Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I Am Disappointed: MOSS Robotics Building Set

I have been keeping a covetous eye on ModRobotics for a couple of years, ever since I saw a demo video for Cubelets, their first-generation snap-together modular robot building system. Each little cube has a specific function, and they easily snap together using embedded magnets. Without having to do any programming, builders can make motorized robots that respond to inputs like sound, light, and proximity.

I could easily imagine the kids and me having enormous fun messing around with these; for simple robots, I thought, they'd be easier to work with than Lego Mindstorms, which require programming and cables and building with complicated connectors. Cubelets is cubes; Mindstorms is various sensors and motors, a collection of cables, and dozens of different building pieces.

I didn't expect Cubelets to be as versatile and powerful as Mindstorms, but I did expect it to be relatively easy to use, and to provide quicker gratification.

Well, I never got any Cubelets. They're produced in relatively small quantities, and availability never coincided with me having the funds to buy them.

But that was OK, because ModRobotics has moved on to Generation 2: MOSS

Like Cubelets, MOSS has an underlying cube structure, but includes other pieces as well that make it more versatile, like this pivot:

And this flexible piece that allows information to flow between non-adjacent blocks:

In addition, MOSS robots can be controlled by apps that work on smartphones and tablets, and they are or will be programmable using Scratch and other programming languages.

I pre-ordered a set some months ago, and, after the usual production delays, received it a week or so ago. We dived into it with excitement, but we have met with frustration and disappointment.

First, these cubes are held together with small steel balls that snap into magnets embedded in the blocks' corners. The kit comes with a gazillion of these little balls; this picture represents only a fraction of ours, since the rest are currently in use on robots:

These steel balls snap into place in a very satisfying way. However, they are small and slippery, and robotics building at our house has been regularly punctuated by the sound of them hitting the wood floor and rolling under things. They also come unstuck too easily; they protrude beyond the edges of the robot, and we have found ourselves accidentally brushing them loose when handling our robots.

The steel balls, though, are not the biggest problem with MOSS. In retrospect it's obvious, but somehow it hadn't occurred to me that when you build a structure completely out of interlocking cubes, you create a three-dimentional grid of cleavage lines along which it can easily break. We have found it difficult to keep our robots together even until we're done building them. They need to be handled like small animals: picked up very carefully with both hands, and supported from underneath. Any time you forget to do that, something comes loose. I was going to show you our most successful robot, but I carelessly picked it up with one hand—I tried to support it from underneath, honest!—and this is what happened:

This was a cute little four-wheeled robot that could be driven around by remote control using the iOS app. But one careless moment, and it's junk.

As it was, our most successful robot was a scaled-down version of this robot from the "getting started" guide:

We never could get that apparatus on the front, a flashlight and proximity sensor on a pivot arm, to do anything but fall off. The kit includes several types of braces for reinforcement, including this brace as long as three blocks:

We haven't found the braces especially useful at preventing Robot Collapse, and we weren't able to keep that pivot arm on our robot even when we added additional bracing. (Comment from the Lego Savant: "When you say we, I don't know...I was able to get that arm on pretty well. I could never get it to work, but I did manage to keep it on for awhile at least. I think if you're careful to build it exactly right, it works pretty well.")

Our little remote-control robot also shed parts any time it bumped into something. If you've ever driven a remote-control vehicle, you know they bump into things a lot. The Lego Savant and I have built Mindstorms robots that could hang from a rope or be dropped from surprising heights (oops!) without falling to pieces. Tougher to build, sure. But tougher in general.

These frustrations are significant enough that I feel almost petty mentioning that the documentation is poor. It's easier for the Lego Savant, but I find it difficult to make sense of many of the diagrams. But we can't be too hard on ModRobotics for that; after a decade of Lego, nobody's diagrams measure up.

It's a bigger problem that I find it almost impossible to tell the difference between blocks. Here, for instance, are the pictures used for the microphone sensor:

And the proximity sensor:

The actual blocks are not much easier to tell apart. Here are the flashlight and the light sensor:

I, for one, could have used some labels. A little sheet of stickers, say, like the ones that come with Mindstorms:

We're persistent, and haven't given up on MOSS yet. But I had hoped that this would be a snap-and-go robotics toy for my kids, or something I could put out on a table at my homeschool group for kids to easily experiment with. Those hopes are pretty well dashed.

I still love the underlying concept, and I hope the ModRobotics team, or someone else, can keep working toward a robotics kit that's easier to dive into than Mindstorms. In the meantime, we still love Mindstorms. I paid almost four hundred bucks for this extensive kit of MOSS modules. I could have upgraded the Lego Savant to Mindstorms EV3 for $350, and taken him out for a nice dinner with the leftovers, and it's feeling like that would probably have been a better investment.

We may yet fall in love with MOSS, figuring out how to get our robots to hold together, or finding the sweet spot of things that MOSS is especially good for. But even if we do, a product that has "easy to use" as one of its main selling points should not have this kind of learning curve.

The Lego Savant says, "Yeah, I don't have anything to add except the arm thing. This is a pretty good review. I do plan to keep experimenting with it."

We'll update after we've played more, and let you know how things work out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Long-Distance Relationships: What I Think I Know About Them

A few months ago, Serious Girlfriend Who Lives 600 Miles Away and I exited the initial honeymoon phase of our relationship. When we were first together, staying up half the night to chat by IM trumped our sleep schedules, and writing epic emails was more important than food, hygiene, or bathroom breaks. Eventually, of course, our initial all-encompassing fascination with each other began to fade. Our partners, our cats, our hobbies, our unread books, our friends, and our neglected work all began to demand attention. My children thought I ought to return to providing them with food on a regular basis; her new job went better, she found, if she was well-rested. We soberly noted that we had been spending money we didn't have in order to see each other.

It was rough there for a bit. We liked the "You, You, It's All About You!" stage. We worried that without that energy driving us, we couldn't give each other the reassuring attention we both need. We thought that if we decided to live scrupulously within our means, we'd hardly ever see each other. My family considered a move that would have put us much closer to her; when it became clear that wasn't going to happen, we wondered whether a relationship across such a long distance had a future at all.

When we got over our individual and mutual fits of hysteria and despair, we were clear that although our relationship had changed, we didn't want it to end. We set out to make an intentional transition to the new form our relationship would take, post-honeymoon. In the course of this intentional transition, I wrote up what I called my Three-Point Model of Long-Distance Relationships, and I would like to share it with you now.

Su's Three Point Model of Long-Distance Relationships.
The long-distance relationship, or LDR, is maintained through three forms of contact. The importance of each of these forms of contact can vary from relationship to relationship, even to the extent that one may be absent or near-absent, but it behooves the thoughtful person to consider their role and importance.

Type A: Low-impact daily or near-daily contact.
Type A contact is accomplished through things like texting good morning or good night, asking questions like, "how was your day?" or "what are you up to?" or reporting on minor life issues like, "my cold is much better," or "I finally got the washing machine fixed." Sending phone pictures of your tasty glass of beer or the cute thing your cat is doing would also fall into this category. 

This type of contact often takes place in between or during other activities, and is prone to interruption. For instance, it might take the form of a couple of quick texts from work that end abruptly when a meeting begins or someone comes up to you with a question.

Some relationships will have a lot of this, and some will have very little. I was talking to Live-In Sweetie about this, and he pointed out that he and his long-distance best friend do almost none of this kind of thing. For a year, I was in a long-distance relationship with Lovely Girlfriend. She had spotty internet access, a very busy life as a single mom, and two jobs, neither of which allowed for much texting or IMing. It was a rare treat if we managed to have a real chat rather than exchanging a text or two during the day. But we always texted goodnight at 10 p.m. You wouldn't think that would be a big deal, but it meant a lot to both of us. It was just a couple of lines but was a way to remind us we were thinking of each other, our little moment out of every day.

Serious Girlfriend and I text and IM multiple times most days; sometimes these turn into actual chats, but we can't count on that. We also follow each other very closely on Facebook. 

Type B: Short-duration focused one-on-one contact 

In a local or live-in relationship, this is things like Live-in Sweetie's and my habit of going out to breakfast two mornings a week, where we have an undistracted hour or so just with each other, with no chores on our minds and no kids, work e-mail, or appointments to interrupt us. Whereas Type A contact is prone to being interrupted at any time by other demands, in Type B, you've hopefully got the other person's full attention. 

In LDRs, Type B contact could be phone calls, chatty e-mails if you're the reading and writing type, Skyping, or even a long on-line chat by text or IM.

Live-in Sweetie and his long-distance best friend do some Type B. They get on the phone every so often and the conversation is never less than an hour. It's their major way of keeping in touch between visits.

Type B contact requires mindfulness and effort. Unless you live some kind of charmed life, you have to make it happen. A place in your calendar has to be cleared during which you can focus. Live-in Sweetie and his friend make dates to get on the phone so they can both protect that time commitment.

Serious Girlfriend and I have very little of this right now, and the loss of it was the hardest adjustment for me. We hope to have more, and have experimented a bit with phone calls, or with setting aside specific times for on-line chatting, but mostly this problem has been solved by a couple of visits in which it became clear that we didn't need a lot of Type B to maintain our connection and ease with each other.

Type C: Visits

Visits! Glorious, glorious visits.

There are two aspects to visits:

C1: how good they are. Do you feel the connection when you're together? Do you enjoy your visits?

C2: how often they happen. Do your lives allow for the time and expense?

Lovely Girlfriend and I felt that we could feel our connection slipping if the gap between visits stretched out to two months or more. We thought every six weeks would be ideal, though we never achieved that and didn't think it was an option. Of course, she and I had very weak Type A and Type B contact. More of that might have made longer gaps between visits more OK.

Serious Girlfriend and I also think two months between visits is pushing it. We sometimes visit each other's homes, because this is less costly than meeting in the middle for a weekend tryst. These visits give us a chance to see each other's partners and friends, visit favorite haunts, and lounge around. But they can be challenging because one of us is in Type C mode, away from home and more or less on vacation, while the other is still surrounded by their home and its demands. Time alone during home visits tends to come in chunks of a few hours at a time, because we both live with long-term partners, and I have kids. Sometimes the kids and I visit her. That's a special kind of happy chaos, but a little lacking in intimacy. I'm sure this could be quite different for people who live alone.

We have found that visits where we both are away from our homes for a weekend are essential for feeling our connection to each other, and we recently learned the hard way that no number of home visits can alleviate the anxiety we both start to feel if it's been too long since a weekend tryst.

It also really helps keep the anxiety at bay if we know when our next visit is going to be. Right now, other obligations in our lives are making it impossible for us to have a firm date. "Sometimes in August," we think, or "maybe over Labor Day weekend." We would much prefer something we could put on the calendar and count down to.

There are a lot of variables that are going to make other people's experiences and needs different than ours. Just how long-distance the relationship is, for instance. Serious Girlfriend and I find ourselves envying people who live within 3 or 4 hours of each other. That's a distance you can do for an ordinary weekend: leave on Friday after work, come home late on Sunday. With 11 hours between us, we pretty much need a three-day weekend plus at least half a day off work to make the travel worthwhile. (On the other hand, I have an east-coast friend whose sweeties are a couple on the west coast, and he puts in a full day's work on the plane on Friday, spends the weekend with them, catches a red-eye home on Sunday night, and reports to the office on Monday morning. I am in awe.)

The thing about the 3-point model is that it's useful to know which of these things best top up your tank. I, for instance, love Type A contact. I want to know how that meeting went, or what that itchy rash turned out to be, or how everybody liked the new recipe. I like knowing what's up in the daily life of my sweetie. That doesn't matter so much to some folks, and sometimes it's flat-out impossible to do long-distance, but if I can have it, I want it. That's important for me to know, and it's important for Serious Girlfriend to know, too. We don't have the luxury of all the A, B, and C we can handle and more; we need to put our efforts where they'll do the most good.

Update: a friend of mine made the following comment after she read this, and I liked what she had to say. She gave me permission to include it:
This seems like an excellent summary for a newish LDR. My experience is that there are additional challenges that start to kick in at about the 5-7 year mark.  
1) That kind of commute (when it begins to feel more like a commute than interesting travel) is a very long and sometime frustrating commute. I think being mindful of parity in terms of who makes this effort would be a very good idea. Speaking here from the experience of not being mindful enough about that.
2) There is a kind of nebulous quality to a long-term LDR that I think may just be inevitable. You have a home and your sweetie has a home but your relationship together does not have a physical home. I don't know what the answer is for that one. There may be none.
Erika Moen at ohjoysextoy has a comic about being in a long-distance relationship. She and her husband were intercontinental for several years. They would envy us our paltry eleven hour drives and our shared time zone. This comic is NSFW, as you might expect from a website called ohjoysextoy. Her points are not all the same as mine, so I offer her to you as another point of view.

Remember, if you like something I write, you're free to share it. I enjoy attention in the form of readers.

Monday, July 14, 2014

CLEVER: The Card Game, A Review

I have something of a hobby backing things on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. It's fun: you find something that you'd like to see exist, and pledge some money toward helping to create it. Then you wait. While you're waiting, the creators keep you posted on their progress. You get to hear about them checking out prototypes, visiting factories, making revisions. And when their project goes into production, you get to celebrate with them and possibly be one of the first people ever to get one. If their product never goes into production beyond the initial Kickstarter run, this may be your only chance to own something interesting and rare.

The first project I supported at Kickstarter, back in 2012, was a base for Mindstorms robotics that has different holes that are compatible with the various Mindstorms connectors. It has proven to be very useful when building small mechanisms that are meant to stay in place. The Lego Savant and I recently used it when building a simple belt driver to turn his Leonard da Vinci helicopter model. You can see the gray Minutebot base holding the Mindstorms brick in place:

Our most recent Kickstarter arrival is a card game called CLEVER. More accurately, it's a unique deck of 74 cards that can be used to play a number of games.

The packaging and cards are high-quality and nicely designed. Here is the box for the game:

And this is what it looks like when you open it:

The instruction booklet was on top, and under it is the deck itself, in a card box tucked into the center of a frame that lists people who contributed $50 or more.

Here is a not very exciting picture of the card box itself:

It's perfectly nice, but probably the least impressive bit of design associated with this project. I pledged enough to get two copies of the game, one for us and one to give away, and the card box for our copy had come unglued in transit. The gift copy was fine, though.

Here are some sample cards:

These are just lovely, and they're a very high-quality plastic that I expect to hold up well. These cards have a lot going on. Each one has a number or letter; each of the digits from 0-9 and each of the letters of the alphabet appears twice. Each card is also associated with a color. There are twelve colors in all, and we really appreciate that the names of the colors are printed on the cards. Not only have we found the blue to be a bit purply and the tan to be a bit on the brownish-green side, but I have two kids who are color blind. There are games we've struggled to play because the kids can't distinguish between similar colors. It's helpful to be able to read the color names.

In addition, each card belongs to one of twelve categories: balls, birds, body parts, electric appliances, fruit, and so on. Here's the key that appears in the instruction booklet:

Cards can be grouped by any of their various relationships. You might have three blue things, or three vegetables, for instance. In addition, you can group letter cards by alphabetical sequence (MNO) or by spelling words like CAT or DRY. Number cards can be grouped by sequence or by forming simple equations, for instance with a 5, a 2, and a 7. In some games, it's also possible to match a pair of cards that have the same number or letter.

My older two and I have already spent some time playing a game called called Three, which starts with three cards face-up on the table. These cards are random, and they may not be related at all, or two of them may be related in some way, or all three. Players take turns adding a single card to one of the three stacks, preserving the number of related cards. If you started with two related cards, you only need to play a card that relates to at least one other. But if you started with three, you have to play a card that keeps all three cards related.

We quickly modified the rules of this game so that if the original three cards weren't related at all, three new random cards were played on top of them. We found that preserving "zero or more" related cards removed any challenge from the game, and it quickly became tedious.

We want to try some variations on Three. For instance, it might be fun to try "maintain exactly the same number of cards in relationship" rather than "the same number or more." It might be a fun challenge to have to play cards that preserve the lack of relationships if you start at zero. We have several ideas.

We are also interested in thinking about creating a game where you build a collection of as many related cards as possible.

Today, my almost-seven year old and I played a game that required matching only two cards at a time. He grasped the concept very quickly, but argued about some of the categories. Hummingbirds and dragonflies are both small flying things, for example, so why can't they make a pair? And why can't a fan and a van be a pair, because they rhyme? We stuck to the rule book today, but I expect we'll try playing with looser rules sometime and see what happens.

CLEVER reminds me of SET, another game in which there are multiple ways that cards can relate to each other. We love SET, but CLEVER feels more like the kind of card deck it would be handy to keep in the bottom of your parent-bag to pull out whenever there are kids to be entertained. Very simple matching games could be set up for young children, whereas rummy-style games and more complex puzzle games can be played with older kids and adults.

My three kids, who are 13, 10, and 7, all give the game high marks. And so do I. It's very well-designed both conceptually and graphically, we've already had a lot of fun with it, and it complicates the traditional card deck in ways that we find both fun and challenging.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Gene Luen Yang, Writer of Comic Books, is My Spiritual Advisor

Gene Luen Yang is the acclaimed author of American-Born Chinese, a book everyone should read, as well as Boxers & Saints, which you should read for a lot of reasons but most especially if the only thing you know about China's Boxer Rebellion is that Spike killed a Slayer during it. Yang has also done a whole bunch of Avatar comics, and, with co-author Sonny Liew, The Shadow Hero, which tells the story of a Chinese-American teenager growing up in Chinatown in the 1930s. Everything I've read by Yang includes elements of both realism and magic, fantasy and metaphor. He manages to be at once both a quick read and a deep read. He understands that comics have always been about more than just shallow humor or people in costumes having adventures, and he is a master of exploiting this potential to write comics that work on multiple levels and multiple themes.

He is also, although he doesn't know it, my spiritual advisor.

Here is Yang giving the opening keynote at April's Festival of Faith & Writing, in an image I borrowed from the Festival's Facebook page:

And this is, edited for blog-worthiness, what I wrote to some friends after seeing that keynote:

I have been in a very low place about my writing for some time, feeling that I have never done as much with it as I might have, or found the audience I think might be out there.  It's discouraging to feel like I'm still wrestling with the same questions about my writing that have been troubling me for more than 20 years.

But I have never become the writer I thought I was setting out to be in my twenties. This is hard in part because of stories I've been told over and over by important people in my life.

First, there is message I've been hearing since childhood about underachievement and not living up to my potential. My parents and teachers loved to tell me that I was much too smart for the grades I was earning; this persisted all the way up to my First Grad School Foray, when a prof told me that, although I was doing "A" work, I clearly wasn't doing my best work. Recently, during my first meeting with Word Boy's shrink, he asked me about my academic background, and I was more thorough and honest than I should have been. The shrink glommed onto my multiple times in grad school and declared me to be an underachiever who has trouble finishing things.

I have a big button on my chest marked PRESS HERE TO ACTIVATE SELF-DOUBT MECHANISM, and "underachiever" is the magic word that pushes it. So the shrink's snap judgment was hard for me to hear, especially given the struggle I'd already been having.

Another story I took in as a young women is the doctrine many writers and artists subscribe to: that their work is very important, that it may well be the most important thing in the world. Especially when I was a young lesbian writer in the 90s, the narrative among queer writers was that we were doing something really vital and important just by writing about our lives honestly.

I don't think we were wrong. I think telling stories is vital, and I believe it changes the world. I believe telling stories is one of the best ways of changing the world, that people are vulnerable to stories in a way they aren't vulnerable to argument or instruction. I feel that my current leading to write about sex and spirituality honestly and concretely is important. I think it matters that I do this, and I think it matters that I am the one to do it, that I can do it in a way that nobody else I know of is able to right now.

But this doctrine teaches you that your art is not just an important thing, but that it's the important thing. That it matters more than relationships, and jobs with health insurance and having time to relax watching TV. The doctrine says that the primary purpose of your life is to develop your art to its highest level and find the largest audience for it that you can.

I haven't done that. I am very very good at the kind of writing I do, and I have worked hard to develop that skill. But I haven't published much; I've never written a book. I haven't been driven and persistent. I've been distracted by falling in love and having children. I've decided, on the cusp of maybe being able to take my performing career wider, that I didn't want to live my life broke and on the road just to be able to tell stories to a few hundred or thousand more people.

And that is just me underachieving again, and being too weak to pursue my writing the way I ought to.

Over the last few months, I've been feeling very discouraged. I've struggled to find time to blog. I've felt  that, at 48, I can no longer fool myself into thinking that  I am going to change: become a more successful writer, publish a book, start having an income from writing. I've wondered what it was like to just admit you'd failed, that something you had wanted since you were a child, and thought you were suited to, was never going to happen. I've wondered how you get over that, whether you ever do.

I was carrying this as a very heavy weight, and as much as I was looking forward to the Festival, I thought, too, that it was going to be painful for me to be surrounded by writers who have done what I never could manage to do. I was ready to love it and be hurt by it, all at the same time.

And then, the opening plenary at noon on Thursday was Gene Luen Yang. I was familiar with some of his work, and had heard him give a presentation at a previous Festival, so was looking forward to hearing him, in a vaguely curious kind of way. 

As it turned out, Yang is a hilarious speaker. He had slides! His talk was great just on that level: well-organized, engaging, a pleasure to listen to.

But his topic was the trade-off between art and other options in our lives, and he turned the conventional narrative inside-out. Early on, he quoted Emerson saying something about writers needing to be sanctified to their art, but Yang rejected that kind of hyperbole and went on to talk about writers and artists, acquaintances and friends of his, who have made other choices. A friend, say, who was a blogger and podcaster but stopped doing that when he had kids, in order not to divide his attention. Yang has kids, too, and he said, "Fatherhood was calling me out of comics." He talked about the solitary nature of art and how challenging that is to any relationship, but instead of buying into the idea that relationships are an impediment to art, he saw it as a matter of being called into his art and also being called out of his art, so that choosing to do less art in order to be present with family wasn't "giving something up" but embracing a new and different call.

As a side note, I really like that Yang took seriously things like being a blogger or self-published comic author. Like all writing conferences, FFW elevates the widely-published and the award winners above others: Yang was a noon-time plenary, for instance, while the evening plenaries were a National Book Award winner, and Anne Lamott. The award winner and Anne Lamott were both disappointing— neither of them prepared for their talks to the extent of even having notes, but stood on stage and rambled for 90 minutes. I saw a half-dozen talks throughout the weekend that were so much better, by writers I'd never heard of before. I know how the business works, that these big names pull in attenders. But I was very glad that Yang, who had been a self-published comic book artist for a long time, talked very matter-of-factly about the art that is created outside that circle of folks who are most highly rewarded by the system we have. He told a story about seeing some people doing cosplay at a convention, and how it put him in mind of the stations of the cross: people embodying stories that are important to them. He turned to the friend he was with and said, "Something religious is happening there." I just really liked him, and would probably put him high on the list of "writers I'd like to have a cup of coffee with." /end of digression

It was like Yang was speaking right to me, and I am not doing justice to the wit, intelligence, or spiritual depth of his talk. He didn't act like these different calls weren't a challenge, but he didn't see accepting a call away from one's art as a failure. He did talk some about the guilt that you can feel working on solitary art, and how starting to make money from his work after the success of American Born Chinese alleviated some of that. But at the same time, he didn't want money to be the only measure of art or the only way to justify it.

Now we get to the meat: Yang said that, for him, he is relieved of the feeling that he is being selfish when he works by thinking of art in four ways:

First, that art is an icon, that points to something higher than itself while building on what came before. That it is always part of something bigger than just yourself.

Second, that art is a form a prayer for those who practice it. This is my experience as well.

Third, that art is an organ of the body that is vital to the artist's functioning. But the body, he says, is not all art, any more than it's all liver or all intestine. This is also my experience; I get restless and unwell-feeling if I haven't written, and will eventually get to a point where I can hardly do anything else unless I write first. Sort of like reaching the point where sleep is the only option, or eating, or peeing.

And finally, Yang said that art is an act of service. Yang is a practicing Catholic, and he quotes Pope John Paul II's letter to artists, in which the pope says that art is a service that renews a people.

Yang absolutely ministered to me and eased my pain, through his clarity that art is necessary to both the artist and the artist's community, and also through his clarity that art is only one necessary thing; that a call to write or make art doesn't have to be all-encompassing; that it may well not be a person's only meaningful work. As we Quakers say, he spoke to my condition, by lovingly sharing an understanding that counters a hundred voices naming me an underachiever, and another hundred calling me a traitor and a coward and a dilettante for not placing my writing work above all else. I went into Yang's talk burdened and walked out unburdened.

I can update this by saying that, three months later, I've remained very peaceful about the writing I'm doing, and I've been able to do good work; some of my best work ever, in fact, for a talk I gave at the Friends General Conference Gathering last week (the "talk I gave" link goes right to the beginning of my talk). Gene Luen Yang seems to have laid something to rest in me, and it hasn't yet managed to rise up again.

This blog post written and edited while helping the Tornado build a wooden marble maze. Typos and incoherencies should be considered the charming side effect of being a writer and a mom at literally the same time.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Su Starts To Write, For Real

This yellow notebook, bought at the university bookstore when I was a 17-year-old college freshman in the fall of 1983, is the first journal I ever kept consistently. For years, I'd had false starts, or done my writing on loose paper. Most of those notebooks and papers are lost now, which is a mercy, given how embarrassing I still was at 17 and 18. My own angsty and anxiety-driven thoughts are excruciating to read. But fortunately, this notebook is so much more than that. I also used it to keep track of the books I read: 

Interesting new words:

Striking quotes from radical writers of the 19th Century:

As well as more modern writers:

I also saved ephemera:

Tucked between the last page and the back cover is a collection of yellowed and cracked papers: a to-read list, a couple of unsent letters, some journaling I did on a typewriter (a typewriter!), and an envelope that claims to contain a poem I wrote in 1984. This can neither be opened and read, nor burnt, and will therefore live in limbo forever.

Also inside the back cover is two pages torn out of the Oakland University Honors College Newsletter. I spent my first year of college at OU, a small, mostly-commuter school outside Detroit. It was a rough year for me. I still have good friends from Oakland, and I like to pretend that they don't remember anything about me from that year. They humor me, for the most part.

Toward spring, I thought about transferring away from Oakland, but wasn't sure about it. So, when I heard about a program called National Student Exchange, I jumped on it. NSE allowed students to spend a year at a college in another state, while paying in-state tuition. I was placed at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and spent my sophomore year there before transferring to Michigan in my junior year.

As a side note, although I loved both the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor, I've always also regretted not finishing at Oakland. It was a small school, built on the grounds of the Mathilda Dodge Wilson estate, and was full of good people. In particular, the Honors College was a close-knit group where strong ties were formed among both students and profs. At Michigan, I had something like that experience in the Women's Studies department, but I also had the big-university experience of taking enormous lecture classes from profs who said in so many words that they hated teaching undergrads, only did it because their contracts required them to, and hoped we would sit still and listen in class, while bothering them as little as possible outside it.

All of that is introduction to the point of my Throwback Thursday, which is that the editor of the Oakland Honors College newsletter asked me to write an article about what it was like at IUP. I did. It's not excruciating! In my year at IUP, I began my lifelong habit of writing long, chatty, detailed letters to loved ones. Those letters, and this article, were the beginning of connecting with my best gift in writing: my fascination with everything, my love of noticing what's around me, my ability to write about it with affection and humor.

So, here it is: Su Penn, age 18, reflects on life in western Pennsylvania. I have not edited any of my own awkward writing, but I have corrected a couple of bad choices made by the newsletter editor, which have rankled all these years:

Here I am at IUP. That's Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and trivia buffs will be interested to note that Jimmy Stewart went here. Since then, nobody really distinguished has matriculated. Until me. I'm an exchange student, which means I'll be back at Oakland in a year, but until then I'm having quite a time experiencing the differences between these two schools, which are essentially the same size. There, the similarities end. Oakland's heavily commuter; IUP's not. I have never seen a campus with so few parking spaces in my life. Of course, OU spoiled me for that, but there seriously is such a parking shortage here that students cannot have cars on campus. I'm quite the popular woman, what with Walter, my Monza, who spends his weeks getting dusty in a parking garage, waiting for those weekend treks to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is a city not memorable for anything but its bridges and soot. It is, however, a place to go away from Indiana, where the social life consists of frat parties. I have not yet had the pleasure, but from all reports a frat party is someplace where you pay $2 to stand up to your ankles in dirty water in a fraternity's basement. The dorms are dry (a heavily enforced rule), so there are no floor parties. This makes for quiet weekends (if you really want that), since all the loud people are out seeking inebriation elsewhere.

IUP has a lot of things Oakland lacks: a football team, a marching band, a fight song, and male cheerleaders. Unfortunately, my dorm is just across from the fieldhouse and Miller Stadium, and even as I write this the marching band is playing "Flashdance" outside my window, and the cheerleaders are flipping each other in the Quad. You don't know what you're missing.

You're also missing ROTC. They march by every morning at 6:25, chanting loudly and obscenely (you all remember the marching scenes in An Officer and a Gentleman). A petition is currently circulating through the Quad requesting that they march either later or elsewhere. I signed it twice.

One of the most difficult adjustments for me to make has been back to non-refundable pop cans. Every time I pitch one, I feel like I'm throwing away money. If Michigan's bottle law has done nothing else, it has given us a new source of guilt. Of course, the difference is noticeable. There is litter here like you just don't see in Michigan.

Nobody here cares that the Tigers are having a winning season.

The girls dress very nicely. Imagine the best-dressed girl on your floor, the one who seldom wears blue jeans, and calls them "denim trousers" when she does. My roommate is that girl, but so is every other girl in my dorm, except me. I tried to stand up under the pressure, but I packed my T-shirts away a couple of days after my arrival, and I shined my penny-loafers. I go no farther than that, even if I do feel pretty toady by comparison half the time. I'll be glad when cold weather sets in, and I get to start wearing my coat, which is nicer by far than anything I ever put on under it.

The really strange thing about it is that the boys here all have multi-colored hair and dress like Billy Idol. Barring that, they wear nothing but fraternity sweatshirts and jeans. It's pretty amazing, but dating, especially going steady, is really big here between these apparent opposites. People are constantly on the prowl. Guys have asked for my phone number who don't even know my name. It doesn't really surprise me that none of them have called. Who would they ask for?

You've probably heard that IUP has the ugliest college men in America, if you read USA Today. This is true. I know a lot of guys at Oakland who would fit right in. The furor is dying down, but the last couple of weeks have produced an incredible number of "ugly men" jokes, and even some serious debates as to whether or not it's true. Last weekend the fun culminated in the crowning of "King Ugly" at Caleco's, a local bar. It was an event covered by the national media, including two of the television networks. This is quite a coup for a school nobody's ever heard of.

At IUP, we do not build lofts in our dorm rooms. Most of the dorms, mine included, don't even have bunk beds. My first week here I was directed to a room down the hall which was described as "just incredible." These two girls, in an amazing burst of initiative and decorative derring-do, had brought their own bunk beds from home. I know, I could hardly contain my excitement either.

One thing we do, which I like and am hoping to introduce to OU in a major way when I return, is write on our windows. Using masking tape or construction paper, people put up slogans which can be read from outside. They range from "Springsteen for President" to "Fresh Buns Daily," and they're a lot of fun to check out as you stroll into the Quad.

I am taking an Honors College course here, dealing with George Orwell. The class consists of ten students and two professors, and is pretty informal. I went through an intensive interrogation before they would let me in, and let me tell you, this group is the elitist, stuck-up bunch of snobs we have been accused of being. Each HC class here gets to take a weekend trip somewhere, dealing with the subject of the course, with the HC footing the bill. My class is going to a three-day international George Orwell conference on Long Island at Hofstra University, where we'll attend seminars run by professors from Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge, to name a few. I think that's great, but I really feel the lack of an actual Honors College office and a Jan. The HC here is run by a slightly smelly criminology professor out of his cubicle, and it's just not a fun place to visit.

Dorm students: The food in the cafeteria here is worse than SAGA, much worse than SAGA. They just switched food services this year, and everyone keeps saying how much better it is now. I cannot begin to imagine what they lived on last year.

Yes, they do talk funny. Or I do, depending on your point of view. It's not just the accent, either, though that can be pretty pronounced. They call soap operas "stories" (as in, "I can't believe they killed Hillary on my story.") and pop "soda." They eat in the "caf," and to "be ignorant" to somebody is to be rude or mean. We have "I-cards" instead of IDs, and if you "scoop" that means you've brought a member of the opposite sex home for the night. Each "hall" has a "hall counselor," instead of each floor having an RA.

In the "it's a small world" department, I met the president of IUP at an exchange student shindig, and he's been to Oakland. It's been a while, though, because he remembers meeting Mrs. Wilson.

Speaking of exchange students, there are over 200 foreign exchange students here. I've met people from all over, including some Italian women, whose style of dressing we all intend to imitate as soon as possible. For me, that's been one of the best parts of being here, since I've had the chance to find out what people think of the USA from a European perspective, and what their politics really are like. The third-worlders are kind of neat, too, though they tend to be a little extreme. The exchange students are usually the ones to blame if sometning incredibly rowdy happens at the movies on a Friday night, and if you're in the right mood they're the ones to be with for a fantastically good time.

The things I miss most: Hungry Howie's pizza, the Detroit Free Press, Guindon, newspaper articles about autoworkers, and Beer Lake Bridge. And, strangely enough, since I wanted to be at a school that was surrounded by and was a part of the town it was in, I miss the open spaces, the woods, and walks to Meadow Brook Hall. I miss WRIF. Everybody who was trying to scare me was right: both the pizza and the rock-n-roll radio stations here are the pits.

I also miss HC potluck luncheons. l expect to hear soon that you've had a "Su Penn We Wish You Were Here" potluck lunch, and served excellent pizza at it while listening to truly good rock music.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Quaker Orthodoxy: A Rant

I just made the mistake of reading a Friends Journal article that I knew would frustrate me. I saw a link to it last week, and knew better than to click on it. This morning, I clicked it anyway. Maybe I hoped for new insight on a long-exhausted topic. Maybe I forgot how painful my lack of unity with received Quaker wisdom has been. Maybe I forgot how painful it is that such a thing as “received Quaker wisdom” exists.

Over the winter, I took an on-line course through Beacon Hill Friends House on the topic of Quakers and authority. We looked at how Quaker meetings have held authority over the 350-year history of the religion, and reflected on current practices. My classmates seemed to agree that Quakers do not have clearly-articulated shared beliefs. On the contrary: Quakers in the liberal, unprogrammed tradition tend to reject the idea that we should. None of us had ever experienced a meeting that united around the shared belief that God exists, or that Christ is devine, or that these things can’t be known, or that God doesn’t exist. On the contrary, we were aware that the meetings we’d participated in included, to varying degrees, people who held all of these beliefs, and more.

We also agreed that this miscellany of beliefs creates some degree of tension in most meetings. Many Quakers I’ve spoken with aren’t sure whether their particular expression of faith will be welcomed; others know that it is disapproved of, or will make people uncomfortable. As a group of really, really nice people, we don’t want to make each other uncomfortable, and so we hold our tongues.

We also don’t want to feel judged by our meetings. Many Quakers have had painful experiences in other religious traditions, and find Quakerism a refuge from the dogmatism that wounded them. I know that when I was thinking of leaving my monthly meeting, one of my fears was that if I left Quakerism, there would be nowhere left for me to go.

This fear of judgment suppresses people of all types. During one stretch of just a few months, for instance, I had two people in my meeting tell me that they were not comfortable speaking honestly about their spiritual beliefs in worship. One was an atheist. One was a Christian. That is as sad as it is hilarious.

Hearing the same personal concern from such different people helped me understand why vocal ministry in our meeting tended to be political messages, reflections on the content of the New York Times, and Hallmark-card soft-spirituality banalities about spring flowers and the joys of children’s voices. These messages are safe, lowest-common-denominator messages that people, on the whole, find unobjectionable. It seems to me sometimes that Quakers hold “unobjectionable” to be the highest possible good.

In my experience, though, while they reject spiritual or religious orthodoxy, Quakers do have truths they take to be self-evident. These truths are not spiritual, but political and social. It was very common in my meeting to assume that everyone in the room was in agreement about political figures, world events, and proposals that made it onto state and local ballots. In addition, it was common for people to make universal assumptions about parenting, about things like what we’d feed our kids, what kinds of toys we’d buy for them, and the extent to which we’d restrict television and video games, some high degree of restriction being taken for granted. We would never have said, “I know we all believe in God...” or “everyone in the meeting should have a daily spiritual practice,” or "It's vital that our First Day School give the children a good Biblical grounding." But people often said things like, “I know we all support this candidate,” or “It’s important that we all go out Tuesday and vote in favor of this ballot proposal,” or “None of us wants our kids engaging in pretend gun play.”

I experienced many conversations among parents, both locally and at gatherings, in which categorical value statements were made in confidence that there would be agreement among everyone present. Or in which “people who...” were discussed as if it were not possible that a “person who” might be present. I have often been the “person who” in the room, and it is painful and alienating. It is frowned upon to criticize someone for their spiritual beliefs or practices, but judgments about lifestyle, parenting choices, and political choices abound.

The kid on the right takes both his
Quakerism and his cosplay seriously
Our political, social, and personal actions and beliefs ought to be the fruit of the spirit, but in meetings like mine they are taken as first principles. Expression of these shared attitudes, often coupled with implicit or explicit judgment of people whose actions and attitudes differ, seems to me to be a central way that Quakers cement their community bonds. They serve as the binding that holds the meeting together, in lieu of a spiritual or religious unity which we cannot find and aren’t sure we ought to be looking for.

I see this as a serious problem for liberal Quakers, though the broad consensus which Friends seem to share in these areas means that I am out of unity on this subject. But it seems to me that when we replace the powerful bonds of spirit with the worldly bonds of political opinion, social action, and lifestyle choices, we are significantly weakened. We abandon our unique message for one that could be delivered just as well by the Democratic Party or an NGO. We have values rather than convictions, and when God speaks powerfully to one of us we are as likely to discourage the minister as to lift her up.

This has been my experience among Friends.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tympanometry On an Autumn Day in April

Today, I have to study for, and take, an exam on Tympanometry. I do not want to study.

I want to sleep. And before sleeping, and after sleeping, and in between sleeping, I want to lie there and think pleasantly about inconsequential things.

Tympanometry is the study of the compliance of the eardrum. The author of my textbook is a charmingly pedantic person who cannot resist pointing out that when we refer to a drum, we don't just refer to the stretched skin over the head of the drum but also to the space behind it, enclosed within wood, the resonating chamber. Therefore, the author of my textbook says, we should more properly call the eardrum the "eardrum membrane."

No one will ever do this.

There are several important things you can measure about the eardrum membrane. It is a gate which allows some to pass and denies others; when it passes acoustic energy into the middle ear, this is called admittance. When it opposes the movement of acoustic energy, this is called impedance. Once upon a time, someone coined the portmanteau word "immitance" to describe these two things together: what is admitted, what is denied.

I do not want to study the four types of basic immitance tests and their eight purposes. I want to sit in my chair and look out the dirty window into my badly-tended yard, which is miserable today with wind and rain and gray clouds so low they could almost roof your house. I would sit there with a book of poetry in my lap, and read a poem every now and then, and then look out the window for awhile, not thinking about the poem, and then turn a couple of pages and read another one.

Tympanometry measure the compliance of the eardrum: how willing is it to move when you push or pull on it by manipulating the pressure in the ear canal. If I were an eardrum, I would not be compliant at all. "What type of tympanogram are you?" would make a terrible internet quiz, but my answer would be: Type AS. I am shallow and stiff. I have low compliance. It is possible I represent ossicular fixation. That would hardly surprise me.

The ossicles are the bones of your middle ear. You were taught to call them the hammer, the anvil, the stirrup. They are the smallest bones in the human body, in particular the stirrup, which I have learned to call the stapes as I have become inculturated to the language of my field. So many common, everyday words replaced with jargon. Earwax, eardrum, hammer and anvil, ear; ceruman, tympanum, malleus and incus, helix, concha cavum, triangular fossa.

There is a poetry to it, all that latin. I'm not sorry to be learning it, except today, when I don't want to be learning. Perhaps I am a Type B tympanogram. I am an eardrum with no compliance at all. I may be perforated, or diseased.

I can tell you the normal volume of the ear canal in both adults and children when measured at 200 decaPascals of air pressure. You might not think this matters, but it does. It is diagnostically significant. But I don't care much about that today. I can tell you, too, that the goldfinch I can see through my dirty window, enlivening my depressed front yard with his ready-to-mate springtime brilliance, weighs about half an ounce. We may be proud of the tininess of our stapes, our stirrup, 3 millimeters from end to end, and the precise way its footpad rests in the oval window of the cochlea, ready to pass on--not only pass on, but to amplify--whatever acoustic energy has made it past the bouncer at the door of Club Eardrum Membrane. But I bet that goldfinch's bones would put our ossicular chain to shame.

Were you surprised to hear me say the cochlea has a window? It has two, actually, the oval window and a round one as well. It is like a hobbit house in there. There are round windows in my bird feeder, too, not the thistle feeder the goldfinches love so much but the other one, that usually has sunflower seeds and millet and the occasional peanut. A cardinal is there now, poking his beak into each of the round feeder ports, circumnavigating the feeder on its circular perch. He always hopes to find something better in the next round window, but he does not. They all have the same thing in them. They are all empty. Both the dirty window and my eadrum membrane admit the sound of the brief, irritated chirps he makes each time his beak comes up empty. He goes around twice, just to be sure, and then flies away.

When I leave to take my exam, I will first fill the feeder from the bag of seed mix I keep in the garage, and the cardinal will come back, all forgiven. The birds' love for me, for my yard, lasts only as long as the seed does, and then it quickly turns to anger or indifference. But it turns back into love the moment the feeder is full again. If they were eardrums, they'd be highly compliant. They are easily moved.

Yesterday one of my children killed a mouse by hitting it with a stick. One of the cats had caught the mouse, and I believe my son thought he was being merciful. Perhaps he was being merciful. It's so hard to say. One mouse, taken up by a cat, escapes to live whatever span of life a mouse is given. Another, broken somehow inside, can only die. It is impossible for us to know which mouse our son killed, the blessed mouse, the mouse upon whom Providence smiled that day, or the doomed mouse, the one whose small limp body I would have taken up later and, with regret, laid down again in an out-of-the-way place to fulfill its next destiny. A cat cannot be blamed for acting in accord with its nature; a mouse, whose kind have always produced enough progeny to feed the owls and the cats and the smaller hawks and still leave the world with more mice than it started with--well, what I mean to say is that a mouse cannot bear the weight of too much grieving.

Now a dark-eyed junco is pecking at the ground under the feeder, scavenging for fallen millet. I love these birds with their deep gray above and clear white underneath, and I never see one without wishing to hold it, to feel its small body rest between my palms. I would never hurt it. I would take as much pleasure in letting it go as I had in scooping it into my hands in the first place.

But I will never hold a dark-eyed junco unless it's injured, unless we find it unmoving but still breathing under the window or carried into the breezeway by a cat. I know how to make an injured bird a nest in a small box, and where to put the box to keep it warm. I know what it is like to come check the box to find the bird standing up, peering at me with sharp intelligent eyes, ready to fly again, and I know what it is like to find it still and cold. I know that there is little you can do for the injured bird besides keep it safe from opportunistic cats, and, perhaps, children a bit too eager to dispense mercy.

The first step in any examination of the ear is otoscopy, peeking into the ear canal to check for ear wax, bugs, beans, plant life, infection. A healthy tympanic membrane glows a pearlescent pink, and it refracts the beam from your otoscope into a cone of light that is not an intrinsic part of the eardrum but is nonetheless a beacon declaring that all is well. I have never seen the cone of light for myself; only pictures. But I know that one day I will.