Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Oldest Potato

The only piece of mail I look forward to getting at Christmas is the one Fred, my mother’s favorite uncle, sends us every year. Tucked inside a snow-covered tree or a solitary candle or a poinsettia will be a small stack of sketches: ghostly textured lumps flattened skillfully with a pencil and edged into three-by-five-inch sheets of white paper. He draws anything that catches his eye, from driftwood to soggy dishrags to his own excrement.

My mom and I like to play a game where we try to guess what each sketch is without looking at the caption. We never get it right, but it doesn’t matter. Fred only draws things in which he sees something else, something alive. Each item’s physical impetus remains a mysterious shadow, but the individual details and subsurface life forms shine through. I want to run my fingers across the paper to feel each crevice, each dimple, each stain, but if I do I’ll smudge the drawing and ruin it forever.

I have never met Fred, but I imagine he has stacks of palm sized sheets lying around his Rhode Island home, nestled between towers of water-color paintings of all sizes, just waiting for his discerning hand to stumble over them and seal them up in an envelope bound for the West Coast. Inked signatures in each corner disdain the passage of time: ’86, ’92, and ’01. Regardless of how ancient his drawings are, he always remembers exactly what he was thinking when he drew them and annotates them in a chicken-scratch script that looks just like my mom’s handwriting. “This,” he writes, “is a log in the backyard that seemed to have a porcine, silly, and slightly insane face (another self portrait?).” I ask my mom if she can see the face, and she says she can. I tell her that I can’t see the log.
Fred's pictures

While visiting for my final college basketball game, my parents and I make our first trip to the MIT Museum. I’m wondering why the rooms are so dim. The rhythmic squeak of metal wheels dallies behind me as I walk, stopping when I do and resuming when I take another step. Like a cartoon villain wearing a bushy mustache and a devious grin, my dad sneakily tails me with a cart bearing a sign commanding, “Push Me.” He, however, is not quick enough to dash behind a tree or vanish into thin air when I turn around, and I catch him in the act. Elbowing him out of the way, I chase myself around in squeaky circles, half expecting to grow to an alarming size or shrink into near-oblivion like in Alice in Wonderland. A blue shag-carpet treadmill on the top of the cart turns as the wheels do. Three worms, their bodies not segmented but woven from metal fibers, squirm in self-contortions as I push the cart. “Whoa! They’re crawling!” I can’t help but mentally scold myself for sounding like a five-year old as my dad says matter-of-factly, “No, they aren’t.”
He’s right, of course.
Except that they are crawling.

The room is full of crawling, writhing, lumbering, sauntering, watching, battling, and flapping things. Nothing here (except my parents and me) is alive, so how can they crawl, writhe, lumber, saunter, watch, battle, and flap? Arthur Ganson, longtime member of the World Sculpture Racing Society, has created an artful microcosm of lifelike kinetic sculpture out of wire, oil, gears, chains, paper, and dried organic material. The name of the exhibit is “Gestural Engineering.”

Like a gesture line, the first line you draw when attempting to capture a figure, Ganson’s sculptures tell a simple truth. A single coarse wire, an artichoke leaf, these unadorned objects effortlessly tell the truth of living motion, conveying as much grace, diligence, wonder, and vitality in their movements as a ballet dancer or a basketball player. A pile of linked chain holds all the tension of a droplet of water waiting to fall.

When you look at another person’s face, it’s not like looking at a house or a tree or a landscape. Human brains have a special function for perceiving, recognizing, and remembering faces. More synapses fire and more light bulbs turn on in our heads as we understand that what we are looking at is not just part of the backdrop but another person. In The Eye of the Beholder, a book on face recognition, Vicki Bruce and Andrew Young write, “ infants who are only 2-3 weeks old can imitate facial movements including tongue protrusion, mouth opening, and lip protrusion. An important aspect of this finding is that it shows the baby must have some kind of ‘map’ to indicate which of its own facial muscles corresponds to those of another human being, even though it has never experimented with a mirror.”

What if there is something in us that recognizes life, living motion, animation? Is there an intuitive on-board map that connects what is alive within us to what is alive in our environment? Does life itself go through a mirror-stage? And if my great-uncle Fred sees spirits and sprites in a decaying gourd sent to him by one of his former students, and Arthur Ganson sees a lumbering gait in an artichoke petal, is this faculty in them finely tuned or discordant? Maybe they have made the long dark crawl out of the cave.

In the winter, everything looks and feels dead, especially the mechanical. If I want to find life I have to go searching for it. I start inside an urban triangle, each side a one-way street channeling clouds of stiflingly sweet exhaust as they are spit from sighing buses and trucks, in a shallow sea of snow. Maybe I will head to the cemetery across the road, over the shadows—like prison bars—cast by the iron fence, and navigate through the half-buried gravestones. Sounding the depths with my hand, I will combat the stinging numbness of the snow to reach the rough secret warmth of the gravestones hidden beneath the surface. Although it is a transgression, I will sink my hand further and deeper, all the way into the forgotten graves.

In the cold desert now, let’s say, I will start with a shovel in hand, digging through the dry sandy soil for several meters. Even though it will be broad daylight, and colleagues and journalists will surround me, it will still feel like grave robbing. By the time I finally hit something solid and wooden (not just another stray chunk of bedrock out to deceive me), my hands will burn with blisters. I’ll need a crow bar to pry open the lid of the simple Volkswagen-sized pine box, but finally I’ll rend it off and peer into the dusty darkness. A faint warm fragrance will waft up through my nostrils; a few seconds will pass before I recognize it as rose petals. Shining my flashlight inside, I’ll light first on a knee, then a tan shoulder, then a leathery bald head: Dasha-Dorzho Itigilov, spiritual leader of the Russian Buddhists, sitting in a perfect lotus position seventy-five years after his death. Scientists have described Itigilov’s corpse as one that had been dead for only thirty-six hours. That is, the body has yet to catch up to the fact that it’s inhabitant is no longer alive.

The case of Dasha-Dorzho Itigilov’s self-mummification is rare but not unique. Tetsu Munki, a Japanese Buddhist monk who sacrificed himself in a form of public protest, remains undecayed after two-hundred years; a Tibetan man, his name long since forgotten, has been sitting in a small shack, knees tucked under his chin, lips still in a sorrowful smirk, for nearly five-hundred years. For these men, who purportedly underwent no embalming process other than their own intensive meditation rituals, dying is an art.

All of these men, had they followed the course of decay you and I will undergo one day, would have been disarrayed piles of dusty bones by now. This process would have started with self-digestion, also known as autolysis. Mary Rotch was lucky enough (or unfortunate enough) to witness this process first hand at The Body Farm, a “wooded patch of death-soaked land behind a hospital in the hills of Tennessee,” where forensic scientists study the processes of human decay in morbid detail by burying bodies in the garden and watching them ripen. In addition to the effusion of rank vapors and fluids, Rotch notes “Something else is going on. Squirming grains of rice are crowded into the man’s belly button. It’s a rice grain mosh pit. But rice grains do not move. These cannot be grains of rice. They are not. … It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things.” After self-digestion comes bloat, where “Bacteria-generated gas bloats the lips and tongue, the latter often to the point of making it protrude from the mouth: In real life as it is in cartoons. The eyes do not bloat because the liquid has long ago leached out. They are gone. Xs. In read life as it is in cartoons.”

When my tenth grade English teacher, midway through Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, gave us his version of the cliché that everything boils down to sex and death, that all words and thoughts can be reduced to simmering syrup of proliferation and extermination, we all laughed. It seemed silly to us because at best (or worst) most of us had smelled only telltale whiffs of one or the other and not taken a bite of either. I have never experienced the kind of decay Rotch describes in her book Stiff (a title that would have also made my tenth grade English class titter). I have never even imagined this kind of decay. I close Mary Rotch’s book, rush to the grocery store, and buy an over-ripe peach and a browning banana. I bring them home, set them on a shelf, and wait to see what happens.

Every day I check up on my fruit. I take pictures even, hoping to catch the process in the act. A week and a half later my fruit are still appetizing. The smell a bit too sweet, but far short of sickening; the peach’s top has grown withered, but hasn’t ruptured; the banana has grown more brown, but I would still eat it (though perhaps only baked in bread). I’m a little disappointed. I am no better at expediting decay than I will be at preventing it.

There is a difference between what is gross and what is disconcerting. Gross is magnetic and contagious (though perhaps I only inherited that as a family quirk), whereas disconcerting is repulsive and shameful to the observer. Take dumpster diving, for example. The gross thing about wading through a pile of trash is that everything is covered in some unidentifiable liquid. The disconcerting thing isn’t the domination of decay but its absence. So many things are well preserved: unbruised apples, heads of lettuce, loaves of bread, boxes of cereal, even unbroken eggs. Decay, on its own, is not disconcerting, and neither is preservation. Annie Dillard knows what I’m talking about. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she writes, “Things are well in their place. […]Things out of place are ill.[…] I used to kill insects with carbon tetrachloride—cleaning fluid vapor—and pin them in cigar boxes, labeled, in neat rows. That was many years ago: I quit when one day I opened a cigar box lid and saw a carrion beetle, staked down high between its wing covers, trying to crawl, swimming on its pin. It was dancing with its own shadow, untouching, and had been for days.[…] I know that one night, in just this sort of rattling wind, I will go to the kitchen for milk and find on the back of the stove a sudden stew I never fixed, bubbling, with a deer leg sticking out.”

Ganson’s sculpture draws me back, and I return to the MIT Museum a week later with a sketchpad. Staying away from the spindly mechanical coils, wires, and gears that comprise the guts of each sculpture, I focus on the wishbone that is frozen mid-stride, its right leg arrested and dangling a finger’s width above the track. Last week, it was a methodical ambler, an old man with rheumatic hips aching at each step yet plodding on. This week the button is broken and no matter how many times I press it the wishbone remains a lonely dead yellow twig, help up awkwardly by a coiled copper wire garter on each leg. When I draw the wishbone’s pores and fibers, its sponginess, I use the same techniques I would use to draw a human figure. I don’t know whether that is became the wishbone demands them, or because they are the only techniques I know.

Ganson’s kinetic sculptures capture fluid lifelike motion, but they also capture perpetual stasis. Red plastic cocktail swords circle each other indefinitely, coming close but never clashing blades. An artichoke petal, its head hung, its spine slouched, lumbers in a bear walk, circumnavigating an ever-rotating disc. A tiny white plastic man dressed in a white tuxedo, no bigger than my thumbnail, turns his head from left to right and back again, searching ceaselessly and never finding what he seeks. The head of a doll, faintly smudged with dirt, mounted on a metal shaft, uses its cartoonish plastic eyes to track a plastic balloon that spirals up and down. The caption reads “Child Watching Ball, Mixed Media, 1996.” Today the baby is ten years old.

Before his death, Socrates speculated that, “For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them.” Ganson’s sculptures will never have the luxury of finding out whether Socrates was right. They will never die because they were never alive. Although Socrates poses a question that the living—and the immortal—can never answer, one thing is clear; for the bacteria waiting patiently in our intestines and the insects waiting patiently in the woodwork, our death is beyond a doubt the best thing that will happen to them.

Brownian motion describes the random movement of particles in a fluid. Ganson’s Brownian Rice, a tray of dry grains that writhe as I turn a metal crank, however, is not Brownian. Rice, charged with maintaining our physical bodies, a synonym for nourishment itself, has come to resemble the things that help us, ultimately, to decay, to cease to be physically: maggots. To me, there’s nothing random about that.

Moving to the “Robots and Beyond” room, I watch video footage of a mechanical kangaroo hopping around a track and stumble upon Kismet, a “sociable robot” with expressive eyebrows and floppy docile ears. The robots in this room, the test-bed for artificial intelligence, are famous for their ability to learn, adapt, and think, yet I never mistake them for something alive the way I do with Ganson’s plastic doll and writhing chains. No spark in my brain ignites, as it does when I hear bushes rustling due to the rats scurrying in the underbrush, or my eye catches a plastic bag racing across the concrete sidewalk carried by the wind. These robots have all the details of living motion without that intangible fundamental gesture.

In Bruce and Young’s book I read about a facial recognition disorder called Capgras delusion, “the claim that one or more close relatives has been replaced by near-identical impostors.” The most famous sufferer was Victorian painter Richard Dadd, known better for murdering his father than for his fantasy paintings. At the time, he didn’t recognize his own father. He thought he was killing the devil. Bruce and Young give a scientific explanation for the Capgras delusion: a broken link in the brain’s orienting pathways, which, “When we look at faces of people we know … set up preparatory reactions for the type of interaction that is likely to follow.” For a person with Capgras delusion, the act of recognition occurs without the supporting emotional framework. Maybe this is what I feel when I come face to face with the robots here.

After three and a half years of living less than an hour’s drive from my Uncle Fred, I finally decide to skip my Friday afternoon classes, grab my friend Anat (to whom I promised an adventure), and make the trip down to see him.

Fred grew up in Warwick, Rhode Island, went to school at the Rhode Island School of Design, spent several years in Germany on a fellowship, and has lived in a duplex in Providence for the past thirty-six years. Fred never throws anything away. Two spindly fossils sit on the windowsill in his kitchen. He hands one to me, saying, “This is what I call ‘The Oldest Potato.’” It is brittle and dry and cavernous and bristly, and Anat won’t touch it for fear of breaking it. In an old margarine container, green tentacles sprout in every direction and smother a withered brown and crimson root sitting in a bath of cloudy water. “And here’s the infamous ‘Bull Scrotum Beet’.” Anat is surprised that it doesn’t smell bad at all. “That’s because he’s still alive,” Fred says. “I feel bad for exploiting him for so long. He’s been through enough.” The series of watercolors Fred has done of the Bull Scrotum Beet show the progressively ratty and overgrown head of green hair mangled yet full of motion. “In this one he looks forlorn,” Fred says, “but he used to look mischievous.”

Clues of a long since grown-up child are scattered about the house, like the curling Sesame Street poster diagramming the parts of the body that looks down upon the Bull Scrotum Beet. Faded crayon drawings are taped to the wall next to a 1977 airline schedule in a room upstairs. Plastic Easter eggs dangle from a few branches tied to the ceiling with twine.

The carpets are beyond threadbare; in some places they are worn completely through to the hardwood floor. Heading up the narrow stairways, curling yellow wallpaper, cracked in geometric tessellations like the surface of once wet desert soil, hides underneath paintings that Fred did earlier in his life. He doesn’t use oil anymore, only watercolor, because he feels he can express more with the medium. While most of his paintings are of spirits he sees in dead objects, some of them are demons from inside his head. “These demons kept me up night after night,” Fred says, “and I stared at them until I could paint them.”

Anat and I squat beside Fred as he shows us his albums of watercolor paintings. The newest ones, not yet matted and photographed, are tucked inside a book. We aren’t merely looking at tomatoes and rocks and tree-roots, but gnomes and monsters and ghosts. “Ah, I have to tell you what this one is,” Fred says excitedly. “Every few years I get a colonoscopy, and I always ask to keep the pictures they take. I call it ‘A Voice from Deep Within’.” After a few dozen paintings, before he tells us, we already know that one is a sea-dragon and another is howling at the moon.

We are heading into the sun for most of the drive back to Boston, and I can barely see through the glare, no matter how many times Anat tries to clean the dirt off the windshield by squirting water from my bottle on it.

Moist coffee grounds and soggy tea-bags always make me nervous. I used to think it was a matter of unfamiliarity, but as my caffeine consumption sky-rocketed the past year I realized that wasn’t the case. No matter how many times I brew my own coffee or tea, I’m always uneasy as I scrape coarse black sludge or dripping leaves into the trash. Used coffee grounds and used tea-bags haven’t lost anything; they’ve gained a fluid overcoat. Yet what makes coffee coffee, or tea tea, its essence, its usefulness, its functionality, its ability to procure change, has been siphoned off into oblivion. What’s left behind is a Dasha-Dorzho Itigilov, a Tetsu Munki, an anonymous Tibetan monk. Perhaps these Buddhist lamas would balk at being compared to used food products; I think they’d grin, reveling in their own non-fungibility.

What would it be like to draw Dasha-Dorzho Itigilov, if I had the chance?

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