A literary experiment in the style of the first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet. As Knausgaard wrote Autumn and Winter waiting for his daughter Anne to be born, so I write this post waiting for my son Felix, who could come any day now.
Yesterday around 11:40 am Mihnea and I went to Big Wax car wash at Parliament and Front Street in Toronto. There was a medium-long line, but it wasn’t nearly as long as the one we left in exasperation the day before at an Esso automatic car wash closer to our home. There it seemed like everyone in Toronto washed their car at the same place and at the same time on a Saturday afternoon. Urban rituals, tucked into life like the starched collared shirts that pixelate the PATH conjoining the Toronto banks with prepared foods from McEwan’s restaurants and grocery stores. The line at Big Wax moved fast because the car wash staff moved fast. The process started with a man who walked car by car to take people’s orders in intermittent lulls from his primary work spraying down cars before the main wash. His thick brown eyebrows furrowed under brown hair and eyes in discipline, his gaze never landing anywhere but remaining aloof, absent, focused, leaving just enough space to take in the eccentricities and emotionality of the clientele like a data stream, but never stopping long enough to absorb them. On his carbonless copy paper pad, he checked off whether the customer wanted an $11.75 Rinse and Dry or a $14.95 Rinse and Shine or a $26.00 Big Wax complete job, the whole works, including interior cleaning. Didn’t chit chat. Checked the box, placed the yellow sheet on the dashboard and handed the white sheet for payment to Mihnea, moved on to the next car, eventually pivoted back to the front of the line to spray the next car and keep things moving. We inched our way to the front of the line. Our wheels were cockeyed and another staff member gestured vigorously through the closed windows to get us to move them straight so they would settle into the ruts that would pull the car through the wash. Inside the car we shuffled through my Spotify Discover Weekly, largely disappointed by the recommended music. Most of my time listening to music is spent at work, and most of the work music does for me is to block out the noise of the open concept office spaces I inhabit so I can concentrate. I favor minimal ambient music like Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon or any track on Jónsi’s Riceboy Sleeps or Max Richter’s Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or other Scandinavian and Icelandic minimalist and post-rock composers like Ólafur Arnalds and Jóhann Jóhannsson and Arvo Pärt (admittedly somewhat different). Too much melodic structure distracts me; words distract me; but the rich symphonic interplay of minimalist rhythms and melodies keeps me cradled, protected, focused even when others bang keys or eat carrots or speak about something I’d have to pretend not to want to overhear. The problem is that the latent representation guiding the Spotify recommender system frequently mistakes my taste in minimalist ambient music for a taste in massage-table easy-listening piano music. This week’s recommendations largely sucked. I pressed the “don’t like this song” icon again and again, cycling exasperation until we landed into a rich tapestry of a Jónsi song as we put the car into neutral to begin our journey in the underworld of the automatic car wash.
Going through a car wash is like being in a whale’s stomach, or being on a roller coaster in a broken-down amusement park in North Korea. All control over the vehicle and experience is handed over to the rails of the machine, which lugs the car in incremental steps. Soapy water gushes around the windshield like saliva, bright red tongues lash and lap suds as if they were breaking down prey flesh. The tongues thud against the steel and glass of the car, not so hard that it’s worrisome but hard enough that it’s a distinctive thud. After red comes blue as the light dims in the center of the wash’s belly. The cadence of swishing and swooshing changes as salt and mud and dirt and winter muck falls off the car onto the ground below, in through ducks into the ground. The car moves on to the next station. Felt fabric organs close in once more over the windshield. Inside the car is warm and dry. Eyes watch awestruck, ears hear the nuances between each phase. Light emerges again near the exit and a massive dryer descends from the ceiling, its air spewing water droplets from the windshield with a force much greater than the hand dryers in public bathrooms, but similar. If the dryer were to have direct contact with faces inside the car, lips would stretch like a skydivers. The whole thing lasts about five minutes.
The experience of the car wash hasn’t changed at all since I was a kid. When I was in elementary school, we lived on Highland Drive in Apalachin, New York, and would go to the car wash every few weeks just past Hidy Ochiai’s Karate studio on the Vestal Parkway. I wanted to go, loved going, and suspect my brother did too. It’s easy to understand why the car wash would be such a treat: the experience is radical, bizarre, otherworldly. In my memory we pulled up to an automated menu similar to the interface at a fast food drive-in. I don’t think, in reality, the car wash menu visual design was anything like images of a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets. It was probably a simple pick list in primary colors like Mihnea and I saw yesterday at Big Wax. I suspect my memory tricks me because the drive-thru feels similar to the car wash; we wait in the car for a service, and select from a menu along the way. I haven’t eaten drive-thru food since I was a kid. And I believe yesterday was the first time I went through an automatic car wash since we lived in Apalachin. Part of me thinks that can’t be true, that I must have experienced a car wash during my teens in the Boston suburbs. I didn’t own a car for much of my adult life, as I lived in urban downtown cores and moved around using public transportation (and barely cared for the busted Suzuki Forenza I drove around the Bay Area during graduate school; at any rate, cars rarely need washing in Palo Alto). But it’s also possible that yesterday my mood and mindset was open and imaginative enough to elide more with the joy I experienced at the car wash as a child. That the harmonic overtones the experience evoked took me back to the car wash experience of my 7- or 8-year-old self, absorbed in the oddity, not distracted by the self-absorbed tribulations of my 14- or 15-year-old self. Perhaps.
In late November, on our way home from the ritualistic Thanksgiving trip to my aunt’s house in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Mihnea and I stopped in Apalachin so I could show him the house I grew up in. Here it is, at the corner of Highland Drive and Alpine Drive.
It hasn’t changed drastically, although there are differences. I don’t think we ever had a yellow door. We used to have a big crab apple tree in the front yard and a willow tree on the side near the two windows visible in the photo near the chimney. Those were windows into my childhood bedroom, and I spoke to the willow tree like a friend until we tore it down in the wake of a hurricane. When we visited in November, I stood on the driveway and looked up the street. It felt the same. I could see the Valentas’ house and see the Batman Boomerang I once accidentally threw into a friend’s forehead. I looked down the street and it felt different. The Yonkos’ home seemed to sit at a different angle than I remembered, the proportions were off. I could see my brother getting hives from eating huckleberries at the house across from the Yonkos’ down the road. Mihnea and I walked up the hill and down another hill to Tioga Hills Elementary School. The walk was shorter than I remembered from my childhood, when my hair tips used to freeze, still wet from the shower. We walked behind the school and, for the first time in 20 years, I remembered what it felt like to play wall ball with the boys, remembered feeling invited by them because I was athletic, but already embarrassed in budding self-awareness. As we looped around the front of the school, I remembered the day, in fifth grade, when I wore my new Limited cut off jean shorts and Limited bright pink and yellow sleeveless plaid shirt, which I wrapped up near my waist like an aerobics instructor in the early 90s. I was freezing, and one of my teachers asked me why I thought it was a sound idea to wear an outfit like that when it was still so cold. The forecast predicted 62 degrees fahrenheit; I was excited for the warmth of spring, but hadn’t yet realized a daily high could be but a moment in time. I don’t think I got sick, but I shivered most of the day. After seeing the house, Mihnea and I ate at the Blue Dolphin Diner, where we ate frequently when I was a child. They served the same homemade white bread loaves: square loafs that came with a serrated knife and little whipped butter packets. We sat at the bar. When I was a kid, we sat in the main dining room. I ate a Greek combo plate with moussaka and hot dolma and a greek salad with canned black olives and pepperoncini and iceberg lettuce. I could barely eat half before I was stuffed. Mihnea had a Ruben and crinkle-cut french fries. When I was a kid, I used to eat the baked ziti. My mother would warn that the man was coming if my brother and I acted up.
Yesterday, after the huge dryers blew most of the water off the car, we pulled up outside and two more staff members came to do the final hand dry with long, thin, light-blue towels. Mihnea got out to pay the bill, and I was alone inside listening to the one salvageable track from my Discover Weekly List. The guy drying the car asked me if he could come in a pull it forward to make more space for the next car. I said sure. Upon getting in and seeing my 36-week-pregnant belly underneath a sloppy grey sweatshirt he exclaimed “well look at you!” And he warmed up. Like many strangers do these days. Being pregnant is like being a dog: people smile at me and greet me and seem to presume innocence.
“Boy or girl?” he asked.
“Boy,” I replied.
“I have two. It’s going to change your life. But for the better. You will love it.”
I smiled. “I think so too.”
He finished his work and left the car. But my view of him and his view of me changed. It wasn’t just a transaction, wasn’t just aloof eyes pushing the cars through the car wash. I heard the brightness of his voice and knew slightly more about the facts of his existence, rather than speculating about his life outside the car wash. He had two boys. We shared something fundamental. I wonder if his boys think the car wash is as strange and magical as I do, as I suspect Felix will.
The featured image has nothing to do with a car wash, besides the metaphorical similarity of salt clinging on the sides of cars in winter like barnacles and shells clinging to metal fences near the lake. The mood of the image better matched the mood and tone of the piece than any images I could find of automatic car wash brushes.
You might prefer to read the second part of this post first. It will seem more familiar, as its I is closer in voice and referent to the I in other posts on this blog. Or, you might prefer to read the first part first and see how you feel.
It became possible when I noticed him noticing the quick assuredness of Agilulf’s hands arranging pine cones in an isosceles triangle at dawn. It was one of the early moments where he identified completely with nonexistent knight. Where they shared a feeling. Where his need to feel in Agilulf a presence more solid and concrete than the other paladins was met with and mirrored by Agilulf’s own need to count objects, arrange them in geometric problems, resolve problems of arithmetic, apply himself in any way possible to recover precision into a world faintly touched, just breathed on by light. In that hour in which one is least certain of the world’s existence. I was manically focused on Agilulf at the time, so focused that I was unable to recognize Raimbault’s sensitivity through the mask of his youth. But here, now, having come into my desire, the recollection changes. I am able to see that, had Raimbault not sought solidity, and, what’s more, not questioned this very act of seeking as he started to sense that the tiresome need to tuck himself into a ready-made belief system, a system retrofit with ritual and rules of conduct, might actually signal cowardice, he wouldn’t have felt oppression upon seeing the nonexistent knight counting trees, leaves, stones, lances, pine cones, anything in front of him. There was undeniable kinship when we first met, but it was hoplite kinship, the homoerotic, fraternal bonds Plato describes in the Symposium, the mute community born in battle. I stayed silent. Refrained from speech lest anyone, even he whom I protected, discern my womanhood. I’ve grown accustomed to the dull pain of absconding my identity. It rings in my ears like tinnitus. Reminds me that I will always be excluded because I am a woman. When I first entered the knighthood, I tried to be one with them, to participate in the fraternity that arises when they, we, together, act according to the oaths we have taken as knights. But my path is one of solitude. As woman, I am unable to fulfill their aching needs on the battlefield. I watch how they relive Gilgamesh’s love for Enkidu, recover Achilles’ love for Patroclus, how they seek a mirror self to offset the traits they now know they lack and therefore desperately seek to replenish in another. I can only feel this bond, this mute community, from a place of pretense, by covering my gender, a portion of my identity, so they see what they need see and so I can continue doing what I was born to do. What I love. This is where Raimbault, at first, was so mistaken. He reduced me to a caricature, assumed, because of the excellence of my practice, that I existed, that I was definite. He couldn’t grasp that what I sought was an entirely different way of existing, one that reached the apotheosis of form in the form only embodied by the nonexistent knight. That the vagaries of men tired me. Their slothfulness. Their corpulence. Their farts and burps. I wanted more. Would go so far as to enter a nunnery to learn the dark arts of sublimation, of esteeming the permanent above the fleeting joys of the world. It was a bold act of autonomy, a clamoring for existence so that I no longer had to endure the alienation. In retrospect, I’ve come to feel pity for Charlemagne. Like me, he has been rendered myth. Like mine, his story has been written and rewritten so many times. My entrance into the narrative space of play was set in stone epics ago, imprinted on sandstone by Virgil and twisted, like a variation on a musical theme, through Ariosto and Tasso. The Christians fight the Moors (or the Greeks the Turks, or the Romans the Celts). The damsel comes, our virgin Sophronia. She is abducted and flown on a hippogriph through farfetched twists and turns of fortune to a dragon’s den, her virginity kept sacrosanct so the knights have their way. Her skin is white as lilies, her hair long and flowing like the Nile for the privileged one (few?) who see it free from diadems and braids. And in the heat of battle, just when a hero is about to meet his fate at the brutal swords of the Moors, I appear, a man. I appear with mastery and skill, brandishing the enemy to save the hero. He then seeks me to express gratitude to his kin. But, of course, I’ve disappeared, to the riverside to wash my wounds and calves. When he stops looking (and, concomitantly, the reader has forgotten), he finds me. And discovers, what ho!, that I’m a woman. And since I’ve already forgone the stereotypes of that define my gender, so too might I forgo the innocence of idealized sexuality. At least in the freer times of Ariosto, I am naturally also the representation of homoerotic desire. The voice of the oppressed. For everyone who reads, including the knights, want nothing more than to watch as another, a woman, caresses my milk white breasts. And that is precisely why my path is solitary. Why I had no authentic place on the battlefield. Why, tired of this narrative, I entered the convent to subvert it. This time playing a different female role, that of a nun, of Sister Theodora of the order of Saint Colomba. But even here I found myself caught in a new nexus of alienation, bearing the weight of my elected verisimilitude. For what would a nun, who has no experience apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, know of battle and knighthood? Nothing. Of battles, I now feign to say, I know nothing. I must rid myself of my past precisely as I go about reconstructing it in my tale. But perhaps it is this distancing from my past that grants me freedom to create a new future? Perhaps it is this distancing that has granted me the ability to create worlds within from a pen stroke act of will, as here on the river’s bank I set a mill, and there, beyond the town I trace out a wood, and in this wood follow Agilulf as he scours it through and through, follow him to Priscilla’s palace where I live my own dream of chaste seduction as the nonexistent knight subverts all direct acts of concupiscence and sexuality. There was a rush to the power. A draw to a newfound ability, to a creativity absconded from the pressures and pulls of others, a place of repose. But I also felt fear at how precarious and coincidental the space available to my imagination turned out to be. One morning, for example, as I was writing I was constantly distracted by the clatter of copper and earthenware as the sisters in my convent washed platters for dinner. It reeked of cabbage. The smells infiltrated me. And when I went back the next day to observe my creation I was appalled to see I’d brought the convent to the book, describing the mess hall and how out of place Agilulf seemed at the feast. The contingent determinism of my environment, of a bunch of nuns making cabbage soup, seemed crass in contrast to the dusty aura of the epics that had grafted my existence before. So I stopped. Wrote more and more quickly. Abandoned the details. Didn’t retain the discipline required to recreate the scene, to help you, reader, live it, feel it, enter it fully. Jumped from France to England, England to Africa, and Africa to Brittany with utter disregard for the Aristotelian rules of time and place. I relaxed the constraint that weighed me down, the discipline of a cohesive third-person chronicle and even went so far as to address the book I was writing in the vocative like I did when I wrote in my journal as a child. Book, I wrote, now you have reached your end. And miraculously, at this moment of abandon and decadence, I heard a horse come up a narrow track. I recognized the voice of Raimbault. And while I’ll never love him ardently, never find in him the elision I seek with another to finally know the world, I know from what I’ve chronicled how much he loves me, how he has loved me since he noticed me peeing in the stream after I saved his life. I’ll rush to meet him, let him guide my pen as life urges along, and mount the crupper of my horse to find my future. Because no one would have expected it. It’s not the plot. Nothing I’d create. It could not be Bradamante. Therein, perhaps, I’ll find the possibility of freedom.
What you’ve just read is an experiment. An attempt to become a better reader.
First, it meant engaging with the text actively–and returning to it a few times in a short time frame–to better register and remember it. This took effort, even emotional effort. Reading literature and philosophy passively is at once an indulgent pastime and an attempt to keep a former self intact and alive, a self who spent most of her time reading books and writing about books, whose job it was to say something about books that no one else had said before. My professional success no longer hangs on my knowledge of literature and the artfulness and ingenuity of my interpretation. I changed. Moved to technology. Strive for excellence according to the standards and conventions of a different social circle and profession. But, pretend though I may, my transition was not a complete epigenetic phase shift. Reading still matters to me. And I experience unnerving discomfort when a passage I read just a week ago, a passage that was so alive and vivid while I was reading it, has disappeared like vapor on a car window or footsteps washed away by the sea. My emotional discomfort, therefore, stemmed partially from self-criticism, frustration that total recall wasn’t a given, didn’t effortlessly arise from passive consumption. It was a recognition that I had work do to, coupled with the desire to keep on doing the same because it was easier. So I had to make it fun. Do something creative. Trick myself into making engagement effortless to silence to lacerations of the superego.
Which lead me to fiction. Writing a companion piece that grappled with the question: who is the narrator of The Nonexistent Knight? I’d engage with the book by replicating it, adapting it, making it my own by assimilating it.
This is almost accurate. I actually started by composing a different blog post, one whose I was close in voice and referent to the I in most of my other posts. But I felt too exposed. Projected judgment around the triteness of my conclusions. Felt silly writing a post about trying to remember what I’d read. I needed fiction to protect myself. Needed Bradamante to exorcise my fear. Without her, I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing these words.
Fortunately this cloak of fiction added a layer of reflexivity. The Nonexistent Knight is itself a kind of reading, where, like a medieval artist painting her version of the annunciation or the pietà, Calvino engages with the familiar stories of the Carolingian epics. His writing is a reading of Ariosto, of Tasso, of scenes and memes intimately familiar to his readers. Or at least to some readers. For us, today, there can be no presumption that people know those tales. No awareness of the tradition into which the stories fall. The text doesn’t have a shadow. It lacks the trappings of identity it would have had in a time where it was a given that people know Bradamante, knew Charlemagne, had grown up with the tales. We’re bid to ask what means it means to rewrite a Renaissance Romance in an age when people don’t recognize it’s a recapitulation, but are reading it for the first time. It kaleidoscopes the nonexistence of the protagonist in the text.
And there was more.
Why did I care about becoming a better reader in the first place? What did I seek? Why did my lack of recall create such a rabid sense of discomfort and shame?
The system of identity Calvino grapples with through the character of the nonexistent knight constitutes selfhood through the embodiment and application of codes of conduct and structures of belief. Knights do X in Y setting; one becomes a knight by passing through Z ritual. Take away a paradigm sanctioned by others’ recognitions that you fit into their code, that you act in a way that confirms how they view themselves, and all that remains is the raw encounter with experience. The constitution of self through and via an amassed collection of experiences. But this self as conversation with the world stands on precariously flimsy stilts unless one can recall with fidelity, unless there is a distancing from the vagaries of momentary subjectivity. In short, it mattered that I could remember things accurately because my very identity was at stake, an identity constituted from a series of encounters and experiences. I wanted, needed, to know the book for what it was, to love it for what it was, so I myself could stand on firmer ground. It’s a lesson I can apply elsewhere, a moral attitude for engaging with the world. An attempt to know the world and its people for what it is and who they are.
One final thought.
There are a few passages in The Nonexistent Knight that I’d remember without all this effort and alienation. The introduction of Gurduloo in chapter three, for example, is hilarious. Gurduloo is the foil of Agilulf, the man who exists but doesn’t think he does as opposed to the man who doesn’t exist but thinks he does. He’s marvelous. Sees ducks and joyfully becomes duck. Sees frogs and mindlessly becomes frog. Sees the king and impudently becomes king. It’s a variation on the joker from an opera di buffa, who speaks the truth no one else can tell. Like Gurduloo to his surroundings, the passages existed without needed to think they existed. They just were. There to be enjoyed without all the reflexive reflection. It feels cliché, but it’s too true not to acknowledge. It’s the bliss of the poet. The ability to be so engaged with the world that it sticks with us and shapes us.
 In retrospect, I wish I had been a more dialogical scholar of literature. I admire how my Stanford colleague Harris Feinsod, now a professor at Northwestern, wrote articles in response to and in dialogue with other active literary critics. Responding to someone wasn’t on my mind when I was a graduate student. I engaged with secondary literature, engaged with others’ ideas about the text I was working on, but felt I was arguing with an absent ideal rather than a person.
The featured image is from Pino Zac’s 1971 film adaptation of Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight. I presume (because I only skimmed the film) the man with his arms raised is the King of the Grail, who abdicates the moral weight and responsibility of killing innocent people in the name of fanaticism, which is too often guised as perverse form of Enlightenment. It is a paragon B film, weaving technicolor, black and white, and animation to visually represent the different ontological levels Calvino sculpts in the book (Agilulf and Raimbault as real characters in color; Charlemagne and the other knights as animations; Sister Theodora, the author of the work, imprisoned in her penance of black and white). My partner Mihnea found its style to be unmistakably in the tradition of Federico Fellini. I saw hints of Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s a fascinating artifact. I’m glad it exists.
The Facebook Portrait practice yielded an insight today. I didn’t know this before I started. I’ve come to learn it in and through the practice.
I frame the portraits through an anchor experience that is meaningful to me. They aren’t fashioned from some neutral, third-person perch. I unfold love by identifying the essence of the emotion my subject–my friend–invokes in me, and then unravel the acrylic streamers from this emotional kernel.
But I’ve noticed that each person evokes a different aspect of myself and my personality. One person shares the practice of meditation. Another shares my taste in abstract art. Another shares my childhood, my deep history with ninja turtles and home video cameras. Another shares the simple joy of a beet folded into a rose on the dinner table, the elemental goodness of a meal shared with friends.
The Facebook Portrait project, therefore, is also a means of showing the self as a kaleidoscope. Of showing how our narrative is that much richer when it is viewed not as a series of selfies but as a series of self-portraits inflected through the presence and inspiration of those who love us, each person amplifying a different parameter, a different feature. Each person activating a different potential.
The composite of all the portraits is a type of self portrait. But it shows a self in context. A social self. Not a self as monad.
The practice is indeed spiritual.
I do believe this. Our core philosophical task in the early 21st century to unravel the self, this construct we inherited from Humanism, and recover the fluidity of sociality and ecosystems and organisms big and small.
But it’s also overthinking it. I write the portraits because I like writing them. It’s joyful. I like touching people. I like remembering things I had forgotten as I unpack the intuitions that frame the portraits. I like how it’s a form of meditation. I like how it doesn’t hurt because I don’t feel pressure to perform.
Here is the second batch of portraits. I’m currently planning to share them in batches of 5.
Portrait 6: Alisa Wechsler
While not of my blood, you are my sister because we are both at our happiest eating smoked whitefish and sturgeon.
While not of my blood, you are my sister because we have walked the same path in life, both roll up our sleeves to share forearm scars, forever marks of creatives imprisoned, I muting me, you muting you, we together dampened by the cumbersome gaze of what we assumed would be expected, and was.
You are my sister because you left your scars in the backseat with the grocery bags and the milk spoiling in the muggy Jersey sun and walked into life with the kids.
My sister because you saw me for me. The situation begged skepticism, criticism, concern, but you allowed the apartment to silence the voices and clear space for compassion and connection. Perhaps it was the buffalo parchment embrace of the Wayang puppets Rama and Sinta in the alcove. Perhaps the still modernism of Albers above the dining room table. The white cowhide rug. You felt yourself in the design and this recognition of kinship peeled away the prior expectations of concern to see why it all made sense.
My sister because when we walked through the David Bowie exhibit, this proleptic funeral procession he prepared as his final act, we saw permission. We left the shame on the other side. We too were Pierrot in Turquoise, were Ziggy Stardust, were unleashed at last with Eno in Berlin in his screaming ode to the king and his queen loving one another ardently, free, finally, pure, if only for one day.
My sister because I will care for your daughters and be their sister, too. I will keep their seeking eyes in my mind as I make my own choices, know there are young women watching, young leaders in search of a role model to show them what the world can offer and that the world can never keep them down.
My sister because of the constancy. Because we can flake out and be busy and need to take care of 65,000,000 things when we’re on the east coast and christ the time gets away and we really wanted to actually connect this time and it’s just not going to happen but it doesn’t matter, there’s zero resentment, zero concern, because I will always be there for you and know you will always be there for me, we’re united inside the substrata, underneath the erosion of the world. We’re inside the rocks in Arizona holding little girl hands, while outside the parched sun sweeps the lizards and the peyote.
My sister because who would have thought you’d be stuffing meat into a grinder with blood on your hands and sitting up straight in the meetings with the investors unabashedly demanding one more check. And they trusted you. They took a bet on you. They knew with someone as solid as you at the helm, money would flow.
My sister because you play the drums and have that silly purple car and somehow embody the rusty spirit of mullets and hair bands in 2018, but somehow make it fashionable.
My sister because the world will teach you about itself for your whole life. Because you hear its song. Because Gunner will be there with the dogs and you’ll all transcend the wrinkles of time with Peter Pan minds. Because you no longer need a fountain of youth. You have freed yourself to be you, and come into love.
Portait 7: Mike Hume
Should the ninja turtles (NTs) negatively impact one’s mental well being, Mike Hume is screwed.
The NTs weren’t a Saturday-morning cartoon in the Hume household on 27 Highland Drive, Apalachin, New York (spelling always tripped me up when we first learned geography at Tioga Hills elementary school, up the road past the Starners’ house and then down the road on the left; my hair would freeze walking to school in the winter but I kind of dug it. Still do.).
They were a way of being.
Dad and Mike used to make these home videos of NT adventures, you know, some plot with Shredder and Crang being up to some shit. Dad had a moany Crang voice that may or may not be anything like Crang’s cartoon voice. It was decidedly NOT anything like Pinky or the Brain’s voice (side notes: Mike’s and my favorite Pinky quote is, “I think I am Brain: his name would be far more politically correct as Jean-Claude van Darn.”; Dad DOES have a Brain voice that comes out at Red Sox games in Fenway Park when he puts all of himself into a YEEES, either after some shortstop play is made or he has just punched the beach ball floating around so hard it goes to another part of the stadium; and I do believe the world would be a far saner place if Crang were the mascot for artificial intelligence, not the horrendous cognitive robots that litter the internet.).
I remember Mike being Raphael, although IMHO it would make way more sense for him to be Michelangelo, given his personality. The best part of the videos was the Warp Pipe with which the NTs would teleport to Shredder’s lair. The Warp Pipe was a ceramic napkin holder in the shape of an owl. Raphael, expertly voiced by Mike, would stand inside and then we’d put in him front of the Macintosh Classic with the rotating laser screen saver, the kind that better damn well continue to illuminate the background of 2nd-grade school photos, or else the world really is descending into senseless chaos, and there must have been some voice over for the teleportation. Mike was way better than I was at NT simulation because he remembers EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY LINE FROM EVERY MOVIE OR TV SHOW HE HAS SEEN. It’s insane. Like total recall. Sarah McManus (the love of Mike’s life) can attest to this, and likely gets somewhat frustrated that Mike never says anything that isn’t a quote from some movie, or a comment on the day’s golf game.
The NTs in the home movies were the 6-inch-ish figurines. Then we had the 1.5-foot-ish figures that were a softer plastic and were more life size (calibrated to kid height). That means we didn’t film them; they existed in the plane of our own reality. So Dad was at work and Jeff Valenta was over and we’d concocted a scenario where the very same home video camera that Dad used to film the NT home movies became itself Crang’s vehicle (Crang is just a brain so he needed to be housed in something). Mike was Raphael, as always, and he took one of his golf clubs and like BEAT THE SHIT out of Dad’s home movie camera. That was the end of our time making NT movies.
(Side note: Mike was on television when he was 2. It was at the B.C. Open, a PGA golf tournament that took place at the En-Joie country club in Endicott, New York from 1971-2006. Mike was caught swinging his blue tiny tikes driver, the cameraman commenting that he was destined to be a pro. Mike does have a nasty good drive. Side note 2: tiny tikes rakes, hoes, shovels, and spades were prominently featured as air guitars alongside the ray bans in the other Hume-family home movie series where our cousins played back up to Eric Clapton in After Midnight, again and again and again.)
The culmination of Mike’s NT-centric childhood (besides Vanilla Ice teaching us life lessons about dancing, pants, and hair, BTW this song literally has a line that says “Lyrics, fill in the gap” – like he didn’t bother to write the lyrics and forgot to update the template from the producer) was a trip to Disney World where we met the NTs who weren’t just 6-inch figures, weren’t just 1.5-foot dolls, but were 6-foot-the-real-deal-holy-shit-we-are-meeting-the-NTs-in-real-life guys! We stood in the crowd. Mike was 3ish, perched atop Dad’s shoulders so he could have a better view when the NT van came around the corner. We have a photo of his face ANGUISHED with anticipation.
And then he disappeared. Mom was terrified – she’d lost her child in this huge crowd. But April O’Neil was clever enough to improvise. Mike appeared on stage in April O’Neil’s arms. He had made it. Went from directing movies about NTs to destroying the video camera that made the same movies to being up there on stage for everyone else to see. He had triumphed. He had become ninja turtle.
PS – I love Mike more than anyone in the world. He makes my accomplishments feel special in a way no one else does. There’s just something about his kindness. But he makes everyone feel this way. That’s why he’s like an addiction. People want to be with him.
It was his birthday yesterday. 31 and counting. Couple more greys. Love you, kiddo. So very much.
Portrait 8: Donna Flanagan Gaspard
Just 28 minutes ago, I made a choice.
I had spent the morning hours working on my book and felt trapped inside an anxiety pocket, focusing on the outcome rather than the process, questioning the enterprise, the little anxiety homunculus in my brain clamoring to procrastinate, conjuring the self-broom brigade like Mickey in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, brooms sweeping self-doubt, self-criticism, self-hatred with the waterfall cadence of a machine gone amok.
But even in such moments, especially in such moments, we are invited to love. To return to the beauty of the process, the joy of creating, the immediacy that is always there, offering itself, open, not asking for anything in return, not needing any outcome. Just there. Like a mother’s unconditional love, never requiring anything in return and patient through every foible.
I noticed it was Donna’s birthday. I knew she would be touched by a portrait. I gave myself permission to devote the day’s writing to her.
As I clicked open the dialogue box to start writing, I debated whether to take a moment to breathe, to meditate before diving in. A part of my brain resisted: “Get going. Write. Get to the outcome. After you have completed something, something, you can let yourself off the hook.”
But this was for Donna. The thought of her gave me permission to step back. All I needed to bring to mind was the LinkedIn post she recently wrote about the healing power of breathing.
So, now 45 minutes ago (I think it’s been about 17 minutes), I made a choice. I chose to breathe. To step back for a moment and observe the tension balled up on my quadriceps, in my hips, to release it as Donna sat there with me. And taking this time to step back helped crystallize what matters in our relationship. Helped me find her portrait.
Like Alisa, Donna is my sister. But our sisterhood is very old. It has had years to grow and change. Like all living things, it isn’t constant.
I must have been 15 when I met Donna. I can’t recall precisely. I do recall that the first time we met was at a dinner in San Francisco. My mother ordered a bottle of Pahlmeyer Chardonnay. There was an air of celebration that evening, if only because it was two women and an almost-woman experiencing life together. Donna sensed my dissonance. Saw a young woman who had power and strength, but who held herself back behind bars of pain. Without kids of her own, Donna had space to be the older sister I never had. Space to be my friend, my confidante, the person I could turn to to share thoughts and fears it would be wisest to hide from family and fair-weather friends. And being a sister to me would be an act of love towards my mother and, perhaps most importantly, towards herself.
So in the first phase of our sisterhood, Donna was the person I could turn to to explore the thoughts that hurt my mother and father, work through all the noise, all the tyranny of self-perfection and doubt. And she wasn’t a pushover: I remember her getting frustrated a few times when I droned on like a broken alarm clock about how fat I was. Again and again and again and again.
But she was always there. She came back. She loved unconditionally.
In the second phase of our sisterhood, Donna introduced me to meditation. And to courage. She had decided to walk away from the rat race of a corporate career, a rat race even more difficult for women like me and her who don’t have children of our own, and therefore often place even more of our self worth and identity in our professional success. Donna exudes a strength and grace at work. She holds herself tall (her posture is incredible) and has a slightly masculine energy that evinces power and reliance, resilience and cleverness. But she wanted and needed more from life. So she started to explore and her search led her to meditation. She had to courage to walk away from work and reinvent herself. And the wisdom to know that didn’t mean she would never work in Corporate America again, but that life is long, and we can walk away from the race and return later, refreshed, strengthened, wiser.
During this second phase, Donna was a teacher who helped me begin my journey as a meditator. In Costa Rica, we found a private room tucked away from the noise of the house and lay down on the floor with our feet up on the couch. Donna put her hand on my stomach and showed me where to focus my attention. She helped me find the depths of my belly, deeper than my lungs. Her voice shared the wisdom that only comes with experience, the wisdom of meaning it. It was light and sprightly, like a young girl sharing her imaginary world. It was a voice that had found a sister, that knew she was teaching someone who wanted to listen. Someone who wouldn’t judge. Someone who shared her pain and also wanted to find her joy.
And now, 20 years later, I have come to understand Donna in a way I couldn’t when I was 14. For I too have lived.
In this third phase of our sisterhood, I can sit down on my yoga block and meditate and feel deeply within my heart the resonance of a kindred spirit. For I too am not yet a mother, so I now understand how meaningful it can be to have a younger sister to love and know and care for. I have sisters in Toronto, women like Shems and Lauren who are so dear to me and who are the me that I was for Donna (just a little older and wiser 🙂). I haven’t spoken with Donna for a while, but her presence is a given. Constant, unconditional, yet growing and changing as we grow through our own experiences. She in Arizona, me in Toronto.
The constancy of our relationship provides a miraculous perspective on what has changed and what remains the same. Like breath. Unnoticed, until we realize it is a gift.
Portrait 9: Lauren Deckelbaum
Encounter 1: I improvise my story. I conjure the nadir at the Women’s Lunch Place in Boston, right wrist greasing practiced fluidity as I chop onion after onion to keep myself alive. I expose the hurt to give them strength and show how life stories switchback from failure to success, and back again. That struggle apexing atop a mesa of ease is a parched mirage copied, facsimile, from Roman Epics and Saints Lives. They smile; they applaud; they approach. And then Lauren comes. “I’ve noticed how many successful people meditate, and yet I can’t seem to get into it myself.” I invite her to my house. There was something in her eyes, in her voice. “I’ll teach you.”
Encounter 2: Fuck fuck she’s like 10 minutes early and I’m still in my pijamas should I just open the door don’t want to make her wait but christ I don’t even know this woman oh well more awkward if she has to stand there outside my door waiting it’s only grey sweatpants and the gingham Victoria’s Secret sheath I stole from Mom like 5 years ago somewhat kitsch but whatever so “Welcome! So sorry I was just finishing up some writing when I heard you knock!” and she smiles wide and it’s like it was meant to be this way and we exchange a few pleasantries but get right to it legs crossed I upon the couch she in the chair next to me and she’s still not comfortable with meditating so she pulls the hat down over her eyes to block out the light and the world and I set the timer and we breathe and I feel ease next to her and I don’t know for sure what she feels because I can’t know can never know and that’s the beauty of it all but when she opens her eyes and asks what I heard and thought about her voice is crystalline and calm.
Encounter 4: I rush into the inky WeWork at Yonge and Bloor only to notice stilton, cheddar, triple-cream brie, cranberries, walnuts, honey, all delicately aligned. My colleagues say it was a gift from a woman I know who works here. From Lauren. How lovely. How perfect.
Encounter 7: I show her what my heart creates. We eat shrimp and arugula, and drink Marsannay. She helps me understand who the words are for.
It complements the haze. It deepens it. The lighthouse repetition in the background, the delicacy of the violin like cormorant staccato in the milk-washed sea sky.
For how could it not be the subject, its fate sealed under barn owl wax in the damp Sunday, as mermen brandished ping pong paddles on silk sleeves? Your precision poaching oatmeal into the winter light, capturing its hue like cupped hands handle butterflies, keeping the wings intact, unharmed, this being so different from you, while you take pictures of white oak on black, on leather, creating your space, your home, your eye creating beauty in its wake, leaving the traces of you, if only I take the time to watch?
Encounter N: She comes to dinner with my mother, my aunts, with Will. We sample the pizza and wood brick chicken. Our conversation deviates from the group, as it’s too hard to hear. But she is a deeper part of me now. A forever friend.
Encounter N+1: I come to dinner with her mother, her siblings, her friends. I sleep in her old bed downstairs, the house bleating kindness in its wake. We sit crosslegged and discuss how minds thwart intimacy. We hike the Montreal mountain. We talk about Carl Sagan on soggy cushions and slice Montreal bagels in time for the party. There is no judgment. It’s home.
Encounter N + N: She gives me the ring with the face on it over dinner. I cherish our differences. I see Lauren for who she is. She is not a reflection of me. She is not something I want her to be. It is her way that has cracked the opening. I love her for who she is because of who I am when I am in her presence. A forever friend. She permits a space for honesty. She is fertile like the ground. She brings forth life.
Encounter N*N: She’s in London this week. She’ll grow and collect stories, share them upon her return. I’ll think of her when I get stressed and my fists clench. I’ll remember her ease and relax my shoulders inside its grace.
And in the future we’ll watch our lives unfurl. I trust it.
Portrait 10: Allen Gebhardt
“To be exceptional is to be more god-like than most, whether that is a powerful deity of myth or the God who died on the cross of Christianity. Hume’s kind of exceptionality is the opposite: he was more fully human than most, nothing more, nothing less. The virtues he expressed were not extreme ones of daring or courage but quiet ones of amiability, modesty, generosity of spirit, hospitality. Lest this sound like little, consider how difficult it is to live our lives consistently expressing such virtues.” – Julian Baggini, in his recent essay on David Hume
Allen is like Hume: he is more fully human than most, nothing more, nothing less.
And for that reason–gosh, I’m hesitating as I’m quite overwhelmed by emotion–Allen is one of my most important friends. But that’s not quite right. He’s more like a guide, except that, because he is a Humean Human in its purest expression, he doesn’t seek the power a guide seeks. He needs no acolyte. He craves no connection to heal or help. He is far too ironic and cynical to slip into demagoguery. What he does is listen. Without judgment. With generosity of spirit. And he is there, consistently, when a friend is needed. And he celebrates the journey with its freckled growth. As he has done with his wife and his sons.
I met Allen at a Law Firm Information Governance Symposium in April, 2014 in Washington, DC. He was working at Cooley at the time, had helped the firm transition from paper-based records management to the brave new world of digital squalor. We had dinner recently in San Francisco and he reminded me that the seed of our friendship was his making ironic jabs at my self-righteous pseudo-Marxist idealism. I’d completely forgotten, as is my way. What I remembered was that, for Allen, work was primary about people. He cared less about the what and cared more about the how, about the dynamics that make or break teams. He acknowledged the fact that careers are important for dignity and self-worth in contemporary society, but that the self didn’t depend on professional success. That work is a means to stay busy and create value with others. And then it passes, fluid like time or the winding fragility of an Andy Goldsworthy installation.
Nonetheless, a connection was formed. And it grew.
One milestone was a dinner we had in the Castro in San Francisco. Classic diner-like American fare. Been around for years. I searched my email to find the name of the place only to notice a string of restaurants we’ve visited together since we met, Salero in Chicago, Vesta in Redwood City, AQ in San Francisco (now closed), most recently Heirloom Cafe, where I introduced Allen to Will. I don’t remember what we spoke about over dinner. I remember Allen drove me to SFO afterwards and I fell asleep in the car. I was embarrassed. But Allen was flattered: he thanked me for falling asleep because it showed I was completely comfortable with him. We’d passed the threshold to forever friendship, like shifting from vous to tu.
Later, in late 2016, Allen taught me how to love. What I mean is that he helped me navigate a difficult situation I was experiencing with a former partner: I had to learn how to allow someone else to feel what they feel, to make their own decisions, to live how they chose to live, and to not entangle myself in another’s self. I had to learn that if it all fell apart, it was ok, I would be ok. I had to learn that I, too, was able to feel what I felt, and could look at my emotions, observe them, take in their lessons, follow their footprints back to my childhood, know their source, see the habits they’d created, and free myself from them. I’d pace the Brooklyn streets, humidity curling my flyaways, Allen on the phone as my guide. I’d settle down. It was only a few phone calls, but they changed me. Now, each time I make a conscious effort to give space to another to be and feel and live and hurt and experience, Allen is present.
When I met Allen’s wife Julie, the kaleidoscope spun into vibrancy. These lessons Allen shared had been lived and grown through his partnership with his wife. They seemed like an idyllic pair, exemplars of giving and openness and wisdom. Julie showed me a few photos from her popular Instagram feed featuring doorways in San Francisco. Her Renaissance was birthed by curiosity and charity. By walks in the city. Today others join. Julie’s example gives others permission to be artists.
I have yet to meet Allen’s sons. I’m sure I will some day. They seem extraordinary.
Allen and I spoke yesterday. He recently retired and is looking forward to his own Renaissance. It will emerge from spontaneity, in the spacetime crevices that widen when the hustle subsides. When we allow the sub-optimal. When there are no next steps. When we can err and wander, noticing the concentric circles that widen in rain puddles. His voice was joy. He didn’t fear retirement in the least because he is at home in the world. He now has time unbound.
More to come…
The featured image is of my uncle Anthony, my brother, and me. That is the EXACT look Mike had on his face when the Ninja Turtles came around the bend. You can see how self-conscious I was at having my picture taken, even when I was 5 or 6 years old.
I started a project. It’s called Facebook Portraits. It has three goals:
It’s like a sketch book, but writing. I practice my craft and procrastinate on my book.
It shows how Facebook can be a place for connection rather than narcissism. How we are free to choose how we use technology. How it’s up to us to channel it as a force to bring us together, not divide us. But we have to work at that.
It’s a contemporary twist on the age-old practice of epistolary correspondence. Just with the world reading what would have been a private letter now versus after the author dies. Which is kind of how the world works now.
Here are my first five portraits. Dear World, I offer you my sketch book.
Portrait 1: Sanita Skribe-Negre
We are hiring a head of people at my company, integrate.ai. The other day a candidate asked me (and the colleague interviewing with me) about past heads of people I’ve worked with and why I liked or did not like them.
I had the honor of telling the candidate why Sanita Skribe-Negre was the most talented leader I’d worked with. Why she was without a doubt a partner to the business, flying around god knows where and working alongside the C-Suite until 3 am to get deals done. How she navigated the tricky, delicate work of assimilating one culture into another post acquisition. How she dealt with the conflict, tension, anxiety of different business units growing awkwardly into adults. How she was thoughtful about creating company-wide performance management programs that could scale with growth, but did their best not to suffocate individuals under the strange, stifling weight of metrics and boxes and numbers.
And most importantly and meaningfully, for me, how she was a personal coach. How she put her own goal to eventually become a full-time coach into practice with a young, ambitious, emotional, self-critical, but good-hearted 28-year-old recent PhD turned entry-level Marketing Content Specialist (that’s me).
A glutton for mentorship, I like to work through things in dialogue with someone I trust. Someone to whom I can expose all the thoughts, all the doubts, and know he or she will leave loving me more, not less. Intimacy evaporating awareness from the dim fog of emotion like a slot canyon squeezing light. Very different from this refracted self I offer in my writing, this I shaped by verisimilitude or analogy, by whatever mood or tone the words dictate from the outset, this I you’re reading about right now (akin to the one that recently confused people in my profile picture. I was amused they thought I was upset. The picture was taken months ago, so doesn’t reflect any current state of mind or heart. And the ambiguity in my eyes, sitting somewhere between happiness, sorrow, and anger, aren’t native expressions, but my discomfort at being photographed, the charcoal symptoms of a fractured superego).
Sanita and I set up a cadence where we met once every three weeks to go over something that I wanted work on. Most of the time, we discussed local emotional nadirs, not goals or aspirations (admittedly the two are hard to parse, in particular when goals are inchoate, not SMART). It was a mutual arrangement: I benefitted from her presence and advice, from the confidence she gave me in shaping what I could trust was my horizon of possibility in the company (ambitious as hell, I felt perennially short changed, stuck, wanting to be VP of ANYTHING yesterday). She benefitted from putting her aspirations into action, getting early experience in the art of helping one person grow, rather than putting out fires, resolving conflicts, bringing on new hires, doing things at a system level, etc.
Here’s one lesson she imparted that I still think about almost every day (and have passed on to younger colleagues).
I came in frustrated that, once again, something I’d said months ago, and which, at the time, was brushed off as nonsense, had come full circle into execution — with the credit going to someone else! I felt a flurry of entangled thoughts and emotions: why can’t I communicate clearly? why does someone get credit for my idea? is this because I’m a woman so am not taken seriously?
Sanita’s advice was priceless.
“Do you want to be a leader someday?”
“Of course. I will be CEO of EVERYTHING!”
“Well, then, learning how to let go of ownership of ideas, untying them from your ego, letting them grow with the team, is critical to your future success.”
Why this rung of healing, of beauty.
Sanita continued, “The best way to marry accountability and autonomy for people who report to you in the future will be to plant subtle seeds and suggestions that inspire them to reach their own conclusions on what needs to be done, to shape their own goals, to feel like they have skin in the game. It’s a totally different emotional relationship to accountability than that which arises from top-down plans. Early practice in renting your ideas, in becoming the sounding board and mirror for others, even though it’s hard when you’re younger and crave recognition, is what you will accelerate you in your growth goals.”
I still struggle to communicate. I still seek recognition. But the satisfaction is dim in comparison to the immense pride in being the sounding board to help younger colleagues grow.
And Sanita will always be my coach. She’ll always be my mental model for a great head of people.
Portrait 2: Jaxson Khan
“…It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, ‘Francescco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers…
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,’
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.”
– John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1984, referring back Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524
How precious, how rare, to feel so connected to and so similar to another that writing his portrait is like writing a self-portrait, only refracted in a convex mirror.
Jaxson Khan and I became Facebook Friends December 2, 2017. A mere 7 months ago. We were friends in this virtual world once removed before we were friends in the real world (post-modernists be damned!), the world of flesh, blood, tears, the smell of camomile in the coffee shop, the sound of panting pawsteps as the dog scurries forth only to scurry back again on the ravine path near Saint Claire, the world where two humans sit across from one another in a coffee shop and, slowly–deftly, with cheetah grace spurred by trust and recognition–reveal heart-thoughts to each other.
Heart-thoughts and grand ambition. Jaxson and I went into our first conversation believing what connected us was our common role at work. I started my career as a Marketing Content Specialist at Intapp in 2012 and skipped and hopped around the professional jungle gym, from Principal Consultant at a security firm to Director of Sales and Marketing at an AI research consultancy, to end up nominally leading product and strategy for integrate.ai. Jaxson and I both wholeheartedly endorse the firefly flits of the generalist; it is our lot in life to lie on the horizontal axis of the T, buoyed by our drive and curiosity, our intense need to understand everything, everything, as deeply as we can while always knowing we won’t be the deepest in the group; we will be criticized; it will hurt me more than him; but I will turn to him for support and confidence as I march along this brambled path.
Jaxson is 10 years younger than I, but somehow already has the wisdom and maturity to confidently assess where he stands today and where he wants to go next. He, too, started in marketing but absolutely must test the waters of product management, if only to experiment and shape his path. To view each step in his career as data-gathering exercise to know himself, to grow not only his skills but his values and virtue as he explores. Life as a testing ground. A job as the sandbox to grow roots and shape the soul. But we learned we shared more than just marketing roles: we were both actively engaged in shaping policy around AI, doing our best to ground discussions around ethics in our daily hustle building products that used machine learning models. Yes, Jaxson, yes, it was the first shimmer along the rim of the mirror, the hint of similarity and recognition.
As the sun rose the shimmer expanded into a blinding glare. Almost too much, sometimes.
“The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.”
After our first time coffee, Jaxson took the subway back to his home in the Annex to meet his girlfriend, the woman he was confident would be his bride. Less than two months later she left for Australia, and decided not to come back.
His world broke.
I am fortunate it did. We would be friends, but it would have taken longer to probe the depths of our connection. To feel ourselves in the other’s words. To be startled by the recognition.
I have watched him learn through his pain. He is extraordinary. He allows his emotions to have their place, gives them space to work and hurt as he mourns the loss of his love and gradually recovers the ability to love anew. He has taught me how to turn to friends when I am anxious, taught me that we need not ever be alone, that even when I feel that restlessness in the evening–wishing Will Grathwohl were back but celebrating his extraordinary accomplishments with the concentrated joy of us as future selves looking back upon and growing through our early time apart–I can call him and he will pick up the phone and talk with me on the train ride home, on the walk home, on the bike ride home, that he is there as constant support. That he too has felt alone. I have watched how he has solidified his brotherhood with Zachary Habayeb, benefitted from their vegan meals and the space they provide for acceptance, as if judgment didn’t exist. I have watched him thrive in his job, no one suspecting what lie beneath. I have admired how he embraces his emotionality as a hallmark of a new masculinity, and how it isn’t challenged for a second.
There is no possible world where Jaxson and I won’t be friends for life. I will be godmother to his children (right Jax?). If not in name, in spirit. I will care for them if anything happens to him. They will sleep well at night, and be ok. Know this.
“The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.”
Portrait 3: John Alber
“Wait, you wrote a book about poisonous plants?”
“Sure I did. Dodie and I had just had the kids and we wanted to make sure they were safe with all the flowers around.”
“But like, how did you find the time to study baby-safe houseplants–and study them thoroughly enough to write a book–while you were practicing at Bryan Cave?”
“Curiosity, Kathryn, and sheer force of will. And efficiency. Which law firms sorely lack. That said there’s a cheshire cat joy in being a dog-headed Futurist in an industry as slow to innovate as legal services. I consider myself to have had a front-row seat in the amphitheater of human psychology. Where skeuomorphisms are an absolute must to get them to adopt anything. Where identities fizzle as the stolid edifice of white-collar prosperity quickly crumbles under cartoon anvils of outside counsel guidelines and alternative fee arrangements and Latent Dirichlet Allocation finally making it just about possible to go beyond expert systems and use machine learning for legal research, not only technology assisted review.
Did you see my article about Watson?”
“Loved it. Smart contracts make SO MUCH SENSE for tenant rights. OMG imagine how much traction we could make against access to justice issues by baking the commitment landlords have to their tenants, the commitment they have to provide a suitable, humane place to live, in this standing-on-the-precipice-of-third-world-despair of a ramshackle country we find ourselves in these days? But how would a firm like IBM overcome the innovator’s dilemma and solve a problem for a smaller market? C’mon, not so much different from law firms, in particular with their customer-centric ethos. Always drags them down the slippery slope of services and mangled customizations and tech debt.”
“Watson was metonymy. It’s a job for startups. Go build it. We’re counting on you.”
“I’m not ready to be a founder yet. I still have much to learn before I can do this myself.”
But not fair! Are you kidding me? You are starting to exemplify servant leadership. I love watching you explore it, tepidly, with the growing pains and braces of a stunning teenager. Probing the delicate balance between strength and vulnerability, finding it, making it your own, and by doing so, opening the space for expression, acceptance, healing, and growth for those around you. What’s holding you back?”
“John, you know how hard I am on myself.”
“There’s a wonderful book by Pema Chodron called When Things Fall Apart. The notion there is that when things seem most desperate, we experience the greatest opportunity to exert a kind of compassionate curiosity about our inner workings.
All of this difficulty, all of this uncertainty can be on the path. Rather, it certainly IS on the path; we just have the chance to see it as such.
I know what it’s like to be so very hard on myself. It was a condition of everyday existence. It still creeps in now and then to remind me.
Sometimes, I think we choose broken individuals as companions as a means of exercising the compassion we are so desperate for ourselves. We give THEM our hearts instead of opening up to our own humanity.
That’s what it was like for me. I wouldn’t acknowledge that I was flawed, that I was messily, beautifully human.
What we need for our own account is the kind of love a mother, or an aunt, would offer: unqualified, nonjudgmental, open and accepting.
Why, Pema Chodron asks, is it so hard for us to give ourselves that?”
“Because we servants we only have so much love to give, and it belongs to others. What do you remember most from your year on the boat?”
“Stillness is what I treasure most. I rise earlier and earlier to get that…try to see the sun come up down on the waterfront every morning, and be quiet enough to hear the noise it makes.
And, kittens are awwwwww…..damn!”
“Will you help me write my book? Will you be a reader?”
“I’m horrible at that. I use other people’s writing as a springboard. The best I can do with my writing friends is co-springboard.”
“Jesus, if my writing can spur something like this from you, I’ll take it. Incredible. Brings tears to my eyes. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for being one of my most cherished mentors, for being a beacon so clearly showing what freedom and joy can arise from having the courage to just be me. For you are so grounded in yourself. John, you are Odysseus.”
“The love I wonder about most is what is sometimes described as the love emanating from God. Bare of religion as I am, I translate that as the love of the universe, and immediately come up against the utter brutality of the physical realms that surround us. Temperatures near absolute zero, profound vacuums, nuclear ovens…none of them in any way motherly or fatherly, nurturing or, in any human sense, loving. And then of course there is the brutality of our own tiny world, where the horrible and endless death of innocents is so ordinary as to be unremarkable. Where is the love in any of that?
Is it love that inheres in the multiverse, that drives the eternal engine spawning new universes, that fertilizes forming worlds with the life-giving dust of exploded stars and thereby makes possible beings who speak of love? Is all love simply a derivative of that vast life-creating process? Is it really just a taxonomy of the vital forces that inhabit us all? When we say we love each other, are we simply connecting with that most fundamental imperative—the imperative to be? In some ways, I find that the most romantic love of all.”
Portrait 4: William Hume
If the last name didn’t give it away, William Hume is my dad. Imagine the laundry list of details I could include in his portrait.
I’ll tell one story. I suspect he’ll read it and wince just a little, concerned my writing exposes too much and baffled by how differently people reconstruct the past, especially one past moment heavied by symbolic gravity. Facts unraveled into kaleidoscope fractals, so difficult to calibrate, even though our ring size is only 4.5.
On November 23, 2016, I took my parents to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City to see La Bohème. My mom had just turned 60. This was my birthday present to her.
La Bohème is not just any opera in my family. It is a talisman. It represents a bond stronger than a wedding ring, locking together my parents’ fingers in trust at the lower phalanx. No matter what comes. In the music I hear what patience and unconditional acceptance sound like. I hear the work that goes into creating a lifelong partnership, to sustaining it, to outlasting the hurdles that came so close to shattering the old-world vase, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that fights, Darwinian, to preserve its chromosomes with the pierogi dough. I hear what one couple’s love looks like. My dad’s love for my mom.
My mom suffered when I was a child. She tried to protect me and my brother from the pain. Her will is of iron. But the pain seeped out in ways she couldn’t control, shaping my delicate limbic system, itself singed by my extremely sensitive senses (sounds are louder and smells are stronger for me than they are for most people). When her parents died, memories she had repressed for years bubbled up. They bit at her rugged ambition with the persistence of horseflies. She swatted them back and went to the meeting in stilettos and big silk bows. Only dad saw what her face looked like when she dreamed on the swing set, saw how far away she seemed under the cheerful dominants of Paul McCartney.
Her unravelling strained their relationship. It came perilously close to ending. I didn’t know that: I was 6 or 7 or 8. Young. I envision myself carrying silver polish around with my black bob, but that home video was from much earlier. My hair must have started to curl, just a little, when they reached the nadir.
Mom came home. I envision a cold winter night. Cold in the way that only exists in upstate New York, where I grew up, and Canada. 8 foot snow drifts. Grey that cloaks the sky for months, starving our happiness of vitamin D. The stuff of Russians, just it’s the east coast, so defaults to the caricature of the Mummers.
She came home from work, torn. He had realized that he loved her unconditionally. He was ready to communicate that.
He held her hands. He turned on Puccini. Che gelida manina.
What a frozen little hand. Let me warm it for you.
I don’t know how often my parents hear che gelida manina in their minds. I don’t know what emotions it incites in them when it comes on.
They must be powerful. For, at the very inkling of the chords, in the very cusp of Pavarotti’s tenor, time collapses for me. I go back to 27 Highland Drive. To the tiny little house they bought for $13,000, nothing to their name but the promise of the future.
I am grateful that he loves her the way he does. When my dear friend Julien Rosa met them in Paris years ago, he told me the image that left the strongest impression on him was how my father looked at my mother.
My father taught him something profound about what it means to love.
Portrait 5: Michael D’Souza
I have this friend Michael. He and his wife Colleen just got back from a 14,317-kilometre drive around god-knows-where in Canada. They didn’t care how long it took. They didn’t watch the clock, for that would have compromised their rapt attention to their surroundings and their gentle awareness, like water by now, of the other’s presence. Their destination was Tuktoyaktuk, which means “looks like a caribou” in Inuvialuktun (Western Canada Inuit). They told me that hotel rooms in Tuktoyaktuk follow a peculiar supply and demand curve: as there are only 3 beds for rent in the city–not 3 hotels, 3 beds–they can be relatively pricey. During his trip, Michael populated his Facebook feed with stillness. Lakes and lines of bread and bears and prairies and hummingbirds and bison and mountains. All still. All gleaming.
I met Michael on July 28, 2018. I was a guest at one of his famous dinner parties, courtesy of the inspirational Charlie Oliver. “Do you have any food restrictions?” “Nope, omnivorous.” “That’s just the kind of people we love!”
I had just recently moved to Canada. Was still tiptoeing through the little hits of loneliness and bemusement at finding myself, once again, in a new city: I’ve lived in many places and self-identify as a cosmopolitan nomad, though I’d love to stay put for the someday kids. Being welcomed by Michael and Colleen, therefore, was extra special. I had somewhere to go on a Friday night.
I didn’t expect to meet a best friend. My Toronto Dad.
Michael is also close to enlightened as we mere mortals get.
He is a lover and creator of beauty. He rolls his beet petals into roses, pickles them mildly so they are sweet without turning acrid. He serves the sorpotel, spiked with Feni, a Goan cashew liquor, in elegant Korean pottery, basks it in matte grey. He walks miles to ensure the strawberries are crimson, the tomato skins burst with the right pressure, the fish isn’t fishy. He puts capers in the mashed potatoes and shapes them into leaves baked brown. He and Colleen prefer not to eat out. They have too much to create at home.
He is a lover of and fighter for people. When I say fight, I mean fight. Michael spent his career working at the CBC. He has seen all the people. But he didn’t document them: He learned about them, respected them, opened the curtains wide onto the uniqueness of their culture and their personhood. He regularly corrects my cultural faux-pas, my maladroit misspellings of languages and religions, my imprecision in attempting to write about others. Michael pays attention to cultures with surgical precision. He titrates myths and stories. The seats at his dinner table are filled with doctors and human rights advocates and journalists and AI researchers and ambitious, young, striving, wonderful women from all over the world, women like Anne T. Griffin, another one of Michael’s daughters, like myself.
He is a lover of deadlines. Having spent a career as a journalist, Michael knows that things remain akimbo in limbo unless we have a deadline to birth our creativity, the 9-month mark where it’s either through the canal or a C-section. He keeps me on track, perhaps unaware. He seems to read everything I write. He seems to appreciate it. I cannot express how meaningful it is to me to have a reader who cares, who takes the time, who engages and corrects me.
He is a lover of grace. He carries himself quietly, sipping his wine without garnering too much attention when he’s in public. The dapper elegance of someone who always wears a tie. His demeanor carries with it his long history, the childhood in Pakistan and Goa. But when he is at home, comfortable, free, he laughs out loud. Shrills in joy. The kind of laugh that emerges from a clear conscience.
July 28 is a Saturday, and unfortunately (though very fortunately!) I have dinner plans at Actinolite that evening. Michael, I trust you’ll have me for dinner on the 27th to celebrate the anniversary of what cannot but be a lifelong friendship.
More to come…
The featured image is of my dad and me on Father’s Day in 2017. I had just come back from a conference in Paris. We were about to eat oysters with my brother and his girlfriend.
just beneath the silence, the tohu wa-bohu hums its river song, ferments past mistakes in hurricane wreckage, drowns cows whose bells got stuck under children’s car seats, brands now blurry with moss
blank-slated hope wobbles its stilts into Rorschach formations and Voronoi tessellations, generating form for its own sake, as so many ptyxs replicating themselves silly, aural inanity mitosis amok, while Herod steeps his niece’s left rib as she dances under seven veils
he sullies her under his touch, the dice roll slant
for our past accompanies us, stinging lapses of integrity, unable to be undone, fixed like firmament stars; even if we forgive, it’s probable she won’t, at least not anytime soon
we have no choice but to wash our guilt in responsibility, to transubstantiate our past in performances blessed by heavy habits’ habit
the new year brings saints Gildas (the historian) and Bieuzy (the rabies curer), who learned healing by osmosis in their mountain chapel; saints teaching us that three walls suffice, that more is clutter
be it with quiet circumspection that we inhabit our poppy and recollection
this moment where we wake up into form
The featured image is from Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring (link to a full feature on YouTube, although it’s in Swedish without subtitles; one benefit of not understanding the dialogue is that you can see the jealousy and pain on the female character’s face. Bergman always mastered the underbelly of female psychology.). Here, Max von Sydow, who also played the existentially fraught knight in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, prepares an act of elemental violence; he wrestles down the tree and hits himself with cut branches in the sauna. His jealous lover watches him beat his chest, her pregnant belly protruding damply into her listless legs, posture sloping under bored indifference.
The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and never will be. Tis utter blasphemy.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell, in near silence, near but for the methodical gnawing, not unlike that of a mouse nibbling rapaciously on parched pasta left uneaten all these years but preserved under the thick dust on the thin cardboard with the thin plastic window enabling her to view what remained after she’d cooked just one serving, with butter, for her son, there emerged and fell, with the sublime transience of Andy Goldsworthy, a neo-Gothic church of organic complexity on par with that imagined by Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, whose Sagrada Familia is scheduled for completion in 2026, a full century after the architect died in a tragic tram crash, distracted by the recent rapture of his prayer.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell a structure so eerily resemblant of the one Antoni Gaudí imagined before he died, neglected like a beggar in his shabby clothes, the doctors unaware they had the chance to save the mind that preempted the fluidity of contemporary parametric architectural design by some 80 odd years, a mind supple like that of Poincaré, singular yet part of a Zeitgeist bent on infusing time into space like sandalwood in oil, inseminating Euclid’s cold geometry with femininity and life, Einstein explaining why Mercury moves retrograde, Gaudí rendering the holy spirit palpable as movement in stone, fractals of repetition and difference giving life to inorganic matter, tension between time and space the nadir of spirituality, as Andrei Tarkovsky went on to explore in his films.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell a structure so eerily resemblant of the one Antoni Gaudí imagined before he died, with the (seemingly crucial) difference that the termites built their temple without blueprints or plan, gnawing away the silence as a collectivity of single stochastic acts which, taken together over time, result in a creation that appears, to our meaning-making minds, to have been created by an intelligent designer, this termite Sagrada Familia a marvelous instance of what Dennett calls Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning, an inversion that admits to the possibility that absolute ignorance can serve as master artificer, that IN ORDER TO MAKE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT*, that structures might emerge from the local activity of multiple parts, amino acids folding into proteins, bees flying into swarms, bumper-to-bumper traffic suddenly flowing freely, these complex release valves seeming like magic to the linear perspective of our linear minds.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, the eerie resemblance between the termite and the tourist Sagrada Familias serves as a wonderful example to anchor a very important cultural question as we move into an age of post-intelligent design, where the technologies we create exhibit competence without comprehension, diagnosing lungs as cancerous or declaring that individuals merit a mortgage or recommending that a young woman would be a good fit for a role on a software engineering team or getting better and better at Go by playing millions of games against itself in a schizophrenic twist resemblant of the pristine pathos of Stephan Zweig, one’s own mind an asylum of exiled excellence during the travesty of the second world war, why, we’ve come full circle and stand here at a crossroads, bidden by a force we ourselves created to accept the creative potential of Lucretius’ swerve, to kneel at the altar of randomness, to appreciate that computational power is not just about shuffling 1s and 0s with speed but shuffling them fast enough to enable a tiny swerve to result in wondrous capabilities, and to watch as, perhaps tragically, we apply a framework built for intelligent design onto a Darwinian architecture, clipping the wings of stochastic potential, working to wrangle our gnawing termites into a straight jacket of cause, while the systems beating Atari, by no act of strategic foresight but by the blunt speed of iteration, make a move so strange and so outside the realm of verisimilitude that, as Kasparov succumbing to Deep Blue, we misinterpret a bug for brilliance.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, it seems plausible that Gaudí would have reveled in the eerie resemblance between a castle built by so many gnawing termites and the temple Josep Maria Bocabella i Verdaguer, a bookseller with a popular fundamentalist newspaper, “the kind that reminded everybody that their misery was punishment for their sins,”**commissioned him to build.
Or would he? Gaudí was deeply Catholic. He genuflected at the temple of nature, seeing divine inspiration in the hexagons of honeycombs, imagining the columns of the Sagrada Familia to lean, buttresses, as symbols of the divine trilogy of the father (the vertical axis), son (the horizontal axis), and holy spirit (the vertical meeting the horizontal in crux of the diagonal). His creativity, therefore, always stemmed from something more than intelligent design, stood as an act of creative prayer to render homage to God the creator by creating an edifice that transformed, in fractals of repetition in difference, inert stone into movement and life.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, the termite Sagrada Familia actually exists as a complete artifact, its essence revealed to the world rather than being stuck in unfinished potential. And yet, while we wait in joyful hope for its imminent completion, this unfinished, 144-year-long architectural project has already impacted so many other architects, from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid. This unfinished vision, this scaffold, has launched a thousand ships of beauty in so many other places, changing the skylines of Bilbao and Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Perhaps, then, the legacy of the Sagrada Family is more like that of Jodorowsky’s Dune, an unfinished film that, even from its place of stunted potential, changed the history of cinema. Perhaps, then, the neglect the doctors showed to Gaudí, the bearded beggar distracted by his act of prayer, was one of those critical swerves in history. Perhaps, had Gaudí lived to finish his work, architects during the century wouldn’t have been as puzzled by the parametric requirements of his curves and the building wouldn’t have gained the puzzling aura it gleans to this day. Perhaps, no matter how hard we try to celebrate and accept the immense potential of stochasticity, we will always be makers of meaning, finders of cause, interpreters needing narrative to live grounded in our world. And then again, perhaps not.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites. The termites don’t care either way. They’ll still construct their own Sagrada Familia.
The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. How wondrous. How essential must be these shapes and forms.
The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. It is also an unfinished neo-Gothic church in Barcelona, Spain. Please, terrorists, please don’t destroy this temple of unfinished potential, this monad brimming the history of the world, each turn, each swerve a pivot down a different section of the encyclopedia, coming full circle in its web of knowledge, imagination, and grace.
The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. We’ll never know what Gaudí would have thought about the termite castle. All we have are the relics of his Poincaréan curves, and fish lamps to illuminate our future.
*Dennett reads these words, penned in 1868 by Robert Beverley MacKenzie, with pedantic panache, commenting that the capital letters were in the original.
The featured image comes from Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Dan on the In Context podcast, where we discuss many of the ideas that appear in this post, just in a much more cogent form.
Treasure Island is a nightmare for the field of location intelligence.* That’s because it is:
in a lake (namely, Lake Mindemoya)
on an island (namely, Manitoulin Island)
in a lake (namely, Lake Huron)
While said to be the world’s largest island in a lake on an island in a lake, Treasure Island is actually quite small: 1.4 kilometers long x 400 meters wide, housing only a few cottages and no permanent residents.** It has a wonderful history. William McPherson, former deputy chief of police for Toronto, purchased the island for $60 in 1883, only to sell it to Joe and Jean Hodgson in 1928. On July 13, 2015 around 11:30 am the Manitoulin Detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) was notified of a series of break and enters that had occurred sometime on July 12, 2015 to one of the few buildings on Treasure Island; hooligans entered the garage area and caused damage to two golf carts, estimated in the thousands of dollars.
Folklore etiologies for the genesis of Treasure Island are equivocal. One tradition plays on the perennial frustrations between husband and wife:
According to local tradition, Treasure Island was originally named Mindemoya, because of the distinctive shape of the island: rising at one end to a long flat hill, with a steep drop to a short low area at the other end. According to legend, a great chieftain or demi-god who once lived in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario had a wife who would not give him any peace. In frustration he eventually kicked her and sent her flying, to land on her hands and knees in Lake Mindemoya, leaving her back and rump above the water, which we see today as the island. The word “Mindemoya” supposedly means “Old Lady’s Bottom”. See dubious Wikipedia
The Anishinaabe tradition, by contrast, features a story about a rogue Odysseus-like trickster hero whose moral defies any heuristic logic (and is thereby much more interesting):
Treasure Island, or as it is also known, Mindemoya Island, can be seen from almost all vantage points around the lake. The shape of the island is of a person lying prostrate with hands outstretched in front. One Anishinaabe tale tells of Nanabush, the Trickster with magic powers, who was carrying his grandmother over his shoulder, and suddenly stumbling, caused her to fly through the air to the middle of the lake, landing on her hands and knees, where she has remained ever since. This is Mindemoya (Mndimooyenh), the legendary old woman of the lake. See The Manitoulin Expositor
In today’s data-driven world, where quantitative interpretations of phenomena have replaced classical, Ovidian etiologies (i.e., where grandmothers or testy wives metamorphosize into islands within lakes within islands within lakes), Nanabozho’s guiles have been recast as topological oddities, recursive structures that break the consistency and unity required to pinpoint a location.
Indeed, what kind of data structure could possibly capture the recursive identity of Treasure Island? At one level of granularity, say measured with satellites that capture diameters of 50 kilometers, our location intelligence analyst (LIA) would say “at 45.762°N 82.209°W there is an island!” (this being Manitoulin Island, the Island around Lake Mindemoya, around Treasure Island). And our heroic LIA would be right, but right for the wrong referent! And that could cause all sorts of problems later on. So if she wanted to be more accurate, she could use smaller satellites that capture locations more precisely, or even a little drone, which could capture distances at, say, the 5 kilometer mark, at which point she would say, “at 45.762°N 82.209°W there is a lake!”, which would be wrong, but also right, just not right enough. And so on and so on, peeling away the layers of the topological onion, unpacking the nested babushkas of the inherited Russian Doll, the lips still crimson, the flowers a pattern indexing styles of yore, styles lost in the clean blankness of modernism.
But isn’t this very recursion the key to consciousness? If we could solve the elusive identity of Treasure Island, might we not have found our topology for the mind’s emergence from matter, Nanabozho laughing heartily from his perch in the past, the old lady’s bottom the key to sentience all along, if we were only wise enough to look?
Why, yes and no.
I don’t know the scientific explanation behind the genesis of Treasure Island, as the internet focuses on the myths fit for tourists, perpetuated year after year in the oral tradition of volunteer guides, kindly ladies with kindly graying hair, ever ready to greet the city folk on holiday from the cottage. But it certainly seems plausible that Treasure Island evolved through some aleatory, stochastic whim of nature, the product of perfectly uncomprehending and incomprehensible forces that, through sheer force of repetition, through mindless trial and error, created a perfect recursive structure, Time outwitting Mind with paleolithic patience, repeating and repeating until chance and probability land on something that exhibits the mastery of Andy Goldsworthy‘s invisible hand, only to blow away in the autumn winds, our secrets transient, momentary missives that disappear upon observation, our Cumaean Sibyl whispering her truth to Schrödinger’s dead cat.
Here’s the punchline: many of the wondrous feats of contemporary artificial intelligence arise from similar forces of competence without comprehension (indebted to Dennett). Machines did not learn to beat Atari or Go because they designed a strategy to win, envisioning the game and moves and pieces like we human thinkers do. They did a bunch of stochastic random shit a million trillion times, creating what looks like intelligent design in what feels like an evolutionary microsecond, powered by the speed and efficiency of modern computation. That is, AI is like evolution on steroids, evolution put on super-duper-mega-fast-forward thanks to the simulation environments of computation. But if we break things down, each individual step in training an AI is a mindless guess, a mutation, a slip in transcription that, when favored by guiding forces we call “objective functions” – tools to minimize error that are a bit like survival of the fittest – can lead to something that just so happens to work.
And it goes without saying that Nanabozho has the last laugh. Throwing grandma into the lake defies logic. It’s an act of absurdity fit for the French, a nihilism fit for Germans donning leather pants as the Dude sips white Russians (will always hate the fucking Eagles), fit for Ionesco’s rhinoceroses prancing on stage. And any attempt we make to impose meaning through reduction will falter under the weight of determinism, strawmen too flimsy for the complexity of our non-linear world.
* A warm thank you to Arthur Berrill for helping me understanding the topological art behind location intelligence, which, when done well, involves intricate data structures that transform spatial relationships into rows and columns or relate space and time, or takes into account phenomenological aspects of people’s appreciation of the space around them (e.g., an 80-year-old widow experiences the buildings around her condo quite differently than a 25-year-old single gal). Arthur introduced me to Manitoulin Island, which inspired this post.
**I once swam to an island of similar size in the Pacific Ocean near Fiji. There was a palm tree and a few huts. I didn’t think there were people, and then some man started to scream at me to shoo me away. I got scared, and swam back to our boat. For a moment, I enjoyed the imagined awesomeness of being all alone on a small deserted island.
The featured image is of Frank Swannell surveying Takla Lake in British Columbia on behalf of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1912. To learn more about Swannell’s surveying efforts, read this article by Stephen Hume, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun who has written an entire series of vignettes associated with Canada’s 150th anniversary. Hume isn’t a last name one sees that often, so Google’s surfacing his articles second only to Wikipedia — which, like the http://www.eraradio.ca is simply not loading well for me recently — for the search term “Frank Swannell” must carry metaphysical significance.
A la pointe de la découverte, de l’instant où pour les premiers navigateurs une nouvelle terre fut en vue à celui où ils mirent le pied sur la côte, de l’instant où tel savant put se convaincre qu’il venait d’être témoin d’un phénomène jusqu’à lui inconnu à celui où il commença à mesurer la portée de son observation, tout sentiment de durée aboli dans l’enivrement de la chance, un très fin pinceau de feu dégage ou parfait comme rien autre le sens de la vie. – André Breton, 1934
(At the point of discovery — from the moment when a new land comes into the field of vision for a group of explorers to that when their feet first touch the shore — from the moment when a certain savant convinces herself that she’s observed a previously unknown phenomenon to that when she begins to measure her observation’s significance — the intoxication of luck abolishing all notions of time, a very thin paintbrush* unlocks, or perfects, like nothing else, the meaning of life.)
I have a few blog post ideas brewing but had lost my weekly writing momentum in the process of moving from New York City to Toronto for my new role at integrate.ai. It’s incredible how quickly a habit atrophies: the little monkey procrastinator** in my mind has found many reasons to dissuade me from writing these past two weeks. I already feel my mind intaking the world differently, without the same synthetic gumption. Anxiety creeps in. Enter Act of Will stage left, sauntering or skipping or prancing or curtseying or however you’d like to imagine her. A bias towards action, yes, yes indeed, and all those little procrastination monkeys will dissipate like tomorrow’s bug bites, smeared with pink calamine lotion bought on sale at Shoppers Drug Mart.
But what to write about? That is (always) the question.
Enter Associative Memory stage right. It’s 8:22 am. I’m on a run. Fog partially conceals CN tower. A swans stretches her neck to bite little nearby ducks as the lady with her ragged curly hair — your hair at 60 dear Kathryn — chuckles in delight, arms akimbo and crumbs askance, by the docks on the shore. The Asian rowers don rainbow windbreakers, lined up in a row like the refracted waves of a prism (seriously!). What do I write about? Am I ready to write about quantum computing and Georg Cantor (god not yet!), about why so many people reject consequentialist ethics for AI (closer, and Weber must be able to help), about the talk I recently gave defining AI, ML, Deep Learning, and NLP (I could do this today but the little monkey is still too powerful at the moment), about the pesky health issues I’m struggling with at the moment (too personal for prime time, and I’ll simply never be that kind of blogger)? About the move? About the massive changes in my life? About how emotionally charged it can be to start again, to start again how many times, to reinvent myself again, in this lifestyle I can’t help but adopt as I can’t help but be the self I reinforce through my choices, year after year, choices, I hope, oriented to further the exploration into the meaning of life?
Associative Memory got a bit sidetracked by the ever loquacious Stream of Consciousness. Please do return!
Enter Associative Memory stage right. It’s 8:22 am. I’m on a run. Fog partially conceals CN tower. Searching for something to write about. Well, what about drawing upon the objet trouvé technique the ever-inspiring Barbara Maria Stafford taught us in Art History 101 at the University of Chicago? According to Wikipedia, objet trouvé refers to “art created from undisguised, but often modified, objects or products that are not normally considered materials from which art is made, often because they already have a non-art function.”*** Think Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made objects, which I featured in a previous post and will feature again here.
But that’s not how I remember it. Stafford presented the objet trouvé as a psychological technique to open our attention to the world around us, helping our minds cast wide, porous, technicolor nets to catch impressions we’d otherwise miss when the wardens of the pre-frontal cortex confine our mental energy into the prisons cells of goals and tasks, confine our handmaidens under the iron-clad chastity belt of action. (Enter Laertes stage left, peaking through only to be quickly pulled back by Estragon’s cane.)
You see, moving to a new place, having all these hours alone, opens the world anew to meaning. We become explorers having just discovered a new land and wait suspended in the moment before our feet graze the unknown shore. The meaning of connections left behind simmers poignantly to tears, tears shed alone, settling into gratitude for time past and time to come. Forever Young coming on the radio surreptitiously in the car. Grandpa reading it like a poem in his 80s, his wisdom fierce and bold in his unrelenting kindness. His buoyancy. His optimism. His example.
Enter Associative Memory stage right. It’s 8:22 am. I’m on a run. Fog partially conceals CN tower. What do I see? What does the opened net of my consciousness catch? This.
It was more a sound than a sight. The repetition of the moving tide, always already**** there, Earth’s steady heartbeat in its quantum entanglement with the moon. The water rising and falling, lapping the shores with grace and ease under the foggy morning sky. Stammering, after all, being the native eloquence of fog people. The sodden sultriness of Egdon Heath alive in every passing wave, Eustacia’s imagination too large and bold for this world, a destroyer of men like Nataraja in her eternal dance.
Next, my mind saw this (as featured above):
And, coincidentally, the woman on the France Culture podcast I was listening to as I ran uttered the phrase épuisée par le vide.
Exhausted by nothingness. The timing could not have been more perfect.
It’s in these moments of loneliness and transition that very thin paintbrushes unlock the meaning of life. Our attention freed from the shackles of associations and time, left alone to wander labyrinths of impressions, passive, vulnerable, seeking. The only goals to be as kind as possible to others, to accept without judgment, to watch as the story unfolds.
* I don’t know how to translate pinceau de feu, so decided to go with just paintbrush. Welcome a more accurate translation!
** Hat tip to Tim Urban’s hilarious TED talk. And also, etymology lovers will love that cras means tomorrow in Latin, so procrastinate is the act of deferring to tomorrow. And also, hat tip to David Foster Wallace (somewhat followed by Michael Chabon, just to a much lesser degree) for inspiring me to put random thoughts that interrupt me mid sentence into blog post footnotes.
*** Hyperlinks in the quotation are the original.
**** If you haven’t read Heidegger and his followers, this phrase won’t be as familiar and potentially annoying to you as it is to me. Continental philosophers use it to refer to what Sellars would call the “myth of the given,” the phenomenological context we cannot help but be born into, because we use language that our parents and those around us have used before and this language shapes how we see what’s around us and we have to do a lot of work to get out of it and eat the world raw.
she blinked it rained
she sat he peed
she read he showered
she typed he ate
she typed he trained
she laughed he elevatored
she listened he sat
she disagreed he read
she acquiesced he typed
she reflected he presented
she worried he nodded rain abetted
she breathed he answered
she typed he typed
she typed he typed
she smiled he ate
she gossiped he bragged
she nibbled he texted
she sipped he slurped clouds tiptoed
she noticed he returned
she presented he typed
she surged he furrowed
she calmed he called
she elevatored he yelled
she walked he regretted
she sat he walked
she nodded he sauntered
she saw he sat
she averted he texted
she reverted he saw
she felt he waited
she tingled he approached
she blushed he offered
she accepted he asked
she answered he answered
she asked he probed
she allowed sun set he dared
she walked he walked
she hinted he touched
she coiled he doubted
she opened he mirrored
she undressed he watched
she slithered he followed
she touched he entered
she winced he worried
she arrived he thrust
she followed he retained
she overtook he watched
she came he smiled
she embraced he continued
she nourished he came
she smiled he breathed
she peed he lay
she washed he slept
she observed he slept
she dressed he slept night hummed
she left he awoke
she walked he noticed
she mulled he turned
she walked he slept
she itched he slept
she relived he slept
she glistened he slept
The image is Magritte’s The Lovers, from 1928. Many say the work represents the difficulty of achieving true intimacy with another, as we retain ourselves behind veils and barriers. Perhaps that’s right. Perhaps it’s not.