Let Yourself Go: Brains for Robots

Lori Jakiela reflects on “The Jetsons,” John Irving, spilled milk and the human act of writing.
Robot Typewriter


I was in my 20s, on scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont — where John Irving was on the faculty. I loved John Irving’s books. Lots of people did.

By scholarship, I mean I worked as a waitress to cover tuition. I and my fellow scholarship humans were dubbed Waitrons, like robots from “The Jetsons.”

“They don’t call them that any more,” a friend who’s been to a more recent and more woke Bread Loaf told me. “It’s classist and offensive.”

But I’m talking about the 1990s, and John Irving wanted a glass of milk.

I’d started waiting tables when I was 12 at the Trafford Polish Club, as 100-plus senior citizens bent like commas over bingo cards. But something about bringing a glass of milk to John Irving, the great writer, tilted gravity.

I spilled the milk in his lap. I tried to mop it with my apron.

Sorry, John Irving.

Sorry I blotted your lap and may have touched you in a way that was unintentionally inappropriate.

You’re 80-plus now. I hope you’ve forgotten.

“Your memory is a monster,” John Irving wrote in “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” “You forget — it doesn’t.”

What I remember: landing that scholarship was a miracle. People from Trafford didn’t often end up at places like Bread Loaf — founded by Robert Frost and named after a mountain that looks like a loaf of Wonder Bread, located in a billboard-free state famous for Ben & Jerry, maple syrup and artisanal everything.

I often mock that word, artisanal, which people use as a synonym for fancy. But artisanal means things created by humans, without machines. That seems less mockable now.

Today I saw a sign on a Carnegie Mellon office on North Craig Street that read: “Brains for Robots.”

On “The Jetsons,” that 1960s futuristic cartoon that foretold FaceTime and Roombas, George Jetson’s most famous line when technology spun out of control was, “Jane, stop this crazy thing!”

Jane, help us all.

Growing up, I had working-class practical plans: I learned to type; I spelled well enough to win spelling bees; I knew shorthand; I could wait tables; I could write. All those human skills that, in 2023, sometimes feel useless.

I make my living teaching writing. My students and their sweet parents want a sure thing, but nothing is sure now. Not the sciences. Not the humanities. Nothing.

My parents wanted a sure thing, too.

“You’re our investment,” my mother, a nurse, would say, meaning she expected me to pay off — which meant, I think, doing some good in this world.

Like Robert Frost, I play tennis. My parents gave me tennis lessons. Expensive. They sent me to prep school. Expensive. I play piano. Expensive. I can speak a language other than English, and, because I worked as a flight attendant — a Waitron in the sky — I have been to Turkey and Rome and the Greek Islands, where I felt connected to history through “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad,” books I read in graduate school with a professor who said I couldn’t truly understand those books unless I read them in the original Greek.

I cannot read anything in the original Greek.

Artificial Intelligence can play tennis and Beethoven. It can speak every language and recite any poem Robert Frost ever wrote.

AI can read anything in the original Greek.

To help poor graduate students like me understand books like “The Canterbury Tales,” our professor brought in puppets. “The Wife of Bath” was my favorite. Gap-toothed, deaf in one ear, she loved to insinuate herself into places she didn’t belong.

At Bread Loaf, I’d insinuated myself into a place I didn’t belong.

One night, a reporter came to interview us Waitrons. She took us to an inn that was once the set for “The Bob Newhart Show.” She bought our drinks and food on an expense account. We were maybe, in hindsight, a little bitter. Or arrogant. Or just jerks. To dish out meals to famous writers whose lives we longed for felt less fulfilling as the days passed. Waitrons were invisible and nameless until a famous writer dubbed us worthy of being seen and named.

That night we ate. We drank. We stole expensive wine from “The Bob Newhart Show” inn and stashed it in our backpacks. Later, we sat under the Vermont stars, drinking the wine straight from the bottles and dreaming of our futures as famous writers whose work would change the world.

Human arrogance. Robots lack that, at least.

Did you know ChatGPT stands for Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer? Pre-trained by whom? Transformed into what?

One of my students, majoring in the sciences, tried to declare a major in creative writing. Her adviser said, “Why? That’s useless.”

Recently I sat in a public space with a purple typewriter and a sign that said, “Free poems. Any topic.” It’s a little vulnerable to sit in a public space offering poems on demand, but I wanted to prove something, my own value maybe.

I wrote poems about a blind and deaf cockapoo, bees and sea monkeys and dust bunnies, best friends and sisters, toddlers with drum sets, and, of course, cats. As I clacked away, people sat across from me, no cell phones, just open, vulnerable humans sharing why they might want or need some words. There were tears. There was hugging. There was laughter.

I don’t think the poems I wrote were very good — they were flawed and messy, written on the fly like that — but no one seemed to mind.

“If it were to go, all would go — this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death,” E.B. White once wrote. He was talking about New York City, but maybe other things, too.

“Stop,” John Irving said as I mopped his lap. “Just stop.”

I did.

But I kept on writing, hoping one day it might matter some.

Let Yourself Go is a quarterly essay series by Lori Jakiela. Her latest book, “They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice: On Cancer, Love, and Living Even So,” will be published by Atticus Books this fall.

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