Category Archives: Family

Intimations of humanity

Tiffany Gee Lewis has a wonderful column this morning about how kids seem to grow up overnight. Kids grow up and grow away, and we deal with that with a mixture of loss and relief (I say that as the father of nine and an empty-nester).

Years ago, when Steven Spielberg filmed Stanely Kubrick’s planned film, “AI: Artificial Intelligence” (2001), it was seen largely as a science fiction movie, and received something of a lukewarm reception. My take on the film was quite different: that is was a brilliant, painful and cautionary story about parents and children. I wrote a review to that effect which is still lodged in the eternal archives of the internet.

Reading Lewis’ column brought that review to mind, so I’ve reprinted the review below. It has spoilers, though, so if you’ve never seen the film, you may want to go watch it on your own first.

AI: A Horrific Fairy Tale for Adults [SPOILERS BELOW]

I have been fascinated by some of the sharp divisions of opinion surrounding AI as reviews (official and un-) have come out in the past few weeks. Today, my wife Sandra, our 18-year-old daughter Crystal, and I all went to see the 12:00 noon showing at the Uptown here in DC (enormous screen, great theatre). I believe that Crys was entertained but not particularly moved. Sandra and I — who between us have 9 kids from our separate prior marriages — both felt as though we had had a dentist with sharp, tiny, hand-held instruments working on our hearts for 2 1/2 hours, with pauses to let us recover, only to dig in again. Why the difference? Because we’re parents and she’s not. And therein, I think, lies much of the great divide.

AI is not hard SF. It is a cautionary horror story cum fairy tale cum myth, probably one of the best examples since Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. It takes a simple premise — what if we could teach a machine to love as a child loves, to think as a child thinks, and to want to be loved as a child is loved? — and carries it through to some excruciating, non-obvious and unflinching consequences that, I suspect, resonate primarily with parents who have had children of that age. As with Frankenstein, the core of AI involved hubris, temptation, rejection, and consequences. Hubris was the unthinking arrogance of Dr. Hobby and associates in tampering with the ecology of family and love without due regard for the unintended consequences — set, ironically, against a backdrop of melted icecaps (frankly, my first clue this wasn’t hard SF) and other unintended consequences of meddling with the physical ecology at large.

Temptation was Monica, watching her flesh-and-blood son Martin in cryonics for five years, not knowing whether a cure would ever be found for him (another fairy tale/myth motif), now being confronted with a machine, called David, that looks like a little boy, that — if and when she says the magic words — will fall eternally in love with her. Monica has a void inside which remains gaping and unhealed because of Martin’s suspension between life and death, which is what makes her temptation so real. In far too many movies and novels, the key temptation is so stupid and the consequences so obvious that I lose most or all sympathy for the character (e.g., King’s Pet Sematary). What made this movie so painful for me was how realistic I felt the temptation was. If I had one child, frozen, near death, with no clear prospect of ever having him/her back and no prospect of ever having another — yes, I might be tempted, and I think my wife even more so, to have something like David to fill that void, and we would stumble into the trap without realizing what we’ve done.

Rejection comes with the realization of the artificial, unnatural aspect of the relationship. Children grow; they mature (usually); there is always a bittersweet aspect to losing the simple, passionate love of a child, especially once they become brain-dead adolescents ;-), but one wishes children to grow and go out on their own. Kubrick/Spielberg first carefully lay out the slowly-unfolding hell of having a child-like automaton with real feelings stuck at that particular emotional age, then accelerate and compound that hell by bringing back the real child, warts and all. Can one love a machine when one’s own flesh and blood is at hand? What are our loyalties, our instincts? Martin’s and David’s reactions to each other are very believable (speaking particularly as someone who has had experience merging two sets of kids together into one family), as are frankly the different reactions to the situation between and her husband Henry (with whom, remember, David has not bonded; a classic parent/step-parent divide, one with strong Oedipal/Freudian overtones). Martin is less pleasant, less pure in his love, less physically perfect, less lovable — but his is Monica and Henry’s flesh, their progeny; having nearly lost him once, can they reject him in favor of something that runs off electric current, something manufactured? What would that say about them as humans, as parents? Yet David really loves Monica, and she has to choose between him and the rest of her very-human family.

Whatever the twists and turns of the future projected, the emotional consequences for all involved, but particularly for David, are as inexorable as they are logical. For me, one of the most haunting lines of the film is when Monica abandons David in the forest (another classic fairy tale touch), shouting cautions even as she does so, then pauses and says — as her final words to him — “I’m sorry I never told you about the world.” There’s a deep, wrenching stab at any parent’s heart, capturing the twin heartbreaks of forcing a child out into the world, away from the safety comfort of a parent’s arms (with a loss of security) and into all the pain and cruelty and tragedy that the child is likely unprepared for. David then embarks on a classic, almost Campbellian fairy tale quest, complete with faithful sidekick (Teddy) and rogue knight (Joe). He’s off to see the wizard (Dr. Know), to win the Sphinx-like riddling challenge and find out what he needs to know to become a real boy so that Monica will love him. But unlike the comforting, Disneyized fairy tales we’ve come to accept, this one holds to the hard truth — there is no blue fairy, David will never become a real boy, and Monica will never love him the way he loves her, the way he so desperately wants to be loved, as someone unique and irreplaceable — and this is where it is most wrenching. David’s hopes are raised to their highest peak by the mysterious message in the Dr. Know booth and its literal unfolding as he and Joe travel to the ‘ends of the earth’ — and then they are utterly smashed as he finds what lies at the end of his quest. His homicidal (robocidal?) rage at finding another, duplicate David is chilling and utterly consistent, calling to mind Henry’s seemingly-overblown worry much earlier in the film that “If he [David] is capable of love, then he is also capable of hate.” And then all his hopes are utterly crushed as he discovers that he himself is merely a simulacrum of Hobby’s own dead son David, and that he is being mass produced for human consumption. It leads to two attempts at suicide, one out of despair, and one based on obsession with his goal leading to indifference to everything else, trapped in a dark prison of his own making.

Some have objected to the third part of the movie, yet I think it was very much keeping in spirit with the old-style fairy tales and myths. It has the irony of robot survival and human extinction (brought on, with further irony, by a profound ice age). It has the resurrection motif, with acceptance into the company of gods or near-gods, not as an equal, but as an honored icon (much as Greek gods elevating heroic mortals to Olympus or into the constellations). And, as gods, they grant not what David wants but what they can — a single day with Monica (Clarke’s third law should be enough to deal with any quibble about DNA), with no competition from Dad or Martin or from the world at all. Again the Oedipal/Freudian overtones may seem a bit blatant, but it’s still utterly true to life, for a child of that emotional age, as to what heaven would be. And David’s choice — that he would rather have that one day, with the increased sense of irrevocable loss afterwards, than not to have it at all — goes to the heart of vast numbers of myths and tales about what is so essentially human. Indeed, David for all intents and purposes now is the human race. And as the day ends and Monica passes away, David — for the first time in his 2000-year existence — sleeps and dreams.

But does he wake?

— Bruce F. Webster, 2001.

A winter recipe: beef and mushroom stew

Sandra and I, being empty-nesters, eat pretty simply: fresh fruit and veggies, Progresso soup, sandwiches, Lean Cuisine entrees, and the like. The only time either of us really cooks something is when we have company over for dinner.

Well, our daughter Heather, her husband Mike and their three young children are — as I type this — driving here to Colorado from Madison, Wisconsin, due to arrive sometime this evening and stay with us until Friday. Which means we need substantial quantities of substantial food. So I’m making a very large batch of stew in our very large (~20 quart) stew pot. Here’s the recipe for those of you interested; adjust the portions for your own stew pot or family.


— 2 sticks of butter (yes, you can get by with just one, but where’s the fun in that?)

— 1 lb of fresh mushrooms (I usually just use white mushrooms)

— two large sweet onions

— spices (I use sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, marjoram, pepper)

— 5+ pounds of stew meat. I usually buy it at Costco; their stew meat is pretty lean and doesn’t need much trimming.

— flour, salt, pepper

— two 6 oz cans of tomato paste

— 4 or 5 bay leaves

— your choice of stew veggies. I use fresh potatoes, fresh baby carrots, fresh green beans, canned niblet corn, frozen peas, but feel free to substitute your personal favorites.

— salt and pepper to taste

Put the stew pot on the stove, turn the heat to medium low. Put the sticks of butter in to melt. Chop the two onions (I usually chop them pretty fine); cut the stems off the mushrooms and slice them. Put the onions and the mushrooms in the melted butter and let them start to saute, stirring from time to time. Once the onions and mushrooms start to look cooked, turn the heat down a bit and add the spices (maybe a teaspoon each to start with); stir well and continue to stir occasionally.

While this is going on, trim any fat off the stew meat and cut most of the larger chunks in half (or even in thirds). In a sauce pan with at least a 2″ side, put 1/2″ to 3/4″ of vegetable oil; turn the heat to medium-high. In a mixing bowl, mix a few cups of flour with lots of pepper and salt. Get out a large mixing bowl; if you have a colander, put it over the bowl. Put a few handfuls of the stew meat into the seasoned flour and coat well. When the oil is hot, carefully place pieces of stew meat into the hot oil so that the pieces don’t touch. After 20-30 seconds or so, turn the chunks over (or at least on their sides) so that the tops get braised as well. Give them another 10-20 seconds, then take them out and put them in the colander to drain. Give the oil a minute or so to get hot again, then do the next batch of meat. In the meantime, put the braised meat in with the onions and mushrooms and stir. Continue this process until you have braised all the meat and it’s in the stew pot.  Stir to coat the meat well with the butter and spices.

WARNING: the braised chunks of stew meat are very delicious, especially once they’ve been stirred into the onions and mushrooms. Do not fix this recipe on an empty stomach or you’ll end up eating a significant portion of the meat.  There’s a reason why I bought 5 and a half lbs of stew meat for the batch that’s simmering as I write this (and I think only 4 and a half lbs made it into the stew).

Anyway, once all the meat is in with the onions and mushrooms, add enough water to cover everything by a few inches and so that the meat stirs freely. Turn the heat up to medium to bring to a boil. While the water is heating up, stir in the two cans of tomato paste, then add the bay leaves. Once you bring the mixture to a boil, turn the heat down to low. Let it simmer for an hour or two while you clean up the mess and wash all the dishes, utensils, and cutting boards that you’ve used so far.

Once the meat starts to get tender, wash and chop the potatoes; I use thin-skinned potatoes so that I don’t have to peel them, and I prefer smaller chunks, so that those eating the stew don’t have to deal with large pieces. Stir them in. Likewise, chop the carrots (again, smaller pieces) and stir them in. Finally, chop the ends off the green beans and throw them away, chop the green beans themselves, and add them in. Add more water if needed, but not too much; you want to strike a fine balance between having enough water for everything to cook well and having watery stew. Let it continue to simmer (at a low boil or almost-boil) for another few hours. Stir frequently; adjust seasonings (salt, pepper) as desired, and add water if necessary.

An hour or so before you plan to serve the stew (or at least stop cooking it), add the corn and peas. Stir well. If the stew seems a bit too watery for you, take a cup and put a few spoonfuls of cornstarch in it. Slowly add cold water to it, while stirring it rapidly with a fork; keep adding water until you have something roughly the consistency of cream/milk. Now drizzle this slowly into the stew while stirring well.  Adjust final seasonings (salt, pepper).  Serve with warm crusty bread or rolls and enjoy!

Refrigerate what’s leftover and continue to serve through the week; it just gets better as it’s reheated. Note that the stew freezes decently — not great, but ok.  ..bruce..

Thanksgiving Day menu

[cross-posted from And Still I Persist]

We have family and friends coming over for dinner (actually, two of our grandsons have been here since Sunday; we’ve been having a great time with the Wii, the ping pong table, and the air hockey table), a total of 10 people. Here’s what I’m fixing for dinner:

  • roast turkey (22.5 lbs)
  • corn bread stuffing (water chestnuts, whole cranberries, sliced almonds, celery, onion)
  • mashed potatoes (new potatoes, skin on, lots of butter)
  • sweet potatoes kittichai (mashed sweet potatoes plus coconut milk)
  • mixed steamed fresh veggies (green beans, broccoli, broccolini, brussle sprouts, carrots)
  • homemade cheese sauce (Sandra’s contribution)
  • roast acorn and delicata squash (1 each, small, mostly for the novelty)
  • Pillsbury Grands! rolls (hey, gotta take a shortcut somewhere)
  • homemade cranberry sauce (made with orange juice and fresh orange zest)
  • homemade pumpkin and mince pies, with homemade whipped cream

Note that “homemade” for the pies means Pillsbury roll-out crusts, jarred mince filling, and canned 100% pumpkin filling (plus requisite sugar, spices, eggs, and condensed milk). I actually made a pumpkin pie from scratch many years ago (e.g., cut up and cooked the pumpkin, made the crust from scratch, etc.), and I decided it’s just not worth the time and effort.

This is a feast day, and a day for giving thanks. I was going to write a longer posting about the meaning of this day, but then I remembered that I did that last year, so just consider that post included by reference. In spite of the current financial turmoil, we still live in the land of greatest opportunity and freedom. And with our son still over in Iraq, we are especially mindful and grateful for all the sacrifices made for those freedoms. God bless us, everyone.  ..bruce w..

Child of the Year moments

Heather O. over at Mommy Mormon Wars has a posting about “Another Mother of the Year moment” (which involves her toddler daughter stuffing her mouth with holly berries). The comments (be sure to read them all) have similar “I can’t believe I did that” parental moments.

In fairness to Heather O. and the rest, however, many of these moments are less the parents’ fault than simply the consequences of having children. I think that many of my mom’s gray hairs come from my own actions — and I started young. Here are some examples:

1958 (age 5, living in Imperial Beach, California):

— The street we live on has (as I recall) no sidewalks — just yards that go right up to the street. After a heavy rain, there are wonderful large puddles in the worn depressions along the shoulder of the road. As I go out to play, my mom tells me, “Don’t play in those mud puddles with your clothes on.” A while later, she gets a call from a neighbor who says that I’m playing stark naked in one of the large puddles — with my clothes carefully laid out on the neighbor’s lawn.

— There was an abandoned workshop or garage across the street; I thought of it as a “barn”, but it was far too low for that. I used to climb up to the roof and jump off. In fact, I very much loved jumping off of high places until I was about 9 or 10. Then I suddenly developed a fear of heights. I don’t know if that was just a realization of what I was doing, or the result of an unpleasant jump whose details I’ve blotted out completely.

1958-1960 (ages 5-7, living in Naval housing outside of Subic Bay, Philippine Islands):

— I used to leave the Naval housing area (West Kalayaan) and wander in the surrounding jungle. On at least one occasion, I took the first aid kit from my house, and a friend (same age) and I wandered into the jungle, found a nearby Negrito village, and tried to ask them if they had any cuts that needed band-aids. (They spoke no English.) It’s been nearly 50 years, but I remember the warm (and, in retrospect, probably amused) smile on the face of the native — an older man not dressed in much more than a loincloth — who tried to talk with us and who offered us coffee in a tin cup.

— I was crawling around an abandoned pillbox (probably Japanese) in the jungle and cut myself (on a rusty piece of rebar) on the inside of my thigh. Rather than tell my mom when I got home, I just put a large band-aid on it. Luckily, I was wearing shorts; she spotted the band-aid, asked me about it, took the band-aid off, and then transported me to the Naval hospital, where I got two stitches and a tetanus booster.

— On a regular basis, a truck pulling a trailer would wend its way through the Naval housing area. The trailer had a DDT sprayer that would emit dense clouds of wonderful-smelling DDT fog. We (the neighborhood kids) would play tag in the DDT fog.

— My older brother Chip and I would go down to a construction area on the outskirts of the housing area near sundown to throw dirt clods at the fruit bats.  Chip and I also used to capture large beetles and make them fight each other.

— I remember on a few occasions walking from the Subic Bay base itself to the naval housing area and noting with keen interest the signs along the side of the road saying, “Danger! Quicksand!”

1960-61 (ages 7-8, Astoria, OR):

— We lived in Naval housing again, with the (moderate) rain forests starting at our back yard. I used to wander through these woods at will — alone or with a friend — and capture snakes. My friend Paul and I once captured 26 snakes in one day. I kept large numbers of snakes in two unused trash cans behind our duplex. Somehow, in all this, I never once caught or encountered a poisonous snake.

And so on.  Your own stories?  If you need some different inspiration, here’s a post over at made two years ago in response to some school banning tag; the comment thread is still going.  ..bruce..