Harlequin in a porkpie hat

Today I travelled from Seattle down to Santa Cruz to visit my friend Ned in his house in the woods. In the evening we went to see a one-man-band – a guy who creates an entire musical experience out of nothing but his voice, a banjo, a tambourine strapped to his left foot, and a base drum that he plays by stepping on a pedal with his right foot. Out of these limited tools this one musician proceeded to create an entire musical world.

But I was also struck by how he was dressed. It was all very precisely calibrated. Brown shoes, black socks, brown slacks, a dark grey vest over a light colored button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. And to top it all off a porkpie hat. Everything about him said that we were back in the great American depression of seventy years ago, the vast dustbowl, and here was an iterant musician travelling through our little midwestern town, a young man fallen on hard times, but armed with a banjo and a fistful of tunes and tall tales. I suddenly realized how rich a tradition this is – how precise the image, and how powerful.

The Harlequin figure – God’s holy fool and trickster – has been merged over time with Pierrot the sad lover to create the endearingly seductive troubadour, and we recognize and welcome him wherever he goes. He shows up as Nanki Poo in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado playing his lute while singing “A wandering minstrel I — A thing of shreds and patches, Of ballads, songs and snatches…” Or as Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns, porkpie hat fixed firmly on his head as he strums his banjo and sings Yes sir, that’s my baby to win the girl’s heart. Or practically any role played by Danny Kaye or by Jack Lemmon early in his career. Or as Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon. Or as John Cussack in Say Anything, the harlequin outfit changed for a long coat, the lute/banjo replaced by a boombox held high over his head as he stands out in the rain to win the love of Ione Skye.

The one-two punch of Arthur Penn taking Warren Beatty from Mickey One to Bonnie and Clyde was all about exploring this character – the fast-talking joker in the porkpie hat as sympathetic antihero. We know he’s a loser, we don’t believe his patter for a moment, but we love him all the same, because we understand that beneath the fast talk is a sweet boy-man who is simply in need of love.

What’s fascinating to me about this character is the way he distills the archetype of the sensitive dreamer as romantic hero – the non-alpha male who invariably wins our hearts. Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow channels him, every Judd Apatow film is built around him, and Joss Whedon’s delightful new web-movie Dr. Horrible even dares to turn the evil arch-villain into the sensitive harlequin/peirrot figure, a complete reversal of genre roles which depends entirely for its success upon our automatic acceptance of this archetype.

I wrote recently about Heath Ledger’s deeply powerful and disturbing turn as The Joker. It is now clear to me that in this performance Ledger was playing this psychotic monster as depression-era troubadour – fast-talking, oddly endearing, the adorable one-man-band, but in this case transformed into your ultimate nightmare. And it is partly because of this archetype – because we recognize the vulnerable harlequin/peirrot archetype and automatically turn our full attention and love toward him – that Ledger was able to steal the film away from its ostensible hero. In the battle for our affections the Dark Knight never had a chance, for his nemesis was a harlequin in a porkpie hat.

Daily meditations

Have you ever noticed that there is an odd sort of duality about a day? On the one hand, a day is quite short – sometimes it seems as though mere minutes have elapsed from the time you woke up in the morning until the evening when you find yourself getting ready for bed. And in moments like these, it can seem as though life itself is flitting by, the days blurring alarmingly together, one into the other.

On the other hand, so much can happen in a day. We have all seen that vast changes can occur in a moment, and individual encounters and experiences can take place that alter the course of your life. Taken minute by minute, the course of a day is an incredibly long and rich event.

Of course this is because we are talking about the same object seen from different points of view: Introspection tends to lead to Proustian discovery, and to look into one’s own experience of life is to uncover vast undiscovered uncharted spaces in even the smallest room. As Walt Whitman said “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

I have a cousin who meditates for an hour at the start of each day, as a spiritual practice. I think this helps him to realize the power of each moment that goes by, the importance of paying attention to each drawn breath, and to remain mindful not to take the moment of that breath for granted.

Keeping this blog helps me to do that. Perhaps it is a newfangled form of meditation.

You never call…

Today I was talking to a group of people and I mentioned that my favorite melody was Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I then told them that when I was a child I used to love the fact that the great Harold Arlen (who composed the melody to Y.P. Harburg’s beautiful lyrics) was still listed in the Manhattan phone book under “Song Writers”. Presumably you could just call him up, should ever you need to hire someone to write you a song.

I never did call his number when I was a child, although I was tempted. Simply knowing that the great man was just a phone call away dazzled my young mind. And now of course it is far too late – he has gone somewhere over the rainbow, way up high.

I asked the group of people I was talking to whether anybody else had ever looked up the number of a famous person in the phone book when they were a kid. Nobody admitted it (I suspect some of them were holding out on me) except for one woman who said that when she was a child she had looked up Janet Jackson’s phone number, and sure enough there it had been, right there in the phone book. She said that she never actually called Janet up, but it was just great to know that she could, if she ever ireally needed to.

Has anybody else ever looked up the number of a famous person in the phone book and actually found it? And have you ever been tempted to call them up?

One thought, and then another

I guess I’m ready to start circling around to all of the issues that are raised by the loss of Randy. We are so used to dealing with very unimportant things, and telling ourselves that they are important – an argument we had, a concert we missed, some movie that disappointed us. Perhaps on some level this is all a way to avoid thinking about the things that actually matter to us – this life we are mysteriously living, and its fragility.

I remember exactly the moment I first realized that I was not immortal. I don’t mean intellectually, I mean emotionally, deep down in my gut. My dad was driving somewhere his car, I was sitting on the passenger side, and we were talking. He was telling me about the women he had dated before he met my mom. He told me there was one girl, when he was doing his military service, at an army camp down south. He really liked her, and they went on a few dates. But when he was discharged he went back home to New York, and they lost the connection, and eventually they lost touch.

I was completely fascinated, the way you’re always fascinated to discover some part of a parent’s life that you had never known about. As I sat there in my dad’s car, quietly mulling over the story of the girl before my mom, I experienced two thoughts in succession, separated by about a minute.

The first thought was the realization of how impossibly miraculous it was that I had ever been born. If my dad hadn’t broken up with that gal, he wouldn’t have started dating my mom. And then I realized that my birth was dependent on so many things, an infinity of little details that all needed to line up just right for that particular sperm to find that particular egg. If things had gone even ever so slightly differently, whoever showed up in this world wouldn’t have been me, and I simply would not exist.

I had this thought all at once, in a rush of understanding, and for the first time it occurred to me that the probability of my existence – before the fact – wasn’t just low. It was essentially zero. Whereas the probability of my existence after the fact was the opposite: identically one.

And that is when I came to realize, for the first time, what an astonishing gift it is to be alive. Amongst all the myriad of possible humans, potential lives so numerous that the mind cannot conceive of a number so vast, only we fortunate few, a mere six billion or so, have actually made it onto this earth. Every human on the planet is a uniquely miraculous event – we have each beaten impossible odds to be here.

And then, about a minute later, came the second thought: That this astonishing gift of life is not a gift at all, but merely a loan. For one day my life will come to an end, as all lives must. Infinite gain balanced by infinite loss.

And that was the moment I truly understood, for the first time, the meaning of mortality. From that day until this, I have looked at each day differently. Knowing that I have only so many days altogether in this life, I now see every one of those days as something infinitely precious, a cup to be savored, for it can never be refilled.

Looking for hobbits

I showed some visiting scientists from India my favourite spot in our nation’s capital – Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. Every time I walk through it I am once again overwhelmed and sobered, and so were they. Amid all of the kitschy triumphalist monuments, this is such a powerful work of art. When I walk its length, as difficult and sad as the experience is, I find myself proud to be part of a nation that is capable of asking itself such deep and difficult questions, of having the courage to choose a memorial that conveys the tragedy of so many having died so young.

I flew from Washington D.C. to Seattle Washington, marvelling that I could travel more than three thousand miles and arrive at a place with the same name.

The first thing I did in Seattle today was go with some friends on a hike up Mount Si (as in “sigh”). It was beautiful – a deep and lush mountain forest with winding streams and the air filled with swirling mists. The further up the mountain we went, the more it felt like we were entering Middle Earth. I half expected to see some hobbits walk by.

After the completely constructed world of D.C., the feeling of being away from civilization was simply delightful. At various points we would just stop and look around us, taking it all in. From time to time we would pass other travellers, and I imagined them all revelling in their blissful escape into nature, far from the cares of daily life.

At one point we came upon a man wearing a “Rochester” tee shirt. My friend Andy, who had just flown in from Rochester New York, was excited to see a fellow towns-man, so we started up a conversation. It turned out the man was actually from Rochester, Minnesota. So there it was again – two places, one name.

A little further up the mountain we passed two young women. A dog was happily running about their feet, clearly enjoying the mountain air. I remember at that moment thinking how lovely it was that these two women were spending the day, like us, away from the cares of the world below.

Just then one of the women, unexpectedly, shouted aloud. She turned to her friend and said: “He says he dreamed about me last night.” Her friend looked at her and said “Ew! Awkward?” The first woman nodded and replied “Awkward!”

It took me a moment to figure out that the first woman was reading a text message off her cell phone. Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps not everybody up here on the mountain was looking for hobbits.

Another train of thought

Thanks to everyone who sent me a supportive note yesterday. That was so lovely of you! Today’s post is a lot more upbeat.

I’ve written about riding on trains here before, but I never tire of train rides, or thinking about why I like them. One of the cool things about riding trains is the chance for little random encounters. The tension level these days is much lower on a train than on an airplane, for obvious reasons, so people are generally more relaxed and open. Also, the seats are roomy, nobody is in a great hurry, and most people seem to be having a great time watching the scenery go by.

Besides, you can alway go to the café car and start a conversation with the person behind the counter. These people generally seem to be upbeat and happy to see you, like Tom Hanks’ character in Polar Express, only without that whole creepy animated mannequin thing.

On the AMTRAK express train down from New York to Washington D.C. I ordered something from the jovial, if rather spaced out, woman behind the counter in the café car.

She looked nice, so I smiled. She smiled back. I gave her my order, she went to get the order. A moment later she turned and came back and asked me what I’d ordered. So I gave her my order again.

She smiled apologetically and said “I guess I’m in my own world”.

Then I said (I don’t know why – it just popped out) “Better to be in your own world than in somebody else’s world.”

She liked that so much she repeated it out loud to herself – twice – while she was getting my order ready.

I told her, truthfully, “I made that up just now, for you.”

She got very excited about that. “Really, you did?” she asked, “You should copyright that!”

Then I didn’t know what to say. So I wished the nice woman a great weekend and left her a good tip.

What else was I to do?

Sad day

Randy Pausch passed away this morning, after a heroic battle with pancreatic cancer. Randy was a great man, with a beautiful soul, and he made the world a better place. He was also a really good friend of mine. I don’t have the heart to write anything else today.


A grad student told me today that he was really excited to hear about recent research in which scientists implanted about 100 tiny electrodes in a monkey’s brain, and used info obtained from reading those signals to get the monkey to control a robot arm. I’ve looked it up on the internet – you type monkey arm computer brain into Google and it comes right up – and I read through the recent article in The New York Times.

There were a lot of quotes from excited scientists saying how wonderful this research result is. The thing I couldn’t figure out – and they don’t really explain it in the article – is how they got the monkey’s informed consent, obviously something you’d need to do before sticking 100 electrodes in somebody’s brain and then making them have to learn to use a robotic arm if they want to feed themselves.

I’m trying to imagine that first meeting. Monkey walks in, is asked to sit down by a nice lab assistant. There’s probably a bowl of oranges on the table, so the monkey helps himself, looks around. Lots of fancy equipment, good furniture – real oak, not the cheap Ikea stuff some labs use – a row of bound volumes of Nature on the bookshelf. Clearly this is no fly by night lab. The monkey likes this; getting asked to be part of something important. Helps himself to another slice of orange.

A scientist enters the room, sits down, ignores the oranges, which is strange because they are really rather good. He explains to the monkey the basic idea, the set-up, what they hope to discover in this research about the workings of the brain.

The monkey is impressed. These guys clearly know their stuff. He also likes the fact that they are offering to compensate him for any days he’ll be away from the pack. Maybe he can get them to throw in a few dozen oranges. They hand him a pen, he signs.

The only issue I have with this scenario, as I play it over in my mind, is the language problem. I mean, how do they know the monkey really understands the details? English is not a language that monkeys generally speak, and I’m pretty sure (at least I’ve been told) that most neuroscientists do not have the skills or training to effectively communicate their ideas with an individual of another species. So how do the scientists know they have the monkey’s informed consent?

Then my mind flashes on the monkey’s point of view. One moment he was in a comfortable chair, having a serious chat with some earnest young scientists while polishing off a nice slice of orange, and the next thing he knows he’s strapped to a gurney.

The monkey’s mind races. He sees in a mirror that his head has been shaved. This will not go down well with the girlfriend. Even worse, a large circular piece has been carved out his skull, from which about a hundred wires are attached. Around now he’s thinking that this just can’t be good.

The monkey wracks his brain. How did he get here? He tries to reconstruct the sequence. Clearly there is some connection with the paper he signed. But he’d been given to understand that was some kind of loyalty oath. The humans are clearly a powerful species. They’ve got flying vehicles, wear artificial skins, and are rumored to have lethal nuclear weapons and deadly Jalepeño peppers. When a species like that invites you in to sign a loyalty oath, you don’t argue.

Sure they’d been jabbering on about something or other, but that was just human talk – nobody but another human can follow any of that. And now here he is, immobilized, strapped to a gurney with a big hole in his head, and about a hundred wires leading out of his skull to a big metal box. Holy Jesus!

The monkey tries to move his arm, and a robot arm starts to move instead. That’s when he gets it – they’ve got his brain controlling a robot. They’ve turned him into a frigging cyborg! This is most definitely not good. The next few days are not fun. His head hurts all the time, strange humans come in to prod and poke him unpleasantly, and the robot arm is a bitch to operate, although he’s getting the hang of it.

By the third day he’s using the arm to feed himself. Not bad for a duped conscript! He permits himself a virtual pat on the back. In any case, he’s getting good at moving the robot. Which is important, because he’s been practicing, and the very next time any human scientists come into range, he’s going use that hi-tech arm to throw his feces at them.

Wouldn’t you?


Ok, I know it’s not cool to dig too far back into the past of popular culture. After all, it’s not popular culture if it’s not up-to-date, right? But a conversation this evening prompted me to reopen the case of the 2004 film Sideways.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s four years old, ancient history by pop-culture standards. But nonetheless there are some important lessons to be learned from this film. Please don’t read on if you have not seen it. What follows would only ruin the film for you – and you really don’t want that, trust me.

I am assuming that if you are still reading this, you have already seen the film. So you know that Paul Giamatti plays a man who spends his life running away from relationships, and somehow convinces himself that what he actually cares about in life is “wine tasting”.

I’m going to cut to the chase here. The single most important moment of this film is the point where Giamatti’s character sneaks up to his mother’s bedroom and steals her well-hidden stash of cash. Presumably this establishes him as a morally worthless (and therefore uninteresting) character. I know that this moment disturbed quite a few people.

But wait! There is more here than meets the eye. Why does his mother keep cash where he can find it and steal it? Isn’t it because she wants him to steal the money from him? I would argue that, at its core, this film is actually painting a portrait of a mother/son relationship that is so extremely disfunctional that the mother actually wants her son to take moral shortcuts that betray his core principles – so that he will remain emotionally dependent upon her.

We eventually see, in the main character’s interaction with his ex-wife, that he has unwittingly sabotaged that relationship – because he cannot see his former spouse as an equal, but only as an all-powerful mother figure. By the end of the film, when our hero has found a good woman and is trying to begin again, we are not told whether he lives happily ever after, or falls back on his old self-destructive ways. My guess is that the prognosis is not good.

So what we have here, in the guise of a frothy comedy, is a deeply gothic psychological melodrama, coming at us sideways. I would be curious to know whether people agree with my analysis.


Shedding off one more layer of skin,
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within

– Bob Dylan, Jokerman (1983)

Yes, of course Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a wonderful movie, on many levels. The screenplay is excellent, the action and dark visual splendor true to both Bob Kane and Frank Miller, all the actors – Bale, Freeman, Eckhart, Caine, Oldman and Gyllenhaal – are pitch perfect. But, as you already know, I’m not writing this today to talk about that.

I’m writing to talk about Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Sally Field in Sybil, Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place, Glenda Jackson in Marat/Sade. I’m here to talk about the performance that claws at your soul, rips your heart out and hands it to you still warm and dripping, and all you can think to do is dumbly take it and say thank you. There are a few performances in your life that clearly mark a before and an after. You remember the night you saw them, vividly, in the same detailed slow-motion way you remember that car crash where you thought you were about to die.

That’s what Heath Ledger’s Joker is. I don’t understand how a performance like this is even possible. It is clearly far, far better than the truly excellent movie containing it. When you watch the other characters up there on the screen, you understand that you are watching a movie – you see the strings being pulled, each performer hitting his/her marks, turning on the right shade of emotion here, the proper reaction there. All very well done, effective, professional. And then, there’s The Joker.

Ledger is no merely turning in a great performance here. He is channeling something truly disturbing. When you watch his portrayal of The Joker, you are seeing a man so far into the other side of insanity, so comfortable and at ease with his utter rejection of anything that could possibly redeem him, that he is in some ways no longer even recognizably human. The audience immediately senses that he has earned his insanity – that he is the way he is because he has survived some level of suffering that is beyond imagining. We are never clearly told what that suffering was, but this man has obviously been through Hell and has come back with demon blood.

And that makes The Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, into a sort of evil holy man. He is utterly fearless, for mere physical pain is nothing compared with the demons you sense are already inside his head.

I was struck by the difference between this Joker and the portrayal by Jack Nicholson in the Tim Burton version. That performance was magnificent, but it wasn’t dangerous. Nicholson’s Joker was still recognizably human – he was driven by pride, and he cared what people thought of him. In a sense that was his limitation, and inevitably, his downfall – ultimately he was trying to impress Batman.

Ledger’s Joker has no such easily definable motivations – he literally has nothing to lose – and therefore he can go anywhere and do anything. Of course he causes immense suffering with every action he takes, yet he never acts out of anger or venality or revenge. This Joker is far beyond such prosaic motivations. He burns a swath of destruction through the world merely as a byproduct of his tormented inner conversation.

And there lies the power of this performance: In spite of the pain he causes all around him, it is the tantalizing glimpse you are given into this man’s own tortured soul, the unspeakable suffering that you sense lies behind his mask of jaunty insoucience, which will haunt you and will stay with you forever.