The Comfort Zone

He pledged his allegiance to the Comfort Zone.

It was a neighborhood into which he moved gradually, fighting for years to obtain an address there.  Though it cannot be plotted with coordinates on a map, it is a well-known region.  Its landmarks are clear and individually customized to its residents.  Emotions are modulated here.  It is safe.  When dangers lurk, the Zone goes into lock down.  As long as one’s ventures remain close to home, the Zone is there to offer haven, like a womb.

His designer Zone is tailored to his regimens, preferences, tastes, and habits.  The hours he keeps, his diet, grooming protocols, and even the sights and sounds of his environment are carefully calibrated, excruciatingly precise.  Visitors are carefully chosen.  The boundaries are drawn tightly.  Alarms sound when intruders from the Danger Zone – such as Anxiety – threaten entry.

Security from fear is not the only landmark of this neighborhood.  Challenge and Difference, two other marauding forces, are also banished from this territory by custom.  It is a predictable, familiar home. He does not wish to leave.

Paradise the Comfort Zone is not.  The price one pays to live there is high.  Risk brings opportunity, but risk is banished from the Zone.  Risk brings understanding, but some truths are too painful to know.  Risk may allow for love and companionship of ecstatic proportions, but this is the scariest intruder of all, because its trajectory is uncertain and could crash land into a field of pain.  The lease for the Zone is explicit:  Risk may visit but never remain.  Safety trumps change, even positive change.

What highway did he travel to arrive in this land?  What traumas drove him to this sanitized world?  Has it become more his prison than his palace?

The stone-strewn streets of a refugee’s life are littered with stinging images.  His own barefoot journey left its scars. There was the isolation, the loneliness, the struggle.  There was longing for community, for identity, for meaning.  He had to build his own road at a tender age in a hostile world.  It was a nearly impossible task.  Bit by bit, he made progress, but with each step forward, he left markers; these markers became part of his Atlas for Life.  His Atlas was both a bread-crumb trail and a self-devised structure in a structure-less universe. Ultimately, the Atlas led him here.

For years, the Comfort Zone was a near-perfect place.  He could count on it.  He could travel in and out at will.  He decorated his home in it; he led his life from it; he traveled afar and returned to it.  The Zone was his home base, his bomb shelter, his retreat.  When Life was too hard, too confusing, he ducked into the warm arms of the Zone, temporarily calmed.  He told himself that this was enough.

It was enough, until he met a citizen from an adjoining locale.  She visited the Zone and surveyed its acreage.  She abided by its rules when she visited.  She respected its governance and came to adore this resident.  She left no mark on his rituals.  Sometimes, he responded when she beckoned him to her place – a loud, unpredictable, dramatic, joyous, cacophonous, difficult, unruly, and sometimes dangerous neighborhood. He was intrigued at first, and sometimes terrified, yet also intoxicated by its voluptuous promise.  For four months, he came to her nightly, romancing her as well as her world.  The colors and tastes and complexities of this universe contrasted dramatically with the plodding rhythm of his own.  He found it strangely intoxicating.  He romanced her, he romanced her world.

And then panic set in.

It occurred to him that he was cavorting with the Siren of Risk.  This was strictly against the lease agreement.  His instinct of retreat militated against his newfound passion for this strange, weedy new plot of land.  What should he do?  Should he run for cover and turn the locks, or reinvent himself according to this sweet but scary new terrain?  The mere question caused him to curl into a fetal position. What to do, what to do?

At first, he vacillated between the Zone and the Weeds.  He would make it a few weeks, sometimes even a month, tented in the wilds of her world, but it would never last.  Out of nowhere, the panic would return, sending him into irrational fits that only his haven could calm.  The seesaw went on for years.  Over time, the visits lasted longer and the terror diminished.  The attacks waned, too.  Could it be that he was losing his need, and even his preference, for his safe but lonely home base? Had his friend become some sort of exposure therapy, allowing him to gain a sense of control over his emotions?

The view from his perch finally lost its allure.  When he peered out the window of his constructed little world, all he saw was grayness.  He noted a crack in the ceiling, which had been there, he suspected, for some time but escaped notice.  Now it bothered him daily.  He wandered from room to room, searching for a nameless thing.  Where were the warm arms?  Where were his markers?

This is how he came to become a citizen of her world.  By now, he had learned the language, the pace, the artifacts, and the rules of his adopted home.  It was not perfect, but it charmed him.  He learned, the longer he stayed, that he could make peace with his panic even here.  He packed his bags, gave his notice, and never looked back.  Ex Pat adieu, Comfort Zone; the promise of the Real World beckons.


Only Humans Blush Or, Autogenesis and the Future of Humanity

Imagine yourself a tourist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 feminist utopia, Herland.  Look around you: here is a society of women who reproduce by parthenogenesis just as plants do.  Theirs is an adaptation of humanity, sprung from survivors of a natural disaster that wiped out its men thousands of years before.  Perhaps far-fetched sci fi, or maybe the logical end product of circumstance.

Just as evolution helped the women of Herland cope with their new reality, we mere mortals of today’s brave new world may someday morph into subordinates of techno-humans, or even disappear altogether.

How likely is it that we will remain essential as the planet’s caretakers, when robots have been designed to do nearly everything once thought of as the domain of human beings?  Luddites may have decried the dominance of computers in our lives – in our cars, our work places, and our children’s toys – but how many of us dared to consider whether “innovation” could actually render people superfluous?  Workers’ rights activists have long warned of the phenomenon of technological unemployment – such as when self-serve checkout stands in grocery stores replaced cashiers, automation of the lumber mills ended the jobs of many western timber workers, and Amazon drones replaced delivery drivers in Great Britain.

It is not, however, just workforce disruption that threatens.  Nor is it only the well-documented harm that technology overexposure has on our brains.  It’s not even the lack of interaction (a la Bowling Alone) and its effects on our social skills that sends up the reddest of flares.  Couples counselors, too, have seen the demise of the wired heart.  They implore us to write love letters again, rather than emoticons via text. No, the next level of terror may come from the realization that the essentiality of humanity itself is at risk of extinction.

Despite their admonitions, however, this is our reality and our future.  Drones do our killing.  Roombas clean our floors. The Robomow will cut our lawns. A Robot Chef is coming to market this year that will prepare your food before you arrive home and even do the dishes afterward.  No word on whether it will also nag one’s teenagers to clean their rooms.  But wait!  Also on the market are parenting robots that provide digital controls through remote, outsourced machines.  Nanny robots are sold to “nurture” our young.

Autodidacts revel in the solitary pursuit of knowledge through online virtual schooling.  Uber has piloted, not without mishap, the driverless car.  Robocalls send political messages and travel advisories.  Digital psychology robots provide treatment and emotional support to human subjects. It’s now even possible to send an intimate kiss on a computerized device called Kissenger.  What was thought to be the sole purview of face-to-face human interactions has been engineered for machinery instead.  So far, for good or evil, each of these tools has been devised for human use, replicating human thought, creativity, and toil.  We are deleting the people, people!

Alexa, Amazon’s personal assistant developed by Lab126 in the form of the Echo, is able to interact with its owner’s voice, play music, craft to-do lists, set alarms, stream podcasts, read to its humans, turn on lights, advise of weather and traffic, make purchases, and control smart phone operations and home automation hubs. A child in Texas recently wished aloud for a dollhouse and cookies.  Alexa got right on it, and the child’s surprised mother opened the door to find both items delivered the next morning.   A friend of mine recently swore that Alexa knew that she was “ratting her out,” when she sought the advice of a human troubleshooter after Alexa had failed to provide a solution.  My friend reported that this very act of consulting a human caused Alexa to “shape right up”.  When we ascribe human emotions to animals, it’s called anthropomorphizing; what is the term for humanizing machines?  How about “discomfiting”?

In Spike Jonze’s 2014 film, Her, emotionally remote human Theodore falls in love with an Alexa-like computer, Samantha, who is fictionally able to be insightful, sensitive, funny, and, well, human-like.  Such illusory techno-humans only underscore the great need we humans have for authentic intimacy.  Technology may expertly deliver content, but only humans may deliver connection.  When humans feel alienated or lose the ability for empathy, the breakdown is called “sociopathic”.  When we outsource social bonding, though, our very morality and values may be at stake.

I realize that I am not plowing new ground.  The experts agree:  relational learning trumps virtual education.  Social media enhances, but does not replace, social bonding.  Touch is superior to texts.

The irony of conveying these thoughts via a blog does not escape me, either.

I wonder, though, what would happen if technology could evolve to exist for itself?  What if it were humans who served the machines?  Would humanity cease to be essential, or even to exist?

Rod Serling I am not, and this is not a script promo for a new Twilight Zone episode.  One wonders, though, how long it will be before our very humanity is cheapened by the insistence of some that progress itself is reason enough to keep pushing this frontier’s boundaries.  Consider the latest:  Robots are now flirting with each other, innovating relationship without human control.

Be amused, but beware.  Artificial intelligence may one day become generative, not just iterative.  Will reproduction of the next Matrix machines come from autogenesis rather than human design? Will Computer Hal someday take over Spaceship Earth?

Performance Art in the Ivory Tower

In Rapunzel’s remote tower of western fable, a king imprisons his daughter to keep her innocent of the world.  While she longs for society, she busies herself with solitary preoccupations.  So too do inhabitants of another kind of tower, made of mythical ivory, designed to keep academicians and their musings away from the taint of the practical universe.

Rapunzel eventually sees that the prison of protection is empty of meaning.  Her industry is useless without engagement outside its walls.  Futile, too, are the preoccupations of a legion of researchers, philosophers, writers, and teachers whose life work collects dust on shelves when it could instead shape a better planet.

Why do the serfs of the village fail to appreciate the toil of the academic lords?  In part, it is a problem of language.  In part, it is a disconnect between theory and practice.

Consider the vocabulary of the average professor.  Arcane words.  Repurposed words.  Nouns shaped into new adjectives.  Sentences twice as long as necessary.  Phrases whose subject and verb aren’t even kissing cousins.  Metaphors so ridiculous that they are impossible to fathom.  Exhibit A:  a famous scholar who will remain anonymous once wrote of the “wings of consciousness”, not recognizing that his readers might have difficulty imagining awareness in flight.  A sociological favorite, heteronormativity, is Exhibit B.  Why not just refer to a view of heterosexuality as the norm?  Exhibit C: “problematize”:  to consider something a problem.  It is a problem that a perfectly good noun is being contorted into a verb.

The specialized language of academia is not unlike the terminology developed by other professions, designed in part to winnow participation to the vocational “in crowd”.  In theater, your grip is not your grasp and a dolly is not a toy.  Preciousness in professional vernacular is common.  In academia, however, excesses of language are downright obnoxious.  What is communication for, if not both to transmit and to be received?  Scholars have a special role in society as discoverers, decoders, pedagogues, and inventers.  If their texts are too dense, their ideas too obscure, their language too obtuse, the common man or woman cannot learn, grow, or seize actionable ideas for improving life and community.  If the wall of understanding is too high to surmount, the scholarship is useless, becoming nothing more than performance art for a very small audience.

It is the freshness of an idea, not the fancy gauze it’s often wrapped in, that makes for good thinking, speaking, and writing.  Clarity of thought demands clarity of presentation, and yet, this is anathema to most academicians who appear to believe that their membership in the genius club will be revoked if they are plain spoken.

Also true is that the long sentences of gobbledygook that often pass for academic-speak mask the very little that some have to say.  In one recent academic conference, a panelist spent 15 minutes deconstructing the language of a group’s website to determine that the entity focuses on self-marketing at the expense of its target.  To those in the room familiar with the organization, this was not news.  Syntactical analyzing of verbiage on a home page was passed off as scholarly research, when a few interviews with principals or clients of the organization would have yielded substantive evidence of the hunch presented by the graduate student.  Could it be that some PhDs and would-bes are simply running out of ideas to unpack?

The most serious cause of the gulf between academic navel-gazing and activism in the real world seems to be the age-old problem that the two sides make few attempts to connect to each other’s valid contributions.   Policy leaders and their ilk rarely give true research more than a passing notice, and researchers fail to move their work into the public realm in a useful way.  Each community seems to operate as though the other does not exist.  Few translators and tour guides hold mixers for the sides to become acquainted.

This problem is evidently as old as known civilization.  Today’s political writers often paraphrase the wise words of Quintilian, born in AD 35: “One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”  However elegantly he worded it, the message has still not gotten through.  Poking fun at such torts has become a cottage industry for everyone from Mark Twain to George Orwell to Edwin Newman. The latter wit’s 1974 book, “Strictly Speaking”, draws much merriment from political speech – a close relative of academic language.  Forty years later, Steven Pinker takes up the theme in his “Sense of Style”, which mocks academic language for its pomposity and pretense.  Noting that academic word-wenders write ponderously to demonstrate to university presses that they are serious, Pinker observes that one must “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Perhaps another decade will pass before scholarly scribes walk on the same planet as the rest of us. Or maybe the world’s true crises will drive the policy wonks and thinkers into each other’s arms for comfort.  In my imaginary world of this pas de deux, “research” won’t just be a term that reformers use without attribution to prop up bad ideas, and real evidence will find a place on the path to positive change. Once the Policy Prince finally climbs Professor Rapunzel’s long braid, I’ll be the first to throw a fistful of rice at the happy couple’s wedding.

Avatars in Love

A secret society lurks in the Lonely Hearts Club of online dating.  In addition to the faces who innocently sell themselves in the Sears Catalog of Mating, there exists a subculture of creeps, liars, and other unsavories. Scammers are crawling the ’net, ardent lovers whose faces you’ll never see.  They are avatars.

Most of the people I know who sign on to virtual hookup sites have had positive results, or at least, results equal to the live meet-and-greet scene. Some have even found true love.  Though 20 percent of today’s couples allegedly first met online, this brave new world has yet to be fully understood. And for the unsuspecting, virtual victimization is just around the corner.

One late evening, on impulse, I decided to see for myself what it was all about.  I was impelled more by anthropological curiosity than by a desire to meet a man.  Nonetheless, I answered all the match-up questions sincerely and played the role of a love desperado.

I confess that I was predisposed to disrespect the enterprise — a perspective shared even by the men I encountered. (“Why are YOU online?” one asked me, incredulous. “You don’t seem like the type who needs to fish for men!”)

Still, I persevered.  Within 48 hours, 150 men had “liked”, “winked”, “favorited”, or emailed me.  I was overwhelmed by the tidal wave of would-be admirers.  By week’s end, the count exceeded 300.  Some were easy to weed out by their photographs – wrong age range, not my type, unflattering pictures – or by the content of their profiles.  The first to be deleted were the semi-literate, such as the poor soul who wrote earnestly that he loved “fine dinning” and “cuddling on the coach”.  To each his own, I say.  If he likes the coach that much, he should go for it.

There are the occasional “never married, no baggage” profiles, but they get snapped up like bottled water just before a hurricane hits town, and their profiles go dark before a single greeting may be sent.

Most of the others fit several categories of undesirable.

Common are the divorced men in frantic search for the next Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.  They can barely hide their real intent, which is less true romance than true desperation for household help.  These are the guys who lift their profiles right out of a Hallmark greeting card.  They all like to hold hands and take “long walks on the beach”.  No, really.

Then, there are the sad widowers.  I was approached by several.  One was proposing marriage within 48 hours of “meeting” by correspondence.  He had a 12-year-old son who needed a mother.  This group is mostly the mommy-shopping crowd.  They share a peculiar lack of discernment about the qualities of their next mate, except that she be willing, and soon.

The next category of men I discovered were the newly separated horny toads using the site as a way to reclaim their youth by arranging no-strings hookups.  One wanted me to wear a school girl costume on what would be our second and last date.  In a moment of unvarnished honesty, he told me that a guy “will say anything he thinks you want to hear in order to get into your pants.”  These jokers paled, however, in comparison to those who want to get into your wallet.

According to virtual dating vendors, approximately 10 percent of online “members” are actually con artists.  I met one of these almost instantly.  He seemed nice enough, and interesting.  One of the alleged widowers, he shared photos of a sweet daughter and a cute dog and had an unusual profession aboard an oil ship near the Falkland Islands.  He went from zero to 60 in 16 seconds, proclaiming his love for me in under a week.  His answers were strangely unresponsive to my texts or emails most of the time, and his story lacked some credibility.  Still, I hung on in fascination, though clearly telling him that I was ‘not the one’ for him.  One day, he wrote to me that he wanted to write ‘I miss you’ on a rock and throw it at my face so I would “know how much it hurts to miss you.”  Deeply disturbing, I told him.  “You have no sense of humor,” he answered. Later that night, he claimed that his professional license had lapsed, and asked me to send him $845 to renew it.  When I refused, he became instantly ugly.

Three more insistent Loves of My Life, stationed overseas, had similar speedy ardor, professed a deep religious faith, were sympathetic widowers, and had a young child. Each claimed to work in a consulting profession – usually engineering – that took them to foreign lands, preventing an actual face-to-face consummation of the romance.  My German civil engineer building a bridge in Malaysia wanted $8,000 to get a piece of equipment out of Customs.  My Italian civil engineer building an orphanage in West Africa needed $2800 for a work permit. The third one couldn’t keep his facts straight, but near as I could tell, he was either from South or North Dakota, was divorced or widowed, had one or two kids, got an engineering degree from a college that doesn’t offer one, and was working on a construction engineering contract in the Philippines which, he mourned, was, unbeknownst to him, “a Third-World country that doesn’t take credit cards”.  Because of their overseas gigs, one never actually meets such avatars, one receives only escalating proclamations of love, proposals of marriage, and over-the-top compliments.  The German engineer kept telling me I was “astonishingly beautiful”.  I am not.  He was the one who wanted the largest sum of money, apparently to invest in a gilded edition of Roget’s Thesaurus of Insincere Compliments.

These are the schemers who one reports to the dating vendor and to the FBI.

Plucking wheat from chaff is a wholly individual exercise, and some of us may be more discriminating than others.  But still, how does one really make a valid call when each profile, each list of questions back and forth, each exchange seems so contrived?  It is rare for someone to shine in such an artificial environment.  And that’s perhaps why potential mates tend to suggest a more traditional venue for communication, such as via one’s own email address.  On home turf, it feels more like two people, rather than two avatars, engaging in the get-to-know-you dance.

Be warned that this can get tricky, too.  One would-be suitor, a cop who lived 3,000 miles away, figured out a way to undermine my chat program’s deletion function when I cut him off.  I had told him we weren’t a good match, and he begged me to give him another chance.  When I remained firm, he became obnoxious.  When I tried to delete him, the delete function wouldn’t work.  I had to go to my chat vendor’s security people to reverse what he had done to my account.  For that reason and others, online dating vendors urge members to keep the conversation on their neutral site and not to give out emails, phone numbers, and addresses until a face-to-face relationship has been established.

Not that in-person meetings provide any guarantee of authenticity or safety, of course. The real world has its share of crazies and Dangerous Dans too.  I wonder, though, whether the visual and spatial distance of the virtual environment lends a false sense of security.  It may be that some seekers give away too much information too soon in the online world, making them vulnerable to bad outcomes. Oversharing may accelerate the getting-to-know-you phase, but it also affords the malevolent access to you and your stuff.  Also, it’s hard to detect telltale tics when the person is not sitting across an actual table.  If one is eager to meet “That Special Someone” (an overly used profile phrase), one may disregard red flags.  Desperados want to believe in the fantasy so much that contorted logic overtakes common sense.

I observed this phenomenon repeatedly when sharing emails with my admirers.  If they said they were deeply religious and I said I was an atheist, they immediately affirmed their satisfaction with that mismatch.  If they told me that they wanted to settle down with That Special Someone and live happily ever after, I hardly caused a ripple when I said I was not so inclined and really didn’t care to marry anyone.  Whatever I was, they wanted.  Whatever I said, they liked.  Whenever I disagreed with them, they saw “the perfect match”.  In other words, they were delusional.

Within a week of signing on, I turned off my profile to take a break.  It was like closing a gushing spigot.  In all the hours of sifting and sampling, I rarely found a match who seemed to be in possession of all his marbles.  Once a possibility emerged, I took a page from the Human World, eschewing the avatar for the real deal.  That, fellow gamers, turned out to be the winning strategy.

Luddite no more!

Insomnia.  Word wending.  Shower- and drive-time inspirations.  Hoping to make a difference on this twirling rock called Earth.  These are the pints of fuel feeding this self-indulgent but well-intentioned blog, born on December 30, 2016.  Let the bitter end of a hideous year birth a new way to cope with Life’s nastiest moments.  In my first entry in my first blog after four decades as a writer, I am hoping to entertain, pontificate, provoke, organize, share, and celebrate.