pavlov

August 24, 2009

monty

Every day at eight o’clock in the morning, the alarm in the kitchen goes off and the dog goes to it and I go to it and I turn it off and she turns around and then we go away and back to whatever we were doing before it went off, the routine finished, the day resumed, time ticking along at a regular rhythm. Whatever we were doing before the alarm went off is usually reading the newspaper (me) and sleeping (her). The alarm that bothers us by going off is caused by the watch in the kitchen, a cheap digital watch with a pale green face that my mother bought at a discount store so that it would be possible for the various members of the family to know what time it is when we are under the water in the ocean, though we rarely take it into the ocean and mostly just leave it in the kitchen, on edge of the counter, where the alarm goes off every day. The thing about the alarm going off every day is that because the alarm goes off at a certain pitch or with some particular combination of audible and inaudible harmonics, it bothers the dog somehow, it affects her, and because it bothers the dog somehow, it bothers me somehow, we are both bothered, and this bothering does not go away until the alarm is turned off and so that’s what I do every morning, hear it go off and turn it off and then go on living at a regular rhythm, the day resumed, like sand through the hourglass and et cetera. This has become a normal and expected thing, a repeated beat, a regular song and dance routine. When the alarm first started going off, the dog and I were both surprised to be bothered by the alarm but now we (or at least I, since I’m not sure really what the dog thinks or feels or if she has the capacity for such memory) are regularly bothered by it, we are routinely bothered, we are conditioned to be bothered.

There seems to be no way to turn off the alarm. Initially, of course, there were instructions that came with the watch which probably explained this process clearly and efficiently in a technical manner but we no longer have the instructions because I threw them away with the packaging for the watch on the day that the watch was purchased, because how complicated could a cheap watch be, I thought.  At first, the alarm went off at midnight, an important and significant time for most electronic devices which contain time-keeping elements, but now it goes off at eight o’clock in the morning because one night when it woke me up at midnight, I got up and went over to it in the darkness and mashed a certain mysterious combination of buttons which lit the face of the watch and my face in the glow of the watch’s face and made me able to change the time of the alarm from midnight to eight o’ clock in the morning somehow. I don’t know how I did this and I also don’t know why I chose eight o’ clock in the morning as the time that the alarm should go off; it was an unconscious or at least a subconscious decision, some automatic operation of my mind and body in concert that I wasn’t really in control or aware of. Occasionally in the morning after the alarm has gone off, when I am completely or at least mostly conscious and therefore in control and aware, as much as we or I can be those things, I press at the buttons on the watch in order to try to affect the alarm in some way, either to turn it off or to turn it down or at least to change the time at which it goes off to another time. This is how buttons on things are supposed to work: you press them and a certain response happens, there is input and there is output, action and reaction. These buttons don’t seem to work that way.

The sound of my phone ringing makes the rhythm of my heart go up by about ten BPM, I’m pretty sure, though I haven’t tested this with either a doctor or metronome. I think that my phone ringing also contracts my lungs slightly, that it dries my throat and tightens my shoulders and almost instantly does certain other small and slightly unpleasant things to parts of my body that I can’t really control, things that the sound of the tone from the phone automatically enacts in me without my even thinking about it at all. It doesn’t matter if I’m expecting a call or if I’m not expecting a call, if I want to talk to someone or if I don’t want to talk to someone, whether I’m in a good or bad mood or not in a mood at all, my physiological response is the same, my body reacts to the sound in this particular way, ring ring. There is this condition I read about called “email apnea” where apparently when many people check their e-mail they actually stop breathing for a moment or two as they check it, just do not breathe, apparently, and this is, you know, bad for them and causes stress or death or other serious health problems. I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced this phenomenon but I have my phone ring thing and I think maybe it’s kind of similar, though maybe not, who can tell, I’m not a doctor. I’m not a doctor but I don’t think this is some sort of pyschological disorder or something, really, like it doesn’t ever stop me from answering the phone or talking to someone or anything like that, it’s just this reflex that I feel somewhere inside when the phone rings and I hear its sound.  I’m constantly changing the ringer on my phone, in the hopes of finding a ringer that might bother me less and make this response disappear, a ringer that I would be happy to hear, would want to hear, even, but I’ve never found one good enough to make me want to hear it, not even close. Over the various phones I’ve had throughout my life, I’ve used various abstract chimes and synth melodies and recorded fragments of favorite songs, and while some do make me less whatever about the phone’s alarm, none of them make my body’s responses go away entirely. Right now what I have as my ringer is a recording of my own voice which says, in a calm and measured tone, “Your phone is ringing, someone is calling you, you should talk to them,” and this works okay for me, although other people sometimes find it disconcerting andor weird and so I mostly just keep my phone on vibrate (though even the sound of the vibration causes some discomfort). When I was a little kid, we had an old rotary telephone that had an analog ringer made of metal bells and it was so loud when it rang that it shook the end table that it was sitting on and you could hear it from any place in the house and even from outside sometimes, if you were sitting on the porch for example. Now we don’t have that phone, we just have all the various chirps and bongs and whacks of our own personal phones, the boom boom pows of contemporary telephony. My brother has a fragment of an Of Montreal song as his ringer for incoming calls, which he likes because he likes Of Montreal and has positive conscious and unconscious associations with the sound of them and so wants to hear them often, whenever people call him (tangentially (this is all tangential, but), tangentially I have positive associations with Of Montreal also but my brother’s ringer is the song “Suffer For Fashion” which has a very fast tempo and would probably give me a heart attack if it was my ringer on my own phone all the time). For a time last year after his phone broke, my father was using my brother’s old phone, which had Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” as the ringer for incoming calls. My father personally liked this ringer because of certain associations with that song or with my brother or both but was embarrassed when it went off in public or in business meetings and people heard the tiny Lou Reed inside his phone sing, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side” to them and so eventually he changed it to a more generic ring. When I was in high school, I worked as a receptionist in the school office and so had to answer the phone often and was very quickly very good at answering the phone and dealing with “the community” and et cetera, even though I didn’t really like answering the phone or talking to the people on the other side of it or whatever, I was able to make my physical aversion to phone rings go away because I had to do the job. I think that maybe by answering the phone so often, I was able to create a new condition which overrode my preexisting conditioning and made me able to hear the phone ringing without feeling very uncomfortable and unhappy and physically different. Once I left this job, this conditioning was forgotten. There is the saying that “old habits die hard” but often old habits just die, because you don’t do them anymore and so they are no longer habits.

I don’t know if what I dislike most about a ringing telephone is the knowledge that there is person on the other end of the phone wanting to talk to me who I may or may not want to talk to (social) or an issue with the medium of the telephone in general and how that medium limits my personal expression (creative) or an aversion to the intrusion of digital alarms and alerts and technology in general into my daily life (societal) or just some abstract and mysterious combination of synapses firing and chemical being released in my brain (biological), I don’t know what it is, the thing that makes the telephone ringing annoy me the most of all sounds, I’m not sure, it’s weird, I know that, although you probably don’t need me to tell you that. You probably don’t need me to tell you any of this but here it comes anyway, right through your eyes and into your brain, word after word after word, and it just keeps coming and coming. My subconscious reaction to my phone ringing is unique among other daily sounds; I know, for example, that even though it represents a very similar intrusion into my personal space by another human being, the sound of a knock on the door doesn’t bother me in the way that the sound of a ringing phone bothers me (though, conversely, the sound of a knock on the door greatly bothers the dog, whereas she doesn’t even seem to notice or even hear a ringing telephone). I don’t know why all this is so or what it means particularly, if it means anything, which it probably doesn’t. Maybe I feel this distinction because a knock on the door is an intrusion into my physical space and a telephone ringing is an intrusion into my mental space and I more closely guard my mental space than my physical space, I care more about it? I’m not sure, who knows, who cares, here is a short story about somebody knocking on a door:

One day when I lived in Korea, a man knocked on the door of my apartment while I was drying off after taking a shower. I quickly wrapped my towel around my waist and opened the door and the man standing outside the door handed me a very large and heavy burlap sack full of rice and then turned and walked off down the hallway without saying a word. The door swung closed behind him and I just stood there in the foyer holding the rice, unsure of what had happened exactly or what I should do about it. I had not ordered a large and heavy burlap sack of rice for delivery as far as I could remember and didn’t know anyone who would have sent me such a thing as a gift or present. Part of me wanted to go after the man and give him the rice back, since I was worried he might get in trouble with his boss for misdelivering the rice, but I was wet and wearing a towel and besides I did not know how to say, “You have delivered this large and heavy burlap sack of rice to the wrong address” in Korean, I did not know anything like that. Eventually, I set the sack down on the floor and started to get dressed, thinking about things I could make to eat that would go with rice or if I could somehow maybe give the rice away to my students as “prizes.” About two minutes later, there was another knock on the door, and without even thinking, I picked up the sack of rice, opened the door, and handed the sack back to the man who was standing there, waiting for it. The man took the rice, nodded at me, and then walked off down the hallway without either of us saying a word to each other the whole time. This was one of the most effective and satisfying moments of communication I had with another human being in an entire year of living abroad.

These are the sounds that make the dog instantly and automatically get up and come over from across the room, no matter what she is doing at the time: the sound of the alarm on the watch, the sound of keys jangling on a ring or smacking against a countertop, the sound of the metal links of her collar clicking against each other, the sound of a knock on the front door, the sound of the front door opening (not the sound of the front door closing), the sound of the sliding glass doors to the balcony unsuctioning and being slid open (not the sound of them being closed), the sound of a plastic bag crinkling, the sound of a paper bag crumpling, the sound of food hitting her bowl (sometimes also the sound of food hitting the floor, if the sound is loud enough), the sound of one of the compartments in the refrigerator being opened (not the sound of the refrigerator itself being opened), the sound of tupperware unsealing (though this may be more the smell than the sound, I think), the sound of the vacuum cleaner vacuuming or just being rolled across the tile floor (this sound actually sends her running in the opposite direction, as opposed to the other sounds previous listed; the sound of a large bag of grocery store ice being slammed against the countertop to break it into cubes also does this), the sound of me doing or undoing the velcro on a pair of my swim trunks, the sound of my father doing the same, the sound of any pair of shoes being tied, the sound of her toy squirrel squeaking if it is stepped on, the sound of other people out in the hallway, the sound of a voice calling her name.

I condition my hair every day of the week but I shampoo it only about twice a week. If you’re bored you should just stop reading now, don’t bother going any further. This conditioning and shampooing routine is a thing that I do without even thinking about it, really, though it is an important thing, I think, thought I don’t really think about it or its importance either way very often or at all except now in order to make some words about it. There are reasons behind the particularity of the routine, I’m pretty sure, but I don’t remember exactly what they are or where they came from, I just do the routine because it’s my routine and my routine is the thing I do because it’s the thing I’ve done, I condition every day and shampoo about twice a week. This routine has been my shampooing and conditioning routine for years and years, ever since well I can’t remember exactly, though I think it has to do with something my hairdresser told me once when I was younger. I have thick curly hair that has a tendency to be emotionally and spiritually unruly and once when I was younger my hairdresser who used to be a graphic designer told me something about how I should not shampoo very often in order to avoid ‘frizz’ and general dryness and I extrapolated his vague and general advice somehow into my very particular routine, which I have followed for a long time without even thinking about it much, though I guess I think about it enough to follow it, just not enough to question it, a sort of calm, routine faith without torment or angst. My (former) hairdresser used to be a graphic designer and I used to like knowing this fact, as if my hair was art and the salon was a studio; now sometimes Sharon Stone flies my hairdresser in to do her hair for special events and I’m proud of this, that someone who once did my hair sometimes does Sharon Stone’s hair, I like knowling this fact, even though my hair’s not like Sharon Stone’s at all, I like knowing this fact because she’s a celebrity and that makes her hair interesting and makes interesting someone who does her interesting hair once did my hair, too. If in the Autobiography Gertrude had discussed Picasso’s hair care regimen people would have been very interested in reading about it because he’s a celebrity, although at the same time if Gertrude had described her hair care regimen in the Autobiography people would probably not be very interested in (or as interested in) reading about Gertrude’s hair care regimen because she wasn’t a celebrity (or at least wasn’t a celebrity like Picasso was a celebrity), and what I like to think about this is that the difference between me and Sharon Stone is the same as the difference between Gertrude and Pablo, though that really overrates me and and underrates Pablo, for sure, and anyway this line of thought is stupid since the salons Gertrude held were different than the salons where I get my hair cut, you know. When my hairdresser told me to stop using shampoo often, I had very, very long hair so the concerns he raised about “frizz” and general dryness were more serious and made the routine more important to me then, but even now, when I have very, very short hair and these concerns are not so great, when I don’t even have enough hair to “frizz,” really, I still follow the routine because it’s my routine and my routine is the thing I do because it’s the thing I’ve always done. We all have a lot of these kind of routines and follow them without thinking about them much at all because if we had to think about everything in the world all the time we would never get anything done, not even simple things like shampooing our hair or getting dressed much less the economy and insurance and war and et cetera, but we don’t think about our routines really because we can’t because we’re too busy living and being people in the world, that takes up a lot of time, living and being and et cetera, it doesn’t leave time for much else. The way my hair looks and feels the two days a week after I shampoo it is the best that my hair ever looks and feels and the difference is often kind of dramatic from the one day to the next, the pre-shampoo hair and the post-shampoo hair, women talk about bad hair days and the drama of those but as a man with short hair, I don’t really have those, I just have average hair days and then very good hair days, the days after I shampoo being my very good hair days and all other days being my average days. It would be nice if my hair could look and feel very good every day, I think, but I know from experiments with routine I’ve tried that if I shampooed my hair every day or even every other day that my hair would not be the way I want it to be owing to certain uncontrollable factors but besides all this to shampoo every day would mean a complete and total change to my routine and I don’t know if my brain or my hair, which is on top of my brain and hides it from the general population of the world, could handle this. Just like my brain, my hair has been conditioned to respond in a certain way, conditioned by conditioner, and so I only shampoo twice a week, though sometimes three times, I guess, sometimes three times by design, if I feel a personal need for a very good hair day that day, and sometimes three times by accident, if I lose track of time and movement and the progression of days, which is a thing that sometimes happens to me and everyone, I think, to lose track.

My family is trying to train our dog to to sit up on her hind legs independent of any support and stay sitting that way, balancing in the air as if she is a human person who exists in the vertical plane instead of a dog who lives in the horizontal. This is unnatural, yes, but also adorable, as are many things people try to make dogs do. I think this adorable and unnatural posture makes the dog look somewhat or very much like a meerkat in addition to looking in some ways (posture, poise) like a human person and so the command that I’ve associated via repetition with the training and conditioning we’ve been doing is called “meerkat.” This sitting up vertically on her hind legs independent of any support is an unnatural posture for the dog, who is also not a particularly small or thin or young dog or a dog who is in any real physical way like an actual meerkat, and so to get her to go into this position on command and stay up there without any physical support is taking a lot of training and conditioning and work and it’s all been difficult, if entertaining. The first phase of this “training” involved me making the dog sit (a bit of conditioning she had previously internalized, when she was just a baby) and then squatting behind her and pulling her up into a vertical position myself, my arms around her ribcage to support her, with me all the while repeating over and over again the word “meerkat,” in order to help create an association in her mind between the sound and the posture, a connection which might create a memory which might help her to react the way I wanted her to react, to create a new reflex inside of her as strong as any other. The second phase of the “training” involves using treats in order to coerce the dog into getting into the meerkat position herself, without any kind of physical support from me but only out of a desire for the treats, which I hold in front of her snout while saying “meerkat” in order to attempt to create another trained brain association, the idea that if she gets into the proper position and stays that way she will be rewarded. At first, I used standard dog treats and bits and scraps in order to drive this conditioning, but quickly realized that these were not ideal because as soon as the dog had the treat in her mouth, she would lose all interest in sitting up like a meerkat and would run away to sit under the coffee table and eat her treat (the dog is a bit of a hoarder). The solution I have found in order to make the dog stay in meerkat position longer is to give her treats which take longer to eat and so require her to stay vertical for a longer time to eat them, though this is far from an ideal solution and I am still looking for something better. The most effective treats I’ve found for keeping the dog in meerkat position are a metal spoon covered in a thin layer of sour cream and a small bowl which once held pasta and was coated with a residue of butter and/or Asiago cheese. With the inducements of these treats, the dog was able to stay unaided in the vertical position for over ten seconds, which is impressive, but the impressive effect was somewhat diminished by the fact that she was eating almost the whole time she was vertical and that once she had finished eating, she quickly dropped out of position.  One of my reservations about the training system at present is that eating these treats is probably making the dog gain weight and I worry that as she gains weight, it will be yet harder for her to sit up unsupported in the vertical position, that even as her mental conditioning grows stronger and stronger, her physical conditioning will only become weaker and weaker and she will never progress in her training as a meerkat, she will never “make anything” of herself or “become” anything, the way that I would like her to.  This is not an actual worry I have but just a sentence I wrote to fill a space. The third and final phase of the “training” is for the dog to go up into the meerkat position with only a verbal command, without any treat as an incentive, just by reflex and conditioning and training. This is not a thing which has happened yet, though we continue to try very hard every day, the both of us.

My younger brother visited the family recently on his vacation from college, where he is majoring in acting. At night, the two of us sat on the balcony and we looked out at the ocean and the traffic in the street and he smoked cigarettes that he bought at a gas station and I drank red wine that I bought at the grocery store and we enjoyed this. My mother has been angry and distressed that my brother smokes cigarettes ever since my brother started smoking cigarettes and told her about it, which was sometime last year, I think, though I’m not sure. I have for a while taken to trying to defend my brother’s habit from my mother’s criticism, maybe since I feel we all have habits and behaviors which we have conditioned ourselves to enjoy but which others might find bad or unhealthy or wrong for us. Cigarettes have always made me sick personally and I hate their smell and what it does to my clothes but I have a couple beers or a glass of wine or cocktail at the end of the day basically every day and I like this and find it relaxing and nice,  the drinking routine and the effects that it has on me routinely. In the past, I drank more alcohol than this, sometimes much, much more, and sometimes in the past this seemed like a good and fun thing to do so, but certain events happened in my life to convince me that drinking a lot of alcohol is not right for me and is not a habit that I should have and so I stopped “binge drinking” and “getting drunk” completely and have not done so in a long time and am happy about this change in my life.  Still, I like my moderate, measured, responsible daily drinking and find it is important somewhat to help me relax and “de-stress” and continue to do it in a routine way which seems fairly healthy and okay and might even be approved of by certain doctors or studies in peer-reviewed medical journals depending on which way the wind is blowing that particular day. One of the strange things to me about my drinking and my brain is that sometimes I don’t even have to have a sip of the drink that I’ve poured to begin to relax, I don’t even have to pour the drink, I just have to think about the fact that I’m having a drink and that does it for me, my shoulders unclench, my chest loosens; the physiological response to the concept of drinking and the relaxation it gives me is sometimes that strong, seriously. For a while, I had a similar reflexive response to Big Macs; when I was in college and smoking pot every day, I ate a lot of Big Macs, as is natural in such circumstances, and then later, after I had stopped smoking pot for a very long time, when I would occasionally eat a Big Mac, I would find myself having this strange feeling, as if I was high, not from the Big Mac but from the idea of the Big Mac and the mental associations with that idea that made my brain release certain chemicals and fire certain synapse which made feel a certain way, like I was high. I sometimes wonder about whether these reactions that I have are good things or bad things or if they are just natural things which is valueless and abstract.

Though I had defended my brother and his cigarette habit for a while for the complex reasons previously discussed, I have to say that the first time I watched my brother smoke, I completely changed my mind about his habit and decided that I thought he should stop immediately. The first time I watched my brother smoke, it was windy out and so he had to shield his cigarette and lighter with his hand in order to make it light and he did this and I found myself shocked and disturbed by how natural it was for him, how normal, like it was a thing he had done a thousand times and didn’t even have to think about it, which I guessed was true. As I watched him, I was reminded of all the times I’ve smoked cigarettes in my own life in the wind at night and how I always felt so unnatural doing this wind shielding and cigarette lighting motion and just all of it, really, the dealing with the hand business of how to hold and where to hold my cigarette and the lighter and once it was lit how to inhale correctly and exhale and ash and all the other associated behaviors and motions, how it was completely obvious to anyone watching me try to do these things that I was not a smoker because experience and training had not conditioned my body to smoke correctly and naturally the way a smoker does. My brother, though, he was lighting his cigarette and smoking this way in this natural practiced way and it scared me, he took the first inhale of his first cigarette and it was like a reflex, all the tension went out of his body, he fell back into his chair as he took the smoke inside of him, filled up like a balloon, and I saw it and the next day I saw him unconsciously hitting the top of his pack the way I’ve seen friends and acquaintances and people in bars do for whatever reason people do that and I was just like, oh, no, he doesn’t just smoke, he’s a smoker, and that scared me I guess because even though we all have habits and conditions, smoker often die from the their habits and conditions, and even though we’re all dying slowly in some way or for some reason or combination of reasons, me included, smokers often die in faster and much more unpleasant ways and they smell bad while doing it. I told my brother all these things and then poured myself another glass of wine

In the park, while we are walking together, the dog smiles. She smiles constantly, she is never not smiling when we are in the park together walking, she is always smiling, I think it would be impossible to make her face do anything else, even with force or violence, not that I would ever use force or violence of course since I love the way she smiles and want her to do it forever and always. Still, though, it is so much smiling. Occasionally the dog steps on sand spurs blown into the grass from the dunes and they catch in her fur and skin and this pains her, but though she may howl or limp, she does not stop smiling, she always smiles; even as I pull the tiny thorns out of the warm, soft inside of her paw, she smiles. When she pees, smiles, when she takes a shit, she smiles, when she chases after squirrels and birds, she smiles.  Sometimes she stops smiling to chase a scent, because she has to close her mouth in order to smell more efficiently, I suppose, but as soon as she raises her head from the grass she is smiling again, always smiling.

At least that’s what it looks like she’s doing. She is showing her big and shiny teeth, her lips are rolled back, her eyes are sparkling, her tongue is lolling about, her tail is wagging; given these signifiers, I don’t know what else could you call this expression but a smile. People in the park look at her smiling face as she walks and smile at her and me and tell me, “Oh, she’s so cute/pretty/beautiful/et cetera.” People have praised my dog’s smile in English and French and Spanish. probably in other languages, too, and in most cases I smile back and/or say thank you to them. My dog is a much more social animal than I am and I don’t think she has ever met a person or animal she dislikes (besides squirrels and birds) and she always wants to meet everybody (even squirrels and especially birds) whereas I often dislike people and often am so closed off as a person that I don’t even give myself a chance to dislike them and I don’t want to meet them at all (although I have no problem with squirrels or birds). For aesthetic reasons, I have never liked the way my face looks in a neutral, constant smile and so very rarely do I walk around smiling like the dog does, but still I walk along beside her and let her smile be spread all over the world, for everyone to see, and I try to smile to match as much as I can, as much as my brain makes my body able to do, because I want to smile like her, because she looks so happy..

Yet despite the fact that I’ve been talking about the dog smiling so much and that other people have recognized it also, she is not really smiling, I don’t think, or at least she is not only smiling. The smile, I don’t think, is a thing she has chosen to do, the way people choose to smile at her, I think it is a conditioned response to activity, a reflex. The reason the dog’s mouth is open in such a way is not (or not only) because she is happy, but because it has to be open in such a way in order to enable her to breathe. She “smiles” because by walking in the park and being stimulated by the various stimuli there she has reached a certain level of aerobic activity which makes breathing through her nose inadequate and so she has to breathe through her mouth. In order to make this breathing possible, her body makes her mouth move into an open position, a position that looks like a smile to humans like me and the other people in the park, who often ascribe human traits to animals because that is our nature, to try to relate to other things by making them like us. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily are, though, however much we want to believe it.  Maybe my dog isn’t smiling, maybe she is, maybe there is no such thing as smiling for dogs and this is an invisible mask that we place on their faces with our perceptions and language.

I can’t tell if the dog is smiling or if she’s simply breathing hard from exercise but sometimes what I like to think is that, for her, these things are one and the same, that her emotional responses are tied directly to certain physical stimuli, as if happiness were a reflex.  I don’t know anything about science or biology or want to know really, there’s enough stuff in my head already, I just like to think my idea is true because I like my idea and it makes me feel good and I want to feel good about my idea and otherwise.  I exercise almost every day, run and walk and swim, often doing the first two of these things with the dog, and I know almost every day that I am “happier” because I have exercised than I would be if I had not exercised, because exercise has made certain synapses in my brain fire which has caused the release certain chemicals in my body which make me feel happier or at the very least I have convinced myself through repetition and conditioning that this is true, that I am happier for having for having exercised.  My physical way to happiness isn’t like my dog’s, though, the relationship between the two isn’t so direct and clean and sometimes it doesn’t work at all,  sometimes the feeling of my body moving quickly through the world and experiencing various stimuli doesn’t make me happy, as much as I wish it did, my body just doesn’t work that way sometimes.  People often ascribe human traits to animals, people try to relate to them by making them like us, and I do this too, sometimes, like trying to teach my dog to sit up vertically, but on the subject of happiness I don’t like to think that my dog is like a human, I don’t like to think that she is like me in anyway,  I like to think instead that she is like a simple machine, instead, that all she has to do is push the happiness button and she automatically becomes happy, every time, without fail, action and reaction, input and output, as if happiness is a reflex.  I like to think that that happiness is this simple for her, that the way my dog is always smiling when she’s out in the world and walking and smelling and seeing and feeling is because she’s always happy, that in these conditions she could be no other thing but happy.   I don’t know anything about science or biology or whether this is true in any way but it’s what I like to think, anyway, because I love her.

I have prayed before every meal or snack or piece of food I have ever eaten for many years, despite the fact that for large stretches of this time I did not consider myself religious. If you consider that I eat on average four times a day and that I have prayed this way roughly every day for roughly seven years, this means that I have prayed about food alone more than ten thousand times just since I was sixteen or so, not counting any prayers before that. That’s a lot of times and a lot of prayers. Since I was a kid, the prayer that my family always said at meals was, “Bless us so Lord, in these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.” I prayed this way when I was too young to have any real notions or feelings about spirituality and I prayed this way when I considered myself an atheist and I pray this way now, when I consider myself religious, though maybe not a Christian that the language of the prayer that I say before eating denotes. I didn’t and don’t really say this prayer out of feeling or desire or because I believe in the words of the prayer but simply out of conditioning and training, because it was what my family always did before we ate ever since I was a little kid, the way you wash your hands or putting your napkin in your lap; it was a learned behavior, nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes when I was a child I would be called on to lead the prayer at reunions and other large family gatherings and I would sometimes be momentarily terrified that I would forget the words, because the prayer had become such an unconscious thing that I couldn’t think of the words for it unless I was saying it in context. Just thinking of the words of it to write it out above was kind of difficult and took me a second and I’m an adult whose said it thousands of times. My grandfather and certain other members of the family crossed themselves when they said “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” but I never did this because in the moment I could never remember whether I was supposed to go to the left or the right first when crossing myself (I still don’t know).  My parents only required prayer at family meals (not in public, at restaurants or friend’s houses, and not with snacks, which were apparently not important enough to require prayer), but when I was in high school, I decided to begin praying every single time I ate, no matter what I was eating or where I was or who I was with. I wouldn’t do the whole family prayer, though, which would have been embarrassing, I would just bow my head imperceptibly for a second and think about the idea of prayer and that would count as prayer, that would be enough for me and/or God. When I was in high school, for a time, I actually prayed between twenty and thirty times a day, even though I was at the time an avowed atheist and/or “secular humanist.” This contradiction didn’t really bother me, partially because I was a teenager and teenagers constantly contradict themselves as part of the natural process of adolescence, but also because I didn’t pray then in the way you think of prayer, which is a verbal or at least lingual thing addressed to whatever person or thing it is you’re praying to, in which you either talk or think or recite from memory some combination of words which is meant to mean something either to yourself or that person or thing you’re praying to or both, words which created an effect, action and then reaction. The way I “prayed” then, when I was doing it thirty or forty times a day, which was a lot of times, to be sure, too many times, was kind of like the way I prayed before meals: I silently put my palms together, closed my eyes for a fraction of second, like blinking, and then opened my hands and eyes again, finished in an instant, ready to resume the day. Before I started praying like this, I once had a teacher in high school who said, discussing the separation between church and state, “You’ll never get rid of prayer in schools as long as there are tests in schools” and everyone laughed at this because it was folksy, homespun wisdom delivered with a smile. I never really prayed over tests, since who gives a shit, really, but mostly prayed over various small moments in my day where I felt that I needed love or support or some kind of divine intervention, because I was afraid that something was or wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t pray right at that particular moment. When I went to college, I became a lot happier and more whole than when I was in high school and I stopped praying in this repeated and constant way and I have never started doing so in this way again, even in difficult times when I’ve been very sad, I don’t pray that way anymore because I think it’s the wrong way to pray, partially because it was prayer only about myself and not about other people, which are who prayer is supposed to be mostly about, I think, and also because it was just too much, too many times, like if my prayers had a message I think they were diluted by this tiny constant pinging of the heavens, this way of praying (now I only pray at night and before meals, which is “more reasonable” to me). What I couldn’t figure out about my prayers back in high school is if I was really and truly religious and spiritual and believing or if I just had a mild case of undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder, a disordered desire for conditioning and routine and habit, an irrational belief that a repeated action would cause a certain reaction, input and output. This is a paradox I never resolved completely, since how could I, but at this point my thoughts and beliefs have evolved enough to make having an answer unimportant to me.

As you read, your mind becomes conditioned by the words and their combination and you begin to see patterns emerging and hidden things coming into focus, lines being drawn from one place to another and certain areas being highlighted in color and shade and light. You begin to feel that you understand where things will go because you have seen where they have been and where they are going, you are at the same time following and leading the words that you read.  There is the common expression “train of thought,” as though thought is a thing that you can ride from one place to another, from the start and down a long and winding road to some eventual conclusion, the end of the narrative, the last stop. There is the common expression “it’s like riding a bike” which is about doing things after you’ve trained yourself to do them and how easy and free they become to do then, how nice and wonderful and good and fun. The conditioning you create in your mind by reading exists in the macro sense (how you read in general) as well as in the micro sense (how you read a specific writer or a specific work or a specific word) and this conditioning helps you to read more and better and differently. It is such a simple process, this, as simple as walking or biking or riding a train, you read a sentence and then you read another sentence and, as you progress through these various combinations of words, you become stronger and faster and different, you have thoughts which you couldn’t have had before you had read so much, things which before you wouldn’t have been able to notice or understand or use, yet now these thoughts emerge and come into focus and can be thought by you and held in your mind and rotated so that different angles may be seen. The other day I listened to an interview with this writer in which the writer was talking about a book that she had written that I had loved but that not many other people loved and in talking about how many people didn’t love her book, the writer said that what she thought the reading experience should be like is not walking or biking or riding a train but like being an amateur musician who plays a piece of music written by someone else. You sit at your personal instrument with the other person’s piece of music, she said, and you try to play it to the best of your abilities, you do what you can to make the notes sound and sing and ring out through the air around you. The more pieces you play, she said, and the more you work at playing them, the better and more perfectly you can do so, the more talented and conditioned you become as player, and because of this work and conditioning you will find that you can enjoy the process and the playing and the music all the more wholly and fully. Maybe it is true that you will find you are even able to take some very, very boring piece of music, like an aria about shampoo, and because you are such a good reader from all your practice and work you will be able to make even this thing interesting and fun and a worthwhile experience for yourself. Of course, maybe you can’t make this happen and maybe this isn’t your fault, maybe the piece of music just isn’t good enough to satisfy you and its author has wasted your time with all his stupid lyrics about shampoo and/or conditioner, his weak melody and repetitive rhythms, but you don’t know that unless you’ve tried it (just like he didn’t know, either, until he tried it) and sometimes you find that the act of trying can be satisfying even if the thing you’re trying isn’t worth your attention, whatever anything is worth. In this model of reading as play, you can only get from things what you bring to them as player, you have to take an active role in the process in order to be satisfied, and the more active role you take, the more satisfied you will probably be. Personally, I liked this analogy about writing and reading and playing music that the author of the unpopular book talked about, and what I liked most I think is not the idea itself but is that when the writer described the idea, my mind automatically made this connection, drew this line through the fog and history and darkness inside of me, and I realized that this music thing might not have been the writer’s own original idea but perhaps an idea she borrowed from something written by Barthes, from an essay he wrote about music in a popular book he wrote about images and music and text, a book I read when I was in college and kind of vaguely remember, though I smoked a lot of pot at the time. When I was in college, I read a lot of Barthes and he was one of my “favorite writers,” I thought, except the thing was I didn’t actually read a lot of Barthes because his writing was often too complicated and difficult for me to understand and really “read,” so I more “looked at” him than read him, if that makes sense, if you know what I mean. I would get a stack of his books from the library, which was always easy because mostly no one else was checking them out, and then I would take my stack home and just open one or another of them on a table and try at reading it, running my eyes over the words and turning the pages, tracing the footnotes, drawing lines and seeing connections, but honestly I think really I ended up looking at them more than reading them, seeing the words instead of understanding them, and though I may have gained a certain level of fitness from this activity and learned something and been made better for it, the way all exercise is in some way valuable, I was never able to make myself read Barthes the way that I wanted to read him, the way I thought I should, the way I thought was ideal and good. Maybe this was his fault, and maybe it was mine; maybe it was nobody’s fault at all and not a thing that anybody should worry about, I don’t know. I didn’t “get much” from the experience but I was still happy enough to have had it, I would still rather have had it than not had it even though I guess by most rational metrics it was a “worthless” experience, like reading ever has any real worth, but you know what I mean.

This is all getting so long and worthless and I feel really wrong about it, to keep going on like this, it is like such TMI but not the good kind of TMI like where someone is telling you a convoluted anecdote about something really interesting like an embarrassing sexual encounter or the physical comedy of bodily functions, but just in the formal sense of too much information, I just keep giving you more and more of it, right, piling on the words and their combinations and it seems like a lot of it is very boring and not important or things you need to know that will help you in your life, that will have “worth” for you, whatever that means, that will not be “worthless.” I looked up TMI in the encyclopedia and it turns out TMI does not only mean “too much information” like we think it does and use it when talking to each other but also stands for something else, which is “transmarginal inhibition,” which is “the body’s natural response of shutting down when exposed to overwhelming stress or pain…to overwhelming stimuli.”  The pioneering research on TMI was done by Pavlov, the scientist who studied reflexes and reactions, most famously making a dog’s mouth water by ringing a bell.  When Pavlov rang a bell, his trained dog’s mouth watered because he’d trained it to do so by ringing a bell when he fed it.  TMI, the encyclopedia says, is worst in people who are “highly sensitive persons,” of which I think I am one, since “highly sensitive persons” apparently “process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems” and a highly sensitive person is the kind of person I am, maybe, either in the metaphorical or clinical sense.  I wonder if my TMI, the kind I’m giving you now, is a response to the other kind of TMI, the kind that maybe I’ve felt at some or many or all times of my life, this feeling, this way of being in the world and being affected by the world. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist but I am a writer and an editor. I’m a writer and an editor I know that this thing I’m giving you is not the way things given are supposed to be, aesthetically, editorially, but this is the way I can make them right now, this is what I have to offer. I sit here and I think that I should cut out the parts of this thing which are boring and compress this essay for you, make it smaller and neater and tighter in order to for it to be more aesthetically and editorially perfect, more compressed, more “worthwhile,” but then I think probably that if I cut out the boring parts of this then there would be nothing left at all and this is a thing that I think is true of life, too, not just what you are reading here but the world around the words, too. The way I am trying to make myself see this thing and make you see it is that the more information I give you, the more time we get to spend together in this space, in this place where I promise nothing bad will happen to you and everything will be okay, even if it won’t be funny or exciting or surprising, even if it’s just boring and quiet and still. Would you rather have a crazy and amazing hour with someone you love or would you rather have a pretty decent week with them? Personally, I would rather have the week, but that’s me, you might be different, although if you’ve read this far I don’t think you are, I think maybe you’re like me, thank goodness, bless you, I’m sorry if you’ve had a bad day so far, try to relax, okay? The kind of reading you’ve been doing here in this space isn’t that exciting or amazing I know, but I’m making myself think about it like the expression “it’s like riding a bike.” Sometimes when you’re riding a bike you’re not riding anywhere in particular and you’re not looking at anything in particular and it is by all accounts a boring and worthless experience and yet it still makes you kind of happy anyway, to pedal along down the road aimlessly and ride around in circles, it is a satisfying experience, isn’t it?  Isn’t it? I hope so but I worry that it’s not, which is the way I almost always feel about myself around most other people, but like I said, you’ve given me a lot of time and thought and so I’m trying to trust you, even though it’s hard for me.

I get this e-mail every day now which sends me about a thousand words of Swann’s Way, which is a very long novel of a highly sensitive person’s life and thoughts. I have received a hundred and ten of these e-mails so far, so I have received about a hundred and ten thousand words of Swann’s Way, give or take a few.  This is really a lot of words, even for someone like me who likes to read.  I would like to think that I am being conditioned to read Swann’s Way by this daily reception of it and all its words, the way I described reading conditioning working before, but you know what, I’m not reading it, not really, not the way I want to or think I should, that I think would be the right way to read it. Every day, I let my eyes run over the words that are delivered, the entire thousand words or so, but most of the time my eyes don’t catch on much of anything and the words disappear and I forget them and then they’re gone. Lately, I’ve looked every day at the words of description of Swann’s life and thoughts (before that, I looked everyday at the description of the other character, Marcel, and his life and thoughts) and I guess you could call what I’ve done with those words “reading,” though I think that would be a stretch, probably. Most of the time I don’t really read, I think, because most of the time I find Swann’s life and thoughts kind of boring, the way most of our lives and thoughts are kind of boring. Swann’s life and thoughts are less boring than my life and thoughts, probably, almost certainly, though he is a fictional character in a novel and so that makes the contest between the two of us somewhat unfair, I think (I also get daily delivery of Montaigne’s Essays which describe his life and thoughts and he was a real person and yet still probably is also less boring than me in both life and thought, sadly).  Anyway, Swann’s life and thoughts are most of the time boring to me but sometimes when I’m reading about his life, though, some days, my eyes will catch on a good thing described in the words in the book about him and I’ll follow that thing, draw a line and highlight a phrase and ride the train of thought, like the other day when I read about Swann hearing a piece of beautiful music and how much it moved him, this moment stuck out to me, amid all the boring conversation there was this moment, I saw it and my eyes read the words describing it and they transmitted signals to my brain which triggered certain synapses or released certain chemicals into my body which made me see and feel and think things and I was reminded that I guess I am happy to still be living with Swann every day, however much I think that he’s mostly a boring person with boring thoughts who takes up so many words and so much time to express himself.

Today, the alarm went off again like it always does every day, in the kitchen at eight o’ clock in the morning. I’m sure that if I tried hard enough and worked at it long enough, I could find a way to turn off the alarm, to make it go away and not go off every day. I know that this must be true, I bet it probably wouldn’t even take more than a couple minutes, really, if that, even, to turn it off. To be able to turn off the alarm is a thing that has to be possible and that probably has to be simple, too; the watch is a machine, it is not so complicated, all it can do is count time with numbers as it was programmed to do, nothing more, nothing less, all it does is follows its routine and counts the time and sounds the alarm every day at a certain point in the time, it acts in predictable ways, action and reaction, input and output, the way all machines act. I said to you at the very beginning of this thing that the watch’s buttons don’t work right but that wasn’t really true, I think then that maybe I wasn’t talking about the watch, maybe I was talking about myself or maybe nothing at all, I can’t be sure, all I really know is that at the time my fingers were moving over the buttons of the keyboard quickly in a way that felt good and free and their movement was making my brain work in a certain way, a mental response to this physical stimulation which was caused by a thought which was brought about by the alarm, I think, I can’t be sure, and together somehow in the fading echo of the alarm my brain and fingers pressed the buttons under the keys in a combination that made that sentence about the buttons on the watch, whatever it even means, whatever it says to me or to you about anything. On a machine, all the buttons work all the time as long as the machine isn’t broken or damaged or flawed in its creation; the watch in the kitchen isn’t broken or damaged or flawed in its creation and so I know that there must be a way to turn off the alarm, there must be, there must. I sometimes or often feel that I am broken or damaged or flawed in my creation, that my buttons don’t work properly or correctly or create the responses I want them to when I press them, but I am a person and people are not machines and the watch is a machine and machines do work, they have to, they must. To be clear here, the watch is not a metaphor, it is not a symbol, it is a real thing made of metal and plastic with a certain number of buttons and a pale green face on which numbers can be seen constantly changing in line with the progression of time as it ticks by. There are certain number of buttons on the watch (four) and a certain number of combinations of button presses which can create a certain number of responses behind the watch’s face; unlike the numbers of combinations of letters of language used to make words and sentences and paragraphs, these numbers of combinations are small and finite and I know that if I tried these combinations one by one, systematically, that eventually I would be able to turn of the alarm and make it go away and stop ringing.

I don’t turn it off, though, for whatever reason, I can’t be sure, probably because of feelings and routines and conditions, some combination of all of those things in my brain and in my body and in the world and et cetera. The alarm goes off in the kitchen in the morning and the dog goes to it and I go to it and I turn it off and she turns around and then we go away and back to whatever we were doing before it went off, the routine finished, the day resumed, and most days when the alarm goes off and we go to it, my mother at the table looks up from her crossword puzzle and laughs at this, a routine laugh, not a laugh of surprise or excitement but one of familiarity, of the coming of a thing which has come before, and most days my father, if he is still home and has not yet left for work, turns from the news on television for a second and rolls his eyes at this repetition that the dog and I are making, our usual progression and his usual expression, the interlocked repetitions like the teeth of the gears in an old clock turning together to count time, and I see these reactions, their reactions and my reaction and the dog’s reaction to the alarm, these conditioned responses, and I know in this moment that another day has come after the last one before it and another will come after it and that no matter how bad things may seem to me in the moment, how hard and dark, I know that it is a new day and that I am alive and that we are alive and that there are things to look forward to in the future, things to pray and hope and dream for and on and about, there are good future things which are scheduled to occur, I know this, there are things, there are, even if those things are nothing more than alarms which exist only to be turned off every day for really no reason at all.

swan

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