Fractal #38: The Gentleman in Harvard Square

He sat in the cold on a dilapidated wheelchair, leaning heavily on his one good but crooked arm. As we walked by he caught Joan’s eye with an urgency that seemed beyond the standard panhandler’s flat appeal. From the way his mouth hung lopsided and slightly open I assumed the disability that twisted him had also garbled his speech. Whatever he was trying to say to Joan, though, made her stop in front of him. He pointed to an empty container of soup and plastic spoon on the sidewalk beside his chair, and then fluttered both hands towards a trash can. Joan picked up his empty bowl and tossed it in the can then turned back to him. He gestured for her to come back, come closer. She glanced at me, then approached. He gently took her gloved hand in his, and pressed his lips to the back of her hand.

A Thousand Shades of Green: Spring in NH

Those of us who have been living under winter’s cold, white thumb for the past month sometimes lose all sense of perspective. Harsh winters somehow manage to lock down our feeling for the passage time. We feel trapped in the timeless Now, a place of never-ending ice and snow and cold. Gee, sounds a bit like the plot for a fairy tale, no? But faith in the flow of the seasons evaporates like the sublimation of ice at 20 below. O my god, we will be here forever. But no, friends in cold lands, do not lose faith. Spring will come, as it always has. And lest you’ve forgotten what it looks like, I offer you this memory. A little movie made from the footage I shot at D Acres, a small farm in northern NH.

Drink in the green.

Bidding for Attention: Share it with me

Joan with tires
Joan asked for her portrait as two-tired. Is it a bid, or a turn-down to a bid? (click pic to enlarge)
I’m standing by my computer with an old hard drive in my hand. It’s the size of a small paperback book, and it’s warm because it’s been running. But it won’t boot. I pull the power connector, let the drive spin down, then plug the power back in and thump the drive on the table while it spins up. The data is in there, but the search head is stuck and can’t read the disk.

If I were writing about dementia this would be an easy analogy, but I’m writing about love.

The reason I need this drive to boot is that it may hold the only copy of the layout files I created ten years ago to publish my father-in-law’s 275-page memoir. The printing company can’t find their copy of the files. Two printings of the book are sold out, and the historical museum in his home town has just placed an order for more.

Joan is in the kitchen inventing tasty puréed food recipes for her 94-year-old father who has trouble swallowing. I’m increasingly frustrated, thumping the hard drive on the table, when I suddenly realize Joan is standing next to me holding a big spoon up to my mouth brimming with some sort of lurid green goo. Continue reading Bidding for Attention: Share it with me

Do What You’re Told: Why the Milgram experiment still haunts me

 George on the street
I have no question that I know myself better now than I did at age 19. But it’s what you don’t know about yourself that gets you in trouble. (click to enlarge)
If you know what the Milgram experiment was, odds are that you are middle-aged or older, with a BA in the liberal arts, or even, god forbid, psychology. Less likely is that the experiment remains in your memory among your collection of cautionary tales—and you may haul it out in conversations where the topic gets round to questions of obedience, authority and moral compasses. (Why don’t we ever hear about ethical compasses? Because ethics are rules and roadmaps created by authorities purportedly to help us find our way if we lose our moral compasses. For the difference see either diffen.com or wisegeek.org.

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psych professor, recruited subjects to take part in a learning experiment. The volunteer was to read strings of words to a person he thought was another volunteer, but who was, in fact, a member of the team. Each time the learner got the words wrong, the volunteer was supposed to push a button that would deliver an electric shock. The lab-coated director told the volunteer to keep raising the voltage if the learner couldn’t get the words right. And a majority of volunteers, even as they protested, followed the instructions of the director, raising the electric shocks often past the point where the learner was apparently crying out with pain. (The learner’s screams were actually tape recordings, to provide continuity from one session to another.)

“…His face was red. His eyes were bloodshot and staring straight into mine. “Don’t you ever ever to that to me again,” he shouted.”

Late last year the Journal of Social Issues published an edition reexamining Milgram’s work, what it may or may not have proved, and the controversy and questions about human nature left still unanswered in its wake. For more detail see Cari Romm’s recent article in the Atlantic.

I came across the Milgram experiment in 1968 in a psychology course in the fall of my sophmore year at Purdue University. I had flunked out as a freshman physics major, and had decided to try my luck as a psych major; a.k.a. in those days as Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The My Lai massacre had happened half a year earlier. My professor was an earnest radical stuck in an egregiously conservative midwestern university Continue reading Do What You’re Told: Why the Milgram experiment still haunts me

AirBNB Bookcase: Mi libro es su libro

dog and bookcase
The Dog, The Couch, and The Bookcase: How mysteriious it is to find my books on strange shelves. (click to enlarge)
During the past few years most of the books I buy and read end up in the memory of my electronic device. It’s a particularly dreary way to keep a library, but it’s also the only possible way to carry books with me at this point in my life when I am shuttling among five houses, on various missions of family business, responsibility and pleasure.

So last week we found ourselves renting an AirBNB room in an elderly three story house in Ithaca, NY owned by a couple in their 30s. Other inhabitants included a pair of large painted turtles in an indoor pond and a white bull terrier sporting a dark grey waistcoat snoozing on the couch in front of the fireplace. A windup Victrola stood to one side of the room, waiting to be fed from a couple of wooden boxes crammed with 78s. Alexis welcomed us with an easy smile and gave us short tour of the amenities.

All of the above would have been easily enough to make me feel completely comfortable and happy to be there. But as I scanned the room, trying to pick up details and clues about the lives and interests of the owners, I pretty much fell into a huge bookcase taking up most of one side of the room. It’s the kind of a bookcase you can’t take in standing in just one place. You have to walk back and forth, bending way over to the floor and standing on you tiptoes. You can feel the sheer physical presence of the books, probably 700-800 pounds of them.

Real books tucked shoulder to shoulder in a stack of wooden cubes 7 feet tall and more than 12 feet wide. Hundreds of books shelved with slight but not obsessive order, the kind of arrangement that leads to lucky accidents of co-location, such as the Collected Writings of Carl Jung sandwiched between Katz’ The Art of Fermentation and I Like You by Amy Sedaris.

There’s a thrill and an art in trying to divine a person’s life story from the books they keep in their cases. The condition of the books says a lot, but the clusters of topic and genre, the range of publication dates, and even the placement on the shelves speaks…well…volumes. For example, abandoned interests and hobbies usually drift down and to the side.

But that’s not what I was doing here. I was finding dozens and dozens of titles from my own library in a stranger’s bookcase in Ithaca. There are obvious reasons for that, of course. People of similar sensibilities do travel parallel paths. Still the sense that a bit of this house literally overlapped with my own house through the bookcases gave me a spooky through-the-wardrobe sort of a feeling.

Pablo Neruda, Vonnegut, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Charles Bukowski, Philip K. Dick, A History of God by Karen Armstrong, to name only a few.

Books I read many years ago, remembered fondly but will probably never read again, books I’ve been reading but not finished, books on my list to read, books I own, haven’t read, won’t ever read, but for one reason or another can’t bring myself to get rid of.

The next morning Mark and Alexis gave us a kombucha “mother” so I could begin brewing my own, and the address of a guy in Syracuse who fixes broken Victrola springs, the malady that afflicts our own family Victrola.

I’ve been away from my own bookcase in our house in NH for almost five months. Such a pleasure of connection and commonality to find a portion of that bookcase in an Ithaca living room.

Fractal #38: Falling down drunk

Fractal #38: Falling down drunk
Sunday night freezing rain slicked the streets and in my headlights a man my age lay on his side, legs splayed. Joan helped him stand and as he wobbled, bent in pain, I said “You’re drunk.” He agreed. We put him in the car and drove the neighborhood for ten minutes looking for his house. “You are wonderful,” he said. “You’ve done way more than you should.”

My Vow of Poverty: or not

George in an empty room
I took my Vow of Poverty for a trial run in our daughter’s house, during a move to her new house. (click to enlarge)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about taking a Vow of Poverty, which is quite a bit different than having to live, through no choice of your own, a life of destitution. I don’t have any hard figures, but I’m going to guess that there are about a hundred million times more people living in destitution than there are living under vows of poverty. Which would make those of us who are wannabe poverty vowees a fairly privileged class of people, as if we didn’t know that already.

That would be the difference between dumpster diving for sport vs. dumpster diving for your next meal when you haven’t had one in the past four days.

The Vow of Poverty is usually something you do if you are part of some religious order, for example if you are a nun or a monk. And it’s usually part of a three-for-one deal where you also get to take vows of celibacy and obedience. As much as I have been toying with the idea of the V.O.P. ever since I signed up for Social Security a few years ago, the other two, the V.O.C. and the V.O.O. have never held much interest for me.

I mean, think how disappointed my wife would be if I took a vow of celibacy—I realize I may be making an unwarranted assumption there. But on the other hand, think how thrilled she’d be if I took the Vow of Obedience.

No, the Vow of Poverty is the only one of the three which suits my lifestyle and current roster of personality disorders.

Before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5, the V.O.P. was considered primarily as a Church-sanctioned entry into a state of dependency, where you gave away all your stuff and became completely beholden to others (generally a religious community) for board and room and clothes. I’m pretty sure that would not have worked for me, because I probably could not have found a religious community that would have had me, and so would have been forced to rely on the constant generosity of family and friends, a similarly improbable bet. Continue reading My Vow of Poverty: or not

Space, 1957: What’s up in the sky?

Barbara with toy space helmet
We were all excited abut Space in 1957. My mother, Barbara, suited up to talk about Sputnik. (click to enlarge)

In the fall of 1957 I was eight years old. The USSR had just launched a little satellite no much bigger than a fishbowl, and my parents took me out in the dark to see it, a dim point of light, barely visible against the background of stars except for the fact that it was moving. Moving! A slow, stately traverse across the arc of the sky.

I feel lucky that my introduction to space was also the world’s. We were all there, variously astonished, aghast, proud, frightened, outraged and dismissive, depending on what country you lived in and what politics you ascribed to there.

Through the next five decades of my life the exploits of men and women (and some unlucky animals) in space served as markers for me: I remember where I was when they landed on the moon. And I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up.

But I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t paid much attention to the International Space Station except to know that it’s been up there for a number of years, and there are always a few people in it. Thus it was quite a thrill to read “5,200 Days in Space,” a feature article on the space station in the January Atlantic Magazine by Charles Fishman (The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, and The Wal-Mart Effect)

Fishman pretty much takes you up to the station with a good level of detail and description about living for months at a time in zero gravity and with no way out—except the occasional spacewalk which, by the way, requires 400 check-listed items to be accomplished before the door opens. Continue reading Space, 1957: What’s up in the sky?

A Thousand Thousand Things: Thrashing towards clarity

Shelves piled with clutter
Just because it is somebody else’s doesn’t mean it’s not clutter. (click to enlarge)
It’s been well more than a century since clutter was associated with good taste and the display of wealth. In the mid-1800s the burgeoning middle classes, giddy with the wealth produced by the machinery of the new industries of Victorian England, flocked to the department stores freshly stocked with a thousand thousand things that had never existed before, and they shopped and shopped and shopped.

They were the pioneers of conspicuous consumption, carting all that stuff back home to older houses which were designed to hold a few essential items discreetly in cupboards or closets or shelves. So the Victorians invented extravagant, exquisite clutter as interior design. An empty space on a table or shelf, a lampshade without tassels, a table leg without ornamentation, any place the weary eye could rest without being assaulted was anathema. Millions of manufactured things had broken loose into the world and claimed their places crowded into every room of every house whose owners could afford them.

During the final decades of the 19th century, quite suddenly most of the middle and upper classes on earth could, and did, acquire way, way more stuff than they needed or could actually claim to use. Before the industrial revolution human beings essentially had to make their things by hand, and so the number of hands at work placed a limit on how many widgets in a day or a year those hands could make. But machinery changed that formula forever, and there we were, millions and millions of people who for tens of thousands of years had always wanted more stuff, standing in front of the factory doors with lust for things in our guts and extra money in our hands as wave after wave of objects washed by us and around us and swept us away into the future.

Regardless of the Victorian era’s celebration of exquisite clutter, the twentieth century would continue to churn out stuff at a rate that was nothing short of relentless, if not remorseless.

And as if enough were not enough, in the past 20 years we’ve figured out how to beam up the real world of things into the digital world of virtual things. Stuff that is orders of magnitude easier to get and have and hold and store than was possible in the physical world now clutters and clogs hard drives, flash memory and server farms. If there is any difference between physical and digital clutter it may be in retrieval: it’s easier and easier to find the needle in the digital haystack with a keystroke.

I know I’m dealing with the curse of clutter when I’ve lost something to it. When I am actually needing some thing but cannot find it. Something useful, some tool, some bit of information on a piece of paper which, because I failed to put it where it goes, fell from grace and into clutter.

The verb “to clutter” now in our time comes true to its original meaning in 14th century English, “to heap up in piles, to litter”, or simply, “to clot”. Clutter does form clots; wherever it comes to rest, it finds its own, and binds together. In drawers, on shelves, in boxes, in closets, on horizontal surfaces, desks and tables and bureaus and ultimately on floors. But the clotting nature of clutter is not limited to physical objects. I am pestered and bedeviled and suffocated and confused as much by the clutter of ideas, fragments of information, memes, responsibilities, lists, lusts, fears and stalled projects in my head as by the thousand thousand objects to which I am attached by ownership, nostalgia or simple neglect. Continue reading A Thousand Thousand Things: Thrashing towards clarity

Fractal #37: Boy saves smiley guy from fire

Brantley, who is seven, was helping me lay the fire in the fireplace. We put a wide flat board at the back. “Look,” he said, “it’s a smiling guy face! See, he’s got eyes, and a nose, and a mouth. And he’s smiling at us!”
“It really is a smiling guy, isn’t it. I guess we can’t burn him, can we.”
“Nope,” said Brantley.