OTR, Take 10: Dismemberment Plan - Uncanney Valley

We all have a ritual in the morning, whether we are conscious of it or not. For some it might involve meditation; for others, it might be a quick shower, a harried selection of clothes, and a curse-strewn commute. For a long time, mine was fairly straightforward and consistent:

  1. I would get out of bed, hoping not to wake up Audra, and head downstairs with the dogs.
  2. I would drink a big glass of water and then take each of the dogs for a walk. Clare, our 16-month-old puppy typically gets a longer walk because puppy energy is real.
  3. After walking the dogs, I would feed them, make myself coffee and read until it was almost time to wake up Audra.
  4. One of the last things I ask Audra before we fall asleep is what time she wants to wake up and what flavor latte she would like in the morning. About ten minutes before it was time to go up and wake Audra, I would make her the latte she ordered the night before.
  5. Then I'd wake Audra up and we'd be off on our day.

One of the reasons I loved this routine was that it reminded me of all the important things in my life. It grounded me in the most important things: my wife, my dogs, and self-nourishment. For years and years, I ignored my actual life in favor of work. It nearly killed me.

Over the last few months, I've added another step to my morning routine, although I only became aware of it this week. My older dog, Winnie, is having some issues with her back legs. She's losing muscle mass in them and is unsteady on her feet. The vet thinks its a form of neuropathy; Audra suspects it might be myasthenia gravis. Regardless of the cause, she has difficulty walking on the hardwood in our place.

So now she wears little pink boots that look a little like ballet slippers.

Winnie is pretty in pink.

Thankfully, my wife is far brighter than I am and she recognized that we shouldn't just leave the boots on 24/7. If we leave the boots on too long, Winnie begins to develop skin issues – so we take the boots off at night to let the skin breathe and heal from the constant contact with the boots.

Earlier this week, I woke up and came downstairs. Clare came bounding down with that indefatigable energy of youth, but Winnie stopped at the bottom of the stairs and just sat down. I called her and called her to go out and to go for a walk, but with the stubbornness of age, she refused to leave her perch on the steps. I will admit that I grew frustrated. Pre-coffee Owen isn't the most pleasant person.

After a few minutes of cajoling, I realized that I didn't put her boots on before heading downstairs. Was she really sitting at the bottom of the stairs and refusing to go out on the hardwood without her boots? Had she put that together?

Of course she had. Dogs are waaaaaay smarter than we give them credit for.

I stepped past her and went up the stairs to retrieve her boots and came back down to put them on. The boots aren't anything fancy, but they can be tricky to put on. Winnie sat there patiently as I slipped them over her toes and fastened the velcro tightly to ensure they didn't spin around, leaving the cloth upper facing the ground.

When the boots were safely on her feet, she stepped off the stairs with her tail wagging wildly. She took a little hop filled with excitement for her walk, then turned back to me and, as I sat on the stairs, licked me on my right cheek.

Clare and Winnie ran to the door and I sat on my perch with tears flooding my eyes. Man, we don't deserve dogs.

So now, there's an extra step in my morning ritual: I sit at the bottom of the stairs with Winnie and we put her boots on together. It brings me tremendous joy each and every time.

Five years ago, Winnie would never have at the patience to sit with me while I put boots on her feet. Hell, she would have fought me at every opportunity to keep those things off her feet. It's a simple, glaring example for me right now about how we change while still remaining ourselves.

I used to look at things that I did, lives I lived, and feel shame, loss, sadness, etc. We all do this, to an extent. We all feel embarrassed by our previous selves, just as we feel nostalgia for the good old days. (Fun fact: nostalgia is derived from Greek and means "the pain of returning home." I'll just leave that one with you without further commentary.)

These thoughts have been running through my head the past three or four days, and through a twisted logic, led me to today's record: Dismemberment Plan's Uncanney Valley.

There's been a lot of chatter this week about ChatGPT and about how either it is one of those rare moments when you can see the future arriving or an overblown thing meant to scare knowledge workers. (*Whispers* – it can be both.) One of the things that is always in the background of AI advancements is the notion of the uncanny valley: that strange, liminal feeling that something that seems authentic isn't quite right. Every new AI product is put up against this test – call it the Turing Test or whatever you like. Can you tell that the computer is a computer?

The uncanny valley is that weird spot in which you can't say why it doesn't feel right: it has all the elements of a human, doing normal human things...but somehow your brain doesn't accept it as authentic.

When Dismemberment Plan announced a new album over a decade after releasing their last record, I was both excited and nervous. Members of the band went off to have normal lives, got married, had kids. Hell, Joe Easley, the drummer (one of the best of his generation), became an engineer for NASA.

The Plan released one of my all-time favorite records, Emergency & I, in 1999 and an excellent follow-up, Change, in 2001. The music is off-kilter, frenetic at times, and frontman Travis Morrison told penetrating stories about being a young man trying to find his way through his 20s/early 30s.

We all have certain albums that we associate with certain times in our lives. Name a year and I can rifle off three to five records that were in heavy rotation for me that year, which I haven't listened to as much since – or that I listen to for the express purpose of going back to a certain time. This is one of the acute powers of music. Perhaps only smell has the same effect.

But there are also bands that are of a certain time. That only exist or make sense in that time. Modest Mouse is one of those bands. From 1996 through 2003, they were fucking amazing. Isaac Brock was a parking lot prophet who defined a moment. The band has released several records in the last twenty years that are...fine. Musically very competent. Nothing wrong with them – but they don't have that ineffable magic that once coursed through their music.

After listening to Uncanney Valley for almost a year, it occurred to me that perhaps the Plan recognized this strangeness. Perhaps the title is a tongue-in-cheek nod to this. Uncanney Valley is a good record. The band are still prodigious musicians. Travis Morrison is still the only singer who sounds like him.

But it feels a little bit like there's a part of the brain that doesn't believe it's real. That it's authentically Dismemberment Plan.

Maybe I'm being unfair, judging this band from the comfort of a LinkedIn newsletter. But I have to believe the band felt this themselves when they were jamming, writing, and recording. All of the parts were there, but the alchemy that created the magic was absent.

It's a good album, don't get me wrong. I'm very happy they recorded it and gave it to us. There are some phenomenal songs on it. And it's certainly unfair of me to feel that uncanny valley feeling to hear Travis singing a song about fatherhood ("Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer").

I'm not sure exactly what I'm driving at, but I've been overwhelmed with a sense that things don't last. And that's where the beauty of things lies. The very fact that all of this is transitory, with a time and a place, is what makes everything so, so precious. The fact that the people we most love, the dogs we would do anything for, the music that provides us a soundtrack – the fact that all of these inevitably slip through our grasp, that is the root of meaning, of beauty.

For if we don't make the most of now, we will miss it.

You can listen to Dismemberment Plan's Uncanney Valley on Tidal.

ALSO: I'm writing a novel. More information here.

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