Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Arriving

Arrival is one of those predators you don't see coming until your arm is investigating its lower intestine. One moment -OK, more than one moment, many moments, an eternity- you're in transit, and the next you aren't anymore, and you have to figure out what you're going to do with yourself that doesn't involve alcoholism or daytime television or a potent combination thereof.

I did this. Plus two tomato plants. And a fair amount of hubris.

Making a stab at gardening -even container gardening, which is only one notch above keeping houseplants, and not a very impressive notch, at that- is something I always meant to get around to. In fact, I'd been meaning to get around to if for the better part of a decade and a half, which is why I'm so shocked that I actually went and did the thing. I guess sometimes you surprise yourself. Or else maybe there really are things for which you wait -famously, fatuously- for that fabled right time.

Cross your fingers for me. These babies need it. Plants drink milk, right?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Life Wakes All Your Sleeping Dogs

I meant to stay put. I read a whole book about it. It was called Staying Put and it was by Scott Russell Sanders, from whom I grew up down the street, and with whom I share a gut conviction that life is meant to be lived within half a day’s walk.

I like staying put. I also like puttering, a word that always seemed to me as if it ought to have been etymologically derived from staying put. I like having decades-long acqaintanceships -not friendships, mind you, but the people you greet half-heartedly at the bank week after week until their hair is gone and yours is close. I like learning the lay of the land, then letting the it lie.

Goodbye, IN. I love you. No irony, no halfways, no complication. Which, for me, is saying something.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Friends, I'll still meet you halfway.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I'm at Music Camp

Of all things. Back soon.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Isak Denisen

"The cure for anything is salt water- sweat, tears, or the sea."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I Am Here

Boston, MA

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Make it So

If you wanna be all scientific, you marshal evidence, analyze it, and reach a conclusion. If you wanna be all twenty-first century, you start with a conclusion and then go scare up evidence to back it up.

Accordingly I present: Six things I've Googled in the past six months because I hoped they were true:
  • moving east storms lose energy
  • JXXX MXXXXX opthamologist
  • bed bugs moving van heat death
  • marshall (v.)
  • early music Richmond
  • Amtrak Indianapolis VA
There's something curious here. A hymn to wishes, or fishes.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Would you want to devote your life to an animatronic seal? What if you were eighty-five, demented, and relegated to a nursing home? What if the seal, much like a real creature, purred and waggled when you held it?

You could argue that journalism is at its best when it not only answers questions, but formulates them. And damned if I would have come up with the above questions on my own. Kudos, then, to the ever-disquisitive NYT, which gave pride of place above the fold Monday to an article on Paro, a $6,000 robotic pet designed by Japanese scientists.

Paro, whose name is a gloss of "personal robot," is a fluffy, white, sensor-crammed seal (you'd think folks smart enough to program a robot for daily use would be smart enough not to make that robot white, but never mind). Paro is currently being pioneered as a therapeutic tool for elderly nursing home patients. Per annecdotal report, Paro jolts the unresponsive, soothes the agitated, and brightens the dull. Elderly individuals, with and without mental impairment, develop relationships with Paro, caring for him and speaking to him as if he were real.

'"Oh, there's my baby," an old woman greets the seal. "Paro, come to me."'

I'm not sure what to make of all this. On the one hand, what's not to like about something that brings warmth and pleasure to people who are suffering? Paro will likely soon be shown to have health benefits similar to the health benefits enjoyed by the owners of real pets. What difference does it make, then, whether a fluffy pet's responses are programmed by scientists or by evolution? Does it matter whether our relationships are two-way streets so long as we feel as if they are?

On the other hand, there's something creepy about substituting a connection to a machine for a connection to something that lives, breathes, and cogitates. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, hints that Paro is the both the tip of the iceberg and a signifier of the low regard in which the elderly in general, and the demented in particular, are held:

'“Paro is the beginning,” she said. “It’s allowing us to say, ‘A robot makes sense in this situation.’ But does it really? And then what? What about a robot that reads to your kid? A robot you tell your troubles to? Who among us will eventually be deserving enough to deserve people?”'

By nature, Paro is a con artist, designed to elicit the benefits of human and animal relationships without any of the concomitant mess or work. Even if Paro doesn't fool you consciously, it fools you nevertheless, tapping into evolutionary drives so deeply instantiated they are beyond our control.

Says Clifford Nass, a Standford computer science professor: ”When something responds to us, we are built for our emotions to trigger, even when we are 110 percent certain that it is not human...which brings up the ethical question: Should you meet the needs of people with something that basically suckers them?”

10 years and several notches more moralistic ago, I would have said no. No, hell no, absolutely not, no. And, truthfully, Paro still makes me a little queasy. But here's the thing: We're already suckering ourselves right and left. What is advertising if not a series of smart, ever-more-accurate stabs at our deepest drives? We've already harnessed self-deception, and we've done it in the name of selling Frosted Mini Wheats, SUVs, Glade Plugs Ins, and Silly Bandz.

Why the heck wouldn't we use it to comfort the afflicted?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fire Truck!

I'm on the front page! In a fire truck! Nothing screams "I have arrived as a serious artist/ intellectual force" quite like this!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Strong Like Bull

If there's anything I like better than thick, white coffee mugs the waitress refills twice, it's thick, white coffee mugs the waitress refills three times. This morning I may have snuck in a fourth refill, whilst breakfasting with H in a cafe older than I am.

(I will miss, profligately, breakfasts in my hometown, rolling around in my own history like a potbellied pig with a nostalgia complex. Sigh.)

H and I started in on one topic, but the conversation turned, as conversations do (they're wily little buggers, spryer than pigs) and we got around to strengths and weaknesses. Apparently the Presbyterian church calls weaknesses "growing edges" but everyone knows this is church-speak for faults. After all, most of us are experts on weakness. We're prodigies. We're rocket scientists! Heck, I can recite by heart a taxonomy of my soft spots, my blindnesses, my flaws.

(I'm anxious. I'm cowardly. I am persnickity. I don't trust easily. I'm reactive. I'm mildly lazy. I'm selfish, especially when hungry. I'm restive. I have a hundred more where this came from.)

What we don't continually catalog -unless we are Liberace or Sarah Palin- are our strengths. We take them for granted. Our strengths are like the maiden aunt who takes care of you for eighteen years after your mother and father die in an elephant-riding accident. You see her around the house every day cleaning up your dishes, ironing your shirts, but you don't bother to say thank you because that's just what she does.

So I'm coming up with some strengths. Not the standard answers I trot out for job interviews, but some honest-to-God, real-life, bona fide maiden aunts. Here goes:

I'm empathetic.
Words are easy.
I'm a cheap laugh.
I'm a good walker.

That was actually kind of tricky. What are your strengths?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

#4: Love

OMG u r so damn CONGRUENT. I mean, a book called Love for a reading project on books you love? It's so thematic it kills me, so thematic my facility with language has run screaming for the hills and I am left with the vocabulary of a 14-year-old Justin Bieber fanatic. I E> u!

That's a heart. Sorry. I'm not exactly a ninja with the emoticons.

Love is by Toni Morrison, an author I confess I've always hated. She's not a bad writer, but she is, in my judgment, an overwriter, prone to lavender-tinged prose and the kind of woman-power magical realism that has turned me away from a phalanx (no, a coven! No, a sharing circle!) of authors, including Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison Allen, Laura Esquivel, and Joanne Harris.

(An orange has four quarters, damn it! And water and chocolate cannot be substituted for one another, unless possibly you have lost your tongue to a glossectomy and can no longer taste. Also you'd have to be blind. And have no nose.)

I guess what I'm saying is that Toni Morrison and I have different points of view. In her books, emotion bends reality: anger conjures storms, love heals, the past poisons you. In my book, reality bends emotion. The world happens to you; you deal with it. End of story.

But taking another person's perspective, while often irritating, is seldom wasteful. At the most it expands you; at the least, you sojourn outside of your head. And so I read Love over a series of midsummer afternoons, sipping sweet tea the whole way.

Love is the story of Bill Cosey, a fast-talking hotel magnate who birthed, then ran into the ground, a resort for wealthy African Americans in the first part of this century.

Except that's the first lie Love tells us: it's not about Cosey at all, but rather the women who alternately plagued, cosseted, accommodated, loved, hated, and were abused by him. Decades after Cosey's death, Heed, his final wife, and Christine, his grandaughter, live locked together in silent battle in the house he left behind. They loathe one another, each consumed by her plans to thwart and hurt the other. Into this cold war stumbles Junior, an opportunistic eighteen-year-old just out of Corrections who wants only, so she claims, to survive.

That's another lie, of course, and over the brief length of her novel Morrison skillfully presents, then unwraps, one prevarication after another. It's an arresting striptease: Morrison's prose may be overwrought, but her plotting is lithe, and her characters reveal themselves to themselves, and themselves to you, with the awkward grace of pole dancers.

Love is the wife you didn't know you married but uncover decades later, one hand on the spoon, the other on her hip. It's the fish you didn't understand you caught, the letter you didn't know you had written until you saw the one you got in return. Love is tricky little novel, and not an uninteresting one. Love and hate, Morrison shows us, are head and tails of the same coin.

Which, if true, reframes my hatred of Morrison. Do I hate Love? Do I love Love?

I'm not sure, and, thanks to Morrison, I'm not sure it matters.