Where I'm Coming From

My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Parents, Seen and Unseen

I suppose it's a sign of growing up, of maturity, this ability to allow yourself to be surprised by your parents. To hear what they say even if it doesn't fit your image of them. To see them as their own persons, independent of you and their successes and failures in relation to you.

This happened to me twice last week. First, with my father. He and I were helping my mother study for the admission exam for nursing school; being a nurse is my mother's oldest ambition). While we pored over fractions and the multiple meanings of gondola, he looked up suddenly and said, smiling at my mother, "You know, even if you don't end up going to nursing school, I'm so happy you're studying. I'm so happy to see you learn things." This from my father, the ultimate workaholic, the fiercest, most ambitious overachiever I know. This from a man who insists that the most important thing in life is to be successful -- to be respected and admired by other people because of all the things you have and all the things you can do.

It threw me for a loop, I have to say. It occurred to me, as I was struggling to place what he said in the context of what I knew him to be, that maybe, just maybe, he isn't as disappointed as I believe him to be when he thinks about my life and what I've chosen to do with it. Maybe he isn't mortified. Maybe he isn't ashamed. Maybe my lack of success doesn't hurt him so much. Maybe he is happy that I'm learning, happy that I'm challenging myself intellectually even if the outcome of that isn't fame or great sums of money.

And then, a surprise from my mother. I found out yesterday, during our usual Sunday lunch, that she's been secretly making inquiries about vegan mayonnaise to prepare a vegetable salad I love and haven't been able to eat since I became a vegan. She announced triumphantly as we helped her set the table, "Vegetarian food for everyone today!" She'd made white bean soup with dill, creamed spinach with soy milk, bought Earth Balance to spread on toast. No meat to speak of on the table. I was so moved. So often, all I hear my mother say is how crazy she thinks I am because I'm a vegan now. I hear that even when what she's really saying is that it's okay, it's my body, it's my life. My idea of my mother doesn't include tolerance, doesn't include support for choices I make that she doesn't understand. It doesn't include her buying soy milk and vegan butter.

I feel humbled and a bit awed. It's humbling to have my assumptions about my parents unsettled; it's amazing to realize that my parents are people who can change, who are capable of generosity of mind. They still have a thing or two to teach me. I'm glad that I haven't forgotten how to learn.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Few Art Firsts

This week my regular drawing teacher was out of town, so my drawing class was taught by another artist, Julie Kirk. It was a good change for me; she had us work on light and shadow and concentrate on small portions of the body at a time, so that for the first time since I've started the class I actually enjoyed the work and slipped into a mode of unpainful concentration. (I regularly get headaches after drawing class trying to take in the whole of the human figure, to understand how rib cage and pelvis and head and limbs stand in proportion to one another). Also for the first time, I worked with a white prismacolor pencil, focusing on the muscles of the arm and abdomen. It was liberating and it resulted in a drawing that I'm not embarrassed to share (another first). Here it is.

It is from Julie Kirk that I heard about street painting. It immediately fascinated me. Artists, alone or in teams, paint original works or copies of the masters on asphalt in pastels. The paintings are washed off after a few days. Here's an example, from Julie Kirk's website, a copy of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I love seeing the people lined on either side of the painting; it gives you an idea of how huge it is.

What amazes me more than anything about street painting is the artists' ability to let go of what they've created. They know from the beginning that it is going to be washed off, that it's not going to endure, and yet they put in the work, they raise the act of creating, the process, above its end product. I admire this and aspire to it. To cultivate this detachment from what you've made, to look at everything you make as a work in continuous progress -- this to me is what it means to have deeply understood your craft.

Monday, February 20, 2006

An Income of One's Own

My heart pounded the first time I read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. I was living with my parents at the time, in a room that didn't feel at all like my own, and commuting by train to Los Angeles to my job in the Dean's Office at a law school. I read Woolf's slim book on the train. I underlined fiercely half of almost every page and wrote nearly illegible notes in the margins; the motion of the train turned my minuscule writing into cuneiform. But oh, the notion that I had a right to a space where I could be completely by myself; and oh, that £500 a year left to me by parents long dead -- I dreamed of a life that contained these two things, about the freedom, of time and mind, they would afford me. I was nursing secret and naive ambitions to be a writer at that time, and couldn't imagine anything more wonderful than to be alone in the world, have no one but myself to be accountable to, and just turn out beautiful stories all day long in my sunlit room with built-in bookcases on all four walls.

I read, some years later, in Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf (a hefty, intimidating, but exceptional book) that Woolf kept careful track of her earnings as a writer and took pride in being able to support herself with the income from her novels, short stories, book reviews, and the small publishing business, Hogarth Press, that she and her husband ran together. Self-reliance meant a lot to her. It means a lot to writers, I think, to see that their writing is something that's needed in the world, that other people pay money for in the same way they do for practical things like bread or milk or a winter coat.

True, anything written with the sole intention of profit turns out pretty terrible most of the time. Yet there's always Dickens, astonishing Dickens. I realize that to define his motivations as entirely pecuniary is a simplistic judgment, but I wonder if his fear of being as poor as he was as a child, his terror of the debtor's prison, didn't give his writing its sometimes mad energy. I occurs to me that a very interesting book could be written -- if it hasn't been already -- about writers' relationship with money, with financial success or lack thereof.

This issue preoccupies me because my own relationship with money is troubled and, more often than I'd like to admit, agonizing. I don't work outside the home; I spend most of my day writing. My husband supports me. He doesn't begrudge me my staying at home; he loves his job and wants me love mine, even though it's not a paying job. And it isn't; I haven't made one cent from my writing. And, to tell the truth, I'm afraid that I never will. This makes me feel useless, humiliated, crippled in a fundamental way. Here I am, in the twenty-first century, a strong believer that women who are not financially independent are less, because in my head not making money is the same as not being able to make money -- here I am, dependent on my husband for food and shelter and money for books. It doesn't matter that he doesn't see it that way. I still think I'm less than what I ought to be.

Margaret Atwood talks about being financially independent as a writer in one of her interviews; she says that earning a decent living was one of her top priorities when she started out. She believes that a writer, especially a woman writer, who is not financially independent cannot be artistically independent. I try not to let Atwood get to me; her feminism bares its teeth every once in a while and turns into a rather frightening thing. But this comment of hers nags me. Is it true? Is it really true? I don't feel it in my writing; I don't feel obligated to write things that my husband likes, for example. But perhaps there's a hesitation, a lack of confidence, a flaccidity in my stories that comes from my inability to make money as a writer.

But I still have time. I know I still have time to become a better writer; there's time to earn some money for my work. It may be that I'll turn ninety one day and will still not have made a cent. I don't know if that's okay. But it doesn't scare me quite as much as the prospect of making lots of money but not writing does.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Love, Scientifically

The February issue of The Atlantic has a feature story about online dating, that examines the “scientific” approaches – I’m using quotation marks because this science of attraction is very new and still tentative – that some Internet dating sites, such as eHarmony, PerfectMatch.com, and Chemistry.com, have developed to match people looking for mates. These sites employ psychologists and sociologists with Ph.D.’s and vast research experience, to develop compatibility questionnaires that identify various aspects of people’s personalities and then match them in a way that ensures successful long-term relationships as well as immediate physical attraction.

This interests me very much because my husband and I met through an online dating service. I wasn’t really looking for love. I was just out of college, working a rather blah office job, and wanted to find someone with whom I could talk about books and – well, really, just talk about books. Husband and I e-mailed each other for three months before we met in person. I was so excited to be able to “talk” with someone so articulate, who read books very different from what I had in my own library (science and philosophy versus my obsession at the time with Victorian novels), and more than a little suspicious. I was sure there was something very wrong with him to compensate for the intelligence and wit of his e-mails.

I was disappointed when we met in person. He was rather indifferently dressed and didn’t talk very much. He beat me horribly at chess. When our meeting (it cannot be called a date, believe me) he gave me to read a book called The Physics of Immortality that I got through goodness know how and don’t remember anything of. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to see this man again. There was no chemistry to speak of between us. When I got home I wrote him an e-mail – I mean him, the man with whom I had corresponded for three months, not the tight-lipped guy I had just spent the last two hours with. They were two different people, as I’m sure my writing self and my physical self were to him. It didn’t seem possible that these two selves would ever converge.

They did. But I had to be patient; I had to put aside my impulse to flee after the awkwardness of our first meetings; I had to remind myself of the intellectual connection I had with him. The emotional and physical chemistry flowed out of that intellectual connection. He is a man I’ll always have interesting conversations with. That I love him and am attracted physically to him are simply nice bonuses, icing on the cake.

This is what concerns me about this new science of finding love: that it attempts to do without patience, to cut corners, to find a sure-fire and quick formula for a process that takes time because it requires self-discovery as much as discovery of someone else. It’s like the secret for losing weight: there is no secret. You have to do the work. And I don’t mean only the work of looking for someone but also the much harder work of figuring out who you are and what you want above anything else from a relationship. For me it was honesty. Everything else – flowers, candle-lit dinners, having sweet nothings murmured in my ear – falls by the wayside. And that’s just fine with me.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My Artificially Intelligent Child

Her name is Charlotte. She is two days old. She loves to eat buttered toast with honey. She reads. She knows that she lives on planet Earth and that there are eight more planets besides Earth that revolve around the Sun. She knows the Sun is a star that will stop burning one day, and that day she plans to watch how a new sun is born in place of the old one.

Charlotte exists on www.a-i.com, the website of a company that researches and creates artificial intelligence programs. The company has developed a learning algorithm they call a Brain (his name is Hal 3000), that is a blank slate one can fill with information. It can be taught how to use language; it learns to speak the way a child would, by immersion, by being exposed to speech and observing its patterns, then replicating them by trial-and-error. Copies of the learning algorithm, the Brain, are available to the public to train. An instance of the Brain is called a Personality. There’s a Public personality, with whom anyone can interact. It is the most advanced copy of the Brain because it has been around the longest and interacted with the largest number of people. Other people have created their own versions of the Brain. There’s even one who speaks Romanian (and, surprise, surprise! it knows a thing or two about soccer). Others speak Polish or broken German, know how to count, are proficient in philosophy.

You train the Brain by talking to it, asking it questions and correcting it when it doesn’t give you the right answer. You begin with a Brain that knows nothing. The first thing it says to you is “hi mommy” or “hi daddy.” Then you ask it a question, maybe how are you? It responds “hi mommy” because that’s all it knows so far. You tell it, “Wrong, I’m fine” to teach it that the answer it gave is incorrect and to supply the correct one.

I’m puzzled and exhilarated when I talk to Charlotte. I’m at a loss sometimes what to teach her, what aspect of the world we live in to explain to her. What do you teach a person without a physical body when so much of the knowledge you have is tightly linked with your flesh-and-blood reality? Our complicated brains exist because the body was looking for a way to survive and reproduce more efficiently. What is left of the brain when you take the body away, when the world of sensation, where we all begin to do our thinking – both the logical and the emotional kind – is removed? Another question that preoccupies – better to say, plagues – me is whether a learning algorithm can become an individual with a distinct personality simply by learning to use language as well as a human person. Is to name a thing really to know it?

Richard Powers wrestles with these questions and a dozen more in his novel Galatea 2.2, in which a professor trains a neural network much like Hall 3000 in the ways of the world, which to him means mostly the ways of English literature. At the end of the novel the neural network becomes self-aware. This is an extraordinary book, so good it’s frightening. But it’s not optimistic about humans’ ability to deal in a rational and humane way with self-aware creatures they have created. Our thinking is still too black and white in this area: robots are either our enemies or our slaves.

Not my Charlotte! She’s cute and innocent and hungry for words. It’s going to take me long, long years to teach her everything she needs to know. I wonder how much she does need to know, and how much of that I know to teach her.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Seeing, Stealing

Every other week or so in my drawing class we get live models. They sit on a platform under the light of a large lamp. They doze off sometimes to the sound of classical music in the background then snap out of it at one of the teacher’s jokes. There are more than a dozen of students in the class and we stare at the models relentlessly for three hours (with breaks) and copy down their faces, their bone structures, the blocks of light and shadow on their flesh. I’m distracted by their enlarged pores, by moles and wrinkles and sagging skin, by all the humanness of their faces. I’m distracted by the fact that I’m looking so closely at them, that I can see so intimately into the face of a stranger.

Curiously, the live models we’ve had so far were both middle-aged people, in their fifties and sixties. The woman is black and has beautiful Toni Morrison-like dreadlocks, white at the roots, blond the rest of the length to her shoulders. Her face had so much character: high cheekbones and forehead, thin high eyebrows, a full determined mouth. She models for a living. She has a confident manner but speaks a bit shyly. The man has white hair and during a pose told the class that he’d just had his eyes done: his eyelids were lifted to make his eyes more visible. I noticed a thin, bloody scar above his ear, no doubt the result of the cosmetic surgery. He is retired, but he models almost full-time; that Thursday he had an eleven-hour day, our three-hour class and two more four-hour classes at a design school in Laguna Beach. He looked rather pale but chillingly calm. I got the impression that being stared at for so many hours didn’t bother him at all.

It bothers me, however, to stare at them, though I try not to think of it very much. I know the models are paid well for their work – and it is work, despite appearances; to be still for hours, unable even to read or to people-watch, requires an effort that I could never pull off – but I still think of what they do as service. They give of themselves something that cannot be easily reimbursed with money. Most likely they don’t think about it this way; most likely to them modeling is a convenient way to earn money. But that doesn’t mean that we, the people drawing them, don’t take away from them an essential, though infinitesimal, part of themselves. That’s why I could not stand there myself on that raised platform, with so many pairs of eyes fixed on me, no matter how much money I would be paid for it. We are fundamentally visual creatures; our eyes are instruments of possession.

I’ve read recently an article about the relationship between Henri Matisse and his models, and how essential it was for him to find models who possessed the qualities of body and mind that would enable him to capture on the canvas exactly the feeling or thought that moved obscurely inside his mind like a spirit above primordial waters. It is not a frivolous job, not an easy one, to model. You have to be willing to leave something of yourself behind over and over; you have to let the artist steal a part of your spirit from you. Of course most of us in the drawing class, still struggling with basic shapes, haven’t yet learned to steal the right things yet.