The Greyhound

“You got any stories, friend?”

And so begins Episode Five, “Contrapasso,” of Westworld. Each of the other nine episodes begins with a host, one of the robots at the heart of the story, waking up or coming on line.  This one begins with a host, Old Bill, making a request of Ford, the creator of the robots and all the park that is Westworld. Ford answers, “Yeah, suppose I do,” and goes on to tell the story of “the saddest thing [he] ever saw.” A pet greyhound kills a cat when it is let loose from its leash. An event that is wholly anticipated (“our father warned us”), ends in horror (“to the horror of everyone, he killed that little cat, tore it to pieces.”), which is also entirely predictable. Who wouldn’t feel horror at a “little cat” being torn to pieces? Because this exchange between Ford and Old Bill breaks the pattern of the opening sequences, it is, as much as anything might be, the key to Westworld’s first season.

Westworld, for all its science fiction underpinnings, timeline switches, sex and violence, is a show about the power of story.  The hosts repeat their stories, which are called loops by the park employees. The guests participate in narratives, taking either white or black hat roles, and act out fantasies of sex and violence that are forbidden in the real world.  Ford and the park employees create and manage the narratives and the hosts to meet the guests’ expectations. Only one guest, The Man in Black, sees these stories as part of a game, and wants in on the bigger game, the more meaningful story, the maze.

Ford’s exchange with Bill hints at all this.  To begin with, Old Bill, is programmed to listen–that is his loop. But, because he is an old host, he isn’t very good at it. When Ford asks, “Never seen a greyhound have you, Bill?” Bill doesn’t recognize “greyhound” and reinterprets it to fit his understanding; he answers that he has seen a few showdowns. This shows one of the fundamental challenges of stories.  The teller and listener need to have a shared language and culture. At the end of the story, Bill responds, “That is one humdinger of a story, partner. Shall we drink to the lady with the white shoes?” Ford looks at him sadly. His secret is safe in Bill’s hands.

The secret Ford shares is the secret of loops.  The greyhound “spends its life running in circles, chasing a bit of felt made up like a rabbit.” Whether by instinct or routine, its life becomes automatic, robotic.  The greyhound running in circles is like the hosts on their loops.  But the dog chases a fake rabbit—just as the hosts are fake humans. While the hosts are on perpetual loops, the guests come to Westworld to break from their loops of their daily lives, to experience a simulacrum of authenticity. The hosts and guests share this. In the park the guests fall into loops that are just as predictable (if more extreme) as the ones they left behind at home, and just as predictable as those that dominate the hosts.

The viewers of the show are invited to sympathize with the hosts.  The guests are portrayed as crude and cruel, the hosts are doe-eyed and wistful. However, the hosts are machines—sophisticated machines, but more like supercharged go-karts. They are not “little cats.”  And yet, because the story of the show plays on the viewers emotions, our attention is refocused, and our expectations shift to hopes that the hosts will be set free from their loops—much in the same way that a father would bring a rescued greyhound into a home to give it some respite from years of cruel running in circles.

The Man in Black shares this hope.  He sees the park as too controlled, and therefore as inconsequential. Even when he gets a glimpse of the maze, he rejects it, because his expectations (“You know what I wanted,” he tells Ford in Episode Ten, “The Bicameral Mind”) were not met. His idea of the story he wants to see prevent him from seeing anything else. He, like Old Bill (and the Man in Black’s name is William), cannot understand the story he is being told.

One of the fun parts of watching the show when it first came out in 2016, was listening to the discussions about the stories in the show.  People wondered who each character was, what timeline each one occupied, and what the big secret would be. They were viewer stand-ins for the Man in Black, or Old Bill, listening and not understanding, letting their expectations or programming get in the way of what was told.

The secret to art of reading is in large part dependent on being able to see the structure of a story as one reads it. We know that if an event happens in chapter one, the rule of plot (rising action) will lead to an amplification of that event later in the story.  If a stranger dies in chapter one, then a friend will die later.  If a distant friend dies early, a dear friend will die later. Stories follow familiar patterns, and when those patterns are broken the reader or viewer may revolt. This is one reason why Campbell’s Hero’s Journey holds such sway over popular screenwriting: familiarity is the writer’s friend.

However, life is not a screenplay or a story. Unexpected, if predictable things happen.  Dogs chase down little cats and the results horrify us.  “I got the cat. Now what?” wonders the dog.  The reason that Ford’s story is “the saddest thing [he] ever saw,” is not because of the little cat, it’s because there’s nothing else for the dog to do.  Its life is defined by chase and kill, and once it has succeeded that’s all there is. Growth, or meaning, does not come from meeting expectations, but from the realization, and it can be a sad realization, that life, as opposed to a story, does not follow an order.  Life is chaotic and random. It dashes our expectations and makes us strip our stories bare and try (and perhaps fail) to revise.

The overall story in Westworld points us to this, if gently.

Persuasion (get over it)

I have been thinking about feelings. Which means, of course, that I have been having them, or rather, overwhelmed by them of late. I wouldn’t bother to write about them if they were good feelings. When I am in love, I tend to write less about that feeling, in part because my need to communicate to the world is being so generously satisfied by the person I love.  The feeling of being so thoroughly understood (she gets me!) is like putty in the gaps through which the words drift out (or in). The feeling of being misunderstood blows all the putty out.

I wonder what it would be like to write about love. I should try.

When there is anger, which almost always proceeds from misunderstanding, I don’t know how to speak to anyone I love. One former lover suggested that I should just “let her be” when she was angry.  I should know to do that, or something like that.  Active listening is an approach I have been trained to use by countless leadership and communications trainings. Yet, it is hard to apply my professional approaches to my personal life, because my personal life is so much more consequential than my professional life, and because my personal life is so, forgive me, personal.

When a congregant, a colleague, or a student is angry, it matters, but not in any kind of existential way. I can pull aside a student several days later, ask what was going on, and suggest what their angry display had the possibility of doing (how it might impact the relationship he has with adults or classmates). Because students are young and impulsive, most do not hold onto their impulsive anger in a lasting way, and most can offer a genuine “My bad” after the fact. They do it days later, and sometimes hours later. Adults hold their feelings longer. With adults, some formulation of “I hear you” and “I hear that you feel strongly about that” is my trained response. And is usually answered with “You’re damn right I feel strongly about that” followed by a lengthy restatement of what the person just said. In my professional capacity I have listened to many explanations. Accords follow later, if they follow at all.

I wonder why adults hold their feelings more dearly.  I think, and I could be wrong, that we live in an age in which the truth of our feelings is valorized. We pick facts that confirm our feelings and change the facts when needed. We organize the world to suit our feelings, and when the two don’t jibe, we seek to change the world and not to change our feelings. I don’t know why this is.  I hold with Rilke, who advises the young poet not to focus on his feelings, but to pay attention to things.  I think today we take our feelings to be as immutable as chairs, or oceans, or stars.

In Rhetoric Aristotle argues that “modes of persuasion are the only true constituents of the art [of rhetoric]: everything else is merely accessory.” (He also states, “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.” Oh, for that simple time.)  Aristotle divides the approach into three: the character of the speaker, the state of mind of the audience, and the proof of “a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” These days it seems that the state of minds of the audience has taken precedence over truth or character.  I think this is true in our political rhetoric, but it is also true in our professional and personal lives. What matters most is neither your character, nor the validity of your argument; it is how the people or person you are speaking to feels.

However, the feeling of being misunderstood, especially by a person I love most (most intimately, most personally, most romantically), completely upends me.  And so, I try to persuade or explain, which is a fool’s errand, mainly because I am angry at being misunderstood: “How can you NOT understand me, oh person I love?” All that person can hear is the anger, and all I can hear back is more misunderstanding. So, like the tourist who cannot make himself understood in a foreign land, I increase the volume, either the number of proofs (See?) or the protestations with regards to my character (I am a good person). And I fail.

Anger over being misunderstood is my Achilles heel, and should immediately disqualify me from being a teacher, a writer, or a lover because misunderstanding is the common currency of an expressive life. I could say “Yanni” and someone will hear “Laurel” or something else that no one has imagined as a possibility yet: “Bluebird,” “Sarsaparilla,” “I hate you,” or even “I love you.” And yet, here I go, plunging into another teaching job, trying to write this down, and remaining open to the possibility of being misunderstood by someone I love. A cynic would tell me that therapy can help break this cycle, but really, all a therapist will do is help me make peace with the fact that this is my cycle.  I better learn to love it.

The Captain’s Way

Over twenty-five years ago I started sailing on the ocean with my father. We would leave the Chesapeake Bay in the last week of May and spend five or six days out of sight of land on the way to Bermuda. Some days the weather was lovely. I read The Pickwick Papers on deck during my first trip, lying on the cabin roof in generous sun and a steady breeze. Some days the rain found every gap in the foul weather gear, and every inch of skin wrinkled to a puckered wet mess. There were days when no wind blew, and the foul diesel exhaust clung to the boat like regret, and days when the wind blew too hard to unfurl the smallest triangle of sail.

On every trip save three I got seasick—a miserable thirty-six hours of retching that began during my first 2 am watch on the ocean and ended when the store of yellow bile in my guts was exhausted and my inner ears adjusted to the six-way surprises of pitch, roll, and yaw. If I think hard enough about it, I can churn my stomach while standing on dry land. I chewed ginger, which was tarry and vile. I applied scopolamine patches, which gave me marvelous hallucinations that I used to unlock characters in stories. I went without, which guaranteed predictable suffering. Finally, I settled on an anti-vertigo drug that wrapped my head in gauze but staved off illness.  Only once, when we sailed out onto the ocean in a full gale, and the seas peaked into a landscape of rolling hills, did I avoid either remedy or illness.

I miss sailing.  I miss fighting through unpredictability. I miss sailing upwards of seven knots. I miss storm clouds lit by the night sky. I miss encounters with thousand strong pods of dolphins.  I miss standing watches with my father.

My father rarely complained about anything when we were on the ocean.  He called the weather “shitty” on a few occasions. He swore at the crew once, which has lived down in family lore; “Blanket the fucking jib” has outlived him. He knew that the greatest frustrations on the ocean were not weather, or even illness. He suffered with Parkinson’s Disease when I sailed with him, and except for the times he sent me forward to tie down a loose sail or hold the helm through a storm, he did not express regret about his condition, about what he could no longer do.

He knew that the hardest part of sailing was the proximity of four men on board. It was after I complained about some dreary antics of one of our crew mates that he told me how important variety was.  “If everyone was an orange, life would be boring,” he advised.  He brought his sons to the ocean with him because he knew we would not misbehave.  We laughed. We passed over contretemps with humor; he was the only one who would swear at anyone. He was the captain. But even after swearing, there was time for a scotch and laughter. We may not have all been oranges, but we shared an approach that kept us on course.

I know the world is bigger than a thirty-six-foot sailboat, and so the need to behave well does not always assert itself. People say and do things that would raise the captain’s voice. I realize, as my father must have years ago, that not all families abide with humor, that many live by other means. Years of working with people in school and church have taught me that people bring a variety of approaches to challenge, and that my father’s way is rare. I have also learned that for some, humor is not a balm as it was for us. For some contention and control provide the well-worn ground that makes the world, if not safe, then predictable. And for some, there is safety in that.

I think I gave up on safety a long time ago.  Sailing will do that to you.  You learn to prepare for the unimaginable, and to gird yourself with an attitude that can adapt. In the last weeks of May, I feel the old tug, and miss my father. I long to sail in his affable company again.