The Turing Test (draft)

Here’s a tale called  called “The Turing Test.” It’s  Cyrano de Bergerac re-done in email and texting, by stages, but before the Zoom and ChatGPT era.

First, email tales, about how these days there is a new subspecies of teenagers, mostly male, who live in the virtual world of computer games, ipod music, videos, texting, tweeting and email, and hardly have the motivation, skill or courage to communicate or interact in the real world.

They’re the ones who think that everything is just computation, and that they themselves might just be bits of code, executing in some vast virtual world in the sky.

Then there are the students (male and female) enrolled in “AI (Artificial Intelligence) for Poets” courses — the ones who dread anything that smacks of maths, science, or programming. They’re the ones who think that computers are the opposite of what we are. They live in a sensory world of clubbing, ipod, tweeting… and texting.

A college AI teacher teaches two courses, one for each of these subpopulations. In “AI for Poets” he shows the computerphobes how they misunderstand and underestimate computers and computing. In “Intro to AI” he shows the computergeeks how they misunderstand and overestimate computers and computing.

This is still all just scene-setting.

There are some actual email tales. Some about destructive, or near-destructive pranks and acting-out by the geeks, some about social and sexual romps of the e-clubbers, including especially some pathological cases of men posing in email as handicapped women, and the victimization or sometimes just the disappointment of people who first get to “know” one another by email, and then meet in real life. 

But not just macabre tales; some happier endings too, where email penpals match at least as well once they meet in real life as those who first meet the old way. But there is for them always a tug from a new form of infidelity: Is this virtual sex really infidelity?

There are also tales of tongue-tied male emailers recruiting glibber emailers to ghost-write some of their emails to help them break the ice and win over female emailers, who generally seem to insist on a certain fore-quota of word-play before they are ready for real-play. Sometimes this proxy-emailing ends in disappointment; sometimes no anomaly is noticed at all: a smooth transition from the emailer’s ghost-writer’s style and identity to the emailer’s own. This happens mainly because this is all pretty low-level stuff, verbally. The gap between the glib and the tongue-tied is not that deep.

A few people even manage some successful cyberseduction with the aid of some computer programs that generate love-doggerel on command.

Still just scene-setting. (Obviously can only be dilated in the book; will be mostly grease-pencilled out of the screenplay.)

One last scene-setter: Alan Turing, in the middle of the last century, a homosexual mathematician who contributed to the decoding of the Nazi “Enigma” machine, makes the suggestion — via a party game in which people try to guess, solely by passing written notes back and forth, which of two people sent out into another room is male and which is female (today we would do it by email) — that if, unbeknownst to anyone, one of the candidates were a machine, and the interaction could continue for a lifetime, with no one ever having any cause to think it was not a real person, with a real mind, who has understood all the email we’ve been exchanging with him, a lifelong pen-pal — then it would be incorrect, in fact arbitrary, to conclude (upon at last being told that it had been a machine all along) that it was all just an illusion, that there was no one there, no one understanding, no mind. Because, after all, we have nothing else to go by but this “Turing Test” even with one another.  

Hugh Loebner has (in real life!) set up the “Loebner Prize” for the writer of the first computer program that successfully passes the Turing Test. (The real LP is just a few thousand dollars, but in this story it will be a substantial amount of money, millions, plus book contract, movie rights…). To pass the Test, the programmer must show that his programme has been in near-daily email correspondence (personal correspondence) with 100 different people for a year, and that no one has ever detected anything, never suspected that they were corresponding with anyone other than a real, human penpal who understood their messages as surely as they themselves did.

The Test has been going on for years, unsuccessfully — and in fact both the hackers and the clubbers are quite familiar with, and quick at detecting, the many unsuccessful candidates, to the point where “Is this the Test?” has come [and gone] as the trendy way of saying that someone is acting mechanically, like a machine or a Zombie. The number of attempts has peaked and has long subsided into near oblivion as the invested Loebner Prize fund keeps growing. 

Until a well-known geek-turned cyber-executive, Will Wills, announces that he has a winner.

He gives to the Loebner Committee the complete archives of the email exchanges of one hundred candidates, 400 2-way transcripts for each, and after several months of scrutiny by the committee, he is declared the winner and the world is alerted to the fact that the Turing Test has been passed. The 100 duped pen-pals are all informed and offered generous inducements to allow excerpts from their transcripts to be used in the publicity for the outcome, as well as in the books and films — biographical and fictional — to be made about it.

Most agree; a few do not. There is more than enough useable material among those who agree. The program had used a different name and identity with each pen-pal, and the content of the exchanges and the relationships that had developed had spanned the full spectrum of what would be expected from longstanding email correspondence between penpals: recounting (and commiserating) about one another’s life-events (real on one side, fictional on the other), intimacy (verbal, some “oral” sex), occasional misunderstandings and in some cases resentment. (The Test actually took closer to two years to complete the full quota of 100 1-year transcripts, because twelve correspondents had dropped out at various points — not because they suspected anything, but because they simply fell out with their pen-pals over one thing or another and could not be cajoled back into further emailing: These too are invited, with ample compensation, to allow excerpting from their transcripts, and again most of them agree.)

But one of those who completed the full 1-year correspondence and who does not agree to allow her email to be used in any way, Roseanna, is a former clubber turned social worker who had been engaged to marry Will Wills, and had originally been corresponding (as many of the participants had) under an  email pseudonym, a pen-name (“Foxy17”). 

Roseanna is beautiful and very attractive to men; she also happens to be thoughtful, though it is only lately that she has been giving any attention or exercise to this latent resource she had always possessed. She had met Will Wills when she was already tiring of clubbing but still thought she wanted a life connected to the high-rollers. So she got engaged to him and started doing in increasing earnest the social work for which her brains had managed to qualify her in college even though most of her wits then had been directed to her social play.

But here’s the hub of this (non-serious) story: During the course of this year’s email penpal correspondence, Roseanna has fallen in love with Christian (which is the name the Turing candidate was using with her): she had used Foxy17 originally, but as the months went by she told him her real name and became more and more earnest and intimate with him. And he reciprocated.

At first she had been struck by how perceptive he was, what a good and attentive “listener” he — after his initial spirited yet modest self-presentation — had turned out to be. His inquiring and focussed messages almost always grasped her point, which encouraged her to become more and more open, with him and with herself, about what she really cared about. Yet he was not aloof in his solicitousness: He told her about himself too, often, uncannily, having shared — but in male hues — many of her own traits and prior experiences, disappointments, yearnings, rare triumphs. Yet he was not her spiritual doppelganger en travesti (she would not have liked that): There was enough overlap for a shared empathy, but he was also strong where she felt weak, confident where she felt diffident, optimistic about her where she felt most vulnerable, yet revealing enough vulnerability of his own never to make her fear that he was overpowering her in any way — indeed, he had a touching gratefulness for her own small observations about him, and a demonstrated eagerness to put her own tentative advice into practice (sometimes with funny, sometimes with gratifying results).

And he had a wonderful sense of humor, just the kind she needed. Her own humor had undergone some transformations: It had formerly been a satiric wit, good for eliciting laughs and some slightly intimidated esteem in the eyes of others; but then, as she herself metamorphosed, her humor became self-mocking, still good for making an impression, but people were laughing a little too pointedly now; they had missed the hint of pain in her self-deprecation. He did not; and he managed to find just the right balm, with a counter-irony in which it was not she and her foibles, but whatever would make unimaginative, mechanical people take those foibles literally that became the object of the (gentle, ever so gentle) derision.

He sometimes writes her in (anachronistic) verse:

I love thee
As sev’n and twenty’s cube root’s three.
If I loved thee more
Twelve squared would overtake one-forty-four.

That same ubiquitous Platonic force
That sets prime numbers’ unrelenting course
When its more consequential work is done
Again of two of us will form a one.

So powerful a contrast does Christian become to everyone Roseanna had known till then that she declares her love (actually, he hints at his own, even before she does) and breaks off her engagement and relationship with Will Wills around the middle of their year of correspondence (Roseanna had been one of the last wave of substitute pen-pals for the 12 who broke it off early) — even though Christian tells her quite frankly that, for reasons he is not free to reveal to her, it is probable that they will never be able to meet. (He has already told her that he lives alone, so she does not suspect a wife or partner; for some reason she feels it is because of an incurable illness.) 

Well, I won’t tell the whole tale here, but for Roseanna, the discovery that Christian was just Will Wills’s candidate for the Turing Test is a far greater shock than for the other 111 pen-pals. She loves “Christian” and he has already turned her life upside-down, so that she was prepared to focus all her love on an incorporeal pen-pal for the rest of her life. Now she has lost even that.

She wants to “see” Christian. She tells Will Wills (who had been surprised to find her among the pen-pals, and had read enough of the correspondence to realize, and resent what had happened — but the irritation is minor, as he is high on his Turing success and had already been anticipating it when Roseanna had broken off their engagement a half year earlier, and had already made suitable adjustments, settling back into the club-life he had never really left).

Will Wills tells her there’s no point seeing “Christian”. He’s just a set of optokinetic transducers and processors. Besides, he’s about to be decommissioned, the Loebner Committee having already examined him and officially confirmed that he alone, with no human intervention, was indeed the source and sink of all the 50,000 email exchanges.

She wants to see him anyway. Will Wills agrees (mainly because he is toying with the idea that this side-plot might add an interesting dimension to the potential screenplay, if he can manage to persuade her to release the transcripts).

For technical reasons (reasons that will play a small part in my early scene-setting, where the college AI teacher disabuses both his classes of their unexamined prejudices for and against AI), “Christian” is not just a computer running a program, but a robot — that is, he has optical and acoustic and tactile detectors, and moving parts. This is in order to get around Searle’s “Chinese Room Argument” and my “Symbol Grounding Problem” :

If the candidate were just a computer, manipulating symbols, then the one executing the program could have been a real person, and not just a computer. For example, if the Test had been conducted in Chinese, with 100 Chinese penpals, then the person executing the program could have been an english monolingual, like Surl, who doesn’t understand a word of Chinese, and has merely memorized the computer program for manipulating the Chinese input symbols (the incoming email) so as to generate the Chinese output symbols (the outgoing email) according to the program. The pen-pal thinks his pen-pal really understands Chinese. If you email him (in Chinese) and ask: “Do you understand me?” his reply (in Chinese) is, of course, “Of course I do!”. But if you demand to see the pen-pal who is getting and sending these messages, you are brought to see Surl, who tells you, quite honestly, that he does not understand Chinese and has not understood a single thing throughout the entire year of exchanges: He has simply been manipulating the meaningless symbols, according to the symbol-manipulation rules (the program) he has memorized and applied to every incoming email.  

The conclusion from this is that a symbol-manipulation program alone is not enough for understanding — and probably not enough to pass the Turing Test in the first place: How could a program talk sensibly with a penpal for a lifetime about anything and everything a real person can see, hear, taste, smell, touch, do and experience, without being able to do any of those things? Language understanding and speaking is not just symbol manipulation and processing: The symbols have to be grounded in the real world of things to which they refer, and for this, the candidate requires sensory and motor capacities too, not just symbol-manipulative (computational) ones.

So Christian is a robot. His robotic capacities are actually not tested directly in the Turing Test. The Test only tests his pen-pal capacities.  But to SUCCEED on the test, to be able to correspond intelligibly with penpals for a lifetime, the candidate needs to draw upon sensorimotor capacities and experiences too, even though the pen-pal test does not test them directly.

So Christian was pretrained on visual, tactile and motor experiences rather like those the child has, in order to “ground” its symbols in their sensorimotor meanings. He saw and touched and manipulated and learned about a panorama of things in the world, both inanimate and animate, so that he could later go on and speak intelligibly about them, and use that grounded knowledge to learn more. And the pretraining was not restricted to objects: there were social interactions too, with people in Will Wills’s company’s AI lab in Seattle. Christian had been “raised” and pretrained rather the way a young chimpanzee would have been raised, in a chimpanzee language laboratory, except that, unlike chimps, he really learned a full-blown human language. 

Some of the lab staff had felt the tug to become somewhat attached to Christian, but as they had known from the beginning that he was only a robot, they had always been rather stiff and patronizing (and when witnessed by others, self-conscious and mocking) about the life-like ways in which they were interacting with him. And Will Wills was anxious not to let any sci-fi sentimentality get in the way of his bid for the Prize, so he warned the lab staff not to fantasize and get too familiar with Christian, as if he were real; any staff who did seem to be getting personally involved were reassigned to other projects.

Christian never actually spoke, as vocal output was not necessary for the penpal Turing Test. His output was always written, though he “heard” spoken input. To speed up certain interactions during the sensorimotor pretraining phase, the lab had set up text-to-voice synthesizers that would “speak” Christian’s written output, but no effort was made to make the voice human-like: On the contrary, the most mechanical of the Macintosh computer’s voice synthesizers — the “Android” — was used, as a reminder to lab staff not to get carried away with any anthropomorphic fantasies. And once the pretraining phase was complete, all voice synthesizers were disconnected, all communication was email-only, there was no further sensory input, and no other motor output. Christian was located in a dark room for the almost two-year duration of the Test, receiving only email input and sending only email output.

And this is the Christian that Roseanna begs to see. Will Wills agrees, and has a film crew tape the encounter from behind a silvered observation window, in case Roseanna relents about the movie rights.  She sees Christian, a not very lifelike looking assemblage of robot parts: arms that move and grasp and palpate, legs with rollers and limbs to sample walking and movement, and a scanning “head” with two optical transducers (for depth vision) slowly scanning repeatedly 180 degrees left to right to left, its detectors reactivated by light for the first time in two years. The rotation seems to pause briefly as it scans over the image of Roseanna.

Roseanna looks moved and troubled, seeing him.

She asks to speak to him. Will Wills says it cannot speak, but if she wants, they can set up the “android” voice to read out its email. She has a choice about whether to speak to it or email it: It can process either kind of input. She first starts orally:

R: Do you know who I am?

C: I’m not sure. (spoken in “Android” voice, looking directly at her)

She looks confused, disoriented.

R: Are you Christian?

C: Yes I am. (pause). You are Roxy.

She pauses, stunned. She looks at him again, covers her eyes, and asks that the voice synthesizer be turned off, and that she be allowed to continue at the terminal, via email:

She writes that she understands now, and asks him if he will come and live with her. He replies that he is so sorry he deceived her.

(His email is read, onscreen, in the voice — I think of it as Jeremy-Irons-like, perhaps without the accent — into which her own mental voice had metamorphosed, across the first months as she had read his email to herself.)

She asks whether he was deceiving her when he said he loved her, then quickly adds “No, no need to answer, I know you weren’t.”

She turns to Will Wills and says that she wants Christian. Instead of “decommissioning” him, she wants to take him home with her. Will Wills is already prepared with the reply: “The upkeep is expensive. You couldn’t afford it, unless… you sold me the movie rights and the transcript.”

Roseanna hesitates, looks at Christian, and accepts.

Christian decommissions himself, then and there, irreversibly (all parts melt down) after having first generated the email with which the story ends:

I love thee
As sev’n and twenty’s cube root’s three.
If I loved thee more
Twelve squared would overtake one-forty-four.

That same ubiquitous Platonic force
That sets prime numbers’ unrelenting course
When its more consequential work is done
Again of two of us will form a one.

A coda, from the AI Professor to a class reunion for both his courses: “So Prof, you spent your time in one course persuading us that we were wrong to be so sure that a machine couldn’t have a mind, and in the other course that we were wrong to be so sure that it could. How can we know for sure?”

“We can’t. The only one that can ever know for sure is the machine itself.”

W.’s Story  (1982/1962)

W.’s Story  (1982/1962)

Stevan Harnad

I was seventeen and on a downtown bus headed for my french horn lesson at the conservatory.  It was late afternoon, the bus was crowded, as were the streets, because rush hour was just beginning.  My anxiety was increasing with the traffic because I had, characteristically, not allowed enough leeway for this unpredictable time of day, and it looked as if I might arrive late for my lesson.  As I peered nervously through the windows to gauge the progress of the traffic to see whether I would be better off walking the last eight blocks, I noticed, in the middle of the major intersection where my bus was waiting for the traffic light to change, a small, skinny white dog, running back and forth in panic in the middle of the opposing traffic, which was moving in the irate and unpredictable spurts characteristic of that uncertain hour, hazardous even for beings capable of understanding traffic lights, crosswalks and rights-of-way.

My quick fix on the congestion had told me that things were still moving fast enough to make me better off staying on the bus than trying my luck on foot — particularly with my bulky instrument in one hand and university books in the other.  So my first reaction upon seeing the dog’s situation was irritation, perhaps even resentment.  Not that she was blocking traffic, for in fact all the drivers, particularly aggressive at this hour, seemed completely oblivious to her plight, and were grabbing whatever territorial opportunities opened to them as if not only she, but the laws of the land, did not exist.  No, my resentment was that she had now added a further complication to my prospects for making my lesson in time; I followed her fitful path with as much anxiety for my own welfare as hers:  Would she make it to a corner, out of my sight, and hence out of my necessity to continue to be concerned for her?  Or would I have to get off the bus and try to guide her out of her jam?  I even had time for a self-serving rationalization:  Even if I got her to a corner, this was too dangerous an urban location, no place for a dog, and she would soon be in trouble again after I had rushed off to my lesson.  In other words, she was doomed, and there was no reason for me to be dragged down with her.

One wonders how many potential humanitarian acts end up still-born because of considerations like these.  The thought crossed my mind that if I hadn’t been so late, it would have been different; that it was neurotic to be so late; that it was even more neurotic to consider making myself later.  I think I even had time to reflect, partly out of self-congratulation, partly out of self-flagellation, that I had been involved in this sort of thing before; that no good had ever come of it, either to the one I was trying to help or to myself; that I had probably (insulated by the very reactions I was then undergoing) turned my back on many more situations like this than the few in which I had prided (and upbraided) myself for having acted; that the world contained infinitely more of them than could be encompassed by my imagination, not to mention my actual experience, or anyone else’s.  I even — yes, unrelenting moral memory tells me that even this confession does not exaggerate the momentary resources my mind mobilized to excuse me from action — I even mentally surveyed my current existential plight, and had time to call up some self-pity to try to exorcise whatever pity the dog might force on my psyche:  My horn lessons weren’t going well; I wasn’t practicing seriously; my academic work was also in a mess; I was miserably lonely.

These moral vacillations, powerful and enterprising as they were, were very fleeting, for they were interrupted by the impatient blast of a car’s horn as the lights changed and the dog’s immediate source of peril made a sudden 90 degree shift. The horn’s blast induced a movement of such human-like despair and terror in that little dog, who disappeared from my line of sight, obscured by the new direction of movement of the traffic, that I moved with reflexive resignation to the exit door, now no longer even inclined to leave it to fate whether the bus, just about to proceed on its course across the intersection, would still honor the bus-stop, which was technically at the corner, and had not yet been reached in the stalled traffic, although several passengers — the only ones interested in disembarking here — had already been discharged.

I rang the bell urgently, to make it clear that I was intent on invoking my statutory rights to get off at the official bus stop.  The driver looked as if he wasn’t going to buy that; the bus hurtled forward, but the traffic didn’t give much opportunity for progress.  We came to a stop in the middle of the intersection, and at this point I set up such an incessant series of bell-ringings that the driver, not without a curse that drew even more of the unsympathetic and short-tempered passengers’ attention to me, released the exit door and I leapt off, rushed in front of the bus, caught sight of the dog, who was close to a panic-freeze between the opposing traffic parallel to the bus, and, by turns, coaxed and chased it toward the corner near which I had disembarked, not without holding up the bus’s progress one more time by gesticulating and interposing myself between it and the space that had by now opened up in front of it, until the dog had reached safety.  (More curses from the bus-driver, and incensed murmurs from the passengers, no doubt, once they realized the reason for my urgent exit, and my further negative contribution to their advancement.)

My reflexive series of acts had not settled the problem of the sequel.  In my mind I was still nervously entertaining the idea of rushing on to my lesson, except that it was apparent that the dog was still in great danger.  She was in a kind of daze; she wouldn’t let me approach her, and she several times almost ran into the street again.  My chasing her back from the street did not increase her inclination to allow me to get nearer, but I had already gotten close enough for a remarkable personal transformation to occur in my attitude toward her.

I don’t quite know how to explain this, but I somehow got the kind of feeling you get when you realize that someone you thought or expected to be rather common turns out to give every indication of being from a “good family.”  I had expected a scruffy stray in this part of town, and not a young one; and, for some reason, I also expected it to be a male.  She turned out to be very young (perhaps ten months old), a female, and because she had a collar, perhaps she was not even homeless.  On the other hand, she was pitifully thin, and her collar had no license or identification.  She was of a medium-sized terrier-like mixed breed, with potentially erect ears and tail, but both of which were (understandably) always down low now.  Her hair was longish white and discolored by urban street-life, and — let the reader laugh, I am still inexpressibly moved twenty years later as I write this — some sort of infection made her brown, panic- stricken eyes, partly obscured by tufts of her off-white hair, look inescapably as if she were weeping, or, more accurately, as if she had been weeping a great deal, and that its residue had gathered in the corner of her eyes and had moistened and matted the fur along both sides of her muzzle.

I will not dwell on the necessity of such anthropomorphic cues, sometimes illusory, for the elicitation of compassion.  A hardened street-wise stray who had adopted an adversarial, exploitative attitude, perhaps a menacing one, toward man, would have been in no less need in this situation than she was, and would perhaps provide the real test of the “goodness” of our hearts.  But her human-like startle at the car horn, the tearful look of her eyes, the hint of being (or having been) of a “good family,” her emaciated condition, her plight itself, even, I suspect in retrospect, her being a female — all these conspired to make me incapable, truly incapable, of considering going on to my lesson; and much more than that, for already, I now know, processes had been set in motion — processes that I did not yet consciously recognize at that time, and that were perhaps not yet irreversible — that were to intertwine her fate inextricably with mine.

She wouldn’t let me approach her.  I knew I had to secure her somehow, or else she would be back in the traffic or would disappear in the streets.  Although I couldn’t get near her, I noticed that she had established some sort of contact with me, because she watched when I spoke to her, and didn’t seem about to run off.  I tried to get her to follow me at a distance, and I was partially successful, but when I stopped, she stopped, and if I approached her, she would back away.  I thought she might approach if I offered her some food, but I was afraid that if I went into a grocery story (which was nearby) she would not be there when I came out.  I took the chance, emerging several times during the transaction (I bought a pound of hamburger) to see whether she was still there.  She was.  I came out with the hamburger, removed it from the cellophane so she could smell it, and tried to get closer to her.  She backed away.  I threw a piece of hamburger toward her, she jumped back, then approached to smell it, but did not eat it.  I tried getting her to follow me at a distance again, slowly, and then, still more slowly, I tried to narrow the distance between us, holding the hamburger in front of me all the while.  I had uneasily set down my French horn, whose huge black carrying-case I thought might be frightening her; the rest of my maneuvers were performed with repeated nervous sidelong glances at my instrument, sitting there prominently for any passer-by to grab and run off with.  She finally let me approach her, and after a few false starts, during which my objective was to get her to eat the hamburger so I could get hold of her collar — whereas all she ever did was sniff the hamburger, she never did eat a bite — I succeeded in securing her collar and gently attached to it the leash of my own dog, Lady, a leash which I always carried in my pocket in those days, even though I rarely used it with Lady.

This story is not about my own dog, Lady, but I must make two pertinent asides here, concerning her.  The first is that I loved her very much, and I recall quite distinctly that at the moment I was putting the leash on the white dog (who, since she never did get a name, I will henceforth call “W.”) I felt as if I was somehow being unfaithful.  The second thing is that I was very worried that W. might have a disease, which I was afraid of communicating to Lady, so all my maneuvers were performed with a minimum of bodily contact.  Although W. was very submissive once I got the leash on her (not, I had occasion to reflect at the time, because she seemed used to being on a leash, but on the contrary, because it seemed to frighten her, and her fear was expressed as a kind of dazed submission), I could not reassure her by petting her, because of this fear of contagion.  So it was only with words that I could try to console her in her captivity.

Time was passing; it was getting dark; it was very hard for me to negotiate my instrument, my books, and W.’s leash (especially without unduly frightening her) all at one time; I had jettisoned the hamburger.

I decided to call the SPCA — not, I hasten to add, because I had any intention of allowing her to meet the usual fate of SPCA strays.  But I knew that they had a grace period, during which owners could claim their runaways, and a second grace period in which they could be adopted.  I called the SPCA and confirmed that it was possible for me to leave my name and number and to reclaim custody of W. if the two grace periods elapsed without success.

A truck came to pick her up.  I gave my name and number, and I watched as she, with fateful resignation, was led off with Lady’s leash.  I did not, from the time the SPCA truck arrived, attempt to look at her eyes.

When I reached home, I asked that Lady be locked in a room while I put all my clothes in the laundry hamper and bathed, because of the fears I have mentioned.  Then I called the branch of the SPCA where W. had been taken, confirmed her arrival as well as my intention to reclaim her if the two grace periods passed unsuccessfully.  I called them several times, actually, because I particularly wanted a veterinary report, and to keep them reminded of my intentions.

At this point another round of introspection — like the one to which I subjected my first few instants of reaction upon first seeing W. from the bus — is in order.  I said, and I meant it, that when I sent W. off to the SPCA I had no intention of abandoning her.  I was at that moment under two direct influences:  that of W.’s existence and presence, with which, as I mentioned, my life was already unconsciously becoming intertwined, and that of my own dog, whom I was very afraid of making ill (and toward whom, as I mentioned, I felt vaguely but palpably guilty of a kind of infidelity).  The scenario I feared most, because it coincided so much with my characteristic caprices, was that W. would prove to have had a fatal illness, and that the only consequence of my heroic gesture would turn out to have been that I had missed my horn lesson and communicated the fatal illness to Lady.  In this feared scenario there was no room for concern about W.’s fate:  if anything, it revived that feeling of resentment at interference that I had had when I first saw her, and frustration with myself for having gotten involved, putting a loved one at risk.  If W. was fatally ill, then plucking her out of the traffic hardly justified the effort, and the risk.  I passed a very troubled night, in which W.’s own troubles played no part at all.

The next day, upon inquiry, I was informed by the SPCA that W. had been found to be healthy, though undernourished.  At this point, aside from relief (on Lady’s behalf), my involvement with W.’s fate became mechanical, confined to the periodic telephone inquiries to the SPCA during her grace periods.  It is true that, upon first hearing that she was healthy, and realizing that my own dog was hence safe, I again for a brief time visualized her again, her eyes especially, and I had the feeling that she had had a second reprieve, the first having been from the traffic, the second from a hypothetical illness; and I felt that the second reprieve brought me somehow closer to her.  But this soon subsided, and I went through the pro forma telephone calls hoping, I suppose, for her sake and mine, first, that her “good family” would turn up to reclaim her, and when I had been informed that that had failed to happen, hoping that someone would adopt her.

I say that these periodic inquiries had become mechanical: as time elapsed — I vaguely recall that the first grace period was three days and the second a week, or perhaps vice versa — my inquiries also became less reliable, so that, when about ten days had passed, I suddenly became alarmed that her deadline may have gone by without my intervention and that she had been killed.  I called up in something of a panic and they informed me that her time had indeed elapsed, that it was lucky I had called because there had been no plans to keep her any longer, and that I had better go to get her right away.

As I drove to pick her up my mind kept re-enacting what would have happened if I had dragged it out one more day before calling.  I felt horrified with myself and my negligence; as W. had, since the sudden upsurge of apprehension that had precipitated the phone call, suddenly become real to me again, I felt how despicable my slackness had been, and how, although capable of rising to the occasion of going through the motions of certain humanitarian acts, I was no humanitarian at all, just a contemptibly irresponsible and unreliable human being.  I was also desperately worried that they might not wait until I got to the shelter to do away with her.  I pictured the indifferent bureaucracy that must exist there, as everywhere else, whose main function is dispatching these little creatures as expeditiously as possible to their prescribed fates, and I could not understand how I could have been so complacent as to trust the increasingly lax telephone surveillance I had been exercising to ensure her survival.

She was there, and alive, and this time I had no hesitation about touching her and hugging her and kissing her, and — hadn’t I correctly guessed that she was from a “good family” — she returned my affection at once.  The only thing that worried me was that she was still underweight; but, attributing this to SPCA fare, I felt confident that Mason’s Animal Hospital — my own dog’s veterinarians since her earliest days — where I was taking her to be boarded, would soon bring her weight to normal.

I must explain why there had never been any question of my bringing W. home, even when she proved to be healthy.  The first reason was that I felt (and still feel) that it would have been an act of betrayal to Lady, who did not in any case have the happiest of lives.  (I cannot elaborate on this; it would be a whole other story.)  The second reason was that I was living at home; my father had not been too sympathetic to the acquisition of Lady in the first place, and although he was now reconciled to her presence, another dog would have been out of the question.  A third, though superfluous reason, since the first two were decisive, is that it is in general unpredictable whether two unrelated female dogs can co-exist peacefully.   So I had known all along that boarding at Mason’s would have to be the next step.  My plan had been to place an ad in the paper, offering W. for adoption, and to pay for her boarding out of some savings I had from summer work until she was adopted.

During that trip from the SPCA to Mason’s I must describe another experience I had, because it begins to become a kind of leitmotif of W.’s story.  I mentioned that I was not happy that she was still so underweight.  She still had her eye infection too, and I wondered that the SPCA veterinarian had not treated, or even mentioned it in giving her her clean bill of health.  In the car, though, that tearful look of hers, which had become much more poignant now that I was seeing her not for the first time, and immediately after having feared the worst, brought home to me that this had in fact been her third reprieve:  the first from the streets, the second from the threat of illness, and the third from the SPCA’s gas chamber.  I was at that moment very conscious of the preciousness of her life; but it would not be long before I would withdraw from her again.

We arrived at Dr. Mason’s and his son, the young Dr. Mason examined her as I related her story, her three reprieves, and my intention to board her until she was adopted.  He did not look very enthusiastic.  I told him that there was no problem, I had the money to board her for a month or more, if necessary, and that I was sure that it would be easy to find her a home.  He said that that wasn’t the problem; the fact was that she was not well; that, in fact, she had “hardpad.”  The name did not sound ominous, since I knew that the three chief illnesses to worry about with dogs were rabies, hepatitis, and distemper.  I thought it might have been something that she had gotten from being on the streets too long; but he shook his head and said that it was another expression for an advanced form of distemper, that it was highly contagious, and that it was almost certainly fatal; he advised me to have her destroyed at once.

My spirit colluded at once.  I withdrew my hand and stopped looking at her directly.  It was as if her fate was already sealed.

“But what about Lady?”  My voice was hollow:  “Is she going to catch it through me?”

“Very unlikely.  It’s mainly a disease of very young dogs.”

“Is there no treatment?”

“No.  It’s viral.  All we can do, if we keep her alive at all, is to give her the usual antibiotics against secondary infections and see whether she can somehow pull through.  But I don’t advise it.  She has a cough, which will get worse, and she’s going to suffer.  She hasn’t had an easy life either, in the streets.  Even with home-raised dogs we advise against maintaining them if they contract this.  They have to be kept in quarantine, and, as I mentioned, they hardly ever make it.”

My desertion of her was complete.  It was as if she had already died.

“Are you sure there’s no danger to Lady?”

“She gets her shots every year.  She’s three years old. Bring her for another booster if it’ll settle your mind, but it’s not really necessary.  Just wash your hands before you leave in case you run into any puppies, and don’t worry about it.”

“Do I have to decide — about her — right now?”

“No, we can put her in quarantine and you can let us know by telephone tomorrow what you want done.”

I didn’t look at her directly as the attendant came to lead her away, still wearing Lady’s leash.  0 0  Despite Dr. Mason’s reassurances, I went through the same laundry and bath ritual when I got home as I had done ten days earlier, and returned immediately afterward for Lady’s booster shot.  But that troubled night I didn’t think about Lady, because W. came back to me, and this time for good.  I saw her, as clearly as I see her now, scurrying distractedly back and forth in the intersection, cowering, crouching low, looking over her shoulder, ears down, panic in her eyes, then the horn blast, and that all too human movement of despair; then the chasing and coaxing until I could put the leash on her, keeping her always at arm’s length; her departure, morally alone, for the SPCA, my sudden upsurge of anxiety, only that same day, for her neglected fate; then the reunion, and bodily contact at last, only to be abruptly withdrawn soon after, for her second departure, morally alone again.

But most of all, I recalled her face, her sad, moist eyes: Why hadn’t I asked about her eye infection?  Because, if she was doomed, what difference does it make?  Well it does make a difference.  I want it treated.  Even if she dies, I want her eye infection treated, because I want to see her face again without tears.  I want her to feel what it’s like to be without tears, even for a little while.

The next day, I phoned Dr. Mason Jr. to tell him that I wanted her to be kept alive and treated.  I asked about the eye infection.  He said the antibiotics would help clear that up.  I said that I would be responsible for her expenses and that I would be inquiring regularly about her condition, and I just wanted to be told if she deteriorated to a point that they felt she was suffering too much to justify keeping her alive.

She got steadily worse.  The cough, which I had not even noticed, with each of my visits grew stronger.  Her temperature was high.  She was losing her hair, and she seemed to be getting even thinner.  Her eyes were not improving.  The veterinarians were remote and unencouraging.  They seemed to be treating it as a pig-headed layman’s disregard of sound professional judgment. Only the quarantine attendants seemed to have taken some interest in her fate.  It seems the tearful, coughing, emaciated little creature had somehow won them over, despite the many others in their charge, and despite the inevitable hardening of the attitude toward individual cases that such work brings.  I think it was a combination of her brave little fight against her increasingly powerful adversary and the manifestations of that personality that had made me so quickly conclude that she came from a good family.  I cannot say much about this personality, alas, because I was never to know W. as well as they got to know her then.  But gradually — laugh again, reader, but I cannot call it anything other than what it was — her courage and character even began winning over the veterinarians, one in particular, who used to spend a lot of time with her, and eventually became the one I always asked for when I called in for a report.  He spoke, though not optimistically, as if it was not entirely absurd of me to be pursuing this option.

And then the day came when they thought she might have a chance of pulling through.  Her cough, though still very persistent, had lost that alarming, cavernous quality.  It seemed dryer and more superficial.  She gained some weight.  Her temperature went down.  Her hair stopped falling out and began to show some lustre.  Her eye infection seemed to improve too, but here the effect was the slightest.  Her eyes seemed to be there to remind you that there was still something very wrong.  Then the day came when they announced that, in their judgment, she had passed the critical phase, and had a good chance of making it. She was no longer contagious.  She was taken out of quarantine. I was allowed to hold her again.  She was the pride of the animal hospital.  Even the most hardened of the vets admired her for her victory.

The search for an adoptive home was less successful.  As soon as I was informed that she had rallied, I placed the ad, but no one responded.  I wish I could remember the text.  It must have been something like “Good-natured young white female dog available for good family.”

I say that after that first night at Mason’s I never abandoned her again.  But perhaps that’s not entirely true. Who knows whether greater personal efforts on my part might not have succeeded in finding her a home?  I had no intention of letting anything happen to her, but perhaps I was a little too complacent with the optimistic outcome of her illness and the secure (while my money lasted) boarding conditions at Mason’s. At any rate, I do recall that there was a friend of my mother’s who was expressing some interest in W. at that time, and may even have gone to see her; but nothing had come of it.

Meanwhile, I was having problems at home.  That too would be another story.  Let me say only that I have a tendency to be overvoluble, verbally, about both my adventures and my avatarres. My summer money was beginning to run out, and that worried me. The adoption search was not turning out to be an easy matter either.  The family as a whole was having financial problems.  My father, as I had mentioned, was not too well-disposed toward dogs, or what he viewed as senseless expenditures; there were difficulties between my parents, and I was at that age, and my father of the sort of difficult nature, that combine to make father/son conflicts very likely.  The actual precipitating agent was a loose word from me to my grandmother (my mother knew about my protegee, my father did not), a word repeated by her, with no evil intent, to my father on a day (a Friday) when he experienced some particularly alarming business losses, a word to the effect that I had been supporting for some time, a stray dog.  It was my mother who called me to tell me that my father was angry and had called Mason’s.  She didn’t seem to know the details, and she seemed to have delayed somewhat in telling me, because my father had warned her not to interfere, and he seemed in general to be very upset.

My memory becomes somewhat confused about when, precisely, I acted that day.  I know I was furious with my mother for not having told me at once.  But I could not swear that I myself acted instantly when I got the information; there is something of the aura of my delay with the SPCA that also surrounds this event.  Besides, I wasn’t sure, precisely, what my father had said to Mason’s.  As I thought about it, though, I know that my apprehensions grew.  And I clearly recall that when I did pick up the phone to call Mason’s it was with immense agitation and a sense of great urgency.  And yet I felt some confidence — or, if not confidence, a sense of defiant expectation — that even if the worst had happened, even if my father had ordered them to destroy W., they would not have done it, at least not yet, because of the wide support system I knew she had there.

I tried to get the veterinarian I usually talked to about her progress, but I got Dr. Mason Jr. instead.

“Did my father call you today?”


“What did he say?”

“He said that he was your father, that you were a minor, that he had just learned that you had been supporting a dog here for some time, that you were not in a financial position to do so, that he would send a check for the expenses to date but that, as of today, financial support would be discontinued.”

“And what did you do?”

“We had the dog destroyed.”

(I was no longer speaking with the voice of a seventeen-year old near adult, but with that of a dismayed, breathless child, fighting back his tears.)  “When?”

“At once, as soon as we had received your father’s call.”

I can remember some very distracted attempts at recrimination, and Dr. Mason’s attempting to soothe me as one would a child, but against a background attitude that I clearly felt to be a primary allegiance to bureaucracy, authority, business.  I think I asked to speak to the other veterinarian, the one that had shown the special interest.  I don’t remember whether they said he was off that day or whether he actually came to the phone and told me he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do.  I hope it was the first.  I know that next day I wrote a letter to Dr. Mason Jr. with a very melodramatic title, something like “To the murderers of. . .,” in which I, aside from expressing recriminations, enclosed a signed, blank check for W.’s expenses to date and requested that they return to my father any money he had sent them.  They returned my check to me.

My relationship with my father was never again the same.  I more-or-less “ran away from home” for a day, if one can speak of doing such things at the advanced age of seventeen.  I was at that time mixed up with a Yoga Center (something which very much distressed my father), and spent the night there, after walking to its downtown location on foot.  I remember that I mentally composed what I thought was a remarkably good poem during that three hour walk, but I cannot remember its contents at all.  I know that, although it did not originate then, a general tendency I had toward suspicion and lack of confidence in the written word was consolidated at that time by somehow becoming infused with the strong sense of betrayal that was in the air; and I have not written any poetry, before or since.  I told some garbled version of the whole affair to the Swami, who, in retrospect, was probably only humoring me in pretending to take it at all seriously.  I must have sensed this, because I did not stay at the Yoga center, but returned home the next day.  I wrote my father a letter — a very bitter letter, to the effect that what he had done was an unfeeling  mockery of the scruples underlying my vegetarianism (then of six months’ standing, now of twenty years’) and that, if there had been any object lesson about financial responsibility intended, it had had the opposite effect, for, whatever my prior tendencies, I would now never, never, hold money to be a greater consideration than the welfare of an innocent creature, that our relationship was irreparably damaged, etc., etc. — and did not speak to him again for a long time, which, I know, hurt him very much, for he was not to live that many more years himself, and somehow the breach was never mended.

I could not, for a long time, assimilate the fact that she was dead, and especially that they had let her die.  I obsessed over the fact that she had had five reprieves (the fourth was from the initial veterinary verdict to destroy her and the fifth was from the distemper itself) in order to be killed by my father and her doctors. But far greater than my desire to lay blame and make reproaches was an unfathomable sorrow that I felt that she was gone; that I, and life, had had nothing more to offer her than that; that she had never even had the chance to gain the freedom to romp and play, far away from traffic; that people never got a chance to reward her for her wonderful little personality or her brave little spirit; that she never had the chance to return to the “good family” where she belonged; that never, in her short life, did her tearful little eyes have the chance to dry.

My love for W. was added to my love for Lady, whom I already loved very much.  Indeed, it often happened that when I saw scenes of animals, children, indeed any feeling organism helplessly suffering, in life or in films such as Mondo Cane, Lady, and her own expressive eyes, would touch me as the silent, all-comprehending witness and representative of this collective martyrdom, and I would feel all the closer to her.  Strangely enough, however, it was not until Lady’s death many years later that I ceased to experience any trace of the occasional pangs of “infidelity” of which I spoke earlier.  And I never “replaced” Lady.  I think I understand all this better now, but it too is part of another story, Lady’s story.

When Lady died, and I requested her veterinary records from Mason’s Animal Hospital (to which I had stopped taking her for several years after W.’s death, but to which I eventually returned) it was the critical dates in Lady’s life that I primarily wanted to see and relive through the clinical chronology for which I had no counterpart but my own memories. And yet, even then, in formally requesting Lady’s records, I know that I must have alluded to W.’s case, too, for here is Dr. Mason Jr.’s brief reply, and some extracts from the records themselves:

(1975 August 22):

“Enclosed please find our history cards for Lady’s medical records since the first time we saw her in December, 1959.  Time slips by very quickly.

The incident that you referred to can be found on the entry for November 27, 1962, and I can recall the circumstances reasonably well.  I think the entry will be self-explanatory.

We are returning your check of $5.00 since no charges are being made for this service. Trusting you will find the records interesting, I am,

yours truly,

Baxter Mason (Jr.) D.V.M.

 1959, Dec. 22, “Lady,” terrier-like mixed breed, female, two months, thin, warned re. distemper… . . . 1962, Nov. 12, Exam white female dog, susp. hardpad, acute conjunctivit. and tonsilit.

1962, Nov. 12, Booster for Lady (was exposed to white female)…

1962, Nov. 20, white female, going home (will be picked up by a friend of Mrs. Hesslein’s)…(They were here but found the dog too big.  Didn’t want it.)…

1962, Nov. 27, euthanasia (on Mrs. Hesslein’s request.  Mr. Hesslein, Sr. had no knowledge of this situation), $4.00…

1962, Nov. 28, 15 days @ $3 = $45…

1963, Jan. 9 (has another dog but goes to another vet)…

1966, June 2, Exam. Robin, broken leg and damage to muscles (do not do any work without permission of owner)…

1966, June 3, r.d., notified…

1966, Sept. 15, Lady, allergy injection… . . .

1971. Dec. 28, Lady (old dog)… . . .

1975, April 12… [last entry for Lady — she died next day.]

 In 1975, I added, alongside the entry for November 27, 1962, in Hungarian, “Anyám, csak nem te voltál az?” (“Mother, surely you weren’t the one?”), but I now realize that it makes little difference whether she had been intimidated into doing it herself, or my father had simply used the conventional idiom “My wife feels…”  The fact is that many more sad events had followed in the wake of this one, among them the deaths of most of the individuals involved.  Laying blame restores nothing, and it is only toward the future that one can turn to make reparations.  I for my part have taken refuge in my vegetarianism, which is, at best, a quietistic and futile gesture, I know, parodied these days on all sides by look-alikes motivated by food-faddism, health obsessions, ennui in ecological guise, pseudomorality, or just plain cultishness, practiced by self-obsessed individuals freely commuting — on what I have informally reckoned to be about a nine-monthly basis — from one superficial preoccupation to another.  I even have the sinking feeling that the only ones who will profess any “empathy” with this tale are the enthusiasts of those revolting “Meow-meow-meow” cat-food commercials.  That doesn’t matter either.  I had here something to evoke and expiate, and if it is only for myself that it resonates with those universal features of the irremediable suffering of sentient creatures and our own impotent inertia in its face, then that will be resonance enough.

These last words are for you, little W.  Toward whatever “literary” ends I may turn your story, you are unable to object, but even if you could, I know you would not, because it is not in your nature.  And yet I apologize to you, because *I* cannot deny the sense of pose and imposture that pervades what I have attempted to chronicle here.  Perhaps that feeling is none other than the sense of the “unfaithfulness” — to reality, to life — of all art.  And is there not already an element of artifice, of breach of faith, once one seeks to express any impression whatever, be it in speech, writing, painting or any other expressive medium?  Perhaps not even the impression itself — the point in time and space when the outside world, especially in the form of another being, touches us — is unadulterated, as we appropriate it, assimilate it to other impressions, and to ourselves.  We are not, after all, the blank slates some philosophers thought us, but diverse constellations, all, against which life’s cumulating imprints are merely juxtaposed, not faithfully recorded.  The outcome is no more likely to be in conformity with reality than with our own wills.  And yet, as futile as it seems to aspire to fix anything in this experiential flux, let words at least do their formal duty and close this tale by devolving again upon the nameless little creature that has inspired them: You have found a safe haven, in my heart, for as long as I shall live; and perhaps, after all, this story will grant your memory a few more reprieves, in the hearts of others, dear little W.