The Frog Meditations

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tongues 1: Singing the Body Electronic

Have your taste buds reached their Best Before Date? Are you putting hot sauce on everything so you can pretend you remember flavor? Don't panic. Now you can outsource taste to an electronic tongue. Designed for use in robots, it lets you tell the difference among beers with an accuracy rating of 82%. We can put our money where our mouths are.

This imitation tongue is a real achievement given the complexity of the human tongue. It just looks like a pinky-red blob of rash-bumpy flesh, but given its 10,000 taste receptors, it's a complex little machine—with a lot of personality. An impression of one's tongue is as individual as a fingerprint. 

Given that the tongue is central to our everyday lives, it is not surprising how many idiomatic expressions relate to that pink protuberance: words sit on the tip of the tongue, we bite our tongues, we get tongue tied. From native American culture, we know that some people speak with a forked tongue—which was, for the longest time, simply a metaphor. Now, however, people have  surgery to split their tongues. There's the "fishing line" method (cue shudders), but lasers can also do the trick. With practice, a person can make the sides of a split tongue move independently. Hypocrisy? Not just for politicians anymore.

I will admit body modification is not for me. The prospect of ear piercing sends me reeling--all I can hear is the crunch of cartilage. However, I try not to cluck my undifferentiated tongue at such practices, even genital beading and scrotal implants, because I know there is more to them than I understand. According to its website, The Church of Body Modification "represents a collection of members practicing ancient and modern body modification rites. We believe these rites are essential to our spirituality." That this church is as successful as it is speaks to our innate desire for community and ritual—and to our need for dominion over our bodies. 

And if we don't have that, we are all royally forked.

*Photo courtesy of Bernie  (File:AD2009Aug07 Natrix natrix 04.jpg, Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Drums 2: Slap Happy

It started when he was looking for his keys. He slapped one pocket and then another and then another.  And it felt so good to find a rhythm of his own that it was hard to stop though capillaries burst and his skin flushed a fever. Still, he clicked his tongue and snapped his fingers and paddled his thighs, and as he vibrated through each day, he was inspired by the drip of taps, the tumble-whirr of the dryer—but he didn't listen to Molly when she drummed her fingers on the kitchen counter. He did not look up to see the way she bit down on her lip.

When his body turned into one big bruise, Molly said, I can't stay and watch you beat yourself up, and she grabbed her keys and trundled her fat suitcase through the door. For a moment he did stop. He thought he heard the fridge shudder, but it was just his heart. 

Seconds later, he picked up the tick of the clock. He flattened his hands and started again.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Drums 1: The Whole Kit and Kaboodle


There she was, just a-walkin' down the street
Singin' "Do-wah diddy diddy down diddy-do"
Snappin' her fingers and shufflin' her feet

These familiar lines from Manfred Mann evoke the simple delights of moving to music: immersed a world of her own making, the woman in the song has become sound and rhythm. By current standards, however, she is an underachiever. It's not enough now to shuffle and snap and sing as we make our way down the street—we may also feel obliged to slap and tap and bang and stroke. Fortunately, it's not hard to do. If we slip on DrumPants, each of us can boogaloo to the beat of our own drums.

According to its website, DrumPants are the "world's 1st wearable and fully customizable on-the-go musical instrument." If we attach the electric sensors to our clothes, we have access to "100+ built-in sounds, including drums, percussion, synthesizers, guitars, pianos, and more." If we just thrash away, electric sensors will amplify our talents for the world.

Moving to the beat of one's own drum suggests a self-absorption that may amuse but also terrify. It can deliver us Donald Trump's startling contention that snowstorms in New York put the lie to global warming. Mr. Trump does serve a useful social purpose by alerting us to the perils of wearing tribbles on our heads. However, he also kindly reminds us of the dangers of a total reliance on subjective knowledge: I want it to be true—therefore, it is. We certainly have reason to be suspicious of external authority, both secular and religious, and we are wise to question all the pat answers that have been drummed into us. However, it is one thing to question the findings of experts. It is another to dismiss those findings out of hand--and then use that hand to pat ourselves on the back, or thigh, or arm in a ecstasy of self-congratulatory drum rolls. Individualism has gone berserk.

Of course, it's not only musical clothing that supports a growing belief that for each of us the world is our private playpen. Websites cheerily greet us by name, thoughtful thermostats note our habits and anticipate our needs, a star can bear our name, and there's a name for everything we could possibly fear. (Garlic makes you quiver? You suffer from alliumphobia!) However, the revolution in wearable electronics suggests that we can be sufficient unto ourselves, that life is one big masturbatory fantasy in which we are forever fourteen year olds whose parents are out for the night. We can turn the bass up to 11 and beat our drums until we drop. And, as fantasies go, what could possibly trump that?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Magic Rings 2: Full Circle

The ring will change everything.
In seashell satin and lace, she glides toward the altar as on a sun-gold barge, jeweled slippers barely touching the polished wood floor, the tight tiny roses in her bouquet opening to smile up at her. 

It has all come down to this. All the wrangling with the caterer, all the fights with her mother, the soda water and Triscuit diet—they are behind her now. Before long he'll slide the slim gold band on her finger, and everything will be different. She'll finish every Times crossword in a snap. She'll get every grant she applies for. She will never, ever get another pimple. He'll make sure of it. 

He is waiting for her, tall and slim in his midnight black tuxedo, and she feels him tremble as she takes her place beside him. She hands her sister the bouquet, the minister opens his Bible at the bookmark, and she looks steadily into the eyes of her groom as they say the magic words. Then it happens. He lifts her hand and slips the ring over a perfect pearl pink fingertip. 

She marvels at the gleaming ring, and then she looks up at him. She sees he'd cut himself shaving—there is already a scab. There are white flakes on his shoulders. When he smiles, she realizes he didn't get that tooth fixed, after he'd promised. And the ring pinches. 

Her shoulders slump. The sudden weight of the dress makes her suddenly fear she will drown. 

The ring changed everything.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Magic Rings 1: Forging Ahead

Before the list of ingredients on every cereal box was a memento mori, those boxes were magic. You got a prize just for tearing the flap—a terrarium or a packet of NestlĂ© Quik (more sugar!) or even a crisp dollar bill. Best of all was a magic ring in a clear, crinkly wrapper—because who doesn't want to slide power onto a finger? 

I was reminded recently of the magic ring worn by Underdog, the cartoon beagle with the big head and blue cape. His slogan, "There's no need to fear--Underdog is here," was as easy to swallow as grape Kool-Aid because he had a magic ring that gave him superpowers—he could even move planets using his rear end as a spatula. Underdog's secret? His ring contained a special compartment in which he kept his "super energy pill." No wonder we were addicted. 

Would Underdog be happy for us if he could see our magic rings? The new Smarty Ring may not confer Atomic Breath or Cosmic Ray Vision or let us give the planets a bum steer, but it can help us micromanage the hell out of the everyday. Its little LED screen monitor lets us take command of our own personal solar system. No longer do we have to rummage through our purses or slap our jacket pockets to find our smartphones. This ring, connected to our phones by Bluetooth, will let us make calls, play music, tell time. If we choose to slide the Smarty Ring onto a middle finger, each time we extend that digit to play with the ring, we tell the universe that we are not to be messed with. Every dog has its day. 

I am always amazed by power that comes in small packages, and it seems mean-spirited to begrudge such an invention. However, such innovations are never culturally neutral, value free. It was actually a friend of Marshall McLuhan who said, "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us," but the idea is, of course, vintage McLuhan. How will this new tool shape us? Its name suggests the sandbox, but I can't believe it's that simple. Will the Smarty Ring make us feel omnipotent at the same time we crack under the weight of our own expectations? 

Had each of us a forge on which to hammer out our own magic rings, perhaps we should inscribe in them the words found in one commissioned by an ancient king. Dogged in his pursuit of wisdom, the king asked for a ring that would remind him of how fleeting is worldly power, how transitory are feelings of sadness and joy. The inscription he found? "This too shall pass." 

Have no fear--humility is here?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dollhouse 2: The Doll's House

The little house is heaven
the cunning windows
the cozy rooms
She polishes chestnut
floors, tilts fat
cushions on sleek
chairssets out gleaming
platesand at the 
end of the day she 
waits at the dining 
room table with
folded hands until—
  I'm working late
  the voice says again
  Two bright spots
  blossom on her
  porcelain cheeks
  but this time
  heaven cannot
  help her

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Dollhouse 1: Pinkeyed Perplexity

Not too long ago the Barbie Dreamhouse Experience opened in Florida, and a lot of women swiped or tapped their credit cards for a chance to explore this life-sized re-creation of the Mattel moneymaker with their little girls. When a second Dreamhouse opened in Germany, however, the occasion was marked by a protest against the Barbification of Berlin. Whether it was necessary to impale the blonde bombshell on a cross and set her on fire is a matter for debate, but I do agree it's a lot of pink in one place. Gender issues aside, however, the two projects raise an important question. Do we really want all our dreams to come true?

I confess that dolls did not occupy a lot of my time when I was a child. There was a week with Betsy Wetsy (because changing a diaper is fun!), but my heart was in board games, books and baseball. Even in theory, however, a life-sized dreamhouse is counterintuitive. To a child, size matters because scale matters, and, as writer Kathleen McDonnell observed, one of the things that's important about dolls is how big they are in proportion to the child. In Kid Culture: Children & Adults & Popular Culture, McDonnell writes of her efforts to keep her own house Barbie free because of the messages about body image and consumerism as career choice delivered with the doll. When she did open her home to Barbie, however, she was heartened by what she witnessed. One day, she recalls, her daughter and a friend paraded around the living room with two naked Barbies: the dolls were streaked with black magic marker, and one was missing a head. "These Barbies had been re-christened, the girls informed me. Henceforth they would be known as Stinky-Bum Barbie and Dirty-Bum Barbie." The pleasure of their play appeared to arise from their power over Barbie—they got to control an "adult."

The way the girls played with their Barbies speaks to the power of the small that Lia Purpura explores in a 2012 essay.* Writing about well-crafted miniatures, "workable things on very small scales," she asks why they give us so much pleasure. Most important to me is her observation that their scale compels us to "measure ourselves anew." These tiny creations help us understand who we are and what we can be. Is bigger better? Is the value we place on the things we acquire way out of proportion to our needs? How many of us house a bleak fear that we ourselves are too small? If we do, we should consider major renovations—but before we take a tape measure to our dreams, perhaps we should first size ourselves up.

*Lia Purpura, "On Miniatures."