Friday, April 26, 2013

Gardening and the afterlife.

I will preface this by saying that I'm sorry, but anyone who lays down non-biodegradable stuff in their flowerbeds, be it landscape fabric or rubber mulch or whatever, is hereby barred from whatever pleasant afterlife there may be. You forfeit your ticket, sir or madam. Off the bus with you, and don't let me catch your kind around here again! *shakes begrimed fist*

So. We have a front flowerbed by our walk that shows that at one point, previous owners of the house tried to do something to it. It's got edging and once had bushes and part of it is (badly) covered in rock but hasn't been maintained cause there are weeds growing through it. I tried last year to do something with the bigger part of it, but all I managed to do was get rid of the tall unsightly weeds, allowing short unsightly weeds to grow instead. This is not a significant improvement. I had thought I'd mulch and plant things, only to discover that the previous owners laid down landscape fabric and then mulch on top of it. This sounds like a good plan short term, and it is -- except that mulch degrades into topsoil for weeds to grow in. You stop mulching, you get a nice shallow weed bed that you can't dig into.

Now, landscape fabric doesn't degrade. It doesn't let things grow through it, either, unless these things are very insistent. The only way to remove landscape fabric is to dig it up. Yes, that's right. Remove the new topsoil and weeds and pull it off/out of the ground. This year, I set out to dig up the short weeds and figured, hey, while I'm here, I should get rid of this landscape fabric. We can put down some cardboard as a barrier (which degrades), then put down some mulch -- voila, attractive garden area with very little upkeep, especially as there are some rocks in the "garden" already for visual interest.

Last week I started weeding along the border of the house and discovered, hey, no fabric here! I can dig down at least five inches. Now granted, those five inches are full of woody tree roots, but that's not a huge surprise given the number of trees in the area. Maybe, I think, I was mistaken about the amount of fabric in the garden! Buoyed by this happy thought, I got rid of the weeds next to the foundation in front of the porch and thought, well, I'll start out another couple of feet and head back across the flowerbed again and see what happens. What happened was that I suddenly couldn't get more than three inches down, if that, and what I did get was full of roots, like way more than by the house.

I started wandering over to where I could see some fabric sticking up from the ground and started pulling on it. Amazingly, close to the surface, it comes right up AND it tears fairly easily but not so easily you can't pull it. So far, so good, because a couple of those rocks (which I'm pretty sure are on top of landscape fabric) are not moving. When I try to dig up the dirt on top of the fabric, though, and move it, I get nothing. I can, however, push up on it as a large mass with my hand. That's right. The root pack is so tight and so deep that I can lift it en masse and tug on it with my hand. AAAAAAAAGH.

Now, on the one hand, the roots themselves are somewhat delicate and mostly belonging to plants no longer living, so they're brittle. They're too tough altogether for a shovel to get through them, though. This means sliding my hand under the roots, because they haven't grown into the fabric, and pulling them up to move them off the fabric. This is both easier than what I was trying to do before and exhausting all at the same time. I got maybe a square foot of fabric unearthed, in part because I didn't come to this discovery earlier, but partly because being bent over for that long and unable to kneel on the ground because I don't know where the damn fabric stops and I want to have room to work makes me a bit dizzy after a while. It's like a parking space and a half of ground I have to remove the stuff from in 18 inch strips and then still figure out what I'm doing with the damn spot, which is also shaded and wet all the time.

This, dear readers, is why there is no nirvana for these people. In the name of posterity, consider what non-biodegradable choices do to the people who come after you -- and someone will always come after you. Meanwhile, I'll be over here digging up an entire flowerbed by hand. *shudder*

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Emails and efficiency

Thanks to my students, I learned that you can set up your unread emails to show up apart from and above your read emails in gmail (why yes, I am late to the party, where should I put my coat?). Having something like 4k+ unread emails in my box that have accrued over the years (primarily because I am both lazy and, on the occasions where I felt like getting rid of them, too damn easily overwhelmed to pick them out from the rest), I decided I should adopt this since it would let me find them easily. Sure enough, two days later, I have no unread emails in my inbox. Woo hoo!

It's not like all of these were important emails, mind you. Lots of them are store mailing lists that I want to stay on because I occasionally find something useful (but often don't). As I was clearing them out, though, it went fine back to 2011, and then jumped precipitously to 2008... and that was suddenly hard. I didn't have a lot of old spammy emails from back then; they were notifications from my son's little league team and knitting meet-ups with friends and stuff sent round to the LARP mailing list and emails from people I was sort of trying to date and stuff from old freelance projects... it was unexpectedly hard to let those pieces of correspondence go. I did, of course; none of it was something I needed to hold on to, nor was it anything worth archiving; they were the useful sort of thing that isn't terribly useful five years down the road. And yet... suddenly my inbox was filled with the names of people I used to see that I don't any more, and likely won't ever again on any sort of regular basis. I miss them, even if I don't say it often, and that missing surfaced hard today.

My inbox is clean now, though.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


It's been a long semester -- not just for me, but for everyone, I think. I haven't heard anyone anywhere say "oh, this spring was a blast." My school workload isn't even as heavy as it has been in semesters past, and I'm still just trying to hold on a few more days. There are a number of factors that play into this, really, and I won't get into them all here. Suffice it to say that I at least partly did this to myself, and partly had this done through things that were good but largely unavoidable, and partly had the hell week that everyone else had with more death and destruction and sadness than anyone should experience, and that led to this weekend's personal shutdown.

See, this weekend was THATCamp Games, a conference on game design and education being held at my university. I was really looking forward to this and wanted to go a lot. At the same time, between my introvert nature and the autism sensory/anxiety stuff ramping up like a reactor that lost its "off" switch, I knew it'd be a near thing. I'd actually planned for hermiting the week before and weekend of at home, so that I'd have as much time to recharge as possible, as being out in public with strangers I have to try to quickly understand, place in context, and talk to can feel overwhelming even when I'm having a good day and can actually be overwhelming if I'm not. My planned hermiting didn't happen, though, for reasons that I can confidently lay at the feet of the Universe and nothing more, and so I came into this weekend with my internal emotional/mental battery sign flashing red at me.

Friday morning I was in rough shape. I really wanted to go and felt like I should, though, so I managed to get there, albeit nearly an hour late. I spent the day doing conference and department stuff and even worked on game design for an upcoming class of mine with my friend and co-instructor, Jess. It was really good stuff. By the end of the day, though, I was good for nothing more than hiding in bed and avoiding everyone. I was even sensitive enough to touch to have to stop myself from flinching when a kiddo hugged me unexpectedly at the "wrong" sensation level. Matt, for whom I am eternally grateful, knows enough about autism to help ground me and help me work through the sensory issues, so that helped. On Saturday, though, when I would have gone back and run a session, I was overwhelmed again that morning and sick to my stomach, whether from anxiety or something else I can't say. I ended up staying home, and while I am sad that I missed it... I would have just been unable to cope with anything had I gone, and that's not good for anyone. Non-functional Michelle has no business being around people who have no context for what's wrong or how to help me. So I stayed home and I felt a bit better and I hermited and I got work done, and I thought "perhaps I'll go tomorrow, since I'm feeling better."

Well, here it is tomorrow, and I am at home. Honestly, the thought of having to look at and listen to and talk to people I don't know is still overwhelming to me, and so I've just decided that home is the better place for that. And yet.... and yet. I feel guilty for not being there. I feel like I ought to be able somehow to overcome this and just decide that it's all okay. I feel sad that I'm not networking and learning stuff and exchanging ideas. I feel bad that I'm not there promoting my game and finding out what would be useful from it in a pedagogy format. I feel bad that I'm not playing new games in the game room and getting to talk to people I hadn't known before but now could know next year. But I'm not doing any of those things; I'm making a virtue out of my inability to cope and getting work done, but that's not why I'm not there and I know it. I guess in the end, though, I feel more relieved to stay home and sit next to a snoring dog and "plug in" than I feel any of the above bad stuff, and that's why I made the choices I did.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

There are days...

Things are good these days. I have a wonderful relationship, a husband who cares for me even when I'm cranky and a touch on the chemically irrational side of things, good friends, and a degree program that's going well. My house is in good shape even if it does need a bit more care than I can give it the next three weeks. I have food and clothes and my car works and my kids are healthy and happy and my parents and brother are all well. No one has been blown up or swept off to Oz. My life is measurably better in pretty much every way here than it had been for a really long time.

Despite all this, there are things I miss.

I miss driving to the top of my hill in Seattle in the morning and gazing off at the misty Olympic mountains on the other side of the Sound, with the Cascades in my rear view mirror.

I miss the green chile tuna melts at the Columbia City Ale House, with a glass of hard cider to go with it.

I miss the green chile in Albuquerque altogether. 

I miss the scent of cedar smoke in the air in Albuquerque, on an early spring morning when the light is rose and gold in the sky.

I miss reaching out to my kids for a hug whenever I felt like it.

I miss watching the water ebb and flow at the lakeshore from the trail by the pine forest.

I miss sitting in the bay window of my second-story apartment and watching all the people in the street go by.

I miss the smooth hardwood floors under my feet and the built-in old fashioned china hutch at the end of living room.

I miss Rosie.

I miss dance classes and moving around the floor so smoothly I forget that it's just steps I'm taking, and feeling for a brief moment like I'm as graceful as I want to be.

I miss raising my voice in chorus and hearing it blend with everyone else's, and feeling the resulting chills travel across my skin, leaving goosebumps in their wake.

I acquire these mental snapshots slowly. These are not things I will ever recapture, not in anything but fleeting moments, if that. Some are gone temporarily, while others are gone forever. A bit of this is nostalgia, of course; these are isolated from the rest of whatever went on during that time, and that's as it should be. Nothing is ever perfect. I am still finding these moments here in my new life, and I say new knowing that I've been here for three years now, so how new can it really be? And yet it is. I am not naturalized yet here in Ohio. I do not fit. I still find things that take me by surprise, basic knowledge of this place that I am only now discovering. My snapshot book for the present is still sparse, and most of them involve an amazing person I ended up marrying rather than the places I inhabit. I guess that's why I still find myself thinking back this morning, to the best and brightest of what came before.

On days when senseless things happen and the aftermath is still rolling down upon us in waves of smoke and death and sorrow, it can seem unbearable. If I allow myself to dwell on humanity's seemingly boundless capability to be cruel to one another, it can feel like I might drown in despair that anything can ever be right again, if it ever was. I'm not exactly neurotypical to start with, and my buffer for emotion is small and easily overwhelmed, particularly if it's negative emotion. I don't process it well, and I find it all too easy to lose hope in the face of knowing that someone is so divorced from human feeling that they could rain death and destruction on others for any reason at all. The way I look past these things is to get out my mental book of snapshots and remember the awesome things that exist in the world, and know that even if I am parted from them, they go on unimpeded because the world is so much larger and more stable than anything any one person can do. I reorient myself in the scale of things through remembering the good until I feel stable once more.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Conversations about conversation

One of the courses I'm taking this semester is Discourse Analysis, not because I felt it had a tremendous amount to do with what I want to study, but because I think it's important to have a varied intellectual toolbox and it's something I'd kind of been interested in, in a roundabout way. For those who haven't encountered it before, discourse analysis is a practice that pulls from a bunch of different humanities disciplines and looks at all manner of discourse, which is basically any information transferred between people (media, laws, emails, forms, recordings of conversation, non-fiction, fiction, discourse represented in drama, corporate texts, PR docs, etc.). It does so to find patterns and determine what the discourse is actually doing, along with what it says it's doing, and figure out how it accomplishes that end.

As with all classes, there has to be an end project, and DA's end project is a piece of discourse analysis. I had a hard time choosing anything, but in the end I ended up making an observation about how important the mechanics of conversation were for people who, for example, have ASD (autism spectrum disorders) and how they aren't really used pedagogically. We talk about conversation skills, but we don't tend to link that to examination or methodology of how it all works and why, which is actually the sort of explanation that tends to work for people with Aspergers, for example. In addition, the research I've done on the topic has thus far been unable to turn up any discussion of discussion as seen or understood by individuals with autism. It focuses on what they don't do in conversation, what they should do in conversation, what they do too much off, and how to fix all of these things. They analyze, but don't ask what the person at the center of all this thinks.*

To that end, I decided to interview my son, Alisdair, and have a conversation about conversations and see what he thought about the whole process. I interviewed him and his brother, Will, starting with some basic questions, and then I transcribed the end result. This post is an effort on my part to sort through the responses I got and see how I'm moving forward with it.

It's tempting to start analyzing the phrasing and conversational movement of his dialogue, but examination of ASD individuals' speech has been done. I want instead to focus on the content, which was singular (and particularly insightful as compared to his brother). Al is 15 now, and was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome when he was 9. He has had behavioral therapy (which focused largely on identifying emotion and using coping strategies for it) and one session of social skills workshops the summer before he entered sixth grade, as well as being part of an inclusion program in grade school and a pull-out program in middle school. Even with this, the focus of his training has not been on social skills but rather on academic and life skills: executive function, etc.

In reading over the transcript, one of the key factors was how aware of conversation he was. He preferred it to writing because of the addition of tone of voice and facial features, taking advantage of its multi-channel capacity for conveying exact meanings. He was concerned about multiple meanings and the need to ask for clarification, as well as how much easier it was to talk to people he knew better so that he understood how they thought and could apply that to the interpretation of meaning as well. He referred to the "rules" of conversation, and how one could tell if your conversational partner was feeling awkward or embarrassed, as well as how being as precise as you can in your meanings is something you do for the people you're with, while at the same time trying to stay within the limits of appropriate vocabulary and expression for your audience.

When asking Will the same questions, he showed no awareness of the mechanics of conversation or his role in it. He recognized that there were times when it was awkward and that when he felt pressured in it, he tended to speak randomly in order to change what was going on -- trying to take control of the conversation by changing its focus to performance rather than communication (my words, not his). Although he is, by all accounts, more comfortable with conversation than his brother and more skilled at it overall in terms of fluidity and perception, his facility is intuitive, not something he consciously understands. Al gets it intellectually and works at putting it into practice, but that alone doesn't overcome his blind spots. Then again, with a greater understanding of how conversation works and how we take positions within it and receive information, he might be able to integrate that into his approach as well. 

I think, therefore, that I'm going to focus on the understanding of conversation on his part, with the takeaway being that since individuals with ASDs tend to build a model of social interaction they can copy (or recognize as patterns and variations), additional pedagogy in conversation analysis can likely provide additional help in refining their approaches.

Thanks for being my sounding board, blogworld. You rock.

*To be fair, some of this is because most of the literature to this point focuses on younger children. Books on the problem are addressed to parents, teachers, and medical professionals, not to the kids themselves -- or, significantly, not to older teens or adults who have these issues. That trend is changing as we realize it's not something even high-functioning people grow out of, but that's a slow process.