Take a Stanza — The Windhover

When I first read this poem back in college, I loved it so much that I committed it to memory. It’s funny to think I had time to do things like that back then. And I’m glad I did, because I’ve been pulling it out of my brain’s dusty attic from time to time ever since, murmuring it softly to myself while driving alone or jogging or taking a shower.

It’s not the most accessible poem, and I’m sure I needed some explanatory notes and a professor to unpack the thing, but there is something deeply consoling about it, even beyond the level of cognition. I love the crazy rhythmic complexity, which, oddly enough given the antiquated diction, reminds me of rap. Then again, maybe I’m starting to hear hints of rap everywhere after listening to hours and hours of Hamilton being played from my son’s phone. Whatever. This poem is timeless. And the intricate rhyme play all over the poem, not just at the end of the lines, always brings a smile to my face as I imagine Gerard Manley Hopkins, the stodgy, conflicted Jesuit priest, unable to contain his exuberance despite his best efforts. You know what else makes me smile? Knowing that as far back as 1599 another word for windhover was windf***er. Cracks me up.

The Windhover

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon in his riding
Of the rólling level úndernéath him steady áir, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstacy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wónder of it: shéer plód makes plóugh down síllion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gáll themsélves, and gásh góld-vermíllion.

—Gerard Manley Hopkins

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A few years ago while spelunking in my mother’s basement, looking for long-forgotten family treasure, I came across a stack of photocopied newspaper articles from the 1980s fastened together by a rusty paperclip. The articles, both fascinating and horrifying, reported on the unhealthy and unsafe conditions of Philadelphia State Mental Hospital: my mother’s workplace.

My mom was a registered nurse and worked throughout her early adulthood in a number of hospitals, both medical and psychiatric. Like many mothers of her generation, however, she put her career on hold to raise her kids. Yet once my brother and I were settled into our school routines, she reentered the workforce part-time as an in-home nurse for a couple of wealthy old women in the nearby town of Bryn Athyn. One of these women lived in a mansion that has since been turned into a museum.

Glencairn Museum

Photo by Michael Parker. CCA 2.5 License

But these house calls didn’t last long. Soon an opportunity arose for her to return to full-time employment with the state of Pennsylvania, which would offer a good salary, excellent benefits, and a handsome pension upon retirement. So she took a job at the Philadelphia State Hospital, a mental institution better known to those in the area as Byberry.

She enjoyed the new job, and she often came home with stories about the doctor who let her improve a patient’s treatment through better diet, or her favorite patient, Charlie, who had an unfortunate fondness for his own feces, or the orderlies who would walk off with TVs and phones and anything else that wasn’t locked down. Armed with only her training and quick wit, my 100-pound mother could talk down psychotic men twice her size. Despite an occasional inconvenience, like the time a patient poured his full bedpan on her head, forcing her to leave work early for the day, she liked her job and she loved her patients.

It’s not like she was ignorant of the hospital’s problems. She certainly had her share of frustrations, especially when it came to the mistreatment of the patients. Still, it came as a bit of a shock when I read those articles in the basement. The extent of the reported neglect and abuse was staggering. I’m not sure I would have named Byberry one of the top 10 most terrifying places on Earth, like one website did. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Photo by John Webster (GoDDoG215)

According to one of the articles, deteriorating conditions and multiple reports of abuse led the Health Department to investigate the hospital, which resulted in a “29-page list of deficiencies and violations of state code [detailing] example after example of patient neglect.” Here are just a few:
byberry headlines

  • On the first day of the visit, 90 percent of the patients lacked underwear.
  • All floors were heavily soiled, as were all inside windows, which obstructed vision to the outside.
  • Roaches were seen crawling out of a staff telephone, in a locked patient lounge and in a medication room.
  • One patient was found strapped upside down in a chair, with her head pointed to the floor and her feet to the ceiling.

— Philadelphia Inquirer, May ? 1987

When I asked my mom about the roaches, she replied with typical understatement (I’m paraphrasing here): “Of course we had roaches. It was a really old building and there was no money to fix anything. They were always promising to fix things, but they never would. Anyway, when a cockroach would crawl across my desk, I’d just brush it away. It wasn’t hurting anyone.”

Maybe not, but it was clearly a symptom of a much larger problem. And Byberry had a long history of such problems. During World War II a group of Quakers were assigned to work at the hospital for “alternative service” because they were conscientious objectors, refusing to fight in the war. What they saw appalled them so much that one of them, Charlie Lord, sneaked a camera in and surreptitiously photographed the squalor and despair. The photos were published in the May 1946 issue of Life magazine. A 2009 report on NPR commemorating the Quaker pacifists described one of the wards as “a large open room with a concrete slab for a floor. There were no chairs. There were no activities, no therapy, not even a radio to listen to. So hundreds of men — most of them naked — walked about aimlessly or hunched on the floor and huddled against the filthy bare walls.”

mental ward - by Charles Lord

Photo by Charles Lord

What really struck me as I read the articles from the basement was how much my mom had shielded me from the difficult aspects of her job—unless she did tell me about them and I have since forgotten or was too self-centered as a teen to care in the first place. What I do remember is that she always managed to find something to laugh about in even the darkest moments. Humor kept my mom sane in one of the least sane places on Earth.

She has always been that way, willing to laugh at herself and daring to laugh in the face of absurdity. Growing up during the Great Depression, she was an only child raised by a divorced mother who was poor, sick, and angry at the world. Yet my mom’s memories of that time are full of grace and amused detachment, like when she talks about the man called Shorty who rented their uninsulated attic until my mom moved out and Shorty moved downstairs as my grandmother’s new husband. And now, at 87 years old, she still approaches life this way: with a youthful chuckle and a gee-whiz shrug and a full-on embrace of the crazy.

Posted in family | 3 Comments

Augmented Audio: Living with In-Ear Technology

As I headed out to the gym the other day, with my progressive-lens glasses, high-tech crutches, and stormtrooper stabilizing boot, it occurred to me that I looked a little like a cyborg—which got me thinking about my friend Sara Hendren and the research she’s done on “art, adaptive technologies and prosthetics, and the future of human bodies in the built environment.” The Atlantic Monthly ran an interview with her called “Why Are Glasses Perceived Differently Than Hearing Aids?” I’ve been asking myself and others the same question off and on for the past year without a satisfactory answer. What I have noticed, though, is that those who have hearing loss, but don’t have hearing aids, also seem to have the most negative feelings about the very thing that could help them.

IMG_3253 Of all the “assistive technologies” connected to my body, my hearing aids are the most technologically advanced, the most powerful, and yet the least noticeable (at least to others). I can take a call through them with my phone in my pocket, or send the audio of a podcast or Netflix movie to them from my iPad. When there’s a lot of ambient noise, I can turn down the volume or turn on restaurant mode from my iPhone’s home screen. And I can hear people talk to me face to face a whole lot better than I’d been able to for a long time. Even so, a lot of people don’t even notice that I’m wearing them. Until I tell them. It’s fun to see their reactions.

starkey-halo A couple days after I started wearing the hearing aids, my wife asked me an inoccuous question as I was walking away from her and into the next room. When I turned to face her with an equally mundane response, she burst into tears. That baffled me. When she told me they were tears of joy, I was no less confused. It wasn’t until she explained how she had grown used to my walking away in the middle of a conversation—even though she knew I wasn’t deliberately ignoring her—that her crying made sense. That’s when I knew. That’s when I knew that I wouldn’t be taking the audiologist up on the offer to return the hearing aids for a full refund.

In her interview, Sara Hendren hints that broad acceptance of hearing aids might be simply a matter of time. After all, “eyeglasses have moved culturally from being a medical aid to a fashion accessory.” For now, though, I’ll happily risk being perceived by some as infirm or frail or old if it means I can more actively engage in relationships with my family and friends. I, for one, welcome this cyborg revolution.

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Little Red Riding Hoods

Last week I went with some friends to an improv show. For one of the segments, the improv group had to act out a fairy tale suggested by a member of the audience—Little Red Riding Hood—in increasingly shorter time spans. What fascinated me about this was how they, along with some audience members, remembered the story: a girl visits her grandmother and is almost devoured by a wolf masquerading as the old lady (“what big teeth you have”) but is rescued by a woodsman who bursts onto the scene, slices the wolf in half, and pulls the grandmother safely out of the wolf’s stomach.

While I don’t remember ever hearing about the grandma emerging from the disemboweled wolf, I do recall seeing a website a number of years ago hosted by the University of Virginia that contained a large collection of all sorts of versions of the tale. Unfortunately, all I can find there now is a reference to its physical collection in their special collections library:

Collection consists of approximately 480 books, 100 pieces of print ephemera, 50 works of art , ten magic lantern slides, and more than a hundred objects, including tableware, figurines, vases, pottery, tile, crystal, glass, cloth, dolls, puppets, tinware, prints, and recordings.

Anyway, I found a set of 16, some written as prose and some as poetry, on the University of Southern Mississippi’s website, with versions spanning from 1729 to 1916. Both the narrative itself and the moral of the story, when there is an explicit one, change significantly through these versions.

In the first few, the wolf eats both the grandmother and the girl and doesn’t get caught. In the 1856 version, though, everything changes. The wolf has presumably killed the grandmother, but before he can kill Red, a wasp stings the wolf on the nose, which makes the wolf sneeze, thus alerting a bird who alerts the mysterious green huntsman who then shoots the wolf with an arrow and kills it. All of these creatures rallied to her defense, we learn, only because Red had already been so kind to them.

In the 1863 version the huntsman becomes Red’s sole savior and the lesson she learns is that she should never disobey her mother. By the 1890 version they’ve managed to sanitize the story to the point where neither the grandmother nor the girl is harmed. That isn’t to say, however, that the story’s transformations occur in a linear or predictable pattern. An 1893 version’s narrative ends with this abrupt line: “So saying, the wicked wolf leaped on Little Red Riding Hood and gobbled her up.”

The lessons that Red learns range from stranger danger to the harmful effects of gossip, but my favorite moral has to be the one from the 1916 edition:

AND so, we learn that, like the bad wolf, there are evil beings who will never listen to reason, and, who can not be persuaded to do right. That is why we must have policemen and prisons.
The End.

According to an article on the Journal of Mythic Arts website, before the tale was called “Little Red Riding Hood” it was simply “The Grandmother’s Tale,” passed on through oral tradition in rural France. Apparently it had a lot more to do with the girl’s ingenuity and cleverness than either the gothic horror or the bourgeois moralism of the stories I scanned. It almost sounds like a good feminist tale for the twenty-first century.

Update: This 1969 film of a Little Red Riding Hood story book, presented by the National Film Board of Canada, was recently published on YouTube:

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Grand River, Then and Now

Two years ago Grand Rapids, Michigan, experienced its worst flooding in over 100 years. The Grand River, which runs alongside the downtown business district, swelled to dangerous levels, flooding nearby offices, submerging some homes up to their roof lines, and rendering a number of roads impassable. Figuring I probably wouldn’t see that kind of flooding again, I grabbed a camera and headed down to the river to snap a few pictures.

This spring we’ve had plenty of rain, but the river is much lower. I took some more pictures yesterday so I could see how different things look. The contrast, I think, is pretty dramatic.

In 2013 the river crested a few feet below the road surface at the Pearl Street bridge; yesterday it flowed freely far below.

bridge, 2013
bridge, 2015

Almost the entire lawn in front of the Ford Museum was covered with water during the flood. Yesterday, people lounged on the grass, basking in the afternoon sunshine.

ford museum, 2013
ford museum, 2015

Two years ago the carousel at the Public Museum looked like it could be swept away at any moment; yesterday it was safely perched atop its stilts.

carousel, 2013
carousel, 2015

You can see more photos of the 2013 flood in a photo essay at mlive.com

Posted in miscellany | 1 Comment

One win, one loss

Last year around this time I wrote about two new year’s resolutions that I was going to try to keep: to read at least six books and to write at least six blog entries. The second resolution, as is publicly evident if you look at the archived posts here, was a dismal failure. I’m not sure why, but my anxiety over communicating, either in writing or in speech, has grown during the last few years, especially when I suspect that more than a handful of people might read or listen. I’d rather not dwell on this, though, so moving right along…

The success came in the form of eight books, two above my goal. Here is what I ended up reading:

  • Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant by Veronica Roth. After the crazy success of the Hunger Games trilogy, it seems like dystopian fiction has been on a YA joy ride the past few years. The Divergent trilogy, set in Chicago, is one of the better series in this genre—at least according to my son, who is an avid reader of all things dystopian. While I loved the first book, I felt that the latter two lacked the taut plot of the first and gave way to some heavy-handed moralizing. Still, as I read them, I kept thinking about how much fun it would be to teach these books to middle-school students.
  • magicians-land The Magician King and The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman: These are the second and third books of a trilogy that starts with The Magicians. They’re like Harry Potter meets the Chronicles of Narnia, but for adults. Definitely for adults. I wouldn’t want my kids to read them until they’re well into their high school years. These books aren’t just pulp, either. Grossman is a fantastic writer with a sharp wit and vivid descriptive powers. Once I started reading, I didn’t want to stop. I just wanted to remain in them, living in them, surrounded by their magic.
  • Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud: I’m pretty sure I was supposed to read this book for a class in graduate school, but I never got around to it. It has been sitting in mocking judgment on my bookshelf ever since—well, until this year when I finally dusted it off and plowed through it. In this surprisingly small  book, Freud extrapolates some of his theories of the psyche to whole societies. One of the more interesting ideas in it is the narcissism of small differences, which I remember hearing a friend talk about, unattributed, a few years ago.
  • I'm Down book jacket I’m Down by Mishna Wolff: This is a hilarious and heart-warming memoir about an awkward Jewish girl growing up in an African-American neighborhood.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger: When I admitted that I couldn’t get through more than ten pages the first time I tried to read this book in my early twenties, my sister-in-law Michelle bought me a copy and told me to try again. I’m glad she did. I suppose I had been too close in age to the protagonist, because I hated the little punk. This year, however, I had such a tender spot in my heart for the poor misguided soul. A few years and a little perspective can really change the way I read something.

This year I’m going to try a little harder to break through my writer’s block and post a few more blog entries.

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If you’ve ever had a twitching eyelid, you know how annoying it can be. If it continues to flutter for many days or weeks, you know it can get downright frustrating. Imagine what it would be like to have your eyelid twitch for years, with no end in sight. Now, what if it wasn’t your eyelid twitching, but muscles all over your body? I don’t have to imagine that, because I’ve been living it.


One Saturday morning three years ago, I laced up my running shoes and headed out the door, ready to start my new training regimen. It had been a couple years since I had done any serious exercise, so I thought I’d take it easy that first day, take it slowly, maybe jog a mile or a mile and a half. The plan was to build up my endurance again over the course of a few months and then run a 5k race. When I was a kid, I was a fairly competitive runner, and in my early thirties I ran a few marathons, but I was fine with starting from scratch again. Sure, I was older and out of shape, but I knew if I had a goal and stuck to it, I would reach it eventually.

About a half mile into that first run, though, my calf muscles cramped. This new goal, I thought, was going to take longer than I had expected. A few days later, with the calves loosened up and my initial disappointment diminished, I tried again. This time, however, I only got two blocks away before the calves seized up. After a third attempt with the same result, I decided to get some help and started seeing a physical therapist twice weekly. I worked on building strength and flexibility in my lower legs, and within a few weeks the PT pronounced me good to go.


It was around this time that I noticed something else in my legs. It wasn’t a soreness or cramping so much—although the cramping was still there to a lesser degree—but a twitching sensation. Like the cramping, the twitching was most noticeable in my calves. But the more I paid attention to it, the more I noticed it in other parts of my body, as well. Every so often I’d feel a poke in my shoulder, a prod in my abdomen, a flutter in my back. I’d sit down on the couch and put my legs up and feel little “pings” like someone was playing pinball through my muscle tissue. It made me concerned.

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My leg and hand twitching (52 seconds)

So back to the doctor I went. We looked at diet, we considered sleep, we talked about medications, caffeine, stress, magnesium, potassium, and a bunch of other possible causes of my symptoms. Blood tests ruled out restless leg syndrome and a couple more serious possibilities which I can’t remember anymore. I was by then three months into the muscle twitching with no better idea of a diagnosis or a cause. To rule some things out I started stretching regularly. I cut out all caffeine intake, went off a couple medications, stopped drinking beer. I took magnesium supplements, potassium supplements, and fish oil. Nothing helped. Nothing made a difference.

Time to escalate

After running out of ideas, my primary care doctor referred me to Dr. Farooq, a neurologist in town. In the meantime, because it was coming up on a year since initial onset, I took the logical and always comforting step of consulting THE INTERNETS. It was there, in some dark corner of medical paranoia, that I discovered a diagnosis that fit my situation perfectly: Neuromyotonia. Then, in one of those rare moments when I actually don’t want someone to agree with me, the neurologist agreed with me. Actually, he said it was possible that it was neuromyotonia, but I’d need to go through more tests before he could say anything for sure: more blood work and an EMG. The EMG went as well as it could go, considering that it involved sticking needles into my muscles and sending electrical impulses through them. More importantly, the results showed no sign of neuromyotonia. The blood tests, on the other hand, revealed a problem.

Mistakes were made

No, sorry. The blood tests revealed two problems. The first was that my VGCC (Voltage-gated calcium channel antibodies, if you care) level was abnormal. The second was that the lab was supposed to test the potassium channel, not the calcium channel. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if I only had to go back and get more blood drawn. But the abnormal VGCC is a possible indicator of the scary-sounding Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome and lung cancer, so I had to schedule a CAT scan, too. Things were getting interesting! The CAT scan revealed some ambiguous blobs and striations where they shouldn’t have been, which led to an MRI, which led to…an “all clear” from the doctor. No LEMS. No cancer. Nothing to worry about. And all the other tests? They came out just fine, too.

What was wrong with me, then? And could anything stop the twitching? Dr Farooq still didn’t have a diagnosis, but he’d seen other patients with similar symptoms who responded well to anti-convulsive medications, the kind typically given to those suffering from epilepsy. He prescribed one, and I tried it for a few months, but it did little more than make me sleepy. He prescribed another, but that one didn’t help either.

Back to school

I trusted Dr Farooq, and he seemed thorough enough during my visits, but when he recommended I see a colleague of his, a neuromuscular specialist at the University of Michigan, I was hopeful that the new guy would discover something that Dr Farooq hadn’t. The specialist gave me another EMG, ran me through a litany of questions and tested my vision, my reflexes, and my reaction to pin pricks. But the EMG showed nothing out of the ordinary, and the exam revealed nothing new. The best the specialist could do—and likely the best anyone could do—was give me a “diagnosis of exclusion,” which is exactly what he did. Benign Fasciculation Syndrome (BFS) is basically what you call my symptoms when they aren’t degenerative. It’s like saying, “yep, you have what we like to call twitchy muscles,” while giving the air-quote gesture.

What now?

Now that I have a diagnosis, I’m both frustrated and relieved, annoyed and grateful. For the past three years I’ve found myself flexing and stretching muscles, almost involuntarily, every hour of every day in an effort to stop them from twitching. Some nights the twitching keeps me awake, and it distracts me the most when I’m trying to relax. I just want it to stop.

And yet, as far as chronic physical conditions go, mine is quite mild. It’s not going to kill me, and it’s not going to significantly affect my life. When I consider all the many diseases and syndromes that my symptoms could could have indicated, Benign Fasciculation Syndrome has a comforting ring to it. In short, it could be a lot worse.

Posted in miscellany | 3 Comments


This word — resolute — doesn’t show up as much in my reading as its verb and noun counterparts, resolve and resolution. It seems a little too formal for most writing occasions. Yet there’s something about it that I like. I vaguely recall a saying about how we use different words to convey the same idea, depending on the subject: “I’m resolute, you’re stubborn, and they’re pig-headed.” Not sure where the quote came from, and I’m sure I didn’t get it quite right, but I like it.

Today, of course, is the day we’re all supposed to list the things for which we will be resolute throughout the year. And so I’ll make my two resolute promises:

  • I will read at least six books this year.
  • I will write at least six entries on this blog.

In 2013 I read exactly one book ( An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer ) and wrote exactly one blog entry ( Tash ). The book was entertaining; the entry was full of sadness. They weren’t the only things I read or wrote, but they were the only sustained efforts that had nothing to do with programming for the web. I can do better.

WonderThe books, I’ve decided, don’t have to be novels, and they don’t have to target adults as their primary audience. Non-fiction, as long as it doesn’t involve programming, is fair game, as is young-adult fiction. As embarrassing as it is to admit, during the past few years my patience for long-winded, descriptive novels has dwindled, while I’ve found the narrative pacing of young-adult novels much more suited to my short attention span. My son, who is a voracious reader, has already recommended a couple books: Wonder and Divergent.

Should be a fun year.

Posted in miscellany | 1 Comment


One day several years ago when I was suffering from depression and anxiety, I came home from work to find a small piece of plywood with a simple painting on it, done in the style of a local artist. Across the top were written these words:

You fearful saints fresh courage take. The clouds you so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.

The words were so lovely, so comforting, that I remember reading them over and over again like a mantra. When I asked Sara where it came from, she told me that Tash had made it for me. Tash.


Tash was Sara’s newest friend, but she seemed somehow, impossibly, one of her oldest friends, too. She was the perfect gift at the perfect time, a friend who knew how to give what others wanted but couldn’t ask for. Tash loved her friends with the fierceness of a pit bull. And she loved her friends’ kids with the intensity of, well, of a mom. I was always so moved by how much “Auntie Tash” delighted in Ben and Lucy, how she would let Lucy stay at her place for hours on end playing with Zoe.

That piece of art is still hanging in our kitchen, and it is still a comfort to me. It’s also a reminder of Tash’s fierce love. When she became friends with Sara, she went all in and adopted the rest of the family, too, including me.

Tash died yesterday after battling cancer for years. She was such a huge presence in our lives—in many people’s lives. I miss her. I’ve run out of words.


Posted in friends and neighbors | 6 Comments

The Gym

After many frustrating months of trying to run for exercise and failing because of ongoing problems with my calf muscles and Achilles tendons, I started working out at 8th Day Gym (they’re on Facebook). I was already aware that I was out of shape, but never so painfully aware as the first few weeks at the gym. Since my inauspicious beginning, though, I’ve made fairly steady progress in both my strength and my technique.

While I still have a lot of room for improvement, I reached another milestone today: my first “muscle up,” a tricky maneuver on the rings that probably requires more technique than strength. Posting a video of myself without a shirt on is way outside my comfort zone, but this is one of those little accomplishments in life that I’d like to be able to look back on later, so here goes:

Working out at the gym has boosted my quality of life in a huge way, improving not only my physical health, but also my emotional well being. For me, it’s the next best thing to a happy pill.

Posted in self-indulgence | 4 Comments
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