Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Origin of Flight (Teaser)

On the advice of my professor, I am posting only a teaser to this piece with the intent of doing a longer (cleaner) draft to submit for publication. Enjoy! 
The flying squirrel does not actually fly, thank god.
The flying squirrel, like the flying fish, flying snake or flying squid (yes, its real), actually glides. While gliding has evolved on several occasions, flight has evolved only four times in the insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats.  In the air, animals move faster, concur more ground, avoid predators and easily traverse obstacles like wide rivers and steep mountain ridges. Because there are so many different needs for flight, several types of aerial locomotion have evolved.
On a Monday night in early February,  I munch on free cookies and press the tip of my pen too hard into my flimsy notebook.  I’m excited. Presentations from international dinosaur experts in this medium-sized Wisconsin town occur rarely,  one from an expert in the origins of avian flight might be a sole instance.  At Science Night at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, people in a darkened auditorium listen intently for an explanation for how dinosaurs took to the sky.
Not all beasts in the sky have adapted to glide like the squirrel or fly like the bird. Some have learned to let the environment take control. Externally powered aerial locomotion occurs when the animal gives the power back to the conditions -  usually the wind.
Some creatures fly by ballooning,  such as spiders who release webs into the sky to be grabbed by the breeze and carried away.  Tiny creatures trust the winds to carry them across the oceans. This is largely how volcanic islands become lush, diverse environments.
An animal with a large wingspan relies on soaring. Adapted to find the thermals or the wave of air off a slope or a ridge, or the convergence - the place where two air masses meet - and to ride the wind for miles.
In my second year of grad school, emboldened by my new-found calling, I call in sick to work and go to dinosaur camp. I walk through the beautiful city zoo with an eccentric scientist in a pith helmet and scratch notes in my tiny notebook, like a real journalist. The first stop on the zoo tour is the bird house. Looking at the scaly legs and firm crested brow of New Zealand’s native Cassowary for long enough, and the dinosaur from which it evolved begins to emerge. It’s easy to see how dinosaurs may have moved like birds, had feet and claws like birds, maybe made sounds like birds. It is my dream to write about dinosaurs. I’m inspired; riding the energy of this environment.  I write my best essay, and believe for a little while that I really am a writer.
To be continued...

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Growing up on SimCity 2000

1996 was kind of a shit year.

Imagine a 14 year-old struggling with her inner demons, her heart, her height and her hair. Ok, so maybe it was only a shit year for me. 

Lucky for me, the house I shared with my older, angrier brother and the mother of us both was one of 36.6% of American households that had a personal computer. My diminutive, solo, underemployed mother (and her job teaching with computers at a city school) had given us a precious gift. Atop a cheaply made, pressboard, corner-shaped desk, nestled securely in the shadows of the dark-wood cabinets and dirty floors of our family’s kitchen, we had a grayish-white, 35 pound Macintosh LC580 - and it was our savior.

That year, two years after the LC580 was released and one year before it was discontinued and replaced with faster, lighter models in the Apple-style we are so familiar with today, we spent hours playing Mahjong and exploring the tiny web.  Instead of staining our white sneakers with the green hue of fresh cut grass or letting the sun fill us with Vitamin D and pink our cheeks (long before we knew the dangers of skin cancer) we stared at a screen.

From wherever she got things, my mother brought home a city-building game to play on the 8MB computer. SimCity 2000 captured my attention immediately. Ready to put the Chinese matching game away, I sat at the high-backed chair pulled away from the dinner table and loaded the CD-Rom, ready to design my city.  Ready to have some control in this world. Amidst catchy low-budget music, the God-like player (humbly dubbed “The Mayor”) could begin the epic building project by adjusting the terrain. Adding hills, valleys and trees, raising and lowering the water level. The power was intoxicating, especially for a ratty-haired teen who felt so weak.

When the terrain is perfect, the Mayor-cum-City Planner strategically develops a schema of neighborhoods, water pipes and subways. The Mayor considers the needs of her people and builds fire and police stations, hospitals, prisons and schools. The Mayor can affect disasters just for the sadistic joy of it. The Mayor builds roads. And more roads.

It’s the roads that I remember the most.  

There were options for how fast you wanted time to move. Stay at Turtle (Alt-1) and carefully and responsibly monitor your city; accelerate to Llama (Alt-2) and watch the years begin to spin away at a clip; put your skills to the test and, with the quick flick of an Alt-3, select Cheetah. 

That’s right. Cheetah. You’ve got guts.

In Cheetah mode crime surges.  Fires burn uncontrollably, your city crumbles as fast as you build it, the cycle of road repair is never-ending, and you feel the frenetic energy of life on the brink. It’s terrifying and exhilarating.

It turns out that there’s no way to “win” at SimCity 2000. The game just goes on forever as you watch the clock flip to those three strange looking zeros trailing behind a two - a new millennium that seemed frighteningly close and yet so far away - and keeps climbing. To win the game, you continue to rebuild your city as it falls into disrepair, starting over at the beginning each time you no longer have the energy to repair the damage. A little like the American Tamagotchi.

There wasn’t, that I remember, a game in the 90’s that challenged players to maintain a low BMI as they loped into their mid-thirties, to alleviate the hopelessness of a beige cubicled middle-management job, or to stitch and restitch a repeatedly broken heart.

But there was this game that taught us how to build and rebuild. To budget and create and sacrifice. To lay new roads from east to west, watching the first bits of asphalt begin to disintegrate just as you finish the final squares. A game that let you escape the powerlessness that the rising-action years of  “finding yourself” always entail.  A game that foreshadowed the ever-present adult feeling of never being able to catch up. A game that let you see into the future.
Outside of SimCity, there’s no place to select how fast we want time to move. Mostly, life runs in Cheetah speed, but at least we know how to manage it – how to put out the fires and rebuild the roads, even when we are struggling (still) with our hearts, our height or our hair.  But, even without the title of Mayor, even without the Alt key, we have more power than we know. If we really focus, we have the ability to slip quietly back into Turtle mode, and for a few sweet moments, enjoy what we’ve built.

This is a cheat we should take advantage of more often.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Finding Leverage in Foreignness

Each one of the 534 “Gravity Purple” tent cards is arranged perfectly. Between 19 and 22 slightly angled cards around each U-Shaped table, in 19 rooms in which English, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and French will be spoken. In each English language room, the countries are numerous – England, India, South Africa, United States, Australia, Nigeria, and on and on. There is a tent card for each seat, and on each tent card is a call name, full name and one of the hundreds of countries from which the “mini U.N.” of my participants hail.

The personalized tent cards set in advance of each of the ten sessions – a new bright color for each set – seem unnecessary. The people who will be seated in these rooms are international business professionals who have personalized itineraries for this training tucked inside their breast pockets and brief cases – but it is a part of the experience.

It is my job, as a training professional, to research and write the curriculum that is presented in each of these classrooms, but it is also my job to consider the learning environment and make the experience – from the locations of the coffee breaks to the spacing of the notes pages in the workbooks – the most conducive to learning. I also stalk the halls in my freshly pressed suit smiling sincerely and answering questions from all corners.

This is what I’m paid to do – and I’m pretty good at it.


Yesterday afternoon I stared at my computer. My eyes straining as I took notes, searched images online, and wrote polite emails for hours. My mind was racing trying to coordinate all the pieces necessary for my project, my pulse accelerating as the time slipped away and my deadlines loomed.

I needed the baby giraffe and the baby elephant to fall in line.
I needed a font that was a little softer and warmer.
I also needed sleeping space for ten, not 8, and someone to take ownership of the games and activities.

I was planning both a baby shower and a bachelorette party (for two separate and awesome women in my life) and the anxiety was driving me to the edge.

I am a person who assembles events for a living, but when it comes to designing an invitation for a baby shower or booking a cottage for ten in southwest Michigan, I lose my mind. I assume I am stressed because no one likes to bring their work home with them, but as my anxiety grows, I realize the hurdle here is the foreignness.

I feel like I’m planning a Taiwanese Lantern Festival celebration. My internal monologue screams, “Shouldn't they have asked someone who was from Taiwan?! What do I know about this?” I do not understand the drive to have children nor to engage in the traditional aspects of courtship and marriage. I do not speak the language.

There’s not so much to planning these celebrations that I cannot learn. A few emails, a couple of Google searches and a click or two in an online party store and the whole thing is settled. The problem is not the task itself; it is my inability to wrap my mind around the concepts. “Foreign” is the way I feel in a lot of situations. I have spent my whole life feeling like an outsider. Like I’m “passing” for one of the crowd, but that I could be found out at any minute. A little too queer to be like the other girls. Planning these “traditional” events falls outside of my natural instincts and makes me feel lost.


The purple tent cards and seats are perfectly arranged, and the final session of this event begins. Hundreds of men and women flood the halls, checking their itineraries and looking for the room that has their preset tent card. They shake hands with their new classmates and greet each other – sometimes in their second, third or fourth language. They exchange business cards and trinkets from their home nations. They've come from all over the world to San Diego, this foreign place, with the excitement of children and the intention to learn from one another. In this environment, the state of being foreign – of being other – is the benefit. This new situation will give each person the greatest opportunity to learn and grow.


The final touches on the jungle themed invite come together, and the deposit on a cottage for ten clears my checking account. I too can grow from my foreignness.

Now where’s my tent card?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Year of the Rainbow

I'm working to make 2015 a happier, more positive year.  This is a good place to start.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Meditations on Otherness...and Bronies

Last week on The Rumpus, Melissa Carroll (who, from the perspective of her story, is likely not far in age from me) recalled the simpler times of the 1980’s when the lives of girls were ruled by tiny plastic ponies. Pink and pretty and for girls.  She writes how her own lack of connecting to these rainbow dictators introduced her to her own differentness, and to the not-so-subtle differences between girls and boys that the toys came to represent.

I connected instantly to the picture she painted. I remember feeling different from the other girls in the presence of ponies, unable to understand the appeal, more drawn to the muscled action figures and adventure stories of my brothers and his friends. I wasn’t interested in the pastel equine cotton candy fantasy they promised.

Carroll’s piece opens up with this familiar narrative of girltoys vs boytoys and how othering that can be for some kids who are, for whatever reason, not into what they are “supposed” to be into. In playing with those toys, two different outlooks assemble. The girls with their big-eyed ponies learn to collaborate and compromise to meet their challenges.  The boys seem to learn to take any character from any story, physically slam one into the other endlessly shouting and growling until one “guy kills the other guy.”

The story also highlights the resurgence of the Pony empire. That’s right – MLP is back with a TV show and all the possible merchandising you can dream of. My own niece and nephew play with Ponies in the BatCave, like Batman, Robin and Rarity (a legit Pony name) all live in the same world; as if their worlds are not divided into boytoys and girltoys, into warmaking and peacemaking, into darkness and light.

The heart of the piece is about the new market for Ponies. Enter the Brony.

The Brony is the adult man who is into My Little Pony – but not for the creepy reasons you’d assume. In a study from last year referenced by Carroll, Bronies have embraced Pony power for a few key reasons: “to become a part of the Brony community, to escape the realities of real life, and to learn about the importance of strong friendships.”

The summary of the Brony culture is this: the world we live in is full of sadness and violence, so why not embrace positivity. Lucky for the internet, these men don’t have to be alone. Brony culture is growing and growing fast with conferences, online forums and their own set of identifying merchandise.

25 years after the ponies made me feel different, feel alone, their colorful manes are bringing together individuals who are bound together by their difference. They are othered by their refusal to see glittery pink positive dream sequences to be a girls only domain. By their choice to reject the masculinity, solitude and stoicism that young man are taught to embrace. The rise of the Brony culture allows these men to be different without having to be alone. Carroll’s article stuck out to me in a sea of words that describe war, death and tragedy around the world. I think these Ponies (and Bronies) are on the right track.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Neo’s Choice

When Neo chose the Red Pill, he acknowledged that the life he knew was meaningless.  He chose to venture into the potential nightmare of living outside the matrix, rather than continue in the world that he knew, a world that, to be fair, wasn’t that great anyway.  The dingy, depressing environment created by the Wachowskis for The Matrix fell short on sunshine and hope, which perhaps contributed to our protagonist’s choice. Why not take the chance? What could be worse than living in a (pretty crappy) world that isn’t real?

The world may very well be divided by Red Pill and Blue Pill people. Those who would jump at the chance to rid themselves of a meaningless world if given it, and those who wouldn’t humor the offer it; those who are happy to be happy even if happy isn’t real. There has always been a question of whether or not this world is real.

Philosophers, scientists, writers and filmmakers have discussed it for centuries, though maybe not in terms as reduced as a choice between red and blue.

Albert Camus, the 20th century philosopher and writer, described this choice in the allegory of Sisyphus. The difference being that Sisyphus isn’t given the option of choosing the red pill. Or even that of the blue pill. He isn’t permitted to escape the Matrix, or forget – he is bound to live inside the Matrix aware of its absurdity. The takeaway from Camus’ story is a cheery one – When you realize that life is meaningless you have three choices. 

One: Commit Suicide. The knowledge hurts too much, nothing has meaning, so end it all. (Though he is astute enough to recognize that death itself is meaningless, so the problem is not solved!)

Two: Commit a sort of philosophical suicide, meaning to pretend that you didn’t figure out that life is meaningless. Lie to yourself, maintain the charade, and maybe achieve “happiness.”

Three: Live the rest of your life (or eternity, in the case of Sisyphus) recognizing the meaninglessness of life, but keep living it. Live honestly and bravely, and maybe find real happiness in the task.

The Gods cursing you to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, or Morpheus telling you that your reality is a simulation may feel like hypotheticals, however some scientists think these thought pieces Camus’ and the Wachowskis have given us may not be that far off.

A recent New York Times article penned by Edward Frenkel asks if the universe in which we live might actually be a simulation.

Another thought experiment? Apparently not. 

In “Is the Universe a Simulation?” Frenkel highlights the immutable truths of mathematics (how scientists around the globe and across the decades reach the same mathematical conclusions, for example) as one of the tenets some scientists are using to support this hypothesis.  We did not create mathematics. Somehow mathematics already exists in our world, waiting to be discovered. How is this possible? How is math the same across cultures and generations? How is math already here?  

One creepy and awesome theory goes like this: the computer programmer of the future has built a simulation (our world).  When we “discover” mathematic formulas, really we are just uncovering bits and pieces of planted code in the simulation. 


 You may not take kindly to the idea of living inside a real “Matrix,” or consider the concept far-fetched, but some scientists say that the probability is actually quite good. Frenkel paraphrases Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom on the subject:

“Bostrom has argued that we are more likely to be in such a simulation than not. If such simulations are possible in theory, he reason, then eventually humans will create them – Presumably many of them. If this is so, in time there will be many more simulated worlds than nonsimulated ones. Statistically speaking, therefore, we are more likely to be living in a simulated world than in the real one.”

For me, the reality of this world doesn’t matter. Would a simulated universe make my coffee less soothing, my friends less caring, my partner’s eyes less blue? I know what I know, and in that case, “real” is indefinable. Even in meaninglessness, we can all choose to find happiness. In Camus’ words:

“Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Friday, February 7, 2014

Measuring Achievement in the Midst of Winter

Chicago's winter can be harsh. This year seems to be challenging even the most hard-core of Chicago's winter-lovers. The snow this season has accumulated in beautiful puffy piles that swiftly transform into inches-deep obstacles of grayish slush, hungrily waiting to swallow your boots whole. Some days, the sun has shone brightly, attempting to mask temperature dips so severe that schools and businesses closed to encourage us to stay safely indoors.

The winter anecdotally brings on the blues in a lot of people, and this mega-winter seems to be bringing on the mega-blues. For me, the winter is only partly the sources of the blues.  Its mostly that the winter came post-marathon.

In my absence from the blog I haven't shared much about the marathon. Here it is, in short:

My friends are awesome (those that ran with me, and those that supported me along the course).
The weather was undeniably perfect.
My girlfriend probably ran her own marathon chasing me around the city.
My sister, niece and nephew cheered me on with adorableness and big signs.
26.2 miles is long.
26.2 miles is boring.
After 26.2 miles you are pretty tired.
The next day you feel sore.
You may also feel sad.

After years and years of running, and meeting every goal - from that first mile, to those 26.2 in October - finishing the marathon sort of felt like the end of the climb. There is no higher to go. Of course I'm aware that there is, including faster times and longer races, but for a weekend racer, training for the marathon was a massive time commitment that won't easily be achieved again.

After the marathon, I had some trouble getting motivated. The holidays hit, things got busy with work, and getting back on the treadmill for 2 or 3 miles seemed sort of pointless without an end goal.  

Running the marathon was supposed to feel awesome - was supposed to feel like a life accomplishment, but really it just reminded me that sometimes the best hobbies or goals are the ones that remain unachieved. The ones that change and evolve and are measured in progress and growth. 

As I pull my hat down over my ears and stomp through inches of slush attacking my boots, I start to collect ideas of what's next. To look for a goal that can grow with me. A goal that I can't leave behind like a finish line. In the meantime, I might as well go to the gym - I think better on a run, anyway.