Touch and the Self

Touch is the most basic, the most non-conceptual form of communication that we have. In touch there are no language barriers; anything that can walk, fly, creep, crawl, or swim already speaks it. – Ina May Gaskin, Spiritual Midwifery

Sometimes we come into knowledge through curiosity. Sometimes through imposed convention, as with skills learned during a course of study. Other times knowledge comes into us through experience. We don’t seek. The experience happens to us, puzzling us, challenging our assumptions, inciting us to think about subject we wouldn’t have otherwise thought much about. That this knowledge comes upon us without our seeking enforces a sense that it must be important. Often it lies dormant, waiting to come to life. [1]

I have never thought deeply about how and what we communicate through touch. I’ve certainly felt the grounding power of certain yoga teachers’ hands as they rubbed my temples and forehead during savasana. I’ve been attuned to how the pressure of a hug from a girlfriend in high school signaled genuine affection or a distancing disgust, the falseness of their gesture signaled through limp hands just barely grazing a fall jacket. When placing my hand on the shoulder of someone who reports to me at work, preparing to share positive feedback on a particular behavior, I’ve consciously modulated the pressure of my hand from gentle to firm, both so as not to startle them away from their computer and to reinforce the instance of feedback. Most of my thinking about communication, however, has hovered in the realm of representation and epistemology, trapped within the tradition that Richard Rorty calls the Mirror of Nature, where we work to train the mind to make accurate representations of the external world. Spending the last five years working in machine learning has largely reinforced this stance: I was curious to understand how learned mathematical models correlated features in images with output labels that name things, curious to understand the meaning-making methods of machines, and what these meaning-making methods might reveal about our own language and communication.

And then I got pregnant. And my son Felix grew inside me, continues to grow inside me, inching closer to his birth day (38 weeks and counting). And while, like many contemporary mothers-to-be, I initially watched to see if he responded differently to different kinds of music, moving more to the Bach Italian Concerto or a song by Churches or Grimes, while I was initially interested in how he would learn the unique intonations of his mother and father’s voice, my experience of interacting with Felix changed my focus from sound to touch. My unborn son and I communicate with our hands and feet. The surest way to inspire him to move is to rub my abdomen. The only way he can tell me to change a position he doesn’t like is to punch me as hard as he can. Expecting mothers rub their bellies for a reason: it’s an instinctual means of communicating, transforming one’s own body into the baby’s back, practicing the gentle, circular motions that will calm the baby outside the womb. Somehow it took the medical field until 2015 to conduct a study concluding that babies respond more to a mother’s touch than her voice. I can’t help but see this is the blindspot of a culture that considers touch a second-class sense, valued lower than the ocular or even auricular.

But as research in artificial intelligence and robotics progresses, touch may reclaim a higher rank in the hierarchy of the senses. Brute force deep learning (brute force meaning throwing tons of data at an algorithm and training using gradient descent) has made great strides on vision, language, and time series prediction tasks over the past ten years, threatening established professional hierarchies that compensate work like accounting, law, or banking higher than professions like nursing or teaching (as bedside manner and emotional intelligence is way more complex than repetitive calculation). We still, however, have work to do to make robots that gracefully move through the physical world, let alone do something that seems as easy as pouring milk into our morning cereal or tying our shoes. Haptics (the subfield of technology focused on creating touch using motion, vibration, or force) researcher Katherine Kuchenbecker puts it well in Adam Gopnik’s 2016 New Yorker article about touch:

Haptic intelligence is vital to human intelligence…we’re just so smart with it that we don’t know it yet. It’s actually much harder to make a chess piece move correctly–to pick up the piece and move it across the board and put it down properly–than it is to make the right chess move…Machines are good at finding the next move, but moving in the world still baffles them. 

And there’s more intelligence to touch than just picking things up and moving them in space. Touch encodes social meaning and hierarchy. It can communicate emotions like desire and love when words aren’t enough to express feelings. It can heal and hurt. Perhaps it’s so hard to describe and model haptic intelligence because it develops so early that it’s hard for us to get underneath it and describe it, hard to recover the process of discovery. Let’s try.

Touch: Space, Time, and the Relational Self

Touch is the only sense that is reflexive.[2] Sure, we can see our hands as we type and smell our armpits and taste the salt in our sweat and hear how strange our voice sounds on a recording, but there’s a distance between the body part doing the sensing and the body part/fluid being sensed. Only with touch can we place the pad of our right pointer finger on the pad of our left pointer finger and wonder which finger is touching (active) and which finger is being touched (passive). The same goes if we touch our forearm or belly button or the right quadricep just above the knee, we’re just so habituated to our hands being the tool that touches that we assume the finger is active and the other body part is passive.

Condillac’s statue in the Traité des Sensations has always reminded me of the myth of Pygmalion, who falls in love with a statue he creates (inspiring what would become My Fair Lady). Here’s Rodin’s take on the myth.

In his 1754 Traité des sensations[3], the French Enlightenment philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac went so far as to claim that the reflexivity of touch is the foundation of the self. Condillac was still hampered by the remnants of a Cartesian metaphysics that considered there to be two separate substances: physical material (including our bodies) and mental material (minds and souls). But he was also steeped in the Enlightenment Empiricism tradition that wanted to ground knowledge about the world through the senses (toppling the inheritance of a priori truths we are born with). The combination of his substance dualism (mind versus body) and sensory empiricism results in a fascinating passage in the Traité where a statue, lacking all senses except touch, comes to discover that different parts of her body belong to the same contiguous self. The crux of Condillac’s challenge starts with his remark that corporeal sensations can be so intertwined with our sense of self that they are more like “manners of being of the soul” than sensations localized in a particular body part. The statue needs more to recognize the elision between her corporeal and mental self. So Condillac goes on to say that solid objects cannot occupy the same space: “impenetrability is a property of all bodies; many cannot occupy the same space; each excludes the others from the space it occupies.” When two parts of the body come in contact with one another, they hit resistance because they cannot occupy the same spot. The statue would therefore notice that the finger and the belly are two, different, mutually exclusive parts of space. At the same time, however, she’d sense that she was present in both the finger and the belly. For Condillac, it’s this the combination of difference and sameness that constitutes the self-reflexive sense of self. And this sensation will only be reinforced when she then touches something outside herself and notices that it doesn’t touch back.

For Condillac touch unifies the self in space. But touch can also unify the self in time. When I struggled sleep as a child, my mother would stroke my hair to calm me down and help me find sleep. The movement of her hand from temple to crown had a particular speed and pressure that my brain encoded as palliative. When I receive a similar touch today, the response is deep, instant, so deep it transcends time and brings back the security I felt as a child. But not merely security: the transition from anxiety to security, where the abrupt change in state is even more powerful. Mihnea, father to the unborn child growing inside me, knew this touch before we met. I didn’t need to ask him, didn’t need to provide feedback on how he might improve it better to soothe me. It was in him, as if it were he who was present when I couldn’t sleep as child. And not in some sick Freudian way — I don’t love him because he harkens memories of my mother. It’s rather that, early in our relationship, I felt shocked into love for him because his touch was so familiar, as if he had been there with me throughout my life. The wormhole his hand opened wasn’t quite Proustian. It wasn’t a portal to bring back scenes form childhood that lay dormant, ready to be relived (or, as Proust specifies, created, rather than recovered). It was more like a black hole, collapsing my life into the density of Mihnea’s touch, telling me he would father our children and know how to help them sleep when they were anxious.

There’s an implicit assumption guiding the accounts of Condillac and Mihnea’s touch: that, to use Adam Gopnik’s words, “we are alive in relation to some imagined inner self, the homunculus in our heads.” But touch becomes even more interesting when it helps us understand “consciousness itself as ‘exteriorized’, [where] we are alive in relation to others…[where] our experience of our bodies–the things they feel, the moves they make, and the textures and people they touch–is our primary experience of our minds.” Here Gopnik describes the thinking of Greater Good Science Center founding director Dacher Keltner, who (I think, based upon the little I know…) disagrees the Kantian tradition that morality is grounded in reason and self-imposed laws and instead grounds morality in the touch that begins with the skin-to-skin contact between mother and child.

A cursory introduction to psychologist Dacher Keltner’s thinking about touch.

I think the magic here lies in how responsive touch can or even must be to be effective communication. Touch seems to be grounded on experimentation and feedback. We imagine what the person we are about to touch will sense when we place our hand upon their arm, perhaps even test the pressure and speed of our movements on our own forearms before trying it out on them. And then we respond, adapt, feel how their arms encounter our fingers and palms, watch how their eyes betray what any emotions our touch elicits in them, listen for barely audible sounds that indicate pleasure or security or contentment or desire or disgust. Touch seems to require more attention to the response of the other than verbal communication. We might (albeit often incorrectly) presume we’ve transmitted a message or communicated some thought to others when we say something to them. It’s better when we watch how they respond, whether they have captured what we mean to say, but so often we’re more focused on ourselves than the other to whom we seek to communicate. This solipsism doesn’t pass with touch. Our hands have to listen. And when they do, the effect can be electric. The one being touched feels attended to in a way that can go beyond verbal and cognitive understanding. Here’s how Ina May Gaskin described an encounter with a master of touch, a capuchin monkey:

She took hold of my finger in her hand–it was a slender, long-fingered hand, hairy on the back with a smooth black palm–and I had never been touched like that before. Her touch was incredibly alive and electric…I knew that my hand, and everyone else’s too, was potentially that powerful and sensitive, but that most people think so much and are so unconscious of their whole range of sensory perceptors and receptors that their touch feels blank compared to what it would feel like if their awareness was one hundred percent. I call this “original touch” because it’s something that everybody as a brand new baby, it’s part of the tool kit…Many of us lose our “original touch” as we interact with our fellow beings in fast or shallow manner. 

Gaskin goes even further than Keltner in considering touch to be the foundation of morality. For her, touch is the midwife’s equivalent of the monk’s mind, and the midwife should take spiritual vows and abide by spiritual practices to “keep herself in a state of grace” required to tap into the holiness of birth. In either case, touch topples an interior, homunculus notion of self. The power lies in giving ourselves over to our senses, being attuned to others and their senses. Being as present as a capuchin monkey.

Haptics: Extending the Boundaries of the Self

This focus on presence, of getting back to our mammalian roots, may strike some readers as parochial. We’re past that, have evolved into the age of digital communication, where, like the disembodied Samantha from Spike Jonze’s Her, we can entertain intellectual orgies with thousands of machine minds instantaneously, no longer burdened by the shackles of a self confined to a material body in space. The haptics research community considers our current communication predicament to be paradoxical, where the very systems designed to bring us closer together end up leaving us empty, fragmented, distracted, and in need of the naturalness of touch. So Karon Maclean (primary author), a prominent researcher in the field:

Today’s technology has created a paradox for human communication. Slicing through the barrier of physical distances, it brings us closer together–but at the same time, it insulates us from the real world to an extent that physicality has come to feel unnatural…Instant messaging, emails, cell phones, and shared remote environments help to establish a fast, always-on link among communities and between individuals…On the other hand, technology dilutes our connection with the tangible material world. Typing on a computer keyboard is not as natural as writing with a nice pen. Talking to a loved one over the phone does not replace a warm hug. 

An image summarizing Karon Maclean et al’s research interests in haptic intelligence, from their article “Building a Haptic Language: Communication Through Touch”

Grounding research in concrete case studies centered around the persona of a traveling sales woman named Tamara, Maclean and her co-authors go on to describe a few potential systems that can communicate emotions, states of being, and communicative intention through touch. One example uses a series of quickening vibrations on a mobile phone to mimic an anxious heart rate, signaling to Tamara that something is wrong with her son. Tamara can use this as an advanced warning to check her text messages and learn that her 5-year-old son is in the hospital after cutting himself on a rusty nail. In another example, Tamara sends a vibrating signal to a mansplaining colleague who won’t let her get a word in edgewise. The physical signals don’t require the same social awkwardness that would be required to cut off a colleague with a speech act, but end up leading to more collaborative professional communication.

Maclean is but one researcher among many working on creating sensations of touch at a distance. My personal favorite is long-distance Swedish massage to feel more closely connected with a partner. Students in Katherine Kuchenbecker’s research lab at the Max Planck Institute have published many papers over the last couple of years focusing on generating a remote sense of touch for robot-assisted surgery, to make the process feel more present and real for a human surgeon operating at a distance. Other areas of focus for haptics research are on prosthetics. Gopnik’s article is a good place for layman interested in the topic to start. I found the most interesting conclusions from the work to be how sensory input needs to be manipulated to be cognizable as touch. Raw input may just come off as a tingle, a simulated nerve sensation in an artificial limb; it needs modification to become a sensation of pressure or texture. All in all, the field has advanced a long way from the vibrations gaming companies put into hand-held controllers to simulate the experience of an explosion, but it still has a long way to go.

Let’s imagine that, sometime soon, we will have a natural, deep sense of touch at a distance, with the same ease that today we can send slack messages to colleagues working across the globe. Would we feel ubiquitous? Would our consciousness extend beyond the limitations of our physical bodies in a way deeper and more profound that what’s available with the visual and auditory features that govern our digital experience today? Will we be able to recover our “original touch” at a distance, knowing the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon more intimately because we can feel the harsh surface of its Lioz pillars, can sense, through the roughness of its texture, the electric remnants of the fossils that gird its core?

I just don’t think anything can replace the sanctity of our presence. The warmth and smell and stickiness of a newborn baby on our skin. The improbable wonder of a body working to defy entropy, if only for the short while of an average human lifespan. This doesn’t mean that the tapping into the technology of touch isn’t worthwhile. But it does mean that we can’t do so at the expense of losing the holiness of a different means of extending beyond the self through the immediate connections to another. At the expense of not learning from the steady rhythm of kicks and squirms that live within me, and will soon come to join us in our breathing world.

Arches from the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. I found myself drawn to touching the Lioz pillars when I was there, and was shocked at the abrasiveness of their texture.

[1] What I’m trying to get at is different from the sociological concept of Verstehen, a kind of deep understanding that emerges from first-person experience. There’s definitely a part of this kind of knowledge that is grounded in having the experience, versus understanding something theoretically or at a distance. But the key is that the discovery of the insight wouldn’t have come to pass without the experience. I am writing this post – I have become so interested in touch – because of the surprising things I’ve come to learn during pregnancy. Without the pregnancy, I’m not sure I would have been interested in this topic.

[2] I think this is accurate, but would welcome if someone showed the contrary.

[3] This is one of my favorite texts in the history of philosophy. I also referenced it in Three Takes on Consciousness.

The featured image is a detail from Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina, housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Bernini was only 23 years old when he completed the work. Proserpina, also known as Persephone, was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture. Hades loved Proserpina, and Zeus permitted him to abduct her down to the underworld. Demeter was so saddened by the disappearance of her daughter that she neglected to care for the land, leading to people’s starvation. Zeus later responds to the hungering people’s pleas by making a new deal with Hades to release Proserpina back to the normal world; before doing so, however, Hades tricks her into eating pomegranates. Having tasted the fruit of the underworld, she is doomed to return there each year, signaling the winter months when the harvest goes limp. The expressiveness of Hades’ fingers digging into Proserpina’s thigh illustrates the complexity of touch: her resistance and fear shout from creases of marble muscles, fat, and skin. And somehow Bernini’s own touch managed to foster the emotionality of myth in marble, to etch it there, capturing the fleeting violence of rape and abduction for eternity.

Car Wash

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.

Images from the homepage of Hidy Ochiai’s Karate Studio in Vestal, New York. My brother and my dad took karate lessons there when I was a kid; my brother was 3 years younger than I. I remember Hidy could walk up walls and do flips to get back to steady ground.

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.

To My Prenatal Son

You and I are one. Both one body and not one body. Our two hearts beat together, yours relying on the pulse of the chord that nourishes you, gives you oxygen, gives you amniotic food. You eat what I eat. Feel shadows of what I feel. How your brain develops depends on what I feel, as I hint what you will face in the world outside. I work as hard as I can to send you calm, don’t want my anxiety to mistransmit the message. You hear most of what I hear, just not Jóhannson’s Orphée in my ears as I write. Perhaps right now you hear movements in our home I’ve blocked out with my AirPods. You press your head down on my bladder, cephalic anterior. You invert with me when we do downward dog. You have no choice. I am your vehicle, Garuda to Vishnu, Nandi to Shiva, the mouse to Ganesha. Some people call the fetus a parasite. I feel more like I am a vehicle for your being and growth, my existence subordinated to give you life.

This state is temporary. Soon a new relationship will form as mother and child. You will still eat what I eat, through colostrum, then milk, not the fluid that surrounds you. You will still feel shadows of what I feel, no matter how hard I might try to control the states I transmit to you: your limbic system outsmarts your cortex, my cortex. You’ll hear more of what I hear. Sounds won’t be blocked behind the water womb. I’ll hear you for the first time. We’ll change how we communicate with one another. I will watch your eyes for cues, listen to grunts and swallows as you suck. I will watch how your fingers curl on your hands, your toes curl on your feet. You will watch my eyes, vague at first, but there. For now we communicate through touch alone. Because you are still me, I rub my stomach with the same pressure and circular movement I’ll use when I rub your infant back. I rub me as if I am rubbing you. I rub me to settle you down when you kick in frustration after the hiccups start. The hiccups come on slow, a pulse here and there in my belly that eventually settles into a regular cadence. And then you notice it, want it gone, increase the amplitude of your movements to try to get them to stop. We get up from bed together. We walk over to the room where I will nurse you after you’re born. I rub me to rub you, whisper that it will be ok, that they will go soon, that, like teething, this is a positive sign of growth. That growing up hurts. That this is the first of so many hurts and aches, nothing compared to the heartache of the first unrequited love, the rejection that feeds on unmatched desire. And you, too, communicate with me through touch. You punch the living day lights out of the membrane that surrounds your liquid world when I lie on my left side at night, telling me the only way you can that you hate what your vehicle is doing. I respond. Rotate. Settle onto the other side to grant you peace.

And it is not just growing up that hurts. Since you have been me, since those early days of cells dividing from one to two to four to eight to sixteen to all these powers of two cascading into being, days cloudy in my memory, far away now, sensations I have to stretch my memory to recall, how tired I felt walking up the hill that leads to our home, how tired I felt on walks near the Charles River in Boston or the Pacific Ocean in Victoria, when, pitched momentarily into old age, time somersaulted into the future. I had to sit down after a kilometer of movement to catch my breath. The miracle was that I welcomed the morning sickness (which lasted all day, and came more frequently at night) because it was a sign that you were alive. At that time there were no other signs. You didn’t kick yet. You didn’t squirm your fingers on my lower abdomen. I relied on my nausea to know you were safe. I welcomed the discomfort. When it subsided I worried, fretted that perhaps you weren’t viable. Waited anxiously for the sickness to return. It was all I had of you. And my relationship to the pain involved in bringing you to life changed. I suffered effortlessly because it meant you were ok. Abided in it. Practiced the patience I will need after you are born. And now as we prepare for labor I continue this practice. Your father and I invite situations of physical pain. We hold ice cubes in our hands and breathe through the sensation. We squeeze our toes under the weight of our bodies at yoga class and breathe through the sensations. He massages my perineal muscles, stretching muscles and skin that have never been stretched like this before. It burns. Screams with discomfort. And I breathe through it knowing that the work will help us with your birth. Again time somersaults. We are at once totally here, totally present, and present in the awareness of the work we are doing for that future moment. As I work to give you an unmedicated birth, work to feel you come through me into the world, where others can meet you (for I already know you, your father already knows you too, but not the same way I do), the most challenging exercise I face is that your birth may not be as I wish it to be. I may have to adapt, accept, follow medical protocol to ensure we are both safe, both alive through your phase shift, your coming to live in a new way. But for now, your father and I practice modifying my relationship to pain, and deepen our connection to one another through our work.

These visions, these hopes, can be empowering, dangerous, and absurd. Empowering because they can fuse mind and body to make birth beautiful by making birth mammalian. Marie Mongan opens her book on HypnoBirthing with an anecdote of watching a cat give birth to kittens. The cat first finds a dark, safe place, the kind of solitude we look for when having a bowel movement. And in this place of safety her body does its work, seemingly effortlessly although undoubtedly with pain. But upon sensing a threat, be that a dog or some other predator coming near, the birthing work halts. The cat closes up. Gets up. Walks away from the now endangered place and only returns when the signs of danger to her kittens has disappeared. This image resonates deeply. For I too am mammal, you too are mammal. We will need a place of safety to give my body the right cues to enable to uterus to push you into the world, to enable the cervix and pelvic floor muscles to stay relaxed rather than clenching and give you space, to focus the oxygen and blood on my abdomen rather than in my arms and legs so you have what you need to move down the birth canal. My mind can help, help by getting out of the way. Help by encountering the pain and sensations without fear, trusting them, trusting you who know much more about this than I. Dangerous because I cannot suffocate you, now or after you are born, with images of what I want you to become. You will be who you are, rife with eccentricities. You may not be like me. You may not be like your father. Sometimes I fear you will be deaf. I will still love you. As Alison Gopnik says, I will work to be your gardener, not your carpenter. I will create conditions for you to grow as you will, a being like me and unlike me. Will watch with surprise as you move in our space. I will not shape you in a pre-formed image, will not mold you and chisel you according to the formal cause (Aristotle) I’ve prefigured in my mind. No Silicon Valley Tiger Mom horror. I am sure it will pain me if for some reason your development is slower than others. I promise I will accept it with grace and do what I can to help you without loving you any less. As James Carse says, our relationship with one another will be an infinite game, not a finite game. I won’t block us from growing together in surprising ways because I feel I need to embody the role as mother. I will engage with you. Inhabit the world of your imagination, embrace it, welcome it as you teach me to recover poetry from prose. I will ask you why after you ask me why. Our conversation will never end, for at its heart will be the mysteries, the big things we never really understand. We’ll journey here together. Absurd because, as I’ve found in my last weeks working before I prepare for maternity leave, the reality of what the future brings is never what we planned. Situations arise. Challenges come upon us. I thought, at this point, I’d be coasting on the ideal of servant leadership, grappling with the recognition that I am not needed, preparing an organization for my impending departure with calm and grace and beauty. But the future wanted otherwise, as it seeps into my past. I am still working hard, solving hard problems, breathing day by day so my stress levels don’t impact you. Sometimes I feel like I’m in an Ionesco play laughing at what I thought this phase in my pregnancy would be like. In my best moments, I feel empowered. I think of you and how I want to be for you, and carry out my work with as much integrity as possible. I want to be strong for you. I want you to be able to watch your mother after you are born and smile, maybe not to your friends, but to yourself when no one is watching, because you have me as a role model. You have already given me strength. Already helped me become a better version of myself.

Your name is Felix. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know your gender, but ultimately am grateful that we learned it because it deepened our connection to you, made you more concrete. At first you were just the baby, just it. When writing about you I’d either use they as a gender neutral pronoun or hop between he and she. And then you became he. And then you became you, Felix, not just the baby inside me, not just a baby, but this particular, unique, singular being. Granted as you grow into yourself outside my womb, your gender identity may evolve. That’s fine. Perhaps this is a temporary you.

Others will meet you in just a few weeks’ time. I won’t meet you then. I already know you. I don’t consider the moment of birth as one of your coming into the world. You are here, currently part of me, not visible to others the way they are used to being with others. Your birth is like a phase shift. Like plasma, you will take on a new form. Breathe in a new way. Eat in a new way. Your stomach will grow. You will poop black tar for the first time. You will take in the world in a new way. You will teach me as you take in the world. I will do my best to teach you, but I think I have more to learn from you than you from me. Someday you might read this and feel embarrassed. I get that. I’d feel that way too.

The featured image is of my hand on my belly one week ago. I tried to write this post last week, but found I was revealing certain details I wasn’t comfortable sharing in this public forum. I stopped. I felt the pain of failure and wondered if I’d ever be able to write this post. Since then, I read Knaussgaard’s Spring, a novel where he addresses his 3-month-old daughter in the second person. It inspired me and give me the courage to write this post. The lyrical mode is protective, gives me the ability to reveal depth without disclosing too much of the particular.

Love 4 | Observing the Entangled Mind

This is the fourth post in an indefinite series on love. Here are post 1, post 2, and post 3. Someday the love series will coalesce into a book. 

A master in the dark arts of anxiety with a mystic’s appreciation for the beauty latent in our day-to-day, I’ve listened to countless podcasts about meditation. My favorites, like this Tim Ferriss podcast with Jack Kornfield or this Krista Tippett podcast with Carlo Rovelli, brought tears to my eyes as I listened to them walking to work.[1] I’d take a moment to recompose before entering the office, hang up my coat, and walk–more like jog–directly to Charu Jaiswal and Katharine Marek, two former colleagues, gushing with enthusiasm about what I’d heard and watching them react with combination of surprise at being accosted, curiosity about the content, and joy at the purity of my intent.[2] Through all these hours of listening, however, I never heard anyone speaking about meditating with another.[3] I don’t mean next to someone, but entangled with someone, touching him or her, looking into his or her eyes, meditating together to feel, think, and breath as one. Love as meditation, or meditation as love.

I bet it would strike most as horrendously awkward and invasive to meditate looking directly into another’s eyes, even if they were the eyes of a lover or spouse. Context alters what feels natural: gazing into someone’s eyes is romantic on a first date, bonding after sex (when authentic…), and cherished during a proposal. But pausing our lives to sit down and look at one another without speaking just feels weird. It’s certainly not something we’d practice at a yoga class or meditation retreat. Sitting for five minutes in silence with strangers at a respectable distance is hard enough; having strangers sit on top of us and look into our eyes would annihilate any sliver of the inner peace and focus meditation is designed to promote.

But it’s deeper than that. The way of being we cultivate during meditation is a often a being disentangled from the minds and emotions of others. The quest in the west is to use meditation to appease our anxiety, depression, and fear, to chip away at crusty carapaces of self-hatred we’ve built over the years. It’s a hermetic place guarded in ritual, a precious state of mind that is relief from the turbulence and distraction we return to the minute we turn off our app and check email or Facebook. Many meditators find it difficult to bring the inner stillness they find on the mat to the office chair or the grocery store check-out line. The world impinges on us. Others impinge on us, entangling their histories, their emotions, their states with ours. And the spell is broken.

This isn’t to say that this is what meditation should and could be about. On the contrary, practices like metta (loving kindness) are geared towards focusing on others, wishing well-being, safety, and health to loved ones and strangers alike. The enlightened are beyond the petty, world-forming powers of anxiety, envy, and ambition, able to embrace all with equanimity and love divorced from the pain of projected possibility and power. In Buddhism, as far as I understand it, each person’s meditation promotes all beings’ ability to liberate ourselves from samsara, the purgatorial repetition of earthly existence characterized by suffering. So there should and could be value in practicing being fully connected with another, finding the same inner silence we encounter sitting by ourselves while our minds and emotions are entangled with another’s. Making space for emotions and thoughts we can’t control or directly observe and all the while experiencing deliverance.

My fiancé Mihnea and I recently started an almost daily practice of meditating with one another. On one another. In one another. We didn’t start on a quest for entangled enlightenment. We started because I wanted to meditate and we wanted to be together and it didn’t feel right to meditate next to one another, apart and independent, because we don’t love that way. It’s not our way of being. Ours is a love of oneness and interdependence, so it was more natural for us to meditate on one another than next to one another. So began a practice that yielded challenging and graceful experiences neither of us expected.

Here’s a sample. Mihnea has told me that he recognizes his own experiences in these descriptions.

How We Sit

Both Mihnea and I are prolific creators. We create to find stillness. We write, learn, build teams, build futures, ground our constant creativity in disciplined habits and rituals. As creators, we both have the instinct to experiment with meditation techniques and poses, to make meditation itself an instance of creative power. And yet, we (almost) always meditate in the same position: he sits on a couch or chair and I straddle him with my knees bent. Our perspectives are different: I tilt my head down and he tilts his up, when he bends his neck I see the crown of his head and when I bend mine he sees the tip of my forehead, I look down into his eyes and he looks up into mine.

My hunch is that we keep returning to this same position because it foregrounds the ability to look directly into one another’s eyes (or perhaps not, perhaps it’s all awaiting and preparation, twenty minutes spent building magnetic potential like rising bread that finds release in an embrace that is deep, pure, reaching towards essence, in the moment when I collapse into his chest like a child and he softens his hands to stroke my back and kiss my hair, a moment bursting with waiting, watching, noticing what wonders emerge when the world stretches flat from the density of a concentrated gaze). During a recent sit, Mihnea’s gaze hit me like a solid beam, unearthing a latent memory of the early Italian Renaissance Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, who described the eyes as a conduit to exchange blood and spirits, capable of beaming soul-rays into another. Here’s his commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus in De Amore [4]:

Put before your eyes, I beg of you, Phaedrus the Myrrhinusian, and that Theban who was seized by love of him, Lysias the orator. Lysias gapes at the face of Phaedrus. Phaedrus aims into the eyes of Lysias sparks of his own eyes, and along with those sparks transmits also a spirit. The ray of Phaedrus is easily joined to the ray of Lysias, and spirit easily joined to spirit. This vapor produced by the heart of Phaedrus immediately seeks the heart of Lysias, through the hardness of which it is condensed and turns back into the blood of Phaedrus as before, so that now the blood of Phaedrus, amazing though it seems, is in the heart of Lysias. Hence each immediately breaks out into shouting: Lysias to Phaedrus: “O, my heart, Phaedrus, dearest viscera.” Phaedrus to Lysias: “O, my spirit, my blood, Lysias.”

800px-Angel_Appearing_to_Zacharias_(detail)_-_1486-90
The lower-left corner detail of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Zachariah in the Temple (this fresco has as many names as there are websites), in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Marsilio Ficino is the guy on the far left. My friend Andrew Hui, who teaches at Yale’s NUS college in Singapore, has written extensively about palimpsest temporality in the Renaissance, where recognizable contemporaries in modern clothing stand alongside spiritual figures from the Bible, as if the stories were happening in today. The temporality of allegory is non-linear: it’s ever present and wraps around itself in quantum loops, like Mihnea’s gentle hand bringing me back to my childhood. This fresco is a great example, with Ficino and his cohort present in a Jewish-temple-turned-Catholic-Church to watch the archangel Gabriel announce a child to Zachariah first hand.

Humoring Renaissance Humorism and Christian-mystic-transubstantation, there is something intense and powerful about our eyes becoming vessels to exchange blood and bile. While we meditate, it’s clear that our connection is centered through our eyes. The many other channels of communication and connection–my hands on his stomach breathing his breath, my bottom sensing pulses and twitches in his quadriceps, the heat from his body creating a temperature differential between my chest (facing him) and back (facing away)–are present but dim in contrast to the encompassing power of Mihnea’s gaze, the window to the inside, the locus that dominates my awareness and makes the rest feel like static in the background, surprising me when it comes to the fore. Given this connection, we often meditate with our eyes open; indeed, it feels slightly awkward for me when I close my eyes, as if I’m cutting off our connection and imparting distance. I’m learning to see with my eyes closed, to be ok if his eyes remain open and watching even when my eyes are closed. To feel blood seep through eyelid gates and pump his heart with mine.

My knees inevitably get so sore I have to lie flat and stretch them after we sit. Once we inverted our positions and he sat on me; he wasn’t heavy but fear that he would be tightened his leg muscles. I tried to relax him. Someday I’d like us to stand holding hands, stand with our hands down near our haunches but with some part touching one another, lie on our sides facing one another, lie as if we were two dead people in coffins with my back touching his front, sit with our backs facing one another, etc. There’s no rush.

Breathing in Syncopation

One of the first things a new meditator learns is how to focus on the breath. Breathing is a marvelous anchor because we all easily recognize it as an eminently noticeable act that almost always goes unnoticed as we think about or do something else. The psychologist William James went so far as to claim that consciousness is nothing but breath, and that what we mistake for consciousness is a fictitious thing philosophers made up to name the thing that knows its thinking:

I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing. The ‘I think’ which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the ‘I breath’ which actually does accompany them. There are other internal facts besides breathing (intracephalic muscular adjustments, etc., of which I have said a word in my larger Psychology), and these increase the assets of ‘consciousness,’ so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception; but breath, which was ever the original of ‘spirit,’ breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known to them as consciousness. That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are. (Italics original)

There are different breathing techniques and different techniques for attending to breath. I like to start a meditation session with controlled, hyper-dilated breathing: 60-second inhale-exhale cycles dabbled with rapid cycles if I get short of breath. Five breaths (minutes) in, I notice that my brain feels different. It’s hard to describe, but it’s as if the center of my brain’s activity shifts from the forehead to the back of the skull, as if a spidermonculus had emerged from hibernation in my axons to canvas my neural pathways in delicate, shimmying webs. Eventually I stop controlling the pace and observe myself breathing naturally. While keeping partial attention on the breath, I sometimes expand awareness to scan the sensations in one localized body part, like my right pinky toe; this lopsided focus is most fun when it induces pinky toe hallucinations, stretching my torso and face into oblong pizza dough like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Dogmatic mindfulness meditators insist that one shouldn’t control the breath actively, that the practice is about noticing what the mind and body are doing and stilling the instinct to control. The breath, in mindfulness, is a home base to return to when thoughts do what thoughts do and plan and worry and wonder and plan and worry and wonder and criticize and compare and plan and worry and criticize and evaluate and self-hate and worry about planning and remember and ruminate and plan about worrying and ruminate about self-hate and remember about planning and plan about worrying ad infinitum. In the pranayama tradition, mediators actively restrict the breath using fingers or hold the breath at the top or bottom of a cycle.[5] Given my proclivities for experimentation, I like to experiment with different techniques and observe what happens.

When Mihnea and I started meditating together, I began with my habitual practice of long, controlled inhales and exhales. But it didn’t work. My prefrontal cortex stayed engaged, comparing my breathing cycle with his. I observed myself as I imagined he observed me, projecting my meditative I into his gaze such that the I watching me breathe was no longer the meditative I, but a socialized I, an outside I seeing my face and skin, judging me within my projections of what another sees. This doesn’t mean this is what Mihnea sees, or even what I think Mihnea sees. It was rather that his presence activated my superego, activated a bifurcation of the observing I that includes the awareness that others are watching. The discomfort was exacerbated by frustration: I sought to replicate the experience I cherish when meditating alone and felt budding frustration that I wasn’t able to replicate it, that the situation was different, that I didn’t have the same control.

So I pivoted. Focused on his breath instead of mine. It’s a different experience, a different way to cultivate inner stillness, but a way better suited to meditation with another. When I focus on my own breath, the act of attention is coupled with an act of will that controls the observed phenomenon: as I observe myself breathing at a pace I dictate, it’s as if my body were an extension of my attention. When I focus on his breath, the act of attention is decoupled from the observed phenomenon: sometimes Mihnea will imitate my breathing pace, but it normally lasts no more than 2-3 cycles. I notice the union and the difference, but the syncopation doesn’t bug me or create distance between us. It brings me closer to him, attunes me to him to the point where I stop noticing me and identify entirely with his breathing instead. It’s even deeper when I place my hands on his front body, palms facing down, one hand on his chest and one hand on his abdomen. My hands become like eyes, absorbing the heat and movements from his body as if they were x-rays observing his inner motions. When my hands breathe his breath, I close my eyes to amplify the sensation. It’s one of the few times when I feel more comfortable meditating with him with my eyes closed.

octopus skin
When I close my eyes and breathe Mihnea’s breath in my hands, it’s as if my hands were able to see him, the way an octopus can see through its arms. A firm believer in decentralization, I often dream of creating a company with an octopus leadership structure: I’d like to be a puny octopus brain CEO, delegating whole nervous systems to my teams, each of which can cognize the world independently yet somehow avoid the perils of silo’d, product-centric fragmentation. I also think the nervous structure of an octopus is a wonderful inspiration for distributed computational architecture, which seems to be where we’re headed.[6]

Mihnea recently built an application that synchronizes breathing in a group of people. Users put a belt around their chest to measure and join breath cadences. His research has shown that people who breathe in sync are more likely to register and remember the same thing: they become like one observer. I’ve certainly experienced communion like this in group meditation sessions, the experience strongest when the sound of my Om harmonizes with the resounding Oms of others (best when there are baritones and basses present). I think this makes the syncopation between Mihnea and my breath in our private meditation all the more interesting. We don’t breath in sync. But it’s precisely the syncopation that draws me out of myself and onto him, to decouple attention from will and give myself to his being.

Leafy_sea-dragon
Adding the octopus image reminded me of my favorite sea creature, the leafy sea dragon. You can view these in the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Knowing the Self Through Touch

Whereas I place my hands on Mihnea’s chest and torso to breathe his breath, he laces his fingers behind the small of my back to balance and support me. The awareness of me in his hands, of his hands on me, interestingly, is an outside-in way of perceiving the self, a meditation practice emphasizing self and mind as integrated with body (Yoga is similar, just aligning mind with body through movement rather than focusing on the self as body through touch). Note that the organic awareness of the boundaries of the self through touch is very different from the deleterious projections of how another would see the self as described above. Watching hands don’t judge, the feel their way to vision.

Finding self awareness in touch (rather than through a recursive loop in the mind) reminds me of responses some French Enlightenment philosophers had to Cartesian epistemology. Descartes emphasized the split between the res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (extended thing, or matter), claiming that we can build the world (and God) from a clear and distinct perception of the self because it’s impossible to say “I don’t exist” (who’s the I who says I don’t exist?).[7] A corollary was that knowledge does not depend on sensory experience, that truth is pre-wired in the mind (explanation beyond the scope of this post). Enlightenment empiricists thought this was bollocks and worked to show how all knowledge starts with sensory experience. One of my favorite pieces in the tradition (referenced in a former post on consciousness), is Etienne Bonnot de Condillac‘s Treatise on Sensations, which opens with a fable about a statue that comes to know herself by touching another, implying that the mind alone does not suffice to stratify the self.  Here’s how I paraphrased Condillac on May 21, 2010:

Imagine a statue that can only smell. Waft a rose under its nose. To an observer, it will be a statue that smells a rose. But to itself, it will simply be the oder of rose, of carnation, of jasmine, of violet, according to the objects that stimulate it. The odors the statue smells will seem to it not as properties of an external object, but rather as its own manners of being. Now think that the statue can only hear. Again, when the wind blows the oak leaves and rustles the willows, it will be that rustle and when the rain pitters the roof above, it will pitter with the rain. Now let the statue only be able to taste and smell. Place on its tongue your honey and thyme, and it will be that honey and thyme. Place on its tongue your cream and your salt, and it will be your cream and salt. It will be a collection of manners of being.

Now let the statue touch. First let the statue touch its own hands, its own legs. Then, place a rock on the table in front of your statue and let it touch it. It will rapidly pull back its hand in fear! For the statue will know that its me, the me that feels modified in its hands, does not feel modified in its body when it touches the rock. It is, then, the sensation of touch by which the soul passes from itself outside itself. By touching the rock, your statue will awake to its existence as different from the rest of the external world.

Now, Pygmalion, let the statue touch your own hand. Wait out your statue’s initial fear. Gradually, she will recognize that you are like her, a form similar to her own. But she will recognize that you are more than her and will think that her existence might change places and pass entirely into this second half of herself. She will want to give you all her being; a vivid desire will return and take over her whole existence, as a new manner of being, as a new awareness of a self that is a complete surrender of self into another. She will feel the birth of a sixth sense. Let us call this sixth sense dependence, vulnerability, or love.

Mihnea’s hands, however, do more than anchor me in the present as a body in space. They open another dimension and transport me through time. He has stubby fingers, incommensurate with the grace of his being. But he’s an extremely skilled pianist who expresses the musicality of his being–and the musicality of the world channeled through his being–through touch, absorbing and reflecting my needs and emotionality. When he strokes my hair, he transports me back to my childhood: I am three again, five again, comforted at last by my parents’ touch after hours of fretful insomnia. His hands cradle my fear and remind me I am no longer alone, ease me to sleep after the storm. Time unfolds in our moment of meditation, collapsing my life into the sensation of his fingers on my back. It pulses, breathing like a seal asleep under beach sun.

Practicing Stillness When Entangled With Another’s Mind

A Mind Like Sky is one of my favorite Jack Kornfield meditations. It calls for expansive attention (rather than the focused and controlled attention described above) to cultivate a mind “vast like space, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle or harm.” (From the Majjhima Nikaya) Every once and a while when I practice like this, the boundaries between myself and other relax (it’s too strong to say disappear). I identify with the sky, with the vase of breadsticks sitting askant to my left as I write, with the red spindly branches of the still leafless plant on our back porch. When the boundaries of the self expand to include and encompass everything, our ethical calculus changes. The golden rule stops making sense.

I have yet to feel this kind of universal identification when meditating with Mihnea. I trust it will come in time, but so far having my mind entangled with his has thwarted my ability to generalize my self awareness: his powerful and immediate presence grounds me in an us that is part of but not inclusive of everything. This is in part caused by the inviscid movements of our non-verbal communication. When Mihnea notices something that stimulates him, his eyes flicker and twitch with activity. When his eyes spark during meditation, I wonder what he’s thinking, what he noticed, get locked in his mind’s movement. Sometimes he opens his eyes so wide that the skin on his forehead folds like waves on a pond. His mouth opens slightly. He looks at me in utter surprise and I can’t help but laugh.

The openness and stillness our meditation cultivates is the kind needed to be good friends and colleagues. It’s practice being able to register the actions, words, and emotions of others in an encounter, rather than focusing on one’s own inner world, emotions, and thoughts. One of the limitations many meditators encounter is the difficulty transferring the same grounded bliss from the mat to the boardroom: the tendency is to default right back to our same old selves upon entering into the magnetic field of a given epistemological network and context. I’ve felt this frustration, and wondered if all the morning practice would ever amount to transformative change at work and in the rest of my life. There’s a good case to be made that meditating with someone else is better practice for the entangled consciousness we experience with others. It’s awkward at first, but it’s where the real work takes place. Almost like the initial resistance to taking an improv class that can go on to work wonders for one’s ability to act bravely and brazenly in other areas of life. I’d love to transform myself into a blank and open vessel, always open to others, able to see them for who they are, with strengths and weaknesses and beauty and blemishes, and to help them grow with equanimity. To register every last detail of every encounter and replicate the details in my mind. It’s a work in progress.[8]

Seeing the Details

Meditating with Mihnea gives me time to study him with the minute gaze of an entomologist. I study the curve of his chin, the two little freckles near his right eye (left-looking to me as we face one another), the curve of the bottom of his earlobes into the side of his face (he has attached earlobes like Clint Eastwood), the distribution of grey and black beard hairs at different lengths depending on when he last shaved, the shape of his lips, the chappedness of his lips at any given time, the puncture a single beard hair through the center of his bottom lip, stains on the side of his teeth, the odor of his breath (so often hinting tangerine oil), the smell of love in his veins and through his cartilage, the aura that emanates from behind his neck, like a halo on a Fra Angelico fresco, the furrow of his brow, the uneven distribution of his forehead pores, the even distribution of his skin melatonin, the precision of his hair line depending when he last got a haircut, the depth of the inlay into his spine in his lower back. It can go on to infinity, confirming the glorious skepticism of all that is there to be known.

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One of the most beautiful and sensual films about the precise gaze of the entomologist is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (1964). At first trapped in a sand dune with an alienating woman, the protagonist comes to cultivate a new obsession extracting water from the sand. 

I like to pay particular attention to the details of Mihnea’s eyes, and see different things every time. Their colors are enormously complex: he has hazel eyes with brown concentrated near the pupils (which sometimes dilate or constrict extremely rapidly after he returns his head back to look at me after bending his neck, only to encounter the shock of the bright lights above), followed by rays of green that eventually give to violet lining around the iris. His sclera tend to be bloodshot in the evening, which is when we tend to sit on weekdays. His eyes are galaxies, Leibnizian monads whose lines narrate a universe’s worth of history. And every time we meditate, water collects at the bottom of Mihnea’s eyes. I always wonder if it harkens tears. Sometimes it does. When it does, and I ask him afterwards why he cried, he says it is to wash away my pain.

One time I examined his tears. We didn’t let them keep us from meditating. We stayed silent. The tears were slow to fall, and collected in concave meniscuses like water in a glass. They hung in suspension, stopping time in the dense event horizon of his hands laced behind my back. Finally they fell. They fell down his cheek and dampened the two freckles under his right eye. I wiped away the rivulets with the pad of my index fingers, reabsorbing the pain he felt for me as we sat.

Just different, this time.


[1] I immediately bought and devoured Rovelli’s The Order of Time after hearing him on the On Being podcast. The book inspired this post. I got my mom a copy for Christmas and learned that my dad loved it after speaking with him on a recent phone call (Mihnea and I got my dad multiple physics books for Christmas, but didn’t think to get him this one. My dad appreciates lyricism, however, so I’m not surprised he loved it too). The book’s lyrical style inspired me: it gave me license to incorporate my own emotionality into the book I thought I was going to write about machine learning. Naturally, as I work on the book, the subject matter has changed slightly. I’m still in this purgatorial space where it’s trying to figure out its identity and is currently a gangly teenager with braces experimenting with different genders. Anxiety doesn’t help much and my dear friend reason-simulating-excuses likes to do pull-ups near my right ear over my right shoulder, whispering that this is character building, reminding me that wrestling with the content is the only way to write something worth reading. She is a rascal.

[2] Perhaps my most meaningful experience at integrate.ai was my weekly meditation session with Katharine Marek. Our meditation club started off much larger. In the first session, a whole slew of us sat together in a glass-exposed room at the WeWork offices at Yonge and Bloor and did our best to concentrate and focus in the mid afternoon as passersby buzzed by like worker bees. Participation fell like lemmings off a cliff. Shradha Mittal staid with us for a few more mornings, but she only worked part-time so the habits weren’t regular. It ended up being just me and Katharine. And it was marvelous. As it was just the two of us, we could begin each session sharing our worries, doubts, anxieties, emotions, thoughts. She shared with me and I shared with her. I’d teach her different techniques, mindfulness one day, metta the next, to expose her to various kinds of meditation and let her pick which one stuck. Ever suffering from misophonia (a byproduct of being highly sensitive and anxious), I’d do my best to ignore the sound of Yevgeniy Kissin tapping his spoon on a ceramic bowl as he ate a bowl of oatmeal like clockwork at the same time every morning (it didn’t help that I knew exactly when the clinking would start; Yev knows this and knows I love him). Katharine would smirk with joy at the oddity. Being with her reminded me of the course I taught at Stanford that had only one student, the magnificent Josefina Massot. We read Milton and Hobbes and Rousseau and Kleist like two Renaissance scholars sharing ideas. Josefina also had episodes of depression, and we supported one another through the quarter, teacher loving student loving teacher. I live for these experiences and vow to keep the details alive through frequent remembrance.

[3] I’m a fan of long podcasts interviews. Tim Ferriss’s interview with Jack Kornfield, for example, is 03:02:03. I don’t feel any need to consume content within a window of time. To have a book end and have a thought be quick and compact like a teeshirt we can tidily fold and tuck away into a drawer. I listen to podcasts like I read books: I read, stop, bookmark the page, and pick up where I left off. The assumption that content should be easily digestible is patronizing. Just noticing while writing this that we use food metaphors for content, we consume and digest words. I may the odd man out here, as I heard from others who self-identify as productive, busy, important executives that they want their learning to churned and scoped down like the tasks they jump around from in their day-to-day lives.

[4] It’s in The Phaedrus that Plato references that the technology of writing may have a deleterious impact on human memory (for if we outsource memory to writing, we won’t exercise the capability and it will fade over time). It’s a good reminder to see that there’s long-standing fear about how some new technology will lead to our gradual degradation into use automata. I tend to think this stems from a lack of imagination and proclivities towards fear: we ground our predictions in what the future will look like after some change in the context of what we see and know today. The wonderful thing about participating in non-linear and complex systems is that they are complex and can react in ways we don’t predict in advance. Tim Harford does an excellent job showing the complex entanglement of social developments from new technologies and inventions in 50 Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, illustrating, for example, the relationship between birth control and gender equality in the workplace. Plato feared writing. Some people fear AI. I tend to most fear, based on my own experience, distraction-inducing technologies, even something as simple as the notifications on our devices. Notifications annihilate coherence, which Mihnea and I both prize. He recently shared that enough Generation Zsters use closed captioning to keep their attention focused on movies and videos that it’s capturing media attention.

[5] I wanted to show a picture of pranayama finger positions but everything I found looked ridiculous. Here, for example, is the wikiHow picture. In my brief but fruitless search, I also learned that Hilary Clinton swore by pranayama techniques to calm herself in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Naturally, this is only interesting because it’s Hilary Clinton, both because of the star factor (our curiosity to know famous people’s habits, as if this where some sort of privileged knowledge; the phenomenon of completely disregarding privacy when it comes to famous people is bizarre. Is it cultivated by their constant visibility in the media or an intrinsic default of human group psychology and dominance hierarchies?) and the surprise factor thinking about Hilary behaving this way. Then again, Jeb Bush was on a paleo diet leading up to the elections. Politicians are people, too.

[6] Three very smart Johns I know, John Hall (CEO of Intapp), John Frankel (Managing Partner at ffVC), and John Deighton (Professor at Harvard Business School), all believe that technology moves in cycles between centralization and decentralization: the mainframe was followed by the client-server, which, after virtualization, was followed by the public cloud, which, now that we’re getting queasy about the power of so much centralized data and have a network of mobile devices and IoT-enabled cars and toasters and things hopping around the world, will be followed by decentralization once more once we can get GPUs and TPUs small enough to work well on mobile devices. We are very, very close. Distributed ledgers and databases are also harbingers of what’s to come. I’m keen to know what it means for the ideological superstructures on top of the material backbone of society. Or maybe information technologies alter some of Marx’s axioms? It’s definitely the case that we need a new economic model for data-powered software, the same way SaaS subscription business models were created for the cloud.

[7] It’s funny that Bertrand Russell decided to embody the first-order logic paradox that yielded Gödel’s incompleteness theorem as the barber paradox: “The barber is the “one who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.” The question is, does the barber shave himself?” I haven’t seen a lot recently in the AI community grounded consciousness on recursive loops the way Hofstadter did back in the days of symbolic AI as canonized in Gödel, Escher, Bach. As intimated in this post, Mihnea and I are both after an articulation of minds as entangled phenomenon, selves not as static brains in vats but as dynamic and complex systems entangled in different social contexts.

[8] Mihnea is a priest of language. He ends his book Inside Man with a gesture towards the communicative ethics that guide his internal dialogues as much as his dialogues with others. He cultivates minute precision in language in part because generalities and abstractions leave room for an interlocutor to extend a comment or criticism to encompass their entire being: “try tilting your wrist a little to the right when you swing the tennis racket” turns into “you suck at tennis and that means you can’t learn anything new and that means your career is ruined and that means you’re a pathetic failure, oh yeah, and that also means I think you’re a pathetic failure.” He’s helped me come to understand how dangerous it can be when others cannot refer to a particular behavior or activity when they provide feedback, and instead have couched multiple vague impressions into a narrative that leads to nothing but harm to a student or teammate.

The featured image is the Contemplative Bodhisattva, National Treasure of Korea No. 83. Insured for an estimated 50 billion won, it is the most expensive Korean national treasure. The semi-seated figure is Maitreya, a bodhisattva (someone working towards Buddhahood, but who has not yet attained it) prophesied to appear on Earth, achieve enlightenment, and teach the dharma, the way of being in line with the right order of the universe. I learned how remarkable this statue is when I attempted to crop the photo to make the proportions fit more nicely into the frame of my posts (I prefer square images or flat images with narrow heights, rather than long upright rectangles). It lost its aura when I cropped it, There is a majestic balance between the narrow, smooth lines of Maitreya’s chest, the silent grace of his necklaces, and the textured flow of the draping cloth. His bent knee carries forth the line sketched by the upturned rim of cloth upon his seat. He’s leaning forward slightly (apparent when you view the figure in profile) and it’s as if the lower half is required to cradle his balance and keep the painting unified and whole. The chipped enamel reminds me of the skin of yellow beats, shedding ground dirt to canvass concentric circles that beam inside. 

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The Contemplative Bodhisattva in profile

How I Wrote my TED Talk

I did my first TED Talk in October, part of a TED Salon in New York City. I’ve thanked Alex Moura, TED’s technology coordinator, for inviting me and coaching me through the process, but it never hurts to say thanks multiple times. I’d also like to extend thanks to Cloe Sasha, Crawford Hunt, Corey Hajim, and the NYC production and makeup crew. As I wrote about last summer, stage crews are pre-talk angels that help me metabolize anxiety through humor, emotion, and the simple joy of connecting with another individual. At the TED headquarters, the crew gave me a detailed run down of how the audio and video systems work, how they edit raw recordings, how different speakers behave before talks, and why they decided to be in their field. I learned something. I can precisely recall how the production manager laced his naturally spindly, Woody-Allenesque voice with a practiced hint of care, cradling the speakers with confidence before we took the stage. His presence exuded joy through focused concentration, the joy of a professional who does his work with integrity.

Here’s the talk. My hands look so theatrical because I normally release nervous energy as kinetic energy by pacing back and forth. TED taught me that’s a chump move that distracts the audience: a great presenter stays put so people can focus. The words, story, tone, pitch, dynamics, emotions, and face cohere into an impression that draws people in because multiple parts of their brain unite to say “Pay attention! Valuable stuff is coming your way!”[1] I have some work to do before I master that. When I gave the talk, my mind’s albatross meta voice was clamoring “Stay put! Resist the urge! Stop doing that! In channel 8 you’re at chunk 3 of your AI talk right? Enter spam filter to illustrate the difference between Boolean rules and a learned classifier…what’s that person in row 2 thinking? Is the nod…yeah, seems ok but then again that eyebrow…interference from channel 18 your fucking vest isn’t hooked…shit…” resulting in moments in my talk where my gestures look like moves from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.[2] Come to think of it, I’m often appalled by the emotions my face displays in snapshots from talks. Seeing them is stranger than hearing the sound of my voice on a recording. My emotional landscape shifts quickly, perhaps quickly enough that the disgust of one femtosecond resolves into content in the next, keeping the audience engaged as time flows but leading to alien distortions when time freezes.

As I argued in my dissertation (partially summarized here), I’m a fan of Descartes’ pedagogical opinion that we learn more from understanding how someone discovered something–and then challenging ourselves to put this process into practice so we can come to discover something on our own–than we do from studying the finished product. I therefore figured it may be useful for a few readers if I shared how I wrote this talk and a few of the lessons I learned along the way.

Like Edgar Allen Poe in his Philosophy of Composition, I started by thinking about the intention of my talk. Like Poe, I wanted to write a talk “that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.” This was TED, after all, not an academic lecture at the University of Toronto. I needed an introduction to AI that would be accessible to a general audience but had enough rigor to merit respect from experts in the field. I often strive to speak and write according to this intention, as I find saying something in plain old English pressure tests how well I understand something. Poe then talks about the length of a poem, wanting something that can be read in one sitting. Most of the time, the venue tells you how long to speak, and it’s way harder to write an informative 10-minute talk than a cohesive 45-minute talk. TED gave me a constraint of 12 minutes. So my task was to communicate one useful insight about AI that could change how a non-expert thinks about the term, to shows this one insight a few different ways in 12 minutes, and to do this while staving off the inevitable grimaces from experts.

Alex and I started with a brief call and landed, provisionally, on adapting a talk I gave at Startupfest in 2017. The wonderful Rebecca Croll, referred by the also wonderful Jana Eggers, invited me to speak about the future of AI. As that’s just fiction, I figured I’d own it and tell the fictional life story of one Jean-Sebastian Gagnon, a boy born the day I gave my talk. The talk pits futurism alongside nostalgia, showing how age-old coming-of-age moments, like learning about music and falling in love, are shaped by AI. He eventually realizes I’m giving a talk about him and intervenes to correct errors in my narrative. Alex suggested I adapt this to a business applying AI for the first time. I was open to it, but didn’t have a clear intuition. It sat there on the back burner of possibility.

The first idea that got me excited came to me on a run one morning through the Toronto ravines. The air was crisp with late summer haze. Limestone dust bloomed mushroom clouds that hovered, briefly, before freeing the landscape into whitewashed pastel. The flowers had peaked, each turgid petal blooming signs of eminent decay. Nearby a woman with violet grey hair that matched the color of her windbreaker and three-quarter length leggings used her leg strength to hold back a black lab who wanted nothing more than to run beside me down the widening path. With music blaring in my ears, I was brainstorming different ideas and, unsurprisingly, found myself thinking about an anecdote I frequently use ground the audience’s intuitions about AI when I open my talks. It’s a story about my friend Andrew bootstrapping a legal opinion from a database of former law student responses (I wrote about here and used to open this talk). I begin that narrative with a reference to Tim Urban’s admirable talk about procrastination. And, suddenly it hit: a TED talk within a TED talk! Recursion, crown prince of cognitive delight. “OMG that’s it! I’ll generate a TED talk by training a machine learning model on all the past TED talks! Evan Macmillan’s analysis of word frequency in all the former Data Driven talks worked well. Adapt his approach? Maybe. Or, I can recount the process of creation (meta reference not intended) to show what happens when we apply AI: show the ridiculous mistakes our model will make, show the differences between human and machine creation, grapple with the practical tradeoffs between accuracy and output, and end with a heroic message about a team bridging the different ways they see the same problem to create something of value. Awesome!” I called my parents, thrilled. Wrote slack messages to engage two of my colleagues. They were thrilled. We were off the to races, pushed by the adrenaline of discovery amplified by the endorphins of a morning run.

The joy of my mind racing, creating at a million miles an hour, provided uncanny relief. It was one of the first morning runs I’d taken in a while, after experimenting over the summer with schedule that prioritized cognitive output. As my mind is clearest between 6:00-10:00, I got to the office before 6:30 am and shifted exercise to the afternoons or evenings. I didn’t neglect my body, but deprioritized taking care of it. And in doing so, I committed the cardinal sin of Western metaphysics, fell into the Cartesian trap I myself tried to undo in my dissertation! The mistake was to think of the mind and its creations as independent from the body. Feeling my creativity surge on that morning run hit home: I thought in a way I hadn’t for months. I’ve since changed my schedule, and do make time for creative work in the morning. But I also exercise. It fuels my coherence and my generative range, the two things I value most.

I wrote to Alex at TED to tell him about my awesome idea. He was like, “yeah it’s cool, but we don’t have enough time to do that. Can you send me a draft on another topic so we can iterate together asap?”[3]

Hmpf.

Back to the drawing board.

Now, having a day job as an executive, I don’t have a lot of time to write my talks. I’ve perfected the art of putting aside two or three hours just before I have to give a presentation to tailor a talk to an audience. These kinds of constraints empower and fuel me. They don’t leave enough time for the meta critical voices to pop up and wave their scary-ass Macbeth brooms in my mind. I just produce. And, given the short time constraints, I never write my talks. Instead, I write the talk equivalent of a jazz scaffold, with pictures like a chord series upon which the musicians improvise. My talk’s logic is normally partitioned into phrases, stanzas, chunks. Another way to think about the slides are like the leitmotifs bards used in oral poetry, like the “rosy-fingered dawn” we see pop up in Homer. And I’ve done this, with reward feedback loops, for a few years. It’s ossified into a method.

A TED talk isn’t jazz. It’s like a classical concerto. You write it out in advance, practice it, and execute the harmonics, 16th notes, and double stops with virtuosic precision (I’m a violinist, so these are kinds of things I worry about). You rehearse, you don’t improvise.

That challenged me in a few ways.

First, breaking my habits spurred the nervousness we feel when we learn how to do something new. When I sat down to write a draft, my head went into talk writing mode. I did what I always do: started with an anecdote like the Andrew story, composed in chunks, represented the chunks with mnemonic devices in the form of random pictures that mean something to me and me only (until the audience sees the humorous, synthetic connection to the content). I booked an hour in my calendar to make progress on a draft but that was it: I had to move on and deliver the outcomes I’m responsible for as an executive. I just couldn’t prioritize the talk yet. So the anxiety would arise and fester and fuel itself on the constraints. I’d cobble together a few pictures and some quick notes and send them to the TED team and some friends who wanted to help review, knowing what I was sending was far from decent and near to incomprehensible.

For, of course, they couldn’t make heads or tails of the random pictures that work at a different level of meaning than the talk itself. They’d respond with compassion, do their best to gently communicate their befuddlement. It was humorously bad. And every time they expressed confusion, it eroded my confidence in the foundation of the talk. I felt a need to start over and find a new topic. I face communication foibles like this in other areas of my life and, as I work to be a better leader, try to make the time to think through the perspectives of those receiving a communication before I send it. I imagine other artists or former academic face similar challenges: we are used to prizing originality, only writing or saying something if it hasn’t been said before. In business, there’s value in repetition: saying something multiple times to increase the probability that people have heard and understood it, saying the same thing different ways in different genre and for different audiences, teaching everyone in the company to say the same thing about what you do so there is unity of message for the market. It’s against my instincts, require vigilance to preserve predictability for my teams and consistency for the market. Even for my TED talk, I felt a need to say something new. To titrate AI to its very essence, to its extraordinary quintessence. Some people coaching me said, “no, darling, they just want you to say what you’ve said a million times before. You say it so well.”

Finally, I wasn’t used to rehearsing, sharing drafts, or exposing the finished product outside the act of performance. There are two sub-points here. The first has to do with the relative comfort different people have in exposing partial ideas to others. I’m all for iteration, collaboration, getting feedback early to save time and benefit from the possible compounded creativity of multiple minds. But, as an introvert often mistaken to be an extrovert and someone trained in theoretical mathematics, I feel at ease when I have time to compose compound thoughts, with deliberately ordered, sequential parts, before sharing them with others. Showing a part is like starting a sentence and stopping midway. Not sharing early enough or quickly enough is another foible I have to constantly overcome to fit into tech culture; I believe many introverts feel similarly. Next, the pragmatic and performative context of the speech act changes it. As mentioned above, I’m a violinist, so have rehearsed and then performed many times before. But I don’t rehearse talks and really only have to myself as audience, repeating turns of phrase out loud until they hit the pithy eloquence I prize. What I didn’t know how to do was to rehearse before others. And it’s a hell of a lot harder to give a talk to one person than it is to an audience. It’s as if my self gets turned inside out when I give a talk to a single observing individual. I feel the gaze. Project what I suspect they see into a distorted clown mirror. It’s like a supreme act of objectification, all men’s eyes gazing intently on the body of Venus. Naked. Bare. Exposed. It’s 50,000 times easier to give a speech to an audience, where each individual becomes a part of an amorphous crowd, enabling me, as speaker, to speak to everyone and no one, focusing on the ideas while also picking up the emotional feedback signals acting on a different level of my brain. Learning how to collaborate, how to overcome these performative fears, was useful and something I’ll carry forward.

Midway upon this journey, finding myself within a forest dark, having lost the straightforward pathway, I came across the core idea I wanted to communicate: to succeed with AI, businesses have to invert the value of business processes from techniques to reduce variation/increase scale to techniques to learn something unique about the world that can only be learned by doing what they do. Most people think AI is about using data to enhance, automate, or improve an existing business process. That will provide sustaining innovation, but isn’t revolutionary. Things get interesting when existing products are red herrings to generate data that can create whole new products and business lines.[4] I liked this. It was something I could say. I could see the work of my talking being to share a useful conceptual flip. My friend Jesse Bettencourt helped formulate the idea and sent me this article about Google Maps as an example of how Google uses products and platform to generate new data. I sat down to read it one Saturday and footnote six caught my attention:

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Footnote 6 in Justin O’Beirne’s excellent piece on Google Maps. The orange highlight indexes the modicum of doubt in my mind that, while I’ve told multiple people this was footnote 6, I may just well have been mistaken, but I was sure O’Beirne referenced Henry Ford, so I used that as my search term.

I loved the oddness of the detail. And the more I searched, the stranger it got. Thomas Edison helped Henry Ford started a charcoal production facility after he had too much wood from the byproduct of his car business? Kingsford charcoal was a spinoff, post acquisition by Clorox, of a company founded by Henry Ford? Henry Ford pulled one of those oblique marketing moves like the Michelin Brothers, using the charcoal businesses to advertise the wonderful picnics that waited at the end of a long car ride to give people somewhere to drive to?[5] It gripped me. Provided joy in telling it to others. I wanted people to know this. Gripped me enough that it became almost inevitable that I begin my talk with it. After all, I needed a particular story to ground what was otherwise an abstract idea. I go back and forth on my opinion of the Malcolm Gladwellian New Yorker article, which I (potentially erroneously, as I am not Gladwell expert) structure as:

  • Start with an anecdote that instantiates an abstract idea
  • Zoom out to articulate the abstraction
  • Show other examples of the abstraction
  • Potentially come back to unpack another aspect of the abstraction
  • Give a conclusion people can remember

This is more or less how my talk is structured. I would have loved to use a whole new form, pushing the genre of the talk to push the boundaries of how we communicate and truly lead to something new. All in due time.

Even after finding and getting excited about Henry Ford, I prevaricated. I wasn’t sure if the thesis was too analytical, wasn’t sure if I wanted to use these precious 12 minutes to show the world my heart, not my mind. There was a triumphant 40 or so hours where I was planning to tell the world’s most boring story from the annals of AI, a story about a team at a Big Four firm that builds a system to automate a review of the generally acceptable accounting principles (GAAP) checklist. I liked it because it’s moral was about teams working together. It showed that real progress with AI won’t be the headlines we read about, it will be the handwritten digit recognition systems that made the ATM possible, the natural language processing tools that made the swipe type on the Android possible. Humble tools we don’t know about but that impact us every day. This would have been a great talk. Aspects from it show up in many of my talks. Maybe some day I’ll give it.

In the end, I never actually wrote my TED talk. I told people I was memorizing an unwritten script. For me, the writing you read on this blog is a very different mode of being than the speaking I do in talks. The acts are separate. My mind space is separate. So, I gave up trying to write a talk and went back to my phrases, my chunks. Went back to rehearsing for an invisible audience. I walked 19 miles up the Hudson River on the day I gave my talk. I had my AirPods in and pretended I was talking on the phone so people didn’t think I was crazy. I suspect I needed the pretense to cushion my concentration in the first place. It was a gorgeous day. I took photos of ships and docks and branches and black struts and rainbow construction cones in bathroom entrances. I repeated sentences out loud again and again until I found their dormant lyricism. I practiced my concerto by myself. And then, I practiced in front of my boyfriend in the hotel room one last time before the show. He listened lovingly, patiently, supportively. He was proud. I felt comfortable having him watch me.

I pulled off the performance. Had a few hiccups here and there, but I made it. I reconnected with Teresa Bejan, a fellow speaker that evening and a former classmate from the University of Chicago. I did one dress rehearsal with my team at work and will always remember their keen attention and loving support. And I found a way to slide my values, my heart, into the talk, ending it with a phrase that encapsulates why I believe technology is and always will be a celebration of human creativity:

Machines did not see steaming coffee, grilled meats and toasted sandwiches in a pile of sawdust. Humans did. It’s when Ford collaborated with his teams that they were able to take the fruits of yesterday’s work and transform it into tomorrow’s value. And that’s what I see as the promise of artificial intelligence. 

[1] In Two lessons from giving talks, I explained why having the AV break down two thirds of the way into a talk may be a hidden secret to effective communication. It breaks the fourth wall, engaging the audience’s attention because it breaks their minds’ expectation that they are in “listen to a talk” mode and engages their empathy. When this has happened to me, the sudden connection with the audience then fuels me to be louder and more creative. We imagine the missing slides together. We connect. It’s always been an incredibly positive feedback loop.

[2] Michael Jackson felt the need to “stress”, at the beginning of the Thriller music video, that “due to his strong personal convictions, [he wishes] to stress that [Thriller] in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” It’s worth pausing to ask how it’s possible that someone could mistake Thriller as a religious or cult-like ritual, not seeing the irony or camp. The gap between what you think you are saying and what ends up being hard never ceases to amaze me. It’s bewilderingly difficult to write an important email to a group of colleagues that communicates what you intend it to communicate, in particular when emotions and selective information flow and a plurality of goals and intentions kicks in. One of my first memories of appreciating that acutely was when people commented on a 5-minute pitch version of my dissertation I gave at the Stanford BiblioTech conference in 2012. One commenter took an opinion I intended to attribute to Blaise Pascal as something I endorsed at face value. I thought I was reporting on what someone else thought; the other heard it as something I thought. These performative nuances of meaning are crucial, and, I believe, a crucial leadership skill is to be able to manage them as a virtuosic novelist manages the symphony of voices and minds in the characters of her novel. This is one of the many reasons that we need to preserve and develop a rigorous humanistic education in the 21st century. The nuances of how humans make meaning together will be all the more valuable as machines take over more and more narrow skills tasks. Fortunately, the quantum entanglement of human egos will keep us safe for years to come. I’d like to resurrect programs like BiblioTech. They are critically important.

Side note 2. In May, 2005, an old Rasta, high as a kite, told me at the end of a hike through a mountain river near Ocho Rios that I looked like Michael Jackson, presumably towards the end of his life when his skin was more white. That was also a bizarre moment of viewing myself as others view me.

[3] Alex also told me about an XPRIZE for an AI-generated TED talk back in 2014. Also, my dear friend and forever colleague Dan Bressler came up with the same idea down the line and we had a little moratorium eulogizing a stillborn.

[4] Andrew Ng has shared similar ideas in many of his talks about building AI products, like this one.

[5] The Michelin restaurant guide, in my mind, predated the contemporary fad of selling experiences rather than products. Imagine how difficult it would be to market tires. A standard product marketing approach would quickly bore of describing ridges and high-quality rubber. But giving people awesome places to drive to is another story. I think it’s genius. Here’s a photo of an early guide.

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The Michelin Brothers capitalized on the excitement of being able to try out restaurants that would have been too far to reach and on the desires to be part of the elite.

The featured image is of an unopened one-pound box of Ford Charcoal Briquets, dating back to 1935-37 and available for purchase on WorthPoint, The Internet of Stuff TM. Seller indicates that she does “not know if briquettes still burn as box has not been opened.” The briquettes were also son by the ton. Can you imagine a ton of charcoal? One of my favorite details, which made its way into my talk, is that a “modern picnic” back in the 1930s featured “sizzling broiled meats, steaming coffee, and toasted sandwiches.” The back of the box marketed more of the “hundred uses” of this “concentrated source of fuel”: to build a cheerful fire in the home (also useful for broiling steak and popping corn), to add a distinct flavor to broiled lobster and fish on boats and yachts without smoking up the place, to make tastier meats in restaurants that keep customers coming back. I find the particularity of the language a delightful contrast to the meaninglessness of the language we fill our brains with in the tech industry, peddling jargon that we kinda think refers to something but that we’re never quite sure refers to anything except the waves of a moment’s trend. Let’s change that. 

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The back of a box of Ford Charcoal Briquets, packaged between 1935-1937

Reading Italo Calvino

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.

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Pino Zac’s depiction of the anagnorisis moment when Sister Theodora reveals that she is Bradamante (or vice versa).


What you’ve just read is an experiment. An attempt to become a better reader.

In the experiment of reading Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight, this meant a few things.

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.[1] 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.

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Charlemagne informs that nonexistent knight that he has no choice but to rescind his knighthood if there is evidence that the virgin he saved wasn’t really a virgin.

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.


[1] 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 Poignancy of Growth

I don’t know if Andrei Fajardo knows that I will always remember and cherish our walk up and down University Avenue in Toronto a few months ago. Andrei was faced with a hard choice about his career. He was fortunate: both options were and would be wonderful. He teetered for a few weeks within the suspension of multiple possible worlds, channeling his imagination to feel what it would feel like to make choice one, to feel what it would feel like to live the life opened by choice two. He sought advice from others. He experimented with different kinds of decision-making frameworks to see how the frame of evaluation shaped and brought forth his values, curtailed or unfurled his imagination. He listened for omens and watched rain clouds. He broke down the factors of his decision analytically to rank and order and plunder. He spoke to friends. He silenced the distractions of family. He twisted and turned inside the gravity that only shines forth when it really matters, when the frame of identity we’ve cushioned ourselves within for the last little while starts to fray under the invitation of new possibilities. The world had presented him with its supreme and daunting gift: the poignancy of growth.

I’m grateful that Andrei asked me to be one partner to help him think about his decision. Our conversations transported me back, softly, to the thoughts and feelings and endless walks and desperate desire for the certainty I experienced in 2011 as I waded through months to decide to leave academia and pursue a career in the private sector. I wanted Andrei to understand that the most important lesson that experience taught me was about a “peculiar congenital blindness” we face when we make a hard choice:

To be human is to suffer from a peculiar congenital blindness: On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven’t yet experienced them.

When faced with the most transformative experiences, we are ill-equipped to even begin to imagine the nature and magnitude of the transformation — but we must again and again challenge ourselves to transcend this elemental failure of the imagination if we are to reap the rewards of any transformative experience. (Maria Popova in her marvelous Brain Pickings newsletter about L.A. Paul’s Transformative Experience)

I shared examples of my own failure of imagination to help Andrei understand the nature of his choice. For hard choices about our future aren’t rational. They don’t fit neatly into the analytical framework of lists and cross-examination and double-entry bookkeeping. It’s the peculiar poignancy of our existence as beings unfurling in time that makes it impossible for us to know who we will be and what knowledge the world will provide us through the slot canyon aperture of our particular experience, bounded by bodies and time.

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A slot canyon I found in April at Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. It was near the marvelous pictographs, off the beaten path.

As Andrei toiled through his decision, he kept returning to a phrase he’d heard from Daphne Koller in her fireside chat with Yoshua Bengio at the 2018 ICLR conference in Vancouver. As he shared in this blog post, Daphne shared a powerful message: “Building a meaningful career as a scientist isn’t only about technical gymnastics; it’s about each person’s search to find and realize the irreplaceable impact they can have in our world.”

But, tragically or beautifully, depending on how you view it, there are many steps in our journey to realize what we believe to be our irreplaceable impact. Our understanding of what this could or should be can and should change as our slot canyon understanding of the world erodes just a little more under with the weight of wind and rain to bring forth light from the sun. In my own experience, I never, ever imagined that just two years after believing I had made a binary decision to leave academia for industry, I would be invited to teach as an adjunct law professor, that three years later I would give guest lectures at business schools around the world, that five years later I would give guest lectures in ethics and philosophy. The past self had a curious capacity to remain intact, to come with me as a barnacle through the various transformations. For the world was bigger and vaster than the limitations my curtailed imagination had imposed on it.

Andrei decided to stay with our company. He is a marvelous colleague and mentor. He is  a teacher: no matter where he goes and what he does, his irreplaceable impact will be to broaden the minds of others, to break down statistics and mathematics into crystal clear building blocks than any and all can understand. He’ll come to appreciate that he is a master communicator. I’m quite certain I’ll be there to watch.

What was most beautiful about our walk was the trust I had in Andrei and that he had in me. His awareness that I wanted what was best for him, that none of my comments were designed to manipulate him into staying if that weren’t what he, after his toil, after his reflection, decided was the path he wanted to explore. It was simply an opportunity to share stories and experiences, to provide him with a few different thinking tools he could try on for size as he made his decision. We punctuated our analysis with thoughts about the present. We deepened our connection. I gave him a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to help him come to know more of himself and the world. Throughout our walk, his energy was crystalline. He listened with attention rapt into the weight of it mattering. The attention that emerges when we are searching sponges sopping as much as we can from those we’ve come to trust. The air was chilled just enough to prickle goosebumps, but not so much as to need a sweater. The grass was green and the flowers had started to bud.

Yesterday was the first snow. There are still flowers; soon they’ll die. The leaves over Rosedale are yellow and red, made vibrant by the moisture. Andrei is with his dogs and his wife. I’ll see him tomorrow morning at work.


I found the featured image last weekend at the Thomson Landry Gallery in Toronto’s Distillery District. It’s a painting called “Choisir et Renoncer,” by Yoakim Bélanger. I see in it the migration of fragility, hands cradled open into reverent acceptance. I see in it the stone song of vulnerability: for it is the white figure–she who dared wade ankle-deep in Hades to hear Eurydice’s voice one more time–whose face glows brightest, who reveals the wrinkles of her character, who shines as a reflection of ourselves, unafraid to reveal her seashell cracks and the wisdom she acquired with the crabs. She etches herself into precision. She chisels brightly through the human haze of potential, buoyed upon the bronze haze of the self she once was, but yesterday. 

A Mother and her Daughter

My mom has done business in over 180 countries, her passport tattooed with stamps and fat with extra pages. Her vagrant soul never seems restless for stability; her vibrant energy never seems to dwindle into entropy. She seems at home anywhere, yet nowhere. She has instilled in me the tendency to notice commonalities before differences, teaching through her example how to speak and touch and look so that others may let down the walls of propriety and open the levees of expression and feeling. We see what peoples share, see what’s common across humanity more clearly than cultural differences.[1] She’s written emails from English manors, anxious to share what it felt like to hear the Goldberg Variations echo in a dewy church. Called us from hospitals in Singapore, worrying us that the Meningitis would reappear. Sent photos from dry tents in Arabian deserts, hookah smoke billowing her digital folds.

Since childhood, Mom brought me on her business trips. She took my brother too, but not as frequently as me. He loved it, but didn’t live for it as I do. We went to Sydney and the Gold Coast and Moscow and Johannesburg and Mombasa and Madrid and London and Paris. Most of the time, she’d work all day as I occupied myself either alone or with a tour guide. Mom insisted I have a guide in places that were more risky and harder to navigate. In Moscow, Tatiana, who, miraculously, had taught Pushkin at the University of Chicago (where I went to college), held my hand as we left behind the blaring March sun in the Red Square and walked down into the utter darkness of Lenin’s tomb, pulled me to the left so I wouldn’t attract attention from the guard as I fumbled my feet in the darkness, and pressed the small of my back to keep me walking, moving, steady, around the light radiating off this small little man who looms so large in the Russian imagination alongside the staccato lyricism of Prokofiev and Ivan Tsarevich and the Wolf.

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Most of Vasnetsov’s “Ivan Tsarevich riding the Gray Wolf,” which Tatiana showed me in the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow. The Russians have a remarkable ability to deflect what must be the cold reality of their existence into the most remarkable fairy tales.

In Johannesburg, I told my guide Mandla I was more interested in seeing how people live than visiting tourist attractions, so we walked through the streets of Soweto and picked up his daughter at daycare, and, upon seeing me, the woman who ran the daycare center threw down the clothes she was hanging on the line and screamed at me in Zulu, screamed, pointed, accused, and I had no clue what was going on until I learned that she mistook me for the girl’s colored mother, and scolded me for having abandoned the girl she thought I had abandoned because her skin was a shade darker than my own.

At night, I would accompany Mom at business dinners. Her colleagues metabolized the initial strangeness of having a 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old girl around relatively quickly. For I’d grown up being in the company of technology executives and, given my proclivities for imitation, had learned how to behave. I’d absorbed the topics and mannerisms by osmosis and they sensed they needn’t adapt the topic of conversation to placate my interests; that I would listen, reason, and pose questions that, on a few occasions, enabled them to see problems they were working on in a new and different way.

It is only with the hindsight of moderate maturity that I appreciate how valuable these experiences were for my future career. I have never questioned my validity as a woman in business, for I had my Mom as a strong role model and example from the day I was born. She showed me what was possible. Showed that one could wake up at 3:45 am to catch the 6:00 flight to Chicago and nonetheless look stunning in a suit and stilettos, graceful in her power and resilience. Showed, on the flip side, that the second day of work, the family work, could start at 6:00 pm with laundry spinning and chicken dipped in egg yolk and flour, and the anticipation of saffron and bittersweet double-boiled chocolate for mousse at the weekend party. Showed that femininity and feminism need not be incompatible, that a woman could drink Japanese executives under the table and feel close to death when the 6:30 alarm went off and nonetheless have the wherewithal to get the deal done. And showed me that it’s ok to need silence, that we all need rest, that the energy required to sustain the ideal must fray, eventually, into daylong movie sessions on the couch so the synapses could recover. It’s because of her that I sit tall and grounded in the presence of C-Suite executives.

People meet her and say they understand where my dynamism and charisma come from. Meet her and are transfixed by her energy and presence. Meet her and are touched by the love she bleeds for her family.

It is only with the hindsight of moderate maturity that I was able to grow into loving myself enough to love her with ease. I’m happy about that, as I want to care for her, focus on her, give her more than I give to myself.

Yesterday was a remarkable day in the life of a mother and her daughter. The tables turned. This time, Mom accompanied me on a business trip.

I gave the opening keynote and was interviewed in a fireside chat at the INSEAD AI Forum in Paris. Asked to demystify AI, I spent 40% of the time explaining how machine learning systems differ from rules-based, deterministic systems (which boils down to reminding people what functions are and showing them how much more powerful it is to map Xs to Ys in 50,000 dimensions than 2 dimensions) and why this is cool, and 60% of the time walking step-by-step through the decisions interdisciplinary teams have to make when they build a machine learning system that solves a particular problem in a particular context (in this case, the revenue optimization application Kanetix is using on the integrate.ai platform). The most important thing to demystify right now isn’t what machine learning is or how it works, but what happens when people in businesses with processes honed over years to manage deterministic technology try to implement it.[2] To expose the friction all enterprises face when they grapple with the probabilistic outputs of mathematical functions that look like intelligent systems but are really narrow optimization tools (this doesn’t diminish the remarkable questions machine learning is forcing us to pose about our thinking, language, and being). I focus on these topics because I want to empower people. I want to change the incessant dialogue about the “scarcity of ML talent” and create a place for more heroes than the computer science PhDs. Because, and forgive the cliché, it actually does take a village.

During the fireside chat, Subi Rangan and I spoke about larger societal questions around AI. We discussed the interdependence between privacy and economic power (and I shared my thinking about why privacy should shift from the rights of the data subject to the obligations of the data processor to better address the privacy risks of machine learning systems), how MBAs need to get used to the persistent anxiety of switching roles and contexts as algorithms automate specific, narrow tasks, and why the simple act of participating in an on-the-ground proof on concept is the surest way to leave a mark in how technology will shape our future.

After our performance, I told Subi he has a gift: his demeanor evinces a grace that provides a safe space for an interviewee–or student–to think, to speak as clearly as possible, and allow her mind to creatively unfurl. He was not antagonistic. He didn’t threaten. He didn’t seek spectacle from jabs or irony. He sought to present a structural hierarchy of concepts that could unite the particular and the general, enable the concreteness of embodied experience to ladder up to the big questions policy makers and executives are grappling with today. It was helpful. It was a framing, but one that invited rather than constrain. He was touched by my comments and, off to see his own daughter for lunch, would share his pride at having done something meaningful.

It was energizing to have my Mom in the audience. I didn’t seek her approval. I didn’t seek her pride. I just wanted to give back. To mention to the whole audience how happy I was that she was there, to show her how much I love her, to allow her heart to smile in seeing that she had done well and that I had turned out ok. And that we will have many more business trips to share, but that we must savour the delicacy and uniqueness of each one as our allotted prism in love and in life.


[1] I’ve felt ashamed of the fact that I don’t seem to perceive differences like others do. I think it ultimately stems from a strong identification with assimilation. From what I’ve observed, most people have a more solidified identity than I do. They self-identify as a man, as an American, as a taxi driver, as a piano player, as an X, and therefore have a measuring stick against which they notice that Y thing around them is different from their normal habits of perception. They self-identify as visitors, as tourists. When I come to a new place, I self-identify in becoming the other as soon as humanly possible. I want to mimic their language, mimic their gestures, eat how they eat, change how I hold my fork, eat with my hands, change how I walk, mimic how they acquiesce or disagree. I suppose I do have the internal mental model of practiced habits, but I prefer to absorb the differences as opposed to recognizing them as other from myself. I am quite like that in many aspects of my life: writing in the style of what I’ve just read, aligning what I say to the context of a conversation, adapting the introductory description of what my company is and does to the demands of a situation, to fit the model I presume is most meaningful to my interlocutor. For that reason, it’s difficult for me to concatenate the many particulars into a static meme that can scale to rout repetition.

[2] Mihnea Moldoveanu and Martin Reeves’s cogent article about this is well worth the read. Aspects of my thinking on this topic appear in this post.

The featured image is of the Place des Vosges, tucked away in the Marais in Paris. It is one of my favorite places in the world. I remember the first time I visited it in 2002, a spry yet hypersensitive 18-year-old who had just spent 3 months living abroad in Burgos, Spain and was on vacation in Paris with four female friends. We bunked together in a boutique hotel with sea-green walls. I remember the weight of my friends’ hair, how their nipples looked so different from my own, remember how it felt to inhabit my thin frame. I remember when Nicolas showed up at the restaurant, at the end of the meal, just as we were preparing to leave, past the disappointment, past the acceptance, after the hope wafts were snuffed under the tannins on the back of my tongue. He arrived. My heart accepted the recognition of the desire it had pretended to put aside–out of self protection–like a napkin stained with tomato sauce. We just barely moved on the dance floor, siphoned inside blaring Haitian music and off from the world around us as if we’d reduced our dimensions to the sacred simplicity of a Rublev icon. How fascinating that dimensionality reduction betokens the sacred and the sublime; while in information representation, we covet higher dimensions as the promise land indexing knowledge. The next day, he took me to the Louvre. I could smell his body odor through his brown suede jacket as he showed me where to guide my eye along white marble arms and legs. I didn’t mind because it was him. 

Years passed. Friday was the first time my mom saw the Place des Vosges. We ate goat cheese and steak tartare and crème brûlée. She had a cold. She listened without judgment.

Facebook Portrait Project: Batch 2

About a month ago, I started the Facebook Portrait Project. On July 31, I came to understand the following:

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.

alisa
Alisa and I share a deep connection with the desert. We’re both at ease there.


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.

mike
Sarah took this photo of Mike on his birthday, the day before I wrote the portrait. He does that with his eyebrows.


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.

meditation
Donna featured this image in a recent post about meditation


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.

hand
That’s the ring. That’s my hand. I put my fingers in silly places to make it look better.


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.

goldsworthy
An Andy Goldsworthy installation I sampled from Allen’s Facebook page


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. 

Two lessons from giving talks

So I’m writing this blog post about why the AlphaGo documentary isn’t really about AlphaGo at all, but is squarely about Lee Sedol and the psychological pressure we put on ourselves when we strive to be top performers, the emotional connection we create with opponents, even when they bluff, and a few other things, and I (naturally) ended up down this rabbit hole about the absurd experiences I undergo as a public speaker–in particular a woman speaking about tech–and there are two things that are quite revelatory and meaningful.

The first is that my time with the AV crew before going on stage is priceless. They are always my talk angels, the perfect outlet for self-deprecation and humor and energy release before having to perform. I don’t know if they know this may be the most important service they provide to speakers, at least speakers like me who are introverts inverted into extroverts on stage, who crave the feedback of a smile or a vote of confidence or a pat on the back or a friend before the show. My slides are always ludicrous by design, so we laugh over their skepticism that the slide deck starting with an image of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan is the right one for a talk about machine learning. And then I NEVER have pants or pockets and we play the find-a-place-to-hook-the-microphone-jack game, be that on the back of my neck, the back of my bra, or even the back of my underwear (no joke, did that for the World Science Festival, THANK GOD it was a panel and I got to sit down after walking on stage because it was weighing down my underwear big time and I thought they would fall off right on stage…oh yeah, by the way, this is the stuff you have to think about as a performer, like, all the time, or at least as a woman performer, because I don’t think men have to deal with this kind of stuff).

The second is that having the AV break down may be the best theatrical device to deliver a great talk. I’ve had it happen to me multiple times now (Charlie Oliver thinks my business-card motto should be NO SLIDES NEEDED!) and have actually found that I prefer the energy when I’m screwed on stage. It seems best when the slides stop working two-thirds of the way in. That way, I have the luxury of communicating something using the props of images and memes on slides for a while (note to self: front load the deck with any mathematical concepts that are best explained with visual aids) and then have this magical moment where people are trailing off or looking at their phones or distracted by the rest of their busy lives, and they get surprised and it elicits first their confusion, then their empathy, and THEN, and here’s where the magic happens, their curiosity and their imagination! Because then I am forced to paint imaginative pictures of what the slides would have looked like if they were there, and my audience has a prior for how my talks tend to work, as they’ve seen the first two-thirds worth of images and can fill in the gaps. And the most electrified and engaged audiences I’ve ever addressed have been those whose attention perked up, who were with me, who followed me word by word after everything broke down. It elicits their compassion and, therethrough, their rapt attention. And it creates a virtuous feedback cycle. I have to work that much harder to ensure they understand, and they give me the nods or furrowed brows to show they do or don’t, and we communicate. It’s marvelous. They become actors in my story, part of the talk. Not just a passive audience.

Both of these lessons are about people being people. People connecting as people. Our identity as ruthlessly social beings. We abstract ourselves from our sociality in situations of performance, envisioning ourselves as brains in a vat who act on one plane only. But that’s not who we are. My delight in the absurd details surrounding the performance shows me otherwise. AlphaGo has a lot to say about that too (stay tuned…).

The featured image is of the Fillmore Miami. I gave this talk there, addressing an audience of industrial control systems security professionals. The lights glared in my face and I had no idea what people thought. I only had my own reflection in my mind, so I thought they hated it. After, many people told me it was the best talk of the conference.