Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gender-Related Name Change Rant

I ranted a little on Facebook today, and then realized I might as well blog it as well.

I'm doing a lot of paperwork this morning, including getting the Tiny Tornado's petition for a legal name change filled out and printed. In Michigan, you can change your name for any non-fraudulent purpose, and when I changed mine, I was only asked whether I was doing it to evade debt or any other criminal sort of reason.

Unless it's for gender change reasons. In which case, you need a letter of support from an expert, cause god forbid *you* be the expert on your own name. It's so stupid! We could have named him Guyname Manlyman Lastname at birth and nobody would have stopped us, but now he's 7 and has CHOSEN HIS OWN NAME and we need a letter.

*grump, whine, complain*

Of course, we had no trouble getting a letter. The doctors at the Lurie Children's Sex & Gender Development Clinic have a form letter. "It is common that social transitioning for gender dysphoric children will lead to a dramatic improvement in social and psychological functioning, as Name_of_Child has experienced. There is no question that Name_of_Child was struggling with gender dysphoria and has benefitted from social transitioning."

But that it was easy for us to get the letter is not the point. The point is that people who don't fit the gender binary are unnecessarily subjected to additional scrutiny. AND THIS IS WRONG!

And the point is also that people who don't have the privilege of access to one of the THREE children's gender clinics in the whole country, or other knowledgeable and compassionate care providers, might find it difficult-to-impossible to get such a letter even though their child would also benefit from having a legal name that matches the name they use. THIS IS ALSO WRONG.

/end of rant

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why Gymnastics Will Never Be a Popular Spectator Sport

My youngest kid, the Tiny Tornado, started gymnastics just over a year ago. After his very first class, his coach told us, "I think we have a real gymnast on our hands." In June, he joined the competitive team at his gym as a Level 4, the lowest competitive level, and it looks like he'll have his first meet in November.

So now, we're fans of men's gymnastics. Gymnastics is one of the most popular sports at the Olympics every four years, but most people don't pay any attention to it in between. This is because being a gymnastics fan is hard work. Most gymnastics events, even the big international ones, aren't broadcast on TV. Fans have to get their fix via live scoring updates on the USA Gymnastics webpage, and twitter updates from people in the audience. Often, it's not possible to see video until after the fact. This year, for the first time, it was possible to watch the qualifying rounds from the world championships on a live feed, but even the men's team final was broadcast without commentary in the US. You have to be dedicated.

On the one hand, I think this is too bad: following the sport this year has given me a much better understanding of what's going on with all that flipping and spinning, and I can now evaluate a routine with just a bit more sophistication than, "hey, he didn't fall off, and he stuck his landing!" I look forward to the Rio Olympics in 2016, when for the first time in my life, I'll know who the gymnasts are before they walk into the arena. I'll know their strengths and weaknesses. I'll know that Danell Leyva uses headphones and a towel draped over his head to avoid getting overstimulated with the noise around him; I'll know that it's worth calling inattentive family members to the TV for  Donnell Whittenberg's vaults and Leyva's parallel bar routine; I'll know that John Orozco is talented and capable but lets his nerves get the better of him sometimes. I'll know who's not there, but might have been, and why they didn't make it.

On the other hand, I have some ideas about why gymnastics is a quadrennial treat for most people rather than perpetual fandom.

It is Too Far Removed From Our Own Experiences

This theory is not original with me; I read it somewhere, and it stuck with me. Basically, the forgotten writer of the piece I read suggested that fans of most sports that have strong followings, like soccer, baseball, football, and basketball, are games that fans can identify with because they can imagine themselves playing, too. Probably they have played, whether in gym class, a neighborhood pick-up game, a family match during halftime on Super Bowl Sunday, or in a league. What the players are doing on the field is different in intensity, quality, and skill, but it's the same game.

On the other hand, gymnasts of four years old (and even less) are already doing things the vast majority of us will never be able to do, at all. When we're watching gymnastics on YouTube, my gymnast son takes breaks to practice his handstands, presses, hollow-arch-kicks on the pull-up bar. But the rest of us? Ha! There's no gymnastics equivalent of taking a ball out back and tossing it around for awhile, and this, the argument goes, makes gymnastics too distant from our own experiences for most of us to spend a lot of time on it.

It's Repetitive

For the most part, in a given season, a gymnast is going to work up a routine on each apparatus, and stick to it. If you're paying a lot of attention, you might know that they have, say, an upgraded release skill on high bar that they're considering bringing to the competition. A year ago, I saw a short interview in which Sam Mikulak talked about working on his airflair as a skill upgrade on floor. I got to see him compete it (poorly) at a couple of college meets, and then really well at national and world championships. "Yay, Sam!" I thought. But if you're not paying attention, these little dramas and differences won't be apparent to you. "So-and-so took the extra twist out of his Tsukahara on vault today; he must not have been feeling confident" is pretty insider-baseball stuff.

So: you get to see the gymnasts do more-or-less the same things over and over, with variations that you have to be kind of an expert to recognize. I like this! But not everyone will.

There is No Head-to-Head Competition

Sure, the gymnasts are competing against each other, but not directly. Each of them has a routine they're trying to perform as well as they can, and, except for maybe psychologically, nothing any of the competition does can directly affect a gymnast's performance. There's no offense, no defense, no direct confrontation. In baseball, a great hit can be thwarted by an even greater catch, but there's nothing like that kind of drama in gymnastics.

It is Almost Impossible to Actually Watch a Whole Meet

During a men's gymnastics meet, there are athletes simultaneously performing routines on six apparatuses. When you watch on TV, the camera is always ignoring five other athletes to concentrate on the one you're being shown. Even when you're in the stands, you can't see it all. You miss an amazing vault because you're watching a mediocre floor exercise; the dramatic moment when the favorite to win falls off the pommel horse happens in the corner of your eye because you're watching somebody on rings. A meet lasts close to three hours, and to see all of it you'd have to watch it six times from six different perspectives.

Toward the end of a meet, when it's clear who's likely to win and who their competition is, the crowd will get excited and start to focus on those athletes. But for most of the meet, not even the people in the audience are watching the same event at the same time. Some of them are sending up a rousing cheer for a well-executed skill on the bar while some of them are sighing at a disappointment on rings, and some of them are checking their e-mail because their team is out this rotation on a bye. There's no single focal point, so you're always missing something.

Until Near the Very End, It's Almost Impossible to Know Who's Actually Winning

Throughout a gymnastics meet, individual and team scores are posted continuously (this only applies to team and all-around competitions; it's different in individual event competitions, but I'm not going to get into that right now). But for most of the meet, these scores are largely meaningless, except to the extent that you know how a specific team is doing relative to its usual performance.

One reason for this is that scores vary from apparatus to apparatus: the pommel horse is deadly, and scores there are usually lower overall than on other apparatuses. So whichever team starts the meet on pommel horse will very likely end the rotation in last place, but they have a good chance of closing the gap as the other teams rotate through their pommel routines.

In addition, teams and gymnasts have strengths and weaknesses. Teams A and B may both be great on floor, and only OK on high bar. Team A is going to pull ahead if they have an early rotation on floor while Team B is on bar, but that doesn't mean much until they've both finished both apparatuses.

Finally, if there are more than six teams competing, each team will take a bye on some rotations. So, at the end of a rotation, some teams will be far far behind because they've only been scored on, say,  three apparatuses, while other teams have already done four.

Predicting the outcome of a gymnastics meet in progress is an exercise in branching possibilities and if-thens that rivals a game of chess.

Scoring is Complicated

It's pretty easy to understand a home run, a touchdown, or a goal in soccer, and to do the math as the points pile up. In gymnastics these days, it takes a slide rule to keep up. I have to admit I don't fully understand it yet, and I may well be wrong about what I think I do understand.

Each routine gets a score for difficulty, and one for execution. The D score is based on the difficulty assigned to various elements in the routine, and the E score starts at 10 and then deductions are taken for various things, like not completing skills, falling, poor form, and so on. This means that the potential score for each gymnast varies; a gymnast with a D score of, say, 5.2 could earn 15.2 points if he executes his routine perfectly (not that a perfect execution ever happens). A gymnast with a D score of 6.4 has a ceiling of 16.4.  One reason Japan's Kohei Uchimura is favored to take Gold in the All-Around again at this year's World Championships is that nobody else has D-scores like his, and you can't beat him if your best possible score is still a losing score.

The Gymnastics Code of Points describes skills, and assigns them point values on a scale. "A" skills are worth a tenth of a point—my little guy's Level 4 routines are chock full of A skills. At the other end of the scale are a handful of F skills that are worth .6. When gymnasts talk about an "upgrade" skill, they mean they're working on something that will increase their D-score.

So, to understand a gymnast's score, you have have some kind of idea of their D-score, which determines the ceiling, and how many deductions they got, and how that stacks up in the context of the rest of the competition. Is 14.88 good? Bad? Mediocre? It can be hard to tell. For the broadcast of the national championships in August, the TV network invented a red-yellow-green symbol to cue the audience in about whether the gymnast had few deductions, some deductions, or lots of deductions. Green=Good, they told us, and Red=Bad. Because that's the kind of scoring we can understand.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: A Rule is to Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy

It is a sad day when you bring home a book called A Rule is to Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy, and the biggest problem you have with it is how banal and prescriptive it is. I joked when I first heard of this book that my strong-willed adventurer of a seven-year-old must never read it. I still think that, but only because it offers so little to children who are feeling stifled by rules about what to eat, when to sleep, and how to behave.

The authors, john & jana, make a fundamental mistake: their entire book is a series of commands. "Don't look like everybody else. Be you!" "Build it. Don't buy it." "Forget about grocery stores and get dirty in your garden."

My favorite page has got to be the one that says, "No rules!" and then, right next to that, "Be nice!" Isn't "be nice" a rule?

I'm used to the liberals I know engaging in a game that goes, "Be a freethinker! Follow my rules instead!" but I'm discouraged to find anarchists engaging in the same bait-and-switch. I understand that exhortations to garden and build instead of shop are in keeping with anarchist goals not to support capitalism, but these pages could be re-purposed into any of a hundred didactic picture books aimed at the children of progressives, books about taking care of the planet or promoting peace or living more authentically.

As I read A Rule is to Break, I couldn't help answering back to it on practically every page. "Cake! For! Dinner!"? OK, but what if you're really hungry for tofu, or a nice piece of fish? "Stay up all night"? I have two kids who don't like sleepovers because of the pressure to do just that. "No more baths ever"? But what about how good it feels to be clean? "Don't look like everybody else"? But what if you don't care to draw attention to yourself by how you dress or wear your hair?

My kids bristle at being given a series of peremptory commands that might or might not suit them, and this book makes anarchists sound like one more set of grownups who want to boss you around and tell you what to think, even if the second-to-last page of the book does say, "Think for yourself." Too little, too late.

I'd have written a different book. Mine would have said things like:

"Have cake for dinner if you want! Or tofu, or a nice piece of fish! Whatever you're hungry for! Trust your appetite!"

"Bedtimes? Pah! Sleep when you're tired, or four hours after you got tired when you finally finish that book. You can stay up all night and watch the sunrise, or you can get up early and watch the sunrise, or you can never watch the sunrise at all."

"Baths are great if you like soaking in the water or want to get clean! But don't take a bath just because somebody else thinks you should! You can be bath-indepenent and make up your own mind!"

"You can follow a rule if it seems like a good one. But a bad rule wants to be broken."

My mother, for all her many failings, had her moments. And one of her best moments was during high school, when she said to me, "Susan, I wouldn't want you to do a thing just because everyone else is doing it. But not doing something just because everyone else is doing it is just as bad. You're still letting everybody else do your thinking for you." Staying up all night because people want you to go to bed, eating cake for dinner because they want you to eat spaghetti, wearing skinny jeans because everybody else has moved on to boot-cut: that's rebellion, not independent thought. It's an adolescent way to mark yourself as different from the herd. A Rule is to Break is, sadly, more "A Child's Guide to Oppositional Behavior" than a guide to anarchy. I hoped for more. I hoped for a book that might really feel too dangerous to give to my children.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Polyamory Reading List: By Me & Others

Someone recently asked me for readings on polyamory. I am by no means an expert, and this list is nothing like comprehensive; it's more like a collection of what I have on hand, and/or read before I decided I'd reached the point of diminishing returns and could just live my life instead of reading and thinking about my life. I welcome suggestions for things to add to the list.


Books
There are two books that are sort of de rigueur. Neither is perfect, but they both have their uses.

The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy is the one I most often hear recommended. I've read it, and thought it was fine without being mind-blowing. I'm sure I had more to say about it when I first read it, but I don't seem to have written it down at the time. This surprises me.

In any case, if you're poly these days, or curious about it, this is the book to read.

Another recent book is Opening Up by Tristan Taormino. I read this awhile ago and had very mixed feelings about it; my blog post about it is I Have Read a Book About Open Relationships

Blogs
I really like the blog Solo Polyamory. The author has chosen not to have a primary partner, and her discussions of navigating relationships, working out challenges, negotiating boundaries and expectations, and more, are insightful, and have been useful to me even though my relationships are quite different from hers. I particularly like the concept of the relationship escalator, which I'm pretty sure I learned at this blog.

And look! She recently favorably reviewed a new book: More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory. I will read it. Perhaps you should, too.

I also very much like The Pervocracy. This blog also covers kink and BDSM, so I have very helpfully searched for all the posts about polyamory for you. This blog is a bit of a mixed bag; I find the recent read-through of 50 Shades of Grey pretty tedious, for instance. But it contains some brilliant thinking and writing as well, and is worth exploring.

I thought I'd have more in blogs, but it turns out I don't follow many poly blogs. I'll update this post if I come across something worthwhile.

By Me
I was looking for my review of Opening Up, and discovered that I have also blogged about polyamory! Imagine that. I also observe that I suck at writing SEO-optimizing titles.

Loving Your Slutty Friend: A Guide For the Vanilla and Monogamous
I should consider picking this series up again. I like these three posts and never wrote some of the ones I thought I would.

It takes courage to be open to the new things coming into your life, whether that's a new love or a new religion or a new hobby that takes you away from home every Saturday, because the changes that come with these things are unpredictable. It takes courage, too, to turn away from the new for a time because the relationship matters more.
Every relationship incorporates change over its lifetime. Sometimes the changes are challenging, the process of adapting to them requires a tremendous amound of hard work, and a successful outcome--if by "successful" we mean "the relationship continues"--is by no means assured. Other times, they're relatively easy to accommodate.
3. Loving Your Slutty Friend: What I Like About Non-Monogamy
Thirdly, I like sex. I like it with Raider. I love it with Raider. Whenever I have reason to honor a new relationship, say at a wedding, I write in the card, "I wish you every happiness." And one of the things I mean by this is, "I wish you good sex." And what I really mean by that is, "I hope your sex is as good as mine and Raider's." I wish this sincerely for the whole world. 
But I like sex, once in awhile--not really that often, in the grand scheme of things, but once in awhile--with someone else, too. Because sex is one of the ways I relate to people. I enjoy the kind of connection you have with someone when you are physically intimate. Back when I was a young free agent, sex was one of the ways I got to know people.
Standalone Posts 

What's Hecuba To Him, or He to Hecuba?
What is Toots to us? What are we to Toots? The kids call him Uncle, but we could just as easily have decided to call him Papa Toots; he is the closest thing they have to a third parent. I sometimes tell people that they might think of Toots as the third adult in our nuclear family, even though he lives with the Crafty Elf these days. Toots sometimes tries to convey his relationship with the children by telling people he is their godfather; that works pretty well. Sometimes he takes flack from his family for spending more time with our kids than with his biological nephew; would it help people understand the relationship and accept it if we had decided to call him their stepfather?
The Things You  Find Out About Yourself
I was surprised by how much meeting with these folks meant to me, because I hadn't thought of polyamory as a central part of who I am.
You Put Your Whole Self In
I am a moral person. I am a deeply ethical person. I am religious in a non-trivial way. I think and ponder and reflect and think some more about everything. The decisions I make about my life are shaped by these things. I don't think I've ever made a decision lightly. So, you know, at least, that if I make a decision that seems dangerous, reckless, immoral, wrong-headed, deeply mistaken, risky, or even just head-scratchingly incomprehensible to you, well, it's probably the best-thought-out, most-thoroughly-processed bone-headed move in history.  
Won't Someone Think of the Children?
We make decisions ourselves about who to trust with our hearts. Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we get it right and it still goes wrong. Sometimes somebody you thought would be there forever, isn't, and there's nothing you can do about it.
A Crusade, but Without the Oppression and Death
I say it's love, particularly love in the form of sexual desire, that wants the walls down. And I will make the claim that is not been a lack of morality or an unhealthy promiscuity or a recklessness toward my own feelings or my partners' that has led me to squeeze through the narrow gaps in so many walls in search of the light I can see shining through from the other side. 
It has been love, which in all its forms is ultimately the same form. And this is one of the ways I have been called to be in service to love in my life. 
Epistle from the Poly and/or Kinky Friends Retreat 
We long to have our relationships recognized and respected, but we also hope to share our gifts, talents, and ministry. We are abundantly blessed with gifts for open-hearted loving, and experienced with the radical honesty that our relationships call us to. 







Friday, August 8, 2014

I Have a Headache

A friend of mine who lives with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction (CFIDS) posted recently on Facebook that it was the fifth anniversary of the beginning of her symptoms. That took me back to the beginning of my chronic pain. The specific moment of beginning isn't clear, because you don't realize something is beginning. You just think you're having a bad day.

Raider and I had been together not quite a year, I think. I'd had headaches before, very occasionally, and had always been able to get rid of them by taking over-the-counter meds like Tylenol. More often, I simply napped; I had found that a nap as short as 10 or 15 minutes would relieve the mild, occasional headaches I got.

So when I got a headache, I didn't think much of it. I did the usual things: napped, took some meds, ate protein, had maybe a little extra caffeine.

But it didn't go away.

I took more meds. I took more naps. Raider massaged my head and neck. One feature of the headache was a feeling like a metal spike was impaling my left temple; Raider and I played a visualization game where he pulled out the spike, hoping that if I imagined it gone I could fool myself into feeling better.

Eventually, I saw my doctor. And some other doctors. And tried a whole lot of different medications. A couple of years into the headache, they sent me off to a pain clinic for a week. This is where they send you to learn how to live with pain you're not ever going to be able to live without.

Over the years, I have sometimes been aggressive in trying to improve my headache, and sometimes not. Medications have side effects that are sometimes harder to live with than the headache, and other  treatments also take effort I don't always have the energy for. Still, when a headache lasts this long, you have time to try everything. I've done acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, esoteric healing, herbs, and a bunch of things I don't even remember. I've done rigorous eliminations diets to try to find food triggers. For years, I wore a mask in public to limit my exposure to perfumes, a major trigger (fortunately, during my first pregnancy, this trigger became much less deadly. I am still sensitive to perfumes but not nearly to the degree I used to be).

Doctors usually use a 10-point scale for pain; my current neurologist uses a 5-point scale. For me, though, my headache meaningfully has three levels:

1. It's there, but I can easily be distracted from it and can participate more-or-less fully in daily life. At this level, I can feel the headache if I think about it, but if I'm busy, watching a movie, talking to friends, or reading, I don't notice it. It doesn't intrude itself. It just sits quietly in the corner, not drawing attention to itself.

2. I can't forget it's there, but I can still function. I can do my work, hang with my kids, enjoy myself. But I know I have a headache the whole time.

Actually writing "enjoy myself" made me realize there's a level sort of between 2 and 3, or in the area where they overlap, which is where I can function, but only with great effort and not at full power. And I'm not enjoying myself. I remember throwing a birthday party for one of the kids with pain at this level. Games were played, ice cream was eaten, messes were made, presents were opened. When the last guest had left, I turned to Raider, said, "I am a fucking superhero," and burst into tears. Sometimes when I'm functioning like this, people can tell something is up with me. Sometimes they can't. Often, I don't want them to know, because dealing with sympathy is hard in its own way.

3. I can't function. I need to do as little as possible, and sleep a lot.

Somewhere, there is a reader who has just realized that the implication of what I've written is that I've had a headache for over 20 years. Can this be true, that reader wonders?

Yes. Yes, it can.

So, back when I used to come see you perform at the Detroit Women's Coffeehouse, imaginary reader asks: You had a headache then?

Yes.

You worked on the security crew at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival for years! Round-the-clock shifts! Are you telling me you had a headache that whole time?

Yes, that is what I'm telling you.

You've been pregnant twice! Given birth twice! Adopted once! Cared for three newborns! Surely you didn't have a headache that whole time?

Surely, I did.

You did a reading at my wedding...

Headache.

We danced together!

Headache.

*whispering* We had sex.

"Not tonight, dear, I've got a headache," is an excuse that holds no water around here. At least, not unless we're dealing with a level 3 flare-up.

What has made all of this possible is that I live much of my life at low Level 2 or below. It has been interesting to me that, although I always have a headache, I know many people who have headacheS, and theirs are often much worse than mine. Raider used to have migraines a few times a year, and he couldn't function at all during them. He had to lie down in a dark room. Often he vomited. I can remember taking him to the ER on at least two occasions because the pain was so bad and he was dehydrated from throwing up.

I've never had to go the ER for a headache.

A few years ago, someone I knew began having Cluster Headaches. People with cluster headaches often have years in between bouts. But during the weeks or months that a cluster headache persists, the pain is excruciating. I haven't experienced anything like that.*

My headaches have a pattern. It's unpredictable, but it's a pattern. I live most of the time at what I call my "baseline," which is the ordinary daily level of pain. My baseline can vary; a couple of years ago, under the care of an excellent new neurologist, my baseline got so low that I was this close to putting a zero on my daily headache log. I could never quite bring myself to do it. It felt too much like tempting fate. And, soon enough, my baseline drifted up again.

Still, on the medication regimen my neurologist and I trial-and-errored our way to, my baseline is generally a comfortable Level 1.*

My life is punctuated by flare-ups. If I tell you I have a headache, it's most likely during a flare-up. Many folks don't know that I also have a headache in between flare-ups; I remember one of my best friends telling me a few years ago that even she often forgot about it. It isn't stoicism that keeps me from talking about it all the time. It gets tiresome answering, "How are you?" with "I have a headache!" And if I'm at baseline, and functioning pretty well, "I'm doing great!" is true.*

Historically, a flare-up lasted 4 or 5 days before my headache dropped back to baseline. Under the care of my neurologist, for the past couple of years I have had rescue meds that can head off a flare-up before it really starts, or shorten it to one or two days. This has been amazing! I feel the early warning signs, I take my meds and a nap, and I'm good to go.

Under this regimen, traveling to conferences, something I love, has become much easier. Travel itself is a trigger; so are lack of sleep; bad beds; the increased exposure to perfumes, fabric softeners, and cleaning supplies that come with travel; and stress (even the good kind). A week at Friends General Conference Gathering, for instance, used to mean increasing pain throughout the week, and days of recovery afterward.

Not anymore. For the last couple of years, with my medication regimen and some reasonably judicious attention to self-care, I have been able to travel without ending the trip less well than I began. This is wonderful.

Unfortunately, about six months ago my rescue med stopped working. I don't have a lot of other options. For instance, I have a bleeding disorder that rules out most non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Fortunately, I haven't had many flare-ups. At my regular neurology check-in on July 9, I showed the doctor a log in which I'd been comfortably at or below baseline for weeks; I'd even gotten through a whole menstrual cycle without a flare-up (did I mention hormones are a trigger, too? No? There are so many it's easy to lose track). We were smug and self-satisfied. He gave me a new prescription, for a narcotic pain reliever I could take on really bad days if my rescue med let me down, and we set my next check-in for October.

Two days later, a flare-up started.

It hasn't stopped yet. My log shows severe headache on 25 of the last 28 days.

Footnote number one: "I haven't experienced anything like that": At least, not until this most recent flare-up, which is unprecedented for me.

Right now, my neuro has me on phenobarbitol, an anti-seizure drug, in an attempt to interrupt this flare-up. It seems to be working; three days in, I am beginning to feel more like myself. On the other hand, I'm pretty significantly impaired by the phenobarb. I can't safely drive, it's difficult to stand and walk around, and I'm sleeping a lot. I thought about leaving all the typos in this post in order to demonstrate just how out of it I am, but couldn't bring myself to do it. For demonstration purposes, though, here are some instant messages I sent to Raider on the other day, asking him to come home from work if he could, to take the Tiny Tornado to gymnastics. He asked if he should bring me food, and I said I might be able to eat some yoghurt. These were typed on the same keyboard I'm using now.

Su Penn:
I think I need you to com ehome. I’m in so much pain
that was a type]
he likes to lavea a little bofere 1
i expect so if hes not yeaer
that’s efficient for diringld
yougurt paybe
i’m probably going to sleep after I hear back from the coctor’s fofice

I'll be on the phenobarbitol for another week; in the meantime, I'm starting a new daily preventive, also an anti-seizure drug. We're hoping the phenobarb will interrupt the flare-up and keep the headache pinned down while the new preventive gets into my system and starts working.

The new preventive has side effects. Everything does. Here's footnote 2: "Still, on the medication regimen my neurologist and I trial-and-errored our way to, my baseline is generally a comfortable Level 1." And all I had to give up for this wonderfully dramatic reduction in pain was orgasms. It's mostly been worth it, and I will someday write a whole other post about having a great sex life without orgasming. But that's what it's cost me. I met the devil at the crossroads, and that's the price he demanded.

When you have chronic pain, there is no option that doesn't cost. Want to feel better? That might mean giving up big chunks of your life. I have a friend who, for years, couldn't do evening activities because if she wasn't in bed by 7 p.m. she paid for it in pain. You will never get to have everything that people who don't live with pain have. I can have a really low pain baseline, or orgasms. I can't have both.

There are always these trade-offs. You live in the land of Either-Or, not the land of Both-And.

This latest flare-up is hard for me because it is different. I like it when I understand my pain and its patterns. A major flareup that lasts the better part of four weeks is unprecedented, and it scares me. I don't want to have to get used to a new normal that is worse than my old normal. Especially since I feel like I'm handling the old normal less well than I used to. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I had an underlying reserve of youthful energy that kept me going even when the pain was pretty bad. I'm almost 50; I don't have it anymore. This also scares me.

Third and final footnote: "And if I'm at baseline, and functioning pretty well, 'I'm doing great!' is true."

One of the things I've learned from Facebook is that many people have chronic pain or chronic illness that they live with. The body goes wrong in every possible way it can, so the conditions people live with are marvelously varied. And most of these people say, "I'm doing fine!" when you ask how they are. You might never know what they're carrying. My final footnote is to say that one reason I don't tell people every day that I have a headache is that I'm not unique. My burdens aren't especially heavy.

Today, I'm in a lot of pain, and at the same time I'm doped to the gills on a medication that is messing with me pretty badly. I think I've been wearing my nightgown for three days. I certainly smell like I have. I'm hoping that today I'll feel like I can stand up long enough to shower. If not today, tomorrow. I'm worried about the future, and I'm worried about the present, about all the things I haven't been keeping up on and the consequences of what I've missed in the bill box. But my to-do list is not overwhelming; most things can wait. I have been enjoying watching TV with the kids, and lying in my bed thinking drifty thoughts before I fall asleep. Food tastes good to me. I haven't lost my sense of humor. Earlier today, after I reviewed the day's essential chores with the kids, they did them. It's enough to go on with.

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.