Friday, November 09, 2012

the user illusion

When I stick the biberon in poor Adam’s mouth, quieting his protests (at having to face another day scanning this strange planet, perhaps) and getting him into the rhythm of sucking down formula (yes, Le Leche league – we are incorrigible half and halfers. Wanna make something of it?), I have a long time – or at least a couple hundred gulps of time – to study his face.
It is interesting how many people like to tell you that the expressions mean nothing – just a galvanic movement, a tropism. While we all recognize the cry and even grant it some symbolic status – cry equals pain – the smile, or the laugh, are definitely secondary properties, or so the common wisdom goes. Pain is fundamental, humor – which requires a minimal capacity to compare and contrast – is second stage, and if you live long enough, it will be jettisoned and there you’ll be, back to crying and peeing in your bed in some old folks home. Yes, we orbit around pain, our black sun, and smile first as a trick of synaptic firings, and then as a control mechanism that mediates pain.
I’m reminded of the “user illusion” that the computer designers talk about. We sit down and look at the screen and see files and docs, and we think of files as being cardboard, and docs as being paper, and writing as being the application of an instrument to a surface. But this surface appearance is a delusion – it is algorithms all the way down, schmuck. Similarly, we glance about us, we are bright, we are alert, we think we get things, but the bytes of info we deal with are a pitiful remnant, an insanely edited fragment, of the bytes that bombard us. We not only can’t bear too much reality – try as we will, we will never even be able to see it.
And so yes, I too go along with the common wisdom here. I project. My subconscious gets an A in “existing as Roger”, while my consciousness gets, at most, a D+.
But I have to ponder the illusion, too. Last night, Adam was just barely asleep, and I had turned away to read, when he made a sound that made me turn back to him. He was, apparently, laughing in his sleep. Or simulating laughter.
This made me laugh. My laugh is real – his is not. But…
In a famous essay, Can a horse laugh, Robert Musil reports on seeing a horse laugh when it was tickled – although he says that this was ‘before the war’, and maybe since the war horses have ceased to laugh. Musil describes how he watched a groom with a curry comb make a horse laugh by tickling it on its sensitive spot, its shoulder blades. The horse acted “exactly like a peasant girl” who you would try to tickle – this was, remember, the ancien regime, which still existed pre-1914 – by moving out of the way and swatting with his muzzle at the comb. When that didn’t work:

“But the boy took the advantage. And when his curry comb got near the shoulder, the horse couldn’t stand it anymore. It turned around on its legs, its whole body shook, and it pulled its lips back from its teeth, as far as it could. For a second, it behaved exaclty like a person who has been  tickled so much that he can’t laugh anymore. The learned skeptic will object that it couldn’t have laughed in the first place. I’d respond to him that this is correct insofar as the groom was the one of the two who neighed the most from laughter every time. This does seem in fact to be a unique hjuman capacity, that is, to be able to neigh from laughter.”

And I haven’t even gotten to how Adam balls up his little fists when he sleeps and melts my heart.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Bringing up baby

Already I am dealing with it, the tug between convenience and integrity, between Satan and taking up, in a manner of speaking, your cross. Yesterday, we finally concluded that, evidently, Adam had grown beyond being palliated by a finger. When he wanted to suck, he no longer could be palmed off with a cuticled succadeneum. So I came up with the idea of a sucette - pacifier, which on the best child
rearing authority (i.e, The Simpsons) has a tonic and calming effect on the wee one. Thus, I sortied out in the dusk last night, and visited several pharmacies until I found one for the 0-3 months set, as the package helpfully advised. Coming back, I was eager to plug it into Adam’s mouth, figuring child rearing would now be a snap, what with the enormous docility that would flow from the thing.

The thing. Indeed, in the plain light of day, a pacifier is a rather disgusting thing. A pulpy plastic nipple that looks as appetizing as wet newspaper, attached to a band of plastic shaped in the form of mouth, except bigger, with a plastic ring – reminiscent of the ring in the snout of a pig – attached to the other side, so I suppose you can unplug the child. In my haste to apply the patented Simpsons treatment, I didn’t notice that the entire mechanism depends on the baby’s will. If the baby doesn’t apply the inward sucking, the pacifier will, evidently, fall out of its mouth. I was thinking more in terms of the cork on a wine bottle, but applying the thing, I saw that my vague image of how this thing would work forgot the perfect lack of will characteristic of most wine bottles (at least until after the fifth glass, at which point the bottle will start to blur itself and budge itself just out of reach of your hand).

Adam, sensible baby, tentatively took the plastic nipple in his mouth, sloshed it about a bit on his tongue, and discovered that plastic tastes much like Mitt Romney’s breath after one of his talks to his fund raisers – a stale mixture of commerce and chemicals rendering the whole inedible and unfit for buccal manipulation.

Watching him scrunch up his face and reject the pacifier, I was, a., proud of my boy for rejecting the entire Dow chemical fiasco that has acidified the ocean and is destroying the atmosphere, and b., disappointed that there was, after all, no pablum for the harried parent.

I imagine that I will apply the pacifier again. Infants and the children they grow into are eventually ground down by parental insistence when it comes to the artificial ingredients of life. Besides, too much rejecting of plastic by Adam will worry me – I have a fear of him growing into one of those seventeen year olds with the whispy goatee, the hemp clothes, and the bongo drum, such as roam around Austin in the summer and camp at Barton Springs. But … well, fuck me and my tastes. In any case, the pacifier was a bit of a lesson.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...