HEWN, No. 293

"Wear your heart on your skin in this life" -- Sylvia Plath

About two minutes in, the tattooer looked up at me and said, “Thigh tattoos are surprisingly painful, aren’t they.” He was right. Holy shit, he was shit. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so intense. And I still had almost five hours to go.

The boastful “you bet it hurt!” attitude has always felt a bit overwrought to me — a performance of machismo that never quite matched my experiences with tattooing, even though, yes, I’ve been tattooed in some spots that made me scrunch up my face with an “okay okay, it hurts” wince. There’s an ivy leaf that’s part of a band wrapping around my left arm that sits closer to the tender part of the armpit than I would have liked — I didn’t notice when the stencil was placed or I might have said something. The cherry blossoms that run across my chest weren’t so bad all-in-all, except for the few flowers that rest right on my sternum. There, the vibration of the tattoo machine felt like the delicate blossoms were shaking me to my very core.

But damn, this fucking pigeon tattoo hurt. It hurt real bad. I didn’t think the thigh was going to be a sensitive area, and so I did not balk at all as I chose the largest and most complicated design I've yet to have inked into me, and I did not bat an eye when the tattooer said it would take about five hours for the sitting. And it wasn’t just the skin trauma either that hurt. It felt like someone stuck a drill into my leg and ground up my whole leg muscle. Three days later, I’m still feeling tender and bruised. And the dreaded itching hasn’t even started yet.

But this is the most badass tattoo — based off a photo of an early twentieth century spy bird — and I love it. I loved watching the photo turn into a stencil and then transfer, painful line by painful line, onto my skin. I loved watching the artist change needles for outlining and shading and adjust the black ink to the various shades of gray. I loved explaining the history of pigeon technology to him. I loved it that, bless his heart, he said my book sounded really interesting and he would probably read it.

I did not love the twenty-plus minute walk home from the tattoo shop with my mangled leg muscle and the stupid saran-wrap bandage that tattooers seem to use these days; I did not love trying to sleep that night with it throbbing; I did not love standing on it for hours the next day, cooking Thanksgiving dinner. And yeah, I am not going to love it when it starts to itch and peel over the course of the next few days. But then — then! — in a couple more weeks when it’s fully healed, this bird will serve as a motivation for writing my book. Ideally, I’ll look down at my leg and reassure myself, “oh, you got this.”

More likely, I’ll still whine like hell.

I wrote a couple of things related to the book this week: a review of sorts of Joy Lisi Rankin’s book A People's History of Computing in the United States and a call, once again, for help in finding more information about teaching machine inventor Norman A. Crowder. But mostly this week (in addition to the five hours in the tattoo studio), I spent most of my time thinking about cooking, buying things to be cooked, preparing to cook, and cooking. I realize that Silicon Valley wants us all to think that robots are going to make care-taking and food-making better, faster, cheaper. They’re not. They’re going to make things worse — robot-made pizzas are quite the perfect, horrible example of that.

Elsewhere in robots: “The World Will Be Our Skinner Box,” cautions Michael Sacasas. Raffi Khatchadourian writes in The New Yorker about how “a scientist’s work linking minds and machines helps a paralyzed woman escape her body.” (A long read.) But not really, not permanently. Pigeons and lab rats —that’s all of us, it feels like, in some awful experiment that, forty years from now, will likely be recast in another New Yorker article, scrubbed of the violence and the hubris. There, someone will have re-written the history and insist that we’re all post-Skinnerian now — bravo us — and we’ll be asked to forgive everyone involved with the old behaviorist social media because they were young and how could they have possibly have known better. “In the Web’s Hyperreality, Information Is Experience,” says Mike Caulfield. “The Facebook War Did Not Take Place” and such.

This article isn’t related to anything else I’m linking to this week, but know that whenever you see Casey Parks’ byline that you should drop everything and read her work. “A College Degree More Than Fifteen Years in the Making.” Casey’s the most talented storyteller I know.

I’m thankful for a lot of things this week, as custom dictates. I’ve muttered the list of things under my breath. But I’ll type this one out loud: I’m incredibly thankful for folks like Casey who watch and listen and then piece words and feelings together in ways that change the world. (I’m also thankful, in a rough week for birds, that this bedazzled pigeon made it home safely.)

Yours in struggle,