Read my lips

Babies learn to talk by watching lips as well as listening to us talk. They’ll briefly look into our eyes, then drop the focus of the gaze to our mouths. They listen, and watch, and babble back to us. To call it babble diminishes what they are actually doing. They are practicing,

“Mama,” we say, and the babies watch our lips come together and open, twice. Nice move, the babies think. They go off and try it by themselves 100 times a day. It’s so much easier to learn when you can watch the moves as well as listen to the music. Imagine trying to learn the moonwalk from nothing but a written description.

I’m pretty sure that many of us still depend on watching other peoples’ lips more than we realize. You can learn a lot about me by looking into my eyes as we talk, but eyes give us more of the overall or general sense of who that person is. Smart, disingenuous, generous, empathetic, narcissistic, fearful, distracted, dismissive, kind, or even crazy. Eyes just aren’t as labile as, well, lips.

Unless you are a TV presenter or an actor, your mouth and lips telegraph a moment by moment reveal of what you are thinking and feeling, even if you’re not talking. Without much trouble you can probably describe and list 10-15 or so specific signs, like hieroglyphs, we make with our mouths and what each means. Call them mouth emojis. Or don’t, because I detest emojis. ;-&

I’ve made three trips out of the house this past 14 days since flying back from California. The first two were curbside pickups of a couple of staples like whole wheat flour from the Warner Public Market. I went open-faced on those two jaunts.

My last trip was just a few days ago, to the NH liquor store. Uh, just in case we run out of rubbing alcohol to make wipes, right?

I have become a little more concerned this past week that the virus might be able to hang around longer in confined air spaces than the experts tell us, suspended as an aerosol. So for the first time in my life, I wore a mask in public.

There were only two customers in the store. One of them, a man in his 50s, thickset, with an aggressive way of walking, passed me in the aisle. I looked up and caught his eye, the way I’m used to doing in public, a slight tip of the head and that tight, friendly pursed lip smile most of us use to acknowledge a stranger in passing. But he couldn’t read my lips through my mask.

The look he gave me back, which, alas, I could see all too well, was cold eyes and the very slight lift of his upper lip which I translate as disdain.

I felt a sudden jolt of anger. What does this guy know of me and what assumptions did he just lock into place as he passed me.

Thinking about it now, I realize that we’ve reached a point where a lot of people see mask wearers the same way they see Prius drivers. It’s political, is it not?

But it’s also more than that. Walking around in a mask actually gives me one notch of power above a person with an open face. I can read them, but they can’t read me.

That troubles me. I don’t really know what to do about it.

OK. so what now

Shut in and self-quarantined after returning from the SF Bay Area on Monday, I find myself sitting in the studio thinking it may be time to bring this very old and dusty blog back online.

What can I say that won’t be swept into the past by the brooms of the next 24 hours? Give me another day to think about that.

iFone New Years Story
The iPhone had been buried in a huge pile of snow plowed to clear Main Street after the storm a few days before Christmas. On December 26, under a bright sun and a thaw, the snow pile began to shift and sink, and by Wednesday morning, like a receding glacier giving up its dead, it gave up the phone. I found it lying face up, balanced on a small column of ice, a pedestal protected from the sun by the phone’s own shadow.

It was dead, comatose, bereft, alone, and covered with mud.

Its face was smeared with mud and grit. No cracks, no apparent damage. I carried it into the coffee shop and laid it on the table. It seemed so vulnerable, so bereft of connection and purpose. Bought myself a coffee and took a closer look. The outer case was purple rubber, wrapped around an inner protective layer of hard pink plastic. An expensive case on a new $800 phone. From the look of the case I guessed that the owner was a woman, probably in her 30s. Perhaps the phone was a pre-Christmas gift, and because it had been a week since she lost it, she was probably about to give up on ever seeing it again.
It lay on the table in a tiny puddle of snowmelt. I pushed the buttons that should have brought it to life, but it was unresponsive. At the very least this was a phone with a dead battery. At most it was a waterlogged chunk of delicate electronics that had given up the ghost. A digital ghost, though, which if the owner had made the proper prior arrangements, would have departed no further than some server farm run by Apple in Boise or Fresno or, I dunno, Kansas City. This phone would not have shuffled off its mortal coil.
So, look, how smart really is a phone like this? Smart enough to have feelings? Smart enough to know the choking panic of being buried alive in an avalanche? Certainly smart enough to know where it is, and whether it’s right side up or upside down. Could a device like this love its owner as much as its owner loves it? Is there a bond, a relationship? If your face were touched a hundred times a day by the same finger, the print of which could also serve to unlock you, would you not feel some type of affection, some longing, some need for that attention? But no, it’s silly to call it love, because love is more, is it not, than the negotiation, the bid we make for attention?
As its battery drained, electric juice siphoned off by monitoring the signals from cell towers and GPS satellites, by incoming messages and notifications and calls no doubt from its owner who probably walked this street in the day after she lost it, using somebody else’s phone to call her own, listening with a sinking heart for that ring tone…as the phone sank into coma, isn’t it possible that it may, in some rudimentary way, have felt its loss, perhaps even that terror that all living creatures feel, the terror of being alone?
It is, after all, why we love these devices so completely, is it not? They have become our talismans, our protection against that original fear. If we need them so desperately, doesn’t it seem possible that they may need us in the same way? Isn’t that the way human beings domesticated dogs? Or the way mitochondria, which were originally free-swimming microbes, set up housekeeping inside our cells? But, honestly, aren’t we just about there? Love aside, the phones can’t exist without us, and how long will it be before we can’t exist without them?
I plugged this lost phone into a charger when I got home, and watched it blink to life under the mud on its face. Five minutes later, with a series of bleats, message notifications began to pour in. A dozen, two dozen and more. So now I knew her first name, M., and I knew that her phone was alive, and I knew that a lot of people had been trying to reach her.
I let the phone charge for another 15 minutes, found that it was not locked or passworded, and, with some reluctance, because I have a strong taboo against poking around in other peoples’ private spaces, I swiped into her phone. I checked Maps first, and found she had set up a Home route. So her phone could actually lead me to her house in a nearby town if I had no other way of finding her.
I looked at a couple of her photos to see if I recognized anybody, but went no further when all I saw were strangers. The next, least invasive, place for me to go was Contacts. Her list was short, and one of them was Heather, a friend and neighbor of mine. I called Heather, but her message box was full. Next in Contacts I found Laura, no last name. Obviously a close friend.
So yes, Laura answered my call and gave me M.’s land line. Laura told me that her good friend M. would be one very, very happy woman. Half an hour later I put M.’s phone in her hand. She seemed close to tears. She hugged me. It had been a rough week for her in several ways she said, but against all her expectations, her phone had come home. We hugged again…for some reason I can’t really explain, I felt deeply grateful to her.
It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed the gift of being a partner to some stranger’s good fortune. I liked the feeling. I want more of it. Perhaps I should spend this next year looking for more lost phones. Or perhaps I should find a more direct way of putting good fortune out into the world. It will be a happy new year.

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 or

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