July 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
Mouchette is spread across the top of the couch like an oil spill: shiny and undulant. When I stroke her, she elongates in that peculiar way cats have, as if they’ve read all the werewolf novels and are practicing their bone-liquifying tricks. Her little black and white patchwork head tilts up, nose poking at my hand, and I feel overwhelming love for this little oddity, who’s affectionate but never needy, unlike Fitzroy who checks in like a neurotic lover several times a day.
But I can’t help loving Fitz more because he stares at me in reproof if I don’t. Because he makes that Prrup noise when he jumps. Because he thanks me for meals. Because he loves being brushed and endures being cradled (white paws pushing at my crooning lips, face turned away with that mom-don’t-embarrass-me expression, but still purring) and rouses me when I sink into depressive torpor. He seems to know exactly when I’m thinking that life is just too much to bother with. He jumps on the bed and makes a racket, a very specific angry-anxious meow, repeated as necessary. I have no choice but to get up, make tea and find something useful to do, like changing the kitty litter or working.
Mouchette slinks in my room when I’m on the bed reading, waits for permission to ascend, then uses my bent legs as a tunnel, going through and back again in a way that reminds me of being a child, riding my bike through the flesh-colored porte-cochere of our house in New Jersey.* The fit is tighter for Mouchette than it was for me on my bike but that’s what makes it fun, her hard little skull getting its pleasure from squeezing through the crook of my knees, her body following like a greased licorice stick. I watch her and feel deliciously idle and female, girl-talking as she makes the circuit, admiring her sleek shininess. Fitz watches balefully from the floor, waiting to bite one or both of us.
For weeks, the only sounds Mouchette made were when Fitzroy attacked her. She’d scream or squeal or make a low, plaintive growling noise. I thought she was the silent type, human-wise. But lately she’s been practicing her meows. I’ll hear her and yell at Fitz to stop beating up his sister, only to go in the other room and find her sitting by herself on the arm of the couch, squeaking like a nest of baby mice (and believe me, I know just what a nest of baby mice sounds like). “What is that supposed to mean?” I ask and she just looks at me with those big, innocent yellow eyes. Soon she’ll have all the basic cat tricks down. Only yesterday as I walked past her, sprawled on the top of the couch, she swiped at me with her paw, claws extended, for no reason but that she could. She looked so languidly pleased after.
Now she’s in the other room, playing with her new Perrier bottle cap. Fitz has a catnip mouse the sweet young pet store guy threw in as a freebie. No other catnip toy has interested him much, but this mouse, a featureless lump with a tail, the very epitome of why-would-I-spend-good-money-on-that-crap has him completely charmed. He’s running in circles, flipping it into the air, carrying it around in his mouth. I’m a sucker for the way cats look when they’re carrying something in their mouths, especially when it’s neither dead nor alive. They don’t look officious or manic the way dogs do. They look sexy, like French movie stars with cigarettes hanging from their lower lip.
* No Jersey jokes please. I grew up in a green and verdant land. So did Frank Sinatra, Philip Roth, Savion Glover and Meryl Streep. My mother-in-law knew Meryl when she was a teenager, working a summer job. Yogi Berra lived a few blocks away from my family. There were fireflies, ice cream, good sidewalks and woods for the cats to have their secret rituals far from human eyes.
There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.
- A cat is a lion in a jungle of small bushes.
– Indian Proverb
- Those that dislike cats will be carried to the cemetery in the rain.
– Dutch Proverb
July 26, 2009 § 1 Comment
Farmer Wu Yu drives his rickshaw pulled by his self-made walking robot near his home in a village at the outskirts of Beijing.
The New York Times has a piece today about the dangers of computers becoming too smart. It was written in response to a group of scientists responding to Ray Kurzweil’s paean to the upcoming age of brilliant machines, when we will all be immortal and the world will be transformed beyond recognition. Oh right, the first half of that sentence pretty much implies the latter half. But transformed in even more ways! His book, The Singularity is Near, is fun and exciting-scary but not entirely plausible. But who can really know? The Times quotes Dr. Eric Horvitz, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, as saying “Technologists are replacing religion, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture.” Yeah, that’s the goofy side of Ray. But the man’s no slackwit.
I can’t help feeling more intrigued by computers getting smart than worried about it. Maybe that’s because there are already so many doomsday scenarios out there, most of them very plausible, and/or because I’ve always been a fan of intelligence. If we create our superiors and they take over, so be it. Not if they’re nasty soulless machines, sure, but who says that’s likely to be the case? Intelligence without emotion doesn’t really function, as researchers have finally figured out—emotion is the stimulus for thought—and intelligence + emotion without empathy is hard for me to envision. That advanced AI creations might not have empathy for us is entirely possible. We’re not doing so well with chimpanzees and gorillas, are we?
Kurzweil’s thesis is that once computers attain self-consciousness, they’ll be able to direct their own evolution, without our cultural repugnance to the idea, and get smarter by leaps and bounds. I’m not sure about this; intelligence still needs experience to shape it, and with experience comes culture—who says the smart computer will be so interested in making the even smarter computer?
The Times story is not about the dangers of the Kurzweil scenario so much as about the dangers of somewhat-smarter systems; ones that will take over jobs or be exploitable by criminals, governments and corporations. Those are worrisome possibilities, and since they’ll happen (have already begun to happen) before genius computers offer us immortality in their digital arms, they’re more likely to shape people’s response to advances in AI. It’s hard to imagine what would really stop progress, though—without the yuck factor involved in engineering babies or creating animals that are nothing but meat, and without the historical evidence of nuclear experiments, public opposition probably won’t grow fast enough.
People won’t like it when their computers can critique their job performance accurately, and when the first auto-driven automobiles crash, there will be plenty who will disregard statistics that they crash 1/10 as often as other cars, or whatever may be the case. But there are too many very smart techno-freaks out there. And they revere intelligence more than I do, having more of it to begin with.
So get ready for an interesting next 20 years. Climate crash, self-aware computers…this Great Recession, our first black president, whatever you think is new and different about this moment in history—you ain’t seen nothing yet.
And for the here and now: what about robots that eat household pests? Check out this article from New Scientist
July 25, 2009 § 1 Comment
Venturing into the online world again, and feeling a little staggered: so many people, so much energy and hunger…artists, writers. All the talk of social networking and promotion, platforms, pratfalls, performing monkeys, it makes my head spin—I’m so not good at it. Yet there’s a definite pleasure in seeing how uninhibited everyone is, unlike the nearly chaste writers of my youth, afraid to be too eager, waiting for the powers that be to anoint them. (I waited too, waited long, unaware of the subtle art of kissing ass. Too proud? Too shy? Too dumb? Take your pick.)
If I didn’t need money, I’d say fuck the powers that be and publish everything myself online, let the readers find it whenever. A hundred or a million readers, who cares? Do I want to sell a million copies of anything? Other than for the royalty checks? I think it would wack me out. This culture has gotten too far ahead of me: I can’t imagine riding the wave anymore. I lost my moment, the 80’s, when I knew everything that became hot before it became hot but was just too unsure to write about what seemed my own private peculiar obsessions or interests. Now, the public discourse…there’s just too much of it. I like finding the good stuff, but it reminds me of trying to find a bra or a lipstick in Bloomingdales, wandering around the first floor, the lights, the music, thinking I might never escape.
My mother once asked me on the phone, “So how’s your little life?” and I don’t know how she meant it, affection or truth-blurted-out, or both, but I opted for the truth-blurted-out interpretation and was happy enough to admit that yes my life was little and it was, at that moment, fine. I’d wanted to make it big to impress everyone, but really that’s tiring.
I feel deep and quiet joy walking around the park, the tree-lined streets of the Village, and sometimes at art galleries. Literature? Maybe the chorus has gotten too loud. The muscle-stretching workout of writing something good, the pleasure of others liking it, these remain real, but literary status has become a toxic idea, and I’m not sure if that can change anymore.
I want to write a novel about Persephone in Hell. There are just so many hells to choose from. I liked Homer’s version better than Dante, I’m crazy about the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but Persephone Queen of the Dead is the one I remain interested in. What it’s like, going from a being mama’s girl on a Greek hillside covered with flowers to kidnap and marriage to the cold and strange, the not-kind, not-Satanic, seemingly clinically depressed Hades?
It resonates in me deeply, this myth, yet when I think of the novel, it gets all chick-litty, frothy and cute dead jokes, and I think I have to go back and read more Anne Carosn and Louise Gluck. And further back to Christina Rossetti and Murasaki Shikibu. I have to think about my cats, condemned for life to my apartment, the Stockholm syndrome, erotic attachment that has resulted.
Writers aren’t exactly people…. they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.
All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are days when solitude, for someone my age, is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.~Colette
July 19, 2009 § Leave a comment
Friday night, Charles and I went to what New York Magazine has just deemed the best pizza in the city (although Frank Bruni dismisses it as “soggy”), a place called Keste, where the owner is an ex-cheese salesman from Naples. I had planned to get there early but Charles’s plane was late so we arrived at dinner hour and there was a line. We ordered the pizza to go and ate in the little park at the intersection of Bleecker, Carmine and 6th. There’s a tiered fountain in the middle of the park and the water was on—the first time I’ve ever seen it on in this park—and we had a view of the cool stone of Our Lady of Pompeii Church. It was a nice spot to think about whether the end will come by water or fire. Both seem equally likely in a coast city the coming sea-level rise is expected to hit especially hard, and which has, as a few of you remember, seen a lot of fire.
Actually, we didn’t spend much time thinking about that, though I do tend toward the apocalyptic these days. It was a beautiful evening and Charles was very happy, and I was reasonably happy, which is about as good as it gets. He enjoys the city so much on the weekends he’s here, and in July it’s good to remember there are people for whom Manhattan is a vacation.
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills. That sentence comes to mind a lot—it’s never been far from my mind since I read Out of Africa, but it’s been especially resonant in the last few years. I miss my house in the country: the pear trees, mint, snakes, full moons, the green light coming in the windows of the bedroom where I’d read in the afternoon, during solitary summer weeks.
The pizza was as good as New York said it was. The crust was chewy and airy (“pillowy” a lot of reviewers write but I’ve never been fond of eating pillows, and anyway, chewy pillows?), charred but not sooty, and overall just right. It was a bit soggy in the middle but only because there were so many ripe barely-cooked tomatoes on it. My biggest complaint about pizza everywhere is that there’s not enough tomato, so I’m more than willing to put up with soggy middles. I had the capricciosa with fresh mozzarella from Di Palo’s, artichokes, mushrooms, Italian ham, extra-virgin olive oil, as well as tomato: perfect.
After we finished the pizza, we went for gelato at Cone on Bleecker, just across the street from Keste. Charles wanted six flavors but settled for three. I had two. We went home and told the cats what they’d missed.
Saturday, we went to the farmer’s market, and bought raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, sugar plums, currants and peaches (and cranberry scones, parmesan black-pepper bread, green beans, tomatoes, basil, baby zucchini, fingerling potatoes and lamb chops). My faithful readers will remember I had a post mentioning sugar plums some time ago. I wanted to see what they taste like. They taste like plums.
Charles is leaving in an hour. He’s making pesto and vacuuming. He gave me his bankcard so I can get money whenever I need it. Currently there’s $115 in the account, so I won’t be tempted to overspend. I remember when he was feeding himself and two kids on $10 a week, so I’m willing to say we’ve made progress. He says he doesn’t feel any older inside than he ever did. How does that work? I’ve felt older every year since I was four. It used to be a good thing. It’s not entirely a bad thing now, but. Definitely a thing.
(In the picture above, can you tell the gooseberries from the soochow jade beads?)
July 16, 2009 § Leave a comment
July 12, 2009 § 1 Comment
I went to my friend Camilla’s Open Studio this Friday. Her new work is mostly large paintings, nude self-portraits in which the figure is usually reclining and seen from the rear. They’re languorous and intentionally evocative of all the great nudes of art history; for some reason having to do with the bizarre state of the art world, Camilla feels there’s something narcissistic about painting the female nude. OK, she’s female. And it’s her, not a model. But although it’s entirely possible I’ve been conditioned by 10,000 years of art history, it seems to me that the female body is eminently more paintable than the male. And I understand her choice to not use a model because who wants another person around when you’re working?
In any case, her work was quite beautiful, sensuous and bold. Pink flesh tones, warm grays and browns. I’m glad that figurative painting is coming back. Check out her website—and for more beautiful nudes (and landscapes, dolls, and portraits, all selcouth and geason) my brother’s website.
Looking at Camilla’s paintings did what most good art does—it made me want to paint, which I loved doing as a child, but gave up, as a teenager, in favor of writing. I used to be a big believer in specialization. By the time I was out of college, even the idea of writing both poetry and prose seemed greedy.
Now I wish I’d spent a few years learning the craft. I know it’s not too late (well, maybe it is), but I also know that I’m not going to take the time right now to acquire a new skill, though brushing up on an old one would be a pleasure.
But maybe not. Maybe if I could sort of paint—better than I can do now, much worse than Camilla—I’d just be unhappy with the results. One reason I chose writing was that it was harder for me to see the flaws in my work. By the time I knew enough to get seriously discouraged, I was skilled enough not to be completely discouraged. It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if that means I would have progressed faster as a painter? This assumes, of course, that I could ever have used that critical eye rather than running from it in terror.
What would I paint? Faces. Devils. Animals. Storms. A cow thrown up into the air by a tornado while a woman copulates with the devil in a ditch. Just for instance. Or a mother forcing gray cocoa down her angry child’s throat while the devil is outside, in the upper left corner, eating the universe as a pair of Dobermans watch. Needless to say (is it?) actually painting these scenes would not hold my interest. Really, I have no idea.
Another Saturday night. I was hideously depressed until about four o’clock, full of self-castigation about how much I let slip while I mooned over my unreliable lover, but now feeling ok. I upped my meds. Talked to Charles. Posed Mouchette with Gloria Vanderbilt’s new erotic novel, Obsession, which Lisa for some reason thought was just the gift for me, and took photos. It’s the little things in life.
And now it’s Sunday night. Just like that.