So I Marched

I don’t like politics.  I like to understand people.

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I have my beliefs, of course, but I also know that I don’t know every person’s experience.  I only know my own.  But here is the thing–the one who tries to be everything to everybody becomes nobody.  The person that has no enemies, who offends no one, stands for nothing.  I wrestle with that–kindness versus confrontation.  Understanding versus taking a stand.

Let me be honest, I didn’t really want to go to the march for women’s rights today.  Because I’m lazy.  Because I worried about parking.  Because I wasn’t convinced that it would change anything, really.   But my friend convinced me to go, to do something that backs my beliefs.  So I did, and I was glad it did.  I was glad, in the end, to stand up and be counted.

Does it matter in the short term?  Probably not.  But in the long term, this is how you win the game.  Brick after brick, short term sacrifices for long term gains.  I didn’t go to the protest because I thought we would overthrow the president, I went to show that I believe in equality for all humans.  It’s sad that the word “feminist” has such negative connotations, I don’t believe in the superiority of any gender.  I just believe in humans.  We are capable  of grace and horror, but we have a choice.  I want us to do great things, I want us to choose grace.  I want us to get beyond naming and shaming.  I want us to fulfill our potential.

We are this weird animal, we are sentient yet we understand the divine.  Kahlil Gabran, the Sufi poet, once said,

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

That is us, my friend.  That is humanity.  Forgive the new-age postulating, but we are earth’s longing for life.  Or from a different perspective, we are God’s longing for life.  We will have ups and downs as our animal, lizard-brain nature conflicts with the desire to be be above all that.

I was proud to be a part of something higher today.  To assert my right to dissent, to put my time into something I believe in, to be a small piece of something greater.  I don’t assume to be great on my own, but at least I can work towards it.  And that is why I marched today.

 

 

 

On AI, Abortion, and Souls

gheyn-muisjeDo you ever follow a thread of thought from one link to another, until you get to a story that you wonder how it ends?  I was reading a paper from 2011 written by James Boyle, “Endowed by Their Creator?  The Future of Constitutional Personhood.”  It starts like this:

“Presently, Irving Weissman, the director of Stanford University’s Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, is contemplating pushing the envelope of chimera research even further by producing human-mouse chimera whose brains would be composed of one hundred percent human cells. Weissman notes that the mice would be carefully watched: if they developed a mouse brain architecture, they would be used for research, but if they developed a human brain architecture or any hint of humanness, they would be killed.”

So what happened to the mice, I wonder?  Did they develop human brain architecture?  And what is the military doing right now?

When I was at Defcon last year, one of the speakers showed slides of a mouse with another mouse’s head.  It reminded me of those terribly morbid experiments doctors did at the turn of the century, sewing two dog heads onto one body and that sort of thing.  There is a biological empathy we have with life; the closer to our species it is, the more we feel.  (Though personally, primates for me are close enough to the uncanny valley that they creep me out.  Not that I could experiment on them, creeped out or not.)  Meanwhile, the turn towards artificial intelligence will mostly likely not be a bang, but a whimper.  A small voice that gradually grows louder until we are faced with a perplexing problem–the problem of personhood.

I have wondered if the future of humanity, if our evolution will end up as an intelligence that is no longer bound by our biological flesh.  The ethical challenges of personhood for non-humans is this strange, vague thing that like a painting, will probably not be drawn out or seen clearly until we are closer to it.  But when we come to that point, we have to evaluate all of our beliefs that deal with personhood.  What does it mean to be human?  What does it mean to be a person?

In the paper, Boyle focuses on two things:  the Turing Test for electronic artificial intelligence and genetic species identity.  It is really the head and the heart, because I can discuss the Turing Test and feel perfectly rational, but the idea of human cells within another animal, the feeling that human cells are trapped within something that is non-human, makes my stomach turn a bit.  So it was interesting to read this comment:

“But I dont think that any artificial intelligence will EVER have to be defined as a person. They dont have souls, though the discussion tends to take an ugly turn and no real answer is reached.

All I know is that even if a computer could feel pain, it wouldnt be actual pain, but rather an interpretation of stimuli that WOULD cause pain in a human.”

The idea that artificial intelligence would not feel pain and not have a soul might be a faulty reasoning.  After all, the father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, famously experimented on black women because he believed they didn’t feel pain the way white women would.  The sounds of their suffering was just the braying of animals that didn’t know any better.  In his mind, blacks were fundamentally different and certainly not as human.  Frankly, the idea of race is still a vestige of this idea, when really humans simply come in different shades of beige and brown.

And souls–well, that is a belief system.  There isn’t a way to prove the existence of a soul.  But, if a soul is “endowed by a creator”, then might not AI be endowed with a soul by us, because humans are the creators of AI?  A transmission of sorts, like a holy roman vampire?  Eve came from Adam’s rib, and AI came from Eve’s brain?

In any case, it has implications for the arguments for and against abortion.  After all, those who are pro-life are being protective of the soul that was endowed to that embryo.  A soul that by original sin is damned.  Sometimes, the arguments pit the mother against the unborn child–what is versus what could be.  Who get rights first when there’s a conflict?  But these beliefs are based in the idea that humans are special, that there is nothing else like us.    If artificial intelligence has potentiality to become a person just as an embryo does, then is there a moral right to help it come to pass?  Should AI fulfill what it could be? And what would mean for us, as we rewrite what it means to be both persons and human?

I am just tired.

I going to visit my parents in a few days.  I’m sure we’ll have fun things to talk about, like how my father is dying and his legs are giving out.  I also really enjoy breaking my mother’s heart to point out that his condition is terminal; the cancer has metastasized to his bones and they have put him on hormonal (i.e., palliative, not curative) treatment.  That he probably won’t die right away, but it’s coming, maybe a couple of years, hopefully more.  She will probably outlive the spouse that she loves more than life itself.  His last treatment was 10 years ago, so it gave him time.  But he is still young, and it is somewhat shocking considering how old his parents were when they died.

Then there is the guilt–the guilt that though I am decent with money, I still don’t have enough to buy multiple airplane tickets or the vacation time to make lots of trips.  And though I could do FMLA, that won’t pay the bills that continue on.  So I don’t know how much I can see him, or how much I can afford to bring the girls to see him.

And normally, I am good, I am strong, I am the one to ask questions because they need to be asked–but I am tired and spent, and frankly, I find myself crying.  I have spent my whole life trying to contain my emotions, containing the feelings that mess with my mind, and rationally I should forgive myself an incident of weeping.  But I am a mess, really.  Because as much as I may disagree with someone who was a keystone in my life, who could push my buttons like no one else, he was also probably the most influential person in my life.  I don’t want him to die yet.  But that’s not for me to decide.

 

Goodbye, Last Cat of My Marriage

I am a long time owner of cats.  Funny, really, because when I was a girl we had a dog:   Gwener, a Welsh Pembroke corgi.  She was Devourer of Table Scraps; Squirrel Chaser; Roller of, and with, Dead Toads; and Warrior Against the Demonic Vacuum Cleaner.  She was adorable, with deep brown eyes, a foxy face, and red and white markings.  She died during my college years; or rather, my parents had to put her down.  They loved her so much they have never had a dog since.   But she was there for my childhood and adolescence, and her passing was the end of that era.

After college, when I ended up getting a house with my fiance, we ended up getting a cat.  And then another.  And then two more.  Four proved to be unsustainable and we ended up re-homing the friendliest, and then there were three.  Years passed, we had two kids, three cats, a house with a stream, and a backyard with peonies and an apple tree.  There are different stories about that time in my life, but if you know me, you know that also ended.  I am divorced–I left the house, took one cat, split the kids, and never looked back. Though I only moved a town over (which is good for my girls, they deserve time with both of their parents), it was, and is, a whole different life.

People always get sad about endings, about changes, as though life is changing the rules.    Sometimes it can be sad when we’re not ready to let go–but life IS change.  Those are the rules, and there is no stopping it.  You can choose to try to plant your feet in stubbornness–and then be swept away against your will, in a direction you didn’t choose–or you can accept that this is the nature of being, and guide with the grain.

In the last year, those three cats have passed away.  Kiku, the eldest.  Kinoko, the middle that lived with me.  And last, Kashi, the sweetest.  They each lived to be about sixteen, the same amount of time I was with my ex, now my co-parent.  Both of the kids are in school–no longer as young as they used to be.

I cried over Kashi’s death today.  After all, she brought a lot of joy.  She was always a cuddly cat, the one who loved me pregnant.  My belly was so warm she would lay on my belly shelf, until Rowan would kick her off from inside the womb.  (Rowan was a feisty fetus, never still, and she didn’t like to be hot, even inside me.)  But here’s the thing–she was never meant to live forever.  I can love the memories of her without being bitter.  After all, once I put Kinoko down, I adopted immediately–because love and loss define another.  To know love, to love a pet, is to make yourself vulnerable by knowing that it ends.  It ends before you do, and it doesn’t matter, because it’s worth it.  Love, and risk, is worth it.

Today, I have two different cats.  Boys, both black, sometimes assholes.  Tearing up the screens, chewing electrical cords because they know it annoys me, breaking mugs and pushing glasses of water off the table, because they can, and they are young.  But also coming in the night to body flop against me, chewing on my fingernails (a sign of love, I swear), and sometimes I can hear the purrs and their heartbeats through my pillow.

And my girls–one growing into young adulthood, and one growing into herself.  Rowan and I were watching Parks & Rec the other night and with our sense of humor, we burst into boisterous laughter in tandem.  Rowan looked at me and said, “Do you think our neighbors ever get annoyed that we laugh so much?  Because we’re pretty loud.”  I thought about it, and it’s true, we are laughing about something every single day.  Not a day goes by where we don’t.  How freakin’ great is that?  And my youngest–she’s a queen of the side-eye, but I can still make her smile.  She doesn’t like to admit that she thinks I’m funny.

Those two, of course, came from my marriage and are one of the reasons I have no regrets about the past.  But someday, that will also end, by my death, or theirs. It would be better if I ended before they do–after all, that seems to be more natural, doesn’t it?  Having children makes your heart so vulnerable.  I’ve already decided not to worry too much if they go before me–I doubt there is a way to protect a heart from that kind of heartbreak. The only way to do so would be to distance oneself from love, and I have already decided that I don’t do that kind of thing.

It is the risk of all kinds of connection, human or otherwise.  The divorce was hard, make no mistake–I am fortunate that both he and I really did live up to our ideals of keeping the kids first, and it shows.  And I can’t say if I will ever marry again–though frankly, it is not something I dwell upon.  Because the greatest gift and truth of all is time–with our pet companions, and with our human friends.

Time reveals all: the true nature of things, the true being of animals, and the true character of people.  I love my cats.  If I didn’t have kids, I might have dogs, and I would love them too.  And I love my friends, my family, the souls that are my kids, and dare I say, my boyfriend.  I love the people I share my time with.  I do get frustrated with my mortal life, and I do get a bit worried by the magnitude of humanity’s problems, but there is still so much to love in this world, to love in this life.  I can accept the closing of doors, because there are other ones that are opening.  Change is a flow, life is a current.

So goodbye, another phase of my life.  Goodbye, another beloved pet.  I am grateful for the joy you brought, and thankful that I got to experience all of that.  Welcome, life.  I look forward to another, yet different phase.  Because I can cry and smile at the same time, and neither has to take away from the other.

Choose your Future–Fear Or . . . ?

“I’m not a parent. So I’m interested to know how you feel. For those of you who are parents, are you concerned about your child’s future? Are you concerned about what sort of world they will be living in? What we are leaving for them?”

This came up on my feed on Facebook in the wake of the Orlando shootings.  Of course, I am concerned about my child’s future—but I would be in any place, and in any time.  Bad things have always happened in our world.  Our species is adolescent, and there is still the possibility that we could be stupid and exterminate ourselves.  Or get exterminated, even without our input.  Life is fragile and temporary.  You can get a stack of all good cards, play them all right, live a good life, but death is still the denouement.  You will still die.

When something unexpected happens, like a random death of someone we love, it is not just the loss of the person that makes it so heartfelt.  It is compounded by the loss of the dream of a future than will now never come to pass.  Disappointment is a bitter thing.  Often we make sacrifices in the present so that we can reap the dream in the future.  Letting go of that, that life has changed without our control, feels like a poor bargain.  It feels like a con.  And no one likes to be bested.

I hope, and pray, that my children will outlive me.  It is every parent’s fear that they won’t.  But because I don’t know the future, and cannot control it, I choose to enjoy the good in my life now.  I choose to love my children without restraint, even if my heart is broken later.  I choose to have pets, though I know they will die before me, because the daily joy of their existence is worth it.  I choose to make happy memories of happy moments, because this is life.  This is life’s longing for itself—in us, in our children, in our world.

There is always the choice to be fearful, to try to guard one’s heart against pain—but that is not humanity’s gift.  Our ancestors had the same feelings—what is the future of my children?  This world we live in, imperfect but with islands of light, is the future they worked so hard for.  We are here because our predecessors worked hard to change their present.  We are here because they worked hard to improve our future.  It is frustrating how slow change can be, but there has still been progress.  I don’t wish to live in any previous age.  I am grateful to live in this one.  I enjoy my life, I know love, and I understand that it can all disappear in moment.  But so what?  I will enjoy this moment.  I will love all that I can and love every moment that I am to receive.  If there is grief to come, I will deal with it when it actually happens, rather than try to deflect it by anticipating it—you cannot really protect yourself against loss.

Love your family, love your friends.  Bad things may or may not happen.  But in the meantime, enjoy what is—because right now, there is so much to love and so much light to give.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Purrs

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Warning: Maudlin post ahead.

Back in January, I was having my brother and sister-in-law over for dinner, when C. noticed that Kinoko was dragging her paw.  The toes were curled under as though she was auditioning for “The Walking Dead: Cat Edition.”  I hadn’t even noticed–her gait was still pretty typical and she didn’t seem fazed by it.  But I made an appointment to the vet and then googled the hell out of it.  Was it diabetes-induced neuropathy?  Was it arthritis?  Cancer?  And what was I going to do about it?

I have pretty strong views on life and death, about how death is not necessarily the worst thing ever.  In a sense, it’s easier with a pet–after all, you can pay a vet to put an animal down if a lot of suffering is involved, and theoretically, it’s okay to do this.  I had thought I would be pretty pragmatic about it–with an old animal, don’t you have to be?

But we were able to treat her somewhat and she got better for awhile.  She enjoyed having wet food with prednisone-infused tuna oil (it was advanced arthritis).  And though I wasn’t going to spend a lot of money on end-of-life care, I did get x-rays after a month, because she seemed to be getting better.  I told the girls that she wasn’t going to make it to 2017, so in her end days, we should spoil her.

And then, about two weeks ago, it stopped mattering how much we spoiled her.  She’d pick at her fancy food, be unable to jump up to the laps she used to love, and ignore the open screen doors with their fresh air.  Yesterday, I heard her vomit in the litterbox–something that she never used to do, but is doing now–and watched her drag her lifeless back leg and herself into her box.  She doesn’t come out much now.  She doesn’t even meow much.  It was subtle because it was a slow regression, but when I started counting all the ways she is different now, I realized that it’s time.

That’s the sucky part about adulting.  I could just wait a few months for her to pass on her own, and let my own sadness stop me from making that appointment.  I could spend a bunch of money on a few more months, but that would be to make me feel better, not her. And though I feel a bit weird about paying someone to kill my cat for me, it’s up to me to do the responsible thing.  Because. . . what would her life have been like in the wild?  At 16, she’d already be dead, and probably in a messy way.

What I wasn’t expecting though was the emotional ride.  I knew back in January that we were in her end times.  I thought I would be ready.  I mentally practised.  But I find myself just crying.  Not constantly, but erratically, which makes it harder to predict.  I’d be fine for a few hours and then would break down.  I felt–well, I still feel–a little embarrassed.  K. came over yesterday and found myself not wanting to break down in front of my boyfriend–even though I’m pretty sure that’s what boyfriends are for sometimes.  All I wanted to do was just be alone.  So that if I wanted to burst into tears I could just do that, no imaginary judgment.  Because I know there’s no judgment but mine.

In the end, I took the day off and made the arrangements.  I’ve been spending this beautiful day either smiling at the chirping birds on my balcony (I’m a sucker for birds and their quantum movements–they’re just so darn cute!) and then crying over Kinoko.  Who sleeps in her box, unaware.  But when she slowly, slooowwwly drags her leg over the tiles to sniff her water and return back the box–I know it’s okay to let her go.

So this is my ode to old kitty Kinoko, who gave us a lot of years.  Her eyes are all atrophied crystalline fibers now, and she has the feline profile of a crotchety Bast.   In her youth, she had a mean volleyball spike that would bring down any bat that managed to make it into the living room.  She could jump 5 feet up in a vertical line.  Once she brought us a live garden snake, and once a live bird.  (Both survived to live another day).  She liked to meow-a lot.  A lot a lot.  If you stood between the kitchen table and the refrigerator, she would jump on unsuspecting people to launch herself on top of the fridge.  In the winter, she liked to cuddle in my armpit or between my legs.  She loved it when I took a shower so she could jump on my towel-clad shoulders and suck water out of my wet hair.

But my favorite story is the one where she got stuck in the goddamn ceiling.  Imagine, if you will, a refrigerator next to the doorway to the garage.  Above the garage is a storage cubby, high enough that even a tall person such as myself can barely reach.  Kinoko loved high places, so sometimes I would stand on my tippy toes to open up the cubby doors and let her jump up there.  But once, instead of sitting at the edge and crowing loudly (can a cat crow?  I’m going to say yes), she seemed unusually interested in the cubby.  So much so that I got off my lazy ass and pulled a chair over to see what was going on.

Up in the cubby, behind the 10 quart lobster pot, was half a cat.  See, cats are built in such a way that if their head can fit in a space, the rest of them can too.  Kind of a like a snake, when you think about it.   Her head and her shoulders and her front legs had disappeared into a hole that led into the ceiling above the kitchen.  And as I look in shocked, the rest of her disappeared as well.

Let me tell you, it’s strange to have a cat stuck in the ceiling.  I felt a bit like I was calling to Carol Anne in Poltergeist, “Run to the light, baby, run to the light!”  Except it was more like “Kinoko!” “[from the southwest corner] Meow!” “Kinoko!!” “[from the southeast corner] Meow! ” “KINOKO!” “[from the northwest corner] Meeooowwwr!”  (Sadly, there was no green portal from another dimension.)

And just when I was going to get an ax to chop up the ceiling, she deigned to squeeze back into the cubby storage space.  After which, we boarded up the hole so no cat could get stuck ever again in the kitchen ceiling.  Never underestimate the shenigans a cat can get into.

So, goodbye Kinoko.  You were sweet.  Also, somewhat bitchy.  But I loved you.  I’m glad I could provide a good home for you.  Thanks for adding to my life.

 

 

 

 

 

Of That Which is Other

The interesting thing about dating a folklorist is that you get to borrow weird books from various academic presses.  We’re rather complementary – I like to read about possible futures and he likes discovering hidden things about the past.  Right now, I am reading Dark Shamans: Kanaima and the Poetics of Violent Death from his collection.  Roughly, it’s about cannibalism, but that word has its own connotations which are not always accurate or relevant.  Really, it’s about power, and what people will do to bend the world to their will, and their beliefs about how to achieve that.

The ritual itself is pretty much one of the worst ways to die–if you want to read the citation you can read it here, third paragraph,–but reading on, I had a couple of thoughts.  One is about switching the nature of things, and the power inherent in that.  The text talks about how in a typical person, the mouth is “incontinent” and the anus is continent–but this form of torturous death keeps the person from being able to speak, forcing continence, and unable to control their bowels, forcing incontinence.  And then the person dies from dehydration from horrible diarrhea–before being tasted to consume their force of life.

But the harder part to read was that this was a death that was inflicted on men, but now victims are often teenage girls or children because they aren’t able to defend themselves –they don’t typically have guns.  So, of course, the question becomes how could anyone do this to a person, especially a child?  It’s abhorrent and awful. (It should be noted that some of this information cited in the book came from a woman known as “Nurse”, who put her own life in jeopardy to shed light on this practice.  An act of courage, to be sure.)

The simple answer is that defining someone, or something, as “other” means that it is easier to hurt, or to kill, and to inflict prolonged death.  Even the Kanaima, the shamans themselves, will talk about their victims as animals.  But the type of “animal” influences the power gained by sacrificing one’s humanity in order to do such a thing in the first place.  It reflects the Western idea of selling one’s soul to the devil, except it’s more of selling a piece of one’s soul for power–feeding one’s devils, not The Devil.

In fact, we feel this power hierarchy even in our prison system – kill a child, and you are sick.  Killing a man is not the same.  Is it because of innocence and the loss of potentiality?  But when you look at serial killers, there is a complete lack of empathy.  Victims are “other,” the killing act is one of power, pleasure, and control over one’s environment, and power to disobey human laws.  It is an ultimate FU to society.

And of course, you can take it farther.  The inability to empathize with other humans makes it easier to wage wars and to segregate.  The inability to empathize with animals makes it easy to eat meat.  In Western culture, the idea of eating dogs, cats, or horses is an ugly one–we anthropomorphize and empathize too much with those animals.  Monkeys and apes are taboo, again, because they are too much like us.  And for people transitioning away from meat, there is definitely a hierarchy.  Red meat and pigs are worse than chickens which are worse than fish and shellfish.  The further away something is from human in the animal kingdom, the harder it is to understand.  The harder it is to care.

Which means that it will be really interesting to see how current AI work pans out.  We are just starting to understand that the first aliens we may ever meet are one that may spring into existence here on Earth.  We are so used to thinking of ourselves as individuals, that our bag of skin is a demarcation of what constitutes the individual, but with connected internet and new AI work, those ideas could be seriously questioned.  Many philosophical questions come down to “Who am I?”  We can analyze a brain, but the mind is still just an idea we create.  A construction held aloft by synapses, but we still don’t really know.  We are still creatures of ape habits.

As robots become more like us, our ideas of “other” will change.  Perhaps the Buddhist ideals of nirvana are inextricably linked to robotic AI.  Perhaps, in a parallel to Babylon 5, the idea of human souls reincarnated into a different form will surface as philosophical questions of how uploaded memories could constitute a true human existence.  And perhaps, veganism will finally get wide appeal as people chose to protect biological life over mechanical life and extend their circle of empathy.

But the fact will remain that while we are bound in mortal life, we will see things through a biological filter.  There may be intelligent life on other planets, but we can only see what we have receptors for.  Technology may change the world we live in, but we, ourselves, are not much different from our ancestors thousands of years ago.  I think it will be fascinating, frankly.  I’m kind of excited to see what happens.  It’s a new frontier.