Friday, June 26, 2009


My kid blew his Socratic English oral. He was downgraded for his style of discourse - oppositional and defiant – but not for his argument, that machines could never be truly human. This is a popular science fiction theme whose romantic expression is the story of the sensitive android with genuine emotions. A darker take on this concept has machines less concerned with experiencing love than running the show - in these stories, robots and computers take over human situations, or maybe even entire planets.

I'm a sucker for such yarns. I feel for the soulful replicant and fear the all-knowing power-mad machines. Still, it's hard not to take comfort in the fact that while my computer is no doubt smarter than me, I still have to call upon a human to save the day if my hard drive crashes.

It took true genius to puncture my smug human superiority. Itunes genius, the application that, based on a single song, puts together spot-on mixes from your music collection. Genius knows your every musical quirk. The bluegrass banjo riff that gives you St Vitus dance. The alt country lament you've harmonized with for so long, you forget your part isn't on the record. The obscure rock chick with the big, bad voice. The best folk singer no one's ever heard of. The sexy French electronica bon bon that always mellows you out. Your favorite U2 ballad, lesser-known Dylan song or Marvin Gaye makeout tune.

Genius has you down. It free-associates based on a modal harmony, a breathy singing style, a jazzy vibe. It can tell if your mood is randy, upbeat or introspective. Sometimes, it knows you better than your spouse. So while I appreciate the ability to make an instant playlist that perfectly matches my mental state, I'm still a little creeped out. My musical taste, which I thought was so eclectic, is apparently just another algorithm.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The strawberry's a raspberry

The yoga studio I attend follows the Anusara school. Classes are steeped in tantric philosophy, and the core concept is "opening to grace". We start class with a chant, but first, the teachers are expected to enlighten us with a story that sets the theme for the day. This might relate to the physical practice - such as maintaining the balance between muscular energy and flexibility, or the mental practice - say, letting go of poisonous thoughts.

As a skeptical, non-religious person, it took me a while to adjust to Anusara's emphasis on Hindu spirituality. I'm not much of a monotheist as it is, and adding on gods just multiplies my doubts. But it's a terrific workout, and I do believe yoga has emotional benefits as well. It has helped me face day-to-day challenges with greater equanimity, fixate less on my problems, control my anger and tolerate fools just a wee bit more gladly. I suspect my many hours in down dog have kept me from strangling my incredibly challenging 16 year old son. Plus, I can now do a handstand against the wall, which is quite an achievement for a woman in her middle years who couldn't even manage a cartwheel as a kid.

Recently, I showed up and the studio was packed. A popular teacher was in town, subbing for his sister. It turned out to be a great class: He really kicked our butts.

If only he hadn't treated us to the parable of the strawberry.

Way back in time, there was just the first man and the first woman - and the gods, for whom watching the first couple was like ancient reality tv. So one day, First Woman asks First Man "Am I the most beautiful woman in the world?" To which the dimwit answers "Well, honey, you're the ONLY woman in the world". First Woman marches off in a fit of pique, leaving First Man looking sheepish and wondering what he did wrong.

In an attempt to get First Woman to chill, the gods go on a charm initiative. Flowers bloom in time-lapse and exhale their perfumes as she walks by. Trees lob perfectly ripe apricots at her. Butterflies encircle her with flashes of nacreous color. But First Woman's got her sulk on and she's sticking to it. Just as she's worked herself into a full-blown hissy fit, she comes upon a patch of strawberries, plump and jamming sweet. Overcome by rage, First Woman starts stomping on the berries like a frustrated toddler, releasing a pink cloud of fruity fragrance. The scent proves irresistible and she suddenly finds herself scarfing down berries by the handful.

In the middle of this feeding frenzy comes First Man, contrite and ready to grovel. But First Woman smiles up at him with juice running down her face and croons, "Hi, honey!" She has forgotten all about their big conflict. As the yoga teacher explains, "She's been touched by grace."

Or maybe bulimia.

I guess if you have a non-problem like your husband not being willing to stroke your ego often enough, strawberries might do it. But if your kid is on drugs, or your spouse is leaving you for a same-sex partner, or the bank's about to foreclose on your house, even strawberry Haagen Dazs won't make it better. The parable of the strawberry is not enlightening – it's 1960s sitcom. The woman in the story is a narcissistic twit. Her behavior is a waste of time and energy and has diminishing returns, and this story revolves around outdated, sexist, stereotypes of the irrational woman fishing for compliments and the bone-headed guy wondering what do women want? But it's not the actual parable of the strawberry that disturbs me the most. It's the fact that the intelligent, educated, professional women around me were eating it up.

I am fine with the basic idea of feeling connected to nature and the life cycle. It resonates more with me than the notion of a big bearded man in the sky. But like many contemporary people, I don't need symbols and metaphors to illuminate abstract ideas. If my yoga teachers must wax philosophical, I prefer they dispense with the fables.

My friend and favorite yoga instructor is a naturalist with a masters in the study of jelly fish. She worked on the Monterey Aquarium at its inception. Her classes have themes based on nature and sometimes science. And she never tells stories about Kali, Lord Ganesh or the first man and woman. Tantric philosophy resonates with my friend's deep connection to nature, respect for the planet and general world view, but like any true scientist, she doesn't buy into mythologies.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

No, I don't need a hug.

A lady in my women's networking group recently forwarded a link about the Global Hug Tour. Here's the jist of it, lifted, not plagiarized, straight off the site:

"What we're doing
Inspire Me Today Founder Gail Lynne Goodwin and her husband Darryl will take off in a small prop plane from Colorado to circumnavigate the globe and literally hug the world. The tour will stop in 45 locations over a period of five months.
On a personal mission to make a difference, they will be:
Delivering an estimated $1,000,000 to important causes throughout the tour raised through grassroots contributions from people like you
Giving at least 2,000 hugs in each location to literally wrap the world in 100,000 hugs
Gathering great wisdom, inspiration and brilliance from leaders and luminaries in the far reaches of the globe to bring back and share on"

If you want to take part in the hugathon, all you have to do is donate $10. Multiple charities are involved and Gail and Darryl will personally deliver your donation, to the city and cause of your choice, with a big squeeze for an individual recipient. You will become an official hug ambassador and find out exactly who got embraced in your name. If the recession has left you with any discretionary income and you feel inspired, here is the link.

Now that I've demonstrated that I am basically well-intended and have given you the opportunity to make a donation, I'd like to speak for hug-averse people everywhere.

Our culture has gone hug-wild. A recent New York Times article described the affectionate behavior of today's High School students. Every day, students are hugging each other hello. Repeatedly. We're excited - let's hug! We're bummed - let's hug! We're dissaffected, jaded and bored - let's hug! No wonder nobody gets to class on time. Meanwhile, in the adult world, more and more of my clients and colleagues feel compelled to greet me with a squeeze and sometimes even a kiss. The first time this happens, I inevitably stiffen. Occasionally, they notice and apologize, and then we're both embarrassed.

I'm all for warmth, affection and human contact but I happen to need a large amount of personal space. It's cultural and probably genetic - we're all like this, on both sides of the family. I am a demonstrative person and truly love my friends, but I save my hugs for my husband, children and dog. I'm not heartless: if a friend is in despair and I get that please hug me vibe, I understand, and I am happy to oblige. My best friend on the planet lives in the Midwest. We stay in constant touch, but I'm lucky if I see her every other year. When we see each other, we hug. Gingerly, like a couple of porcupines. She's not a hugger either, which is probably one of the reasons we get along so well.

Regardless of one's personal space issues, hugging has its draw backs. Some are olfactory: a whiff of mothballs, a hint of body odor, a sniff of stale smoke - triple yuck. Some are self-imposed: Is my breath OK? Did I forget the deodorant? Can she tell I'm uncomfortable? Some are contagious: lice, swine flu, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. And then there's the occasional pervy hug, usually inflicted on a woman by a man, ostensibly in the name of camaraderie but with the ulterior motive of full body contact.

Which brings me back to that affectionate couple, the Goodwins. Have they considered that other cultures may not be so huggable? Social mores are very different in Islamic Morocco than secular France. In Thailand, it's considered extremely rude to touch someone's head. The charitable aspect of the Global Hug Tour is admirable. The Goodwins are having themselves a damn fine adventure while living up to their positive surname. But let's not forget that it is possible to touch people without using your hands.