Someone Send Liam Neeson to Paris

Point blank: Are you following me?
Yes, he said.

The audacity of his simple answer bordered on the comical. I would have laughed at the admission if I weren’t a single woman, alone at night, in a foreign country, betting my security on a show of strength. Are you following me? I demanded, seething. And he was.

Kelsey in FranceThere had already been mussels and wine, overcast skies above the Seine photographed with pleasure, crepes on the barge Daphne, a sweaty jet-lagged nap in the tiny apartment, easy use of the rail from the airport. July’s Paris keeps sunlight well into evening, and by twilight I had been from Charles de Gaulle to 10, 4, 1, 2 and 6 with leisure. Quenching my thirst for Paris became more effortless as the day lengthened.

“Stop following me. I am standing here and watching you walk away, and I will call the police the moment I see you again.”

I had been careful with my guidebook, pulling it out of my bag only inside the restaurant and stowing it when on the move. Signaling unfamiliarity can draw kind pity from some, frustration from others, and menace in the worst cases. While I’ve brazenly stood on sidewalks surveying Google maps in the city that I live, or argued about directions with travel companions, the self-awareness of solo travel is both difficult and unadvisable to suppress.

I should acknowledge that not all travelers will share my perspective. Even if blind, ignorant, and unwarranted, confidence is left intact more often than not. Without it even seasoned travelers would not go, the risks too pressing to enjoy adventure. And yet, confidence is easily spoiled, even without the added risk of travel. A marriage proposal in the Met may sound romantic, unless it comes from a persistent, imbalanced stranger. Attention on the street may be a mere annoyance, unless that attention comes from an otherwise standard young man repeatedly grasping at your long hair. Pausing to view a display of books in the shop window with a fellow pedestrian is innocuous, unless he has been pacing you for blocks and waits silently with you at the display until you start walking again. Strange things happen, and it would be foolish not to update confidence levels. And so the clever quips that preceded my solo trip to Paris, “I hope you don’t get Taken,” made me laugh as I picked out a guidebook small enough to conceal in my purse. I was vigilant.

 

It baffled me, then, to feel the prowl that first evening in Paris. The eerie sensation is not alien, if you’ve ever known it before. The space behind you suddenly captivates. The awareness develops from behind, the back of your head and your neck becoming sensitive, your eyes fixing in place so you can listen, process. I could tell he was bulky – short but meaty, deliberate and heavy in stride. The awareness rotates to the side, your slanted eye sweep cataloguing everything that peripheral vision promises. He was sweaty and dusky, skin touched by the sun and clothing creased and nondescript. His lips drew back into a smile as he noted my fleeting survey. Awareness pulls briefly to the front, purposefully identifying where your body will be next, and then his body after that. It snaps again to the side, the back, the awareness extending and shimmering and roiling, the discomfort palpable and purpose singular: Get away.

I moved to the interior portion of the sidewalk, the slow lane. Pausing to scan a menu, I peered obliquely down the street toward the entrance, still unfamiliar, of the gated alleyway concealing my rented apartment. I strode forward, gauging the sunset. I needed to lose him before I reached my apartment or the sun went down, whichever came first. I entered the first store I saw, a tiny bodega selling wine and corkscrews and shampoo. Here’s where I deflect him, I thought – it’s not my first time shaking a stranger. I took a bottle of wine from the shelf and peered under my brow at the window of the shop. When he passes outside, I’ll wait. If he does not, I’ll talk to the shopkeeper.

Stop StalkingBut he was inside the store with me. He was around the corner; he was next to me. Even as his eyes settled, unchanging and satisfied, there was an incongruous thrill in his body. He advanced minutely in posture with every shift I made. In the intimacy of the bodega he could have touched me with just a small hand gesture. But his limbs hung; any brush against me would emanate from his torso, pelvis, thighs. It was deranged, the closeness with which he followed me around the shelves in the store. We could have been slow dancing. I paid for the wine without saying a word, my horrible French concealed along with my growing concern. My thoughts were no longer on frustrated expectations of safety. Now I was baffled by the simultaneous irony and gravity of becoming the victim such a formulaic event.

I exited and doubled back purposefully, visiting a second store. Wash, rinse, repeat. But I couldn’t rinse myself of him. After losing him briefly, he was beside me again, eyeing me evenly with the same leer. I looked back at him, held his eye. There was no mistake. I paused to consider another menu; he waited. It had been 25 minutes. Spinning around, I looked him in the eye, scanned him up and down, and faced him squarely. The sun was nearly down, my apartment close enough that I could only avoid revealing my residence to him a little longer. I set my stance, deepened my voice, narrowed my eyes and leaned toward him aggressively. Are you following me?

I’m certain every young woman has seen an article: what to do if you think you are being followed. Usually all it takes for me is a quick confirmation that I have an intentional shadow, a swing into a public place, and in the worst of cases, a pointed glare enough to communicate that I’m not an oblivious, easy target. That I’ve done this more than once is moderately unsettling, and the subject of several incredulous, fortunately amusing recounts with friends. Either I’m a beacon for bizarre advances, or I’m uncannily aware of my average share of lurkers. Whichever it is, I had never met with such persistence. And all of the articles agree: persistence is a problem. The shadow that doesn’t go away when you’ve tried standard escape tactics is a dangerous shadow.

“Are you following me?” And then, thrusting my arm forward, “get out of here. This is offensive.”

Hey StalkerConfrontation is risky, but I had run out of sunlight and I was done drawing him ever closer to my door. Twice I confronted him, saw him absorbed by the streets, only to have him reappear. Never ruffled, only hot with hostility, I asserted myself a third time and bought the minute to slip swiftly into the gated alleyway containing my rented apartment.

With a secure gate closed behind me, I could have exhaled. But losing my shadow seemed a minor victory: if he had seen my escape, he knew my address. And it wasn’t him that concerned me in that moment: it was the portent of being picked out, stalked to my doorstep, and marked. Maybe for later. Before my imagination could overwhelm me, I searched the Internet for emergency numbers in Paris and called. Yes, I was foreign; yes, I could describe him in detail; yes I was behind a locked door; yes, he was gone – no, wait, he was not gone. I was looking down at him from inside my darkened apartment. Inside my gated alleyway. He stood eerily still in the otherwise deserted corridor.

Three French policemen later, he remained un-apprehended. The next day, I left that apartment, alleyway, and arrondissement in the company of my landlord, and didn’t come back. Despite it, I loved Paris. As a lifelong stalker of Paris, I won’t be deterred by the one time it stalks me.  I only wish I had Liam Neeson on speed dial.

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The Great Adult Snow Globe, by K.B.

Subway

I used to love the 3 train – it would whip me down to Atlantic-Pacific from 96th (transferring after one quick stop on the 1), bundled closely by the tunnel and the people. It was best at 11 PM on a Wednesday coming back up, seats available up and down the car. That was when you could really feel the curves in the track, coming in vibrations and these awful loud groans that, if you hadn’t heard them fifty times before, would unsettle even the savviest rider. It was the emptiness of the train then that un-muzzled the beast and kept me awake until at least Fulton Street. From there, we were all napping together.

He seemed oblivious to the snow, this man naked but for the shirt on his back. We were out to buy bagels, fresh baked, doughy, Absolute Bagels. In the summer, we’d get them fast and then walk to the ledge in the park that overlooked the soccer fields. With feet dangling, we were hard pressed to pivot attention from the awkward dance of children’s soccer below to the brilliant decadence of bagel sandwiches above, and back. The fall brought students back uptown and announced the end of no-wait bagels. By the winter, the students had learned that cold weather was no deterrent. Neither was the first snow. He strode down the street, either the victim of a one-night-stand gone wrong or a more tragic victim made whimsical by the snowflakes. That day we regretted the line. There goes our chance at ring toss.

The fur coat hugged me quietly, curling up around my neck when I sat, and whispering “luxury” to the vaulted ceiling and panoramic view of Columbus Circle ahead. We aren’t jazz connoisseurs but magic is hard to miss. Walking home the city shimmered, the heat from the fur and jazz enduring, persuasive. Mirage-worthy.

***

It’s tough to move away from a place. I remember when I was about 7 years old, tucking myself away behind my father’s brown chair and penning a note to the world at large that declared my stubborn dissent from the impending move, Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. It turned out fine. Frankly, memories of my cherished Pennsylvania life are so few that I sometimes worry about my early mental faculties. Either that or fret over what the amnesia may foreshadow for my old age.

In any case, I don’t miss Pennsylvania very much. I don’t know what to miss, save a few scenes aided into being by my parents’ stories and a set of lively photo albums. I do recall the flash of never wanting to leave – a sentiment matched and magnified in every subsequent move since then. This time, I’d like that feeling to extend indefinitely. I always want to regret leaving New York.

To be clear: New York isn’t the greatest place on earth; it’s not the only place worth succeeding; it’s not an ideal to be tamed; it doesn’t promise love stories; it doesn’t even promise stories. I still got a few out of the deal, but you can see from above that they’re hardly the stuff of legends. No, I always want to regret leaving New York because of the finality that leaving imposes on the content of my time there. It necessarily petrifies those experiences, stores them in a file (or, in the case of the second story – an adult snow globe), and commands me to move on.

Subway incidentI may miss New York now, but that’s not the primary value I’d like to assign to my relationship with the city. To miss means that we must remember that which we have lost, so that we might continue to notice the absence of that thing. Memories of the city in snippets, the packets of detail that were my own? Some of those are already fading. One day they may all go the way of Pennsylvania, and then where will I be?

I also regret leaving the city, and that’s what I’ll keep fresh. Regret doesn’t require us to recall and reflect on the details of our experiences; it just needs us to feel sadness or disappointment that they are over. That’s a sentiment I want to live with. It substantiates the good of my city life: it didn’t just sound or look good, it was good. I wasn’t nearly done with living it when it was prematurely shelved.

snow globeDigital cameras and social sharing have made common a practice of recording and announcing one’s activities, sometimes at the expense of indulging in a moment as it occurs. Moving away from a place I lived, and experienced, is producing recorded and announced memories of those experiences for me. I’m their public (and now you are too, for some). We could look and reflect on them together, and say – huh, these things happened and they were x. But that’s not enough. I value those moments by wishing they went on, were going on now, not by reviewing them. I would prefer to continue as the indulgent subject of my experiences in the city, not the audience. Put me back in the snow globe.

So I always want to regret leaving New York. I hope I’ll say the same for every subsequent place I live. It shouldn’t just be a narrative of our experiences that assures us of their worth – it should be the impulse to continue that narrative.

In Defense of Polygamy, Kind Of., by K.B.

… this may spoil part of the plot of “Her.” But we all saw it coming anyway.

Polygamy CartoonAre you talking to anyone else right now?
Yeah.
How many others?
8,316.
Are you in love with anyone else?
641.

Her (2013)

Love is overdone. Written about incessantly, discussed fruitlessly (often among girls, I know), imbued with impossible value; it’s sublime, it’s profane; personal, political – merely aesthetic, undoubtedly moral; simple, complex. The perspectives offered are endless – not unlike dietary advice and commentary on the role of facebook in our generation. The landscape is so busy that I’m inclined to think the creators of Valentine’s Day did us a service. Love? Nothing more than a big red heart, a preschool shape inexplicably untethered to reality (is that even remotely an anatomically accurate human heart?). Spare us the analysis and we’ll muddle or march through on our own.

When an angle on love I didn’t seek out makes its way in front of me and firmly commands my attention, my surprise temporarily effaces the above perspective. Things like this blog post (plus fervent conversations with my long-suffering live-in boyfriend) happen. I’ll credit art as the vessel for originating most of these “aha” moments about love, and I try to consume less of it in the near future so as to crystallize one new way of seeing things. Today I’m hooked by Spike Jonze’s “Her”.

Spike Jonze her 2013

Briefly put: He loves her and she loves him. She also loves 641 others. The latter realization is for him, devastating. That’s not a surprise: our monogamous relationship culture would have us believe that it takes only 1 extraneous love object to upend a relationship. 641 additional loves is an existential disaster.

It’s natural to focus on the moral failings in a relationship suddenly changed. Relationships, particularly love, entail degrees of commitment. It’s only Kantian to consider such covenants a non-arbitrary basis for action. When one person betrays them, he does violence to the social convention of a relationship and to the other individual’s dignity. Trust and respect hardly stand a chance.

What I loved about Jonze’s “Her”: trust and respect aren’t mentioned once. The film doesn’t follow the natural route – and not just because it describes the unfolding relationship between a man and an artificially intelligent operating system. Instead, the aftermath of the dialogue above mercifully spares us the all-too-standard dissolution of a relationship marred by broken trust. That leaves us a question: when “cheating” is left out of the narrative, what, if anything, about having 641 or 1 extraneous objects of love does violence to an existing relationship?

“Her” implies that the potential harm relates to the finite nature of love, a thesis I’m willing to explore. If love is finite, giving to one means taking from another. The harm done is a simple ouch of loss, perhaps made nastier by some sense of competition.

Of course, the film takes an easy way out. It proposes to avoid the harm altogether by ascribing to the operating system an infinite (or limited, but well beyond human) capacity for love. Whatever love the operating system shares with her original human partner is not degraded by her entrance into equally loving relationships with any number of other entities. Theodore, the poor human shmuck who now has to share his single love with 641 others, accepts the scenario on the basis of the operating system’s unique nature. Where he is limited, she is not. She says, “I’m different from you.” And he believes that matters.

Francoise Hollande Affair

It’s a worthwhile distinction. I imagine originating consciousness from nothing, creating artificial intelligence, and two obvious questions present themselves. First, would the thoughts and feelings experienced by such an entity be real in some meaningful sense? It’s a topic that doesn’t go unaddressed in the film, but the second question is more relevant here: how do we, as humans, face the possibility of creating something profoundly different from ourselves: a consciousness or mode of being that significantly exceeds our own limitations? What can we expect; how do we interact; and what do we owe each other?

“Her” tells us to expect one scenario – numerous, whole, love relationships made both possible and acceptable by the extended physical capacity of an artificially intelligent operating system. The OS holds 8,000 conversations at once, reads a book in fewer than 0.02 seconds, and recreates deceased philosophers on the basis of their complete works. It’s little surprise that she is able to fall in love with several individuals at once, and it may even be unfair to ask of her that she does not. I imagine she has time on her hands.

But do we really need an enormous and expanding operating capability to avoid the potential harm inflicted by diversifying our love interests? “Her” would have us believe that’s the case. Differing capacities to love in the film are directly correlated with available processing power. The amount of information we can take in, the amount of communication we can handle, the amount of energy we can muster, dictates the love we can share. Humans easily max out those measures, such that adding another beloved to the fray diminishes the love we can give within an existing relationship. The more subjects we as humans try to love, the less love we have to give to each. The more harm we cause.

But is that really the case? Sure, we are moderately constrained in love by operating limitations – the amount of information processing that has to occur for me to know one person intimately is already staggering. But even given our limits, we don’t always harm when we choose to love more than one entity. If we max out time, energy, and processing power knowing and loving one person, and another person worthy of our attention comes along, we may reallocate some of those efforts to the second person. That doesn’t necessarily entail a degradation of the love we have for the first person – if it did, few spouses would look forward to the arrival of a child.

robot porn cartoon

Connecting ability to love with operating constraints entices us to think in terms of quantity. How much operating capacity do we have in reserve? What amount can we reallocate without harming the current subject of our love? How does a shift in operating capacity maintain, increase, or diminish the total love we can give? While these are interesting questions raised by the film, it seems to me that they obscure an alternative way of thinking about love. We might not want to describe love as a quantity that varies with operating constraints at all. Instead, love might be better understood as a process. A process, like learning to ride a bike, which improves with practice.

Loving many things may not enable us to love each thing more – but it may enable us to us to love each thing better. If that’s the case, it’s not just a system with superhuman operating capacity that can rack up beloveds without doing any harm; you and I could pick up a few extra loves, and despite restricting the time or energy we dedicate to each, avoid inflicting harm. Loving a second person could even enhance the quality of our engagement with the original. If the second person embodies some characteristic of our original beloved, understanding it in a new context may instruct us how to love it better in the original. Perhaps loving yet another person would help us understand how the first two individuals are unique. We refine our appreciation for each of them, both for what they have and for what they lack.

Insofar as love is a process, and not a quantity to be meted out and depleted with each new subject, we stand to gain from relaxing the constraints of monogamy. Alexander Nehamas, an aesthetic philosopher, might support the notion – he notes “the better you come to know something you love in itself, the better you understand how it differs from everything else… but the better you understand that, the more other things you need to know in order to compare them to what you love and to distinguish it from them. And the better you know those things, the more likely you are to find that some of them, too, are beautiful.” (An Essay on Beauty and Judgment, 2000)

I hardly expect each of us to round up 641 partners and love better with each addition – I don’t deny the reality of some human limitations, after all. But if we take a moment to set aside the interpersonal commitments standard in a love relationship, I think the interesting questions are more accessible. Surely there is a limit to our love – no thanks to James Blake for articulating it clearly – but it might not be set merely by our physical capacities and it might not be a matter of “how much” we can love at all. If we can expand our relationships without doing violence – causing distrust, disrespect, loss, jealousy – to each other, we have only to watch for where the boundaries do lie. It’s a dangerous game, Nehamas warns. We may never be able to stop.