Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The romance of chaos

Many disparate and diversely colored threads I'd like to braid together here if I can. (Are your days sometimes dominated by specific metaphors? I am all tied up today in 101 Things to Do with Thread and its Fat Cousin, Yarn: braid, sew, weave, darn, knit, spin, embroider, unravel, unspool and so on and on to the fraying end.)
       I often listen to the podcast of Krista Tippett's public radio interview show, which was until recently called Speaking of Faith but now goes by the rather grand name of Being. A few months ago, Tippett spoke with the surgeon and writer Sherwin Nuland about "the biology of the spirit," and I nodded happily along with his description of spirit as an evolutionary rather than a divine endowment, as a biologically determined pleasure (in order and symmetry) that we have actively cultivated-- or cultured! New metaphor! My later segue to discussions of bacteria will now be entirely organic. I need only to let it ferment for a paragraph or two. Ha.
       Nuland once suffered from a debilitating depression, and his description of the discovery that his Orthodox Jewish "faith" consisted of little more than neurotic compulsions and obsessive thoughts which he used superstitiously as talismans against inchoate threats of hellfire and damnation-- this all struck a chord with me. (Nuland is extremely careful to note that this discovery was merely personal, and that faith may spring from sources other than neurosis; it may be true at least in the sense of being sincere, though his atheism does not allow it a corresponding substance. He believes, it seems, in the reality and even in the potential value of unanswered prayer.)
       I wanted to keep nodding along with Nuland-- he has a lovely, gravelly voice and a charming streak of irreverence toward his own most cherished insights-- but I stopped when he started talking about our perennial attraction to disorder as if it were an entirely bad thing. Unsalutary, to borrow his word. He wondered aloud why so many cultures have over time moved toward monotheism, tossing out lesser gods like worn out toys and gathering the scraps of their spiritual allegiance into one great mass. (So to speak. But I'm thinking less of Latin liturgy and more of the old impulse to make string balls).
       "Why is monotheism better?" Nuland asked, and then answered his own question: it's better because it represents a progression toward greater order. Nuland does not believe in God (or gods), but he believes in the human capacity to make meaning from apparent chaos. And from his conversation with Tippett, he appears to believe that a more orderly world is self-evidently more meaningful. To his mind, our dalliances with disorder are expressions of thanatos, a deathward vertigo that must be resisted.
       For a truly eloquent response to my no-doubt-simplified account of Nuland's love of light and clarity, one might turn to Byron, Nietzsche, Isaiah Berlin, or Lewis Hyde: all the Romantics and their multifarious offspring. Whether the discussion concerns Apollo and Dionysus, foxes and hedgehogs, or Hermes and Coyote, the central lesson is clear: disorder is vital. Life surges at the frayed edge where order unravels. Yes, we may at moments desire our own destruction, our ultimate dissolution and release from the effort of making meaning. But we may in other moods be erotically drawn to the edge, whatever its dangers. We may court chaos when we feel bold and bushy-tailed, or when the meanings we've made have become waxy and stiff. Yes, we often lose more than we willingly offer in sacrifice to change, but our health ironically depends on our appetite for risk.
       I will get back to bacteria, I promise.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Skinner and Hamlet II

This attempt to bring two unlike minds into harmonious - or anyway not rancorous - relation will necessarily proceed slowly and piecemeal. One of the minds is, after all, fictional, though that may be the least of the challenges I face.** As a gnatty little amateur in the realm of Big Ideas, I am bound to get ahead of myself and run down a dozen or more dead ends before I find a viable path. My arm is strong and my hatchet is sturdy, but it doesn't have the keenest of blades, so I hope, gentle reader, that you'll forgive the rough work I make of this.

Who, me? Stalling? OK. I've already said that I don't think any of us (paramecium, porcupine, person) arrives tabula rasa in the world. Some native and individual proclivity for order springs into being at the moment of our inception, hungry for the world as it makes itself known to us through our various and varied senses. However, the world feeds our hunger so immediately, generously, and unremittingly that it may be impossible ever to say what any of us is in isolation from the world as we know it at any given moment.

When stated so broadly, this seems obvious, but I could say instead, "Oh, of course you're a different person with your friend than you are with your mother, and I've no idea whatsoever how you might act if your life were on the line. No more than I have about how I would act. There's nothing solid in your character or mine - we are creatures of circumstance." Or I could point you to a recent article in Discover detailing the possibility that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and MS could be caused by a retrovirus embedded 60 million years ago in the ancestral DNA of every monkey and primate, a virus that fortunately only becomes active in special environmental circumstances. Perhaps it is only in these extreme cases that "foreign" matter speaks to us so intimately and shapes our lives so dramatically, but I'm not willing to bet on it. 

If Catholic cosmology reigns, the Ghost who speaks to Hamlet may indeed be honest, but there's no purgatory in the Protestant universe, so he needs be a demon. Freudians hear the voice of the superego, and evolutionary biologists the mischievous mutterings of a rogue amino acid sequence. Behaviorists? Good question. Maybe they'd say (in their best Jesse Jackson imitation): The Ghost is moot!

**I still love the line from Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo, wherein a depressive in the Depression played by Mia Farrow falls in love with a movie archaeologist (Jeff Daniels): "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional, but you can't have everything."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mind-shaped world

London's (or rather, England's) National Theatre took a cue from the Metropolitan Opera a couple of years ago and began a series of "live" high-definition broadcasts of selected shows from its season. The quotations wouldn't be there if we lived in New York, where audiences really do see shows in the moment they're being performed, but here we watch them "live." A couple of non-NT shows have made it onto this year's bill, and last night Peter and I joined two or three hundred other people at Portland's World Trade Center (still standing, but not so tall as the "real" but absent WTC) for a pre-recorded performance of A Disappearing Number by the group that used to be known as Théatre de Complicité (sorry, can't find the hat for the a) but now goes more simply by Complicite. Their work tends to the densely imagistic, cerebral, and fractured-- they don't disdain story, but they find other, unexpected paths to empathic connection. I'd seen their Noise of Time nine years ago in London and found it more intriguing than moving, but A Disappearing Number makes excellent use of their intellectual and emotional agility, as they leap nimbly from the abstract to the personal and back again.

The play weaves a fictional contemporary romance of the more or less conventional sort with the true (or at least non-fictional) romance of minds that took place between two mathematicians in the early twentieth century, Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy. The latter story gets unfortunately short shrift, but is implicitly honored in Complicite's romance with "maths." Fictions about mathematical and scientific genius usually have the quality of a trip to the zoo-- they invite an audience to peer through steel bars or scratched plexiglass at the strange creatures trapped within. Proof is a case in point, also A Beautiful Mind (though the book makes a more capacious cage than the film). In contrast, Complicite manages ingeniously to communicate something of the flavor of the genius itself, of the beauty that lights a mind like Ramanujan's, alien as it might at first appear.

Even in that last sentence, I have bumped inadvertently against the subject I want to address here. Late in the play, a contemporary mathematician tries to explain to her exasperated husband how it is that math is more real to her than the life they (sort of) share. She quotes Hardy from A Mathematician's Apology: "A mathematician is working with his own mathematical reality. 317 is prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is so, because mathematical reality is built that way." The line hit a nerve with me, and I misremembered it later without Hardy's qualifications: "317 is prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped one way rather than another, but because it is so, because reality is built that way." I've been getting impatient of late with people I might have considered intellectual kin, all the "bright" atheists who mock religious metaphysics but endow human reason with a numinous glow.

I hope that everything I write here will attest to my lifelong affection for empirically grounded reason. Math? Science? I'm a fan of both. It's just that hubris makes me itchy, whatever its source. My admiration for the scientific method is partly inspired by its implicit modesty, but that modesty goes missing sometimes when its practitioners champion themselves as the lonely votaries of Truth. Meanwhile, those who immerse themselves in "pure" math and logic (Plato's great-grandkids) don't dirty their hands with empirical observation, and their claims on Truth can be still more overweening.

I'm not a fan of the radical skepticism that permeates the "postmodern" worldview, which spirals out into an infinity of dead ends: I know you think so, but what do I? I think the search for common insight, common knowledge is possibly worthwhile and anyway much more enlivening than a proliferation of solitary sandboxes. And yet. The temptation to overreach is strong. I suppose I am a child of Kant, in the sense that I believe every description of the world is necessarily a description of the self. Empirical investigation is constrained not only by our specific and limited senses but by (un)certain a priori structures and biases that are more or less particular to us as different species of animal and different species of human. Not least of these is the bias toward meaning itself: our desire to make sense of what we perceive drives us to see relationships (e.g. of similarity, of coincidence, of cause and effect) where none may essentially exist, and it operates for the most part "in secret," below the level of conscious thought.

The dialogue between nature and nurture begins too early to allow us ever to untangle it completely (generations before an individual's conception, as recent epigenetic research has demonstrated). However, we don't need to arrive at any definitive account of what or how much is pre-written on the slate to recognize that the slate has a given shape and a surface that can only be marked in given ways (a blackboard likes chalk as paper likes a pen). Think of the senses we are missing, and those we possess in only stunted form. How would our notions of "objective observation" be altered if we could more directly perceive magnetic fields like a pigeon, shapes and speed like a bat, scents like a dog?

Yes, we have extended technology into many areas of our sensual blindness, but how much is lost in translation? If I see a sound's echo as a tight burst of peaks and valleys on a scrawled page, and learn to recognize its distinct pattern, is my apprehension of reality expanded to the same degree as if I had acquired the skill of echolocation? If a blind person scores perfectly when I test her knowledge of Newtonian optics ("420 nanometers?" "Violet?" "Yes!"), will I congratulate her and hand her the keys to my car? No. I will apologize for raising her hopes unrealistically and invite her to ride shotgun.

In their unapplied forms, math and logic try to leapfrog past this epistemological quandary. The symmetries they seek are self-sufficient, independent of the marriage (whether it may be intimate or estranged) between the mind (sorry, a mind!) and the world. If a consonance exists between those symmetries and empirical reality, we can never really know it. Hardy seems to have acknowledged this, in a line from the same Apology to which the play continually returns: "A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas... The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way... It may be very hard to define mathematical beauty, but that is just as true of beauty of any kind. We may not know quite what we mean by a beautiful poem, but that does not prevent us from recognizing one when we read it."

The question seems finally to lie in how wide we presume to draw the circle of "we." Complicite did a remarkable job of making maths' beauty visible, audible, palpable to some of us who don't normally perceive it. But what does my dog Pazzo care for the elegance and emotional resonance of a convergent infinite series? I cannot tell whether he cares for elegance at all. The joy he takes in snatching a frisbee from the air at the moment it pauses in flight suggests that he does, but when he drinks from the toilet I am forced to reconsider.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Skinner and Hamlet I

I don't imagine it will come as a shock to anyone to learn that most of my friends (who trend to the liberal and artistic) wrinkle their noses at any mention of B.F. Skinner. As I've described here, I used to wrinkle mine, too. I've devoted many previous entries to a defense of Skinner, because I believe his insights have been undervalued in many circles (certainly the circles where I've been traveling). I think the reflexive rejection of behaviorism by many humanists poses a barrier to the interdisciplinary dialogue that we need if we hope ever to marry (or even to weave together as independent threads) mechanistic and holistic accounts of cognition and action, our descriptions of brain and mind as they impel the body (or vice-versa, as Antonio Damasio has intimated in his somatic marker hypothesis). Of course, many behavioral and cognitive scientists have been just as stingy and unthinking in their refusal to admit the significance of intangibles like emotion, belief, and individual character to their investigations. The imperatives of their discipline more formally forbid it.

If we cannot invent or cobble together a third vocabulary that encompasses subjective experience and objective observation, we will have to develop fluency with the conventions of scientific and poetic description at once, to take full advantage of both languages while recognizing their respective limitations. It's in the interests of this bilingual approach that I have learned to love Skinner-- I have been intent these last few months on countering my own prejudice. I feel a little more confident now that, if I invite my inner artist back to the table, the discussion won't devolve into a shouting match: "Deluded parasite!" "Heartless bastard!"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trailing Colors blog

There's still plenty of time to procrastinate, but I have a new blog going to lay the ground for next May's production of Trailing Colors. If you're interested, you'll not only find info on the play and its staging-in-progress but a host of links to articles on the evolving situation in Rwanda, also on elephants. The wonderful bit of news that I've just posted is that JoAnn Johnson will be directing. We hope to get a cast and production team assembled soon.

Get the full scoop here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Neocortical lipstick

The widespread reluctance to acknowledge (let alone to explore or elaborate) how deeply we remain embedded in "animal" life has serious practical consequences, as it accelerates our destruction of the world we commonly inhabit. This is obvious in the sense that our failures of identification with other species remove barriers to violence and rapacious exploitation; it is less obvious in our expectation that "uniquely human reason" will rescue us from our own greedy appetites. We wishfully suppose ourselves ennobled by our comparatively well-developed cortices, but the reasoning (or rationalizing) power supplied by those wrinkly blankets obfuscates as much as it elucidates; it has made us masters at self-deception.

Jonah Lehrer makes the excellent point (in Proust Was a Neuroscientist) that the neocortex, in its very novelty, may be regarded, should be regarded as less developed than supposedly more primitive parts of the brain-- there hasn't been time to smooth out its kinks, or make its wrinkles perform most efficiently and effectively (that is to say, most adaptively). It remains fundamentally less reliable than older structures, though the dialogue that ensues between them has clearly been productive in the (geologically) short term: it has allowed us to overrun the planet. Yippee.

This is my point: the emanations of the neocortex (e.g. reason and faith) have not yet produced any notable constraint on our "animal" compulsions to consume and procreate, and to expect that they ever will is patently ridiculous, when our brains have been "designed" bottom-up for the opposite purpose. Even our most hopeful discoveries in neurology (of mirror neurons, for example, with their strong suggestion of a built-in capacity for empathy) can only embellish the fact of our dominant hunger, that is, to live beyond ourselves in the proxy of our genes. That superobjective (says the theatre gal) spawns an astonishing variety of more trivial hungers in day-to-day life, few of which consent to be curbed by reason or faith (though both propose compelling accounts of why other people's appetites should be suppressed or refused outright). Even those of us who have abdicated our procreative vocation find alternative modes of proliferation (hello, blogosphere!), and our consumption continues apace, as if we were not genetic dead ends (and indeed we may not be, if we help our nieces, nephews, or cousins to thrive).

Yes, this is to say that I am extremely pessimistic about our ability to pull ourselves by our elastic bootstraps into an enlightened state-- of mind or self-government. But if we do, the mechanism will not, I think, be reason or faith. I think it will have to be pleasure, unless it is desperation. If we cannot channel our appetites in less destructive directions (e.g. by encouraging people to remain "selfishly" childless, by cultivating our inner resources and capacity for pleasure), we will sprint ever faster toward that great brick wall of finitude.

I'm pretty sure it's already too late, at least for anything like the life I happen to lead (the outrageously wasteful kind). But crisis is normal in the long life of the planet. The dinosaurs never dreamed of us, and we can't imagine what (or who) will flourish when we're gone. I can still rage against the dying of the light in my visible spectrum-- the snuffing of lives I am disposed by evolutionary accident to cherish.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The teacher taught

Well, hallelujah! Barley and I have made it through our six-month course with the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior. As I wrote to my sister and brother-in-law this morning, if we hadn't passed our final evaluation last weekend, Barley would have shared in none of the blame, but because we did pass she takes 75% of the credit. Yes, this is the way things tend to go around here, under the reign of the Queen B (or, less formally, Miss B Have), but it's only right. She has been a remarkably patient trainer throughout, teaching me more than I ever could have hoped to learn about communication, collaboration, imagination, and timing. Her willingness to try, fail, fail again, and fail better has inspired me to take more risks in my own learning; I've been continually astonished by her energy and resilience in the face of every new challenge. It's especially impressive when you consider her partner's stubborn clumsiness and frequent stupidity.

I tried a while ago, in my post about behaviorism and The Manchurian Candidate, to zero in on the critical element that distinguishes a brainwashing relationship from a training/teaching one (specifically in those instances when a teacher seeks to manipulate a student's automatic responses and tries to tinker under the hood of the conscious mind). Emotional involvement, even if characterized by mutually positive regard, doesn't seem to be enough to rescue this transaction from creepy-crawliness. My experience with Barley in the last few months suggests another answer: the willingness of the teacher to be taught. If one expects and tries to ensure (through various measures of control) that the teaching goes in only one direction, that only one party emerges from the encounter transformed, then the shared process will (perforce) squeeze teacher and student alike. The resulting postures may fit the preconceived shape, but they will be marked by pain, and pressed dry of the vitality that might have animated the next shape.

We had visitors at our final workshop to play students in mock classes for the "people teaching" part of our evaluation. Barley made a great hit with them, not least for her unusual beauty. One complimented me on the "great job" I'd done with her, and I think she thought I was being falsely modest when I denied any credit. But she understood better when I said that the one thing Pete and I take pride in with regard to our sweet golden hussy is never having subdued her spirit. Viva la Bunk!

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I’ve just finished reading an excellent book by the witty and dashingly erudite self-appointed chronicler of "wrongology," Kathryn Schulz. In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Schulz doesn’t argue in favor of error, exactly, but she makes a persuasive case that we urgently need to acknowledge and make peace with our bottomless capacity to be wrong. She describes the myriad ways that our perfectly natural fear of mistakes (and the psychological upheaval that mistakes sometimes entail) can stunt our growth and stifle our noblest impulses. Our terror of error has an especially corrosive effect on our ability to feel compassion: it compels us to reject, sometimes violently, any perspective that challenges our own. Only a humble appreciation for our limitations (of apprehension, of intellect, of moral standing) can restore a healthy suppleness to our lives and interactions. Schulz also notes that, while the gap between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it can sometimes gape terrifyingly wide, without it we would lose a vital element in human experience: Art lives there, and only there. As she charmingly puts it, “Art is an invitation to enjoy ourselves in the land of wrongness.” Yes, it's good to make Plato roll in his grave, and keep him rolling!
The theatre seems to me an especially inviting place for the exercise of humility and compassion. Sitting more or less safely in the audience, we can vicariously rehearse a thousand ways of being horribly, disastrously wrong. In their very structure, plays insist on a multiplicity of perspective, and the best of them never come to rest in any definitive point of view. Moment to moment, they encourage us to embrace one truth, then another, to inhabit competing theories about our place and purpose in the world and to live out their repercussions for an intensely distilled hour or three. Some see this as a means to teach the avoidance of error: here’s what not to do. I see it as a means of reminding ourselves (because we continually forget): we err, we have erred, we will err again. We had better get used to it.

Thus I am drawn in my playwriting (and elsewhere) to the murky territory where good intentions collide with reality, where common passions steamroller “common” sense. I love smart characters who do stupid things for excellent reasons. Problems of scale fascinate me especially: in a world that technology has virtually collapsed, we live at once too close and too far from each other. The temptation to abstract other people’s suffering seems dangerously high, so that compassion itself sometimes becomes a blunt instrument, and the law of unintended consequences prevails. 

Errors of scale and distance lie at the heart of a play that lies close to my own heart, Trailing Colors. It's set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, not in the midst of evil but in its confused wake, and it concerns most centrally a species of blundering that may not be uniquely American but appears endemic: call it oblivion heroicus. It leaps tall buildings in a single bound! Then it lands splat in the boggy boggy mud. Graham Greene skewered it beautifully in The Quiet American, and Philip Caputo made a palpable hit with Acts of Faith. I'm too sentimental to be so mercilessly satiric, but I do have sharp words for privileged women writers who feed their fictions on others' pain.

It's never too early or late to embrace being wrong, which is why I have tentative dates set for a production of Trailing Colors next year: May 5th-29th, 2011. More details to follow.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hannah the Homesick Honu IV

You might have guessed by now that the Honu weren’t behaving so strangely because of anything fishy in the waters of Mokupapapa. No, they had all come there to mate. It often happens that shy creatures without many social skills will act rather foolishly when the spirit of romance catches them in its invisible net. Hannah was lucky to have found a steady turtle like Sam, and Sam was lucky that she knew it. I wouldn’t want to embarrass them or you with the details, but it wasn't long before Hannah had a belly full of eggs and an important new journey to make.

Sea turtles are called sea turtles for a very good reason: they don’t like to be on land. Their shells weigh them down when they’re out of the water, and they struggle to move across the sand. The Honu love to swoop and glide and soar, but on land they can only shuffle inch by awkward inch. Hannah knew other turtles who beached themselves for a good dose of sun when the cold slowed them down, but she had only been ashore once before in her life, when a tiger shark had chased her into a dead end cove. She had glided onto the sand just as its jaws snapped shut behind her. Now she would need to leave the water again.

As the sun set, Hannah made her way to the edge of the known world, where shadows gathered around her. These were other female Honu, all waiting like Hannah for the safety of darkness. When the blue waters had finally faded to black, they let themselves be carried by the breaking waves onto the shore, then began a difficult climb, away from the surf’s edge and toward the light, loose sand a hundred feet further up the beach.

Again and again, Hannah thrust her front flippers as far in front of her as she could, then pressed down with all her strength and dragged her heavy body forward. She seemed to make no progress at all, but she knew she could not quit. She had traveled too far to give up now. She thought of all the new turtle lives she held in her belly, each one closed away in its own private shell, and she pulled herself another five inches up the beach.

At last, Hannah made it to the soft, dry sand that lay beyond the reach of the highest tide. Here her work became harder. There was no rest for the tired flippers that had taken her across the ocean and out of the water she loved: she needed to dig a nest. The sand flew all around her, as a dozen Honu hollowed out big shallow bowls as wide as their own bodies. They used their back flippers to carve narrow burrows into the same quiet dunes where their mothers had nested, and their mothers’ mothers, and their mothers’ mothers before them.

Hannah didn’t have to ask whether her nest was big enough or deep enough. She simply knew. She laid her bright, precious eggs—more than a hundred of them!—in the shelter she had made. Then she covered them carefully with sand. When she was satisfied that she had hidden them well, she looked up to see that all the other mothers were making their slow way back to the water.

Hannah hesitated. Were the Honu really leaving their eggs behind? Would that thin layer of sand be enough to protect them from harm? She wanted to stay. She wanted to cover her nest with her own stony shell and fend off every threat that might come. She wanted to be there on the moonlit night when her babies would hatch and emerge in a tumbling crowd from the sand. She wanted to guide them to the water, through the pounding waves, away from the crabs who might snatch them on land, past the tiger sharks who waited for them in the depths. But she knew she could not.

In that moment’s hesitation, Hannah remembered all the many joys of the Honu life. She had been very frightened when she was a hatchling herself, no more than a mouthful for any hungry bird or fish. She might have wished for some protection then; she might have wished for someone to look out for her like Sam had done when she returned to Mokupapapa. But Hannah had traveled hundreds of miles before she met up with Sam, and she had not been afraid. She would never have learned to be so brave if her own mother had nervously followed her on her first great journey across the open ocean. She would never have learned the pleasure of solitude or the value of quiet. She knew her life was sweeter for the dangers she had faced.

Have a good flight,” Hannah told her sleeping eggs. Then she turned and shuffled back down the slope of the dune, into the welcoming water.

Hannah lingered with Sam at Mokupapapa for many weeks. Three times she returned to the beach. Three times she made a new nest and hid her eggs carefully under the sand. The moon was bright on the night that Hannah dreamed again. In this dream, everything was familiar: the pink coral and the long, swaying grass. She saw once again the strange, peaceful human who had first tickled her curiosity. When she awoke, she could feel her blood humming in her veins.

It’s time for me to go back,” she told Sam.

Would you like company?” he asked. He remained a most gentlemanly turtle.

Thank you, Sam,” Hannah said. “I think I’m good.” She brushed his flipper in farewell and soared out into the boundless blue, on her way home.

Photo by Marc M. Ellis

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hannah the Homesick Honu III

All through the day Hannah swam, and at night she rested. The further she swam, the further the ocean floor dropped away beneath her, and the further she had to dive to find a place to sleep. When she settled on the sand, she became perfectly still, so that you might have thought she was a pretty sort of a rock. Hannah's heart took long breaks between beats, and her blood inched along her veins. There was no hurry—everything was moving in the direction it should.

For a long time, the ocean yawned deeper and emptier than Hannah had ever known it. She took wide detours around a few tiger sharks and marveled at the blue flash of the long, skinny ono who passed her by, but she was as surprised as she was pleased one day to see another turtle swimming right in line with her. In her excitement, she forgot to be shy. “Hello!” she called. “I’m Hannah.”

Sam,” said the other turtle. “A pleasure.” He looked curiously at her, and she was briefly reminded of the funny human.

The same whisper that had sent Hannah into the open ocean now urged her closer to Sam. He was a handsome Honu, his face gentle, his broad shell gleaming brown. “Did you have a dream, too?” Hannah asked him.

Ah,” Sam said. “It’s your first return.”

My first return?” Hannah was puzzled.

To Mokupapapa. Where the silver monk seals swim and the coral grows wide as a ray.”

Yes!” exclaimed Hannah. “That’s the place of my dream.”

You’re headed in the right direction,” Sam told her.

I know,” said Hannah. But she was glad to hear it all the same. “Mokupapapa. What a beautiful name.”

Sam cocked his head in a silent invitation, and Hannah happily joined her journey to his. They swam together for many days. Though Sam rarely spoke, he looked out for Hannah. “Dolphins,” he’d say, and steer her clear of the speeding pod. “Pa`imalau,” he’d say, and point his chin toward the surface, where a glamorous man-of-war draped its long tentacles like a poison curtain across her path. He shrugged off Hannah’s thanks: “Don’t worry about it. You’d do the same for me.” And he was right, she would.

Hannah had been amazed to find Sam in the middle of the open ocean, but every day more turtles appeared. Their deep memory of Mokupapapa pulled them like a magnet through the water—they swam and swam without tiring. On the very day that Hannah had begun to wonder whether they would ever reach their destination, Sam motioned with a flipper toward a shadow in the distance. “Nearly there,” he said.

Hannah awakened from her swimming trance and noticed that the ocean floor was quickly rising to meet them. After miles of blue, a rainbow of corals sprouted before her eyes, alive with fish and urchins and eels. There was the strange flat coral she’d seen in her dream! And there was the silver seal with its smiling round face!

In Hannah’s dream, she’d been alone, but here the Honu crowded around her. That would have been fine if they had behaved with their usual courtesy, but some were downright rude. The closer Hannah and Sam got to where the reef broke the skin of the water, the more frequently a strange male tried to swim between them. “Back off,” Sam would say.

They'd ignore him and slide in close to Hannah. “Come fly with me” was about the nicest thing she heard from any of them.

You can do better, baby,” said one, but she didn’t think so.

Another told her, “You gotta be cracked, knocking shells with this guy.”

Hannah gave him a hard nip, surprising herself.

Ow, hey!” he cried. “You don’t gotta be like that.”

Get a life, leatherback,” Hannah replied. She saw Sam smiling. “Go chew barnacles for all I care.”

Whatevs,” said the tactless turtle before he swam off. “You two deserve each other.”

Yeah, maybe we do,” said Sam. Hannah smiled back at him.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hannah the Homesick Honu II

Over the next few days, something changed in Hannah, and she wasn’t sure whether the human was to blame. She felt a tickle inside—sometimes in her head, other times near her heart. In her head, it was like a teasing whisper whose words she could never make out, even if she nestled under a soft layer of sand and lay perfectly still on the ocean floor, listening. When she swam, the tickle left her head and moved through her blood. It danced and skipped around her pulse. Everything in Hannah seemed to quicken to this new double rhythm, so that she found herself rising more frequently to the surface to take in a fresh lungful of air.

Unexpectedly, too, Hannah’s appetite grew. She didn’t stop to savor every mouthful of sea grass the way she always had—as soon as she’d taken one bite, she was already thinking about the next. For the first time that she could remember, Hannah felt something pushing her out of the moment she lived in and knew, felt it nudging her toward... what? She had no idea, she only knew that she needed to find a new patch of grass. She’d munched this one almost down to the sand, and she wasn’t even close to full.

When Hannah decided to move on, she noticed another strange thing. She knew that she would find the best and most tender grass on the other side of the reef to her right, but when she turned toward it the water seemed to press her back. The tickle in her head made an ugly buzzing, but as soon as she turned to swim in the opposite direction, it quieted to a lovely low hum. This happened many times, until Hannah no longer knew where she was. She didn’t understand how she had wandered so far, but she wasn’t afraid. That seemed strange, too. She didn’t recognize the surrounding coral and rock, and she didn’t recognize herself. What had changed?

Now, maybe you’re wondering why Hannah didn’t stop to ask another turtle what was going on. It’s a very good question, and I hope you won’t find the answer silly. The Honu, as I mentioned, are extremely polite. They are also terribly shy. It’s hard to say which came first, the politeness or the shyness, but because they like their peace and quiet so much, they really hate to be a bother to anyone else. On the rare occasions that Honu try to converse, they spend so long clearing their throats and apologizing that they often forget what they wanted to say. A typical exchange might go like this:

Horace the Honu quietly coughs, “Um, so. Hm.”

Hannibal the Honu lifts his head in surprise. “Whassup?”

Horace sees that Hannibal is eating. “Oh, dude, I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ll come back after lunch.”

“No, man, stay,” replies Hannibal. “It’s a way tasty tuft. You should have some. Please.”

“Ah, I couldn’t, really. I had a crazy big breakfast, couldn’t eat another bite.”

Hannibal insists, “Come on, just a nibble, man.”

Horace snips off a few blades with his beaky mouth and delicately munches. “Sweet.”

“I told you, right?” Hannibal takes another bite. He chews contentedly with Horace.

Horace coughs again. “Um yeah, so.”

“Something you need, friend?” Hannibal asks. “Just say the word.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Horace tries to remember. “I mean there was. I don’t know.”

Hannibal shrugs. “It’ll come back to you. Or not. Meantime, there’s plenty of grass if you just want to chill.”

The Honu like nothing better than chilling—except when they get a tickle in their blood and they begin to wonder why. One night a dream gave Hannah something new to wonder about. She dreamt of a beautiful place where butterfly fish fluttered and silver monk seals somersaulted through brilliant blue waters. She dreamt of angelfish with sunbright faces, of corals that fanned out flat and wide as manta rays.

When Hannah woke from her dream, she wasn’t hungry anymore. She didn’t want to eat, she only wanted to swim. She had to find her way back to the place of her dream. She knew she’d been there before. That was what the tickle had been telling her all along: it was time to go home.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I've begun writing a series of stories for "middle readers" (the artificial segmentation of kids' reading experience seems silly to me and possibly pernicious, but whatchya gonna do?). They're stories with talking animals, which aren't supposed to interest "middle readers," but I forge mulishly ahead. Here's the beginning of the tale now in progress...

Hannah the Homesick Honu

Like every other green sea turtle she knew, Hannah tried to swim clear of trouble. "Live and let live" had been the Honu way forever, and if trouble seemed to find the Honu more often these days than it had in the past, that gave them all the more reason to love their peace and quiet. Once in a long while, a tiff would break out between two turtles over an especially tender patch of sea grass, but it rarely amounted to more than a nipped flipper and an hour's sulk before everything was right as Hawaiian rain.

Hannah had been hatched knowing that a little distance makes it much easier to be polite. Three feet is good, ten feet even better. Once she found a free spot to lunch, she munched her grass bite by slow bite, enjoying its coarse texture and bright flavor as much as if she had never tasted it before in her life. In fact, she'd been eating the same thing for years, too many years to count. Why bother counting, thought Hannah, when the sun reached through the water and laid its warm hand on her shell? Why count years, or days, or moments, when just now the grass swayed and danced, flickering from gold to green, green to gold, and back again?

A pleasant tingle at the outer edge of her flippers told Hannah to rise from her meal. She swept effortlessly to the surface and popped her head out of the water's embrace, into the thin air. She opened her nostrils and filled her lungs in one great breath. If she'd been counting, she would have known that this took her only a second, but that was enough for her to catch sight of another head bobbing above the water, a head that did not belong to a turtle.

During the course of her uncounted years, Hannah had encountered many of the strange, peeled creatures known as humans. They looked to her like overgrown clams without shells, or octopuses with half the limbs and none of the grace or smarts. Most of them splashed noisily at the surface—Hannah thought they might be trying to swim, but they never got much of anywhere.

In Hannah’s experience, humans did not understand that distance was the better part of good manners. Unlike the Honu, they seemed to love trouble. They chased fish for fun, poked the soft bellies of anemones, and lifted rocks without any thought for the privacy or comfort of the creatures underneath. Worst of all, if Hannah ever let them close, they reached out their long arms with the starlike grabby ends and tried to touch her, sometimes even to hold on to her flipper or shell. Just thinking about it made her panicky.

For all these reasons, Hannah carefully avoided humans, and she didn’t understand at first how this one had surprised her. Then she realized that it was quiet. It didn’t thrash or splash; it dived down through the water almost as easily as she did, but it didn’t swim any closer. She could see its curious eyes peering at her from behind the funny cover it wore over its face.

Hannah felt curious, too. Was this really a human, or a gentler something she’d never met before? Before her fear could stop her, she swam toward it. Not too close—she knew how far those arms could reach—but close enough to admire the tendrils of moss that waved in the water around the creature’s head. It definitely looked like a human, but it didn’t act like one. It made Hannah wonder, and she’d never really wondered before.

When the new human rose back to the surface, Hannah followed it, even though she still had plenty of breath in her lungs. With the moss now slicked flat over its head, the human inhaled sharply through its mouth. It made a series of soft, musical sounds, looking at Hannah all the while. Then, wonderfully, it swam away.

Photo by Hugh, husbandry volunteer at the Aquarium of the Pacific

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Even on a day when ninety-five degree temperatures have me and the dogs hiding inside with the shades drawn, I want to give a shout out to the glories of sunlight. It's been dealt an unfairly bad rap in the last few decades, and I say this despite the fact that my mom nearly lost her life to melanoma.

I've been reading a terrific book by Spencer Wells, Explorer-in-Residence (there's a great oxymoron) at the National Geographic Society and point man for the "Genographic Project," whose given mission is to map the early demographic expansion of homo sapiens through analysis of contemporary DNA. In Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, Spencer considers the many ways that our very recent (by anthropological standards) cultural transition from semi-nomadic hunting and gathering to settled agriculture has reverberated in our health and the health of the planet. The idea that we are living at odds with our genetic heritage is not a new one, but like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Spencer has genuinely original and evocative insights into this disconnect. (His focus is much broader, his evidence less exhaustive, but he's admirably coherent and generally careful not to overreach. His chapter on climate change is the only one I found thin and comparatively rote.)

Early in the book, Wells recounts an exchange with Jonathan Pritchard, an evolutionary geneticist who's been analyzing recent flux in the human genome, functional "hot spots" on the chromosome where change has been unusually sudden, suggesting dire environmental pressure and a corresponding urgency in our adaptation. According to Pritchard, the most dramatic metamorphoses in recent millennia (he's focused on the last ten thousand years) have involved the genes controlling pigmentation. As Wells notes, this doesn't come as much of a surprise; pigmentation is the most obvious of the differences that mark us out from each other, obvious enough that it unfortunately obscures how recently and closely we are all related.

For Wells, it is simply confirmation of the known, and "consistent with what anthropologists had long argued: that humans evolved originally in Africa with dark skin. It was only as we moved out of the tropics and into higher latitudes, with their lower levels of ultraviolet light, that we had to lose some of our dark pigmentation in order to allow the deeper layers of our skin to synthesize enough vitamin D-- something they only do when exposed to enough UV light. The reason Europeans have pale skin-- and part of the reason some of us have fair hair-- is that our ancient ancestors needed to make enough vitamin D for their bones to survive the rigors of northern life thousands of years ago."

Old news, as he says. And yet this ho-hum observation seems only in the last few years to have trickled over into considerations of UV light and human health. Even Wells himself makes offhand reference many chapters later to the "myth... of a healthy tan," without acknowledging that it's been replaced by the myth of a healthy pallor (which is potentially much more dangerous). Dermatologists have run amok in their single-minded terror of cancer and other less threatening forms of skin damage. In so doing, they have dismissed as an irrelevance one of the skin's most vital and extraordinary functions: the manufacture of vitamin D, which supports much more than the health of our bones. Maladies as diverse as arthritis and autism may be caused in part by vitamin D deficiencies. Their incidence skyrockets as we slather ourselves in sunscreen. (And that sunscreen is itself potentially carcinogenic. When? Wait for it... when interacting with strong sunlight! That, my dear Alanis, is ironic.) Likewise, the racial health gap, while no doubt exacerbated by socioeconomic stratification, may persist in part due to the excess of protection that dark skin provides at high latitude.

Medical research remains inconclusive on many of these repercussions, but the genomic record makes it plain: we need the sun. We got rid of pigment at an evolutionary sprint as we moved north-- not because it's generally good to be white, but because we depend so heavily on the agency of ultraviolet light.

Granted, with a longer average life span comes a higher risk of troublesome or fatal damage to the glorious and hardworking organ that "covers me from head to toe, except a couple tiny holes and openings" (thanks, David Byrne), and this should teach us moderation in UV exposure as in all things. Our increased mobility as a species also means that many people of varying colors are living at latitudes ill-matched to their pigmentation. But my instincts as a phototropic San Diego kid were basically sound (and need to be honored more consciously now that I've migrated north): I love the sun and the sun loves me. At least a little.

P.S. I had always assumed that our production of vitamin D operated on a kind of "pay as you go" economy: whatever you got on a given day, or maybe week, would have to be used pretty much immediately, or it would somehow decay (or be filtered out by the kidneys like the excess vitamins we take as supplements that turn our pee a violent shade of green). But I've recently read (in secondhand sources whose reliability is open to question) that, in climes with big seasonal variations in usable UV radiation, we stock up in the summer for our supply in the winter, when the sun is too low to do us any but psychological good.

Only about five more weeks 'til the fall equinox, my brethren and sistren (pink and brown!), so get that sunlight while you can! Just think of it as a fine whiskey, served neat-- sip and savor.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Inessential pleasure

From an interest in behavior modification and positive reinforcement naturally follows an interest in the origins and workings of pleasure, so I had really been looking forward to reading a new book by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. I mention his fancy pedigree because it serves to demonstrate his central thesis: through evolutionary advantage or accident, we ascribe value to things and derive pleasure from them according to the invisible essences with which we imagine they are endowed by their histories or identities. (Bloom seems to favor but never commits to an accidental account, wherein this "essentialism" is inessential to our survival, the kind of non-structural element in our genetic blueprint that Stephen Jay Gould would have called a spandrel.)

Bloom writes persuasively of art forgery and celebrity auctions, noting how many millions more a Picasso will fetch than a "Picasso," no matter how beautifully the fake may be executed, and observing that the value of a shirt worn by Elvis will plunge if it is washed. I must concede his point when I note the wild discrepancy between the sloppiness of his broader argument and its respectful (in some quarters glowing) reception. It seems clear evidence of the power of the Yale essence to short-circuit critical judgment.

I don't like to be harsh, but Bloom promises so much more than he delivers. His subtitle is especially misleading, when the book's scientific morsels are so few and so poorly digested. My disappointment became outright exasperation when I came to his discussion of fiction and the pleasures of virtual pain. Even as he takes on a subject that urgently requires subtlety and a fine blade, his wits are blunted for a stage fight. In the absence of any concrete evidence, he argues that the pleasure we take from fiction arises primarily (essentially) from our awareness of its artifice, our appreciation of the fact that it was constructed (for our pleasure) by some guiding intelligence.

This logic is maddeningly circular and falls to pieces as soon as one considers the ubiquity of crummy fictions. If a play or novel or film fails to please me, I am pained to think of the effort involved in creating it. Furthermore, if I am swept up in a story, nothing is more likely to spoil the fun than a gratuitous flourish of virtuosity, one that clips the guy wires suspending my disbelief. (Bloom acknowledges this danger but almost immediately dismisses it.) Yes, the critic and the expert have their own modes of enjoyment, and these may be richer than anything the unschooled can know, but surely they are incidental to the main current of pleasure in fiction, and not the other way around.

Thus Bloom dodges the question-- he speaks of creative virtuosity without asking what it is. How does William Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Buster Keaton delight an audience? By what means do they make us their instruments and play upon our frets so masterfully?

Here's a typical feint. In his chapter titled "Safety and Pain," Bloom examines "the classic guy-slips-on-a-banana-peel scenario." He writes, "This can be funny, particularly if you haven't seen it a thousand times and if the actor is skilled at conveying his surprise. But the same situation is not typically funny in real life. I spent much of my life in Montreal and I've seen many people tumble on ice on city streets. Onlookers wince or they reach to help, or they turn away, but they typically don't laugh. This is funny in fiction, not in real life." He notes the relevance of an actor's skill, but that doesn't dent his conviction that the humor here derives from the dislocation of slapstick from reality. He doesn't consider the possibility that they just don't know how to fall funny in Montreal.

I'd offer two counterexamples, one from each side of the fictional divide. More than twenty years ago (yikes), I was walking across my college campus on the first day back from summer break. The sound of my name drew my attention down the street to my right: my good friend Sven was gliding toward me on his skateboard. "Sven!" I exclaimed with a smile, then walked directly into an enormous, hollow lamppost. It resounded beautifully as a gong and left me flat on my back. I looked up to find Sven caught between horror and hilarity, unable to stop laughing even as he asked me if I was alright. I had to laugh too. The timing, the surprise, the social embarrassment, the weird beauty of the music we made together, the lamppost and I-- all these things contributed to the joke. But it owed nothing to fiction, as my aching head attested.

On the virtuosically constructed side, there's a "classic guy-slips-on-a-banana-peel scenario" in Buster Keaton's movie Sherlock Holmes, Jr. that I will never tire of watching, because it marries grace so delightfully with mishap. I did not stop laughing after I learned that Keaton literally broke his neck performing the stunt, though my pleasure in it became complicated by wonder and a sympathetic wince.

In short, the "essentialism" that Bloom describes seems an interesting epiphenomenon, but an unpersuasive candidate for the source of our deepest pleasures.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Special 'ops

Planche à Grief

On Monday, we lost our lovely nut of a kitten, Hopkins. She was hit by a car just twenty feet up the road from home. I've been trying to focus on everything that could have been much worse. She went very quickly, and she breathed her last while we held her close. It took more than a little courage for the two women in the car to come to our door (our neighbor Chuck told them which it was) and deliver the awful news. I don't know whether it was the driver or passenger who told us, "I think your cat's been hit. I'm so sorry." I don't want to know whether the one who was driving was speeding or distracted, because that knowledge might cloud other knowledge. Here's what I do know: she felt terrible, and it could easily have been me in her shoes (or seat).

Hops lived dangerously, as Pete and I allowed her to do. She was mostly smart about cars, but sometimes lounged and rolled in the middle of the sun-warmed street. She tussled with other cats, eluded coyotes, and once backed a raccoon out of her favorite tree. The implicit contract that we made with her a little more than eight years ago had a safety waiver and innumerable "roaming charges" in the fine print. She loved her freedom, and we loved for her to have it, but we knew that we made an irresponsible choice when we let her come and go at will. Irresponsible with regard to her safety, the safety of neighborhood songbirds, and the purity of the local watershed. Irresponsible, as it turns out, with regard to a driver who might not have time to stop if she darted across the road. We decided years ago that we'd probably never have another cat, because we couldn't imagine making a different choice. Still we'd hoped against the odds that Hops could sustain her reckless, intrepid ways into a ripe old age. We can't believe she's so suddenly gone.

We laid her on her well-loved scratch pad (her "planche à griffes," chewed up, taped up, fragrant with catnip) and buried her in the front yard. We planted a red-twig dogwood over her grave. We don't think she'd be offended, as she always preferred dogs to cats and looked to Barley as an older sister. Our neighbor Tracy came by with flowers and a cross as we were laying the stones. (Did I mention that we have wonderful neighbors?)

Hopkins' presence will remain vivid in our home for a long time to come. Pazzo will keep running to the window to search for her whenever he hears her name. Pete and I will keep listening for her chirp in the mornings and missing the sweet furry weight of her in the evenings.

What is a lap for if not for Hops?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Behaviorism and the Queen of Diamonds

The sinister overtones that many hear in the phrase "behavior modification" arise from the perception that it necessarily describes the coldly clinical manipulation of one creature by another. The efficacy of classical and operant conditioning rests on our ability to generate involuntary responses to selected stimuli, a process that appears suspiciously like brainwashing. If someone acquires the power to circumvent my conscious intent, to play upon my more or less submerged desires without my reason's consent, what am I but a puppet?

It's no real consolation to observe that
, under the scrutiny of neuroscientists, the whole phenomenon of willed action begins to appear less and less substantial and may prove no more than a sustained delusion: it's a necessary delusion, indispensable to our sense of mental coherence. The related delusion that we might more productively dispense with is the conviction that reason rules (or should rule) our behavior. It leads us to assume that we should seek change in ourselves and others through the careful application of logic, when the truth of our experience (and increasingly of scientific study) is that emotions have infinitely more suasive power than reasons do. Or, as Pascal noted, the heart has its own reasons, to which reason must give sway.

Maybe the general mistrust of behaviorism actually speaks to an intuition in this direction and a general anxiety around the mixing of "cold" logic with "warm" feeling: someone with the power to stimulate my most primal emotions (joy, fear, desire, disgust, etc.) may well abuse it if he regards me through the lens of reason as a mere object for the accomplishment of his ends.

This is jumbled and something I need to work through at much greater length (you see my faith in reason perseveres!), but I do know that my emotional entanglement with my training "subjects" is the sine qua non of my use of behaviorist methods.

Not that emotional entanglement is any guarantor of virtuous ends. (The Manchurian Candidate supplies a case in point.) Sigh. I'll have to try to catch this tiger by a different toe.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sweet little lunatic III

I wouldn't say my push to adopt "Zeke" was totally reckless, but in the mix of confused motives that drove me to overcome my family's skepticism, there was more than a dash of hubris. After seeing the remarkable headway that Barley and Kili had made in a few short weeks of clicker training, and after making noticeable progress with dogs at the shelter who appeared at first glance much more "behaviorally challenged" than Zeke, I had become smitten not only with a handsome pup but also with my nascent abilities as a trainer.

Even the most rational of us may be susceptible sometimes to magical thinking, and I have never been particularly rational when it comes to my relationship with non-human animals. All my life, I have entertained the fantasy that I could learn to speak with dogs, dolphins, eagles, wombats, elephants, and others (though my social ambitions have never extended as far as cockroaches or tapeworms). Clicker training looked to me like the golden key to the peaceable kingdom. Once we understood each other, we could all live together in perfect harmony, the naked and the furry, the crawling and the winged.

I had conveniently forgotten that the glorious web of interspecies relationships includes significant and not so peaceable distinctions like the one dividing predators from prey. In my enchantment with the prospect of mutual understanding, I had forgotten that, if you suddenly learned to speak "dog," one of the things you'd likely hear from your adorably hyper new adolescent kelpie mix is, "CAT!! MUST GET CAT!! AAAARGH!! CAT TOO HIGH! MUST VAULT OFF WINDOW SILL!! AARGH!! TRY AGAIN! FOILED AGAIN! TRY BETTER! NEVER GIVE UP! NEVER SURRENDER!!" I think that's a pretty accurate account of Zeke's internal monologue the first time he got loose in a room with Hops. We soon discovered that his antipathy for cats and squirrels was so strong that he would attack any trees or furniture that had once given his enemy safe harbor. (Pete has since wrapped protective chicken wire around the "criminal" fir and cedar in our back yard.)

Thus I learned yet again the value of humility. That old Greek lesson never seems to stick: keep your head down if you don't want the gods to notice and bop you one. Welcome to the great cosmic game of whack-a-mole!

On the upside, Zeke found his new name. "Pazzo" is Italian for crazy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Oh, joy!

The most unexpected-- and persuasive-- outcome of my early clicker training sessions with Barley was the obvious pleasure she took from the process. She had never guessed that I could be such a source of fun. Of course, I had also suddenly become a generous dispenser of treats, but the tiny morsels of processed lamb or turkey I doled out soon became icing on the click. (Mmm. Memories of my grandmother's beagle, Bruce, whose St. Paddy's Day birthday we celebrated with towering "cakes" of marshmallow-studded Alpo.)

Scientific study of animal behavior has only recently begun to allow for the relevance of emotional states to the process of learning. Again, this reluctance arises in part from epistemological rigor, a respect for the limits of empirical investigation and the impossibility of our directly apprehending any other creature's subjective experience-- the "black box" problem-- and in part (perhaps in the main) from a reflexive and unscientific impulse to distance ourselves from "mere beasts." I've just begun reading Jaak Panksepp's Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions and its first chapter summarizes most lucidly the history of the struggle to marry psychology with neuroscience, which struggle has been made more difficult by the refusal on the part of people on both sides of the divide to acknowledge and make better scientific use of the significant overlap (the structural and functional homologies) between the brains of humans and those of their mammalian cousins.

Even if Panksepp succeeds in legitimizing the scientific description of emotion in animals, it will likely be mediated by functional MRI or its future technological offspring: "Ah, there's the blood flow pattern we'd expect to see when a dog's ears and posture perk up, its (never 'his' or 'her') mouth opens slightly, and the speed of its response accelerates!" But no algorithm, however subtle and comprehensive, will ever name "joy" as well as "joy" does. Panksepp, very much to his credit, emphasizes the importance of folding non-scientific vocabulary into scientific accounts of emotion for the sake of clarity and (strange to say) accuracy.

If science were not so grand in its claims, if its practitioners more readily acknowledged the necessary gaps in its description of reality, I would not get so resentful of the ways that "objectivity" sometimes interferes with perception, so exasperated with the willful blindness and obtuseness that characterize much scientific research, especially when sentient beings are the objects of study. As I said earlier, I only became a fan of Skinner's methods when I put them into extra-scientific, personal practice-- and thereby corrupted them. If I want to be most effective as a trainer, I need to see the animal I'm training, not as a jumble of quantifiable properties and behaviors, but as a fluidly perceiving and feeling being whose mysterious intelligence is momentarily entangled with my own.

By lucky accident or divine symmetry, all creatures appear to learn best when they enjoy the learning. If it were not so, I would reconcile myself once and for all to being a crummy trainer, just to keep Barley smiling.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The proof is in...

As fascinating and persuasive as I found Karen Pryor's account of her experiences as a clicker trainer, my skepticism toward "mechanical" behaviorist methods remained strong until I finally tried them out. Reaching the Animal Mind has a narrative focus but does include some guidance for beginning and "crossover" trainers. (You can find more explicit and comprehensive instruction in Pryor's earlier book Don't Shoot the Dog.) All I needed to get started was a clicker and some treats.

It took all of twenty minutes for my doubts to melt away (granted, it was August, but still...). Barley sold me. I should preface any description of my conversion experience by noting that seven and a half years in her company had convinced Pete and me that, if dogs lived to please humans, then Barley wasn't a dog. This was the behavioral-phylogenetic syllogism that had encouraged us to think that she could be a dingo: the word on pet dingoes (those socialized early to human company) is that they enjoy domestic comforts without ever quite embracing domestication. Their wills remain resolutely their own.

While Barley hates to see Pete or me upset-- on the rare occasions that we engage in "intense negotiation," she tries physically to break it up by climbing into the nearest lap and licking the offending face 'til it's smiling again-- she's never been able to fathom how she might upset us, simply by doing what she decides she needs to do at any given moment. Her virtue is a given, so our reactions to some of her behavior baffle her completely. My friend Becca dubbed her the "guilt-free dog." I love and admire this quality in Barley, even if it sometimes moves me to mutter, "Why, you stubborn little cuss!" Usually because she's planted her feet and won't move except in the direction of cat poop. I've had plenty of time and opportunity to reconsider the soundness of the premise "dogs live to please people," but the fact remains that Barley is unusually indifferent to outside opinion and utterly offended by physical correction. As well she should be.

Her love of food (stinky food! crunchy food!) had given us the leverage we needed to persuade her that some human rules were worth following, but her curiosity and love of novelty had always pointed her away from "civilized" life. She'd fortunately outgrown her love of "bowling for toddlers," but given the chance, she often went awol-- bolting through an open door to investigate neighbors' yards, scampering up a ravine in search of coyote playmates (a story for another day). I already knew how eager Barley was to learn, I just didn't know how to interest her in what I had to teach. Or how to teach it clearly.

Suddenly I did know. Our "untrainable" dog learned more in a week of clicker training than she had in all the time we'd been together. Not coincidentally, I learned more about her. I'd finally answered the question "what's in it for me?" to her satisfaction. We discovered together that we could greatly expand the territory where our desires overlapped.

P.S. Pete admonishes me for my mangling of the title proverb. It should be: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Which makes much better sense but doesn't work for my purposes. So I call creative license!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Playing for keeps

We closed a satisfying four-week run of Proof with a matinee performance last Sunday. After striking the set and restoring the theater to black emptiness (a state of infinite possibility), we gathered at the BBQ joint around the corner for another demolition project, this one internal. A variation of the old Tootsie Pop question: how many beers does it take to get to the center of an actor after the play is done? I'm sure it depends on the actor-- after all, some don't drink anything stronger than cranberry juice-- but even a smart owl might have a hard time saying how we slip in and out of character while remaining perfectly, distinctly ourselves. A very smart owl might say we don't. We can't play at another self without allowing the self that's playing to blur and be altered. An actor's working philosophy and methods may encourage her to close the distance with her character or maintain a critical detachment, but there's no safe distance: she can't avoid getting touched, bruised, stained by the experience she shares with her fictional counterpart. Her work partly consists in deliberate failures of integrity.

There are many stories of "method"-oriented actors getting lost in the emotional and psychological wilds of the fictions they inhabit. I caught a cautionary glimpse of one famous disintegration back in 1989, when I saw Daniel Day-Lewis play Hamlet at the National Theatre in London. It was an extraordinary, incandescent performance, also-- quite palpably-- a risky one. Day-Lewis appeared to have only a fingernail's hold on common reality, and the ground was eroding fast. A little more than a week after the show I saw, during one of Hamlet's encounters with the Ghost, Day-Lewis experienced what he later described in an interview with Simon Hattenstone as "a very vivid, almost hallucinatory moment in which I was engaged in a dialogue with my father" (who had been dead for years). Day-Lewis left the stage and never returned, but this did not finally register with him as a professional failure. On the contrary, he counts it an unusual success: "To me, it was like a natural conclusion to the job I was doing. If I hadn't
arrived at that centre of confusion, I would have probably felt a sense of disappointment." He's nonetheless clear on the cost: "I don't think I had a breakdown, but I daresay I wasn't that far from it. I broke myself down."

That open courtship of confusion marks out the reckless (though in many cases highly disciplined) end of the broad spectrum of acting methodologies. At the other? Brechtian alienation? Mametian ventriloquism? It could be any approach that discourages emotional identification between actor and character as a dangerous or distracting indulgence. Unfortunately for those who would like to keep their selves whole and clean, even the "merely" muscular habitation of an alien persona may resonate inward.

Consider a recent bit of research out of Italy, as reported in New Scientist. In a study of patients with "locked-in" syndrome, unable to move anything but their eyes, Luigi Trojano discovered that they had great difficulty (relative to a control group) interpreting the emotional content of facial expressions. Trojano speculates that we depend
for our understanding of others' emotions on our ability to mimic them physically... which supports the further speculation that muscular imitation conjures emotion. A scientifically tenuous proposition at present, but it accords with the experience of actors and others whose masks shape and reshape their faces.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When positive is a bad thing

Ooh. Bad kitty!
We sometimes create unnecessary confusion when we mix terms of art with everyday language. Take the word "positive." Those of us who shelter under the wide umbrella of "positive training" mean "positive" in the way that most people do: we like to exchange good stuff for good behavior. Unfortunately, we get tripped up when we then try to explain the principles of operant conditioning that buttress our methods: "Well, positive punishment isn't actually part of positive training..." Aargh.

We might have an easier time if we substituted "addition" and "subtraction" for "positive" and "negative" in our description of the consequences that condition behavior. As awkward and ungrammatical as "addition punishment" might be, it would at least have the advantage of common sense. But for now we have "positive punishment," and I want to examine some of the fundamental reasons that it's bad not only in the moment for the trainee but in the long term for the trainer.

Sad to say, there are people who get a charge from punishing other creatures; we can define a sadist as someone who finds punishment (colloquially here, the infliction of suffering) reinforcing. These are often people whose insecurity runs so deep that they require cringing submission from dogs or children or spouses to reassure them of their power. The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article by Charles Siebert describing a shift in the attitude of police and others in law enforcement toward animal abuse: as they have come to recognize its strong correlation with other, human-directed forms of violence, they have begun to take it more seriously.

The fact that many serial killers begin by torturing animals is well enough established to have become something of a cliché in film and fiction, but I hadn't known how often animals are used as the levers of pressure in abusive family dynamics. According to Siebert, abusers will often threaten violence against a pet in order to bend other family members to their will. This kind of emotional blackmail has the horrible side effect of eroding empathy in the victim: a child who is helpless to protect a beloved dog or cat can only defend himself against the pain of identification by numbing himself to the animal's suffering, even to the extent of participating in the abuse.

Many (I want to think most) of us with pets use punishment more "judiciously," and yet it's difficult to make an indelible distinction between abusive and "constructive" punishment. On the question of what motivates abuse, Siebert quotes Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA's senior vice-president for forensic sciences and anticruelty projects: "I've spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence. And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime."

All social engagement requires negotiation. When we share our lives with other creatures, we often find that our desires clash. When compromise seems impossible, we may resort to force to impose our will. If we are not sadists, if our sense of compassion is strong enough that we feel the pain we inflict ("this hurts me more than it hurts you"), we punish because we're convinced that nothing else will work-- we don't know how else to interrupt or eliminate behavior we find unacceptable. In the heat of frustration or anger, we're often unable even to imagine other possible responses, let alone consider their relative efficacy.

Regardless of the soundness of our reasons and the resilience of our capacity for empathy, we punish because we can. We are only able to use pain as an "instructive tool" if we're at least momentarily in a position of superior power (real or credible): we either don't expect retaliation or are prepared to escalate our force if the other party fights back.

Committed positive trainers reject that contract. They recognize the fundamental imbalance of power that exists when one creature is dependent on another for its sustenance and many of its pleasures, but refuse in principle to exaggerate that advantage through the use of force. Indeed, many of our methods were developed in situations where coercion wasn't practicable, with wild animals in open spaces.

We reject punishment in principle, but as impulsive animals with many bad habits (maybe I should speak only for myself here!) we may sometimes find it difficult in practice to eliminate it from our training. Fidelity to positive reinforcement requires self-discipline, and so in the process of training other animals, we discover that our first, most important (and most challenging) task is to train ourselves.

Photo by Bob Pearson.