Saturday, February 28, 2009

Comparative Affection Studies

You suddenly spy them through the trees: the bent and broken pens, small dark houses with snow-caved roofs within, where once the family pet was exiled from life. Over days, over nights, he went slowly mad from sensory deprivation. The sight of these abandoned places--thank god, I think, that at least this one is no longer used--makes me involuntarily avert my eyes; as if I'd chanced upon a decaying crime scene. The original sense of horror is amplified by the sense that it happened here long ago. That ghost howls may be heard upon the wind, if one is unlucky enough to stand and stare. It was unheard when it occurred; now it must be heard forever more into the future, the cry of tormented souls without cease.

It is no easier, just different, to confront the dog of today in his lonely pen, or tied on a short rope that holds him back from getting near the house, or anyone to touch. There are still plenty of such solitary confinement cells here in this suburbanizing, formerly rural place. And now I am putting myself in the direct path of ten of them.

Every Friday afternoon, in a sort of return to the labors and convictions of my youth, when I walked dogs at the holding pens of the Akron, Ohio, humane society, I am now doing the same at Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption. This is a state-of-the-art facility, run by a woman who travels the country to lecture on the subject of the wellbeing of shelter dogs, but it still amounts to dogs kept alone in a box, no matter that the runs are clean and bright. The dogs are still desperate. The dogs still make me feel desperate. They lead me at the end of the leash, pulling me through the doors, and they are looking for something.

When someone close to you dies, your life stops too. Fluids refuse to move, frozen in the stems of your veins. The power source to the record player has been pulled, and the needle in the groove makes the sound of a sudden awkward decrescendo: BWOOooom. Then the music is gone.

If the someone is a dog, you might find yourself unable to go for a walk in the woods anymore; what would be the bloody point? The woods enter your senses through those of another, so that in effect you are joined together in one being, one being with two noses, four eyes. Your dog's happiness is so much yours that it alone makes the world spring into existence. Without her, no happiness or beauties are really there.

If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound? If you walk in the woods and have no genie of a dog appearing and reappearing in the distance ahead of you, does the woods actually exist?

Look at the back of her head as she alerts. This vision draws you closer to her: it is the heart of tenderness, though nothing you could ever tell anyone else. Her ears are pricked up, reaching. The two tufts of hair on the inside quiver ever so slightly, and this is the split second of love.

As I stand in the kitchen this morning, shoveling cereal at high velocity into my mouth--no time to sit down, for it's a busy life--I watch two squirrels outside the sliding glass doors. They are linked together with invisible thread, moving like a single drop of mercury that occasionally breaks into two, then rejoins. Up, down, over the shrubbery. They draw sinuous lines; when one speeds up, the other does too. They search, combine, and react as if one, pixilated.

And I have seen a squirrel mourning the death of his other half, lying curled and partly smashed in the road. This loss: just before the dark hole of winter, when you need another half, badly. He stood up on his hind legs, as if needing to be closer to heaven to ask something; then crouched, turned, and ran. Just as quickly he turned back, ran over and sniffed her. What? But tell me: I don't understand. He was dancing alone now, the dance of disbelief. What has happened here? Oh, god, no.

Somehow, the absence of any possibility of telling him what has transpired (who has expired) was to me most painful. Confusion is more horrible than death; it is like seeing death come, and come, and come.

The dogs howl on the other side of their closed dutch doors. I can see them briefly through the bars on the window, leaping, throwing themselves at the portal which might, just might, open. When I do, they cannot be contained. I drop one leash, get the other on, pick up the first, fumble with a clip while this rotating madness hurls itself at all corners--this, now this is desperation. This fifteen-minute walk is an exercise in management only. They cannot "hear" the words of give and take, of the imagined positive-reinforcement training I was thinking I would give. Ha! No way in hell. Instead we go careening out over the icy snowbanks. I get dragged through muddy puddles on the driveway. They are searching, searching, madly. Then they pull me back to the door. There was something in there, wasn't there? At least there is something familiar there, in the face of the older woman who volunteers and serves them dinner, calling out to the sound of thuds on the other side of a door, "Hush now, there, Zee! You know, I'm coming. I can only move so fast."

I commit a terrible crime when I put them away. They suddenly see they're in front of the door of their cells, and then they pull back. No--no! Not in there! I don't want to go back in there, alone. And I pull them in. I throw a treat to the opposite corner, in a bid for a few seconds where I can close the door without them slipping back through at a run. Evil. I am a jailer, the one thing I never wanted to be in this life. But I have to be one, in order that they can have fifteen minutes of freedom at least.

I close the door, and the wails begin. They follow me out to the car. I want to get home and have a drink and not think about them again for a week, because it is like pain. It is like being left back there with them, alone and confused.

"Bye, sweet dog," I say. "Lovely dog." I have loved, and they have hoped, for a few minutes on Friday afternoon. The nights are long, and dark.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Victory Garden

There is a certain beauty in necessity.

Here is the golden coin I found buried in the dirt. At first it looked ugly, worthless, and it hurt my fingers to scrabble so for it in the hard ground. Important lessons arrive in frost heave. But now I am seeing how it reflects an impossibly warm light. After endless, merciless washings.

This is all I will say about the place I am at now. But for those impatient with the obliqueness crap, I offer a translation. I'm getting it. The stuff adversity wanted to teach me. Like a perverse Santa Claus, he cracked me savagely across the jaw, then stood back and smiled, proffering some lovely gifts wrapped in self-improvement-design paper. Way to go, Santa. They're just what I needed!

[Melissa est morte. Vive Melissa!]

Less wifty-vague is my second, related realization this week: that you're a fool if you don't plant a vegetable garden. (Apologies to those who don't have sunny enough ground, or any ground: you are not foolish, just unlucky.) This is going to become more apparent over the next year, alas, so I would encourage you to get busy now. This is that lovely time for dreams: the seed catalogs start appearing in mailboxes still nailed shut by frost in the morning. A fantasy on glossy paper. How I remember those years when I could fully participate in the mental sowing of those fantastical seeds, which would grow into lush greenness (unaffected by blight) and heavy fruit overnight, in dreams. As it was, in reality, I was able to have rainbow chard in profusion, and cilantro, basil, lettuce, and cherry tomatoes; dinner outside the door, already warmed by the sun.

This gift, wrapped inside our current state of woe--because growing a garden is a sensual pleasure, on top of being a new necessity--is a result of the crumbling of capitalist castles in the air. (Limestone is good for soil.) It may well bring us to a communist future, whether we wanted one or not. I'm not talking about the one when a controlling government snatches the best for itself, and distributes the crumbs to everyone else. And I'm not talking about the kind of communist future I glimpsed when I flirted with the actual Communists--yes, because I was a pissed-off, disaffected youth, but perhaps equally because I thought the charismatic blond guy who wrote their zine was awfully cute--the future where "bloody heads will roll down Park Avenue." (This he said with a wide smile, and that is when I decided he was maybe not so cute after all.)

I speak of true communism, where we have to help one another, or we won't eat. In lieu of the garden vegetables I probably won't get to have this year either, I will trade you some bread, either quick or yeasted, OK?

Just a quick question: Where in the stimulus package is all the money for community gardens? Just thought you might know. Billions for car manufacturers; none for good food. Well, something to think about, anyway, eh?

So this is not all bad, this backward gift from the economy. Sometimes adversity brings presents with tears rolling down them; sometimes with dirt clinging to their fragrant roots. Something to hold out to another in need, and receive back their thanks like sunshine. But do wash carefully; grit between the teeth, you know. Bon appetit!

Saturday, February 14, 2009


My name is Melissa. And I am an e-oholic.

Now that I have identified my illness--a dependence on the often illusory rewards of the computer--what is the cure?

It crept up on us slowly, didn't it? Ten years ago it was a mere tool, like the telephone or the scotch-tape dispenser. We used it when we needed to, then put it down. Then, day by day, moment by moment, the computer became more central to every aspect of life. People like me preferred it for communications, because we could hide our shyness and, in an e-mail, sound like the confident wits we'd prefer to be. There's a powerful reinforcer right there. And it's all about the reinforcers, baby.

For most of us, a communication from another human is inherently rewarding. It feels good, because a desire for communication is a part of who we are, biologically and therefore emotionally: pack animals whose survival, as a species and as individuals, depends on connections to others of our kind. Even a message from a robot wondering if we need low-cost Viagra (and appar
ently a whole bunch of folks do!) can feel satisfying, if only for a split second before we delete it. Disgusting.

The post office only delivers once a day; e-mail is pouring stuff into our boxes 24/7. I can almost remember the day I discovered what the Send and Receive button did. Watching those green bars progress into fullness, and boldface possibilities ensue, provides a rich moment of hope, particularly for the freelance writer: Is it a friend reaching out? An offer of work? That, on occasion, such is the case means we are on a variable schedule of reinforcement, and as Skinner wrote in About Behaviorism:

All gambling systems are based on variable-ratio schedules of reinforcement, although their effects are usually attributed to feelings. It is frequently said, for example, that people gamble because of the excitement, but the excitement is clearly a collateral product. It is also sometimes said that people gamble "to satisfy their sense of mastery, to dominate, to win"--in spite of the fact that gamblers almost always eventually lose. The inconsistency is explained by calling the gambler who ruins himself and his family "compulsive" or "pathological," his "irrational" behavior thus being attributed to an illness. His behavior is "abnormal" in the sense that not everyone responds with similar dedication to the prevailing contigencies, but the fact is simply that not everyone has been exposed to a program through which a highly unfavorable ratio is made effective.

We are all susceptible to it, in other words, because this is what natural selection has created us to be. (And by the way, happy 200th, Charles Darwin!) Yeah, that's right, a monkey hitting Send/Receive obsessively. It is also a very valuable procrastination tool, I've found, and therefore doubly reinforcing.

As Karen Pryor further elaborates, in her great book Don't Shoot the Dog! (whose title, she never fails to relate to her audiences, was not her idea, since the book is about operant behavior in people, as extrapolated from her work with animals):

The power of the variable schedule is at the root of all gambling. If every time you put a nickel into a slot machine a dime were to come out, you would soon lose interest. Yes, you would be making money, but what a boring way to do it. People like to play slot machines precisely because there's no predicting whether nothing will come out, or a little money, or a lot of money, or which time the reinforcement will come (it might be the very first time). Why some people get addicted to gambling and others can take it or leave it is another matter [another matter which Skinner explains above], but for those who do get hooked, it's the variable schedule of reinforcement that does the hooking.

In 1979, I was a walking, talking illustration of Pryor's example. The Greyhound from California to Utah passed, as perhaps all buses must, through Nevada. As soon as w
e crossed the state line, people were suddenly more eager to exit than our arrival at some pungent urinals and indifferent snack foods would have predicted. At last I figured out why: It was not the sun-splashed dust of the parking lot, or the promise of a bag of BBQ potato chips; it was the slot machines at every rest stop. Oh, how sadly absurd, I thought: as if they're going to win something. Pathetic. Then, at one stop, there was a nickel slot right outside the women's room. On my way in, I slid a coin in; I could, just barely, spare five cents to a new experience. Next, suddenly, clatter and clatter. Nickels flowed in joyful rain onto the floor. I scooped them up in wonder. At the next rest stop, I was elbowing the elderly and infirm out of my way in haste out the bus.

Now I sit all day in front of the keyboard like a test monkey, or probably more aptly, like a chicken at training camp. (Yes, peck peck peck: a way to finesse your training skills, because as explained by Teamworks Dog Training, which holds chicken camps a la Bob Bailey, the venerable behaviorist who created these camps for trainers, "Your chicken will be an excellent trainer--you wil
l be training an animal with lightning-fast reflexes and a very low tolerance for an insufficient rate of reinforcement. The other advantage of working with a chicken is that the emotional dialogue [like the one that exists between dog and human] is not a factor in training. Chickens do what works for them. If you don't set achievable criteria, and reinforce them at a high enough rate, they will simply fly to another trainer's table." How's that for a message, eh?) It cannot be repeated enough: All organisms do what works for them. Evolutionarily, cellularly, biscuit-wise: we're all living at the prodding end of some form of natural selection or another.

And so, on the morning walk, I say, tetchily impatient, to Nelly as she stops to sniff, and sniff, at some invisible marker on the side of the road, "Come on. I don't have time for this!" Yeah, because what I do have time for is hours upon hours sitting and waiting for my reinforcers to appear on the screen. I tell myself I'll just check e-mail for at most half an hour, then get on with the day, with my "real" work. The next thing I know, I look up and three hours have passed. Damn, then: I won't go online for the rest of the day. I won't!

I recognize the same sort of self-talk and bargaining that an alcoholic engages in--"Well, I'll just have one drink, because it's been a hard day," and then lo and behold they're all hard days, hard days which get harder and harder as time goes by. By four in the afternoon, I'm sort of tingling a little, or itching. "OK, maybe I'll just boot up and take a quick look . . . " and I read the e-mail, then hi
t Send/Receive a few more times. Peck, peck.

We should have known how speedily, how utterly thoroughly, these machines and their screens were going to take us over, body, soul, and economy. Because the portents were there, in the waking dreams we call "movies." The science fiction, the cartoons, of half a century ago: they all showed men sitting behind large consoles of buttons, and things lighting up (lighting up, just as in a Skinner box for rats or pigeons) that we were obviously meant to take as signaling quite important events beyond. It was coming, and they foretold it, though we did not heed. Science "fiction" indeed. We should have remembe
red that fiction always tells the truth. It is nonfiction that lies so dirty.

The thoroughness of this technologic takeover is seen in our language, or more properly, in our poetry, in the elided words (MySpace, eBay, Craigslist) where the space between things is now gone. We are all so much closer together now.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Do You Believe in Magic?

There are mysteries all around. (And no, I'm not speaking of reiki.) Things happen for which we have no explanation. So we reach to the lowest shelf and pull off the nearest product: hmmm, maybe this God Is All Around stuff will do the job. Whiter whites and brighter colors? Keep in mind our Energy Field soap powder!

Up until now, science has provided all the mystery decoding I've ever felt the need for; even when I couldn't understand it, or no one had yet explored it, I felt confident the concrete, the quantifiable, took care of everything under the sun. Notwithstanding my own addiction to my horoscope: even then, I knew that it was foolish on its face. But a good astrologer is merely a good psychotherapist, mining the universal themes and keeping it vague enough for anyone to locate himself as in a mirror. All a trick of exegesis anyway.

Lately, though, I find myself beginning to believe in another dimension. Or something. I don't know what to call it--the connectedness of love and subconscious thought? I am aware that everyone who knows me is, upon hearing this, suddenly very concerned about me. Please let me reassure you that I am not really going over to the Dark Side. You know, like Christianity. Indeed, I am every bit as committed to my atheism and biological determinism as ever. I am just, you know, thinking. Thinking there's something else in us. Something that resembles a psychic string between two tin cans.

I phone someone I have not spoken to, or (sorry) even thought about, in two months. She picks up the phone, a little breathless: she has just been to the post office, after a long trip, to pick up a package I had sent to her in early December. She is holding my gift and thinking about me as the phone rings.

A friend tells me a dream. A nightmare, really: he has gone to his garage, found the door open, and--empty. Someone has stolen all his beloved motorcycles. Later that day, for real, someone breaks into his truck and steals all the worthwhile gadgets one often keeps in one's truck: camcorder, GPS (with "home" nicely mapped out), and garage door remotes. Garage door remotes! The GPS to locate the garage door! Holy BMWs. The sudden recollection of the dream impels him to go change those codes, quick.

My aunt--the fabulous aunt, the one who helps keep my spirit together, with the force of her goodness and love--calls me to discuss one of my recent e-mails. (I can't imagine I was whining about something or other in it, but you'll have to use your imagination.) She's sitting in her car in a restaurant parking lot while her husband has gone in; he had suddenly declared himself in need of smelts--yes, smelts--for dinner. And in all of Salt Lake City, there is only one place to go for smelts. This Greek place. They rarely go to this restaurant, but tonight there was this need. This sort of smelt need. As we're talking, suddenly she gasps. "I don't believe it!" she tells me when she's somewhat recovered. She laughs out loud. Her daughter and baby grandson have just pulled in to the parking lot. She had no idea where they were going to be that night; and Salt Lake County is home to 1.2 million people, hundreds and hundreds of restaurants. So what were the chances they would end up in the same one?

Yes, what are the chances? The chances that these things are chance. Or are they something deeper than that, the connection between people and events and the opportunity that arises from them, the match's sulfur striking the box, for a burst of luck, like flame.

You have your own examples, I know. Occurrences that seemed too finely wrought in their synchronicity to be an accident. These things happen all the time, but we let them drift away. We don't have a paradigm into which to fit them, much less an explanation. Too wacky--and you're not a wacko! you're a proud member of the intellectual elite!--to think you were just visited by some mystery of the sixth sense.

Yet perhaps you were. "With what's unreal thou / Coactive art," says Leontes in The Winter's Tale. I think so too.