The Turtle in the Zoo

Lately, NPR won’t stop talking about the end of man. First, on Science Friday, an intellectual triumvirate with two of my favorite visionaries, Cormac McCarthy and Werner Herzog, and an academic whose name I can’t recall (poor academics—it’s so hard to keep them all straight) were excitedly discussing how one day self-aware robots might make man obsolete. Then, Sherry Turkle on Sunday’s show Being, shared an incident when she and her daughter went to the zoo. One of Darwin’s famed Galapagos turtles sat immobilized by turtle melancholia, and Turkle’s daughter observed that for all the turtle was doing, he may as well have been a robot. For the young girl, the turtle was not alive enough to be alive.

So, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be alive enough and, as usual, taking cues from my one-year-old who has all of the intuition and none of the social programming.

It helps if you don’t live in a zoo with fake rocks and cloudy water or have a massive carapace that makes for a heavy and burdensome form of protection against mean-spirited predators. Still, life lives on life, which is why, I’m pretty sure, Clara’s favorite book is Sweet Dreams: The19th Century Art of Bessie Pease Gutmann. We have lots of imaginatively illustrated, brilliantly colored children’s books, but Clara loves to jibber-jabber with chubby Benjamin who feeds his dog ice cream and angelic-faced Lizzie who listens to the birds sing. I think she likes this book because the babies look real. She likes faces and expressiveness and monosyllabic conversation with other miniature humans.

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Sometimes to feel alive, we have to crawl after the ones we love. When one of us walks out the door, Clara instinctively tracks us down even if only to keep watch through a pane of glass. As soon as Aaron takes the dogs out, Clara scurries frantically to the window, wails “Daaaa daaaaa daaaa,” and bangs with both hands to get his attention.

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Find a cave and go spelunking, is what I always say. A cupboard or laundry basket can be a nice substitute if you’re stuck indoors. Either way, the little bitty thing crawling around our house doesn’t do much half way. She sees a cast iron skillet way in the back and goes for it. A sock stuck at the bottom of the pile? No problem. She rests her head on my shoulder in full abandon. She cries with absolute diaphragmatic release. I think to be alive enough to make the cut when the robots come to town we have to be expert spelunkers, immersing ourselves in the caves of other people.

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