myself and sharing a few minutes of my online story. But the best part was listening to the other panelists: Gary Bennett, Kieran Healey, Caitlin Margaret Kelly, Robin Kirk, Ava Lowrey and moderator Paolo Mangiafico. Each has been online for a long time, and each has used blogs and images and social media tools to do good: Kelly featured photos of women living with HIV, Lowrey as a 15-year-old in Alabama created the Peace Takes Courage website for her 120+ videos about the war in Iraq, Healy found Paul Revere, Kirk advocates for human rights, Bennett explores and expands our understanding of obesity, and Mangiafico encourages open-access publishing. Listening to their stories and experiences was humbling.

As Paolo and others in the room asked their questions, and we panelists answered with more reflections, our comments kept touching on issues of identity and online persona, and of juggling professional, academic and personal interests. I had been taking notes throughout the discussion, and I started to jot an outline of something to say about online codes of conduct (yes, as usual, I was going to mention the points in my 2006 essay, When blogging, face the conversation.) But then I found myself thinking — Who do I want to be? and How do I want to be? — and I realized that, from my earliest days blogging, my approach to those two questions has been the heartbeat of my online activities. So I mentioned that to the room, trying to explain that I’ve consistently wanted to represent the fullness of my self and interests and experiences (the Who), and that it is the second question (the How) that is the one I most focus on, because I want all my words and actions, online or off, to make me a person of honesty, integrity, fairness and justice. This goal, I said, is reflected in my version of the golden rule: I want to blog about others as I would like others to blog about me.

(On a long phone call the other night, a colleague and I got to talking about a single word that, to me, is so hard to define but that beautifully describes a life lived in honesty and integrity and fairness and justice: grace.)

(My focus on honesty and integrity and fairness and justice predates my online activity, because those values have been the foundational values of my entire existence, instilled in me by my parents and grandparents, my pastors and coaches, my friends and my spouse. And these values, and a life of grace, are what I hope I’m teaching my own children.)

After I shared my thoughts, I sat back and continued listening to my co-panelists. Still, part of me kept processing the idea of integrity through words and actions. (Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95 the day before, was on a lot of our minds.) Still further, a part of me for the last couple of months has been grappling with the question of how silence and inaction might undermine integrity, because, as I explained in my spoken This I Believe essay, my online voice has been shaken by the travails of my friend Bora and an ensuing discussion about the trials of women in science — and, really, women in general — who are not treated with honesty or integrity or fairness or justice.

To be honest, I want my actions — including and especially my interactions with women, minorities, those in need or persons who get missed — to speak louder than any words I might utter or write. Not that I don’t know the power of words. When I was in high school, twin cousins of mine, who were a year ahead of me and explosive wrestlers, joked that I might not be as physical and fearsome as they were, but I did have the ability to “hit ‘em with a verb.” Since before high school, though, I’ve strived be a pacifist, in word and deed. As I’ve written before (in my essay about wanting to be a priest and a father), I wanted to use my voice to teach and tell stories. When Erin and I got married, the gospel reading at our wedding mass was Matthew 25:31-46 (“I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat…I was a stranger and you invited me in…”). Words to live by. But the Christian gospels are also filled with examples of doubt. Naturally, I ask myself, often, Am I doing enough?

Anyway, a woman in the room had asked about strategies for dealing with online comments and abuse, and Ava Lowrey was telling about the sexist comments and death threats she got as a teenage blogger, and I was writing at the top of my notes: “women online, society – injustice – must fight this.” Then, Kieran Healy was adding that a strategy of thick skin and ignoring the trolls can work for some, but for others dealing with hostile online commentary can have a real personal cost. I recognized the anodyne life I’ve lived online, yet I also understood immediately and intuitively that Kieran and Ava and the other panelists were highlighting (for me) a challenge to act on the opportunities to stand up, speak out and make way for others.

And at that point, I realized that what I had told the room at the very beginning — that what I do and say online is intended to get people having face-to-face conversations that build stronger and more peaceful communities — is a way of being that I must continue. And through this, and the people I meet, I shall strive to find the words to advocate for justice and fairness, and the actions that help others to find grace that makes beauty out of ugly things.

At one point during this panel, Robin Kirk mentioned that she goes offline each Friday evening and Saturday for an internet sabbath. Last month, I’d urged something similar, at least for the day after Thanksgiving. On that day — the National Day of Listening — I went to the cafe with my father so that I could listen to him tell me more about his life and the lessons he’s learned. The next day, he and Dot (they were married soon after they visited me and Erin in Vanuatu) watched our children so Erin and I could go across the Triangle for a night away at the luxurious Umstead Hotel and Spa. Erin challenged me to unplug, and I must say, being offline — and dripping in the steam room — was very nice. An internet sabbath seems like a very good ritual.

Completed: Department of Medicine annual report

At work, I’ve (finally) completed an annual report publication for the Duke Department of Medicine. The report features numerous examples of collaboration and scientific partnerships that drive much of the Department’s success, and yet only scratches the surface of daily activities there.

I feel so lucky to work at Duke, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work as communications director for the Department of Medicine, serving Dr. Mary Klotman and the 1250 other physicians, researchers, medical residents and fellows who care for patients and explore and extend biomedical science.

I thanked Dr. Klotman for my job at the start of my May 2013 Voices of Medicine story, about malaria and acute dystonic reactions and reading all of the fine print of the medication insert. Listen below.

We're going that way

I didn’t get to read much of today’s Sunday NYTimes, but I did finish the intriguing essay by Paul Salopek about his Stroll around the world, comparing the walking life with the the automobile culture — “car brain” he calls it.

Salopek’s descriptions of the human interactions and mesmerizing vistas he’s experiencing during his walks made me remember walking on Paama, especially the idyllic stretch of road between Lironessa Village and Tavie Village where I’d grasp Erin’s hand and repeat the refrain of our time in Vanuatu, “We’re Peace Corps Volunteers in the South Pacific.” (I talked about that, along with malaria and acute dystonic reactions and reading the fine print of the medication insert, in my Voices of Medicine story in March 2013.)

I also remembered, fondly, the way our Ni-Vanuatu friends talked with us as they guided us along one of the many footpaths through the forest and up and down the hills and valleys of Paama.

“Where are we going?” I would ask in Bislama.

“Yumi go longwe,” they would answer. We’re going that way.

“Oh, how far is that?”

“Hemia longwe smol nomo, mo hemia no longwe tumas.” It’s only a little far, but not too far.

I think it took a few weeks of that for me to get out of my car brain and realize that our destination was going to be where our destination was, no closer and no further. And so I concentrated on listening to my guides and to observing the hillside gardens, or the different plants and trees along the path — cacao and coconut and mango and pandanus and bamboo and nangai (cannarium nuts) — or the way the South Pacific Ocean spread so far into the distance, or the closer places where battles had been fought or the tabu spots where I should remember not to wander by myself. Even now, as I reminisce about those walks, I can remember the feeling of my body moving on that island, and I feel good.

I’ve been walking more here in North Carolina, too, enjoying the “natural, limbic connections that reach back to the basement of time,” as Salonek writes. I’ve extended my daily walk across the Duke campus and into the Duke Gardens, and taken my children out on the greenway beyond our neighborhood. And one afternoon each week I’ve been meeting a friend to stroll along the country roads for an hour and a half. There’s no expansive blue ocean to gaze upon, but the autumn colors and sunsets have been splendid, and the fresh air and natural pace help me understand that walking is what I’m meant to being doing.

About my new About page

Last month, I nuked my About page (explained in my spoken essay).

I’ve been working on a new design for, slowly and with nothing to show, for too many years (explained in this post). And even though I wrote back in January that I realized I needed professional help, I’ve kept tinkering with code and design, working in the Foundation front-end framework (when I wasn’t exploring the Fargo outliner as a blogging tool; see

Finally, though, I have something to show: my new About page. It’s in my staging folder until I get the rest of the site redesign finished, which, with the release of Foundation 5 this week, I hope to accomplish in the next few weeks (with the help of my friend, Gabriel).

You may notice that I don’t have an active commenting system on mistersugar. I received very few comments over my 13 years of blogging — but those that I did receive I appreciated very much! I’m still thinking about if and how to add commenting back to this blog. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what my family and friends and readers want to share with me. As my post yesterday makes clear, I believe in listening. I sincerely hope you will feel comfortable contacting me directly if you have questions or concerns or comments about anything I write here. Send me a message, to

As always, I am grateful for the valuable time you invest in scanning my About page, listening to my essays, reading my posts or contacting me with your thoughts.

Respecting my community

To my ScienceOnline and BlogTogether friends, colleagues and connections,

These past weeks have embroiled us in controversy and dissension, and challenged our trust in each other. I know many of you are feeling angry, or uncomfortable, or disgusted, or concerned, or confused, or desperate for the right words, or impatient for justice, or fed up, or focused on the future. I’ve felt all of that myself.

But as one who has talked about us as a community more than perhaps any other single person, I know we can get through this together. I know this because I have watched you for more than 10 years. I have seen how much you have enjoyed the company and conversation of each other. You have shown me the value of connecting online, meeting each other for face-to-face conversations, and spreading the message of science and collaboration to the far reaches of the World Wide Web. I have seen the way the world has reacted to your enthusiasm and exuberance, and clamored to join in the fun and empowering experiences, and the constant online dialogue, we have together. I have watched you be kind to each other, teach each other, care for each other, support each other.

But our community, like any community, is made up of human beings. And humans are imperfect. We make mistakes, we act in ways that harm the people closest to us, we say things that can be mean, we react without thinking or waiting for all the facts.

Societies and cultures and faith traditions develop systems to address the complexities of humanity and to function for a greater good. Our community is young and still developing, but from the beginning we agreed to listen to each other. I believe that it’s this shared value of listening that can help us regain our trust in each other, and our faith in our community, and our dedication to communicating science through online tools.

At each and every one of the BlogTogether and ScienceOnline conferences, I have stood before you and asked just one thing from you: respect. I asked that you respect yourselves and your talents. I asked that you respect each other, me and my co-organizers. I asked that you respect the principles of our community.

And that’s why now I’m asking us return to that shared respect. Let us once again respect the promise of our community and the capacity we have within us, individually and collectively, to work together to advance science, communicate the wonders of the world, and bring others to an understanding of this amazing existence.

I’m immensely proud of Karyn Traphagen and the ways she is leading and shepherding the ScienceOnline organization. She has worked tirelessly and conscientiously this year to find creative and responsive ways to improve on the ScienceOnline conference model, so that each person who attends can feel that much more welcome and comfortable and ready to learn. ScienceOnline Together 2014 promises to be another intense and satisfying gathering, and we are delighted so many of you have shown your eagerness to come to Raleigh in February to listen and learn.

But I ask you to join me in listening and learning even before then.

I invite you to join me in participating in the StoryCorps National Day of Listening on Friday, November 29. Find a friend or a co-worker, sit down with a visiting family member, or walk to a retirement home and find a lonely senior. Ask that person to share a story, and listen. (And if you have children, take them along — one of the defining moments in my life was when my parents took me and my brothers on a Christmas day to a nursing home, and we helped defeat loneliness in one person’s life.)

And here’s an added challenge: stay offline that day, and don’t rush to share your interaction with the world. Instead, learn from the person’s story, and find a way to make yourself act better tomorrow than you did today. You may not get the satisfaction of sharing your experience immediately with the wide online world, but, trust me, your effort to change will be noticed. Because if there’s something that a community of science communicators is good at, it’s observing and connecting and understanding.

Thank you for being my community. Thank you for letting me be a part of your community.

If you haven’t listened to my spoken essay from last month, please take seven minutes to listen now.

Getting ready for ScienceOnline Together 2014

It’s almost here!

Registration for ScienceOnline Together 2014 — the eighth annual ScienceOnline signature conference — opens this coming Thursday (November 14) at 3 p.m. EST. (Start here.)

ScienceOnline Together 2014 will take place in Raleigh, NC from Feb. 27 to March 1. The preliminary program, agenda and session list is up, and many other details are falling into place. It’s sure to be another grand time.

It’s been a year of changes and growth for ScienceOnline, and a lot of new faces and voices have joined our community. I can’t wait to watch registration fill up, and then for us to gather together in February for more enlightening conversations about science and science communication.

Good morning. Will you look me in the eye?

Yesterday, walking through the hospital concourse on my way back to my office, I saw a man studying a paper map, and as I’m accustomed to do (save for the past couple of weeks where it was hard for me to meet the gaze of anyone — listen to my spoken essay to understand why), I offered to walk him to the part of the hospital where he needed to be. We talked along the way, and I learned that he had served in the Army, with tours in Iraq, and that he’d been stationed in a place I once lived. When we reached the spot for him to turn off, I wished his family well, and I reached out and shook his hand, something I never do in the hospital (although elsewhere I like to shake hands).

This morning, I was up early. I dressed, put the suitcase in the car, and drove in the dark to Duke to retrieve my jacket, which I need for the Association of American Medical Colleges conference in Philadelphia. Got to the airport, opted for the pat down instead of the energy blast, boarded the plane and promptly fell asleep.

At the Philadelphia airport, I was on the train platform studying the system map when a man in a jacket and tie walked up to me and asked a question about the train fare. For the next hour, we talked, because it turned out this man was headed to the same conference, and he had a most amazing life story. He also served in the Army, but that was just one part of his life and work and ambition, beautifully shining through in the way he’s pivoted his career over the the last few years. Now’s not the time for me to share his story. I think there’s a very good chance that he and I will continue our conversation into the future — the short chat this morning already has enriched my life, and I want to learn more from this man.

At Medicine Grand Rounds yesterday, we were all learning from another accomplished man.

Mike Krzyzewski — Coach K — talked about coaching and recruiting and inspiring winning teams (he holds the record). He recounted a time when he challenged a player to look him in the eye and become the leader the team needed, and how that teaching moment and phrase revolved back to him a few years later when that player, now one of the very best at play, repeated the phrase to Coach K to indicate the lesson had been learned. Coach K also explained that at each practice of his teams, he makes a point to talk individually to three of four players, asking about their families or their contracts or their other projects. Leadership is knowing people, and inspiring them to greatness.

My daughter, Anna, and I regularly talk about her experiences in middle school, and how to find friends in the sea of kids there. We have an ongoing experiment to see what will happen if, every day as she walks into school, she looks at three to five other students and says ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning.’

On Halloween, Anna and the rest of the family were out in the neighborhood. I sat on the front porch handing out candy. As a group of costumed middle-school girls walked up toward our house, I heard one of them say, “This is where Anna lives.” Later, I told Anna, explaining that the kids she greets in the morning might not reply to her, but they are listening, and they know who she is.

This post was written in Steep and Grind, a delightful tea-and-coffee house in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. I saw this mentioned in the NYTimes travel section a few weeks back, so I came here straight from the airport to sit at a long table, sip tea, write thank-you notes and think about my interactions with the people above.

This is why I believe in blogging

Thank you for listening to my spoken essay.

(On a mobile device, you can also listen over here.)

To learn more about This I Believe, and to listen to thousands of individuals sharing the core values that guide their daily lives, visit

To learn more about ScienceOnline, visit

Voices in the night

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I heard a soft, distant voice calling a name of someone not in the house.

A couple of hours later, I woke, thinking I had heard knocking at the door. I got out of bed, wandered downstairs and through the house, peered out the window in the front door, looked out back. I returned to bed, quickly fell asleep.

Another hour, and this time Erin had woken, nudging me to ask if I heard someone talking downstairs. Silence, and slumber once more.

Later, I dreamt about coyotes (I swear I’ve been hearing coyotes for real in the woods beyond the neighborhood) and wolves running around the house, stalking something, someone.

Just a crazy Sunday night of sleeping and dreaming, after a weekend of strong slivovitz with a friend, an early Halloween party (greeted by dolls’ heads on sticks and my daughter dressed as a vampire), tension in my community and work deadlines looming or past.

Earlier this summer, I recorded the coyotes out back, yelping and howling:

Oceans away

ScienceOnline Oceans started today down in Miami. From the tweets coming through with #scioOCEANS, it looks like it’s off to a great start. I’m not there, staying back in North Carolina for work and family. But I know Karyn Traphagen and David Shiffman have put in hundreds of hours preparing for this conference, and it’s sure to be another ScienceOnline success.

Still, I really wish I were there. Oceans and I go together.

When I was 13, I moved to the Caribbean. When I was 22, I moved to Hawaii. When I was 27, I moved to the South Pacific.

My memories of St. Croix and Waikiki and Vanuatu are all through my blog, chronicling my fun in the surf and long days on the beach, of sea turtles and nurse sharks and needlefish and snorkeling above the coral reefs in three different seas.

I miss the smell of ripe seagrapes and trying not to miss the green flash as the sun disappears below the horizon, the refreshing feel of a cold Heineken being handed to me. I recall lying beside a giant leatherback turtle laying her eggs in the sand, and swimming amidst dusky dolphins in the frigid New Zealand waters.

Great memories, punctuated by the scary: my mother and brother getting terrible infections from the sewage pumped into the bay at midnight, the shock of tumbling beneath a wave as my lungs screamed for air, the howling winds of hurricanes.

I miss the ocean.

So I dug into my Peace Corps journal to find another memory of the ocean.

Here are two entries, about troca shells and the dugong in Lamen Bay of Epi Island. This was midway in our service, Erin was back in Ohio for a holiday visit, and I was spending a month as a trainer for the next class of volunteers to come to Vanuatu.

December 19, 1998
Saturday afternoon before a nap, a rest I’ve worked for! This week I was busy with my sessions — lots of talk and discussion. Great classes.

And today, I tired myself out. After class got out at 11:00 a.m., I came [back to the hut] for lunch, then walked along the beach for nearly a mile, to where William and 20 others were gathered in their canoes for harvesting troca shells from the reef. The tabu on the shells was recently lifted, and at 350 vatu per kilo, these villagers will rake in the money.

I walked past the group on the beach having lunch — I wanted to go to the point where I could see Paama. Paama, and Lopevi (which has grumbled a bit today), were faintly visible in the haze. I continued down the beach, alone and with my fantasies of Erin. It’s amazingly peaceful and erotic and exotic at the beach there: lorikeets squawking, a gentle breeze, lots of green bush and blue sea. Amid my daydreams, I had to squat to shit in the sand, the diarrhea pouring out of me. I pulled up my pants just as the Vanair plane flew by on its way from Epi to Ambrym!

When I started walking back, I met William waiting for me at the point, concerned probably about my prolonged absence and the incoming tide that cuts off the breach route. We returned to the canoe, and paddled out to the reef, tied on to an outcrop of coral and jumped into the water. At first, I snorkeled close to the canoe, holding onto the outrigger. When I got more comfortable and bold, I swam around admiring the coral and at times diving down like William, who floated near the bottom, snagging mollusks from their cubby holes. I retrieved a troca shell from three meters down, proudly extending it into the air when I surfaced. William just said, “Put it in the canoe.” We finished with me paddling us to shore, and then William brought us back to Lamen Bay, me perched at the canoe’s forehead, smug and relaxed and content. Epi is beautiful, Vanuatu comfortable.

January 3, 1999
Finally, today, I swam with the dugong.

I woke this morning and relaxed in bed with Outside Magazine, which features a list of 100 adventures to try in a lifetime, then went to an earlier-than-usual church service. After church, William and Api and Christina and I went to the sandy part of the bay, and there was the cowfish. Not a stunning animal, but placid and approachable. I dived down to touch its scarred, slimy back, being careful of the strong dolphin-like tail. When I tired, I climbed into a dugout canoe and paddled after the dozen kids trailing the dugong through the cool water — this was funny to watch, as the dugong surfaced for air and with a few strong kicks propelled forward as kids and adults furiously paddled after. Amazing that a phalanx of reaching arms doesn’t scare the creature off.

Walking back, William handed me a warm, wet slab of banana laplap, and I hungrily ate it, thinking, Outside Magazine didn’t list this, but it should: swimming with a South Pacific dugong and then walking back to your custom hut while slobbering over laplap.

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Written by Anton Zuiker since July 2000
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