The Limber Inventor by Yours Truly

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How hard could it be to teach yourself to build and program a robotic arm that receives instructions from your thoughts?

If you’re a bored sixteen-year-old like Easton LaChappelle, the answer is: sorta not hard at all. Easton grew up rather isolated in Colorado’s Four Corners region–down the road from where I live now. All he had was YouTube, persistence, and unlimited curiosity. His robotic creation won the state science fair, which launched him into a NASA internship, which then resulted in a handshake with then President Barrack Obama.

Now almost old enough to rent a car, Easton heads up his own company which is enthusiastically revolutionizing the prosthetic limb industry, bringing affordable, wireless prostheses to the young people most in need!

You can read all about Easton’s story in the February 2019 issue of Muse magazine. I had the privilege of interviewing Easton and he kindly answered all my technical questions about programming and robotics. More importantly, he outlined how crucial it is to have a simultaneously very hungry and well-fed curiosity.

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Aphrodite After Therapy

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“If music be the food of love, play on,” says Duke Orsino at the opening of Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night. He goes on to request his musicians give him such an excess of music that he may kill his appetite for it entirely. And with it, his yearning for Olivia, the woman who does not yearn for him.

Without discounting the full weight of Orsino’s truth and his pain, I’d like to take a moment and focus only on that first statement. Playing on.

It’s a tricky skill — a complex finagling of fingers on keys, you might say — to learn how to play on when we lose a mighty love.

I played the trickster Maria many years ago in a community theater production of the Bard’s play. And in a twist-outcome befitting the tangled love lines in all of Shakespeare’s romantic plots, I fell for the Duke, and he for me. Sorry, fair Olivia.

When our hearts were no longer star-crossed, I had a hard time recovering. I struggled to write and create. I battled depression and grief. Playing on required a lot of help and guidance from a therapist, as well as from all my loving friends and family.

Slowly, quietly, softly, in my early morning hours always devoted to my writing, I began to hear … musical words. I jotted them down, not knowing what to do with them until my phenomenally talented musician friend, Tim Birchard, suggested turning the poems into songs. Eventually, Tim’s wife Cheryl brought her powerful voice into the studio. And together, we collaborated, crafted, and crooned. Plenty of times, I cried because the more we refined the lyrics, the more I healed my heart and coaxed my soul out of hiding.

And so, without further ado, I bring you “Aphrodite After Therapy.” An EP gathering together a quartet of songs documenting my breakdown and my rebuilding. My return to music as the food of love. My testament to the resilience of human love, that elemental universal force which never ceases to play on…and on…and on.

You can listen to the album for free from Tim’s own music site. It’s also available to stream on iTunes and Spotify. If you choose to give monetarily, please know your gift supports the supremely talented and kind musicians who helped me piece this project together. And if you’d rather give something other than funds, we welcome your feedback in posting a review, as well as your shares across your social media circles.

 

Early praise for Aphrodite After Therapy…

“It’s Meatloaf and ABBA and Dan Hicks and Queen and Grease and…wow!”–Jason from Texas

 

Justin from Colorado says Aphrodite After Therapy is a “…two-ton slab of healing…”!

 

Myths Across the Map by Yours Truly

We know what happens when entire nations cannot stymie their collective fears. We know what happens when whole civilizations select a scapegoat for inexplicable suffering. History maps these trends.

Throughout the Myths Across the Map series (now available through Gareth Stevens Publishing), I chronicled 4 of the 6 major global myths. I tracked down the beasts, the monsters, and the marvels universally recognizable to all people everywhere.

Why does everyone know and recognize a vampire? How did dragons creep into the skies, wells, caves, and rivers of every inhabited continent? Why are the symptoms of werewolves the same whether you are in Russia, South America, or Louisiana? And just how many ancient kingdoms did zombies mob before noshing on our modern metropolises?

Our currently fraught geopolitical landscape may have us all hoodwinked when it comes to fear. Fear, the pundits claim, adds to our isolation. It divides us. It shuts down communication. However, history indicates that shared fears actually unite us. They give us a common language and a way to communicate across boundaries and borders. What is more, they give us good reason to work together and defeat a common threat (such as a deadly disease).

What better time than now to get young people navigating and debating the nature of mankind’s fears and the power of humanity’s myths?

Pick Up Sticks by Yours Truly

Can we convince young people to enjoy failure as much as they enjoy play? Can we teach them that the two are inseparable travel-mates on the path to success?

“Pick Up Sticks: How One Toy Became a Space-Exploration Robot”—my latest article appearing in the April 2018 issue of Muse—confronts these very questions. Like all scientists, the NASA engineers and researchers I interviewed dealt with failure throughout their project development. Turning a baby toy into a cutting-edge, all-new type of intelligent, supple, muscular robot able to shake, rattle, and roll across unknown surfaces on the planets and moons on the fringe of our Solar System is no easy task. Trials and errors are practically programmed into the experience.

But lead investigator Vytas SunSpiral and lead AI programmer Adrian Agogino did not shy away from failure. Whenever a motor or sensor failed, whenever the SuperBall Bot fumbled an obstacle course, whenever a computer simulation warned that what they sought was impossible, SunSpiral and Agogino celebrated. For them, a flub was a chance to ask more questions. A chance to learn. A chance to grow.

As they see it, the entire scientific process is a chance to play—get creative with problem-solving, think upside-down thoughts, tinker, toy, enjoy, and take lightly the darkest moments.

I dunno about you, but I did not have this kind of relationship to failure when I was growing up. I avoided failure. Dreaded it. Worked tirelessly to prevent it. Contained my whole existence in a kind of scalding, suffocating steam-press just so failure’s wrinkles might never arise. No matter how supportive and praising my personal circles, I was convinced that if I failed to any degree I would be a blight. A disgrace. To myself. To my friends. To my parents. To anyone.

And I know I was not unique in this regard. Other children I grew up with shared this revulsion. Kids and young people I work with now exhibit the same anemone’d response to failure’s shark-like shadow.

How did I (or any of us) acquire this skewed view of reality? Probably the same way a mind turns intractable on monsters under the bed.

The more salient question is how can we reverse the paradigm and make failure fun? Can we make it a tantalizing outcome—an alien world begging for exploration?

Purchase Muse online or check your local library for the latest issue!

Two First Amendment Books by Yours Truly

At a time when our national attention sits securely, sometimes obsessively, on the goingson of Washington, D.C. and our national leaders — be they elected, electoral, or judicial — young viewers and readers deserve thoughtful texts exploring the roots of our rights.

For parents, teachers, and librarians seeking such books for the voracious omnivorous reader, might I suggest…

The Freedom of Speech and The Right to Petition by Jenny Mason

The texts introduce middle grade readers to the Bill of Rights, its historical origins, and its ongoing influences on our daily lives. From there, each book in the series zooms in on a particular clause in the First or Second Amendments. For instance, I looked at the right to petition and the freedom of speech. Whenever possible, the narrative pays close attention to landmark Supreme Court decisions that directly impact the freedoms of young individuals. (And all the books are loaded with strange or funny factoids. Mine are doubly loaded with bad puns and an overall humorous tone.)

When the editors invited me to author two books in the Our Basic Freedoms series, they challenged me to write about the First Amendment without the armor of my own political, personal, or professional biases. I was to approach the topic with an open and accepting mind. This was, in no way, an easy assignment. As I writer, I feel duty- and honor-bound to the philosophy of free speech. As if me and Free Speech pricked our fingers, mashed our blood beads together, then swore an oath and spat to make eternal. Same goes for the right to petition, which really boils down to the pen’s might over the sword in disputes.

However, the guideline proved invaluable to my research. Unarmored (and consequently unafraid of rust), I dove deep into the murky waters of Constitutional interpretation. I found credible, logical support for all sides. I discovered the tension, the constant tug-of-war for power, that makes our government function. Sure, it often resembles dysfunction, but the Framers and Founding Fathers knew that if they could keep power from ever coagulating in one corner, then all sides would have to bend (stretch their vulnerable, thirsty throats) in order to get even a taste of what they wanted.

What’s in store for the nation now that so many of the protocols intended to keep power bouncing and swinging, and swirling have been rescinded or altered or diluted? Well that is a future story being written as we speak; a narrative that young readers are due to inherit.

Where can you find these books?

Visit GarethStevens online, or shop on Amazon:

Freedom of Speech

Right to Petition

(PS–not sure why Amazon lists me as “Dr Jennifer,” unless they mean it musically. You know, like Jim Henson’s Dr. Teeth…or Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.)