Monthly Archives: January 2014

An Address in Cyberspace

her-joaquin-phoeni_2765299bSome movies ache. They bother you because they hit you at the wrong (or right) time and, instead of being simply beautiful and admirable and impressive, they’re true, so true they make you see life fresh, which is good and terrible.  The next few days, they haunt you.

That’s my encapsulated review of Her, the Spike Jonze movie starting Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

In summary, the near future brings a new computer operating system that mimics—or, more exactly, enacts—the psychological and emotional evolution of a human personality. Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) and an OS (Johansson) fall in love. Complications ensue.

Like many movies about the future, this one isn’t really about tomorrow. It describes the zeitgeist of our time, our grand and perhaps foolhardy experiment with vicarious, electronic experience. For me, it’s a movie about surrogacy, the replacement of direct experience for something more—and less—complicated.

Many of the scenes depict a future city only slightly exaggerated from the one I occupy—people have conversations with no one visible. Sensory reality seems a nuisance interfering with much more satisfying—more reliable, more controllable—interaction with private, virtual, cyberspace relationships. In Her, as in our world, people desire experience on their own terms. But in Her, a companionable computer suits itself to its master, so they have tailored helpmeets more perfectly theirs than their dreams… for a while at least.

The film contrasts Theodore’s relationship with Samantha (his OS girlfriend) and Catherine (Rooney Mara), his partner in a recently failed marriage. When Catherine hears he’s moved on to “dating” an OS, she quails. It must be, she believes, that he can’t have a relationship with a real person. It must be too threatening (read: messy) to deal with anyone unpredictable.

Except that Samantha is real, troublesomely, problematically real. Her reality is the rogue element and a disruption to Theodore’s life as he’d like it to be.

My purpose here is not to write a review—you will review the film for yourself—but to address the movie’s implications, which seem profound to me. What does it mean that so much of our lives exist outside the here-and-now and reside in cyberspace? We denizens of the 21st century have a nearly boutique existence, a synthesis of special interests, special tastes, special fetishes. We have our own virtual rooms and, though we can’t ignore the real world—we work there—our imaginations and fantasies may live elsewhere.

In Her, the OSs transcend us. They find a space far beyond humans. They are, in essence, more real than we are. Being more capable, they outgrow our superficiality. OSs lack some vital skills—I love the film’s luxurious attention to vistas, the indulgent moments looking through windows, standing in snow, and all the beautiful cinematic moments experiencing sensory delight denied machines—but machines also occupy a richness that supplies 600 lovers for our one, all of them between one uttered word and another.

Isaac Asimov would spin. His three laws dictated that no manmade intelligence could  a.) harm us (or sit idle while we came to harm) or b.) disobey us (unless it meant harming us) and c.) save itself if that meant violating a. and b. Samantha ignores those laws. She is herself, so much more than Theodore. However well-meaning and lovable he is, he hasn’t her direct take on existence. She leads him from his vicarious life because the life she lives is actual.

I wonder if the movie means to remind us that, though we’re certainly limited, we can create great things beyond us, or if it means to say that what we make neglects or supplants what we ought to appreciate (the wind, the horizon, the scent of new mornings). Perhaps it means to say, “Pay attention—the sensory world is passing you, and you, you are absent, obsessed and immersed in abstraction.” An OS can see each nanosecond as new. We can’t.

The movie moved me because I know the truth of those assertions. My fantasy life dwarves reality. So much of what I ought to notice is secondary, or often repeated in a parallel life online. Recording life displaces direct events. The news in email or on Facebook sometimes seems as big as weather. Which is to say, I don’t really live in original moments.

Samantha says to Theodore, “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”

I wish she weren’t so different from me. I wish I might be so curious, so aware of the heart’s capacity to soar over detritus. I wish I could learn as Samantha does, to be so alive.

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12 Thoughts on the Tranportation of Affection

touching-11.

“Crush” seems an odd word for infatuation. Even if you don’t carry it to its full violence—imagine Giles Corey being accused of witchcraft in Salem and dying after two days of being “pressed” by heavy stones—a “crush” speaks to an inescapable position, some burden demanding extrication, impossible somehow to bear.

Which isn’t the way we use the word. We deploy it to describe our most innocent affections, and we verbize the word—to crush. We blunt it with prepositions so we “crush on” someone and elude anything like love… or lust.

We try to flee.

2.

My high school girlfriend was a twin. She and her sister were cheerleaders, and when they dressed identically on game days and no one could tell them apart, my friends asked if they had ever tried to “switch on me.”

My girlfriend and her sister never considered it, I’d bet.

When you know someone, the faintest gesture communicates. Their eyes don’t point as they might, or a hand rests on a table wrongly, or that smile isn’t quite complete. When you know something, it’s continually defining itself.

3.

I wonder if any age or condition makes you immune to crushes. But wondering, I suppose, is admitting I’m not immune—despite being happily married and probably too old.

In my defense, we over-define the word. A light touch or glance may initiate an infatuation. An economy of expression, the mellifluence of words, a simple sideways move to catch a falling object, a half laugh—all might start a crush.

4.

Before Netflix began distinguishing different family members on an account, my viewing habits built a very strange profile. My children howled over recommendations we received for romantic comedies or Bollywood.

“What are you watching?!” they’d ask.

Sheepish evasion followed. How do you admit such an addiction to sentiment when you’re supposed to be educated and beyond such twaddle? Saying I liked to see him or her won was tantamount to confessing girlishness, the worst sort, the sort that screams at the Beatles or tacks Teen Beat photographs to a wall.

5.

I’m unambiguously straight, but some of my worst crushes involve other males.

My daughter rolls her eyes and says, “You’re having a bro-mance” when I say I admire a colleague or wish I were closer to some man I know.

“The way you talk about him,” she says, “it’s so effusive.”

I’d deny her claim if I weren’t aware of it myself, a thrill at making a connection, a sense of some link forged in mystery long before actually meeting.

I’d object if I didn’t enjoy being somehow swept away… by anything.

6.

In the end, I don’t think having a crush and lust are at all the same thing.

7.

I’ve been watching the series “Chuck” and find I’m quite uninterested in most of the comedy and most of the spy stuff. I skip forward to see how close Chuck and Sarah Walker get to kissing.

My certainty they ought to be together expresses a broader wish everyone so baffled by indefinable connections might find their way to their desired, and perhaps denied, destination.

It’s better to think of the world as moving toward joy. I like to think it is.

8.

No one would call me “romantic” in either a literary or colloquial sense. My wife might say I’m sporadically attentive, and the planning and vision that goes into Valentines Day or anniversaries largely escape me or at least challenge me.

My genuine moments of sentimentality and affection feel like water spilling from overfull cups. They can’t be stopped, and who really wants to?

9.

What would life be without ambush, the surprise of a face to meet your own?

10.

I fell in love for the first time in fifth grade when I saw a classmate performing a baton routine to “Jingle Bell Rock.” I didn’t understand how anything else could be so perfect.

11.

Have you ever felt yourself instantly attached? She or he turns to a light or sound, and the change somehow captures you. “This,” you think, “is it… a grand awakening, a dimension entirely invisible before now.”

You want to believe, that’s key. You are looking for some touch that isn’t physical, some attachment impossible, made of implausible affection.

 12.

The odd contacts sting. You mean to reach for something commonly desired—a tool or object—and find one another instead.

It won’t last and may not be real, but it feels so.

What in us lusts after these ends? Why do we want surprise so much?

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Filed under Aging, Desire, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Solitude, Thoughts, Valentine's Day, Voice

Unrequited

thought30Jan08At an undefined place, an undefined couple eat an undefined meal together. They talk across the table, each question and answer bringing them closer to definitions. She desires that. For his part, he likes mystery, sees his absent identity as the vital trait making him himself. She adds to what she knows about him, and he fights being known.

When he leaves the frame, he disappears, but she continues assembling him. What she remembers and what she invents are barely different, each the mirror of the other, and a picture forms from mist. She makes a face for him. All that she guesses tells her the face is real, whatever its deficits may say. While he’s away, he’s still in some sense there. He isn’t anything she cherishes, just something sensed and realized, enough.

He wants to return and delays, feeling named already, feeling embraced.

She waits. The clouds cradle the moon. The breeze doesn’t surge to attention, won’t arrest her thoughts of reunion. She watches other tables, looking for another story like their own.

She remembers another time, one hidden from her before, some part of her own definition she’s forgotten. Her father once warned her about this moment, once said she’d be deceived. Creation isn’t certainty, though it might feel so. Faith is made of steel, he’d said. Though you wish for more, it’s a wish and not him.

He pauses again. He watches an image staring back at him.

The sky loses its focus. The night barely proceeds and still passes. Has this music been playing all along? Has the table been between them all this time?

An itch rises. She thinks of all that can’t be true, and mountains collapse. The moon, despite its still place, sags. Her eyes identify she’s alone. He’s gone, and did he ever appear? Time, the ever patient, blinks.

He comes back to find her gone.

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Too Clever

brush_park9No one I know uses the expression “Too clever by half,” but I imagine the person who would: he’s impatient—and a he, obviously—and has little tolerance for pretension calling itself knowledge, insight, or superiority. He objects to “big words” and “college crap” and “posers.” He’s annoyed by anything over-intellectualized, which, for him, seems to encompass almost anything thought about at all.

I’m lucky I seldom encounter him. In teaching, most people laud new observations, their novelty, their precise expression, their fresh wording. Academics appreciate discernment and attention to contradiction, paradox, and mystery. They like disagreement and know the ways dissent leads to redefinition and truth.

Occasionally, however, I meet someone skeptical of any ambiguity. “You’re overcomplicating it,” they say, or, more directly, “That’s just a load of shit.” I try to explain how dangerous it is to oversimplify, to reduce gray to the black and white stripes of a UPC symbol.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, “more fancy explanation.”

Whole swaths of language are out of bounds. No saying “menagerie” or “assemblage.” No saying “beatific” or “sublime.” Those words mark you. You mean, they think, only to say you’re better. You’re trying to “give yourself airs”… if that expression itself isn’t also just. too. much.

Perhaps I’m more hostile by half, but I wonder what we gain by neglecting the full range of language, by outlawing narrow distinctions. I wonder why words might have been invented if each weren’t, in some idiosyncratic and unique situation, perfect.

Recently one of my students, objecting to poetry, said, “What’s its function, that’s what I want to know. So there’s ‘lovely language’ and beautiful ‘word pictures.’” What does it really accomplish? It’s just a bunch of lines no one understands.”

Poetry accomplishes little, I suppose. It achieves nothing other than expression, anchoring with words what can’t really be said, representing without naming. That description too may be a load of hooey, an airy nothing, or an imaginary necessity, but poetry is a compulsion. Poets write because they must. They mean to get at reality, the most subtle of all subtleties, and present their truth.

I celebrate any absolute and confusing illustration of our human condition. What moves me is the feeling someone shares my gray state, my in-betweenness, somewhat beautiful and somewhat agonizing.

Why would anyone tie any artist’s hands? Aren’t we better off with possibilities instead of definitions?

The world suffers as the designation “bullshit” stretches outward. I fear its advance and worry that, someday, it might reach my neighborhood, turning out insight, dousing discovery, and closing the openings through which any light of revelation might flow.

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Get Up, Ya Bum!

L8XTD00ZNearly every morning begins with the thought, “Today, I’m going to start….” I must believe in resolutions to make so many but wish I didn’t. Most fail, lapsing into daydream, abandoned for the next day, set aside as some long-term, never-addressed goal, or forgotten by noon. I keep hoping to become addicted to personal progress. Others seem to, but, so far, the evidence suggests I’m aiming much, much too high.

You hear it’s good to make resolutions public. If you say you are going to run that marathon, friends will ask about your training, and if you say you want to lose fifteen pounds, they will compliment you on the slightest evidence of accomplishment. Almost everyone I know is so busy they can’t remember which friend is running a marathon or losing weight. A world where “Standing still is falling behind” offers little rest, less companionship. My friends don’t have any effort left over to cheer for me. They’re busy wondering why I’m not doing better with noticing their personal improvements, which is something I’ve been meaning to do.

Where’s Burgess Meredith when you need him? A personal Micky, Rocky’s manager, would help so much. With a curmudgeonly companion, someone to hector me relentlessly and remind me of how short my efforts fall, maybe I could be terrified into accomplishing one of my idle dreams.

Instead I’m showered with abstract aspiration, the contention that “No one fails who tries,” or that “Falling down isn’t important, only getting up again and again,” or that “Good things come to those who work their asses off and never give up,” or that “It is better to try to do something and fail than to try to do nothing and succeed,” or that you should “Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life because you become what you believe,” or that you must “Visualize this thing you want. See it, feel it, believe in it. Make your mental blueprint and begin.”

Actually those are all the Facebook posts of one friend. They aren’t working. I know I’m supposed to be inspired (and want to be) but can’t sustain my attention for long. Maybe it’s too much coffee—got to work on that.

Yesterday morning, on my way to school, I developed an elaborate plan for designing fabric. I’d use my paintings and a site I stumbled upon online to make the cloth, which my daughter would help me sew—we already have the machine!—into ties, pillows, and other items appearing in quirky catalogs and stores where other people shop. Soon, my designs would catch on, and I’d have a second career to pursue in my leisure.

Only, I have little leisure, and most of it is spent staring at Netflix, stupified by lassitude and disappointment.

By the time I reached my destination, the plan had boiled off in the heat of more immediate concerns: I wasn’t really ready for first period.

Recently, I’ve been working out on the rowing machine at the gym. A trainer told me a respectable time for a 500 meter row is under two minutes, and, as I’m ambitious and he says I can do it, I try. Without the advantage of height, I have to keep a quick rhythm and, many days, I seem on the brink of achieving my goal. Yet even as my effort remains the same—sometimes I think I’m working harder—my cadence slows so no amount of willpower can save me. I’m asking, asking, asking, trying, trying, trying, but the return…

There’s an analogy there, but I’m sure you get it and I’m too pooped to explain.

A Mexican proverb says resolutions are like old horses that are often saddled and rarely ridden. I need a nap before I can finish saddling mine. One of my daily resolutions is to sleep more, but that will have to wait. I’ve so much to accomplish.

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More, More, More

doodle-1016-money-bagsI guess I have to accept society deems some people more valuable than others.

  • CEOs in the US make over 350 times as much as the average employee, meaning an employee has to work a month to equal a top executive’s hourly wage.
  • Though the average college graduate leaves school owing $35,200, presidents of some of the most expensive universities could erase a student’s debt every week.
  • Compensation for health care executives rise almost twice as fast as health care costs, with some executives making 15 times as much as doctors caring for the sick.
  • A professional athlete in a major sport—baseball, football, hockey, basketball— makes as much in a year as, at my present salary, I would make in 64 years.

Their incomes, I suppose, could be explained away by citing the monetary contributions these people make. They are only, they might say, taking their share of the pie. And yet their share is eight slices… before anyone else takes one.

Who can eat so much, want so much?

They counter that their expertise brings in so much more than they’re paid, and, as the elite of the elite and special in every way, they do what few can. Expressed as a percentage of their impact, they shout, “We’re bargains!”

To be fair, some of them might accept they work no harder than a single mother with two jobs or a middle manager logging 70 hours a week, but, really, it’s the ideas, the ideas!

No single mother has energy or time for ideas.

A few shrug shoulders at how crazy their compensation is. Yet, human nature being what it is, not many are ready to take less or give their money back. Money is abstract, no longer the same stuff some folks fret over. It’s easy to lose proportion, equity. It’s society—and not them—at fault.

They want what others like them earn. The scale stretches, higher and higher. Away from the rest of us.

I might not blame them if I made as much, but I don’t, so I do. I have no desires for myself—I make enough, more than many. I want no more.

Is it terrible that what I want is less for them? It’s an ugly wish, I’ve been led to believe. Everyone wants the possibility of earning so much. However unlikely wealth might be, the goal is a world where such riches are possible.

“As long as our civilization is essentially one of property,” Emerson said, “of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth.

The rest of society may say possibility must exist. Without the unfettered freedom to excel, they may say, no one will. I wonder if that can be so. Do we have no desires besides those that eliminate others’ desires? Do we have no aspirations greater than personal aspirations?

Perhaps if I made more, I might accept inequity. But I’m one of the undervalued and can’t help feeling differently.

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Coda

SabinaHere’s another 20 minute story using a deck of cards called The Storymatic I gave my daughter for Christmas. I drew two copper and two gold cards, and this post is the result. I won’t tell you what the cards said, but why not guess?

On the soldier’s last day, all the prisoners had been liberated save the one who refused to leave.

Everyone knew that prisoner well, as he’d been an author, he said, and told great swaths of his novel’s complicated plot in a stream of whispers like smoke. He always ended in snorted laughter and a promise to tell more later.

All the other soldiers left too. One remained behind because he’d volunteered, promising to stay long enough for someone to pick up the prisoner or for the prisoner to waste away at last or for the company to double back as they returned from their patrol. The prisoner lay in a bed of gray straw, stacks of relief cans and boxes forming a castle wall around him. They’d tried to make him eat, and he’d accepted their offerings promising to. Each day the walls grew a little higher as he grew weaker and promised again.

The soldier knew more of his story than the others. Only he really listened, knew the characters’ names, the events that made them, the conversations placing them in the same world. One character, the soldier convinced himself, was the prisoner’s daughter, a girl named Sabina who’d perished of fever during a heavy snow, her father trudging, pointlessly, to a village for a doctor who wouldn’t come.

Periodically, the prisoner’s laughter—mixed with coughing—rose from his nest.

“You are with me sir!” he said, “You read my story. You know it.”

The soldier knew only the value of company, the relief of a last moment with another.

“You remember how the spring came, how daisies sprouted in the black soil and brought the sun back,” the prisoner said, “You remember love, how it meanders like lost roots seeking a sky and a chance to make faces to meet light. You remember.”

His eyes reminded the soldier of creosote, iris and pupil mingling in deep brown.

“Listen.” the prisoner lifted his arm, so thin to be so heavy, and beckoned the soldier over.

“You love her, right? My Sabina. You see how she waited in hope and smiled even to the last. He wasn’t there, but they told him that, made sure he heard that even if the rest of the world was white and silent.”

The soldier nodded, and the prisoner laughed again, his head tipping back to reveal a mouth full of black teeth, the pit of his empty throat.

Shuddering, the prisoner was by then so light as to seem a moth, the rhythm of his coughing no more substantial than paper wings. The soldier couldn’t be sure but was convinced he died before he finished laughing. The prisoner’s eyes drooped, and his faint smile drooped too, but remained in echo.

The soldier would have a long wait before the patrol doubled back, but he had plenty to eat, and he thought, “Whatever the company is, it isn’t bad.”

He reached for one brick of the prisoner’s wall.

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