Welcome

My first name is Erika. Not Erica. Not Ericka. My last name is Hammerschmidt, which has thirteen letters, including five consonants in a row. People still find it easier to spell than my first name.

In college I majored in German and Spanish. I also accidentally minored in art, just by taking so many art classes for the fun of it. I grow my own vegetables. I cut my own hair, but even when a professional barber cuts it, it still sticks out on one side and in on the other. I’m an author, artist and speaker living in Minnesota. I work at Target as well as giving speeches on autism and writing books. I am married to a space alien named John Ricker, who, like me, is on the autism spectrum.

Below you will find my latest news. Blog posts happen at least once a week here, on Sunday morning. Add me to your bookmarks! I’m always up to something.

Sirius the Starling: the 6-inch-tall pianist

My first video of Siri playing his piano. His training is going well, but he’s still a little bit shy about it.

I will post more videos as his skill improves.

(Sorry about the watermark; I am using a free version of this video editing program. When I have better videos– after more piano lessons– I’ll either buy the program or use a different camera that doesn’t insist on making 3gp files that can’t be edited in iMovie.)

Notebook Lifehack

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Input:

scissors

small binder clips

paperboard or slightly firm paper junk mail

printer fails (badly printed pages, wrong pages printed, etc, as long as they have one blank side)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Output:

removed handles for binder clips (can throw out, or save for when the notebook is full and you want to reuse them)

cool handmade recycled notebooks for homework, sketching, grocery lists, etc.

Yay!

Doctor Spock

tumblr_ll724vTIwp1qfgxbgo1_500 imgres

The Doctor: alien, but spends most of his time with humans

Spock: half alien, half human

The Doctor: has a name that no one knows

Spock: has a family name that is never revealed onscreen

The Doctor: has two hearts

Spock: has his heart in his side instead of his chest

The Doctor: died and regenerated a buncha times

Spock: died and regenerated once

The Doctor: telepathic

Spock: yeah

The Doctor: pacifist

Spock: yeah

The Doctor: totally geeky

Spock: super yeah

The Doctor: object of a million fan crushes

Spock: *fan crush-o-meter explodes*

The Doctor: his home planet was destroyed

Spock: his home planet still exists …you know, we’ve decided he wasn’t enough like the Doctor already

dreams within dreams

xthe-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-movie-poster.jpg.pagespeed.ic_.1WJk6eXPjw

The other night, I came up with a theory about the Ben Stiller version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” in which it turns out that all the “real” adventures he had were just more vivid daydreams, and his ACTUAL life was still totally boring.

My basis for this headcanon was:

1. it would be truer to the original story the movie is based on

2. in real life, the last issue of Life Magazine did not have that photo on the cover

3. in real life, it is impossible to get cell phone service in all the places he did

so, logically, these experiences must not have been real.

Then I woke up, and realized I had thought this all up IN A DREAM.

This is… so meta, I don’t know what to think.

Gingers

This is my husband John C Ricker.

John is a ginger.

Gingers gain a freckle for every soul they steal.

John is a photographer.

Photographs steal souls.

John almost never photographs humans.

John photographs hundreds of animals and plants.

John has hundreds of freckles.

Therefore,

animals and plants 

have souls.

Otherkin

I have occasionally described myself as an alien.

And lately I have spent a significant amount of time on Tumblr (where all genders, orientations, and other forms of identity are accepted and defended, and furthermore, there are new and unusual identities gaining recognition all the time).

So I’m sure some people are wondering what my opinions are on the phenomenon of “otherkin.”

That question encompasses several questions, which I’ll try to answer one by one.

1. How do you define the term “otherkin”?

As I understand it, otherkin are people who experience a feeling of being something other than a human, trapped in a human body.

2. Is it real?

Of course. It’s a feeling, so, if people feel it, then by definition it is real.

3. Is it just a feeling? Or is it really what people say it is?

If you mean being a literal reincarnation of some animal, a literal descendant of some alien, or a soul that some supernatural power literally placed in the wrong body… then, in my opinion, no.

However, I don’t find those ideas any more unlikely than the claims of mainstream religion.

To people who earnestly believe them, I extend the same respect and tolerance that I extend to religious people, as long as they aren’t using it as an excuse to hurt others.

You don’t have to share people’s beliefs to respect their feelings.

4. Is it comparable to being transgender? (In other words, is it the same type of feeling, and of the same strength?)

Without having had both those experiences, I can’t give a confident answer to that.

I’m not telepathic. I can’t know for certain what another person feels, or how strongly.

I can only make guesses based on people’s words and actions.

From observation of words and actions, I’m pretty sure there is a wide variation among individuals, both transgender and otherkin, in terms of how strongly they identify as such.

In both groups there appear to be some who identify with the group consistently and strongly throughout life, and others who identify temporarily and less strongly while they are growing up and trying to figure out their own identities.

Is the consistent-and-strong identification more common among transgender people than among otherkin? Yes, from what I can tell.

The recorded history of the transgender movement gives lots of evidence of transgender identity being felt very strongly, often to the point of undergoing major surgery, and risking one’s job, relationships and even survival for the sake of expressing one’s identity.

There’s less recorded evidence of otherkin going to such extremes.

However, to be completely open-minded and scientific, I have to consider the possibility that this is because otherkin are less common overall, or because they have not had communities that recognized the existence of their identity until the last few years.

And otherkin (or possible otherkin) are not completely absent from recorded history: there is, for example, the 1987 case of the Leopard Man of Skye.

Also, even if the experience of being otherkin is generally much less strong and enduring than the experience of being transgender, that doesn’t mean it is undeserving of any respect at all.

5. Should we demand respect and recognition for otherkin, in the same way we demand it for transgender and gay people? Or would that harm the social justice movement overall by causing people to take it less seriously?

I can see both sides of that. On the one hand, I would find it very hard to argue that any group does not deserve respect and acceptance. But on the other hand, I’m not sure society as a whole is ready to accept otherkin.

And, if otherkin associate themselves with the transgender movement by using some of the same terminology and rhetoric, it’s possible that could cause setbacks for society’s willingness to take transgender people seriously.

Society is starting to accept gay rights, transgender rights, women’s rights, and racial equality. That’s a great thing, and it would be terrible to lose that progress by pushing demands for more acceptance on society faster than it can adapt.

I’m not saying that people *shouldn’t* be ready to accept all non-harmful forms of self-expression at once. I’m saying that, in reality, they aren’t… and, however unfair it may be, the success of all the various human-rights movements depends on society being ready to accept them.

So maybe we need to wait a while, in the same way that we’re not going to start fighting for the right to polyamorous marriage while we’re still struggling to get gay marriage accepted.

But, even if that’s the case, it’s not a question of whether otherkin deserve acceptance; it’s a question of whether it’s feasible at this point in time. I’m all for accepting everyone who expresses their identity without hurting other people with it.

6. Do you identify as otherkin?

I can see how people could get that idea, since my first published book was literally titled “Born on the Wrong Planet.” But no.

As a teenager, maybe even as a college student, I might have identified as otherkin, if I had known about that community. I have even actively described myself as feeling like an alien trapped in a human body.

But that feeling isn’t prevalent enough in my life for me to consider it part of my identity.

(Especially since I’ve managed to surround myself with friends and loved ones who are as alien as me. It’s easier to feel that I fit in on Earth, if I carefully pick the elements of Earth that I get to spend time with.)

Sirius the Starling takes the Ice Bucket Challenge

The ice bucket challenge is really working for raising awareness. It may be silly and gimmicky, but it’s getting people to donate.

So Sirius stepped up and tried it.

He’ll take a bath in ANYTHING. Well, almost anything. Maybe he had to wait until the ice melted; so what. He’s adorable.

ALS Ice Water Challenge

I first learned what ALS was, when I was a kid in the car with my parents, driving past this old landmark:

http://www.slphistory.org/history/als.asp

als1969

I asked what the letters in the sign stood for. My parents explained both meanings (though I’m sure the builders of the sign didn’t have Lou Gehrig’s Disease in mind).

I kinda wish this place was still in business, so I could go there, order a glass of ice water, and pour it on my head.

Oh well. Might have to make do with Al’s Breakfast on University Avenue.

A Bridge in Time

I’ve been thinking about how strange it is that our sense of time can tell us, simultaneously, contradictorily, that the same period of time has felt both longer and shorter than it actually was.

Recently I saw a mention of the I-35W bridge collapse on TV. I was barely paying attention, and at first thought it was talking about a new bridge collapse. Once I figured out that it was actually referring to the anniversary of the old one, I started wondering how many years it had been.

Looking it up was a shock. My memory had stored that event as if it were very recent: I would not have been surprised to find out that it happened last year. But 2007? Seven years ago? For a few minutes I was convinced that Wikipedia had a typo.

I spent a while wondering how the last seven years could have flown by so fast. Was my perception of time speeding up that much as I grew older? Was the rest of my life going to slip through my fingers as if it were just a couple years?

Then I started thinking of other things that happened around the same time.

My book, for one. My memoir “Born on the Wrong Planet,” first published in 2003 by Tyborne Hill, was republished by AAPC in the year 2008… the year after the bridge collapse.

That republishing, though more recent, feels much longer ago. Six years feels about right to me, if not a bit short. The switch from my old publisher to my new one feels like a long-ago stage in my growth as a person; a scene from an earlier era of my life.

Why does the bridge collapse feel more recent to me than AAPC’s publication of my book? Was it because it’s a more important event? Yes, we do tend to say things like “it seems like just yesterday” when talking about memories that are important to us. And yes, objectively I realize that the bridge collapse was a more important event, affecting more lives more severely, than any event in my own life.

But in terms of my own emotional reaction to it, my brain does not seem to perceive it as more important than my book publication. It’s hard to react emotionally to a disaster that kills hundreds, when you see such disasters on the news every day. Exposure to the constant violence and destruction of real life will desensitize you faster than any gory video game or horror movie. The emotions close off as a defense mechanism.

I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed or injured in the bridge collapse, so my mind filed it as just another in a long line of deadly catastrophes on the news that my emotions couldn’t keep up with. So why, I wondered, was it so fresh in my mind, while the republication of my book– a deeply emotional process for me– seemed so long ago?

I think my mind measures time by change, not by actual passage of time. After all, change is the only way we really can measure time: the change of the seasons, the motion of the sun and moon and stars, the progress of the machinery in a clock. By observing how much things have changed, whether it’s the position of the clock’s hands or the color of the leaves, we get an idea how much time existed between now and the last time we checked.

The switch to the new publisher was an event in my own life, so I measure the time since it by how much I have changed. The bridge collapse was an event in the history of Minneapolis, so I measure the time since it by how much Minneapolis has changed.

Minneapolis is certainly a bit different now from how it was in 2007, but it’s stayed more the same, overall, than I have. Or maybe I notice the changes in myself more than the changes in my city.

I don’t know. I just know that my sense of time doesn’t provide a general feeling of time flying or time crawling for “the last seven years,” or “this past week,” or “today.” Instead of consistently judging that a certain period of time went by “fast” or “slowly,” it measures my perceived speed of time differently depending on which event I’m counting from.

It’s not really perceiving the speed of time; it’s simply tagging various memories as “recent” or “long ago,” with seemingly little regard for how long ago they actually were.

If it chooses these tags based on how much change has occurred in the relevant area since the event, that’s why the same period of time can feel like an eternity or an eye-blink depending on which memory I’m recalling.

The more a thing changes, the more time passes for that thing. A new form of temporal relativity, perhaps.

What Data meant by “emotionless”: The mind and body of feelings

When John and I sat down and watched all of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the thing that most consistently strained my suspension of disbelief wasn’t the faster-than-light travel, the plethora of humanoid aliens, or the idea of Wesley being allowed on the bridge.

It was Data the android. Not because he was an intelligent machine, but because he claimed to have no emotion.

He functioned, in all the most important respects, exactly like any creature with emotion. He made efforts to preserve his own life. He showed loyalty toward some people and distrust of others, and seemed to prefer the company of certain people. He was constantly motivated to seek new and interesting experiences. And on top of it all, he said, outright, countless times, that he had a desire to feel emotion.

At the time, I couldn’t find any way to spackle this gaping plothole. Desire is typically considered an emotion– one of the strongest and most important.

In fact, if you’re a conscious being, capable of making your own choices, you have to have the emotion of desire. That’s because all choices are caused by desire. I’ve analyzed hundreds of the choices I’ve made, and every single one was made because I either wanted it, or wanted something I could get by doing it.

I don’t often make absolute statements, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to make a choice for any reason other than desire.  Even if you do something because someone has a gun to your head, you’re still choosing to do it because it’s a means to the end of staying alive, which is something you presumably want. Even if you did something totally pointless that gained you nothing, just to prove you could, it would still be because you wanted to prove it.

So, I thought, if a creature that behaved like Data truly had no emotion, then he would not be a conscious entity. He’d be an automaton, programmed with an assortment of stock responses to an assortment of types of situations that his creator imagined he might face. Complicated, yes– it would take an enormous number of pre-programmed responses and simple algorithms working together, to simulate sapience as well as he does. But not truly conscious. The choices he made would actually be the choices of the person who programmed him. The prosecutor in “The Measure of a Man” would have been right about Data: he would not be a sentient being.

Even when depressed people enter a phase of “emotionlessness,” they still have the basic emotion of desire, on a few of the most fundamental issues. When they are unable to feel most of the emotions in their day-to-day lives, they can get bored and exhausted with this life of doing things they don’t care about. Sometimes the desire to stop the pointless routine becomes so strong they commit suicide. Sometimes they press onward and keep going through the motions anyway, because they want to avoid making other people sad– which is also a desire.

If you were capable of conscious thought, and not controlled by anything, but you were incapable of feeling desire… then you would do nothing. You wouldn’t go to work, because you’d have no desire to make money and keep your home. You wouldn’t respond to requests, encouragement or commands from other people, because you’d have no desire to please them or avoid their retaliation. You wouldn’t eat or drink, because you’d have no desire to stop being hungry or keep being alive. You’d die soon, but you wouldn’t actively kill yourself, because you’d have no desire to die. If you had no desires, you would absolutely not give a crap either way about anything.

But maybe desire isn’t always an emotion.

How do we define “emotion”? Lately I’ve realized that, for my whole life, I’ve been defining it as “any state of mind that can be described using the word ‘feel.’”

I’ve been using the word “desire” for the condition where your chest feels tight and you have to force yourself to breathe and your muscles are cramping with the effort to hold them back from trying to grab what you want… and I’ve also been using it for the condition where, rationally, you realize that the thing you’re reaching for is more likely to contribute to the achievement of your long-term goals than the alternative.

In either case you can say that you “want” the thing, or “feel a desire” for it. But maybe those two cases aren’t just different degrees of the same emotion.

What is emotion? It’s partially a mental condition. Mentally, you realize that you want something– to run away from danger (fear), to fight your enemy (anger), to be close to your loved ones (affection). It’s like a thought, but one that’s not necessarily put into words.

Usually, you don’t give conscious thought to why you want the thing. If you analyze it, you’ll almost always find that you want it because you think it will make you more happy than the alternative– “happy” being perhaps the only emotion that isn’t a form of desire.

Then again, maybe sadness isn’t a form of desire, either. It goes along with a wish for things to be better, but the sadness itself is focused on the feeling that things are bad right now. Most feelings involve motivations, but the mental portion of happiness or sadness could be described instead as an opinion: it’s the opinion that things are bad right now, or the opinion that things are good.

But for any feeling, in addition to the opinion or motivation itself, there are all the physical symptoms that go along with it.

When I try to imagine what fear feels like, my sensory memory supplies a pounding heart, cold limbs, muscles on a hair-trigger, ready to run or jump, and a slight tingly pain on the skin from the rush of adrenaline. Love feels warm, with a relaxed sensation, a swelling of the chest, and a different skin tingle that seeks touch. Anger is tight-chested, with pressure in my head and an ache in my cheeks and eyebrows, and the reflex to clench every muscle.

But what is an emotion, aside from a motivation or opinion and the body’s response to it? Is there anything beside those components?

I try to define what fear feels like, besides the opinion that I’m in danger and the motivation to save myself. Besides that, all I can think of are the physical sensations, ebbing and flowing in response to my thoughts about whatever I’m afraid of.

Every time I analyze a particular part of how an emotion feels, I realize that it’s a sensation of the body, not the mind. The only parts that aren’t physical are the thoughts that the situation is good or bad, and that I need to do something about it.

Maybe that’s what emotion is: the synergy of the mind’s part and the body’s part. Maybe the Tin Man was right: maybe you do need a heart to feel love.

Maybe it’s no accident that we use the word “feel” for both emotions and physical sensations.

I think Data had the “opinion and motivation” part of emotion. Probably he was programmed to have it. He considered some situations bad and some good, and he tried to seek out the good ones. And that couldn’t have been based only on logic, because if you try to base your desires only on logic, you eventually reach a question you can’t answer.

Why do I want to fight that alien monster?
Because if I don’t, it could kill my captain.

Why do I want it not to kill my captain?
Because he is valuable to the Federation.

Why do I care if the Federation loses a valuable captain?
Because anything that weakens the Federation threatens the political stability of the galaxy.

Why do I care about the stability of the galaxy?
Because instability could kill millions, including me and everyone I know.

Why do I care if everyone dies?
Because that would be terrible.

Why do I consider it terrible?
…I don’t know. I just do.

Logic is a way of deducing conclusions from premises. It can’t choose which premises you start out with.

Data seems to have had a few basic motivations, probably programmed into him by Dr. Soong, from which he reasoned all his decisions and conclusions. Basic motivations like “I must protect life.” He couldn’t logically explain why they made sense to him; he felt them in the same way we feel an instinct. But despite this, he still didn’t consider himself to have emotions.

Maybe it was just because he didn’t have an organic body. When something bad happened and he recognized that it was bad, his brain couldn’t respond by pumping his body full of the hormones of fear or anger or sadness.  He couldn’t feel the part of emotion that goes beyond opinion and motivation: the accelerated heartbeat, the tingles, the muscle tightness, the building of tears in the eyes. I think that was what he meant when he called himself emotionless.

Maybe the “emotion chip” he eventually got was a simulator that fed his brain the sensory feedback of an emotional body.

I was thinking about all this because I sometimes feel a bit guilty when I see something terrible in the news and don’t have a strong emotional reaction to it– because it’s too huge to process, or because I’ve been desensitized by reading so much news, or whatever causes those unfeeling moments I have.

But even when that happens, I still have the opinion-and-motivation part of emotion. I believe that what happened is bad. I experience a desire for it not to happen again. I do what I can to help prevent it.

And maybe that’s enough.

Data didn’t have the physical component of feeling. But he was a moral person. If a crewmate died, he didn’t feel a pang in his heart, a tightness in his throat and tears welling up in his eyes. But he still did everything he could to prevent their deaths. His desire to save them wasn’t physical, but it was strong– he prioritized it above other, less important things that he also valued.

So, if you do good things not because you love it, but because you believe you should… if you help others and protect civilization because you believe it’s the right thing to do, even if your heart doesn’t hurt when imagining the alternatives… if you see tragedies on the news and you don’t react by crying or clenching your teeth, but you still donate to charity or call your congressman to fight against those tragedies… then you don’t need to feel ashamed at not feeling the expected emotions. Data was one of the good guys, and you’re at least as good as he was.