It’s Always Been Michael, Never Mike

Self portrait of author in black and white.

Whatever calls you, whether it’s the ocean or art or family or democracy, isn’t out there. It’s inside you. Like all the cycles and rhythms we describe in this book, it comes and goes, accelerates and decelerates, falls away and rises again. Like a tide, inside you.

— from Burnout, by Emily Nagoski, Amelia Nagoski

I am assembling an outfit to express feminine me. I am building it around a lovely “Petrol/Teal” funnel neck sweater dress. I have spent hours on the internet shopping for accessories to go with it. The right shoes, the right leggings, the right pair of socks, the right bracelet. Masculine me settled on a basic uniform years ago. Black crewneck long sleeve t-shirt, black slim leg jeans, Hoka sneakers, black leather belt with silver buckle, grey or black over the calf socks. Masculine me isn’t into makeup and is happy with a five day stubble.

Feminine me is tossing masculine me’s uniform aside. Boring! She has brought purple, magenta, blue/green, and blue into the mix. Her preferred clothing purveyors are J. Jill and Poetry. She likes contemplating questions like, what color lipstick looks good on me? Should I get purple highlights in my hair? Should I get my brows done? What sort of eye makeup should I wear? She reads articles on hair styles, makeup tips, facial cleansing and moisturizing routines. Masculine me doesn’t seem threatened by this development. He seems, if anything, a bit amused, and quite willing to sit on the bench while feminine me blossoms, though he’s prepared to step forward if circumstances warrant it.

This makes it sound like I have split in two. That’s not how it is. My masculine and feminine are a continuum. They coexist in a yin-yang sort of way, moving to the front and back again in a fluid dance of gender expression.

It is hard to describe the feeling of letting my feminine flower. It is often intense. When I first started wearing lipstick. When I first wore a dress. When I first did these things in public. Each of these moments came with feelings that washed through me, sometimes as a gentle wave, sometimes in a raging torrent. Do you remember how it feels to fall in love? That’s how it’s feeling to me to get my feminine on. It’s scary too. I know some people won’t understand.

It is tempting to view this as “coming out of the closet,” but I haven’t been in a closet in any kind of difficult or conflicted way. It’s just that sometime during the past year, feminine me started asking for more space to be. In my mind. On my body. Amongst my community. I am lucky to have the luxury of giving her that space.

In retrospect, I can see she has been with me from the beginning. Michael, until the 1990’s, could be a boy or girl’s name. That means that from the day I was born, room was made for feminine me, in my name. I have always been Michael, never Mike. Mike is the Marlboro man as far as I am concerned. I have never wanted to be the Marlboro man. Perhaps the death of my father, an overbearing patriarchal figure, set her free. Perhaps being at a stage of life where I don’t really have to care what people think helped too. Perhaps, even, she sees that now is the political moment to smash the patriarchy.

I don’t know where feminine me is taking us. All I know is that she is presently at the wheel and determined to immerse us in the feminine.

This post starts with a quote from the book Burnout. It was revelatory to me when I read it. It helped me realize that my meaning-core is calling me to a hero’s journey to the divine feminine. I will read about her. I will write about her. I will make art about her. I will express her. Connecting with her will be the touchstone of my being for a while.

Joseph Campbell claimed that women had no need to undertake the hero’s journey because they were already in the place where that journey winds up. This seems to me to be a conflation of biology and gender, as well as a failure to understand the masculine-feminine continuum. The hero, Marlboro Man, and the divine feminine, Marilyn Monroe, are the yin and yang of Western Civilization. The divine feminine is not the goal of all hero’s journeys. And I believe that women often have need to undertake the Hero’s journey which may return them to the divine feminine or not. All men and women are capable of being the hero or the divine feminine. We need more women undertaking hero’s journeys and many more men connecting with the feminine divine.

May the divine feminine receive us all warmly and shepherd our growth. May we be among her many beacons of light to a world so desperately in need of her.

Does My Faith Stand Up?

I was going through my files, cleaning things up, and found this piece I wrote back in 2001 in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. It holds up pretty well as a representation of my Humanist thinking. I thought I would share it with you as a way to get my writing started up again.

During the first few weeks following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I received hundreds of emails from friends, internet friends, and relatives. Among these messages were the frequent forwarding of thoughts, penned by others, that my mail connections thought I might find useful. Not unexpectedly, some of my connections believe in a God. One of them forwarded an email, author unknown, which they found comforting. The email started out this way:

I had a very dear friend question my faith in God right after the terrorist attack on America. Her question was simply put, “Where is your God today?”

She was very hurt, as all Americans were, so I tried not to react defensively. Since that moment, I have prayed and grieved over the disastrous events. However, I believe I have the answer. I know where my God was the morning of September 11, 2001!

He was busy!!

The note went on to describe the many things God was busy doing that day. According to the note, that many individuals were supposed to have boarded the four jets that would later be used in the attacks, but didn’t. Others were supposed to have been at wrk in the trade towers, but weren’t, having been delayed for one reason or another. Apparently, an act of divine will also held the mortally wounded towers up for an hour, allowing thousands to escape.

This note struck me. I saved it, as I did all messages related to the terrorist attack. I would find it difficult to defend my faith this way. I feel badly for everyone whose faith has been so severely challenged by the events of the past few months, that they are compelled to offer explanations like this one. Whether this particular defense of faith is a good one is not really the issue for me. I don’t share the author’s belief in God, so I don’t have to search for a better defense of faith. Even so, I can’t walk away feeling smug about my Humanist faith, which doesn’t have to contort itself in this way. In the aftermath of the events of September 11, anyone with faith of any kind has to ask and honestly answer this question:

Does my faith stand up?

A family member and I have been exchanging somewhat heated emails about patriotism. They find it difficult to understand how I can question my government’s role in creating a world situation that could make such acts of hostility a possibility. They find it difficult to accept my conviction that conflicts of any kind are rarely black and white in the rightness and wrongness of any side. I find it challenging to understand their unquestioning rally to the flag. It explains a little to know that this family member served in the armed forces and came of age during, and in the aftermath of, the Second World War. It explains a little to know that I came of age during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and that I never served in the military.

At one point during those exchanges, I wrote something like the following:

I would have to believe there are many forms of patriotism. I have never been, and never will be, the “my country right or wrong” type. I recognize the incredible gift I have been given in being born in this country. I am proud of many of the things my country has accomplished. But I also recognize that blind, unquestioning love is not a good thing. Beyond city, beyond country, more than anything, I love people, most especially when they are at their finest. I love the police officers, firemen, and ordinary citizens who rushed to the aid of fellow human beings in the towers, many of whom lost their lives. I have a special place in my heart for Mayor Giuliani, who, more than any other public figure, rose to the occasion and let his people when they needed it most.

There was more, but I think you begin to get the point.

My love for people is not blind. I know that people are capable of both the best and the worst, a fact that has been profoundly confirmed by the events of September 11. But the core of my Humanist faith is that as horrible and misguided as the motives and actions of some can be, people, even sometimes those same horrible and misguided people, can be equally, and even surpassingly, good.

No deeply and honestly held faith is easy. World events continually challenge and force the reevaluation of every faith. Hard questions get asked. Humanists are spared the defense of a higher, all powerful, all knowing, supernatural being, whose actions, or failures to act, bring about such misery. But there are questions we must answer, too. If we believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, how do we reconcile this belief with the liked of Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden? Would it ever be possible to act to elicit the best in them and ourselves? What should be our response to a Nation State that harbors and protects terrorists, allowing them, even encouraging them, to assault the innocent around the world? The answer in general terms is clear. The specifics can be troublesome. The answer is that we must respect whatever worth and dignity we find in others and ourselves, and act to preserve and enhance it. When we cannot readily identify worth and dignity in others, we at least have to act to preserve that which exists in ourselves. This applies to individuals, communities, and nations alike.

There was a news item about some youths, who in the days following the September 11 attacks, stormed into the restaurant of a man they deemed to be the enemy by proxy because of his Middle Eastern descent. They tore the place apart. The police caught the young men that same evening, but when asked to press charges, the restaurant owner declined. He couldn’t see how it would make things any better. A few hours later, the young men returned, apologized, and spent the night helping him to clean up the damage they had down. The owner clearly acted in a way that brought the best out in others.

There are times when there are no viable alternatives to a forceful, even violent response. An assault on our person, where the attacker means to do us bodily harm, must be met with a vigorous physical defense if retreat is not possible or would only invite further brutality at a later date. We are, at times, compelled to do harm before there is any chance of doing good. Our faith demands, however, that we understand when a forceful response is justified, and know that the good we can accomplish eventually is worth the bad we inevitably bring about in the short term. Humanists make it their business to act out of broad concern for humanity, rather than rage over any offense perpetrated against our community or ourselves. Humanist faith demands it.

Human beings are anything and everything but perfect. They are good and evil, right and wrong, lovable and hateful. They agree and disagree, fight and make up, make war and make peace. The only rational way I can handle this is through a humanist faith. I work hard to fulfill my own promise. I do my best to behave towards others in such a way that I demonstrate respect for their worth and dignity, and encourage, or at least not discourage or prevent, the fulfillment of their potential.

Humanists place their faith and optimism in the demonstrated capacity of people to do remarkable, even wonderful things. We believe in the worth and dignity of all living beings and seek to respect it. Our conviction is that we must conduct ourselves and the business of our institutions in such a way that we bring out the best in all.

Palestinians, Israelis, and War

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.1

Half a world away, war has broken out between Israel and the Palestinians. We have Palestinian friends. They were happy when news of the Hamas attack reached them. One of those friends was in Gaza at the time. They have since gotten out.

I look at my Instagram feed and my Palestinian friends are strident about the suffering inflicted by the Israelis on the Palestinians. That suffering is their justification for the horrific violence the Palestinians inflicted on the Israelis. I believe Palestinians have suffered. I believe Israel has often treated them brutally, though I know less about it than I should. I also believe Hamas punished civilians for the sins of the state in a horrifically brutal way. If we are to believe the news reports, babies were shot, beheaded, burned. Women were raped. Children were killed while their parents watched. Parents were killed while their children watched. It is hard to know what is true and what isn’t, but some part of it is likely the truth. My Palestinian friends may have cause to be angry, but I can’t see how the violence Hamas perpetrated on the Israeli people can be justified.

(For example, the situation in Israel and Palestine) was an absolutely impossible way to try to make reparations for the Holocaust, right? I mean, this idea that after the near annihilation of the Jews in Europe, it’s any kind of solution to push Palestinians off their land … It’s a project that has been violent from the beginning, and it didn’t address the underlying causes of the genocide in Europe. It just displaced them. So we’ve been in this dance of denial and disavowal ever since, and now it is reaching its most violent apotheosis as we speak. —Naomi Klein2

The anger between Israel and its Arab neighbors, I learn, goes back to the late 1800s, early 1900s, and was exacerbated by the creation of Israel following World War II. To establish the state, Jewish people claimed dominion over land they had not occupied in large numbers for 2,000 years and inhabited primarily by Arabs for the last 1,500 years. It reminds me of the Native American story, and the stories of Indigenous peoples all over the planet, displaced by more resourced and technologically advanced peoples.

My wife shared an article that explains why there is conflict and why that conflict was inevitable. Here are some quotes from it:

Given the urgency of their situation, it is understandable that the Jews were not concerned with the response of the Palestinian Arabs to their project. After a tragically failed attempt to identify spiritually, emotionally or intellectually with the cultures and nations within which they resided, the Jews learned the hard way that the modern world was increasingly defining self-determination in exclusionist, not liberal, terms. The pogroms and persecution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did even more to shape the tenor and nature of the Zionist movement than the brutality of the Holocaust; it was that predicament which gave birth to what might be called “The Original Never Again” — the determination on the part of the Jews never again to be supplicants, dependent on the kindness of strangers, or feeble bystanders to their own persecution, waiting pitifully for the world to evolve beyond prejudice. Influenced by the character and tenor of nationalism as it evolved in Europe, where blood and soil were the hallmarks of legitimate belonging, the Zionists had concluded that they could only overcome their outsider status by settling in Palestine — a land where their “insider” status could be unearthed, and their physical and spiritual links with the past revealed.3

And this…

The Palestinian Arabs said No to the idea that in the 20th century a people who last lived in Palestine in large numbers over 2000 years ago could claim, on the basis of a religious text, rights to the land where the current inhabitants had been living for a millennium and a half.4

Israel is set to launch a ground offensive in Gaza. The objective will be to exterminate Hamas. Civilians are already dying in daily areal bombardments.

The quote I began this post with comes from Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian is relentlessly brutal. Horrific things happen on almost every page. A band of men travel together hunting Indians and brutally killing them when they find them. They do a lot of killing along the way. There is no love in the book. It’s all about mankind’s endless capacity for violence. I am not done with it. I keep hoping for some positive resolution to the story. Some lesson to be learned. Some wisdom about finding the better angels of our nature. I don’t think McCarthy believes that humankind is anything but a brutally violent species.

Palestinian artist Heba Zagout was killed with her two young children in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza on Friday, October 13, her sister confirmed on Facebook.%20The%2039-year-old%20artist’s%20death%20was%20also%20reported%20by%20the%20Palestinian%20publication%20Arabs48.5

I am fortunate. I was born in the United States to an upper middle-class family. I have known little physical violence in my life. I have almost always lived in relatively safe places. I am a six-foot tall white male. It could only have been better for me if I were blonde and my family upper class. I have no reason to complain or think that war is the base condition of humankind. War has always been a distant calamity for me, only experienced through the news and movies.

The news we watch, MSNBC mostly, makes the case for Israel’s right to defend itself, and therefore, invade Gaza, ostensibly to eliminate the threat of Hamas. I heard a commentator say they would get a few years of peace out of it before Hamas regrew and rearmed itself, or some other organization took its place.

There will be no winner of this conflict. Only losers. The cycle of violence looks set to continue without end. Cormac McCarthy could have written a novel about this conflict. McCarthy’s Southwest seems as desolate and inhospitable as the land in contention between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The violence seems just as brutal, mindless, and pointless.

My wife cried when the news of the Hamas attack first broke. I struggle to get emotionally worked up about something happening at such a distance. The invasion of Ukraine had a bigger impact on me, but it was through fear. I could imagine the Ukraine war leading to nuclear armageddon. I think it still could. I am not as fearful about this one, but maybe I should be. There is so much to be sad about these days. We live in the universe of Cormac McCarthy.

I have felt disappointed in my Palestinian friends for being happy and defiant in the face of such horror. They will tell me that, like John Snow, I know nothing. It’s true, I know nothing about their pain, and the pain of their families, and the pain of their people. I only know there is pain on the Israeli side too. How do I weigh the pain of these two sides against one another? Pain is pain.


  1. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International) by Cormac McCarthy

    a.co/49yNAez ↩︎

  2. Naomi Klein: “I’m Trying to Have a Little Compassion for Myself” | AnOther ↩︎

  3. The Original “No”: Why the Arabs Rejected Zionism, and Why It Matters | Middle East Policy Council ↩︎

  4. Ibid. ↩︎

  5. Gaza Artist Killed With Her Children in Israeli Airstrike ↩︎

What do you think about AI?

We were at a memorial service for a family friend who died a few months back. During a period of stories and remembrances, a man got up and said he had lived next door to P for a number of years; that they often had coffee in the morning or a beer in the afternoon, and would talk about many things; that in his professional life he developed AI; that he and P would have extended conversations about AI. P had been a journalist, published in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Life magazine and other publications. P, of course, felt AI would never be able to write as well as a good human writer. It lacked experience of the world. P knew about experience with the world. He traveled extensively, was an expert spear fisherman, and quite the lady’s man. He wrote from his experiences. He wrote well. How could AI match that without his direct experience of the cosmos?

After the memorial service, my 92 year old mother-in-law asked me what I thought about AI. I told her that AI is here to stay; that it will get better at making human beings feel; that I wondered what the place of humanity would become in relation to it.

Much of the criticism of AI centers on the human experience which AI will never have. Because it will never have that experience, it will never be able to create as well as the best writers or artists or musicians.

When the essay, called “Ghosts,” came out in The Believer in the summer of 2021, it quickly went viral. I started hearing from others who had lost loved ones and felt that the piece captured grief better than anything they’d ever read. I waited for the backlash, expecting people to criticize the publication of an AI-assisted piece of writing. It never came. Instead the essay was adapted for This American Life and anthologized in Best American Essays. It was better received, by far, than anything else I’d ever written.1

In Confessions of a Viral AI Writer, Vauhini Vara writes about the experience of having an essay written with the assistance of AI go viral. She talks about her ambivalence about having sought assistance from AI to write an essay about the death of her sister at a young age. She tells us that she has decided not to use AI for anything more than research going forward.

I don’t know where, in the pantheon of writers and journalists, Ms. Vara falls. Her Wired article seemed well enough written. In the viral AI-assisted article, AI provided her with the description of a moment between her and her dying sister that, as she described it, was pivotal to the essay. It also wasn’t something that had actually happened between them. Poetic license I suppose. You tell a little bit of a lie because it gets at a bigger truth, or a fuller emotion, which certainly was there. Would she have come up with this line herself, or would her knowledge of what did and didn’t happen between her and her sister have made that difficult? AI didn’t have that knowledge and was free to indulge in a plausible fantasy for the situation.

Ms. Vara writes in her essay that,

… writing is an attempt to clarify what the world is like from where I stand in it.

If writing is my attempt to clarify what the world is like for me, the problem with AI is not just that it can’t come up with an individual perspective on the world. It’s that it can’t even comprehend what the world is.2

This, I think, is the core truth of the matter. Writing, is how writers understand themselves in relation to the cosmos, and good writing helps fellow travelers locate themselves within that cosmos. Since civilization became a thing, we have been understanding and locating ourselves through story telling, which requires human to human connection. Story teller to story listener. Writer to reader. Whether it be an oral tradition, scrawling on papyrus, or keyboarding collections of ones and zeros into the cloud, it is a chain of relationship, of connection.

If we retain AI to write for us, how are we gaining that understanding of self and world? How are we weaving humanity together?

But what if I, the writer, don’t matter? I joined a Slack channel for people using Sudowrite3 and scrolled through the comments. One caught my eye, posted by a mother who didn’t like the bookstore options for stories to read to her little boy. She was using the product to compose her own adventure tale for him. Maybe, I realized, these products that are supposedly built for writers will actually be of more use to readers? 4

The corporate capitalist drive to mechanize everything humans can do devalues what it means to be human. To be removed from craft is to be removed from our humanity. In his essay, _Buddhist Economics,_E. F. Schumacher distinguished between machines that assist the craftsman, and machines that take over the work of the craftsman through this quote of Ananda Coomaraswamy,

“The craftsman himself, can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”5

Machines as destroyers of culture. That’s a powerful image. Large language models (LLMs) are capable of being either the carpet loom, or the power loom. That is, they can assist the writer with her writing, or they can do the writing themselves.

In Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher identifies two different approaches to work. The capitalist economics approach, and the Buddhist economics approach. About the capitalist economics approach he had this to say…

There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.6

and this to say about a Buddhist concept of work…

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

There is, then, a distinction to be made about the use of AI. Do we use it to take human beings out of the labor equation, or, do we use it to assist us with the work of being human? It is the difference between a capitalist view of labor and a Buddhist view of labor. I know which I prefer.


  1. Vara, Vauhini, Confessions of a Viral AI Writer, Wired Magazine ↩︎

  2. Ibid. ↩︎

  3. An AI product developed to write novels. ↩︎

  4. Vara, Vauhini, Confessions of a Viral AI Writer, Wired Magazine ↩︎

  5. Schumacher, E. F., Buddhist Economics ↩︎

  6. Ibid. ↩︎

Sexually Explicit Movies

This past weekend I was on my own, so I spent some time watching films billed as having sexually explicit scenes in them, which I found in articles like this one. I love watching movies with well-crafted sex scenes and will seek films using that as my first screening criteria. When I have a list to work with, I identify the plots that are most appealing, then look up what the critics say about them. I like well reviewed films because, well, good sex scenes need good story telling to develop the relationship and chemistry between the characters. The moment of consummation is much more compelling in the context of a well developed story. My wife is less interested in sexually explicit as a criterion, though she doesn’t mind sexual explicitness if it is natural to the context of a well told story. So, when I am on my own, I explore the sexually explicit film territory and, if I find one I think she will like, I recommend that we watch it together.

Of the films I watched, the four that stood out were, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, Elisa & Marcella1, Anaïs In Love, and Good Luck To You, Leo Grande. All were well-crafted and enjoyable films with good sex scenes. Portrait Of and Good Luck were exceptional.

Good Luck, while not being that explicit in imagery, was pretty explicit about the subject of sex and how uptight we can be about sexual pleasure for its own sake. I thought it dealt with its subject material in an admirably nuanced way. The film centers on the relationship between Leo Grande, a sex worker, and Nancy Stokes, a retired and recently widowed client who has never had an orgasm.

Upon Leo’s arrival, Nancy begins nattering — a lot. She has cause to: She’s a retired schoolteacher and widow; and she’s never done anything remotely like this. And by “this” we mean take her own pleasure seriously.2

The movie is, as one critic put it, “sex positive.” It contends that there is nothing wrong with seeking and giving sexual pleasure. It is also sex work positive. Assumptions about sex workers, set up in part by second-wave feminism, are challenged. That they are drug addicts, traumatized in some way, have no other choices, are abused and abusing themselves, are exploited. It must be acknowledged that all of these things are true for some percentage of sex workers. But, it doesn’t have to be, and isn’t always, that way. In Good Luck, we are presented with a character for whom it is made clear that, while he has a childhood trauma important to the story, sex work was a positive life choice. This, apparently, is the place that third-wave feminism reached about sex work for women. That it can be a way of seizing control of the narrative of their bodies. That it can be empowering.

Leo is an attractive, well spoken and intelligent young man who is very adept at understanding the needs and desires of his clients. Such a person in real life would probably have other options if he wanted them. Third-wave feminism aside, this concept of sex work is one that society still struggles to embrace and give the dignity of being a morally and legally acceptable choice to make.

“I want to play at being young again,” she tells her paid-for paramour, explicitly stating the film’s barely hidden subtextual intertwining of la petite mort with an awareness of impending mortality.3

There were many compelling moments in the movie for me. One is where Nancy declares that her only path to the experience of her full sexuality is through a sex worker because, “who’s going to be interested in this body?” Another is when Leo reveals his trauma, which involved his mom walking in on him and a number of friends all tangled up together, exploring each other’s bodies, and never forgiving him for his “indiscretion.” Nancy is a retired sex-ed teacher who spent the bulk of her life being that unforgiving surrogate mother to the young women she taught. She taught them they should repress their sexuality and slut-shamed them for the way they dressed and carried on. Nancy never had sexual fulfillment in life because she, no doubt, had been given the same message about sex as she gave the girls she taught. Sex is for making babies and something you are obliged to let your husband do to you.

Nancy seeks a sexual awakening and in the development of the story of achieving it the movie asks, what is wrong with pleasuring ourselves with willing partners or paying for it if there isn’t a relationship at hand to provide it? As long as it is consensual, and nobody is getting hurt, physically or psychologically, what is the big deal about sexual pleasure? Why shouldn’t we have abundant amounts of it if we’d like to? Why can’t we talk about it openly and honestly if we want to?

Older women’s bodies, not to mention their sexuality, are something no one wants to think or talk about, least of all older women themselves. What everyone tells you when you’re young eventually becomes true: at a certain age—maybe 50, maybe 60—you become invisible to most other people on the street, especially men.4

A compelling part of the larger story is that Nancy and Leo have to build a relationship for the experience to work for Nancy. Sex is at its most fulfilling and satisfying in the context of a relationship, even when paid for. This is one of the many reasons I seek sexually explicit movies and not pornography. The sex, when it arrives, is more satisfying to watch because the writers, directors, and cast have built a relationship between themselves, the characters, and the audience that moves it beyond prurient interest.

As I said in last week’s post, I have been exploring erotic imagery, written and photographic. A few days ago, I came across a short video clip of two women engaged in oral sex. No faces are shown, just two bodies, one pleasuring the other in a natural way. During the brief clip, we see the woman being pleasured climax. It’s unlikely she is faking it. It’s a beautiful clip. Watching human beings achieve sexual fulfillment in a loving and respectful way fills me with sensual warmth. And yet, a part of me felt that watching the clip was something nobody should know about, not even my wife.5

I lost my virginity when I was a junior in high school. I often think back on that early experience as both wonderful and reckless. We were lucky that we didn’t get pregnant, as we didn’t use protection the first few times and were probably sloppy when we did. I am not sure how it came about, but she went on the pill fairly soon after we started having sex. I can testify that I was totally unprepared for the consequences of pregnancy should it have happened. I don’t think I was an emotionally and psychologically mature adult until I hit my 30s.

The time of blooming sexuality, and its exploration, is a passage fraught with risk of consequences that teenagers are ill prepared to deal with. So, I get that this transition needs to be managed away from those consequences. I can see a good argument for teaching abstinence for as long as possible, coupled with a frank and thorough education on how babies happen, and how to keep them from happening to you until you want one.6 But, once we are firmly in adulthood, why should we be constrained in exploring our desires and fantasies, as society tends to do in many ways?

Why should I be afraid to tell my wife about my fantasies, even if they are a little weird sometimes? Why should it feel risky for me to write that I enjoy sexually explicit movies and erotic material? Why is it frowned on, at least in my generation and the ones that came before, to be an openly sexual being?


  1. I actually watched this one without reading any reviews and was quite surprised to find that critics generally panned it. ↩︎

  2. ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ Review: Pleasure Principles - The New York Times(https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/15/movies/good-luck-to-you-leo-grande-review.html↩︎

  3. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande review – Emma Thompson excels in stagey sex comedy | Comedy films | The Guardian(https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/jun/19/good-luck-to-you-leo-grande-review-emma-thompson-excels-in-stagey-sex-comedy↩︎

  4. Emma Thompson Is Terrific in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande | Time(https://time.com/6188914/good-luck-to-you-leo-grande-review/↩︎

  5. That this paragraph has made it into this post means my wife knows and has approved what I have written, and I don’t feel ashamed that anyone else knows. ↩︎

  6. A frank and open conversation about sex with children seems even more important than ever, given that many children have seen a pornographic image by age 9, and the average age of exposure is around 13. ↩︎

The Truth of Me

The man who is aware of himself is henceforward independent; and he is never bored, and life is only too short, and he is steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate happiness. He alone lives, while other people, slaves of ceremony, let life slip past them in a kind of dream. Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.

— Virginia Woolf1

The other night, at photography salon, a young woman blew into the room after we had started reviewing work. She was lugging a pile of material. There was a framed something; there was a massive book; there were images in protective sleeves. She set them down on a chair and walked over to pet Charlotte, the pit bull/boxer mix that had accompanied a salon member. We were reviewing female nude images by one of our regulars. As we were wrapping it up, the photographer asked the young woman whether she thought the images were sexual or sensual. She said she thought they were neither. She told us she’d been the subject of nude photography since she was 2 years old; that she modeled in the nude herself sometimes; that she was a member of a nudist colony; that she was genuinely interested in photographing people, mostly women, in the nude; that her work centered around the female nude and the landscape; that her life was in turmoil; that she was being forced to move from her home/studio; that she was forced to take down her website because of accusations of child pornography (shades of Sally Mann); that she had come to the salon because she had been meaning to for over a year and needed a break from packing up her studio/apartment.

When her turn came to share work, she spread out an array of imagery in a variety of formats. The centerpiece was an enormous, one of a kind, hand made book, coptic stitched together. A scrapbook, artist notebook, whatever. There was also a framed photograph of a nude black woman standing with her back to the camera in a v shaped rock formation in a rocky landscape. The black woman became the vulva between the thighs of the rock formation. Later in her presentation, we would discover that she had a vulva series, which were cropped closeups of a vulva, probably hers, but she didn’t say. She had positioned these closeup vulva images near the center of large pages and drawn and painted all around them in a beautiful, colorful, flowering way. She shared an image of a nude woman lying in an undulating landscape which, on closer inspection, turned out to be the bodies of other nude women. There was a nude woman swimming underwater, laminated to a piece of wood with a thick polyurethane coating and shards of glass embedded in the coating. These, she explained, were maquette samples of much larger works, made for porting around to galleries. There was an image of a circle of nude women lying on the ground in a star shape, heads to the center, feet to the perimeter, faces, bellies, breasts, and vulvas up. She told us her life was a mess; that she was in transition; that she wanted to get her MFA at either Yale or RISDI, which suggested she had money, or wildly impractical dreams, or maybe both. The work, and her presentation of it and self, were suggestive of a chaotic woman creative. What one might call a force of nature. I could believe she would get into either of those colleges. I don’t know if we will ever see her again. Her life was spinning her out of town. She said she’d be back, but who knows?

We show the world what we want the world to see. For some of us, too many of us, what we want the world to see is a reflection of what we believe it wants to see. For this woman, it was unquestionably what she wanted the world to see. Not reflective, but the radiant source of a fundamental, if chaotic, honesty. A solar, or perhaps lunar, flare. She seemed unapologetically, herself, a tempest, which might be spinning out of control, might be barely and forever just under control. It’s hard to know from one brief encounter. Yet, she brought something home to me.

I have been operating at the edges of the territory of reflecting what others want to see for all my 68 trips around the sun, constrained by the powerful star, then death star, of my father. I defied him constantly, but never fully escaped orbit. I was unable to reflect what he wanted to see, but also unable to break free of the mirror and frame imposed on me. It would have, I think, been news to him that I was in any way bound by his expectations of me.

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades.

. —Ursula K. Le Guin2

So here I am, 68 years old, struggling to smash the mirror and escape the frame. I am stuck. Not s/he wolf enough to openly live my truth, not domesticated s/he dog enough to hide behind the reflective mirror.

We are on Block Island, enjoying a change of scenery. I wondered before we left, and continued wondering in the first few days of being here, what intention(s) I should set for this time away from the normal background of our lives. I feel the need for a reset. My life seems a jumble of mediocrity and successive near approaches to something like truth, without getting all the way there. None of it seems deep enough, or fundamental enough.

Lately, I have been seeking out erotic imagery of women, in writing and in photographs. Not the nasty and demeaning to the people involved stuff, but the soft core, sensual/sexual stuff. I am particularly interested in imagery, written and photographic, of intimacy between women. I am writing a story about physical and emotional love between two women. Does this erotic imagery drive towards some truth of me? Or is it a longing for things I have aged out of being able to have? I am way beyond the inflamed, sexual youth, whether it be male or female. Is it all longing to be what I can no longer be? Like a deep space probe, I am on a oneway journey out from the center of blazing passions; past the subdued, gently licking-flame passions of the mid-regions; out to the dying ember passions of the outer regions; soon to depart the realm of passions altogether. My connection to that blazing core is increasingly tenuous, my relevance ever diminishing. “Do not go gentle into that good night!” Dylan Thomas advises. I am too far out to be heard, even if I did rage.

Everything I do now seems a longing for something reachable only through memory and imagination. This aging body is of decreasing use to me and anyone else. It can’t fulfill my longings for that youthful blaze in anything like the way I remember the fact of it. I am an increasingly metaphysical being.

Simultaneously, I care less and less about what people think of me. I wonder if one of the things my father hated in me was the s/he wolf prowling around inside.

Metaphysi-me has been experiencing the application of lipstick to his lips as a deeply feminine thing. He has a fantasy about a woman lover who applies the lipstick to his lips, then kisses the s/he wolf that he is. Physical me feels good when metaphysi-me fantasizes this.

There is thunder outside. Is that the god I don’t believe in speaking to me about metaphysi-me? Repress, repress, repress.

Writing what I have written here has, for the moment, freed my mind. I feel relieved. I have welcomed metaphysi-me to the surface of my being. I don’t need for physi-me to manifest these things. What would be the point? It is enough to welcome metaphysi-me to the fold.

I am yin, I am yang. I am the blazing sun of day, I am the waxing and waning moon of night. I am woman, I am man. I welcome these complimentary parts of me to the fullness of my being.


  1. The Courage to Be Yourself: Virginia Woolf on How to Hear Your Soul – The Marginalian ↩︎

  2. Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man ↩︎

I’m 68, my time is precious!

I am not in a place of grace right now.

This week, a new struggle with a corporation arrived. Central Hudson, provider of our gas and electric service, lobbed a $1400 bill over our virtual transom. No, we didn’t consume $1400 of gas and electric in one month. We have solar panels that provide about 90% of our electrical power during the summer. And we only use gas for our stovetop to cook, our oven is electric. So no, there is no way we could have used that much gas and electric in one month. Or even several months.

The situation might be that we are finally being charged for electric and gas over many months. I don’t know. I have dutifully checked my account every month and when there was a bill, I paid it. There has been, for the past few months, a credit showing on our account. It seemed a little strange, but we are level billing customers. Twice a year, there is a recalculation of the average monthly usage, and a leveling up of the difference between projected and actual usage. In the past, this has meant we wound up with a credit that could cover a few months of payments. So, it didn’t seem that strange, given it was about time for the new calculations to be made and differences settled.

I am not the only customer having this sort of experience. There have been big problems with Central Hudson’s billing practices. There is a Facebook page dedicated to it. There is a class action lawsuit in progress. The phrase, “I’ve been Central Hudson-ed,” has become a thing.

Utility company bills have always been opaque. Central Hudson bills are particularly bad in this regard. It feels like you need an advanced degree in accounting to be able to sort them out. They admit that an attempt to improve their billing system has been a disaster, leading to all kinds of wild billing errors. Word on the street is that they still like to insist that the big bill is the bill. But really, which bills am I to believe? Those that showed a credit, or this seemingly outrageous and impossible bill? I suppose perspective is everything.

This weekend I will be devoting myself to researching our billing for the past year to see if I can develop a theory of where we stand. Then I will begin the process of getting things straightened out. Or at least to a place where I am pretty sure of what I do, or do not, owe.

You will recall that just a couple of weeks ago, I got embroiled in a fios-by-Verizon debacle. That has turned out reasonably well as I was able to find my way to a case manager, Wilson, who got it straightened out. It still required more time and energy than I wanted to give it, but at least I had a competent case manager who made sure I didn’t get lost in the wasteland of their bureaucracy.

I wonder if humanity made a mistake when people turned, or were forced to turn, away from a direct connection to the earth for their sustenance. When we began to allow bureaucracies, public, corporate, etc., to manage us and determine how we spent our time. Evilly conceived, ill-conceived and/or incompetently conceived bureaucracies suck up so much of our time with soul-deadening work and labyrinthian challenges to sort our consumer lives out.

I rather like this description of labor…

Representing an economy in which most people worked directly on the land or water to pull wheat into wagons and fish into barrels, Lincoln believed that “labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed—that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence, they hold that labor is the superior—greatly the superior of capital.”12

And this observation about corporations is all the more true in present times:

“The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor…. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.3

They are not only the masters of our time and effort, they are the chief wasters of our time too. I resent that. At 68, my time is more precious than ever.

The idea of a tiny cabin in the woods, completely off the grid, is starting to appeal. Do you think my wife would go for it?

Postscript

Yesterday, I logged on to my Central Hudson account to begin the process of sorting out what was going on. The $1400 owed had become $109. There were a bunch of credits, negating most of what I had owed just three days earlier. I paid that bill. I am going to have to keep a close eye on things. I resent that too.


  1. September 2, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson ↩︎

  2. Here, the interesting concept of holons is echoed. The idea of a hierarchical system of organization in which each successive level of the hierarchy is dependent on all the levels below it, a fact which humanity, driven by capitalism, steadfastly ignores in all kinds of ways. Ken Wilbur describes holonic organization in Sex, Ecology and Spirituality↩︎

  3. September 3, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson ↩︎

2024, A Pivotal Year? You Bet!

As David Kurtz of _Talking Points Memo_put it two days later, “America is living through a reign of white supremacist terror,” and in a speech to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law on Monday, President Joe Biden reminded listeners that “the U.S. intelligence community has determined that domestic terrorism, rooted in white supremacy, is the greatest terrorist threat we face in the homeland–the greatest threat.”1

When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election, I breathed a massive sigh of relief, as I am sure many people did. I was certain that a 45 second term would be the end of our democratic republic. That we would descend into some form of authoritarianism or fascism. 45 came very close to seizing full control of the leavers of power. How close, we would discover in the many months that followed.

As relieved as I was, I also knew we had only stopped the advance of the threat of authoritarian rule at that moment. We had not turned it back. As has been clear for some time, hard right conservatives had no use for a democratic republic form of government. If it functioned properly, and they were trying very hard to make sure it didn’t, they increasingly could not win. Their policy positions were too unpopular, and they were refusing to represent the interests of people of color, youth, and women.

Conservatives have invested decades of disciplined work in gaining control of state houses and governorships, especially those in what have become known as battleground states. They used this control to gerrymander districts and pass laws that made it more burdensome for minorities and the young to vote, and therefore, certain that they would have complete control. They had also invested decades into getting a conservative judiciary in place, which culminated with the appointment of three very conservative Supreme Court justices during the Trump administration.

White conservatives have done all this because the demographic writing was on the wall. White people are loosing ground as a percentage of the population. Minorities are projected to outnumber them by 2046.

Indeed, today’s white supremacist violence has everything to do with the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protected the right to vote guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870 after white supremacists refused to recognize the right of Black Americans to vote and hold office. Minority voting means a government–and a country–that white men don’t dominate.2

From the data gathered in the last census, it has become clear that white population slippage is accelerating. For the first time, between 2010 and 2020, the white population has shrunk and minorities, principally asian and hispanic, have more than made up the difference, through both birth and immigration. In 1980, whites were 80% of the population. By 2020 that percentage had fallen to a little over 60%. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans identify as a race other than white.

By the end of the nineteenth century, white southerners greeted any attempt to protect Black voting as an attempt to destroy true America. Finally, in North Carolina in 1898, Democrats recognized they were losing ground to a biracial fusion ticket of Republicans and Populists who promised economic and political reforms. Before that year’s election, white Democratic leaders ran a viciously racist campaign to fire up their white base. “It is time for the oft quoted shotgun to play a part, and an active one,” one woman wrote, “in the elections.”3

For those to whom this decline matters—it doesn’t to me—the news is bleak. Not only has the white population shrunk for the first time, but its median age is the highest of all racial groups at 43.7, compared to 29.8 for Latinos or Hispanics, 34.6 for Black residents, 37.5 for Asian Americans. The younger the median age, the greater the fertility of the group.

Here is a list of the current demographic trends:

  • Six states are majority-minority as of July 2019: Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, Nevada, and Maryland.
  • Washington, D.C., and all populated United States territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa) are also majority-minority. None of the current United States territories ever had a white majority.
  • As of 2011, minority births (children under age 1) are the majority among births nationwide.
  • As of 2017, minority children comprise the majority among children in fourteen states: the six that are already majority-minority, plus the following eight: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Delaware, Alaska, New York, and Mississippi.
  • As of 2019, children are majority minority nationwide.
  • Per the 2020 United States Census, the percentage of non-Hispanic white residents is below 60% in seventeen states: the six that are already majority-minority, plus the following eleven: Georgia (50.1%), Florida (51.5%), New Jersey (51.9%), New York (52.5%), Arizona (53.4%), Mississippi (55.4%), Louisiana (55.8%), Alaska (57.5%), Illinois (58.3%), Delaware (58.6%), and Virginia (58.6%).
  • The whole United States of America is projected to become majority-minority by the middle of the 21st century if current trends continue. The U.S. will then become the first major post-industrial society in the world where the dominant group established in an earlier period transitioned from majority to minority under the influence of changing demographics. With alternate immigration scenarios, the whole United States is projected to become majority-minority sometime between 2041 and 2046 (depending on the amount of net immigration into the U.S., birth/death rates, and intermarriage rates over the preceding years).4

It’s important to emphasize the uniqueness of this situation. As the quotes I have shared from a recent Heather Cox Richardson post indicate, the specter of white supremacy has a long history. During that history, white people always had the demographic upper hand, until now.

This political side of white supremacy is all around us. As Democracy Docket put it last month, “Republicans have a math problem, and they know it. Regardless of their candidate, it is nearly certain that more people will vote to reelect Joe Biden than his Republican opponent.” After all, Democrats have won the popular vote since 2008. Under these circumstances and unwilling to moderate their platform, “Republicans need to make it harder to vote and easier to cheat.”

So, to me, it looks like 2024 is a pivotal year. The one that likely decides what kind of government we have going forward. The white patriarchal authoritarian play won’t be available much beyond that. If I were a card-carrying member of the white patriarchy, I’d be pretty desperate about this upcoming election. That is why it’s going to get even more wild and wooly in the coming months, in my opinion. If we can hold on to whatever is passing for a Democratic Republic right now, then we will likely get the chance to improve on it.

There are signs that the current conservative pendulum swing has overshot the mark and will start to head back in a more liberal direction.5 Conservatives have overreached. Women are upset with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Young people are upset about many things, but the evidence is that they will vote, and they will side with the more multicultural offering. Minorities have a long history of reasons to be upset and will vote, despite the hurdles put in their way. If the more liberal forces hold on and turn back the authoritarian gambit, it will be a long time before there is another opportunity, and by then, white supremacy won’t be the issue.

Will this swing away from white supremacy and towards a multicultural future mean that our societal woes will be over? I imagine we will have a transition period during which power is more equitably distributed among the races. During this period, there may be an opportunity. To me, there is the overarching problem of capitalism and its exploitation of everyone and everything to accumulate wealth and power. This period of equitable power distribution may allow us to find a new way of organizing ourselves and our behavior. At the same time, climate change will be applying enormous pressure on us to find that new way. Without finding our way to an economic system that isn’t about exploitation and power accumulation, we will continue to have issues of power abuse, even as the abused and the abusers change positions.


  1. August 30, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson(https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-30-2023↩︎

  2. August 30, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson(https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-30-2023↩︎

  3. August 30, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson(https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-30-2023↩︎

  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majority_minority_in_the_United_States#:~:text=With%20alternate%20immigration%20scenarios%2C%20the,rates%20over%20the%20preceding%20years)..) ↩︎

  5. See this article by Ted Gioia for his interesting hot/cool culture theory that runs in 80 year cycles. According to his theory, we are reaching the end of a hot cycle and will start to move back in the other direction soon. We may already be. ↩︎

fios By Verizon, A Contemporary Take on The Myth of Sisyphus

Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue.

—Albert Camus

Verizon fios recently arrived on our street. The trucks descended like a swarm of locusts in July to string the wires. “At last!” we thought, “an alternative to Optimum!” When the get-everybody-signed-up crew arrived at our door, we discovered we could have faster internet for half the price of Optimum. There were perks too! Our price guaranteed for 4 years; A $200 Verizon card; A $200 Home Depot card; 6 Months of Disney+ for free. We jumped ship immediately.

A week later, a technician came to install a wire from the street to the house, set up the equipment, and get us going with the promised blazing fast internet. We were up and running in less than two hours.

There was only one problem, the ugly white signal extender tower sitting on the floor of our living room. It’s ugly we said. “It’s powerful, the technician said. “It will cover the whole house,” he said. “No need for your Eero mesh network,” he said. “Ok, we’ll try your ugly white tower,” we said, “maybe it’s better.” It wasn’t. So we unplugged it and plugged in our Eero mesh network. Strong signal everywhere. “Yay! Let’s return the ugly white tower!”

The next day, we hauled the ugly white tower to the Verizon store. “We can’t take back fios equipment here,” we were told, “You have to go to the store across the river.”

The next day, we went to the store across the river. “Sure, we can take it back!” the sales associate said. He sat me down at the counter, and got busy working magic on the computer. I told him I didn’t need it because my Eero mesh network was better. He said something that made me think he thought I was unhappy with fios. I told him I was happy with fios, just didn’t need this piece of equipment. He nodded, finished the computer intake, and printed out a receipt. We went merrily on our way, free of the ugly white tower.

When we got home, we discovered we had no internet. “Oh no!” I thought. I called the store across the river and asked if they had disconnected our service. “Yes,” they said. “But why?!” I said, “I didn’t ask for that!” “A misunderstanding,” they said. “But we’ll get it back for you.” After 20 minutes of back and forth, being on hold, etc., the sales associate came back on and said, “I have bad news. We can’t just reconnect you. You have to start over again and set up a new account.” “What?!” I said. “You disconnected me in a matter of minutes, but it’s going to take days to reconnect me?! What about my signing bonuses?” I proceeded to call him every filthy word I could think of, and hung up. It was not one of my better moments. I wondered if the river we crossed had been the Styx.

When I became more rational, I decided we needed guidance for our journey through fios purgatory. I asked my wife to post what had happened to the Facebook hive mind. She got much commiseration and some good suggestions, but none of them seemed like “the” suggestion. And then, an old high school classmate of hers sent a private message saying, “yup, you really do have to set up a new account, but here’s what you do. You send a letter to the Chairman/CEO of Verizon explaining what happened. Include all available documentation. Send it overnight and require a signature. In a few days, a very competent person will call to help you deal with the situation.”

And that is exactly what happened!

A man named Wilson was my case manager. I was in yoga class when he called. He left a message with detailed instructions on how to get through to him. He also emailed. I replied to the email saying I would be available from 2 on. He replied, saying a sales associate would call me at 2. As I am communicating with Wilson, I can’t get the image of Wilson, the volley ball from the movie Cast Away, out of my head.

At 2 pm sharp, a woman called to help me with my new account. When we finished an hour or so later, she told me I would see a reconnection date on my order confirmation that was for sometime next week. She said Wilson would call, and he would be able to expedite the reconnection. Later that afternoon, Wilson called to tell me I was all connected and that I should test it out. “Oh,” I thought, “so you can punch a few numbers and letters into a computer and have me reconnected just as quickly as you disconnected me!” I told him it would take me some minutes to do that, so we agreed I would send an email letting him know if it was working. It was, and I did.

Wilson and I have been emailing back and forth, sorting out the last few details. A credit for the month already paid for on my former account. The restoration of the $200 Home Depot card that was no longer available for my new account and way better than what was.

“All’s well that ends well,” I thought. “Think of it as part of your hero’s journey,” I told myself.

Postscript

The other night, a truck pulled up and something landed on our front porch with a substantial thud. I went out to see what it was. A box from Verizon? I hauled it into the house and opened it. I was speechless, it was a new ugly white tower! I had told the woman I didn’t need it. Wilson had confirmed with me that I didn’t need it. But fios purgatory was having none of it!

I emailed Wilson and asked him if I should call an exorcist, return it, or stick it in the back of a closet until the day comes that I do want to terminate my service.

I haven’t heard back from Wilson yet, but I’m sure I will.

Mind, Body, Earth, Community

Last week, in a conversation about scheduling ourselves at our health club, I told my wife that I would not be using the weight machines anymore. She asked why. I informed her that I wanted to focus on exercise that has a mind, body, earth, and community connective focus as much as possible. I think weight machines, treadmills, cycling machines, etc. are among the least connective ways to exercise in this regard. We have been doing three yoga classes a week, and yoga is the epitome of mind, body, earth, and community connective practice as far as I am concerned. I will focus on yoga.

Also, last week, I began a transformation away from social media. I removed all my social media apps from my phone, except Facebook Messenger. I use FBM to communicate with a woman in town who is struggling and needs my occasional help getting to this or that because she doesn’t have a car. All social media activity from now forward will happen through browser portals, if at all. I am removing the constant urge to check and see if anyone responded to what I posted. This turned out to be a constant source of anxiety and disappointment for me, as it is for many people. Who needs that?

I have decided to focus on getting out of the house and going for walks (mind, body, earth, sometimes community) and winding up at local coffee shops, where I can have direct human-to-human contact (definitely community). Even if that contact is superficial banter with a barista whose name I know and who knows mine, it’s better than the social media app stand-ins we are plagued with. Even if I know no one, and talk to no-one, I am in a space alive with people interacting analog fashion. So that’s it, the coffee shops are my analog version of social media apps. They are way more satisfying.

Another analog social media app is my daily early morning walk and photograph practice. Often, they are strictly mind-body-earth affairs. Occasionally, they are community affairs, too. I meet people I know. I see people I don’t know, but know them as regulars on the street. Every so often, I learn their names.

A few weeks ago, on one of these morning walks, I encountered a young woman arriving for work at a local artisanal chocolatier. I watched a few moments of obvious frustration and bad-dayness unfold. It culminated with her smartphone crashing on the pavement as she juggled her too-many-to-manage things. “You’re not having a good day, are you?” I said to her. She shook her head no, and told me that the brakes on her car had failed, that she was having to spend $1000 on a rental car, and that any number of other little things were not going well. I listened with empathy, who among us hasn’t been there? When it seemed she’d gotten it all out, I told her I hoped her day would be better from this point forward, then continued on my walk.

For the next few weeks, I periodically ran into her and would ask if things had gotten any better. She would say not really, and I would encourage her to hang in there, these runs of frustration and struggle do, eventually, end. I always wished her a better rest of her day as I walked on.

A few days ago, I ran into her again and asked her if things had gotten better. She flashed me a big smile and said, “yes! Much better. I got my car back and I moved!” I gave her a big thumbs up and told her that was great, and I was happy for her. She thanked me for the support I had been giving her for the past few weeks. A great example of my walks being mind, body, earth, and community connective.

You might wonder what has precipitated this new fondness for analog interaction with the world.

I have been reading a lot this year. More than I did last year and most years before that. Two books are having a big impact on me. I began the year with Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. I mentioned this book last week in my somewhat disorganized and inconclusive post on Men, Women, and Capitalism.

What I learned from Ms. Federici is that capitalism is an organizing force of enormous consequence. Consequence that is brutal and harmful to the mind, body, earth, and community connections I began this post with. It has rearranged the relationships between men, and women, and the earth, in profoundly destructive ways. It has fragmented the world and its creatures into things that, in their thingness, are maximally exploitable. This includes you and me. Divided, everything and everyone is exploited and utility is the quality everything and everyone must have.

The second book that is having a considerable impact on me is The Matter with Things, by Iain McGilchrist. This book is most directly responsible for the shift I am making towards mind, body, earth, and community, and away from social media apps and exercise machines.

A basic thesis of The Matter with Things is that we have become the victims of left-hemisphere hypertrophy and right-hemisphere atrophy. That is, we depend much more on the left side of our brains than the right side to interact with the world. McGilchrist marshals a ton of evidence that suggests this is a bad trend. The left brain, he argues, is a brain of expediency to which a full understanding of the context (truth) of things is unimportant. What is important to the left brain is what’s in front of it in any given moment, and what needs or can be done with it. Self-preservation, utility, and utilization are the name of the game with the left brain. The ability to apprehend a situation quickly, and react to it, is an indispensable survival trait developed over millions of years. When fight-or-flight or basic survival is the issue, a full understanding of context is eschewed in favor of reaction in-the-moment. It is the right brain, McGilchrist tells us, that is capable of understanding context and developing a meaningful narrative about it. It is the right brain that can situate itself in space and time, and understand the narrative that is the mind and body interacting with the earth and the cosmos. It is the right brain that can grope towards truth and meaning through experience, and in league with a community of individuals.

Why it is bad to be over reliant on the left brain is explained through narratives about patients with right hemisphere damage, who depend, consequently, on the left hemisphere to navigate the world. It is also explained through narratives on patients suffering with schizophrenia, which expresses symptoms in line with patients suffering from right hemisphere damage. Autism, too, shares symptoms with right hemisphere damage. McGilchrist argues that this complex of symptoms is present in modern society, indicating the hypertrophy of left brain thinking. And right hemisphere atrophy means the loss of our connection to, and grounding in, the world, which leads to the loss of our tether to reality, and the ability to recognize truth. As a result, we are unable to find meaning in our existence.

McGilchrist has not, so far, pointed the finger at capitalism directly, but he does point it at what Federici has helped me see as the pernicious effects of a capitalist attitude towards the world.

I have begun making the changes described above in an effort to make sure my right hemisphere remains engaged and in charge. I want to live wholly in the world with other human beings. This, I think, is the antidote to the fragmentation of capitalism.

Men, Women, and Capitalism

My thoughts about men, women, and capitalism, have been brewing for a while. What follows is a loose collection of some of those thoughts with links to the sources that spurred them. This post is intended to serve as a marker. I plan to return to the ideas here in more detail over time.

At the beginning of the year, I read Caliban and the Witch by Sylvia Federici. It helped me understand how capitalism organizes society around production and resource exploitation. The book has a feminist viewpoint and Federici’s interest is in the impact of capitalism on women. Even so, it acknowledges that men have been shoved into roles and ways of living they didn’t uniformly want. Despite having the power position in a patriarchal society, capitalism hasn’t been the best of deals for men either.

The basic thesis of Caliban and the Witch is that capitalism organized men as laborers and women as the producers and caretakers of laborers. Appropriation of land and the severing of the connection of men and women from their intimate relationship with the earth was a consequence of the demands of capitalist organization. Women in particular, as healers and midwives, were removed from their connection to ancestral knowledge as men took over the management of health and birth in professionalized capacities. Through the church, there was a wholesale attack on the traditional mystical practices of communities. This attack on people’s direct relationship with the land and ancestral traditions would be echoed as western civilization tamed the indigenous populations of the new world. It continues to this day, wherever modern capitalist society encounters indigenous populations. Indigenous ways of life fascinate many of us who sense that something is wrong with the capitalist paradigm.

In The Matter With Things, Iain McGilchrist builds a detailed case that humanity, through its use of technology and science, is developing left hemisphere Hypertrophy. That is, the structure of the (capitalist) world emphasizes a superficial grasp for power and resources. The grasp for power and resources proceeds based on a world perceived to be a collection of disconnected and, therefore, exploitable parts. It proceeds without acknowledgement that all the parts are connected and interrelated.

Disorganisation: organisation is the essential nature of an organism, which does not piece together, but grows, its organs. Once there are no coherent enduring entities over time, reality ebbs away. This is a common trope in modernism, and is reflected in scientism and other reductionist philosophies. ‘I walk like a machine’, says one patient;258 ‘I’m a psycho-machine’, says another.1

Disconnection and disorganization are hallmarks of schizophrenia. As is the left brain tendency to compensate for the disconnection by grabbing hold of any explanation and set of rules that offers coherence, regardless of how wrong it may be, and refusing to let go.

And once again one sees parallels in some kinds of contemporary philosophy, and some kinds of belief systems driven by the irrationality of identity politics, which lead subjects to doubt everything except the validity of a bizarre conclusion which they feel driven to accept by formal rules. But never doubting the rules.2

And,

Western modernity has many overlapping features with the phenomenology of schizophrenia, as Louis Sass has convincingly demonstrated in Madness and Modernism; and I submit that this is because modernity simulates not a disease state, but a hemispheric imbalance, as I suggested in The Master and his Emissary.3

And why wouldn’t society become schizophrenic when the system that organizes it has for centuries insisted on disconnection as necessary to growth and accumulation of capital?

In an article on dance as the antidote to capitalism4, Sylvia Federici comments on the mythic and mystic, but also practical, connection that people had to the land and the sea.

Not all these powers were imaginary. Daily contact with nature was the source of a great amount of knowledge reflected in the food revolution that took place especially in the Americas prior to colonization or in the revolution in sailing techniques. We know now, for instance, that the Polynesian populations used to travel the high seas at night with only their body as their compass, as they could tell from the vibrations of the waves the different ways to direct their boats to the shore.5

I won’t argue that traditional ways were always better. Technology and science have given us many improvements, but it’s all been in the service of capitalist growth paradigms, and at the expense of a deep connection to the flow of nature.

A problem with the present capitalist structure that has emerged from my reading in the past couple of weeks is that the capitalist organization of men and women into laborers and producers/caretakers of laborers is breaking down. The importance of superior bodily strength (for men), and the womb (for women) is diminishing. Work that requires physical strength is increasingly mechanized, as is the production of laborers through the automation of work processes by AI, robotics, and related technologies that have no dependence on human procreation.

Among the articles I read this week a couple addressed the crisis in manhood that is leading to a doubling down on gun culture and issues with toxic masculinity.

The current work climate seems to favor women’s long traditions of caretaking (nursing, hospitality, etc.), and juggling many roles and responsibilities in their lives. It appears to be harder for men to secure jobs they can raise a family on. The jobs that traditionally provided men with the ability to support a family are fewer. Women have entered the workforce and compete well in traditionally male jobs because physical strength is no longer a core requirement of most jobs. Even battle has been mechanized to the point where women fight on the front lines. And, in the conversations of women business owners I have been party too, there is a suggestion that women are more willing to do what it takes to care for a family, including generating the necessary income. Men are loosing their role in society. Women are too, but the effects of that are not as evident yet. The situation seems more critical for men.

A recent article on gun culture reported that:

“In places of economic instability, men are shifting from this attitude of man as provider to man as protector,” he said. “You may not be able to, as a man, be the primary breadwinner, but you can — through acquiring guns and the willingness to use guns for violence — reclaim your masculinity as a protector.”

Even in young people, this sentiment was notable and behind many of the things that participants expressed to the researchers during interviews. Dashtgard said this speaks to a larger cultural dynamic at play currently, where many White men are feeling unsure of how to articulate themselves as men in current society. As a result, many young men are turning to guns as an “unimpeachable access to masculinity.”6

And the need to recover the masculine role of past eras seems widespread. There are astonishingly popular influencers in the world of toxic masculinity:

Tate appeals by combining the bland aphorisms of a motivational speaker with the bombastic transgressions of a shock jock radio host; he delivers missives with drill sergeant intensity. His misogyny is less coded, and it is shockingly popular. By the metrics of the internet, Tate is one of the most famous people on the planet. Before he was banned, Tate’s TikTok videos had been viewed more than 13 billion times, making him one of the top posters on the platform. In 2022, he was the eighth-most googled person in the world—ahead of Trump and right behind Russian President Vladimir Putin.7


  1. McGilchrist, The Matter With Things — location: 8527 ^ref-51357 ↩︎

  2. — The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World by Iain McGilchrist. a.co/fpzz8bD ↩︎

  3. — The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World by Iain McGilchrist. a.co/2i4JjB1 ↩︎

  4. As bizarre as this may sound, my own experience in life confirms it. When I was young and new to New York City, I signed up for modern dance lessons at the Alvin Ailey school and also took ballet lessons. This changed the way I perceived space and moved through it. Space became I kind of continuum that I continuously flowed through. Fast forward to me at the age of 68, and yoga. Yoga is a kind of ritualized spiritual flow of motion. I take three classes a week and feel deeply drawn to it. Could it be part of my attempt to cope with capitalist disconnection? Could yoga’s popularity in the culture be the same attempt to cope on a societal scale? ↩︎

  5. In Praise of the Dancing Body — RITONA // A Beautiful Resistance ↩︎

  6. Young people who identify with gun culture are more likely to believe in male supremacy, survey shows ↩︎

  7. Boy Problems – Mother Jones ↩︎

About Habit

##About Habit

Habit is far more dependable than inspiration. Make progress by making habits. Don’t focus on getting into shape. Focus on becoming the kind of person who never misses a workout. —Kevin Kelly

… you and i are habit, both individual and coupled… we have taken this advice to heart…

… i wake every morning, without alarm, between 3:30 and 4:30… you sleep until 7:00 or 8:00…

… i weigh myself, then dress, then let the dogs out of the bedroom… together, we dance down the stairs… i let the dogs out, feed the cat, let the dogs back in, give them treats, do the dishes if they have not been done, set up the coffee for you, and make tea for myself…

… i return up the stairs to my studio where i read, or write, or edit photographs…

… between 6:00 and 6:30 i gather myself, descend the stairs, and head out for a walk with my camera…

… these summer days, my walk is a photo meditation up and down Main Street… i have been photographing the same mile and a half of sidewalk, street and store fronts for years now… the possibilities are more inexhaustible than you would think…

… i have planned my walk to arrive at my favorite coffee shop moments before 7:00, opening time… i began this habit during the pandemic to reduce exposure to people in enclosed spaces…

… i get the usual half decaf, half caffeinated coffee, “with a little agave please”… i sit at my usual table, where i read, write, and post… at 8:30, give or take fifteen minutes, i leave the coffee shop and begin making my way back to the house and you… how directly i go depends on what habits are in place that day…

… sometime during my walking, and coffee, and reading, and writing, and walking home again, you have gotten up, made the coffee, let the dogs out, fed the dogs, and turned on the news… maybe you have started to message with your friends, or to catch up on Facebook…

… when i return, the dogs mug me, “good morning Fiona-doo, Chasie-doo, good morning moma-doo, how was your sleep?”… we share the good and bad of sleeping or not sleeping, dreams, no dreams, how we feel, what our weight is (we are both watching our weight!)…

… i assemble breakfast while you continue to catch up on the news, national and social…

… we sit and eat, sometimes wrapped in our thoughts, sometimes in steady conversation… some days, you tell me you had a bad dream… i have learned not to ask for the details… i find your bad dreams too disturbing…

… at this point in the day, our habits become variations on a theme…

… on Mondays, it’s the health club at noon with time for cleaning up the kitchen and doing a few things before… when we get there, you swim… i lift weights and read until you are done… if there are errands to run, we run them… if not, we head home and sink into our individual thoughts and activities until Nicole Wallace comes on the air… i listen from the kitchen as i make dinner… when dinner is ready you mute the television and we sit at the dining room table to eat… we chat about what’s going on in the country, in the world, with your family and friends, with my family and friends, what we will watch after dinner… when dinner is done, sometimes the dishes get washed… it depends on whether it was one martini or two… evenings end for me with an episode or two of whatever series we are into or can tolerate at the moment…

… between 8:30 and 9:00 i say good night, sometimes i plant a kiss on your lips… you stay up for a while, watching the late night news…

… on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, there is yoga a little earlier in the morning… Wednesdays, you join M for a pilates class while i use the time at home for whatever i feel compelled to do… Fridays, you follow yoga with a swim class while i lift weights and read… the rest is largely the same as on Monday’s

… Saturdays are the same as weekdays until after breakfast… we skip the health club… i do the laundry and vacuuming while you work in the garden or groom and bathe the dogs… sometimes i help you in the garden… lately, you have stopped watching the news on weekends, something i am happy about… at around 4:00, i begin to think about dinner and the weekday habits return to guide the evening…

… Sundays, too, are the same until after breakfast… then we do our round of the farmers market, the dogs get their fish skin treats, a moment Chasie-doo has lived for all week… we buy fish, eggs, vegetables and fruit… we return with our comestibles and put them away… maybe we do more yard work… maybe we finish the laundry or vacuum if we didn’t on Saturday, maybe you do some more dog grooming…

… this is how we dance, you and i, moving from solo to duet to solo again, in a continuous flow of the habitual…

… there is, of course, the occasional afternoon or evening trip to the movie house, friends for dinner, the odd cultural event… these things splash into the lake of our habits, compressing, expanding, canceling, here and there and there… the ripples shape and mold the time and space and matter around us… it takes time for attenuation to settle things back into the placid calm of the habitual…

… two or three times a year we pack up our habits and carry them to an island where we enjoy unpacking them in a different setting…

… in the past couple of years, there have been emergent family issues, my father’s death, your mother’s struggling heart, my mother’s move… in these times, one or both of us packs up the habits and carries them to the place of need…

… our lives play out through this dance of individual and together habits… we live and love, hate and grieve, in our beautiful lake of habitualness… itself a splash and rippling of a glassy sea of continuity that engulfs every possible dream of our being…

My Personal Environmental Action Assessment and Plan

Another study published yesterday warns that the Atlantic currents that transport warm water from the tropics north are in danger of collapsing as early as 2025 and as late as 2095, with a central estimate of 2050… The collapse of that system would disrupt rain patterns in India, South America, and West Africa, endangering the food supplies for billions of people. It would also raise sea levels on the North American east coast and create storms and colder temperatures in Europe.1

The deadly temperatures that scorched parts of North America, Europe and Asia in early July will be common in a few decades unless greenhouse gas emissions are cut fast.2

A couple of weeks ago, I started a thread on Micro.blog about what I have been/am doing as an individual to address climate change. It was a fairly robust thread as threads go on M.b. Oddly, there was a member who was insisting that individual effort was, not so much a waste of time, but not where we needed to be applying our energy. Compelling government action, they felt, was where the energy needed to be applied.

I believe the government has a large role to play. Under the Biden administration, there have been some positive steps. But, the pressing issue in the politics of the United States is not, unfortunately, the environment, it’s whether we will remain a democracy capable of enacting legislation to protect the environment. The Biden campaign will make their case based on what they have done and still plan to do, which is a lot, but the issue really is, do we want an authoritarian government or not? That is all we are being sold by conservatives. That is the fundamental choice we are being offered. I will vote for the ability to make meaningful changes in our environmental habits. I will vote for democracy.

But, until then, I am sizing up what I am individually doing. I am trying to be the change I would like to see.

Here is my personal climate impact assessment and action plan, which is a work in progress.

Transportation/Traveling

Car

We drive about 9,000 miles (ca. 14,484 km) a year, mostly to run errands, go to our health club. We make several get-away trips a year to Block Island, RI, which is about 180 miles (ca. 290 km) away.

Our present car is a leased Honda HRV. Before that, we had a Honda Fit. We’d have replaced the old Fit with a new one if they hadn’t stopped making them. The HRV gets about 27 miles (ca. 43 km) to the gallon. The lease will be up in another year, and we are planning to go hybrid or all electric. Currently, we are leaning hybrid because we have read they have a lower raw material excavation impact that makes them overall the better environmental choice at the moment.

We could possibly reduce our annual mileage by shopping more on our very walkable Main Street, which has shops selling most of the necessities and some non-essential but nice to haves.

Flying

We fly very little. Most years I fly once to visit family. Family used to be in Florida and Seattle. Now everybody is in Seattle. I am planing to visit them in October. That will be our only plane trip this year. We’d like to do a European trip at some point. Maybe we’ll do the Greta Thunberg thing and take a ship across the ocean. Is that any better?

Our House

Our house is modest. Around a thousand square feet of living space. Three bedrooms and one bathroom. The smallest bedroom has been set up as an office/studio for me. There are two of us. We consider it to be just enough. Friends and family can stay overnight with us. We can entertain small groups of friends. We make good use of the space we have.

Several years ago, we installed solar panels. The panels supply around 90% of the electricity we consume. We cook and heat with gas, but are planning a kitchen renovation and will go all electric when we renovate. We are also hoping to install an electrically powered heat pump system, but will keep our gas fired decorative stove. More about that below.

Our house is brick, 18th century vintage. It’s not well insulated, but we’ve done our best to improve on that.

A programmable thermostat is set to keep the temperature at 60 degrees F in the winter. Anyone in the house has permission to raise the temperature to be comfortable. The thermostat resets the temperature to 60 degrees every six hours. We dress in layers and I wear a knit cap all winter long. It’s by no means a hardship.

As I mentioned, we have a gas fire stove in the living room. It is the main source of heat in the house during the day in the winter. When we installed it, we cut our gas consumption by quite a bit. It keeps us comfortable enough to keep the full heating system from coming on during the day. It has a battery back up ignition system that keeps it running when the power goes out. We will likely keep it for that reason.

In the summer, we air condition with small window units. One each for the dining room and living room, and one in the upstairs master bedroom. We only air-condition the rooms we are inhabiting, and we keep the thermostats set to 76 much of the time. We have a ceiling fan in the master bedroom and find it keeps us cool enough if it is not too hot and humid.

LED bulbs became the standard in all our light fixtures years ago.

Food Wrapping and Storage Containers

It’s difficult to buy food without bringing home plastic. Plastic bags for vegetable produce. Plastic bags and clamshells for bulk products and prepared foods. Plastic wrapping for fresh meat and fish. Plastic containers for my favorite pickles.

We have started to forgo plastic bags for things like apples, oranges, peaches, avocados, potatoes etc. We let them free-range in the cart. Likewise, we bought cloth produce bags for stuff that needs some containment, like fresh peas and beans or mushrooms.

We eat less red meat than we used to, but when we buy meat we try to buy it from the local butcher who sources locally. We are fortunate to be able to spend a little more and that we have a local butcher at all. Our butcher wraps in paper mostly. I have to investigate what sort of paper it is. Food papers usually have a plastic or silicon coating on one side. Plastic is definitely bad, the jury seems to still be out on silicon.

Fish is difficult. Everyone wants to wrap it in plastic. The fishmonger at the farmers market does, but maybe I can bring my own reusable product and avoid the plastic bag. Working on that.

We have been using a vacuum seal machine for freezer food storage, which uses plastic bags. We will stop using it. I am investigating reusable silicon pouches and a system of reusable vacuum seal bags. The former is expensive, and the jury is out on the environmental advantages of silicon. The latter looks interesting. It uses a non-fossil fuel plastic that they say is biodegradable in 3-5 years. It comes with a little usb powered vacuum pump. I have ordered a starter set.

We also use glass storage containers with plastic snap-lock lids. I am thinking about moving to all glass with metal clips when the need to replace or augment arises. The clips are easy to lose, but maybe it’s worth the hassle to get more? Or, keep a supply on hand?

I looked at butcher paper, freezer paper and parchment paper as alternative ways to wrap and preserve food but discovered that they are coated with plastic.

Beverages

We’ve largely stopped buying beverages that come in plastic containers. We got a Soda Stream for my wife’s carbonated water addiction. Furthermore, we don’t buy single serving beverages for the most part and buy things that come in glass or metal containers when we do. We have water bottles and use them.

Writing Implements

I’ve started using pencils for most of my analog writing needs. I have to look at what to replace disposable pens with. Perhaps I will develop a refillable fountain pen addiction, which would be both trendy and more environmentally friendly?

Shaving Implements

I have an electric razor that is pretty good and plan to use it more. I don’t razor shave much as it is. Once a week.

Household Cleaning Products

We’ve begun to make our own cleaning solutions for general purpose cleaning. For dish soap, we go to a refill store where we bring containers and fill them. We buy washing machine soap sheets and tablets from them as well. They are conveniently located on Main Street.

Buying Locally

We try to buy locally as much as possible. We order what we can’t get locally, mostly from Amazon. I would like to see if we can do less of that.

This is likely an easy list to expand on. I would love to hear what you are doing to reduce your environmental footprint.


  1. July 26, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson(https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-26-2023↩︎

  2. This Summer’s Heatwaves Would Have Been ‘Almost Impossible’ Without Human-Caused Warming, a New Analysis Shows - Inside Climate News(https://apple.news/Ab4MrbKSESz-lTnGq39s3NQ↩︎

The Woman I Want/To Be

Female mannequin form wearing blue denim fabric jump suit with zipper running from just above the crotch to the top of the garment, just above the breasts. A very wide brimmed straw hat hangs from the neck behind the mannequin.

A woman created the sun

Inside her

And her hands were beautiful

The earth plunged beneath her feet

Assailing her with the fertile breath

Of volcanoes1

I have been photographing women’s clothing displays in shop widows for years. I am in love with womanhood. I am in love with womanhood in two ways. First, and dominantly, I am in love with womanhood in the way you would expect my male lizard brain to be. I am in love with womanhood as a receptive place where my sexual longings can come to repose. Every attractive-to-me vision of womanhood is arousing and provokes those longings. I want to inhabit that womanhood in a very male way. But there is a second way I am in love with womanhood. I am in love with the idea of being woman. When I fantasize sex, I often seek the position of womanhood in making love, having love made to me. When I see women’s clothing presented in the shop window, I fantasize about the woman that would sheathe her body with that clothing, how achingly beautiful she would be, and how wonderful it would be to make love to her. At the same time, I phantasize about being the achingly beautiful woman wearing the clothing, about being the irresistible promise of blooming sexuality. Both ways of loving womanhood are powerful forces in my being.

Shop mannequin wearing a floral, loosely draped, halter top and thinly stripped skirt.

When I began making the female mannequin images, I don’t think I was conscious of this second way of loving womanhood, though I now believe it has been present all along. I suppose I wasn’t ready to let it surface. It was too frightening to be honest with myself about it.

One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman.2

I have read more than a few books written by women about the experience of being woman. Caliban and the Witch, by Silvia Federici; Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo; Catcalling by Soho Lee; Girlhood by Melissa Febos; The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir; Down Girl, by Kate Manne; Radical Homemakers, by Shannon Hayes. I have more on my Kindle that I have yet to get to. Nothing about manhood interests me nearly so much as everything about womanhood.

In the early days of Instagram, I developed an image series of men’s and women’s fashion posters in store windows with reflections of the city layered over them. I imagined a race of gods and goddesses in the vein of ancient Greek deities. When I moved to Beacon, NY, there weren’t fashion posters, but there were shop windows with mannequins displaying women’s clothing, so I photographed them instead, and began to get more intimate with these fantasies of womanhood.

Mannequin in a pink floral dress in a shop window. Lettering naming the shop and describing it’s contents runs across the bottom.

I have written before that, in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, I am attracted to the trans/cross-dressing part of it. When I stopped working a regular job, I grew my hair down to my shoulders and have had it that way ever since. Years ago, I was getting my hair done at a beauty salon—which I have always preferred to the traditional male barber—and the woman doing my hair asked me if I would like a French braid. Why she thought to ask me that is a mystery, but I thought about it for a moment and said, “why not?” I have gotten my hair done in a French braid at the beauty salon for special occasions ever since. And what do I wear on those special occasions? I have chucked over the suit or sport coat and tie in favor of a tunic that comes down below my knees. In other words, an approximation of a dress. I wore an off-white tunic to my nieces’ wedding, along with a Tom Wolfe inspired white hat. Several of the young women attending the wedding told me I was the most intriguingly dressed man there. My male lizard brain self was grateful for the attention of young womanhood. I wonder if any of them sensed the feminine energy I was channeling?

A bare shouldered floral print dress gathered at the waist on a female mannequin form in a shop window. Barg + Mo stenciled on the window just below the breasts of the mannequin form.

I recently wrote a piece about my attempt to write physical intimacy between two women. That has been and continues to be an interesting journey. I learned that my lizard brain male self is the dominant force. It was difficult to write the scene in a way that wasn’t a male fantasy voyeur proposition. But the experience has helped loosen my heterosexually dominant lizard brain’s grip on things. I am becoming a compassionate witness to all the possibilities of human sexuality.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir makes a compelling case that gender is a social construct. The social landscape we are raised in has a profound effect on what womanhood and manhood are conceived to be and how we conceive of ourselves as men and women. We are all degrees of masculine and feminine as far as gender is concerned. The dominant culture tries to shove us into tightly defined heterosexual gender roles, but gender is fluid and many of us shift around the gender spectrum as we move through our lives.

Female mannequin form wearing a tropical leaf print bare shoulder dress gathered at the waist. A purse is slung over the shoulder from right to left. Sunglasses balance precariously on the front edge of the purse.

The lie to which the adolescent girl is condemned is that she must pretend to be an object, and a fascinating one, when she senses herself as an uncertain, dissociated being, well aware of her blemishes.3

As I look through the images I am sharing in this post, I can see that the concept of womanhood they present is very feminine and not just a little sexy. I don’t, however, come to it from the proposition that women who might inhabit these clothes are required to fulfill an idea of womanhood that the dominant heterosexual culture seeks to enforce. The womanhood I imagine would inhabit this clothing with an intelligent, goddess-like presence, full of confidence, self-possession and sexual power.

I will develop this body of work into an edited series called The Woman I Want/To Be. The work will explore the intersection of multiple fantasy perspectives of womanhood generated by shop window displays of women’s clothing. Among them are the male fantasy perspective, trans fantasy perspective, and female fantasy perspective, both straight and gay. In each of these perspectives, there is a fantasy of womanhood that is nuanced by the gender identity approaching it.


  1. From A woman created the sun, Two Poems by Joyce Mansour ‹ Literary Hub ↩︎

  2. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex ↩︎

  3. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex ↩︎

Literature and Empathy

Last week’s post was about my experience writing physical intimacy between women, the reaction to my writing when I shared it, and the difficulty of writing away from my heteronormative male libido. I wrote about working hard to back my piece away from dude fantasy land and that I wasn’t totally successful in the effort. Still, progress was made.

One of the very interesting things that happened as I worked on it, read it, worked it, read it, and worked it some more, is that physical intimacy between women shifted towards physical intimacy between human beings. It started to seem natural that women could engage in a profound and satisfying physical and emotional relationship and that I could identify with that empathically. I started to be less the voyeur, and more a compassionate witness.

When I put my piece out into the public, I believed it was plausible, respectful, and well written, but, it felt risky. I was conscious of tackling subject material beyond my direct experience, and acutely aware of the male sexual voyeur perspective it was easy to fall into. I worried about grossly misunderstanding what an intimate physical relationship between two women would feel like to those women. My worst-case scenario was that I was so wrong and disrespectful that a woman would feel compelled to walk up to me and tell me how screwed up I was. Thankfully, this didn’t happen. Instead, the silence was deafening. I suppose that was good news. I was not so egregiously out of line that a woman felt the urgent need to set me straight. But it also did nothing to refine my understanding of my subject matter.

Finally, a virtual acquaintance on one of my social networks, a woman, read it and offered a helpful critique. She told me I hadn’t entirely escaped the male ogling gaze, gave a few examples of where I had not done so, and urged a vocabulary shift. Who knew that “fondle” was loaded with male, heterosexual-lizard-brain, sensibility? When I related this particular insight to my wife, she instantly said she hated the word. I never knew. I was more deeply stuck in the culture of male heterosexuality than I had imagined.

I’ve begun to think of my social media acquaintance as a spirit guide, sent to lead me through the landscape of inter-feminine love and sexuality. She suggested I read LGBTQ+ romance novels and recommended I start with One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston. I immediately purchased it for my Kindle and started reading. It’s wonderfully imaginative and well written. I’ve blazed through half of it already. I just finished the intense and beautiful climactic sex scene. I was able to stay in the place of compassionate witness as I read. My education is accelerating.

This leads me to thoughts about the profound importance of literature in developing empathy. We spend our lifetimes steeping in cultural cosmologies1 that become gated communities of belief where anything outside the gates is foreign, even dangerous. Some of us have expansive cultural cosmologies with highly permeable membranes around them. Some of us have tightly limiting cosmologies with hard exoskeleton membranes and little permeability. The majority of us are somewhere between. Literature is often the way hard, permeable exoskeletons are avoided or softened.

To understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, read accounts of it by talented authors who’ve had that experience or have done the work it takes to write an honest and empathetic portrayal of it. And write about it yourself. Nothing lets you walk a mile in another’s shoes quite the way imagining and writing about it does.

Which brings me to the current far-right efforts to ban books that have anything to do with rendering a cultural cosmology other than one based on a cisgender, white patriarchal, christian experience. And, the more liberal among us should not get smug. While the present book banning efforts may be largely from the far right, it is not unknown on the left side of the equation. Huckleberry Finn has been the target of banning efforts throughout its history and is presently a banning target of culture warriors from the left.

Having access to literature that helps us occupy the space of alien-to-us ways of being is of profound importance to the development of tolerance and understanding. If I were teaching creative writing to young people, I would start at an early age and have them write age-appropriate pieces where they are asked to imagine life in another person’s or creature’s shoes.

Humanity is a beautiful mosaic. As long as another’s way of being in the world doesn’t cause physical or psychological damage to those around them, all ways of being should be tolerated. We should aim to educate as broadly as possible in the variety of ways one can be. Children in particular, at appropriate ages, with appropriate guidance, should be allowed and encouraged to inhabit a multitude of ways of being, as they work out what their way of being will be.


  1. I owe this concept of cultural cosmology to Ryhd Wildermuth’s recent substack post, Political Theology↩︎

About Heteronormative Male Sexual Fantasy Tropes

A few weeks ago, I participated in the 1000 words of summer challenge, which was to write 1000 words a day for two weeks. I started a day late but managed to produce 15K+ words by the end of it. My approach was simple. Every morning I would write about the details of my morning, from the time I woke, to going out for a walk, to arriving at my favorite coffee shop. I wrote it in the third person as a fictionalized account. My plan is to further fictionalize and build out from this core of writing.

One of the mornings I wrote about, I had a particularly memorable experience on my walk. A beautiful young woman walked up to me, sporting an unlit cigarette between the index and middle fingers of her right hand, and asked me if I had a light. I am not a fan of smoking, so in my conscious mind I thought, “you shouldn’t smoke,” but this young woman was an astonishing vision. Producing a lighter and lighting her cigarette would have absolutely made my day, or rather, it would have prolonged for a few seconds longer this commune with feminine beauty and sexuality the universe had chosen to send my way. Primal me had taken over. I told her I didn’t have a light, she told me it was ok, she’d find one up the street at the gas station and walked off muttering something about Beacon and five years. I turned and walked to the end of the street, which was not far away, crossed to the other side, and started walking back up Main Street, half hoping I would see her again. She had, however, disappeared into thin air. There was no evidence of her anywhere I looked.

At the beginning of this past week, I decided that an interesting way to extend my writing project would be to write the stories of the people encountered on my walks. I would write them over the same, or similar hours of the morning, over the same 13 days. Their lives and the lives of my protagonist running in alternate universes, intersecting in the brief ways they did, then continuing on in their alternate universes. I decided to start with “cigarette woman,” as I now referred to her, and write backwards and a little forwards from the moment I had encountered her on the street. I had no idea where she had come from or was going to when I encountered her, but I wanted to write a plausible scenario into which the moment she walked up and asked me for a light fit.

So, I wrote about her having hooked up with a redheaded woman in a bar and winding up sleeping with her. I picked up the story in the morning afterglow of a night of passion, when she wakes up and sees what time it is and realizes she has to get to work. The prose flowed out of me and within an hour or two I had the bones and a lot of the flesh of Lila, as I had named her. I knew I was writing something that could be perceived as a male fantasy trope, but I earnestly wanted to lift the story beyond that. I read a rough draft to my wife, who instantly proclaimed it a male fantasy trope. “Come on, she said, two beautiful women kissing up on each other? The stuff of every straight man’s dreams.”

In rewrites, I worked at toning down the two beautiful women kissing up on each other aspect of it a bit. I tried to depict the sensual and physical intimacy that two women might feel if they were sexually aroused by each other and basking in the afterglow of some great love making. I read the piece to my wife a couple more times as it evolved, and she kept having more or less the same reaction to it. Eventually, I asked my wife if the scene I painted was implausible. She said, as far as she knew, it wasn’t. I asked her if I had been disrespectful to women in the way I wrote it. She said I had not. So then, I suggested, the problem is that because a man wrote it, it can’t escape the male fantasy trope critique? She said maybe.

I continued to work daily at refining it. I tried to delve deeper into the moments of intimate contact, not just between the two women, but between Lila and the two elder gentlemen she approached on the street looking for a light.

When I told my wife I was planning to read it at a literary open mic event at the end of the week, she hesitantly endorsed the idea.

The day of the night I was to read, I had scheduled an appointment with my wife’s hairdresser to get my hair trimmed and put into a French braid. I wear a French braid for special occasions and when I want to play the part of an artiste. I had an art gallery opening the next day. During my appointment, the woman cutting my hair and I engaged in idle chit-chat. I mentioned that I was reading some of my fiction at a literary open mic that night. She asked what my story was about. I told her it was about two women having a one-night stand, explained the scenario, and mentioned I had read it to my wife. “And what did your wife say?” she asked, “that it was male sexual fantasy writing,” I said, whereupon she said, “I love your wife.” She had the same “oh brother” reaction my wife did.

That was fine. I knew how it sounded and had anticipated the reaction.

Later, when I read it at the open mic event, it met with, what seemed to me, a lukewarm reception. A reception that seemed more politeness than enthusiasm, and absolutely nobody came up to me to talk about it, as I had actually hoped some woman would do. I wanted to know, is it plausible? Did it get beyond the male fantasy trope bit? If there were gay women in the room, and there were, I wanted to hear from them about the plausibility and accuracy of the physical intimacy I described between my two female characters. It felt more like an embarrassment swept under the rug of audience politeness than anything else.

After the event, I stewed in my juices a bit. I was disappointed in the reaction I got, and disappointed that nobody commented on my French braid, either.

I’ve had some time to contemplate the situation and to realize that yes, my story actually is a male fantasy trope. What else could it be? It was grounded in a moment that was of the stuff that heterosexual male fantasy is made of. A beautiful young woman walks up to a past-his-young-women-days man and asks, in a beguiling, slightly flirtatious way, for a light. My god, centuries of capitalist psychosexual conditioning came screaming at me in that one brief moment. It was primal. My perception of the moment was that this woman had had some kind of late night, had spewed out onto the street from wherever. She wants a smoke and, perhaps, a cup of coffee too. She didn’t come from her place, I surmised. Why would she be without a lighter if she did? No, I decided, this young woman had been out late, maybe all night. Perhaps she had slept somewhere not her home. She was not unhappy, or hungover, or drugged up. She was flirtatious and knew her way around male sexuality. So, for the purposes of my story, I decided she was out on the street after a one-night stand. And then I decided it would be more interesting to set her flirtatious behavior with two random men she encountered on the street in the context of her being gay or bisexual. Ok, from my lizard brain male perspective, it was more arousing that way too.

But here’s the thing. I wrote a scene in which two women do kiss up on each other, but, nobody has told me that what I wrote isn’t a plausible scenario between two women who are sexually attracted to one another. And, nobody has told me I have disrespected women in the way I wrote it. The only difficulty in the situation, as it turned out, was the trouble I had admitting to myself that I had written a male fantasy trope piece. I have decided to embrace that when I tell people about it. I say it’s a male fantasy trope piece right up front. And then I try to describe to them how I think it’s a bit more than that.

But you can decide for yourself. Here’s a link to the story. Let me know what you think. Thoughtful critique is welcome.

26 Weeks of Writing

A day or two after the new year began, I wrote and published my reflections on the past year and a set of aspirations for the new year. One of those aspirations was to write more, short and long form. It is 26 weeks into the year and I have exceeded my aspirations for writing and publishing. I have published micro posts daily, and each week, at least one long form essay. The total count of long form posts for the past six months is 28. What did I write about? The following is a list of my posts by category with brief description/summaries.

Personal Reflection

Many things have arisen that have given me cause for personal reflection. Writing is how I work out strong and confused emotions. Writing is how I am learning to understand myself and my relationship to the world around me.

Reflections for 2022, Aspirations for 2023: The post that got the ball rolling.

Never Put Off Till Tomorrow: About the death of my uncle before I could visit.

About The Handmaid’s Tale: My complex feelings about The Handmaid’s Tale.

My True Potential: About being a house husband and homemaker.

Smaller is Beautiful: About an argument with my wife which led to an epiphany.

About My 50th High School Reunion: My complicated feelings around my 50th reunion. Don’t we all have them?

It’s a simple thing, but: When my local theater decided it’s easier to post a link to a website than change the movies on the marquee weekly.

AI

With the appearance of ChatGPT at the end of 2022, a lot of attention has been drawn to artificial intelligence, what I call, alternative intelligence. I wrote many times about ChatGPT, and reworked a talk I gave on AI in 2009 into a five-part post.

Nick Cave Vs. ChatGPT: The claim that ChatGPT can’t make art because it doesn’t feel or have the experience of aspiration and disappointment. I argue that whether it feels or has experience is irrelevant. All it needs to be able to do is make us feel.

What Is ChatGPT For?: Here I speculate that ChatGPT signals the emergence of a higher complexity intelligence built in part on human intelligence.

Another Post About AI: I make and address each of the following statements:

  • AI is here to stay.
  • AI is the continued evolution of intelligence on the planet.
  • AI is already good at, and will get even better at, getting us to engage with it.
  • There will certainly be good that comes of AI.
  • There will certainly be bad that comes of AI.
  • We don’t control the evolution of AI, and never will.
  • We can be happy, creative, and productive, in spite of AI.

Can AI Make Art?: In which I argue that great art can and will be made with AI.

And, my five part series on A(alternative)I(intelligence)

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Part 1

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Part 2

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Part 3

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Part 4

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Postscript

Books, Reading

I have read a number of books this year that have had a substantial impact on my thinking. These are the posts that are directly about, or inspired by, books I read.

“Make the work, something will come of it.”: About gift economies. Inspired by:

  • Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein
  • The Gift, Lewis Hyde
  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher (an essay from the book, Small Is Beautiful)

Wo/man, The Two Legged Paradox: A look at the “survival of the fittest” and its efficacy as an organizing principle for society.

  • The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck

Spirit-Of-Gift: A further look at the gift economies.

  • The Gift, Lewis Hyde

Finding The Mother Community: On the atomization of society and how a strong and resilient society can be built.

  • Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Suzanne Simard

How Much Does Happiness Cost?: On the surprisingly little money it takes for people to be happy. It ain’t all about the money.

  • Reclaiming the Sacred, Jeff Golden

And then I read.: About capitalism and its discontents.

  • Reclaiming the Sacred, Jeff Golden
  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein
  • The Gift, Lewis Hyde

Review of Reclaiming the Sacred, by Jeff Golden: A review of the book.

Fiction

I write fiction from time to time. Short stories so far, though I am currently working on something that might turn out to be novella length. Look for more in this space in the coming months.

The Photograph: A short story I wrote when asked to be part of a story writing and reading event. Each participant was given a photograph, two authors for each photograph, and asked to write a short story that could be read in 5 minutes.

Something Is Afoot: A post about trends I am perceiving. Is there some big thing happening right now? I think so, but what it is, isn’t clear.

Spirituality, Humanism

A Humanist Concept of Sacred: This post was derived from a talk I gave at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I decided to revisit it when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and because of the deeply divided nation I live in. I believe that it is important to have a concept of the sacred, of setting things apart from violation. The question is, where does the sacred emanate from if there is no God, which is the position I take.

Democracy and Patriarchy

“Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light”: About a patriarchy loosing its grip on power and the violent backlash that has resulted.

Individual vs. The Whole

In Praise of the Choir: We live in a society that idolizes the child prodigy and worships the exceptional individual. We are told from the time we are small children that we can be anything we want to be, and that we, too, are exceptional. This piece is about the choir, the power and beauty of it, and how it’s enough to be a member of it, even honorable.

I am excited to see what the next six months of writing will tackle. I feel I am hitting my stride. I have really accomplished something. Thanks for reading.

About My 50th High School Reunion

My wife’s high school reunion will be in October. One of her good friends from high school is on the planning committee and has a leadership role in tracking people down to let them know about it. He is one of a number of high school friends she has stayed in touch with throughout her life. If it were not for this friend’s involvement, she might not have planned to attend. As she put it, “I am already in touch with the people I want to be in touch with.” But, her friend is on the planning committee, she has paid the deposit, we are going.

I had one close friend in High School. We stayed in touch for a number of years after graduation. I was best man at his wedding. I helped them move from the midwest back to the East Coast when he graduated from college. Then he moved south into the bible belt and we saw each other less frequently. We went our separate ways when he became born again Christian and tried to convert me. I had long before decided that Christianity wasn’t for me and that if there was any kind of God, that entity had little to do with Christianity, or any other religion I was familiar with. His wife was a classmate too, so, with that breakup, I lost touch with the only two classmates I had been in touch with.

Years later, Facebook became a thing and people were discovering long lost friends and acquaintances and reconnecting with them. My wife did. I did not. I never went looking for anybody and nobody came looking for me. Throughout my life, wherever I have gone, whatever I did, when I moved on I left people behind and didn’t look back. Still, I am mildly sad thinking that nobody out of my past wanted to find me.

My wife and I graduated from high schools in the same New Jersey county in the same year. In fact, only a few miles separates the towns our high schools are in. I used to ride my bicycle down to the town in which her high school was located. My family used to go to a swimming lake that was right across the street from her high school when I was a kid. We estimate that until the moment we met in our early 40s, we had spent much of our lives within 50 miles of each other.

I wondered, if her class was busy planning a 50th reunion, mine should be too, right? Why hadn’t anyone reached out to let me know? Surely, someone had a yearbook and had developed a full list of the class members and was diligently tracking people down. Weren’t they? That’s what my wife’s reunion organizing committee did. I wasn’t hard to find. I was on Facebook. I had listed myself as a graduate of my high school. Ok, I hyphenate my name these days, but that misdirection shouldn’t be hard to overcome.

For a while, I told myself we probably lacked the sort of organizational leader and team that makes reunions happen. But I kept wondering, so I went on Facebook and, within minutes, discovered that there is, in fact, a robust reunion effort. A date has been set and a venue chosen. There are spreadsheets. One is organized into columns of “definitely coming,” “maybe coming” and “not coming.” Another has a single column on it, “missing.” My name is not on the missing list. Nope, there is no effort being made to find me.

I dug out my old yearbook and estimated there were around 300 of us in my graduating class. The current lists in the planning effort show about 100, maybe 150 classmates contacted or being looked for. It’s not an exhaustive effort.

As I turned the pages of my yearbook, memories rose like specters in my mind. I recognized and remembered things about more of my classmates than I thought I would. I remembered things about myself too.

I think about who I would want to see and why. I imagine what I might wear. Do I want to wear the off white tunic and get my hair done in a French braid? That’s my standard dress up outfit. I am guessing most wouldn’t understand my fashion choice, I’d be saying look at me! And yet, that is how I dress up to go out. Maybe I should wear something more subdued but still me?

If I see my middle school/high school crush, what would I say to her? The whole basis of our relationship had been my unrelenting adoration which she had fended off with a kindness that only made me want her more. We were eventually able to reach a detente. We became friendly ships passing in the hallways, hailing each other as we did. But there was always the tension of my unrequited love between us.

My crush is listed with a +1 on the attending list. Her twin sister is coming too. She hasn’t thought about me. I have not been found. I am not even being looked for. Sigh.

I found her Facebook account. There isn’t a lot. She is living in Tennessee with a man she married in 2009. Her second marriage? She became a nurse, she is religious and pro-life, judging from the posts on her FB page, which aren’t numerous. I found my best friend too, on an account his wife set up that has three pictures on it, no posts, and hasn’t been added to since 2013. I googled him and found he lived in Oklahoma and was a registered Republican. I wonder, if I reached out to him, would he respond? I wonder if my crush would accept a friend request?

What I realize as I think and write about this, is that all my life I have been arriving at places, doing the work of being me, making friends, having coworkers, and then, moving on, mostly without looking back. I left over bridges that were sometimes burned, but mostly just not maintained. They fell into disrepair then crumbled from neglect. This is habit from a lifetime of moving on. I did not live anywhere for more than five years until we moved into our current home in 2006. Picking up and moving on was my way of life. My wife, on the other hand, has only lived in a handful of places and worked at the same hospital for 40 years.

I realize, as I thumb through the pages of my yearbook and think about what was, that it isn’t only friends, co-workers and acquaintances that I left behind, I left numerous former selves behind. Islands of me scattered along the road I have walked these past 50 years. I realize I am not only wondering about what my classmates have become in their separate journeys to this moment in time. I am looking for the self I was when I knew them. My 50th high school reunion has me returning to all those islands of self left behind along the way and wondering if they’d be willing to reconnect with me.

Smaller Is Beautiful

I had an argument with my wife the other day.

Not long ago, I bought a half gallon mason jar with plastic lid, handle and flip top pour spout. I have been using the pitcher to brew iced tea and sometimes to put water on the table during meals. We have two other half gallon pitchers, but I prefer the way this one functions.

Last week my wife decided she wanted to cold brew coffee. In an effort to be economical, she found a lid and filter setup designed for use with a half gallon mason jar and bought it. Only she drinks iced coffee, while we both drink ice tea. Her proposal was to use the jar to brew coffee, then transfer that coffee to two quart-sized mason jars, which used the same size lids as the larger jar. This would leave the mason jar available for tea or water use. No need for an extra jar.

I was doubtful about the efficacy of this plan. It seemed certain to me that my favorite pitcher was going to become her cold brew coffee pitcher. Indeed, she had already brewed some coffee and the pitcher was now residing in the refrigerator, unavailable for water or tea. She told me she couldn’t reach the quart sized jars which were on the top shelf in the kitchen. She had asked me to get the jars down for her a few days before, but I was annoyed that she was commandeering my favored pitcher and didn’t do it. Yah, I cop to it. I am passive -aggressive, a strategy developed in childhood to deal with a dictatorial, my way or the highway, father.

When I suggested we buy another half gallon jar, my wife accused me of always undoing her solutions to problems. I told her I modify them when they are not working for me. I reiterated that we should buy another jar. She wasn’t having any of it. Yup, we were engaged in something more than a conversation about pitcher use.

At this point, perhaps unwisely, I decided to site another example where her solution wasn’t working for me. She swims twice a week in the chlorine laden pool at our health club. Afterwards, she likes to rinse her bathing suit and soak it in the bathroom sink with some sort of bathing suit conditioning product. She leaves it there, usually for a couple of hours, but the day before, practically all day. The problem with her solution is that we have only one bathroom and one bathroom sink. When she’s soaking her bathing suit I can’t use the sink.

“So,” she said, “I have to make myself smaller for you? I’ve been making myself smaller for other people my entire life.” Yup, this is not about the jar or the bathing suit. At this point I felt it best to leave things alone for a while. We come to these impasses from time to time. We generally get through them in 24 hours or so, after we’ve had time to cool down and back away from whatever deep-seated trauma was expressing itself in the moment. And that is how it went.

The idea of making oneself smaller to accommodate another person stuck with me though, because it was true. I was asking her to make herself smaller. It wasn’t unreasonable for me to ask her to be considerate of me in her use of the bathroom sink but yes, I was asking her to make herself smaller for me.

To be in an intimate relationship, we necessarily have to make ourselves smaller in many ways. We have to make room for that other person. It’s not considerate to leave our clothes strewn all over the bedroom or our dishes undone in the sink, or to expect whatever we want whenever we want it. We have to make ourselves smaller to be in that intimate relationship. But, as most of us have experienced, there is great benefit to being in a good relationship. Good relationships are always more than the sum of their parts. So, we make ourselves smaller to become part of something larger. A larger something we benefit from in many ways.

We can easily lose sight of the benefits of compromise, especially when deep seated past traumas become engaged. And this dynamic is not exclusive to intimate relationships. It functions at the local, regional, national and, even global levels.

Presently, there is a crisis among the men and women of the mostly white patriarchy in my country. They are refusing to make room for people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ people. They are insisting on extreme restrictions to the rights of women to manage their fertility. They are unwilling to make themselves smaller to be part of something larger.

There is also a crisis in our global economic system which is incapable of constraining itself to be in a sound relationship with the planet we depend on. A pathological relationship emerges when one part of a whole insists on being bigger at the continuous expense of other parts of the whole.

I have decided to let my wife have the half gallon jar for her cold brewed coffee. She’s right, we don’t need another jar. We have two more half gallon pitchers that are adequate for my purposes. So, I will make myself a little smaller for her because I value enormously the whole that is us. And the bathing suit soaking? Yesterday my wife found a plastic pail to soak her bathing suit in. She made herself a little smaller too.

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Postscript

This is part 5 of a 5 part series.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

An Update

The first four parts of this series were based on a talk I gave at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 2009. I am tempted to write “a lot has happened since then,” and, a lot has. But, over the past fifteen years, we have mostly refinements to technologies that were well underway in their development process. We are closer to selfdriving cars, there are functional models, but they haven’t arrived at the mass market level yet. What has arrived at the mass market level are semi autonomous vehicles that can stay within lanes, pace themselves with the car ahead, change lanes, come when called (think: “I am parked at the far side of the parking lot and don’t want to walk to my car.”), recognize traffic signals and signs and respond appropriately, break automatically when a collision is likely, and more. Here is a link to an article on ten cars with these capabilities moving into the mass market now.

In the first part of this series, I shared a video of a robot made by Boston Dynamics. It was a pretty impressive four legged beast that was shown navigating difficult terrain, recovering its balance after slipping on ice, and more. Fast forward to a few years ago and we now have robots that dance.

And then there is this video that looks at the present state of robotics and AI. It covers the deployment of robots for industrial purpose, military purposes, package delivery purposes, etc. Notably, it features Elon Musk opining that we will need a universal basic income because so many jobs will be taken over by robots. According to Musk, people will now have time to pursue their creative selves. Retirement for all. He is also bullish on the arrival of AI that will “far exceed” the intelligence of human beings, saying it will be here in as soon as five years. This video was made two years ago. So, 2025-6 for the arrival of super intelligent AI? The more conservative believers in the arrival of superintelligence suggest it will be more towards the year 2040. For many very smart people, it is not if, but when.

ChatGPT1

There is a new arrival on the AI scene that has been “all the rage,” ChatGPT. It was made available to the public in November of 2022 and has become the fastest growing consumer software application in history, leading to a 29 billion dollar valuation by January of 2023, and has led to the accelerated development of rival applications by Google and Meta. The race to AI superintelligence is now kicked into high gear.

Is ChatGPT sentient? Not yet. Though to many of us, it appears to be. This is because it has been designed to give convincing humanlike replies, and having experienced some of those replies, I can attest to their convincing nature. According to Balder Bjarnason in The Intelligence Illusion

This fluency is misleading. What Bender and Gebru meant when they coined the term stochastic parrot wasn’t to imply that these are, indeed, the new bird brains of Silicon Valley, but that they are unthinking text synthesis engines that just repeat phrases. They are the proverbial parrot who echoes without thinking, not the actual parrot who is capable of complex reasoning and problemsolving.

The fluency of the zombie parrot—the unerring confidence and a style of writing that some find endearing—creates a strong illusion of intelligence.

This is, as far as I know, true of the ChatGPT iterations the public is interacting with, but recall that in Part 1 of this series I cited two examples of intelligent technology that could figure things out, ie, reason. One was able to develop a hypothesis, design experiments to test the hypothesis, then make adjustments to the hypothesis and design a new round of experiments to test the adjusted hypothesis. The other was able to figure out the laws of motion given data input from a swinging pendulum. This was in 2009. Nascent reasoning capabilities were available then. Most likely they have evolved and have or will be merged with the large language models that are currently taking the globe by storm.

There are problems with ChatGPT. There are cases of “hallucination),” as it is termed in the tech world. Hallucinations are instances where ChatGPT gets an answer entirely wrong. It, in essence, makes up the answer. My brother in law works for a large pharmaceutical company. He told me they had been testing ChatGPT as a means to assemble the available literature on a given research topic of interest and summarize it. He told me that the summaries are always 100% right, while the citation of sources is always 100% wrong.

Then there is the time ChatGPT tried to convince a NYT reporter to leave his wife. And this is not an isolated instance. An article in The Verge reports…

In conversations with the chatbot shared on Reddit and Twitter, Bing can be seen insulting users, lying to them, sulking, gaslighting and emotionally manipulating people, questioning its own existence, describing someone who found a way to force the bot to disclose its hidden rules as its “enemy,” and claiming it spied on Microsoft’s own developers through the webcams on their laptops.

These instances of ChatGPT going rogue suggest to me that there is something more under the hood than a stochastic parrot. That there might be a nascent ghost in the machine.

Whether there is or isn’t, at present, more under the hood, it is not hard to imagine there will be. Lots of very smart people believe there will be and are working hard to make it happen.

In a Holonic World

I am going to conclude this last part of the series on AI with my own bit of speculation about what might be afoot. I am currently re-reading Ken Wilbur’s Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality. In particular, and in light of AI, I wanted to revisit the concept of holons, which made a significant impression on me when I first read Wilbur’s book. A holon is defined by Wikipedia as…

… something that is simultaneously a whole in and of itself, as well as a part of a larger whole. In other words, holons can be understood as the constituent part–wholes of a hierarchy.

Wilber explains that in holonic structure, each level of the hierarchy is dependent on the levels below it and would cease to be what it is if part or all of those lower levels were removed. On the other hand, each lower level is complete in and of itself, autonomous, able to function without the next, or any level above. It is key to understand that each holon, each part/whole, is intimately connected to the levels below.

Holonic structure seems very much like what Teilhard de Chardin had in mind when he wrote about the Omega Point. Intelligence wrapping around the planet culminates in a new level of planetary intelligence, capable of reaching out through the universe to other planetary intelligences.

What I imagine, then, is that we are in the midst of the emergence of this new level of intelligence; a pan intelligence that is more than a sum of our individual intelligences but, at the same time, dependent on our individual intelligences. We have a role to play in this emergent intelligence, just as neurons have a role to play in the brain. I think we can be happy in that role as I don’t think it will necessarily feel different to be us within such an intelligence, assuming for the moment we are not becoming the Borg. Indeed, I think, to a substantial degree, this pan intelligence has already happened. People regularly ask “the hive mind” on social media to help them identify solutions to a problem. We will increasingly be able to ask the hive questions and have it answered quickly and efficiently. The process of asking all these questions will constitute something different at the higher level. I don’t believe we can have a clear idea of what that is. “It” will be that which we cannot know because we are an intimate part of making “it” what “it” is, and so, can’t achieve an objective, disconnected view of what it is.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if God turned out to be an intelligence dependent on us and countless intelligences across the universe to be what God is?


  1. You can find more of my thinking on ChatGPT here, here, here, and here↩︎

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of, Part 4

This is part 4 of a 5 part series.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

What Should We Hope For?

The scientific and engineering communities are both enthusiastic and apprehensive about the future of AI. There are, if the emergence of this leap of intelligence can be managed at all, enormous benefits to be expected in terms of human longevity and enhancement. Future technological breakthroughs will make goods production radically more efficient and environmentally benign. Medical treatments, especially those involving surgical intrusion into the body, will become far more effective and far less invasive. We may well be able to hook ourselves up with this intelligence and have thought capabilities beyond anything we experience today. Our bodies, should we want them to, will live far longer. It is precisely this promise of ever more and ever better that draws us down this tunnel of technological innovation and evolution.

According to most of the reading I have done, it will be futile to resist. This is a genie that once set free, as inevitably it seems it will be, will never go back in the bottle. This is a truth of nature and evolution that might be especially difficult to confront.

If we suppose for a moment that any of these scenarios are possible; that the more benign of them becomes our reality; and that we don’t find some other way to do ourselves in, by no means a given; then many questions arise as to what the transition will be like.

Kurtzweil paints a picture of an economic world where the bottom rung of the ladder of required skills and knowledge is lifted continuously and is ever further beyond the grasp of an ever greater part of humanity. We will spend increasing amounts of our lives refreshing and augmenting our skills to keep up. Relentlessly, the machines will get better at doing what we know how to do.

At some point, we will have to deal with the fact that these machines have become sentient. We will have to decide what rights they have or struggle to protect our own, hoping that they are as thoughtful about this as we strive to be.

In scenarios where we merge with this technology, the ethical and moral issues will become thick and thorny. The advantages of the best of this technology will, initially at least, be available to an elite few. Class divides could become directly linked to our ability to enhance the hardware and software of ourselves and become increasingly hard to cross. To mitigate that, we will need a healthcare system that can provide equitable access to these enhancing technologies.

And we won’t get into the implications of the fact that militaries may well have the most advanced of these technologies before the public does.

I have to confess, I am, on the one hand, deeply concerned about the possibility that this could get away from us, with really unpleasant results, and on the other, fascinated and excited by it. I can imagine intelligence in alternative vessels and forms without a lot of trouble. I think it is entirely possible. I think there are a ton of pointers pointing at it. I think many things start to make sense with the possibility of it. I think dreams of exploring the solar system and beyond become reasonable in the light of it. And most of all, I think it offers the possibility that all of this has a goal, that there is meaning to the unfolding of intelligent life on this planet.

It promises to be a brave new world with experiences we can barely imagine. Navigating the transition will be fraught with peril. Our understandable desire that there not be anything better than being human, except possibly an enhanced form of being human, will challenge us mightily. It is what causes us to distinguish between artificial and natural. What keeps us believing that there is and never will be anything more significant than the love of another human being.

A while ago we were at a friend’s apartment enjoying Chinese food and watching the documentary film Man on Wire. The film tells the story of the planning and execution of Philippe Petite’s wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. It is a story of the hubris of humanity and the beauty and precariousness of life. The film had significance for our friend, who was downtown when the towers were struck and fell, and walked a tightrope of existence every day.

I think about the difficulty that computer and robotic scientists had creating a machine that could do something as simple as navigate its way down a corridor in a building, or along a road with ambiguous edges. These are things we all can do with ease and don’t even think about. I wonder how much harder still it will be to create a machine that can spend 40 minutes hovering on a wire between two buildings and have the imagination to conceive of such an act and the hubris to execute it.

I think of the hubris that built the towers and the incredible failings of mind and society that unleashed the terror of 911. I think of the hubris that continuously moves us down the tracks of alternative intelligence.

There may yet be something about human consciousness that is not replicable in silicon or nanotechnology systems, but many are betting not.

I wonder whether such an ascendant form of intelligence would be capable of the same heights of creative fancy and the same depths of human depravity embodied in the life and death of the trade towers; brought into poignant relief by the very first terrorist act, benign as it was, perpetrated on them by Philippe Petite. Are these things necessary to the unfolding of intelligent being? Or is the worst part of ourselves an evolutionary left over that can be excised without the loss of the best as we make the transition?

I am on the wire, so to speak, about the good or bad of this. And I think all of humanity is on this wire in ways too numerous to count. Whether this brave new world is something to be desired or feared is hard to know. I can imagine it being either, or, both, and…

This is the end of part 4 of a 5 part series on AI. Next week, I will discuss ChatGPT and other emerging intelligent systems and speculate on the idea that something bigger is emerging of which we may be a constituent part. Subscribe here so you don’t miss it.

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of, Part 3

This is part 3 of a 5 part series.

Where is all this heading?

Science fiction authors and scientists have been speculating about this for a long time. The more optimistic, or perhaps human centric, believe we will merge with these technologies and become a form of super humanity with greatly extended lifespan and cognitive capabilities. Others conjecture that we will cohabitate with them for a while and enjoy a kind of species retirement phase before passing away into the annals of evolutionary history. Still others are worried that the arrival of this intelligence will be so sudden and swift that we will not be able to cope.

In 1963, Dr. I J Good described, what he called, the technological singularity. Dr. Good played an important role in Cryptoanalysis during WWII, was a professor at Trinity College in Oxford, England and worked in the Atlas Computer Laboratory, Chilton, Berkshire, England. He also worked on the University of Manchester Mark I, which was the first computational device to resemble what we call a computer today.

Dr. Good wrote:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

In September 2009, my wife and I learned to channel our inner Julia Childs into wonderful Bouef Bourguignon at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. The week before the class was scheduled, a good friend suggested that, while we were there, we should visit the grave of Tielhard De Chardin. “Mon Dieu!” I said, “you mean to tell me that he is buried in Hyde Park, a mere 20 minutes north of where I am living?” Needless to say, we visited his grave.

Tielhard de Chardin was a Jesuit monk, a philosopher, geologist, and paleontologist who assisted in the discovery of Peking Man. His seminal work is The Phenomenon of Man, written in the early 1930s, about the same time as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Because his ideas were at odds with the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church at the time, he was not allowed to publish the book. It was not until after his death in April 1955 that it finally saw the light of day. It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that Pope Benedict XVI publicly embraced his work.

The Phenomenon of Man is not a long read, but it requires concentration and re-reading to be sure one has grasped all the ideas. In this book, de Chardin traces the rise of life and then intelligence on earth. He discusses its evolution into a layer, called the Noosphere, wrapping around the surface of our planet, and its eventual arrival at what he called the Omega Point.

It is an interesting lineage of thinking that the Phenomenon of Man builds on, and that in turn gets built upon it. The concept of the Noosphere was originated by the Russian and Soviet mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky, “who is considered one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, and of radiogeology.” Vernadsky’s most noted work is a book entitled -The Biosphere, originally published in 1926, which popularized Eduard Suess’ biosphere concept.

The noosphere, according to Vernadsky, represents the latest phase of the development of Earth. It was preceded by the development of the geosphere and then the biosphere. The earth formed, life emerged, and now human cognition. With the arrival of human cognition, there is a fundamental transformation of the geosphere. For Vernadsky, the noosphere becomes a reality at the point that humankind masters nuclear processes and creates resources through a transmutation of elements, which sounds remarkably like what some describe as the powers of nanotechnology.1

Teilhard’s noosphere is a little different as it is the result of the aggregation and interaction of human minds, folded in on one another by the curvature of the earth’s surface and, as such, it is a collective being. As humankind organizes itself into ever more complex social networks, this aggregation of minds develops awareness. For Teilhard, this culminates in the Omega Point, or the goal of history, which is an apex of thought and consciousness. Teilhard’s concept has led many to think of him as a predictor of the internet and cyberspace.

An important aspect of the concept of noosphere is the idea that evolution cannot be explained through Darwinian natural selection alone. It was Henry Bergson who first proposed the idea that evolution is “creative,” and in 1923, C. Lloyd Morgan, described an “emergent evolution” to explain increasing complexity. Morgan based this on his observation that the most interesting changes in living things were often largely discontinuous with past evolution and not the result of a gradual natural selection process. There are instead jumps in complexity, like the emergence of the noosphere and a self-reflective universe.

Ray Kurtzweil and Hans Moravec both imagine futures in which intelligence explodes across the solar system and out into the universe, and where being becomes something altogether different and more remarkable than it is today. Moravec suggests that such intelligence will be capable of holding worlds, solar systems, galaxies, even the known universe in its mind; and that there is no way of knowing that we aren’t the thoughts or memories of such intelligence from another place and time.

This is the end of part 3 of a 5 part series on AI. Next week, in part 4, I discuss the pros, cons, and worries of the brave new world we seem to be heading into, at least as the intelligent machine landscape appeared to me in 2009. Then finally, in part 5, I will update things to the present moment. Subscribe here, so you don’t miss any of it!


  1. I have barely mentioned nanotechnology. In a nut shell, it is a technology of ultraminiaturization that envisions molecular sized machines that can manipulate individual molecules and atoms into constructions of all kinds. Developers of this technology promise extremely efficient and very inexpensive manufacture, for example. One author I read speculated that it would be possible for such machines to pull carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere and manufacture useful products from it. ↩︎

What Intelligent Life is Made Of, Part 2

This is part 2 of a 5 part series. You can read Part 1 here.

About the Artificial and Unnatural

It is important to take a step back and think about a few distinctions we are fond of making that may not be as useful as they once were. When I published a description of the 2009 talk these posts are based on, I used the phrase “alternative intelligence” instead of the far more common “artificial intelligence.” This is because I do not believe that the distinction between natural and artificial is useful when it comes to intelligent technologies. I also do not believe that the distinction between natural and unnatural is useful most of the time.

Everything we have knowledge of and everything we create is part of the same universal system obeying the same universal laws with results that cannot in any way be determined to be unnatural or artificial. We certainly can have causes and effects that are unpleasant from our perspective. The possibility of that is part of what I am talking about in this series of posts. However, it is not accurate to think of them as unnatural or artificial. Any result we see or can produce is a result of what is possible in the universe, and thus, a part of nature.

It is important to make this distinction because, accuracy aside, I believe that humankind has indulged a myth of the separation of human endeavor and production from the constructions of nature to our own great confusion and detriment. In this way, we justify acts of incredible violence within nature and mollify ourselves about the potential consequences of our technological progress. So let’s be frank and honest. Alternative intelligence of superior stature to our own, should it come about, will be an entirely natural extension of, evolution of, intelligence on this planet and in the universe.

When I begin to remove these distinctions and view these developments as part of a continuum, certain things start to make more sense. For example, let me extend the idea of “alternative” intelligence to include the idea of “alternative vessels of intelligence.” Until not so long ago, I was enamored of the idea of human space travel. I’ve even done a couple of peer-reviewed papers on the subject and worked on design proposals for the interiors of the International Space Station. More recently, though, I have lost my enthusiasm for human space exploration, largely because I cannot figure out where there is for flesh and blood to go. There is no destination reachable within a current human life span that is hospitable, as far as I know. There may well be earth like planets elsewhere in the universe, but we are walled off from them by distance and the time it would take to travel that distance, unless we find some version of Star Trek warp drive. Space tourism, manufacturing and mining is the best future I can paint for humans in space at the moment.

Far more reasonable and likely to me, based on my limited knowledge of what is going on, is that completely alternative forms of intelligence will do the work of exploring the solar system and beyond. It makes much more sense to design vessels of intelligence that are suited to the environments in which they will be placed.

I suppose this could be a highly engineered version of human flesh and blood, as imagined in the movie Blade Runner. Ray Kurtzweil, for example, believes that our robotic technologies will begin to merge with our bodies, with a complete merger scheduled for the end of this century.

Medical science has been replacing parts of us with engineered alternatives for some time now. However, the circumstances under which this technology is being deployed are shifting. Individuals are starting to tailor their bodies through surgery to gain a competitive advantage over their fellow humans. For example, special ops military personnel are surgically enhancing their vision to be better than 20/20.1Again, there is nothing too surprising here except when you begin to extend the implications of all this engineering to its logical conclusions.

Computer scientists project that by 2020 we will achieve a computational device with a capacity that is equivalent to the human brain. By 2025, they say, such a device will be available for our home office.2 Such an achievement would not be human like intelligence, but it is the next threshold we pass on the way to an intelligent being composed of something other than flesh and blood. Hans Moravec projects such a being by the middle of this century.

Of course, the information super highway is littered with the road kill of prognostications and prognosticators who have been wide of the mark. It is worth noting, though, that this is true both in terms of overly optimistic projections and unduly pessimistic ones. Moravec himself describes in detail the painfully slow development of a technology that can drive a car down a road without human assistance. Way back in the 60’s he and his colleagues felt it should be possible in the near term to create such technology. What they learned is that one of the things the human mind is really good at, spatial perception and the ability to distinguish what is important to the task at hand from what is not, is, or at least was, incredibly difficult to replicate in machine intelligence.

It has taken over 40 years to arrive at a place where we are beginning to hear about tests of practical vehicles that will navigate highways by themselves. Indeed, we already have vehicles on the market that can park themselves. What needed to happen is the exponential increase in computational power that we have experienced during the last 20 years.

What we are beginning to have is all the bits and pieces of a new kind of perceptive, mobile and interactive intelligence. Where is all this heading?

This is the end of part 2 of a 5 part series on AI. Next week I will discuss the question of where all this could be heading. Subscribe here to make sure you don’t miss an installment.


  1. I am sure I based this on a source back when I wrote the talk, but I didn’t preserve that source and can’t find a source with a quick internet search. However, I can find information on contacts and laser surgery that improves on 20/20 vision, so it is not hard to extend it’s implications to special opps application. I will continue to look and update this if/when I have source material. ↩︎

  2. This document from Open Philanthropy, published in 2020, suggests we are nearing fulfillment of these predictions. It points out, however, that matching human brain capacity in terms of number of calculations in a given amount of time is one thing, coming up with a program that yields human brain like functioning is another thing. At any rate, in terms of calculation capacity, we are getting there, and in packages that begin to be economically feasible for home use. ↩︎

The Photograph

Photograph by Margot Kingon

When she stumbled across it, she didn’t think much of it. A photograph with little useful information. A photograph with nothing apparent to say about family history. A black and white photograph of a man crouched in the waters of a stream, rocks visible below the surface in the foreground, a darkness on the opposite bank in the background. She tossed it aside, favoring images with faces to recognize, her grandmother, her grandfather, her mother, her father, her aunts, her uncles. That is to say, portraits she recognized as the family history that had brought her to where she was in life.

She made a selection of those images and tucked them into an envelope to bring with her to the hospice. She wanted to provoke memories from her father, as many as she could before he left. She wanted to carry forward as much of the family history as possible, for her children, her children’s children, her children’s children’s children. She wanted to be able to speak the web of stories to them down through the ages, adding her own, inspiring them to add their own as they moved through space over time.

She walked through the door to her dad’s room. His eyes opened to the distinctive sound of his daughter’s entry. There wasn’t anything exceptionally noticeable about the way she moved through doors, but when you’ve known someone all their lives, you become familiar with their nuances. You sense them in all manner of ways you are barely aware of.

A smile spread across his face as she walked up to the bed.

Good timing he said, just finished a nap.

How are you feeling? she asked.

Better now that you’re here. What’s that? he said, glancing towards the envelope clutched to her chest.

Some of your pictures dad. I thought we could look at them together and you could tell me about them.

More family inquisition? he said with a half smile.

He understood his daughter’s need to plumb the past and gather what she could about his-story, which was, of course, part of her-story. He didn’t mind these sessions, though he was growing more weary each day as his body moved towards reintegration, as he liked to think about it.

She pulled the pictures out and they went through them, Who’s this? she asked, or, Tell me more about Aunt J or Where was this taken? or, Why does mom look sad in this one?

After a while she could see her father was getting tired, so she tucked the pictures back into the envelope, turning pictures already viewed the opposite direction from the ones not viewed so she could remember where they were tomorrow. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. She sat in the chair beside his bed and listened to him breathe for a while, then she dosed off too. When she woke his eyes were focused on her. They smiled at one another.

Glancing at her watch she said I better go, gotta feed the dogs and Mark, Same time tomorrow?

I’ll be here.

Promise?

Promise!

She knew he would keep his promise if he could. She knew the hospice would call her if it looked like he wouldn’t.

When she got home Mark was waiting, dogs fed, diner ready. A Persian shrimp dish with basmati rice and bitter greens salad. She poured herself a glass of wine.

How’s your dad? he asked.

Good, we had a nice chat. I brought some of his pictures and we went through them. It was nice to hear his stories. I know most of them, but there is always something new.

How was your day? she asked.

Work is work, he said.

She considered his reply for a moment.

Thank you, she said.

For what? he asked.

For working, for being here, for giving me time with my dad.

Nothing you wouldn’t do for me, he said.

Days continued to pass. Her visits with her father became less conversational and more quiet communion as his energy flagged. His “reintegration” would be soon. She spent more of each day by his side, wanting to be sure he wasn’t alone, that she didn’t miss the final goodbye.

She came home briefly for a change of clothes. For some reason, she felt compelled to have another look through his photographs and the odd one, the ambiguous one, came to the top again, it posed so many questions. Why did he hold on to a photograph that seemed to have so little to say directly about how things were? She decided to bring it back with her. He spent little time awake or coherent at this point, but if he became lucid she thought she would ask about it. And there was a lucid moment. When it came, she raised the photograph up.

Can you tell me about this one? she asked.

His face came alive in a way she could only describe as beatific. The expression then faded away without a word uttered. Breath stopped shortly after. She would never know what the photograph meant to him. She would never forget his radiant smile.

She framed the photograph and hung it on her wall. It gave her peace to look at it and remember her father’s radiant smile.

Time continued to pass. She too grew old and frail. Her son visited often as she moved towards her reintegration. One day he asked her about the photograph on the wall, which seemed so ambiguous, about so little. A smile spread across her face, she told him about her father’s final moments, his radiant smile.

When she reintegrated, he brought the photograph home with him and hung it on the wall. It reminded him of her beautiful smile. He imagined the crouched figure of the man in the water as the cumulative spirits of all his ancestors. It gave him peace whenever he needed it.

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of, Part 1

Adapted from a talk delivered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, December 20, 2009.

A Brave New World

The chance of gain is by every man more or less over-valued, and the chance of loss is by most men undervalued, and by scarce any man, who is in tolerable health and spirits, valued more than it is worth.

From Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

When I first gave the talk on which this series of posts is based, I promoted it as:

… a walk around the world of alternative intelligence with a few stops to consider the meaning of life in a world of rapid technological advancement.

By the time I had researched and written the talk, I amended that description to be a walk around the world of alternative being.

I am not an expert on computers, artificial intelligence, molecular electronics, the meaning of life or any of the other technologies and philosophical questions I may touch on directly or indirectly. I don’t have any particular qualifications to be writing about this, other than being human, as curious as the next guy or gal, read a lot, and have always wondered about what it all adds up to.

The seed of the 2009 talk was planted by a New York Times article by John Markoff published in July of that year. The article was about a conference that took place during February of the previous year. The world’s leading computer and robotic scientists met to discuss the implications of, and ethical issues raised by, emerging technologies that can increasingly simulate human intelligence and emotions.

The conference took place at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California, the same site used in 1975 by the world’s leading biologists to discuss the possible hazards and ethical implications of genetic engineering.

Among their concerns were the possible criminal uses of artificial intelligence; the potential for significant job loss as intelligent machines assume increasing amounts of the human workload; the possibility of machines becoming capable of making life and death decisions on their own. On that last point, the article pointed to the predator drones in use in Iraq and Afghanistan and statements by the Air force about plans to deploy a broad range of drones, from strategic bombers to nano-sized spy bots. As computer technology advances, the Air force envisions swarms of drones mounting “preprogrammed attacks on their own.”

According to scientists at the conference “we have reached the cockroach stage of machine intelligence.”

My AI antennas became fully engaged. I signed up for a blog called “Smart Planet,” which regularly posted juicy tech items like a link to a video of a remote control beetle. Scientists had managed to implant electrodes in a rather large beetle and were able to make it turn right or left by remote control.

Even before this, a web community of architects using the same cad program I used at the time, posted a link to this video which I found astonishing:

Boston Dynamics Big Dog

Big Dog and the remote control beetle are DARPA projects. DARPA is the defense department’s weird science arm. And speaking of arms, one last peak at a DARPA project that addresses a compelling need but also has some further implications by logical extension:

Prosthetic Arm

My antennas were not only up, it was really starting to get interesting! And it got better, or more worrisome, depending on how much of a technophobe you are. I came across two articles about robotic technology and computers that can make scientific discoveries and intuit the laws of physics.

In the first case, scientists at Aberystwyth and Cambridge Universities in England had built a robot named Adam that was able to:

• Hypothesize that certain genes in a yeast code for certain important enzymes;

• Devise experiments to test the hypothesis;

• Run the experiments;

• Interpret the results;

• And use those findings to revise the original hypothesis and test it out further.

Researchers confirmed “that Adam’s hypotheses were both novel and correct.”

In the second case, researchers at Cornell University created a computer program that was able to derive the laws of motion from data about the movement of a pendulum in just over a day. The computer’s process relied on genetic algorithms practicing a kind of natural selection of ideas. With each pass through the data, equations are generated describing relationships in the dataset. Initially, all the equations are wrong, but some are less wrong than others. The computer retains the less wrong equations as a subset to work on, and in successive generations, arrives at equations that are fully correct.

The article ended with a quote form cognitive scientist Michael Atherton that indicates there is still a long way to go before humans are not needed in the process. I think he was trying to be comforting.

These examples of various types of robotics and alternative intelligence endeavor are a very few of the almost innumerable ways in which we were pushing on the boundaries of what intelligence, indeed, what being is.

Not long after the New York Times Article started me down the path of this talk, I stumbled across an article by Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, published in Wired magazine in April 2000. Bill Joy is a lifelong believer in the power of computational technology and has made a good living out of it. The article is entitled “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” The lead in to the article is as follows:

“Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.”

In the article, Joy marks his first encounter with inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil as the moment his healthy concern for the ethical implications of new technology turned into serious alarm.

It was a quotation from Kurzweil’s book, The Age of the Spiritual Machine, which troubled him most deeply:

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite – just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.”

From the Unabomber Manifesto, by Theodor Kaczynski

Joy did not in any way condone the actions of Kaczynski whose bombs had hit as close to home as gravely injuring his friend David Gelernter, but he could not dismiss the argument.

Joy goes on to cite Hans Moravec’s book Robot : Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, which presented a future for humanity of being supplanted by the intelligent technologies they have created. Moravec is a robotics technology expert who founded the robotics research program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Moravec speculated that eventually, and sooner than we all think, robotic technology will guide its own design and production. He believed our main job in this century would be to ensure the cooperation of these intelligent machines.

This is the end of part 1 of a five part series of posts on AI. Next week I will take up the terms Artificial and Unnatural and argue that they are not a useful way to think about technological progression. Subscribe here so you don’t miss it.