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Parental Guidance Required

April 21, 2009

Still no movement on the book – I think I’m a bit paralyzed by the emotional bits I’m getting into in chapter three.  I’ve given Caroline a sister, and a mother, and they don’t get along with her – I need to set her up to be in a believable position as a lonely person, and to do that, it’s necessary to show that the family avenue to connectedness is closed off to her.  Of course, as always, I want to rush through the hard parts of the story – Caroline’s family isn’t mine, but nevertheless family drama is family drama; contra Tolstoy most unhappy families could swap out their member parts with relative ease.  So now, to stop myself from skimming over the hard parts, I’ve stopped myself from moving at all…

The thing is, so many people remain locked in that scorpion death dance with their families, staying “together” through the worst awfulness imaginable because it’s preferable to loneliness.  Caroline is choosing to be alone rather than to expose herself to constant criticism and emotional pain.  When I’m thinking of her mom, I’m thinking of Violet Weston in August: Osage Country (as played by Deanna Dunagan in the fantastic production I saw in NYC) – of course I’m not duplicating that character, but that voice, literally, is in my head when I think of Caroline’s mom: high, hysterical, demanding, critical, cruel.  And her sister, well, I think of a couple different women I’ve worked with, almost-middle-aged ladies with advanced degrees and plastic smiles (one of whom, an inveterate twelve-stepper with the serenity of the irrevocably converted, once told me in a performance review that I got 4 out of 5 because “I don’t give 5s because nobody’s perfect, there’s always room for improvement”).  Serenely arrogant people who speak in the “public voice” all the time; i.e., never saying “we’ve got problems” when they can say, even with no microphone in sight, “these particular challenges we face will require a collaborative effort to overcome.” 

How do people do it, sit down at the keyboard and puke out all this emotion, then get up and wash dishes and teach a class?  No wonder writers drink, oftentimes before hitting the keys.  If I didn’t know better, I’d be tempted to take a Xanax before sitting down to write these parts, hoping it would blunt the anxiety and personal emotional pain that comes from being too close to my subject of loneliness, but unfortunately, I do know better, I know that defeats the fucking purpose, the purpose being me doing something hard for once instead of getting up and effortlessly tossing off another comic novel in a couple months’ time.

Funny, CNN was just doing an interview with Anvil, the metal band who are the subject of a new documentary.  I didn’t take notes and there’s nothing on the web site yet, but essentially, one of the guys said they kept doing what they were doing, though success constantly eluded them, because it was what they wanted to do, it felt good to do it.  And now, after all these years, they’re famous – if not for talent, then just for sheer perspicacity.  Or look at Susan Boyle, who’s kept her light under a bushel all these years and now is suddenly celebrated worldwide.  You have to love what you’re doing to stay in it for the long haul, and I do love writing – I just hate dealing with feelings.  Still, there have been times lately when I’ve seen into the future just a bit – not to the point where I’m mobbed at readings, though of course that fantasy crosses my mind, but to something that could be real:  I can see myself finishing this first part of the novel, the hardest part because the loneliest and most painful part, and then just breaking open the story in the second part, where Alex, and Caroline, are released into the wild, where I’ll be creating a world full of people and events and ideas.  I know that if I can get through this dark prelude, laying the foundations for Caroline and Alex as believable, interesting people, that it’ll be fun later, that the whole novel isn’t some dark Dostoyevskyan slog.

On another note:  Via Andrew Sullivan, this art project grabbed my eye.  Kacie Kinzer is an artist in New York who decided to create little happy-faced robots and set them loose in the city (in the public voice, she says she wanted to “create a narrative about our relationship to space and our willingness to interact with what we find in it”).  From her website:

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Given their extreme vulnerability, the vastness of city space, the dangers posed by traffic, suspicion of terrorism, and the possibility that no one would be interested in helping a lost little robot, I initially conceived the Tweenbots as disposable creatures which were more likely to struggle and die in the city than to reach their destination. Because I built them with minimal technology, I had no way of tracking the Tweenbot’s progress, and so I set out on the first test with a video camera hidden in my purse. I placed the Tweenbot down on the sidewalk, and walked far enough away that I would not be observed as the Tweenbot––a smiling 10-inch tall cardboard missionary––bumped along towards his inevitable fate.

The results were unexpected. Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the “right” direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation. One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, “You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

Kinzer’s conclusion was that “this ad-hoc crowdsourcing was driven primarily by human empathy for an anthropomorphized object. The journey the Tweenbots take each time they are released in the city becomes a story of people’s willingness to engage with a creature that mirrors human characteristics of vulnerability, of being lost, and of having intention without the means of achieving its goal alone.”  She probably couldn’t have achieved the same result if she’d released, say, Roombas instead of the smiley-faced Tweenbots.  For me, it’s more confirmation that people are willing to treat mechanical/artificial “beings” as real, with care, and attach to them as easily as we might attach to any other creature.

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