End of the Road

If you take Route 30 about 7 miles east out of Absecon, NJ, you dead end at the seashore near the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City. On a cool, crisp morning in October, there’s plenty of parking on the street. You can walk up to and across the boardwalk onto the beach without encountering a soul.

The Ocean Casino Resort is massive and cold and dehumanizing in a way that may have been mistaken for awesome and luxurious in previous decades, when the rooms were full of customers eager to gamble away their savings. Seeing it, now, is like time-traveling to a ghost city of the future. As the day warms up, people emerge. A few joggers and bikers pass by on the boardwalk. Men are fishing from the jetties. Down the beach, closer to the bay outlet, heavy equipment is adding boulders to the sea wall, as though it’s going to make a difference.

Chemtrails Over Naples

Naples is a little town off the beaten track in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. If it were on the beaten track – that is, the track regularly traveled by well-heeled renters and owners of lake-side property – Naples would not be the town it is, and I wouldn’t love it so. But it happens to be located a mile south of Canandaigua Lake, where property values are among the highest in the nation. Not so in Naples. The beaten track, and the wealth that flows along it, runs north. Naples, like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, is “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.”

One of the Naples business establishments that has survived the decades is the Middletown Tavern. It’s not actually in the middle of town, more toward the south end of Main Street. Which is convenient for me, residing as I do in the hills closer to that end that the other. It’s the one place in town where you can go for a burger and a beer any day of the week. It’s where the locals go, the bikers, the guys in overalls and John Deere hats. It’s where I’ve started going, because you’ll always feel like a stranger in Naples until you’re on a first name basis with the bartender at the Middletown Tavern.

I struck up a conversation with some guys at the bar last week. Barry is middle-aged, short haired, bespeckled – looking very much like the engineer that he is. I immediately felt a kinship. Not many engineers in Naples, and I figured he had a story. Ken is younger; not a lot to say.  More like what I’ve come to expect from the locals who have to deal with the occasional, obnoxious tourist who took a wrong turn on the wine trail and is enthralled with the “small town charm.” Poverty can look like charm to the untrained eye.

You’d think the weather would be a safe subject. You know, with all the rain, the high water, the thriving knotweed (my major contribution), the slow spring. And it was, at first. But then Barry and Ken exchanged glances and Barry said, “You wonder why you never see blue skies anymore?” Chemtrails, he said. Solar geoengineering. Climate control. “It’s all on the internet.” International conspiracies. I questioned his reasoning, his resources. I even asked him about Pizzagate. He demurred.

The conversation fizzled. I realized that I had been romanticizing Naples; imagining that it was still the place I knew in the ’70’s, full of artists and intellectuals and hippie philosophers of all stripes. But the decades have changed it, after all. Now it’s a retreat for retirees and conspiracy believers, a refuge for those with delicate sensibilities or a love for nature, a suffocating backwater for kids longing for a larger life, home to families and farmers and shop owners and musicians and the transgendered. In other words, like most places.

For a day or two, I was disillusioned. Then something clicked. Now I feel more at home there than ever. I’ve been reading up on chemtrails. It’s bullshit, of course, but makes for excellent beer talk.

Schopenhauer’s Hair

After 40 years as a wage slave, I retired last September. I quit as soon as I could. As soon as I was confident that I would have a dollar left at 92. For me, work always felt wrong, like putting on someone else’s clothes every day. Trying to be that person; trying to hide how I felt about the corporate machine I found myself in. Maybe in another profession I would have felt differently. But I stuck with the career I chose – or which chose me – for as long as I had to, and not a moment longer.

Friends and coworkers warned me that it might be rough at first. That I wouldn’t know what to do with the empty hours and empty days. That I would miss “having a place to go each morning.” That life would become meaningless without someone telling me what to do with my time.

That only happens to people who loved their jobs. Poor sods! Retirement was my reward, my atheistic afterlife.

I celebrated by spending October in the country – in a barn, in the Fingerlakes area. Rustic, but comfortable. A living space in what used to be the hay loft. The place had been neglected for years and needed work. I spent my days clearing brush, painting the weathered siding, making small improvements inside. Trapping mice. Watching the colors change on the hillside above the pond.

That lasted a glorious three days. Then I came down with Lyme disease, which put a damper on my idyllic retreat. My meniere’s got worse, too. I was a mess. I moved back to town in November and read Buddhism between doses of doxycycline and meclizine. My daughter visited and made me eat vegetables. I slept a lot. The holidays came and went in a blur. I gazed into the abyss and it gazed into me.

I read a lot while I convalesced, and at some point stumbled onto Schopenhauer. I fell for his philosophical pessimism and the way he embraced Eastern thought. But mostly, it was his hair. I think mine might get that way, if I stop cutting it. I can do that now. That’s part of the reward. To acknowledge the absurd; to look ridiculous. I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas. But it’s not too late!

I will return to the barn and wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled and my hair like Schopenhauer’s. And when I can’t pack any more dirt under my nails, I’ll head into the village and drink cheap beer at the Middletown Tavern and discuss deer ticks and knotweed with guys in John Deere hats.

It’s taken me 63 years to get here. If I live long enough, it will have been worth it.

 

 

 

 

Anthropomorphizing AI

Artificial intelligence is hot. Self-driving cars and autonomous robots are here. We converse with Siri and Alexa and Google Assistant. It’s easy to believe that these systems and devices have achieved some degree of human intelligence, perhaps that of a child. They seem almost alive.

It’s good to be reminded that they aren’t.

They aren’t to be trusted, not because they have evil intentions or faulty logic, but because they are still just dumb, program-driven machines. Ask the man who’s Tesla attempted to drive UNDER the trailer of an 18-wheeler. (Oh wait – you can’t, because he was decapitated.) Other tragic, more recent examples: the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes. It appears that the cause was Boeing’s “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, which is designed to automatically command a plane down if it senses an imminent stall.” This is auto-pilot software that is supposed to be smarter and faster than human pilots. And yet, it relies on input from a single angle-of-attack sensor. Boeing’s solution? Feed the software additional input from a second sensor. And if both sensors are bad?

You can update the software and plug in additional sensors, but it’s still not intelligent , artificially or otherwise. No system controlling an airplane, under any circumstances, should nose dive into the ground or ocean at 400 mph. Common sense, right? That’s what AI is missing. It ain’t human, not even close. It’s not your friend. It doesn’t care if you live or die. Which is why it’s a bit unnerving to see it proliferating throughout technology we depend on every day.

As for me, I will continue to drive my car myself. Even at the risk of missing a text or Facebook post while I’m at it. At least until AI gets smarter than me. Who could have believed that would be so difficult?

 

 

 

 

The Edge of Weird

A line from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” describing the repurposing of once glorious Clarice:

“They grabbed everything that could be taken from where it was and put it in another place to serve a different use…wrought iron gratings torn from the harem windows were used for roasting cat-meat on fires of inlaid wood.”

Splendor, rearranged “in a different order, no less appropriate to the inhabitants’ needs than it had been before.” And maybe more so.

 

Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing Short Fiction

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut listed these eight rules for writing short fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Great rules – they capture what I’ve heard in countless workshops. If I’d only read these 40 years ago, think of the time and money I might have saved! Just kidding of course; some rules need to be hammered into your head, from every angle, over and over. You never forget how to ride a bike, either, but you still need to steer.

Getting Centered

I woke up this morning in a fog. No, really. When I drew the shade on the kitchen window, I was stunned and somewhat comforted to see the mist shrouding the garage and rising into the canopy of maples arching over the yard. A friend who dropped by last night described it as cathedral-like as we had drinks and cheese and crackers on the deck. Kind of ironic. But you don’t have to be religious to be moved by beauty.

I appreciate company, which puzzles some of my acquaintances who consider me anti-social – or even a sociopath. I’ve looked it up a few times but can’t remember the precise definition. But it’s bad. You don’t want to be called a sociopath. It means you use people – I remember that. It sticks in my mind because it was the part of the definition that seemed least applicable to me. I’m more of an introvert. But then, some people can resent you for that, too. As though, by denying them your attention, you are committing a malicious act.

The fog was unusual. My waking dream was unusual, too. I was with a man – not someone I know in “real life,” but a close friend in the dream. I was responsible for putting him through some kind of tanning bed or booth – actually more like an oven – setting the dials and the time. He wanted me to, and he trusted me, and he thoroughly believed in the benefits of vitamin D. I left him in a little too long. When he came out, half his face and neck were charred black. His t-shirt had melted into what was left of his skin. He was uncomfortable, but not accusatory. I curled up and covered my face and wanted to die.

And then, as they say, I woke up. And walked down to the kitchen and opened the shade. And picked up my phone and read about the high-rise fire in London. And I felt ripped up inside and unable to think about anything but all the pain and suffering in the world, and all that’s asked of me – which is next to nothing in this stage of my life: feed the cat, go to work, pay the bills, vacuum the floor now and then. I did not turn on the radio, as I usually do, but instead visited the Brain Pickings web site for some kind – any kind – of uplifting inspiration, and I read this by Wallace Stevens:

By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.

It seems to me that the exclusion of any power of contemplation is the most destructive phenomenon of our age. Information overload, multi-tasking, call it what you will. You can’t contemplate or reflect or feel centered as long as you’re reacting to “the pressure of reality.” This vague feeling, endemic in modern society, that something is missing even though we have more of everything than we ever had. What’s missing is stillness and silence and the chance to contemplate.

This weekend I’ll be heading back down to Naples to spend another day chopping down knotweed. There’s a huge stand in front of the barn. If I’m lucky, it will take me the rest of my life.