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

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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.

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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.

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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

Dirty Clean Words

A few days ago Michigan state congresswoman Lisa Brown dared to utter the word “vagina” on the house floor. In return, she was prohibited from speaking the following day (cf. Detroit Free Press). Later, in a superb attempt at back-pedaling, the House Majority Leader later said that the punishment wasn’t about her use of the word, but about “decorum.” The episode got me thinking about words that most people wouldn’t consider dirty or offensive but that nevertheless make some people’s skin crawl.

Some women I know were talking about desserts one night when one of them exclaimed that she cannot stand the word “moist” and suggested half-jokingly that it should be banned from cooking literature. Although a few others nodded in agreement, it seemed she was alone in the severity of her reaction to the word.

The first time a friend of mine used the word “prophylactic” to refer to a preventive measure in the general sense I burst out laughing. And then I felt like a nine-year-old boy — or like Michael Scott, the hapless manager in The Office (U.S. version) who never misses an opportunity to reply with “that’s what she said.” Clearly I wasn’t mature enough for that conversation.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “flaccid” refer to anything but the male member (except maybe in a description of a medical condition), even though the dictionary definitions don’t have a whiff of phallic innuendo: 1. Lacking firmness, resilience, or muscle tone 2. Lacking vigor or energy (American Heritage Dictionary). Can anyone say that word and keep a straight face?

What makes some words seem sexual to one person but not to another? And why are some words that have non-sexual origins almost always used in a sexual context? What makes a word charged in one situation and innocuous in another? I suppose there is plenty of research that attempts to answer these questions, but I’m feeling too flaccid to look it up.

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Things we’re good at and things we like

Now that my kids are getting to an age at which their proclivities are becoming more defined, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes us good at things and what makes us like things. I’ve heard people claim that talent and passion go hand in hand, that we naturally like the things we’re good at. We achieve some level of mastery at a task and we feel good about that task and ourselves. That good feeling inspires us to work harder, which makes us better at the task. And the feedback loop continues.

But I’ve always been a little skeptical of this line of reasoning, if only because my own experience doesn’t quite bear it out. For example, while I consider myself a good writer and am usually satisfied with the writing that I eventually produce, the amount of frustration and self-doubt during the writing process far outweighs the small pleasure I feel upon its completion. In short, I really don’t like to write.

And yet, despite my own experience, I still find myself saying to my eight-year-old daughter, “But how can you not like math? You’re so good at it!” Why in the world would I do that? Oddly enough, I didn’t even know about her aptitude in math until the parent-teacher conference this past fall. Within the same conference, almost in the same breath, the teacher told us that our daughter’s test scores were fantastic and that she struggled with learning new math concepts. So, once she gets it, she locks it in, but until then, she is frustrated. She absolutely loves gymnastics, on the other hand, and she is a natural at it.

Maybe it has more to do with something “clicking.” Maybe that feedback loop between being good at something and liking it only occurs when we can achieve that mysterious flow during it.

Like me, my ten-year-old son doesn’t seem to like writing very much. He didn’t think he was good at it either until earlier this school year when his teacher, in a truly inspired moment, told him that of course he could write his report on a classmate instead of an animal as the assignment had stipulated. The result was a much more clever, nuanced piece of writing than I had ever seen from him before. Here it is, quoted verbatim*, with his permission:

So you think you know Evan Baker: A Trivial Guide

First, if you know anything about Evan you know he is a handful and you will need a lot of Ritz crackers and cheese whiz. If you read on you are going to find out some amazing things about this incredible Michigan mammal: habitat, diet, description and a few interesting facts.

First off Evan burrows down under the cement base of houses and with mole like reflexes he digs magnificent tunnels and guards his territory with unrivaled ferocity. During the summer he resides in an abandoned bar off the east coast of Wisconsin where he enjoys great foosball matches with his many loyal (imaginary) friends, Norman and Wilson.

Evan’s diet consists of many things, some of which are: Ritz Crackers, Cheese Whiz, honey baked ham, Liverwurst, Red Wine, Banana Cream Pie, Cherry Cheese Cake and brownies covered with powdered sugar. Evan enjoys countless more things that I do not care to mention at the moment. But I may mention in the near future.

Evan enjoys his odd but comfortable spiky green hairstyle. Frightening but all the less comforting neon purple skin tone draws the eyes of many a passerby! His eye color is very surprising glow-in-the-dark sunflower yellow. His ferocity is matched by no one and his viciousness is not taken too lightly. His weight unknown, but scientists have discovered that by the end of his lifetime Evan may grow to eight foot seven. He is very muscular and last time he checked he could knock out a full grown rhino in one clonk to the head.

Some interesting facts about Evan include that his scientific is Evanicious Bakerium prounounced (Ev-un-ish-us Bake-ore-e-um), his species died out and Evan is the last one of his incredible race and will do anything for a pound of 100% butter.

I hope you enjoyed this trivial essay on one of earth’s most amazing creatures.

The Ends

While he hasn’t been saying lately that he thinks he stinks at writing, it doesn’t look like his previous dislike for it has transformed into outright affection either.

As my kids get older, I’m finding that in many cases the best thing I can do is stay out of the way. Too much praise, even merely paying too much attention, is a surefire way to kill someone else’s passion. It’s hard, though. I reflexively want to say, “Great job! That is wonderful!” It’s a tough job, this parenting business.

* Actually, I did change the friend’s name, to protect the innocent.

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