This was part of a feature I wrote and shot for Crosswinds about Santa Fe's Ecoversity, a nonprofit educational center that explores and demonstrates concepts of sustainable living, ecological design, and responsibility for the wise stewardship of the Earth. I spent half a day there, touring the grounds and talking to the administrators. One of them was looking at me a bit oddly for much of the time we talked. At the end of the day, she turned to me and said, "You remind me so very much of our founder. You've got her same energy." When I went home, I looked up Frances Harwood and discovered that she had also founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder. I was flattered, to say the least.
If my grandmother had been Native American, this is how she would have looked. I loved how this woman radiated equanimity and compassion. Presuming she was probably born in the 1920s, how much change in northern NM she had witnessed.
Rohatsu, or Bodhi Day, marks the day in 596 BCE, when the Buddha achieved enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, India. After leaving his family and possessions behind at age 29, he sought to discover the meaning of life, particularly the reasons for its hardships. He sat under a pipal tree and vowed that he would remain there till he found what he was seeking. On the morning of the eighth day, he realized that humans suffer because of ignorance. But ignorance can be overcome through the Eightfold Path he went on to elucidate. This day is generally regarded as the birth day of Buddhism. We celebrate the point in time when the Buddha achieved enlightenment and escaped the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Buddha was enlightened...when he looked up at the morning star, the planet we call Venus.The brightness of this planet was seen by Buddha from the depths of one week of samadhi [deep awareness]. The Buddha received that brightness with the same eyes of zazen [sitting meditation] that enable us to realize perfect enlightenment.
One week straight of this deepest possible samadhi was burst through by the brilliance of that morning star. A whole week's experience of that world burst the brightness of the morning star, plunging into the Buddha's eyes and giving rebirth to the Buddha's consciousness.
He cried: "That's it! That's it! That's it. That's me! That's me that's shining so brilliantly!"
Top photo: Heidi Utz
Middle photo: NASA
Bottom excerpt from "Morning Dewdrops of the Mind: Teachings of a Contemporary Zen Master," by Roy Tribelhorn and Shodo Harada Roshi
Sometimes a big thing begins with a small bowl. About 2 months ago, maybe even on the day when Hobie was born, I was on one of my usual book-shopping trips to Goodwill. I happened to stray over to the cookware dept., as I am always looking for baking pans. Mixed in with the glassware was this little bowl. I took one look at it and couldn't resist--it looked so happy. I'd been considering adopting a dog, and thought maybe if I had a food dish for him, he might show up. But this one was so tiny, and the dog I was looking to adopt would most likely be around 40 or 50 pounds. Ah, well, maybe I could use it for something else. The lady at the checkout stared at it with appreciation, then asked me if I would be using it for my kitty. I just smiled. The next day, I went to the grocery store and bought a can of dog food. Just in case...
I started visiting shelters religiously. At one point, I fell in love with a sizeable Rottweiler named Gordo. But I later found out that he tipped the scales at 110 pounds, which would not sit well with my landlord. A couple weeks ago, I walked through the shelter doors expecting the usual assortment of mutts and yappy Chihuahuas. But as I turned a corner, I suddenly was greeted by a litter of the most adorable puppies I'd ever seen. When I saw this face--and 8 others like it--staring at me from behind the bars of the cage, I suddenly realized why the bowl had been sitting in my cupboard for weeks. It was the perfect size for a ... puppy?
Nah! There was no way I was adopting a puppy. Just the week before, I had declined my friend Ann's offer of a really sweet Christmas housesit because she had...a puppy. I thought I'd hardly sleep and the little one would need constant entertaining. At my advanced age, I just wasn't set up for such intensive parenting.
Well, life had other plans. It always does. The shelter attendant asked me if I'd like to SEE one of the puppies. Uh oh. Well, sure, why not. "But only if you're seriously interested," he cautioned. Hmmm...certainly I was NOT seriously interested. However, it wouldn't hurt to tell a tiny white lie to get to play with such an adorable puppy for a few minutes. "I don't know how serious you'd like me to be, but I sure wouldn't mind spending some time with that one," I said, pointing at Hobie, who was then known as "Belmont."
He then led me to a large visiting room with little Belmont, who began to quiver and shake, as he'd likely never been away from his brothers and sisters before. We sat down on the couch together and stared into each others eyes. His were tiny little almonds, deep brown with blue at the edges, as if they had just turned color the day before. Damn, he was precious! The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back on the floor and he was stomping all over me, and I was laughing hysterically at little paws prancing all over my body and a furry, 5-pound being insisting that I play with him. What a good little player! He had me rolling all over the floor trying to catch him, but then would settle down so easily for cuddling and a hug. In those 15 minutes I spent alone with him, I laughed more than I had the entire week before. There was absolutely no turning back. As we headed out the door to the front desk, I told myself that if this were not meant to be, a roadblock would appear. Something would go wrong in the adoption process. It would refuse to happen.
The people at the county shelter are really, really sweet. They took one look at me and this tiny cling-on hunkered down against my chest and burst into these big smiles. I filled out a very brief application, they read it over quickly, and a few minutes later...I was tucking Hobie into his seat in the car.
Oh my God, I now owned a puppy! I have to admit that some of my expectations were confirmed. Being a new puppy mom is a bit like being a new human mom. There is constant watching. Constant playing. Constant listening. Frequent worry. And behavior modification at 10-minute intervals. But the endorphins also kick in, and there are so many angelic moments, so many times when you find yourself laughing and laughing, so much affection and soft fur nuzzling your skin--so much that makes all the stress worth it. Like the little face staring up at you, delirious with happiness and obviously confusing you with God.
[N.B., Here is the new version of this piece, which I just sent to Salon.com.]
As we head into the last year of the decade, I’ve been thinking about what they’re going to call our roll into the 21st century. You know, those who write the history books, the pundits, the same guys who come up with lines like “Tiger is a Cheetah.” What will the era ultimately be named?
Undoubtedly we dwell in the Information Age, a time of pervasive digitization, and that seems to offer an easy appellation. But maybe it’s more the effect this development has had on our hearts and minds that defines the tenor of the times: our stepping back from human relating and stomping toward our digital devices like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead.
As we seem to become increasingly detached, I wonder about the arc of this ostensible advance. Could it signal the beginning of our impending obviation on Planet E? Is human life meant to off itself not with a grand, Jesus-strewn apocalypse, but, ironically enough, through its very own efforts at “development”?
Some say we are moving toward a time (roughly circa 2050) when human presence on Earth will be edged out, as technology rushes headlong to a point of “Singularity.” Futurist thinker Ray Kurzweil defines this era as a time when technological advances begin to unfold so rapidly that normal humans cannot keep pace and are cut out of the loop. At that point, Strong Artificial Intelligences and cybernetically augmented humans will become the dominant life forms, thus showing human history the door. Perhaps this is the backstory to Cormac McCarthy’s Road.
I can buy that eventually technology may trump biology but find it hard to believe that such a threshold could be crossed within 41 years. Then again, Kurzweil’s predictions have come to pass before, and technology evolves infinitely faster today than could have been fathomed as we flipped through our floppy discs a decade ago.
For many, digital devices and culture now consume a huge hunk of our daily bread. Just 25 years ago, few individuals could boast a computer in their homes, practically no one had cell phones, and a “hi-tech” household sported a cumbersome cable TV box and a 20-pound VCR it took an hour to convince to record one sit-com.
Today it’s a rare person who doesn’t own both computer and cell–frequently both in one–to which they’re often fanatically devoted. Some have designated these times the Attention Age, as we create and consume media and information like water, funneling it along the channels of our social media canals like gondolas through Venice.
This Brave New World seems to be riddled with paradox, however. Walt Whitman once advised, “Only connect.” And people are apparently connecting more often than ever before. With all the cell-phoning and texting and emailing and Smart Phoning, we seem to have sprouted digital umbilical cords with those closest to us. Yet this form of relatedness can feel woefully inadequate. Like fast food, it projects a semblance of nourishment. But can we be said to be deeply communicating via a text message? A tweet? A thumbs-up response to a Facebook post? At the heart of our hyper-presence lies an eerie absence, a self-perpetuating void we try to overcome by slapping our friends’ virtual backs on Facebook and sending quick texts and forwarding emails to let them know we “care.” Yet ultimately, the result can feel like drinking skim milk when we long for a rich, silky cream.
But if we are indeed moving toward absenting Mama Earth of our humanity, perhaps this is how it’s meant to be. Maybe what I might call the “Age of Detached Connection” is a step in the evolutionary progression toward the Global Android Village. Perchance this is a weaning process, and the Internet has become the transitional pacifier before we cut our cyborg milk teeth. And just maybe the Jetsonian children of tomorrow will honestly prefer a Zhu Zhu Pet to a living, breathing hamster, and we who pine for heartbeats and hamsterly élan vital will be considered hopelessly superannuated.
But it’s hard to blame them. Children have lived their whole lives with screens and keys. And with all the simulated connection in cyberspace, it’s easy for any of us to imagine we’ve got it going on. People “meet” without ever laying eyes on each other; they “talk” without ever opening their mouths; they “hang out” without ever hugging or touching or gazing into each other’s eyes. If it weren’t so life-forsaking, it would be pretty damned convenient.
Teenagers seem particularly ripe for this technological plucking. A recent NPR report noted that the number of teens pursuing driver’s licenses has decreased by millions. In the late 70s when I raced to get my license on the morning of my 17th birthday, it was generally considered a rite of passage, as eagerly awaited as legal drinking age and high school commencement. But many kids now have such well-stocked rooms, loaded with Blu-Ray and DVD players, gaming systems, computers, musical instruments, Wii, cell phones, and iPods, that they feel little compulsion to leave, save for the dreary obligation of school. They can game online with people across the world, so that in-person friendships assume less importance, and friendly relating takes the form of a specific, targeted activity. This is quite different from my memories of getting together with other kids just to “hang around,” an amorphous term that implied a distinct lack of goal orientation. A lot of great creative projects emerged from that free-parking time.
But with its easy-to-navigate alternate reality and predictable set of responses, technology can be an irresistible Siren. Its largess of anonymity offers the opportunity to be more honest in some ways and more deceitful in others. Within its maws, each one of us gets the chance to create an entirely separate identity, an avatar that may bear little resemblance to the one we appear to have in 3-D. Added to these de facto identities are literal avatars populating such metaverses as Second Life (and its corollary, Teen Second Life), the highly nuanced virtual community that offers the options to socialize with other avatars, spend “money,” own “land,” display art, perform live music and theater, practice religion, and even have online sex. As of October 2009, more than 16 million residents had passed through Orientation Island.
Each of us citizens of cyberspace creates his or her own holograms, abstract models of what human connection looks like in screenless reality. And of course, for many, this adaptation to our timidity in social situations is great news. We have successfully engineered a series of high-tech workarounds for human discomfort within the 3-D landscape of flesh, blood, and emotion. But is creating such skewed identities really improving the scenario? The act of holograms’ colliding with holograms still can’t provide the soft nurturance and engagement of the senses that our still-human brains and bodies require to support healthy life.
Is this the time to stop and admonish, to prophesy doomsday if we don’t mend the error of our ways? Or are we bumping up against simply “what is,” based on some foregone conclusion about the fate of human life on Earth? Can individual humans have an impact, opt out of such a strong tidal wave, the Macy’s Day technological marching band? And is such a backlash even desirable, or would it serve as a roadblock in the development of consciousness? What would The Tao say about attempting to push against what feels like a river—though one so desiccated that it may be antithetical to life itself?
Perhaps our very weaknesses as human beings have flung open the door for another “life form” to enter and develop qualities that have eluded us. This calls to mind some of the classic sci-fi android films, such as A.I., Westworld, and Blade Runner, in which the drones can more readily show empathy and compassion than their human counterparts. In the heartbreaking trajectory of A.I., a young droid travels the world for more than 2,000 years, feverishly searching for the love of a mother who abandoned him. In Blade Runner, the cyborgs express the height of compassion by sparing the life of the main character, a human intent on killing them.
Have we come down with the ultimate spiritual ailment? That the human race needs to outsource our love, to create machines capable of its expression because we have so botched the job? If a machine can love better than we can, then really what is left for us to do besides strum a few chords on Guitar Hero and tweet about it? At which point, it might just be time for Armageddon to sling around a few locusts and smite us with ulcers.
Last night, Debi stopped by to bring me a little gift to cheer me up. She’s just wonderful—she can’t help it, she just is. When she said it was a gift for me and Hobie, I was thinking maybe a dog-training manual. After all...he’s a wild child, and perhaps it’s time to whisper in his ear some sweet nothings about civilization. But it was actually way better than Cesar or the Monks of New Skete. The gift was a book about how to rediscover joy through watching your dog’s delight in everyday life. Called Guardians of Being, it combines the words of Eckhart Tolle and art and cartoons by Patrick McDonnell, who draws the Mutts comic strip. So many awesome reminders of living in the present moment, the sacred bond that we create with a dog, and the complete reciprocity of our care for them and theirs for us.
It is a wonderful reminder that dogs and cats are happy because they don’t get caught up in painful thoughts of the past or worries about the future. They just are. In one strip, a little critter is whining to his dog buddy, “I was thinking of ALL my problems. I was thinking of ALL the pain of the past and...I was thinking of ALL the uncertainty of the future. And I was thinking poor, poor me---my sad life. And then I was thinking how LITTLE time there is...and I’m really thinking it’s all just...hopeless. What can I do?” He puts his head in his paws and begins to cry. Almost shrugging, the dog looks at him and says, “Shtop thinking.”
Tolle also imparts a great message about learning how to celebrate life by being completely present with it, like a dog when he’s out on a walk fills his entire being through his senses. Through living in the moment, and that moment alone, a dog will wring all of the possible pleasure from it, unencumbered by what has occurred even 5 minutes before. In another strip, a man and his pup are out jaunting along the shoreline. The man says, “Earl, it is so nice to get away from it all!” The puppy looks nonplussed, and thinks, “I guess...although I don’t have that much of an ‘all’ to get away from.”
My swirling, bouncing puppy can leap 3 feet in the air at the mere idea of food. The same food he’s had morning, noon, and night for the past 10 days. He can derive fits of joy from a biscuit that’s no bigger than the top of my finger. And he can entertain himself for 15 minutes straight with an empty yogurt container.
After he eats a meal (which lasts all of about 15 seconds), he comes and finds me in the house, then launches into a fit of tail-wagging so vigorous that his entire lower half dusts the floor like a mop. This morning when we first woke up, he was so thrilled to hear the sound of my voice that he ran over, curled up next to my hand, and began to lick every square inch of it with the force of his love and admiration. Gone from his mind were all the ways I had frustrated his desires, the day before, when I'd left him in his crate and he'd bellowed at the top of his lungs, all the ways my goals and desires intersected with his not at all. He had dismissed those within minutes after their occurrence. And with the dawning of a new day, all was forgotten, forgiven, and better yet, celebrated! Dogs seem to have hard-wired in their brains that the key point to life is, first and foremost, to love with all your heart.
And in some ways, we make it utterly easy for them. Often, domesticated canines have a primo gig. Someone feeds and protects them, and they don’t have to make a living. They don’t have customers yelling at them and breakups that tear them apart and clinical depression that decks them. And they don't feed their own misery by sitting around listening to Amy Goodman or bleak NPR reports from Kabul. Sure, they're less complex. But one of the many reasons we’ve chosen them as companions is that they bring us back to the essentials: how fun it is to play, how satisfying it can be to eat a great meal, how good it feels to give your body a nice long stretch, how relaxing it is to take a nap after a big, healthy walk.
As Tolle puts it, “What is it that so many people find enchanting in animals? Their essence—their Being—is not covered by the mind, as it is in most humans. And whenever you feel that essence in another, you also feel it in yourself.”
Thank you, Hobie (and Eckhardt, and Debi) for reminding me of all of this.
[N.B., I wrote this story many years ago, and it's still one of my holiday favorites. A few years ago, I gave a reading at the Taos Writer's Conference, and found myself cracking up so hard with the audience that it became difficult to read. Enjoy! And keep in mind, it's not quite as fictional as it would seem...]
Eugene Thatcher “Bucky” Davidson was a 12-year-old boy trapped in a very bad marriage. You could see it in his eyes, ducking for cover behind the horn-rim equivalent of orthopedic shoes. In them, a combination of his mother’s cyclone path of orbit and his own search for the nearest emergency exit. You could see it in his head, exposed at the cowlick, like a baby whose skin had yet to grow over its fleshy pink patella. You could see it in his pants, purchased in the young men’s department but imbued with a certain sensibleness befitting someone four times his age.
Our mothers had gone to school together, and thus we’d had some sort of vague connection since birth. Secretly, I rued the day they ever crossed paths. We’d bumped into each other in doctor’s offices and public spaces—Bucky and his mother walking in the park holding hands (retch), me pushing my mother on the swing. I thought this guy the biggest geek on the planet, northern New Jersey’s very own Piltdown man.
I was 11 years old and spent most days after school listening to Simon & Garfunkel records and caring for my mom, who suffered from ferocious migraines, depressive sensitivity, and a particular ill-suitedness to domesticity. Evenings when she was feeling better, she’d take us to Willowbrook Mall, where Bucky’s father, Big Gene, played organ in the Hammond store. His countenance completely placid as he pressed his fingers deep and hard into the plastic keys, Gene Davidson was a sight that compelled morbid fascination. To his rear, crouching in a corner, sat Bucky, his father’s biggest—though surely not only—fan. Arms hugging his knees close to his compact body, the boy listened to impassioned versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Misty,” soaking the music into his pores, lost in the place his mother tried frequently to rouse him from.
I still have a Polaroid photo of Bucky at this time, perched in front of our Christmas tree, his eyes slightly crossed, angry at the camera. The whole contingent had arrived—Ruth, Big Gene, young Buck, and his five-year-old baby sister. They’d rumbled up our long driveway in their sputtering stewed-tomato VW bug on Christmas Eve. I remember my mother’s groaning, “Who could that be at this hour?” as she struggled to push the tree aside and squint out the window. Then the ominous, “Oh, no...”
We had put up the Scotch pine that evening and sat languishing in the fit of energy and trauma it had exacted from us. After calculating the best angle at which to position the pine for maximum branch exposure, my father had finally stopped yelling at my mother and the tree an hour before. Both seemed relieved. My mother had lain on the couch with a cool rag on her head, looking as if she were going to vomit and begging me to bring her some Bufferin. I began to wonder if the labor pains of celebrating Christmas were medically advisable for those predisposed to mals a tête.
When we heard the car doors slam, a tactical plan quickly emerged. We would run into the front room—stay away from that door!—and pretend to be out caroling or slurping cocoa at a neighbor’s house. “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel up to...,” my mother started.
“Rat a tat tat,” sounded Gene Danielson’s massive, hairy, organ-thumping hand against our back door pane. “Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat.” Almost musical, without quite breaking the glass. If you strained, you could hear “Silent Night” in the rhythm of it.
Since I was the smallest, my mother sent me to peer out into the kitchen from our hiding place. Her anxiety was palpable enough that I suddenly felt a bit like Anne Frank. Just left of the dangling dog leash, I spied their sappily grinning faces, Gene appearing pleasant as all hell, and Ruth with that weird sloppy loopy look that had never so much as licked a glass of holiday punch. “Helloooou... Hellooouu, hellooou—Merrrrrrry Christmas everyone!!... Hey! Isn’t anyone home? It’s Ruth and Gene and Bucky and Little Girl.... Hellooouuuuuuuu??”
My God, they were persistent. And seeing them out there with snow pelting down their backs on that cold Christmas Eve, I could not in good conscience recommend that my mother continue the “we’re-out-caroling” charade. “They look pretty happy…,” I attempted. “It’s almost Christmas.…” My mother turned to glance at my father, who could not be reached for comment. “They might have presents for us,” I added. In those days, I would suffer any geek gladly for the right present.
“Oh, OK,” my mother relented. She was a major sucker for those of weak linkage and poor boundaries, and my father’s circannual Jimmy Stewart sentimentality had set in. Our family marched through the darkened kitchen to meet theirs in a fusillade of merry Christmases and hugs through heavy parkas and camel car coats. I hated Ruth Danielson’s hugs more than just about anyone else’s. Her odd smell and questionable breath always lingered on me longer than the supposed uplifting to be derived from such feel-good moments. Big Gene was somewhat better, though a similar olfactory ripeness made me wonder what the two of them bathed in. Bucky looked like he was trying to put on a vaguely festive face, but that decking the halls had taken its toll on his young, easily undone spirit. The little girl was smiling sweetly, though clearly lost in all of this nonsensical outpouring. She walked toward the basement and never did return.
“Well!” Ruth piped up, chipper as a March hare on an April morning, “We stopped by because it’s CHRISTMAS! and we couldn’t think of any, not any, other folks we’d rather spend CHRISTMAS! with than the Utzes! So here we are.” Then, in a barrage more staccato than reindeer patter on a tin roof, “Are you having a happy Christmas yet? Is Santa Claus going to come tonight, Carey? Did you make a list? What presents did you ask for? Did you leave some food out? He gets hungry, you know. Little Girl made a big list, and we put out a nice tray of cookies and some cranberry juice. We forgot to clean the chimney, though, Gene!” Her laughter, bordering on a cackle, sent a DB-1 full of shrapnel into my Christmas Eve reverie. “Ha! Ha! Ha! Gene, we forgot to clean the chimney! Gene?! Gene?!” She poked him hard. “Gene!”
“Oh,” he tuned in ever so remotely, like a ham radio on a stormy night. “Oh, yeah, right, we did,” he said in the same flat, somber voice he probably used to proclaim, “I won the lottery,” “The house is on fire,” and “Ho! what a party.”
Realizing her spiel was falling on deaf ears, Ruth turned toward Bucky, pulled him close, and began to rub the back of his coat with delicious gusto. He leaned to the left, gearing up for the weave-and-dodge of a prize fighter attempting to break free of her grasp. “Well, Bucky here has something for Carey. Don’t you, Bucky?” she said.
“Uh, yeah,” he murmured, and with some effort wrested a crumpled red and green package from the big pocket of his long, steel-grey parka. “Here.” He stretched out an arm in no specific direction.
“Bucky, you can put your hood down, we’re inside,” his mother advised.
“Uh huh.” He was as out of it as a plastic punch cup.
“Bucky, give Carey the present, will you? Bucky? Gene, get Bucky to give Carey the present. Bucky, give Carey the present. Oooh, does anyone have a camera? We ought to take a picture, don’t you think? We could go sleigh-riding tomorrow, you know, there’s a lot of snow out there. Over on the driving range, that’s where they do it. Tobogganing. Faye had a friend who lost his leg when they were tobogganing, didn’t you, Faye? What a sad thing. But let’s not let a little lost leg get in the way of a good time, shall we, kiddos?” Eight tiny reindeer were no match for Ruth Danielson.
Bucky stirred from his lethargy, and I swore I saw a microscopic snarl emerge from his left upper lip, his head tilted ever so slightly in his mother’s direction. The poinsettia paper sighed “hreep, hreeep” in his hand as he tried to ball my present into his fist. I turned in his direction and looked him squarely in the eye. Give me the present, dammit. I can’t wait any longer.
One eye drifted inward, and he placed the soft, mottled package in my hands. If they ever needed to dust for fingerprints, they’d check here first.
“Oooh, Bucky, she’s gonna love it. She’s gonna love it. Bucky made this, you know. Well, I helped with the crocheting, but Bucky did the best thing with it. Didn’tyaBucky?”
A look of terror crossed his face as I pulled on the first paper swath and unleashed the creature. Its black coat-button eyes—slightly crossed— glowered at me. From its sea-blue crocheted head sprouted lime-green hair—not just any lime green, but shaded, with a yarn that changed from forest to clover to mint to white like a bad peroxide frosting left long in the sun. The snarling mouth on Bucky’s progeny looked a bit too familiar, as if an accident of woolly DNA.
My mother, as usual, was far more encouraging than the situation warranted. “Oh, Bucky! What a beautiful doll!” she oozed. I ripped off the remaining wrapper to see its vastly crocheted body stuffed with white paper. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wonderful doll!” she added, going in for the Oscar. At the end of its long, distended gut hung the saddest touch of all: two black legs cut from thick swatches of semi-stretchy waistband material. I tugged on them, and the doll’s long, thin head plopped easily onto its chest.
“Thank you, Bucky,” I managed. “It’s nice.”
“But wait—Bucky, Bucky—show them! Show them what, what it does. Bucky! You’ve got to show them!” Ruth was practically gasping for air she was so excited.
He proceeded to take the beast from me, turn it on its belly, and twist a gold wind-up knob springing like a toadstool from the paper in its back. He twisted and twisted and twisted until the knob could budge no further.
“Bucky, you’re doing that too tight. Stop it. Stop it, Bucky!”
Suddenly, fiercely, “We Need a Little Christmas” poured out of the creature’s back with a shrieking intensity. It played loudly and lightning-fast—a pace no one could sing along with, though Ruth was gearing up to try.
“Oh, we neeeed a little Chris-mess,” she started in alto, then hit her church-soprano stride, “right this very minute. Bucky, sing, come on. Candles in the window. Gene, come on. Cookies on the spin-it. Yes, we need a little...” Ruth warbled on, accompanied only by the tinkling of the ever-slowing music box. Finally, the sound went south and began to twist and miss notes. Bleep a blleeep bleeerpp bleeeeeerrrrpah. Bleep. Bleep. Bleeeee-urp. It was so warped. It almost sounded like Gene’s Hammond at the end-of-the-night store closing, when he’d play soft legatos in a quiet minor key, and a look of peace crossed his face.
“HERE’s what we need!” Ruth screeched, in silent night¬¬¬–rending decibels. She pulled out a Thermos of eggnog, and I half-suspected she was about to baptize one of us with its contents. It was a heavy, green, industrial-looking Thermos, the kind that might well have served in an early ’60s bomb shelter, had the Cubans made moves more stealthy than Ruth’s. But meridian mania and jaundiced joie de vivre will always win out over Commie bastards and fighter planes, and Ruth’s flask met its destiny: to be filled with a creamy yellow liquid bound and determined to up the ante on our forcibly burgeoning holiday spirit.
She hoisted it high, then passed it around for all to drink. Fearing backwash from her mouth’s questionable past, I feigned an eggnog-related allergy and quickly shuttled the vessel to my father. It took his ever-analytical mind just two seconds to assess the contents of the cylinder, judge the relative proportion of redolent sludge to oral gratification, and pass it posthaste to his wife.
“Well, well, then,” my mom said, hoisting the canteen with convivial vigor, “a toast to Christmas Eve and being with our friends!” A forced, buoyant enthusiasm let her off the hook from actually taking a swig, as my father shot the tree a look to make sure its interpolated lights were flashing at correct intervals. Whenever social awkwardness got the better of him, he tried to make sure things added up.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Ruth responded. “Bucky, are you drinking this? Drink with us, Buck, come on. Show your spirit! Ho, ho, ho, and a bottle of eggnog! Hahahahahahaha! Get it? Eggnog? Instead of rum? No rum in this eggnog, no sir-ee. But you know what I do have? A little leftover from our dinner this evening. The Swedes say it’s supposed to bring you luck on Christmas Eve. Isn’t it, Bucky?” Ruth reached deep in the recesses of her camel coat and pulled out a small tin canister. A smell more distinct than her own filled the room, and women and children like myself would have been well-advised to clear the area. “Look at what we have heeeeeeerre,” Ruth said with a devilish lilt to her voice. “Will ya look at this? SARDINES!!!”
Bucky pulled his hood up over his head, until its fake-fur lining covered his nose. But in one fell swoop, his mother flung the hood away and shoved the tin under his nostrils, like smelling salts he’d never asked for. Suddenly, from behind the boy’s back flew the Crocheted Creature from the Black Lagoon. “Arrraggggghhhhhh!” Bucky managed, as he smashed the doll into Ruth’s face in self-defense.
“Heeheehee!” Ruth’s unfortunate sense of play responded. “Here you go, guys. How’s this for Christmas spirit? How’s this?!” And with that she plunged the doll’s nose squarely into the sardine can, over and over and over again. It emerged with a single gold, gooey fish lodged between its crocheted loops, right where its nose should have stood.
“Now, whaddya think of his good fortune this holiday season, everyone? Looks like he’s got luck coming out of his nose!!!!” Not sure if she would bust a gut or pop a lung, I edged toward the model train, circling its way around the Christmas tree.
“Come here, Bucky,” I offered quietly. “Let’s see if we can set up some new tracks for the train.” He looked at me, squinting like mad through the Coke bottles and wincing with his mouth. Up and down, left and right his lips moved, as if trying to avert a Yule tide of imminent danger.
“OK,” he said, as he huddled in next to me under the lowest branches of the tree. “Can we make it go all the way to South America?”
I nodded and drew the boughs close in all around him, covering his ears, his eyes, and the top of his small head like a great regal crown.
For the last week, I’ve been mulling what might be an apt name for the last decade, our roll into 21st-century America. What will the era be dubbed in the history books? Over the last 10 years we have become increasingly digitized. So, yeah, patently we dwell in the Information Age. But I’d argue that it’s more the effect this progression has had on our hearts and minds that defines the tenor of the times. A distinct detachment, a stepping back from human relating and a greater affinity toward machine relating. Does this signal the beginning of our impending obviation on Planet E? Perhaps human life is meant to off itself not with a grand, Jesus-strewn apocalypse but, ironically enough, through its very own efforts at “development.”
Some say we are moving toward a time (roughly estimated at 2050) when human presence on the Earth will be edged out, as technology accelerates so rapidly that we will reach a point of “Singularity.” Futurist thinker Ray Kurzweil defines the Singularity as a time when technological advances begin to occur so rapidly that normal humans cannot keep pace, and are “cut out of the loop.” He posits that Strong Artificial Intelligences and cybernetically augmented humans will become the dominant life forms, essentially marking the end of human history as we know it. Perhaps this is the backstory to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
I can buy that ultimately technology may trump biology but find it hard to believe that such a transition would be feasible within 41 years’ time. Then again, Kurzweil’s predictions have come to pass before, and technological development progresses infinitely faster today than could have even been fathomed a decade ago.
For most people, technology now consumes such a huge proportion of our lives. Just 25 years ago, few individuals had a computer in their homes, no one had cell phones, and household “high-tech” translated into a cumbersome cable TV box and a 20-pound VCR it took an hour to convince to record one sit-com.
Today, the techno ante has been upped, and it’s a very rare person that doesn’t own both a computer and cell phone, to which they may quite possibly be slavishly devoted. People create and consume information instantly and freely, and share it on the Web via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and YouTube.
This Brave New World seems to be riddled with paradox, however. People are supposedly connecting more frequently than ever before. And certainly with all the cell-phoning and texting and emailing and Smart Phoning, we seem to have created digital umbilical cords with those closest to us. Yet, anyone who’s ever watched the infant-screams-while-mom-cell-phones phenomenon knows that this form of connection can feel woefully inadequate. Like fast food, it has the semblance of nourishment, but can we be said to be deeply connecting via a text message? A tweet? A thumbs-up response to a Facebook post? Within our hyper-presence there is a certain distinct absence. It’s as if we are trying to make up for the emptiness we feel by slapping our friends’ virtual backs on Facebook and sending quick texts and forwarding emails to let them know we “care,” but the end result feels like drinking skim milk when we long for a rich, silky cream.
But if we are indeed moving toward absenting Mama Earth of our humanity, perhaps this is how it’s meant to be. Perhaps what I would call the “Era of Detached Connection” is a step in the evolutionary progression toward the Global Android Village.
And with all the simulated connection occurring in cyberspace, it’s easy to get fooled. People “meet” without ever laying eyes on each other; they “talk” without ever opening their mouths; they “hang out” without ever hugging or touching or looking into each other’s eyes. Young people now use the term “talk” to mean texting, emailing, IMing, or gaming with—not anything that involves sound utterances. A friend of mine recently complained that she used to at least be able to monitor her kids’ phone conversations, but now with everything done through texting, she has no clue about even the tone of the “conversation.”
Teenagers do seem particularly ripe for this technological plucking. A recent report on NPR noted how the number of teens getting driver’s licenses has decreased by millions. In the era when I first got my license (on the very first day I was eligible), it was generally considered a rite of passage, as eagerly awaited as legal drinking age and high school commencement. But many kids now have such well-stocked rooms—filled with Blue-Ray and DVD players, gaming systems, computers, musical instruments, Wii, cell phones, iPods, etc.—that they feel little compulsion to leave, except for the dreary obligation of school. They can also play games online with people across the world, meaning that in-person friendships assume less importance. Again, it is noteworthy that their friendly relating takes the form of very targeted activity. This is quite different from my memories of friendships, when you got together with other kids just to “hang around,” and generally lacked goal orientation. As I recall, a lot of great creative projects emerged from that free-parking time.
But technology can be a slinky, seductive temptress, with its easy-to-navigate alternate reality and predictable set of responses. It affords a great deal of anonymity, which offers people a greater opportunity to be honest in certain ways and more deceitful in others. It gives users the chance to create a whole separate identity, an avatar that may bear little resemblance to the one we appear to have in 3-D. I’m speaking metaphorically, about the de facto identities we all construct as cyberspace residents. However, there are also the literal manifestations of this phenomenon in such arenas as Second Life (and its corollary, Teen Second Life), a metaverse in which one wanders a highly complex virtual world, socializes with other avatars, spends “money,” owns “land,” displays art, performs live music and theater, practices religion, and can even have online sex. As of October 2009, more than 16 million accounts were registered.
Anyone who spends time in cyberspace has essentially created holograms, abstract models of what human connection is generally believed to entail. Is this an adaptation to our inherent reticence in social situations? Are we simply engineering high-tech workarounds for human discomfort within the 3-D landscape of flesh, blood, and emotion? Is creating a skewed identity really helping the problem? Obviously, the act of holograms colliding with holograms doesn’t provide the soft nurturance and engagement of the senses that our still-human brains and bodies require to support healthy life.
Is this the time to stop and admonish, to prophesy doomsday if we don’t mend the error of our ways? Or are we bumping up against simply “what is,” based on some foregone conclusion about the fate of human life on Earth? Can individual humans have an impact, “opt out” of such a strong tidal wave—the technological march ever forward? Is such a backlash even desirable, or would it serve as a roadblock in the development of consciousness? What would The Tao say about attempting to push against what feels like a river—though one so desiccated that it is possibly antithetical to life itself?
Perhaps our very weaknesses as human beings have opened the window for another “life form” to enter and develop qualities that have eluded us. This reminds me of some of the classic sci-fi films about androids, such as A.I., Westworld, and Blade Runner, in which the androids can be more capable of showing empathy and compassion than their human counterparts. In the heartbreaking trajectory of A.I., one of my favorite films, a young android travels all over the world, in a span of more than 2,000 years, feverishly searching for the love of the mother who abandoned him. In Blade Runner, the androids express the ultimate in compassion by sparing the life of the main character, a human who is intent on killing them.
Can this be interpreted as the ultimate spiritual ailment? That the human race needs to outsource our love, to create machines capable of its expression because we have so failed at it? And does that bring a certain rightness to the notion of an Apocalyptic slate-wiping?
Hobie turned 52 days old today! As befits a Libra with an Aries moon, he had a rather balanced day that turned rammy toward evening, concluding with his very first barks. Prior to today, I thought he would be only a wimperer, but having had his desires frustrated by having to remain in the car for a bit too long, he looked at me when we got home and let out several strong woofs that let me know he meant business.
Hobie was quite a hit at the homeless meal, and many people passed him around and got to cuddle with him. Several people said, "He has completely made my day." As a Libra, he appreciates a gracious compliment. As an Aries, he knows for a fact that it's true.
After he got done sweeping, today was Wild Man’s first bath. It was clearly the greatest indignity he had ever suffered, and he looked at me like I was a lime green space alien for immersing him in a big tub of water and pouring it all over him till he was down to the size of a dill pickle. Then the water agitation began. His, not mine. It was like being inside a Laundromat-sized washing machine on high test. Like, 18 quarters. Did I need that extra shower today? Apparently I did. Did I need a second baptism, Southern Pentecostal style? Apparently I did. My clothes will dry in about a week. So will the seven towels. The ceiling, window, and walls may take a little longer.
Hobie. Is. Not. A. Water. Dog. Rinse and repeat. :-)
Today we went to Petsmart. It took us more than an hour to get out of the store because everyone was fawning over Mr. Hobo. He picked out a nice selection of treats, chewies, and new toys...and then we spent another 20 minutes trying to get out of the parking lot.
Thanksgiving came a bit early this year. This afternoon I adopted a new family member. He's a 7-week-old border collie--an October baby, just like me (and a Libra). His name is Hobie. So far, he's only herded me about 3 times. His favorite toy is his big brown moose, which
is almost his size (about 5 lbs.). He came from a litter of 9 of the cutest puppies you'd
ever want to see, all freckle-nosed and beautifully marked. The underside of his white-tipped tail is outlined in brown and he has some brown fur around his ears. I've wanted a B&W border collie for many years--since I saw the one in Babe. He'll probably grow up to look a lot like her. Right now, he's resting comfortably at my heels as I type. We're hoping to get some sleep tonight--aren't we, boy?
Last week, a Swiss music publisher contacted me because he is planning to publish the complete catalog of a composer with whom my mother extensively collaborated back in the 1950s and 60s. While I was trolling the Internet looking for some information he might find useful for the book, I came upon this snippet on a site designed to inform relocating businesspeople:
About Little Falls
Little Falls is a medium sized community found in the northeastern portion of the state of New Jersey. Little Falls has a population of approximately ten thousand nine hundred residents, and is technically considered a township of the Garden State. Little Falls is situated in Passaic County, and is currently governed by Mayor Eugen Kulick. Little Falls has a history dating back past the community’s incorporation as a township in the year eighteen sixty eight. ..The educational needs of Little Falls are met by School #1, School #2, School #3, Passaic Valley Regional High School, and Montclair State University as well as other regional private institutions, colleges, and universities. Two notable residents of Little Falls are illusionist David Blaine and author Lois Utz.
My reading had been going well until that last sentence, which stopped me dead in my tracks. Whoever penned this bit of content—obviously well vetted—had perhaps fallen under the influence of David Blaine. My mother has not wandered the streets of Little Falls, New Jersey, for 23 years.
Or has she?
I started to give this a little thought and began to wonder if, perhaps, she’d taken up with Blaine the Illusionist on one of his trips to the Great Beyond and was now back to sauntering Stevens Avenue, hanging out at Tony’s Pizza, having a slice with her old friend Vickie. And with all the hullabaloo surrounding reincarnation, messy as it must be, maybe it just sort of slipped her mind to try and let me know.
After all, Little Falls is the kind of town it’s very easy to slide in and out of. When I went back for my college reunion in 2003, I walked the streets just the way I used to when I was 12--and seriously, nothing had changed. My best friend Frankie’s family still had their grotto to the Virgin Mary set on the front lawn in the tomato garden. The DeFazios were unloading groceries from their 1966 Plymouth Barracuda, which still had nary a scratch on its black hull. And 2 blocks down, Kenny Sheleigh was still dragging a lawnmower across the huge patch of grass adjacent to his rambling old Victorian. As I walked by, almost 20 years since the time I’d last walked by, Kenny yelled out, “Hi, Heidi!” without missing a beat. I’m quite certain he’d never noticed that I’d been gone since the Reagan Era.
So perhaps my mom had spent some time wandering the Elysian Fields, then decided that she preferred Duva Field, where Little League and basketball are a big deal on weekday nights. Maybe all the stress and strain of hanging out with a bunch of blissed-out angels finally got to her, and she decided that if it was good enough for Tony Soprano...
And after all, it would be hard for me to spot her. I'm more than 2,000 miles away, and believe it or not, there's no webcam trained on Little Falls, New Jersey. She could have completely snuck in under the radar--and there Kenny Sheleigh would have been with his lawnmower and golf cap, cheerily greeting her. "Hi, Lois!" "You always look so nice in that dress."
My mom didn't give a hang about electronic devices. Before she died, she’d never even touched a computer, and generally, dropping the needle on a record was about as big a technological challenge as she endured before calling for my help. So, obviously, even in 2009, she’s not going to be tweeting or blogging or Goggling or Bing-ing her progeny to say, “Yo! Word up! I’m back in the hood!” More likely she’d be chatting up a Sephardic poet at her favorite breakfast spot, doing some sketching, writing a little abstract free verse, dancing with some 20-year-old boy at a club, and shaking her head at all the displaced NYers, moving so fast with their heads buried in their screens. “What are they doing that for? They could be in Venice, cruising the canals in a gondola! Getting some sun on the Riviera! Painting the sky in New Mexico! Sipping au lait at a café in Paris! Eating cannoli in Italy!”
She would have been David Blaine’s friend, bought him cheesecake, flirted with him madly, and written a poem to fete him as he arose from being buried alive seeing visions.
Through all her struggles and challenges to her health, my mother believed in living life to the fullest. She had just enough French blood in her to speak fluent hédonisme et la vie de bohème--with a toast to Colette and Anais Nin. And even in death, I believe she’s still got it down.
This year on my birthday, I returned to the Tashi Chöling Buddhist Center, in the Colestine Valley, nestled in the Siskyou mountain range. Unfortunately, the day brought rain and my visit to the Mandala Garden was abbreviated, though I did manage to sneak in a few shots.
These statues, White Tara melding into Green Tara, are 20 feet tall. Green Tara is dedicated to enlightened activity, protection from fear, and the pacification of obstacles. White Tara counteracts illness, representing long life, maternal compassion, and healing. Tara is also known as a saviouress, a heavenly deity who hears the cries of beings experiencing misery in samsara.
Buddhists in Russia believe that Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is the White Tara.
New Mexico's mountain light breeds vast quantities of rainbows--sometimes double, sometimes triple. They line great swathes of sky, especially during monsoon season. White light hits the raindrops and disperses. Often they land just right. In Sunlit Hills, the clear beveled glass on my front door frequently served as prism, refracting bands of color throughout my light-filled casita.