MARTHA SEZ: ‘There is no reason for us to feel lonely’

I’ve been on the phone with Claywood, my friend of 56 years, for hours, “skirting the edges of dark humor,” as he put it. Claywood is no stranger to paradox, alternate realities, parallel universes or indecision. Never have I met someone so unremittingly of two minds on every subject.

Two minds? That’s an understatement. Claywood is a juggler, keeping any number of disparate ideas in the air at the same time. He can’t help simultaneously entertaining several points of view.

He finally hung up because his dog had been patiently staring at him, begging silently to be fed. Those who do not share your gift of gab, Claywood, must find other ways to communicate.

People are always saying that there are two sides to every story, a claim that I find annoying. There are many sides. Dualism is so boring.

As my mother and grandmothers used to say when they were trying to get dinner on the table and we children were making demands, “I’ve only got two hands.” I wonder, what would an octopus say?

An octopus has a separate brain in each of its eight arms as well as a “master brain” in its head. In captivity, they can recognize humans and, like crows, they dislike certain individuals. In the wild, octopuses have been shown to build little dens, like Ringo’s Octopus’s garden. They pile up anything they can find — rocks, broken shells, even broken glass and bottle caps. Octopuses have been observed carrying and stocking coconut shells for future use as body armor. Blanket octopuses sometimes carry venomous tentacles of the Portuguese man o’ war as weapons.

While engaged with fish in collaborative hunting, an octopus will occasionally punch a fish, lashing out with a swift, explosive motion of one arm, for no apparent reason. Perhaps out of spite, scientists say. Octopuses have also been observed on stationary underwater cameras throwing sand and shells at each other. It is rare for social animals to throw things at each other. (While this behavior is endearingly humanlike, throwing things and punching do not necessarily represent the highest form of intelligence.) While some scientists tell us that octopuses are as intelligent as cats and dogs, that they use tools, think ahead and act purposefully and even mischievously, they still contend that an octopus is not self aware because it can’t recognize itself in a mirror.

Is that how scientists are evaluating intelligence? By that standard I was once brilliant, having achieved the height of my mental prowess as a teenager, when I used to gaze into mirrors with the intensity of Narcissus. It’s a wonder I didn’t fall into the looking glass. It’s a wonder I didn’t wear the bathroom mirror out.

When my friend Julie and I were 13, we took Polaroid pictures of ourselves until we ran out of film. We looked very beautiful, or, at least, that was our intention. So young, so silly. And yet, compared to octopuses, so highly intelligent.

In fairness to the octopus, nowadays when I accidentally catch sight of myself in a mirror at a shopping mall I think “Who is that old woman?” or “What’s her problem?”

In his book, “‘Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote, “Encountering an octopus in the wild is as close as we will get to meeting an intelligent alien.”

Why do we look for intelligent life on other planets when we haven’t even come close to understanding life on Earth? People ask, are we alone in the universe? Meanwhile our planet is just crawling with humankind. There is no reason for us to feel lonely. We don’t even understand our own species. How then do we expect to understand aliens from outer space when we find them?

Years ago, Claywood said that human life is a virus that has infected the Earth and is metastasizing outward toward other planets. I asked him just now — does he still believe this? He said yes, unequivocally.

Still, nothing fascinates me more than space exploration. I want to know whether extraterrestrial life exists. I regret that I won’t live long enough to find out about our solar system, our galaxy, the universe. In the meantime, I’ll pray for the strength to avoid lashing out spitefully, like an octopus.

As a Baby Boomer, do I believe in the “Star Trek” mission, as exemplified by Kirk and Spock?

Well, yes and no. Have a good week.

(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the Lake Placid News for more than 20 years.)

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