Thursday, May 31, 2007

Emotional Intelligence

Last night we went to a meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Cade has been a member of IEEE--referred to by insiders as "I Triple E," but always makes me think of the redneck call to arms frequently heard around one of my father's Friday night bonfires--for many years, but this is the first local meeting we've attended. Normally, domestic demands and a general lack of interest in the subject matter prevent us from attending, but the subject matter of last night's meeting was too tempting, so we got Cade's dad to babysit and headed over to Cannon's for supper and education.

The speaker last night was a woman from MIT who heads a research program focused on designing software that recognizes affective (emotional) states. They've begun testing the software with people with autism (or "autistics," as Ms. Picard referred to them), with the idea that these empathic machines might help them interact more normally. Ms. Picard did a brief demonstration, fielded some questions, took pains to emphasize the many strengths that people with autism--I just cannot refer to them as "autistics"--exhibit.

It was truly fascinating, and the research is exciting, but I can't help questioning the basic tenets of the research she described. Is it possible to train a machine to be empathic? Isn't empathy something that's fundamentally mysterious, and subjective, and full of everything that resists scientific inquiry? For example: assuming that cultural/social norms impact the way a person displays and interprets emotion, is it really possible to train a machine to recognize all of the various and sometimes subtle differences in affective communication? This would require some mass generalizations (i.e., Japanese people have flat affects), which makes everyone uncomfortable--as evidenced by Ms. Picard's response to my question regarding this very subject, wherein she made some vague and slightly defensive comments about avoiding cultural stereotypes and didn't really answer my question at all.

The question being: can a machine really tell us how we're feeling? Do we really want it to?

Or maybe I'm the one feeling defensive, because that's supposed to be my job?

Friday, May 25, 2007


Yesterday, at Whole Foods, I managed to bring down an entire shelf of glass jars containing a variety of caramel and chocolate sauces. Granted, the shelf was front-heavy, resting precariously on two metal brackets, neither well-balanced nor anchored. But still. Why couldn't I have knocked over a shelf of cereal boxes, or toilet tissue, or canned peas or something? Why do I insist upon making such a spectacular ass of myself?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Family Tree

We stopped in Defuniak Springs on Sunday morning, on our way back to NOLA. It's another small, pseudo-agrarian town nestled deep in the Florida Panhandle, the sort of place folks like us stop to use the restroom, grab a soda and hop back onto the highway without a passing thought of the local residents, their lives and livelihoods, their histories. We'd stopped in Defuniak a couple of years before, to find a geocache Cade had his eye on, but several miles down a pitted dirt road I got spooked and we turned around, defeated and cross. But my husband is a stubborn fellow (I mean, what else would you expect from a Taurus?) and on our way back last weekend we pulled off for the second time, one of us hopeful, GPS at the ready, the other slightly surly, tending to the squirming toddler in the backseat, longing for the Louisiana state line. Little did I know, steeped in doubt and impatience, that a real treasure awaited our discovery at the end of the winding dirt road.

It turned out to be a cemetery--a small one, no more than 10 or so tombstones, all members of the same family, some dating back to the early nineteenth century. As Cade hunted for the cache and Sydney romped joyfully among the dead, I took stock: one woman, the family matriarch, had lived to be nearly a hundred years old. An inscription on the tombstone of a 22-year-old man who'd likely died in WWI read What hopes have perished with you, my son. A woman named Julia and a man named Henry, born 1872 and 1865, respectively, lost 3 children in a breathtakingly brief period of time--an almost two-year-old boy in 1913, an infant (probably stillborn) in 1916, and an older son in 1918. Imagine losing three children in the span of five years! Cade talked about influenza, war casualties, all very reasonable explanations and undoubtedly true, but my thoughts were consumed by the enormity of this couple's loss. How did they survive it? I double-checked the couple's tombstones, searching for evidence of grief-induced early demise, but both lived decades past their children, well into their sixties and seventies. I pondered this newest discovery in silence, almost in reverance. How in the hell did they manage it?

Meanwhile, utterly oblivious to my reverie, Sydney had busied herself with climbing over the low wooden railing to snag flowers from the tombstones. It was time to refocus, to hug and kiss and just completely smother my precious, living, breathing child, to put her back in the car with an extra tug on the seatbelt, a longer-than-usual kiss on the forehead. We drove back along the dusty dirt road towards the highway, one of us pleased with his find, his success, the other lingering in a long-ago world, the history of a place she had never really noticed. Stunned by losses she hoped never to have to comprehend.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Middle of Nowhere

I'm writing from a hotel in Marianna, Florida, where we've stopped for the evening on our way back from a weeklong vacation. This is not the first time we've stopped here--in this town, at this hotel. We prefer to split the 11-hour drive from NOLA to Orlando in half, and Marianna is just west of Tallahassee, easy to access, quiet, and cheap; we've stayed here a handful of times over the last few years. There's not much to Marianna: a Wal-Mart, a couple of vaguely depressing places normally referred to as "family-style" restaurants, a gas station, a smattering of churches and gun shops. To my spoiled eye it looks like not much more than a glorified rest stop, although I imagine the locals would disagree (vehemently).

Our stays are usually blissfully unremarkable, except for the last time, when we stopped on our way back to New Orleans after a 3-month evacuation. It was mid-November, and Sydney was about 7 weeks old, still only sleeping in one-to-two-hour fits; I was like the walking dead, really just going through the motions, both desperate to get home and completely terrified of what I would see, how I would manage to care for an infant in the middle of a ruined city. We stopped for the night in Marianna, had dinner at Sonny's (where a preternaturally large toddler became obsessed with Sydney, either because she seemed a tiny version of himself or a potentially tantalizing appetizer), slumped back to the freezing cold hotel room and settled down for sleep--or what passed for sleep in those days--with the baby in the bed between us. It was so cold: I had all of my clothes on, including my jacket, and Sydney nestled tight against me in the dark. I was creeping towards the edge of oblivion when suddenly, from the second floor, the boom-boom-kaboom of a bass drum jolted me awake, followed in short order by a cacaphony of sounds emanating from the sorts of instruments one might find on a high school football field during halftime. We weren't sure at first what was happening--in those hazy days (after The Storm, after The Baby) the line(s) between reality and fantasy blurred just a little--but a few more minutes of raucous entertainment confirmed our suspicion.

A high school marching band had checked in. And they were awake.

I remember shedding a few tears of exhaustion/frustration/rage/helplessness over the course of that wretched evening, but now it just seems funny. And this time, I am happy to report, our stay has been satisfactorily mundane, marked only by Sydney's occasional squeals of joy as she spies a pile of rocks in the corner of the parking lot, or takes to counting the plastic bath toys at her feet ("Two, two, two! Yee-ayy!"). I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep, the free continental breakfast, and a no-rush ride back to our city, the best city in the world. It was nice to get away, but really: there is no place like home.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A Decision is Made.

I took the job.

So many in to my final decision--hours, flexibility, money, location, environment--but then I started thinking about regret and the choice was relatively simple. As Cade's aunt Manina said to me: "No decision is a wrong decision." So I pushed past my fears and doubts and ambivalence and made one. For better or worse, there you have it. As of June I will be the newest therapist at Jewish Family Services of Greater New Orleans.

Life has felt so chaotic lately that I've had a hard time focusing enough to formulate a coherent narrative. Even now, as I write this, a million thoughts are swirling. Will my next client show up? How will I break the news of my departure? Will my clients follow me to the new setting? Do I dare assume that level of attachment?

I'm also coming down from Jazz Fest, which was a blast, as always, but not nearly as soul-inflating as in some previous years. I got to stand right up by the stage for Counting Crows (close enough to see very clearly the love handles that have formed around Adam Duritz's waist) which was cool. They always mix it up, which I appreciate: it doesn't leave me feeling like I could have simply stayed home and listened to the CD, you know? For this show, they broke into a super-slow version of "Thunder Road," my favorite Springsteen song, and later offered a version of "Pale Blue Eyes" that brought tears to mine. It was a Jazz Fest moment, to be sure. If only those fuckers behind and in front of me would have had enough sense to stop talking and pay attention to the beauty unfolding all around them.

So that was cool. I saw some other great performances, among them the women drummers from Guinea (amazing), the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars (stupendous), Irma Thomas, Washboard Chaz Blues Trio, etc, etc, but nothing that really caught me in that perfect state of being, the state I find myself in when in the presence of the truly sublime. Maybe it was my state of mind--the first weekend I felt guilty about leaving Sydney all day, the second weekend I felt guilty for subjecting her to the sweltering heat and decidedly non-nap-inducing environment--or maybe the vibe was off. I don't know. But I did have a good time.

And more than once I fought off the urge to corner the out-of-towners and make sure they understood what they were witnessing: the importance of this city, the importance of this culture, this phenomenon, this precious jewel that so many people seem to think is expendable. Do our visitors get it? Do they really think these things are reproducible, that Mardi Gras at Universal Studios is the same as Mardi Gras on St. Charles Ave., or that Jazz Fest is the same as any of the other outdoor music festivals in other places? I hope not. I didn't get the chance to ask any of them, but I watched them line up at the gates of our cultural heritage and eat their hearts out and dance to our music--OUR music!--and walk away sunburned and smiling and, well, I just really hope that they get it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


I have a really difficult decision to make, and I have to make it soon. This is an unusual position for me, as my personal struggles generally tend to involve errors resulting from impulsivity rather than ambivalence. I don't normally have trouble making decisions, but this one has me awake at night, weighing my options, making lists of positives and negatives, spacing out on the job and at home and consulting nearly everyone who crosses my path, including the incredibly sweet and surprisingly insightful young woman who cleaned my teeth this morning.

It's about a job. Last Friday I interviewed for a great position at a highly respected agency, where I would spend the bulk of my working days seeing clients. My salary would double, I could devote all of my time to doing therapy and would not have to bother with all of the administrative stuff that I generally despise. Sure, I'd have to work in Metairie, but that seems a small price to pay for the afore-mentioned benefits and oh, that's right, the four weeks paid vacation that I could look forward to every year.

It is, in many respects, a dream job--or at the very least, an extremely attractive opportunity. It should be a no-brainer, but it somehow doesn't feel right, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last fews days trying to pinpoint the source of this distressing ambivalence. Is this my lifelong fear of change asserting itself? Am I afraid I won't be up to the challenge? Do I really hate Metairie that much? Am I reluctant to lose the connection to the academic community that Trinity provides? Does this feel too much like a grown-up job? Is this ambivalence actually a form of rebellion?

I can't sort it out. But I do know that this job would mean longer hours, more pressure, a longer commute, less flexibility. I'm on the cusp of an important choice, one that's more about self-definition than money or ambition. Can I be a good mother and a good therapist? And what about a good wife? A good daughter? A responsible citizen? This choice, this seemingly impossible choice, unveils the tension that until now I have been able to manage with relative ease. Taking this job might mean greater professional--and subsequently personal--fulfillment but would take away precious time with my daughter. Should she suffer for my professional ambitions? Of course not. But isn't it also possible, or probable, that my own personal (or professional) fulfillment has a tremendous impact on my relationship with her? In other words, if I'm happy, won't we all be happier as a result?

I just don't know, and I've started to understand why so many women choose to stay at home with their children. While I feel truly fortunate to have the opportunity to make choices, I don't want to make the mistake of striking too many Faustian bargains. Twenty years from now, will Sydney sit on her shrink's couch and complain that I was always at work, or will she bemoan the fact that I never took the opportunity to better myself?

The dental hygienist would make a good therapist: she was empathic, and listened, and did not give her opinion. That is so goddamn frustrating! But she did say--and I don't think this was an accident--as we discussed the much-delayed extraction of an ailing tooth, that "Good mothers always make sacrifices for their children." She was talking about the tooth, of course, and the fact that I've had to delay the extraction for lack of time, but I know what she really meant. It's just not clear what that sacrifice looks like.