27 May, 2015

A Tree Grows At Utica College: Remembering Thom Brown

by Dave Roberts
Originally given Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Courtesy of Linnea Franits

My name is Dave Roberts and I am an adjunct professor of psychology at Utica College. I am also an alumnus of the college, graduating in 1977 with a B.A. in Psychology. I also had the privilege of being in the first classes that Thom Brown ever taught at this college. I also had the privilege of being the caretaker for his last two classes at Utica College, after he died. I was there for the beginning of his time at Utica College and the end. The significance and surrealism of that moment will stay with me until I die. Since Thom’s death, there is not a day that goes by where he is not in my thoughts. Such is the impact that he has had on my life.

I think I took every class Thom had to offer. Theories of Learning and Behavior Modification are two that come to mind. I still have B.F. Skinner’s About Behaviorism prominently displayed in my bookcase. I would have taken a Home Economics course, if he taught it. Thom was one of the most demanding professors that I ever had; he set the bar high for his students. But his passion for teaching and love for his students made it easy and effortless to expend the energy, and, damn, I just wanted to excel in his classes because of the respect he commanded. He always treated us as capable of accomplishing anything we set our mind to do. In retrospect, Thom taught me that if we treat people as competent and capable, that they would, for the most part, respond accordingly. I have applied this teaching in my work and in my life.

I also had the privilege of being Thom’s research assistant and I remember many days in the lab recording data from the endless number of pigeons that our department seemed to have in the basement of Hubbard Hall. Thom’s preference for pigeons was well known, and not only for their research value. I recall Thom telling me that he preferred pigeons for research because “Rats bite, Pigeons don’t. “ Not only was Thom a scholar, he was pragmatic as well. Thom didn’t inform me however about the perils of holding a pigeon with its butt end facing me, immediately after a session in the Skinner Box. It only took me once to realize what an ill advised move that was. That was the only time I ever questioned the value of food as a reinforcer. But Thom, also understood, that some things you just have to discover on your own.

After I graduated from Utica College, I lost touch with Thom, but never forgot what he taught me. When the college hired me in 2003, we seamlessly picked up where we left off.

Thom was a great teacher, father, husband, writer, scholar, friend and mentor to all who had the privilege to know him. But above all, he was a great human being. Because of who he was, he would have made a profound impact no matter what he chose to do in life.

Thom transcended the myriad of physical challenges he faced like he handled everything else, with grace, class, dignity and humility. He was whole, in spite of the challenges he faced, and in my mind, embraced. And as Carl Jung once said, “I’d rather be whole than good.” Thom was the epitome of wholeness.

Through my friendship with Thom, I met and developed a strong friendship with Civita, who is just one of the classiest people on the planet. I also eventually met their daughters Megan, who ended up taking a class with me and Amy whom I recently have come to know. I am also glad that she is continuing her father’s blog. In her writings, I see the shadow of her father.

It is fitting that we are dedicating a tree in Thom’s honor. After all he wrote so many blogs about the previous tree outside of his office. There is rich symbolism and teachings that can be derived from all of nature if we are open to it. Thom understood that better than anybody and his reverence for human life extended to his reverence for nature. Thom also knew that turning to nature in times of challenge could bring about a measure of peace, if only for a moment in time. I have found this to be true in my own life.

I recently discovered that the magnolia tree represents nobility and perseverance. I can not think of a better choice of tree to plant in his honor, because I can’t think of two more appropriate choice of words to sum up the legacy of a man who left an indelible impression on the Utica College Community, and whose message will be carried on for generations.

Perhaps we did not choose this tree, perhaps it chose us.

Wishing you all peace.

26 May, 2015

"Little friends" and cool puzzle apps

Best. Game. Ever.

No, not Cards Against Humanity. I'm talking iPad games. And three-year-olds.

I downloaded this app a couple months ago. You control one of the colorful, parachute-like figures and have to manipulate the blocks into towers. I left my son to his own devices with his, yes, device, and a bit later, my mom popped in and began watching him play. Fast forward 10 minutes or so, and they both came to me asking how to get more than one parachute-creature to appear. "Where my little friends go?" my son asked. "You got little friend?"

(Hilariously, he now also refers to his schoolmates this way, and when he had to go to work with me last Friday, he asked on the way there, "You have little friends there, Mommy?")

It's a very minimalist game, with very few settings to adjust, so it didn't take me long to determine that there was no feature I could turn on to make the "little friends" appear. Puzzled, I looked up the game, Drei, by Etter, on Google.

And discovered that "little friends" was a very apt word choice. Because those "little friends" are other players, on their own iPads and tablets, simultaneously, around the world. Some of the levels require collaboration between two or more players in order to beat the level. The collaboration is mostly intuitive, too, because the program only allows you to say a handful of words ("Slowly", "Hello", etc.), although it will translate them into a variety of languages.

I was pretty impressed. Over the last few months, I've discovered a handful of other apps that breathtakingly elegant, stunningly creative, and manage to be just challenging enough for the combination of a three-year-old and a 33-year-old. Many share the spirt of World of Goo - physics-based manipulative puzzles games with gorgeous graphics and a surreal soundtrack.

A few recommendations for other apps:

1. Monument Valley. "An illusory adventure of impossible adventure and forgiveness." Multi-dimensional Escher-like structures that you have to rotate to get a princess to her crown. This one also has spare, lovely bits of poetry between levels. It's fun to watch a preschooler do this and try to figure out whether they have an adult's response to Escher.

2. Blockwick (and Blockwick 2). "The blocks here are all different shapes and colors with mysterious symbols. Everything is mixed up, but when you place same-colored blocks next to each other, they glow. Organize the blocks to bring light and order to this world." And, oh yeah, you can buy the soundtrack on Bandcamp. Finn sometimes says, "Mommy, you can do it," when I'm playing this game. (He can do it too, some of the time.)

3. Windosill. You can play online too (that's the original version). "Explore a dream-like world of eleven beautifully-constructed environments. Equal parts puzzle game, physics toy, and living picture-book, Windosill rewards playful investigation with mysterious and beautiful surprises. Designed to be experienced in a single sitting (anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours), Windosill is suitable for clever kids and imaginative adults alike."

Have anything similar to recommend? Post your suggestions here!

25 May, 2015

Dedicating Thom's Tree II

I've been gone for awhile - busy with writing offline.

On Wednesday, two weeks ago (May 13), the college dedicated a beautiful new magnolia tree to my father's memory.

All photos courtesy of Linnea Franits.

My parents loved magnolia trees. (My personal loyalty belongs with cherry trees.) As many readers know, Tree (the Tree, one-and-only, irreplaceable) had been dying and was finally cut down in the fall last year. Many readers, I'm sure, found great symbolic meaning in Tree, and in my father's relationship to Tree, so I imagine you don't need me to point the symbolism in Tree's demise. This Tree had bloomed beautifully in the week before the dedication, but wind and heavy rain blew most of the flowers away. No worries - it will bloom again. 

On the way to the dedication, my son asked if we were all going to climb the Tree. Not yet, I told him, but maybe someday, when he and the Tree are both big enough.

Steve speaking - the photo on the screen is of
my dad's beloved geese, including one white goose
who had never been seen before he died
My dad's friend and colleague Steve Specht spoke, as did John Johnsen, Dave Roberts, and Dr. Behforooz. Dave was kind enough to share the text of his speech with me and gave me permission to post it - it will appear on Wednesday this week.

I don't know if I quite have the words to describe it yet, but this was a very bittersweet experience for me. My mom is also retiring at the end of this semester. I grew up at Utica College. My parents' affiliation with the school is older than I am. I was seven when my dad became dean and vice-president, and my memories are that my sister and I ran half-wild around campus and regarded it as a very large playground.

We got kicked out of the library playing hide-and-seek, and made do with hallways and file cabinets instead. I taught myself to do a cartwheel on a balance beam by practicing on the edge of the Oriental carpet in the dean's office. During long meetings, we made paper airplanes with messages conveying the desperate nature of our boredom and tried to surreptitiously fly them toward our father at the end of the conference table. When I was 11, I broke my foot falling off the stairs in the Burrstone House ballroom (a hotel turned dorm), where my sister, best friend and I had been staging plays for fun.

I did every single science project from seventh through twelfth grade in my dad's lab. I probably spent more of high school at the college than I did at my high school. Between classes, I took naps in my dad's comfy old leather recliner and played Myst 3 on his computer with all the lights turned off. (There's not much social life to be had, as a 14 year old in college, when you're trying to make sure no one realizes you're 14.)

I could go on and on - everything from the weird modern art sculptures to the tables full of rocks outside the geology classrooms to the cafeteria (site of the annual children's holiday party) holds significance for me.

But what I really wanted to do here was to say thank you.

Thank you to all the faculty, especially from roughly 1989 to 1998, for being my teachers and mentors, as well as my parents' colleagues and friends.

To Dr. Nassar, who somehow got talked into giving me an independent study in poetry, who was patient even when I wrote ridiculous, dramatic, dark, teenage drama, with no context and no subtlety. Thanks for the time you compared one line to William Carlos Williams - I managed to keep writing solely on the strength of that compliment for a long time.

To Dr. Bergmann, who taught me that fairy tales and fantasy had literary worth and didn't mark me down when I only turned in a paragraph's worth of reflection (because, at 15, I hadn't yet learned to BS).

To Dr. Behforooz, who tutored me in multivariable calculus after my actual teacher told me that I just had test anxiety and I should try meditating before tests. (It would have been freakin' awesome, though, if I could have just meditated my way to an understanding of the surface integral. That didn't happen.) After the tree ceremony, my mom reminisces about how when Dr. Behforooz first arrived in Utica, he was stunned to realize that the math they taught in one semester in his home country was taught over four semesters here.

To Dr. Cormican, who made a shy 16-year-old argue about polygamy in front of a classroom when she wanted to hide in the back row. That was exactly what I needed to learn to do. I'd make a completely different argument, now, by the way.

To Dr. McIntyre, who cornered me at my parents' spring party every year (starting when I was 12) to ask about my research and what my "next steps" would be. Pretty much preparation for the rest of my life, I think. Later on (oh okay, never mind, it was the following year), I waited until after the interrogation before hitting the bar.

To Dr. Aaronson, for putting up with me in his lab, when I apparently could not even count colonies accurately (that is my recollection, at least). I'm glad I realized early that lab research wasn't for me, and that it didn't mean research wasn't for me.

There are many others...Dr. Pier and Dr. Pfeiffer (chemistry), Dr. Rockefeller and Dr. Day (physics), everyone who judged the regional science fair and listened to me talk about schedule-induced polydipsia for five consecutive years, not to mention professors of Russian (good try convincing my parents to send me to Moscow for the summer!), computer science, and anthropology. I wasn't always a perfect student. I appreciate how hard you worked to help me learn anyway.

24 May, 2015

Time for another book review

I just can't let it go!

This is what I get for reading so much YA fantasy, I suppose, instead of legit grown-up literary stuff. Most of the time, it doesn't quite live up to my expectations, but then when it exceeds them, it's just extraordinary. It's always a pleasure to lose yourself in another world, and it's a kind of exquisite joy to marvel at the flexibility and grace of someone else's imagination. Like watching a rhythmic gymnast.

First, I read/re-read all of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. From the beginning. I skimmed over some of the more horrific cannibalistic parts and tried not to dwell on all the allusions to brutal gang rapes. This isn't the first time that a film or television adaptation helped me get into a book I didn't initially love - I had the same experience with The Lord of the Rings. When I first read A Game of Thrones in 2011, I was pregnant (though that's probably not a good excuse, I've never been squeamish) and all the bodily mutilation going on made it a bit hard to appreciate the characters. Watching the HBO version - even though this season has been a bit disappointing  - helped.

Then, for a change of pace, I read Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorn and Roses, which I had preordered, based on my love for her Throne of Glass series and my fondness for the story of Tam Lin. Let's talk about Throne of Glass for a minute: Maas has a fairly cool story. She started writing this series as Queen of Glass on FictionPress when she was a teenager and finally got it published many years (and many revisions) later. It's supposed to be a riff on Cinderella, but only in the sense that Cinderella is the fairy tale that set the author's imagination wandering. The first book, Throne of Glass, grew on me. As a YA fantasy writer, Maas is not Laini Taylor or Maggie Stiefvater. Her sentences don't echo in my head, over and over, like a favorite song. But there is a delight to her characters and their relationships to each other, a sense of humor, sarcasm, witty, good-natured ribbing that washes over the reader like a cup of hot chocolate. Her characters (like Stiefvater's) feel like old friends. Her main character is a girl, an assassin, a voracious reader, who loves music, candy, and beautiful gowns, and manages to be both selfless and self-centered, able to revel to luxury and capable of surviving anything. It doesn't always quite add up - if you pause for too long - but stay immersed in Maas' world and it works.

Also, they wear really awesome clothes. Maas uses Pinterest to good effect - the women, especially, are breathtakingly dressed and she does a fabulous job describing the fashion. On the downside, she does clearly have particular turns of phrase and descriptors she loves to use, and a LOT of people wear clothes that are "simple but obviously of very fine make." It's repetitious, yes, but mostly it just makes me jealous - why can't I find basic, high-quality clothes like white linen shirts that fit me flawlessly and "supple leather" boots than mold to my feet? (Cuyana, please make a few more things. And make the fit a little less unisex. Please.)

For the most part, the plot of Throne of Glass (so far - there are three books out in a six- or seven-book series) works and the twists and turns are intriguing and satisfying. The back story is impressively well-developed. (It's so well-developed, in fact, that I hesitate to return to writing my own novel out of fear that I don't have the imagination to pull it off. Like J.K. Rowling, even the smallest details and introduction of apparently minor characters has major relevance for the plot.) There is a major plot hole in the second book - something that really never makes sense - but it's possible to overlook it and jump back into the flow of the story. Do you ever do that? Simply choose to pretend that your favorite author didn't actually mean what they wrote? As long the rest of the story makes sense without the problematic element, I do - all the time. Often, the problematic element is an illogical explanation for a supporting character's actions and I can imagine into place a more logical one. I reserve my greatest agonizing for books that are beautifully set up, with elegant words and fascinating characters, but where the illogical element ruins all the downstream events and the book collapses like a house of cards.

Where are the editors, I wonder? I should be editing these books.

A Court of Thorns and Roses doesn't quite collapse but it's on shaky ground. The main character never has the depth of the protagonist from Throne of Glass. She's less outlandish and yet less fully realized too - she seems like a mashup of Cinderella and Katniss from The Hunger Games. Both she and the male protagonist are so reserved and laconic that it's rather hard to get to know them, as the reader. That's okay - she still does a better job than most. I think magic is hard to work with, in a story - authors really have to know what the rules are, or readers will question why anything happens the way it does. The rules are perhaps not quite as well-defined in Court of Thorns and Roses as I'd like, but the real problem in the logic comes only in the last quarter of the book. (That's probably why I enjoyed it as much as I did.) Essentially, the last quarter introduces an intriguing antagonist of questionable loyalties but his loyalties aren't quite questionable enough - it's a mystery why the main antagonist lets him get away with playing for both sides as much as he does. Alas, when I'm faced with that kind of mystery, I usually conclude that the author knew where she wanted her story to go and didn't spend enough time thinking through how to get from point A to point B. And then I blame the editor for not being objective enough to see the problem. Because, at least in this case, it could have been written in a way that was more believable, less dependent on luck. And I would have liked it a lot more.

The second problem is harder to describe without spoilers and, indeed, a long explanation of the plot. Essentially, it has to do with why one of the main characters is himself an obstacle to his own romance (which drives much of the plot). The reason makes sense, after the reader has spent some time thinking about it and turning it over and over in her mind. The problem is that the bits and pieces provided by the first-person limited narrator are barely sufficient to realize why he acts as does - and not sufficient to make it wholly believable. Does that make sense? Without nuance, if I were to summarize the plot for someone, this aspect of the plot, of character development and motivation, would make sense and seem quite powerful; but the book needed more richness and detail in this regard to make it "real on paper."

Of course, NONE of this means that I'm not going to pre-order the next book in the trilogy (and mark the date on my calendar) as soon as it's available.

In the meantime, I think I'm going to order Eleanor Catton's first book, The Rehearsal. After all, The Luminaries might be the last truly literary book that I happily devoured. All the Birds, Singing made my skin crawl and kept me awake half the night, but I was still a bit lost at the end. Some books are good, but clearly written for English majors to dissect in seminars, and not for this poor, tired mother-doctor-daughter-writer, reading under the covers in the early hours of the morning.

Finally, a quick note: if you've followed the links for book titles above and in previous book review posts, you may have noticed a change. I've switched from linking to Amazon.com to linking to IndieBound, which lets you search for the book at locally owned bookstores near your zip code. Unfortunately, I currently live in a town with no locally own bookstores, and I still do a lot of reading on my Kindle app for convenience. But I love and miss Tattered Cover, and when I lived nearby (and spent half of most weekends wandering around the aisles and sipping spicy Bhakti chai), I bought all my books there.

09 May, 2015

04 May, 2015

{this moment} 130

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.