Jan 30, 2008


(Note: Halfway through getting the pictures together for this post, I realized that Christine over at Cacophony, another housemate of mine, beat me to it. Oh well - can't get enough of this ramp!)

The Ramp to which I've been frequently alluding is now done, save for the handrail. The project, which has been a major part of my IAP, is one of the best examples I've seen of "can-do" culture, on many levels, and I feel grateful to have been involved.

The Ramp was first proposed some time in late November, when ismith decided to pledge pika. He uses an electric scooter to get around, and the batteries don't winter well, so he couldn't move in until there was some reliable way to get the scooter inside. Or house has 7 entrances, all of which are no where near ground level - so we put on our thinking caps. After much discussion, we decided to go whole-hog and build a 70-foot ramp (5 feet of rise) out of pressure-treated lumber.

Building a 70-foot ramp is a big decision for a little co-op (30 people) that has a very tight budget and is populated by MIT students (always busy!). It's not totally obvious that such a large project can be managed by inexperienced young people, but what I've learned at pika is that there's nothing so motivating as attempting the impossible. We attempt it all the time with our experiment in cooperative living - widely regarded as impossible by those who believe that trust is not a safe philosophy - but even so, it never ceases to amaze me what pikans are capable of. Or more accurately, what people are capable of, if they are part of an environment were "yes we can" is the dominant attitude.

The project was all about people. When it started out, it was about finding a way for our housemate to move in. And then it grew. It became a creative outlet for the considerable design talents of one mechanical engineer, a fun project for an experienced alum who helped us out, and an opportunity to become comfortable with power tools and construction techniques for many. Sure, people got tired and grumpy, and my fingers were freezing most of the time, but that's the reality of doing something significant (in the middle of winter...).

It feels really good to do something that *matters*! And it feels even better to do it with a light heart, with friends, and with an immediate reward - our new housemate.


Stage 1: Drilling holes with this AMAZING DRILL.

Stage 2: Mix concrete to pour in to the holes.

Stage 3: Get a LOT of lumber.

Stage 4: Start putting up weight bearing posts.

Stage 5. Install crossbeams.

Stage 5 continued...

Stage 6: Install joists.

Stage 7: Lay down decking.

Stage 8: Ramp is drivable for the very first time!!

Stage 9: Install guard rails.

Stage 10: Add balusters - and voila!

Jan 29, 2008


Suspended between three o'clock and four
with little to do and no time, anyway
I'm lost also on the winding path
between exile and welcoming,
between conversation and silence.
Balanced, with each toe in a different world
unable to slacken and sleep,
as if time froze in the middle
of a wide hurried step,
and I have been waiting
ever since
to arrive someplace,
limbs growing shaky.
I imagine a chair appearing out of nowhere
and a voice that says "this is yours"
and a long nap during which daisies grow around.

Jan 27, 2008

intuitive empath - gift or problem?

Quiz: Am I an Intuitive Empath?

Have I been labeled as overly sensitive? -Yep! All the time. By almost everybody I know. Even by me!

If a friend is distraught or in physical pain, do I start feeling it too? -No question.

Am I drained in crowds, going out of my way to avoid them? -You betcha.

Do I get anxious in packed elevators, airplanes, or subways? -Mmm, not always. I do OK on airplanes and subways if things are settled. If people are shouting, or if everybody is scared due to some turbulence, then it gets stressful.

Am I hypersensitive to noise, scents, or excessive talking? -All three!

When I see gruesome newscasts, does my energy plummet? -Definitely, although I can't say this happens often, because I studiously avoid watching any sort of newscast at all - they are almost always gruesome.

Do I get burned out by groups, require lots of time alone to revive? -Yup.


I found this quiz while searching for scholarly information about reading body language, per my recent interest described in this post.* The quiz was far from scholarly, but I was interested, so I kept reading. Pretty soon I discovered that the world of holistic healing/energy work/psychiatry is profoundly divided over whether or not being an intuitive empath is a gift or a major problem.

The web page that the quiz came from says that if you answer "yes" to one question above, you are probably an intuitive empath. If you answer yes to all of them then - uh oh - your tendencies are draining you of your life energy. Never fear, there is a list of things you can do to combat stress! Alas, I've been doing all of them ever since I can remember, and I'm not cured yet. What then?

Another test informed me that I am 100% hypersensitive (I answered "yes" to every single question). A pseudoscience article on About.com assures me that I have every single "symptom" of intuitive empathy.

On the other side of things, if you google for "intuitive empath", you will mostly find adverts for women who profess to be "intuitive empath healers". Some people offer training programs that teach you how to become more empathic (as a way to boost communication skills). My own mother thinks I'm psychic.

My favorite was the page that suggested that I am "allergic to life".

Some sources say I should be showering daily in order to wash away negative energy (I do, but I assure you, it doesn't work). There's a special diet for people like me (not interested). Some say I need therapy (been there). Energy crystals may solve this problem (no thanks). I need to rid my life of "energy vampires" and/or "energy suckers" (I don't think I know any). One even suggests that I am unconsciously in contact with the "oversoul" of everybody I meet and that I need to learn how to stop doing that.

I'm totally fascinated by this all, which I guess is only natural, since it's always fascinating to see one's defining characteristics listed somewhere, but actually I find it somewhat perverse. First of all, all those web pages have loads of suggestions for how to deal with life (stimuli, situations, etc), all of which I've tried, and most of which make only minor differences in my life. I'm guess I'm kind of off-the-charts-weird. Which isn't as comforting as, you know, finding the answer to life splashed up on wikipedia, but what was I expecting, really? Second, all the web pages I've seen are completely immersed in theorizing about chakras, auras, energy fields, religious healing powers, and so many other supernatural things I can't keep them all straight. As the articles all cleverly suggest, I am very drawn to the idea of healing - I don't deny it - but I complained about in this earlier post, I can't understand why these characteristics can't be described without immediately attributing them to the supernatural. Bottom line is, I'm interested to know if there are other people out there who are similar to me in this respect, but I don't really want to know how I can be saved from energy vampires!

*The paragraph that I originally found was this:

"Empaths often possess the ability to sense others on many different levels. From their position in observing what another is saying, feeling and thinking, they come to understand another. They can become very proficient at reading another personĂ­s body language and/or study intently the eye movements. While this in itself is not empathy, it is a side-shoot that comes from being observant of others. In a sense, empaths have a complete communication package." The source was a terrible pseudoscience paper which asserted that an "empath is able to sense [these] vibrations and recognize even the subtlest changes undetectable to the naked eye or the five senses", but if you want to see it, it's here.


I've been feeling inauthentic lately. It's probably because it's our rush period here at pika, which means that dozens of new people have been over at our house every day. This is really terrific from a rush perspective, but I kind of max out on it after a while.

Hence I feel inauthentic, not-myself, not-really-who-I-want-to-be. I find myself talking to people and only afterwards realize that what I said was 90% idle chatter (most of which is funny, light-hearted, and kind of pieced together every example I've ever seen of how to be entertaining in social situations) and 10% Real Meaning. It's not that I'm making stuff up, it's just very superficial. I feel as though I'm in a huge crowded swimming pool, and everybody's splashing around and whatnot, and I've got my eyes closed and I keep wincing from all the splashing. It takes so much energy to keep the water out of my eyes and keep treading that I haven't managed to discuss much beyond the metaphorical equivalent of sunblock and potato chips. It's fun for a little while, but too much of it leaves a hollow feeling behind.

It's not a comfortable place to be, really - I don't thrive so much on the "buzz" as I wither. Over the past few days, I've watched - as so many shadows and sunbeams passing overhead - various real things occur in my life, but I seem unable to make my way over to the side of that darn swimming pool and haul myself out in order to think about it. There are so many people in the way! And they're all my friends! Escaping one's friends, even for a little, is particularly difficult, seeing as one never wants to do it. But still, all my responses to the world are currently set on "rapid-fire"; it's as if I've momentarily forgotten how to seriously consider anything, so everything I do is sourcing from the easily-available repository of niceties. How boring.

Unsticking myself from this mess is proving difficult. At the end of the day, I find that the stress of it all has made my stomach complain, and so, instead of having a Real Conversation (which is what I actually want), or even just sitting quietly in the presence of another human being, I mostly flop in to bed and focus on feeling better, which takes just as much superficial energy as being a social butterfly. There's got to be some balance, but finding it requires a blend of will power, planning, and lucidity that I've been missing for a few days.

Maybe I should take a walk. Maybe that'll clear the brain.

Jan 23, 2008

"girl power"

I can't even remember what exactly brought me to these two websites, but it had something to do with searching for power tools designed for people with small hands, or at least in the beginning it did. And then...

Holy chalupa! What century are those people living in???!

From the page about decorating bedrooms for girls: "Allocate space for playing with a doll house, small table and chairs for tea parties, child sized vanity for preening, stuffed animals, wall decorations and a splash of color."

From the page about decorating bedrooms for boys: "Boys bedrooms need a study area, social section, solitude nook and sports place. Be prepared to have the desk transformed into a media center, filled with electronic games and computer units. Sports equipment, also memorabilia will need to be stored."

I can't even begin to list all the things wrong with this. It would take me all day, and I've got places to be (three guesses - it's NOT a tea party - and it involves power tools). Among the most ridiculous are the ideas that girls play no video games or sports and girls don't need a study area. (I'm not even going to get started on the misconceptions about the poor little boys.)

Stuff like this reaaaaaaally pisses me off. Is that what young girls in this country are truly exposed to? How incredibly naive do you have to be to think that all little girls want tea parties instead of video games? That all little boys want sports equipment and not dollhouses? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!!!

Here at MIT, and more particularly at pika, I am proud to say we are doing things differently. You would not believe the girl power that has gone in to building our ramp. Fully 100% of my time working on the project has been spent working alongside competent, confident, brilliant women who I am proud to say never listened to any such nonsense about tea parties. Not that they don't have tea parties, or knit, or sew, or like stuffed animals... but they are equally at home on a construction site (with BIG power tools, I'm not talking about a few nails here), playing a mean game of ultimate frisbee, and messing about with computers.

Jan 21, 2008


Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has always been a really significant holiday to me. When I was 10, I won an MLK poetry contest, and I got to be *on TV* - very exciting. And until I graduated from high school, my choir gave a concert of gospel music on MLK Day, at a local community center, which marked the occasion well. It was always a major event.

When I was 10, I thought I understood Dr. King's message. My family had a recording of the "I Have a Dream" speech, which I'd listened to, and it all seemed so simple. Everybody deserves equality and justice; you should treat everybody with respect. Of course! I knew it was important, and I knew that in the past, people had been treated very badly. I thought the holiday was basically a warm fuzzy day on which we reminded each other that we should be nice. But I had no experience to prove to me that America was still full of racism (nobody told me it was gone; I just hadn't seen it), and especially, no concept of what made "I Have a Dream" a truly monumental speech in American history.

As I've gotten older, racism has creeped in to my life. I've lost friendships to it. I've seen the kinds of injustice I believed had been eradicated in the 60s. I've met people whose ignorant racist attitudes are silently poisoning their communities. I've even been hated for being White.

I was born in to almost every possible category of privilege except maleness. I'm White, from a stable, loving, educated family with a decent amount of money, straight, an agnostic, American, in excellent health but protected by insurance, etc. The list goes on and on. There have been a few occasions in my life when I've been in minority - as a White person on trips to South America and Asia, and while building houses in Arkansas. As a hearing person in the Deaf community. As a young person among much older people when I worked at labs at Cornell University. As a female in maybe 75% of my math classes in middle and high school.

Anybody who can recount all their significant experiences as a minority in a short paragraph is obviously not a minority. Therefore, anything I know from personal experience about racism is likely to represent only a tiny fraction of the true experience unfolding in America today. And that's a sobering thought.

Because racism, over the last few years, has really weighed me down. The enormity of the problem has really settled in. I used to believe that simply being nice to everybody would solve the problem; it won't. Now I realize that. I realize that there's no excuse for sitting by and watching racism happen, even if you're a nice person. More than anything, I now see and feel the racial tensions that I never noticed as a child. There's deep mistrust in this country.

With that realization, I think I began to view the fight against racism as increasingly hopeless. Every group seems suspicious of the other. Equality and justice are virtues frequently called upon in lawmaking, and racism is, of course, no longer fashionable, but where is the friendship? What happened to the part where we actually get along? It's good that our government isn't legally racist anymore, but individuals sure are, and we can't even talk about it - because "good" people are "never" racist.

Yesterday morning, for the first time I was 14 or so, I watched the "I Have a Dream" speech, and it totally bowled me over. I saw it in a completely new light. All the times I'd heard it previously, it had sounded a lot like "Hey America, stop hurting Black people. This is horrible. Treat us the way we deserve. Give us our rights." But yesterday, what I heard was "Hey America, wake up. We really can achieve unity. We can get along. We can overcome this."

Just what I'd almost stopped believing.

I think I understand better now what King was saying. He wasn't just demanding that Black people be given equal rights - though of course he did that. He was actually hopeful, he was the opposite of hate (even when he himself was hated), and was truly leading towards peace.

Of course, the world knows that. King said it himself! (Maybe I just wasn't listening.) He got the Nobel Peace Prize. Millions of people have written about his message. But the powerful, unexpected optimism with which he spoke didn't really hit me until yesterday.

After I watched the speech, I spent a tearful hour listening to Beethoven's 9th symphony, and realized that, like so much of Beethoven's work, the symphony only gets sweeter the more sourness you've experienced. It just becomes more and more sublime. The very end of the last movement - the one with "Ode to Joy" - offered up its words in a new way:

Finale repeats the words:
Be embraced, ye millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Be embraced,
This kiss for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods
UPDATE: My mother just forwarded to me a speech Obama gave at King's church in Atlanta yesterday.


Jan 19, 2008

beethoven 7th, mvmt 2

Beethoven's 7th symphony, movement 2: allegretto.

No matter what my mood, I want to listen to it, and it always shows a new face of itself, complimenting however I feel perfectly. Even when none of my 3000 other songs appeal. I never get tired of listening to it, and I've been listening for at least 7 years.

It's got to be one of the most perfect things ever written.

super powers

I admit it.

I want to be a Jedi.

When I first saw Star Wars when I was 13, I was seized by a fervent desire to learn the ways of the force. Mostly, I wanted to read minds. I'd lie in bed creating these elaborate daydreams of what my life would be like if I could read minds. I'd never have any more awkward conversations, because I'd always know the right thing to say. Nobody would ever have to explain his- or herself if he or she was having a hard time - I'd already know the whole story. The daydreams were so lifelike that sometimes I almost tricked myself in to believing them.

Luckily, in the 9 years since I first saw Star Wars, I've realized that it would actually be terribly inconvenient to read minds as literally as I imagined at 13. Folks think a lot of stuff that they never say, and thank goodness for that - way more than half of what goes through my head is either ridiculous, embarrassing, tangential, or untimely, and I imagine it's the same for everyone else. It's definitely a good thing I can't read minds.

But I still want to be Jedi. Ok, ok, so I can't be. What then? Does my galaxy far far away offer any cool "super powers" that are within my grasp? Hmm...

A few days ago I was talking to a British friend of mine, and I was having my usual problem: I kept nearly adopting his accent. Every single time I spoke, I had to consciously remind myself to stick with my own accent. The incident got me thinking and for the last few days I've more consciously aware than usual of such occurrences. Like tonight at dinner, when the person I was talking to made a gesture, and without even thinking about it I made exactly the same gesture. Yesterday, I was writing on the same piece of paper as somebody else, and I kept accidentally adjusting my handwriting to match hers. And a yesterday night, when I was watching a video clip, and a person on the screen made a weird face - and I mimicked that face exactly. I do it *all the time*.

Lest this sound disturbing, let me assure the reader that I'm not a mindless copycat. These are cases of reaction to what goes on around me. I'm not confused in some pathological way about who I am. I think - and here's the interesting part - that such reactions are integral to mind reading. Maybe a super power (after a fashion) isn't so impossible after all.

Of course, I don't mean that by imitating somebody's hand motion I'm going to literally read their mind, and I'm also quite aware that I'm never going to have any real super power. But I still think this is really cool. It's subtle, but here's what goes on: a person (Sally, let's say) is talking to me. Sally and I are having a very interesting conversation, and by virtue of human nature and the existence of mirror neurons I am literally experiencing the sensations and feelings that she is describing. So it's only natural that when Sally gets to the point in her story where she makes a particular gesture, I follow her. It's as though I'm Sally's puppet.

What I'm describing isn't new or unusual in anyway (here's a well-known essay on the topic), and most people do it. But, what if you can hone that innate skill? Can you learn the language of off-hand gestures and facial expressions? (Do you have to re-learn it for each person?) Theoretically, if I had a very large number of mirror neurons, all of the things that I observed in another person would be neurologically recreated within my own brain. Would I then be able to piece together a person's thoughts from all of the observable ways that he or she expresses his- or herself? Could I "reverse-engineer" a thought?

At some earlier time, I would have said no. This sounds like a behaviorist theory to me - state of mind is entirely reconstructible by observing behavior - and I've always disliked those theories. I mean, there's just no way. How many times in life do we play 2o Questions with somebody who is obviously upset, but not forthcoming about the problem? If the behaviorists were right, everybody would be an open book. And clearly we're not. We can make ourselves as indecipherable as we please.

But I think the difference between behaviorism and this innate "mind reading" is that behaviorism is a relative system of interpretation (very faulty), and innate "mind reading" is absolute. If somebody pokes your finger with a needle while I look on, a part of your brain will light up, and the exact same part of my brain will light up. That's pretty remarkable. Even allowing for the vast range of human temperament and emotion, the fact that an experience, whether real or sympathetic, causes identical response in certain areas of the brain must mean that some thoughts - if thoughts are defined by brain activity (that's a whole other can of worms) - can be "read". I guess we generally only go in for reading ("reverse engineering") the really easy thoughts like "Ow, that hurts", "I'm happy" or "I am sleepy", but importantly, we don't always need to see the cause of those thoughts to recognize them. They have a familiar, nearly-unmistakable constellation of expressions.

So what about other thoughts? If Larry is my friend, and I'm very familiar with his facial/gestural/postural manners of expression, can I learn to interpret his actions (both conscious and unconscious) and translate them in to more complex thoughts?

My guess is that this is somewhat possible. I think it's impossible that we humans display a secret personal "alphabet code" that belies our every thought, if only the code-breaker is quick enough. But I think it's quite likely that we give away a decent amount (as long as we are not consciously trying to avoid doing so), and that serious neurological practice could indeed augment the human ability to read minds.

So, it may not be Jedi-cool, but it's pretty cool :)

Jan 14, 2008


Maverick, my beloved white rat, died early this morning. She was two years old. She died peacefully and was attended by her friend Emily. Today, Emily spent all day sitting in Maverick's area in Maverick's blanket, and instead of escaping her cage whenever the door was opened (as she usually does), she shut her eyes and snuggled up next to my hand.

Maverick was buried in a little house, like the ones she loved to hide in, made of birch bark, in the woods.

The following picture was taken yesterday. Maverick will be most terribly missed.