How I use Zotero to take research reading notes

Here’s how I take notes for my classes/research. I currently use Zotero, an open source citation manager.

The two images below show screenshots from my actual setup. The blog post text is the same as the text in the images (click to enlarge), but I’m writing it up here for screenreader accessibility and web searchability.

The first image shows how I take notes on actual books.


Generally, I take my notes in page order — this is easy because I read fast during my first pass, and underline/highlight/page-marker the sections I want to read more deeply and take notes on later; then it’s just a matter of going through my page markers in front of my computer.

(The first screenshot shows the Zotero interface with my notes for Karen Barad’s book “Meeting the universe halfway.” I’ll first list my annotations here, then list the notes that they refer to.)


Q [pagenumber]: a verbatim quote from the reading. For instance:

Q 139-40: A verbatim quote from page 139-40 of this book.

P [pagenumber]: a paraphrase of what the reading says

N [pagenumber]: my own thoughts on the reading. If the pagenumber is “^”, that means it’s a note on the item directly above it (for instance, the note below the verbatim quote from page 6 refers to my thoughts on that verbatim quote).

An excerpt of my actual notes on this book

N: originally got this book for a paper on objectivity for Dr. Lather

N: Agential realism (related to objectivity) is a big idea in this book

Q ix: (from the Preface) The past is never finished. it cannot be wrapped up like a package, or a scrapbook, or an acknowledgement; we never leave it and it never leaves us behind.

N: I love the preface — it’s reflexive, unwinding itself and reflecting the subject matter (intra-action) the book is about. It also thanks Bohr, because “some of the greatest debts we have are to those who live in different times and spaces” and so forth.

Q 6: …no definitive answers can be given in the absence of the specification of a particular interpretation.

N^: Not specifically about intra-action or anything, but a useful phrase/reminder in general.

Q 133: A performative understanding of discursive practices challenges the representationalist belief in the power of words to represent preexisting things. Unlike representationalism, which positions us above or outside the world we allegedly merely reflect on, a performative account insists on understanding thinking, observing, and theorizing as practices of engagement with, and as part of, the world in which we have our being.

Q 133: Performativity, properly construed, is not an invitation to turn everything (including material bodies) into words; on the contrary, performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real… performativity is properly understood as a contestation of the unexamined habits of mind that grant language and other forms of representation more power in determining our ontologies than they deserve.

P 139: Phenomena are the primary ontological unit, not independent objects. They are the ontological entanglement of intra-acting “agencies.”

P 139-140: Intra-actions (in contrast to interaction) give meaning to boundaries and properties; they include the surrounding environment, and effect “an agential cut between ‘subject’ and ‘object’.” They “enact agential separability – the condition of exteriority-within-phenomena,” and provide the possibility for objectivity in the “absence of exteriority between observer and observed.” Agential cuts also enact causality. Apparatuses are thus not just instruments of observation, but boundary-drawers that reconfigure the world.

Q 142: [Bohr] emphasizes that the cut delineating the object from the agencies of observation is enacted rather than inherent.

I will frequently use my notes and quotes from reading for class/research-group prep, specifically for making instant discussion questions. For instance, the note below “Q ix” could turn into “How does the writing structure of the preface parallel the topic of intra-action that Barad is writing about?” (This is off the top of my head. It’s not the greatest discussion question ever, but you get the idea.)

The second image shows how I use tags in Zotero:



I have sometimes shared my Zotero libraries with groups (research groups and course classmates) in the past. You don’t have to do this, and I’ve gotten limited utility from doing it (nobody ever helps me with my notes), but it’s an option — I’ve found it most helpful when multiple people are contributing to a literature review, and take notes in the shared Zotero library. You can create group libraries by logging in at

If I get (or use) a reading for class, I make a tag for the class (and mark the document with the appropriate tag: the screenshot points to Zotero’s tag interface). In this case, this tag (2013-cultural-lather) was [for] a 2013 Cultural Studies class with Dr. Lather.

If I am using a reading for the reading for a specific project, I’ll create a tag for that project as well so I can keep track of resources specifically for that project. (The screenshot points to a tag called “prelimdoc.”) This also helps me in later searches when I go “hm… there was a good reference I used in this paper… what was that?”

Being deaf is: not having add/drop week

Adapted slightly from an email to my Disability Resource Center counselor in the middle of Add/Drop week.

Instead of changing classes and accessibility requests left and right, I’m just going to change classes left and right, and say “don’t worry about doing accessibility stuff for me this week; I’ll mainstream myself for a little while.” I did it for 26 years; I still do it for most of my waking hours. I can add in a few more hours to the mix.

I know I could ask for support, but I’m prioritizing flexibility over accessibility right now. (I wish it weren’t a tradeoff, but the reality is that right now it is.) I’ll just power through. Since homework/etc hasn’t hit yet, I’ve got enough buffer time to do the self-care/rest I need to expend energy on that front, and the upcoming 3-day weekend helps too.

For future reference: In hindsight — and if this weren’t my final semester — what I might do for add/drop period next time around is just ask for a full-time ASL interpreter or CART provider for the first week to pop in and out of classes with me so I can see the prof, syllabus, etc. for all the courses I’m considering. As a side bonus, I get to see how the instructor reacts to accessibility stuff. Basically, I’d treat the first week of classes like as if it were a conference. (All this assumes infinite resources, of course. Which I realize isn’t the case.)

I’d do this — and I’m doing this weird run-around-and-shuffle-my-schedule thing right now — because visiting the class is the best way to gauge the quality of the learning experience I’m likely to have. Is the professor good? Is the course interesting? Are the assignments educational? Will my classmates be awesome to hang out with? There’s no substitute for firsthand experience in the classroom, and abled students shop around during add/drop for precisely this reason.

I don’t see any reason that advice wouldn’t apply to disabled students. It’s just that the workload of accessibility setup for individual courses makes the opportunity cost of add/drop significantly higher, so I’m guessing most don’t do it (I’m curious whether add/drop statistics confirm my hypothesis). However, since I’ve presented as “nondisabled” for most of my life, it’s never occurred to me not to “shop around” too. It’s just that my criteria also includes things like “can I lipread this professor?”

Anyway. Good luck on the continuing flood — I’ll suss out my options and handle the adds/drops/comms with profs, so don’t worry about me until late this week or early next week when I’ll email again with that status update.

Holding the Cup

One of my favorite things is listening to people’s stories. Not the ones we tell of funny things that happened, or impressive feats, or jokes at the expense of others — not the ones that perform status or put on a show or somehow manipulate the levers of the social beast. But stories that are told in hushed tones, with long pauses and incoherent words; stories where voices drop, grow hoarse, and break. The ones told late at night, in empty rooms, or rooms that might as well be empty because the rest of the world has melted away until it’s just the storyteller and the people that they trust to hold their space around the rim of a small, golden cup.

And it seems to me that wine — a deep, red, tannic wine, perhaps shiraz — is pouring out into that cup, and as the story deepens it comes shimmering up towards the rim. You hold it carefully, your side of that edge of that cup. You know you can’t let go. They keep pouring their story in; sometimes it gushes, sometimes it trickles, sometimes it bleeds from them in visible pain — sometimes it tumbles in a sparkling joy, but it’s of a rich substance, and it’s… their life, that you’re helping to cradle, in your hands that breathe steadily to keep from trembling as the story sparkles like warm spiced liquid rubies.

It is rare, this privilege of sharing. And I treasure it, the privilege of listening. Sometimes the cup stays small, but sometimes — on even rarer occasions — wine will fill and curl up to the rim, and you continue holding that gold cup there on the other side, and then you feel the metal warm your fingers. And as the storyteller keeps telling their story, and you listen — hold the edge with listening, with rapt attention and compassion, not trying to shake or fix or analyze the contents, but simply to witness — they keep pouring, and the cup deepens, fills out into your hands; becomes too large to be a cup, becomes a bowl — and the bowl grows, and grows, and it becomes a depth — a massive chalice, and you peer inside and look at their reflection on the surface, marvelling.

And when you cradle it alongside multiple people — which is rarer still — you become aware of their breathing and their care and tenderness as well, and the shared strength and just… the privilege of holding up the rim of that great cup alongside them, right now, inside this moment, with the story of this one person pouring into it.

So they pour, and they pour, and you watch, and you wait, and you’re present. Profoundly present. Not caretaking, not problem-solving, not fixing anything, just being there in witness.

And when they are done, you look at the full bowl trembling there between your fingers, vibrating with life — and he or she who told the story gazes, and sometimes they can gaze a long, long time — and then they start to lift, and you can feel the lift from the thin metal at your fingers, and your hands rise forth and help them lift as well.

And they drink. They drink their cup, they drink their wine, they drink the life that they have poured out in the space between you, in the sanctuary you’ve created with your careful breaths and trembling hands and poised and patient presence. That’s why you’ve held; they need to pour it out, so they can drink — because there was something inside them, and they’re thirsty, but maybe they didn’t realize it — or maybe they didn’t realize how deep it went — that well within them, or that thirst.

They finish — sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Some cups are quaffed; some cups are bitter and need to be drank in sips, pauses, great gulps — sometimes you need to speak softly to them, remind them: slowly. You can take your time. We will stay here.

You can’t drink for them, and you shouldn’t; it’s their wine. You can’t eyedropper out a sample and run it through spectral analyzers, figuring the content — that’s not what it’s for. It’s not for product or for profit or for parceling out into watered-down sippy cups for others who weren’t there, so they can give you status for holding that edge, hurrah for you. The cup belongs to the person who has poured out the story. You are privileged to even be there, to even be allowed to hold a living portion of their life between your hands. It is a sacred trust.

It’s not “data.” It’s not “for research.” Sometimes it can be — I’m a narrative researcher, and this great love of stories is probably why — but I am very careful to put on that role with great deliberation, and I usually don’t walk around the world that way. On the rare times I do put on that hat, it’s something the narrator and I have discussed, and we know it’s a cup of stories are going to be shared, and oftentimes because of that they do not run nearly as deep, or taste nearly as rich. A $7 bottle of convenience store zinfandel. And I am bothered by — furious at — researchers and counselors and listeners who do not know how to hold cups, who do not respect that wine, who call a tiny cup a huge bowl because they have never seen one bigger — they can’t steady their hands, the liquid can’t reach the rim, they slosh — who try to drink from wine that isn’t theirs.

It’s one of the best things I know, watching people pour our their stories in that hushed and sacred space. Watching them drink. And they drink, and… it’s done. That was the cup. A story was poured out, and then it was poured in, and there: the world goes on.

I need a better word for “this kind” of writing that tries to hurl its words across a gap.

I haven’t quite been able to write recently. I miss it. To write, I need safe and uninterrupted solitude within which to unspool whatever novice shreds of craftsmanship I have. I can be surrounded by people, as in a coffeeshop or library or hallway — and sometimes I prefer that — but I need to be safe from disturbance so that I don’t need to keep on anxiously scanning and saving mental stopping points mid-text, always poised to defend my space.

At the same time, I can’t write unless I have poured experiences into my life so I have something to pour out onto the page. As a mild extrovert, I fill the garden of my soul with richness by rubbing up against the world, plunging into the universe of people. Experiences, thoughts and sounds and bustle; organic matter tumbling into a bin of moist heat, crumbing into peat, a sweat-soaked fertile soil for growth. Newspaper clippings, soggy remains of texts I’ve read; eggshells of fragmented conversations, flashes of instinct; observations.

And then I need the quiet rains, and the small stillnesses, where the budded worlds can unfurl through my fingers. And I rummage through them, pricked by thorns and scratched by branches, pruning, propping, pushing, plucking — learning how to garden, learning how to wait until the fruit is ripe, learning how to ferment something into a bubbling sweetness that is more than all that it has taken in.

It’s simple. Life, and sweat, and time — and willingness to let chocolate-bitter notes swirl into the complexity. I bottle bustle in my wine; I need the stillness, but also the full-filled mess of a lively costumed brawl, and I need solitude. I need to run, and then I need to sprawl onto my back under a grassy sky, soak-drenched and gasping in great draughts of wind. I need the grit of rising early morning after morning plunging into soup-pot days boiling with mirepoix and vigor, and I need the lazy nights and mornings with sheets whipped cool around me, only rising drink slowly from cups of milky coffee piled high with pillowed foam.


I haven’t played with words like that for ages. Alliteration (“pruning, propping, pushing, plucking,” “bottle bustle”) and rhymes with delayed fulfillment (“Life, and sweat, and time” holds out for the word “wine” for as long as I can spool it), metaphors (composting, brewing, cappuccino foam and bedsheets), and other forms of wordplay (“full-filled/fulfilled” and “costumed brawl/costume ball”) – I don’t plan this; I just write it, and when I look back, I see those techniques in hindsight. I need to learn the discipline of making this a more skillful and subtle art, so I will leave these words as unrevised right now, and someday I may be able to shape it into better-ness. It’s still too much; I still write with a heavy hand that tries to grasp its way into the world.

My writing, at its best, reaches for something I’ll never hold within this world, a longing that will linger past the edge of my ability. Fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te. I ache to share the world as mystery, but how can I? C’est impossible. Live in a mystery, and words are too pale and poor to transmit more than garbled messages incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t shared it. And those who’ve shared it know: the mystery is always yours alone, and only the transcendent third can span the gap between you. And so I learn to breathe in a great ocean that drenches in solitude; and so I learn to reverence communion, daß zwei Einsamkeiten einander schützen, grenzen und grüße.


I need my space to write; I cannot cross that space into the world you read from. And that’s hard for me, because there’s so much that I want to share. I want to share the worlds that have filled me with wonder — realms of knowledge, circles of friends, communities of practice, safe homes and life-changing schools and great mouthfuls of crisp-spicy food and little moments of experience. And all I can do is open doors into those worlds, and usually I can’t even do that; all I can do is wave my hands around and promise they exist, and that they’re well worth finding. And so I write.

I don’t know what I’m writing any more, or why I’m writing. I write; the images run out, I finish writing, and I wait and wonder. I suppose that’s what I do, in this particular kind of writing. I do a lot of other kinds as well, but none that feel so much like blind trust as this kind of writing — whatever “this kind” is.

And so we write, and so we wait, and so we work — and our waiting does not excuse us from our working, nor does our work excuse us from our waiting.

And with that, it’s time for me to plunge back into the world again.


Small comic strips from my first time in a deaf-accessible hotel room

I don’t think I’ve uploaded these sketches before. They’re over a year old, but they capture (in rough drawings) my reactions to the first time I encountered a deaf-accessible hotel room. Click to enlarge.

(I’m writing text descriptions of the panels in an attempt to be accessible to screenreaders too, since this is something I have failed at in the past.)

1st panel: “I’ve been deaf for 25 years. This is the first night I’ve ever lived in a fully accessible space. Here’s what it looks like.” (Image: hallway view of yelling coming from inside a hotel room, with a housekeeping staff member looking at the door, perplexed.)

2nd panel: “AAAAA!” (Image: happy yelling coming from a cartoon Mel, waving her hands at a door knock sensor. The door knock sensor is labeled with an arrow as “door knock sensor,” and Mel is labeled with an arrow as “vibrating with happiness.”)


1st panel: “That’s right! It looks a lot like joy!” (Image: Mel continuing to yell in happiness, beside the door with a thought bubble saying “Someone could knock on my door AND I WOULD KNOW!” and a caption saying “The lamp flashes when the door is knocked.”)

2nd panel: (Image: Mel continuing to yell in happiness beside a phone and TTY, with a thought bubble saying “Someone could call my room AND I WOULD KNOW!” and a caption saying “The lamp flashes when the phone rings.”)

3rd panel: (Image: Mel continuing to yell in happiness beside the bed with a vibrating pillow alarm clock, with a thought bubble saying “I can USE THE ALARM CLOCK in this room!”)

4th panel: “Oh, right. That’s because it IS joy.” (Image: Mel continuing to yell in happiness in the room, with a thought bubble saying “My presence has been forethought!”)



1st panel: “In my 27 years on this planet, I’ve seen a lot of it. I’ve stayed in countless places – couches, hotels, guest rooms, basements, suites…” (Image: a Mercator-projected map, with significant chunks of most continents highlighted in red to represent the places I’ve travelled.)

2nd panel: “They’ve all been spaces for hearing people. So I’ve pretended to be one.” (Image: a younger Mel stares out the window of a 2nd-floor dormitory. An arrow pointing to the window says ”The dorm room I was stuck in when my friends all moved to a different building. I had to stay in the one with a flashing fire alarm.”)

3rd panel: “But now I’m unexpectedly in this space. For 4 days, this is my room. Mine.” (Image: Mel with thought bubble saying “Wait. This could exist in my home too. This could… I could…”) “The possibilities excite me.” (END)


Near-peer advice from 1st-time engineering education researchers

For future engineering education / qualitative research methods students of mine, here’s some quick feedback from the 1st-year Purdue ENE PhD students who’ve just presented their first research projects. (“What would you tell next year’s students?”)

  1. Data collection takes longer than you think.
  2. Frustration is educational, and the experience has been deliberately designed so you’ll experience it.
  3. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.

I think #2 will be particularly relevant to when I teach my methods courses. It’s not frustration for the sake of making you frustrated, folks. It’s frustration that’s part of this fumbling-around-in-the-unknown that research is, and part of learning how to be a researcher is learning how to sensitize yourself to — and deal healthily with — frustration.

Last summer’s Zambia reflections

Originally published in May 2013 on the Purdue SLHS Zambia Trip Blog, but I also wanted to have this here.

This is a mixed reflection on events from the past week as a whole, rather than one on a specific day.

I never thought I’d be on the other side of an otoscope. Growing up with a severe-to-profound hearing loss (ototoxic drug, age 2; my audiogram plummets into no-response territory around 1kHz) I was always the kid in the booth raising my hand, the one pulled out of class for speech therapy, the one peppering the audiologist with questions and getting in trouble for disassembling my hearing aids with eyeglass screwdrivers (it turns out first-graders aren’t supposed to adjust their own hearing aids, but nobody had told me that). 2 decades later, I’m an engineering grad student, the sole non-SLHS team member in Zambia, surrounded by 13 speech-and-hearing folks whom I can pepper with questions for two weeks. Somewhere, my tiny-child self is grinning like a maniac.

Except right now I’m staring at a variant on my tiny-child self. A 5-year-old is sitting on her mother’s lap, demanding in a nasal bellow that I blow more bubbles for her; I can’t lipread any consonants in her speech. Most of the other children in the pediatric HIV center have passed, but this time the OAE screen is blinking that the girl’s cochlea isn’t responding properly; she’s failed the hearing screening. I listen as Dr. Krishnan and the other students briefly counsel the mother about following up with the local audiologist (the only one in Zambia). I wonder what the mom is thinking. The door clicks shut. “That’s how old I was when they found out,” I tell my classmates as we prep the probe tips and elephant puppet for the next kid. “That’s what my speech sounded like when I was in kindergarten.” Later, on a sunset walk, Dr. Krishnan will tell me that telling the parents is the hardest part, that they cushion the blow by spacing the tests a week or so apart to “get more detail” and to “check again,” so that there’s time for the realization to sink in and they can start to address the big unknown: what’s going to happen to my child? The ADA doesn’t exist in Zambia.

Another day. We’re at a deaf school, one of only 4 in the entire country. Students swarm through the courtyard, the little ones signing wildly, sloppily, semi-grammatically, thwacking shoulders and waving hands to get each other’s attention. They see me and break into a flurry of questions: DEAF-YOU? HEARING-AIDS, DEAF-PEOPLE-IN-AMERICA? BUT-YOU-SPEAK! And then a sign, a tapping of the nose with a hooked finger, that I don’t recognize. It’s our second visit to a deaf school, so I’m used to the irony of being our primary interpreter (it turns out that ignoring one’s interpreter from 2nd through 8th grades still leaves you with a reasonable ability to communicate in sign). I ask one of the teachers (many are deaf as well) what the mystery word means. “White-person. They never see deaf white person before.” I see the kids miming kung-fu moves – I’m also the only Asian for miles around – and laugh: “I’ve never been called a white person before.”

One teacher and I get into an extended conversation – Zambian sign is close enough to American that our rapid fingerspelling can bridge the occasional gap – and as we speed up (HOW-STUDENTS-BECOME-DEAF? MANY GET-SICK, MEDICINE DESTROY HEARING. AH, ME TOO, BEFORE-WHEN SMALL CHILD, 2 YEARS OLD IN AMERICA) I stop simcomming, I’m just signing, and my classmates are blinking at us in incomprehension. The teacher is asking me questions, amazement on his face. You’re in college? — No, I finished, now I’m getting my engineering PhD.  — They allow you into college? Deaf people in America go to college? — Yes, there are even Deaf colleges where the classes are all sign language, no interpreters. I’m sorry my signing is poor, I studied in hearing schools… — How? Amazing, to see deaf person doing PhD, someday they open brain to find out how you did this, that deaf person can go to university, we are so happy to see you, to see it is possible for deaf person to do this…

Small bits of smouldering lava are crumbling inside my chest, frustration at the great unfairness of the world. Thank God my parents immigrated to America, and for a thousand other tiny coincidences that allowed me to become who I’ve become. If the best education and career I could aspire to had been the things I’ve seen in Zambia for deaf folks, I’m pretty sure I would have been a high school dropout; why waste effort trying when the highest you can go isn’t very far off the ground at all?

I abruptly realize my classmates have no idea what we’re saying, and attempt to translate; they’ve been great about relaying things to me on noisy bus rides, in thick crowds, when I’ve turned around and don’t realize someone is speaking, etc., so I’m trying to return the favor. I relay the signed conversations in our evening debrief meetings: kids arguing, teasing, joking – for the first time in my life, I’m the only one who overhears (er, oversees?) and understands these side conversations, instead of being the only one who doesn’t. Some side conversations are just kids being silly (“They’re going to stick injections in our butt!” “You’re a big crybaby!”) but others are more sobering: after getting thresholds for a high school girl, I signed to her that her hearing was better than mine. YES, BUT YOU IN AMERICA, she replied. I NEED SIT IN THIS CLASSROOM, TOO FAR-AWAY TO HEAR. I looked at the metal roof and concrete walls, which turned the place into an echo chamber, and couldn’t reply; I’d recently whispered to the professors that the lighting was too dim to lipread, that the noise was painful, and that I was going to take my hearing aids off and go outside and sign with the students because at least there I could communicate. If some of these kids got hearing aids, I told them, they would have an awful time with the acoustics; turn the lights up, get some books or fabric in there to muffle the din, or nobody will wear them.

It’s these kinds of things, I think, that have been my contributions to the team; I’m less clumsy with an otoscope now and can operate an audiometer at lightning speed, but still ask basic questions nonstop. (What are inner hair cells? So the auditory nerve is embedded in the basilar membrane? No? Oh. What’s a morpheme?) But I’m also the first non-hearing classmate most of the Purdue students have had, and I tell them about that: how my hearing aids can’t noise-cancel the crowd at the mall, how I’d thought I wasn’t understanding the first graders we were testing because I couldn’t hear (it turns out that they actually weren’t speaking English), how the tiny visual cues (shoulder shrugs, eye glances, finger twitches) made it easy to cheat on audiograms, how the ADA doesn’t magically make all jobs equal-access, how people still speak to you as if you were mentally challenged when they see your hearing aids or hear your voice. Why I sometimes just don’t care about trying to listen because it takes too much effort. Why I’d shunned assistive services from high school all the way through college (“…you may not believe me here, but it was easier to go without them.”) I’m a stickler for lipreading during meetings: use a talking stick, one person at a time, face me, face me, FACE ME.

It’s been good to get their questions too, because I take so many of my coping skills for granted. How do I pass my classes? (I read extra textbooks during lecture time.) How did I learn to speak German? (Books and a very patient German grad student who coached the inaudible consonants into my muscle memory.) Why did I like getting pulled out for speech therapy as a kid? (I couldn’t understand group conversations in the classroom, so quiet 1-on-1 time with the therapist was often the most adult conversation I had in school that week.) I apologize to them on behalf of all the future difficult kids they’ll ever work with (“we’ll think of you when we get those kids, Mel”). I ask them to please, please explain things to their patients, feed their curiosity, push them towards possibilities they may not have considered. I don’t have the emotional endurance to be a clinician, but they do – I watch them work patiently with these kids day after day – and I’m glad we’ve got these sorts of people going into the profession.

Oh. And on the engineering side, I’ve now got sketches for portable audiometers and VRA setups and other things that would make good projects for EPICS teams… but that’s another story for another time – perhaps next year.

How to play Speakeasy Secret Santa

My cousins, friends, and I played Speakeasy Secret Santa last night, at the suggestion of my brother Jason. (Edit: The game was invented by our cousin Mark.) It was fun. Here’s how it works:

  1. Go to a speakeasy with at least 4 other friends. (It doesn’t need to be a speakeasy, technically. But it needs to have a wide variety of good drinks, and speakeasies do. Also, alliteration.)
  2. Everyone pitches their IDs into the center. One person shuffles under the table and hands everyone an ID (also under the table, reshuffling if someone gets their own ID). You are the Secret Santa and will order a drink for the person you draw.
  3. Go around the table and have everyone briefly state their drink preferences. (“Sweet and not medicinal.” “I love bourbon.” “Girly drinks.” “l don’t like wine, but I love dark malty beers.”)
  4. Order for your Secret Santa.
  5. When the drinks arrive, go around the table again and read out drink names and descriptions while others guess who the drink is for.
  6. Then go around the circle one last time, with each person presenting the drink to its final recipient.
  7. Enjoy.

Will play again. Also, I learned that my brother really likes bourbon. (And whiskey, particularly of the Japanese sort.) Good to know.

Being deaf is: polled I/O instead of interrupt-driven

By the way, the whole baseline sound-making anxiety thing? It works the other way, too.

I’m an electrical/computer engineer. I like making embedded systems, which are tiny computers that do tasks while responding to the outside world. (I promise this is relevant. Stay with me here.) There are two (basic) ways for embedded systems to handle external input: they can have polled I/O (input-output), or they can be interrupt-driven. This Calvin College page has a nice explanation for polling I/O:

Think of a game where a basketball player is asked to make as many free-throws as possible in one minute, but the clock is down the hall in another room. The player must run down the hall and check if the minute has passed, and if not, go back to the gym and try to make another shot, then run down the hall to check the clock and run back to take another shot. The player spends much of the time simply checking (polling) the clock.

But wait — what if the basketball player can hear? And if the clock has a loud buzzing alarm? Then they’re fine, and can keep taking shots until they hear the BZZZT! that tells them to stop. This is called being interrupt-driven, and it’s such a gift — I’m stunned how much my hearing friends take this for granted. They can keep shooting basketballs, all the time. They can go right about their business, confident they’ll know when someone knocks on the door, or their food order is ready, or their kid falls down the stairs.

The deaf basketball player, on the other hand, keeps running back and forth along the hallway. I put in a periodic 1000-millisecond delay into my activity loop to stop and check things.

For instance, I enjoy cooking for friends. My kitchen is right next to my front door. At some point this fall, I realized I was constantly tense while cooking, and caught myself pausing periodically to see if somebody was at the door — because I can hear knocks on that door if I’m next to it, and very quiet, and I’m concentrating really hard. It was a totally unconscious programming loop I’d set up, and it basically said:

  1. It would be rude to let guests wait at the door for more than 30-60 seconds.
  2. Therefore, every 30-60 seconds, I will stop cooking and concentrate really hard! to check if guests are at the door.

I decided this was silly. Most of the time, guests aren’t at the door, so the vast majority of this concentration is just wasted effort.

Now I just prop open my front door if I’m expecting guests, and voila – instant cooking relaxation. (Yes, yes. Safety and heating/cooling bills. There are these tradeoffs.) In the long run, the better solution is getting a flashing door knocker and/or having a kitchen with big windows with the driveway/door within their line of sight (this is what I had last year, and it was marvelous). So, future Mel-home, you are going to have features.

Being deaf is: constant baseline soundmaking anxiety.

I woke up earlier than any of my relatives this morning, and showered in a house full of slumbering Thanksgiving guests. Quietly. Perhaps. I walked very, very slowly to the shower. I put my hand under the tub spout before turning the water on, because I know water directly hitting a hard surfaces makes a loud, loud noise — people have told me so. I closed the door before turning the fan on, laid the toilet seat down slowly instead of dropping it — it’s a constant thoughtfulness.

I have no idea if that was a quiet shower, and I hope it didn’t wake somebody up.

When the world around you doesn’t give you feedback, and the best gauge you have of your own noise level is frustration on the faces of the people near you, then sometimes you tiptoe through the world. It’s like walking near the edge of a cliff with your eyes closed; you shuffle your toe out, tap it gingerly, and then place weight. You walk slowly, and not without a sense of fear.

See, people don’t generally tell you things make noise — they don’t assume you’re deaf (even if they know you’re deaf); they just assume you’re rude. Sometimes they keep quiet about their frustration for weeks, months, even years — it just seethes underneath the surface, and you don’t know. I type loudly during quiet thinking breaks in class, constantly rustle books and papers in the chapel, and make munchy-slurp noises when I eat with gusto. Until my twenties, I didn’t know those things made noises. (Or that people can hear noises from inside bathrooms. Talk about retroactive mortification.) People just sat there and waited for me to figure it out, but I never could, because I’d never heard the things I was supposed to figure out were “loud.”

It’s not that I’m not thoughtful. It’s just that I can’t hear. I’ve learned by rote that many things make noise, and when I’m trying to be quiet (which is often — if I’m in a meeting, class, library, place of worship, or a home where people are winding down for the night), I do my best to monitor all of them. This takes cognitive effort, but it’s what I do to be polite.

I started laughing several months ago when I realized how anxious this was constantly making me. I decided to stop being anxious. This involves habit reversal training, and takes time and effort — y’know, first be aware when I’m anxious, then stop the anxiousness, then start the desired behaviors of muscle-relaxation and so forth… it’s still a semi-mechanical process at this point.

I’m still thoughtful — I’m still careful, I still take that effort — but my baseline expectation is no longer “I am a hearing person!” (which results in feeling like I’ve Failed Humanity by not realizing the microwave beeped). Now my baseline expectation is “I am a thoughtful deaf person!” (who offloads awareness to nearby hearing people who are willing and able to act as my interrupt-switches, and appropriately responds to the feedback she can get) and this is… far, far more relaxing.