One day, not right away but eventually, the trend toward personal information devices – the future editions of the IPhone – will start to move inward. As technology improves it will become fashionable, and then de rigeur, to implant the various components directly within ourselves – including earpieces in the ears, speaker in the mouth, touch sensors in the fingertips and displays in the eyes. I know it seems weird now, but in several decades it will all be perfectly normal, like going from New York to Beijing in a matter of hours, strolling down the street while talking to someone half way around the world, and watching people walk on the moon.

I’m reminded of these changes to come when I plug in my laptop computer. We now take for granted wireless communication everywhere – cell networks, WiFi, and whatever comes next. But we still have to plug in for power, which continues to limit our information mobility. And it occurs to me that this will change.

In the future, the batteries that power the equivalent of your laptop or IPhone will be the food you eat. Your information technology will share your metabolism. This won’t be a burden because power requirements per unit of computation, storage and transmission will be a small fraction of they are now – just as those costs are now a small fraction of what they were several decades ago.

So the question comes up – will we merge our economy of food production and consumption with our economy of information technology? Will we start to build backup systems into ourselves to make sure the system doesn’t go down?

I mean, you wouldn’t want to lose valuable files because you couldn’t find a decent place to get a sandwich, would you?

Jiu Jitsu

The U.S. presidential campaign is turning into a Jiu Jitsu match, in which each side turns its opponent’s attacks back upon themselves. For example, in recent weeks the McCain campaign has been attempting to turn one of Obama’s own greatest strengths against him, by characterizing him as a “celebrity” – an interesting attempt to convert Obama’s very charisma into a liability.

A weakness of this strategy is that McCain supporters are not stupid. They may disagree with Obama’s proposed policies, but they know that he is not Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, and they know full well (even if they are loathe to admit it) that they are being talked down to by the McCain campaign.

And sure enough, the Obama camp devised a counter-Jiu Jitsu of its own. Realizing the weakness of the McCain campaign’s rhetoric – by promoting an unsupportable myth the McCain camp had exposed its own soft pink underbelly – Obama lay low and bided his time, allowing the McCain folks plenty of opportunities to repeat the comment ad nauseum, letting his opponents believe that they were scoring a victory each time they uttered the word “celebrity”.

Which set the stage perfectly for Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Rather than soaring rhetoric, instead of ringing pronouncements about The Audacity of Hope, Obama showed the nation his real strength – his ability to speak to specific issues, to clearly frame the differences between his positions and the positions of his opponent, and to use those differences to tear apart his opponent’s case on the merits. After all – for anybody who’s been paying attention – this is a skill Obama has been continually developing since his days running the Harvard Law Review two decades ago.

All of which ends up making the major recent talking point of the McCain campaign look rather silly. On the other hand, the McCain camp immediately followed with some new Jiu Jitsu of its own – it arranged for its candidate to select a woman as his running mate. And not just any woman! Governor Palin is adamantly against women’s reproductive rights and has no experience whatsoever with either national or international policy.

I just read the following comment about her, from a Republican delegate: “She hunts. She fishes. She is an environmentalist.” Trying to unravel that thought makes my head hurt – as though Madonna had actually said “McCain is like Hitler, because some of his best friends are Jews.”

Come to think of it, picking Palin is not as much a threat to Obama as it is a threat to women – the gender equivalent of appointing Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. If Hillary Clinton had made it to the White House – whether you agree with her policies or not – we would most likely have had a seasoned and capable chief executive, with a clear view of national and international policy. Her tenure in the Oval Office would have cleared a path for future female U.S. presidents.

But if, for whatever reason, McCain cannot serve out his term and Palin should become president, her complete lack of experience at the national or international level and her strong stand against women’s rights will ensure that it might be another century before either party will be able to rally women voters to support a woman for president.

Hmm. Maybe the McCain folks are better at this Jiu Jitsu stuff than I’d thought…

Girl movie, boy movie

Went all out and saw two movies in movie theatres today. First Mamma Mia (ie: the girl movie) and then Hell Boy II: The Golden Army (that would be the boy movie). I have to say that the girls won this round hands down.

Mama Mia is just about perfect. Yes it’s over the top, cranked up to eleven and more in your face than Robin Williams (if such a thing is possible). But it knows exactly what it wants to do, not a shot or even a moment is wasted, and absolutely all of it is in service of deepening the characters. There is not a single gag or line or visual that betrays or confuses the clear central line of the plot and its underlying motivations – and that’s a rather hard act to pull off in a major Hollywood feature film.

And Meryl Streep… Well, what can I say. I’m starting to think that this woman can do absolutely anything. She throws herself into the character of Donna Sheridan (a character that most actors would have played in a winking way) with utter and profound conviction – every bit as much conviction as she brought to Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada.

In this case she brings to compelling life a woman who has successfully managed to avoid any real decisions or purposeful life changes in the last twenty years. And therefore when Streep sings and dances her way through Dancing Queen like a crazy seventeen year old, you really believe this is a woman who can instantly channel the giddy teenager she used to be (“…young and sweet, only seventeen…”), without the transition seeming even slightly odd or awkward. Rather, the number works – her performance and the direction work in tandem here – as an anthem to the redemptive power of romance and ABBA songs. And it is this precise quality in her character that makes the surprise ending seem natural – even inevitable.

In contrast, the boy movie was a major letdown. Having seen the first Hellboy I assumed that I would be treated to another character oriented film, filled with surprising relationships and unique personalities. Instead, we get a massive watering down of Ron Perlman’s once ecstatically convincing portrayal of a fearsome demon from Hell ruled by his inner child, as played by Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen (with a hint of Cat Balou). It wasn’t Perlman’s performance that was at fault here – it was that the writing and direction didn’t give him enough to work with this time out. And that was just the beginning.

Seth McFarlane’s voice character for Krauss is far too broad to work in this context, sounding like an idea for a Monty Python sketch. Meanwhile the relationship between Hellboy and Liz starts nowhere and continues to go nowhere (doesn’t Guillermo del Toro know anything about the need for mystery and mutual discovery when portraying a romantic couple???). And Doug Jones’ character of Abe Sapien – essentially a broadly sketched comic sidekick – should not be in a relationship with a deeply serious tragic princess, since they inhabit mutually incompatible character universes.

But the worst thing is that every few minutes the film stops dead – and I mean deceased, buried, pushing up daisies – while the filmmakers insert yet another gratuitous computer graphic effects scene that has little or nothing to do with the story or characters, but rather proclaims: “Isn’t it cool how we managed to spend all that studio money!” And the effects didn’t always work – many of them took me right out of the world of the film. Effects are supposed to serve the story, not compete with it.

On the other hand, the stylized “storybook” myth at the film’s start (reminiscent of John Hubley’s magnificent opening animation for Watership Down) and the scene of Hellboy and Abe Sapien gradually getting falling-down drunk together while belting out Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You are worth the price of admission.

But that’s where things came full circle for me: The Barry Manilow sing-along was precisely the moment when Hellboy II found the courage to channel its inner Mamma Mia.

Four + three


What do these lines of verse:

      The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
      In a beautiful pea-green boat,
      They took some honey, and plenty of money,
      Wrapped up in a five pound note.

have in common with these:

      Oh, beautiful for spacious skies
      For amber waves of grain,
      For purple mountains’ majesty
      Above the fruited plains.

or with these:

      There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
      And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
      And when she gets there she knows if the stores are closed
      With a word she can get what she came for

or these:

      Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
      A tale of a fateful trip
      That started from this tropic port,
      Aboard this tiny Ship.

They all use the four+three meter: lines containing four beats alternate with lines containing three beats. Technically this is heptameter – a line with seven beats – also known as the “ballad line” (it shows up in a lot of ballads), with a short pause after the fourth beat to break up the line into two parts.

The wonderful thing about four+three meter is that it really has the same timing as four+four meter – so it’s easy to follow the rhythm – except that the eighth beat is a silent “stealth” beat, a place for you to catch your breath before going on to the next verse.

Contrast this with lyrics that are deliberately designed to be difficult to recite:

      I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
      I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
      I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
      From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical

That’s the opening verse of The Very Model of a Modern Major General, the great patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. It goes on like that too, for verse after merciless verse, the inexorable rhythm requiring the singer to soldier bravely onward without a pause for breath. This is high art indeed! To properly sing the part of the Major General (not just to muddle through it, but to really nail it) requires a combination of natural talent and many hours of serious training.

In contrast, Edward Lear, Katherine lee Bates, Robert Plant and Sherwood Schwartz (the respective authors of the first four examples above – wouldn’t you want to be invited to that dinner party?) were clearly taking the position, by writing in the four+three meter, that theirs was a populist art: The underlying message is that this is a song or poem for everyone, an invitation to please join in.

I happen to love the four+three meter, and I sometimes use it for composing verse just because it’s so darned fun. One of the wonderful things about it is that you can combine the music of any four+three song with the lyrics of any other. A perfect illustration is the following ingenious music/lyric mash-up, written in 1978 by Roger Clark and Dick Bright:

Stairway to Gilligan


Salad daze

The bell rang for dinner quite promptly at eight
And all the guests knew they were not to be late
The first dish was light, just a bit aromatic
Not quite jejune but nothing emphatic
But then arrived something that rallied the group
A steaming hot serving of fresh fennel soup
In a purple tureen, ornamented and glazed
Elated and thrilled, the delighted guests gazed
Voluminous vapors ascended and mingled
Rapturous fragrances quivered and tingled
Circling thrice ’round the jovial hall
Sweetly caressing each cranny and wall

Next came the salad, in succulent shades
Of lilacs and teals and pink marmalades
Dishes were filled with things subtely scented
Not an aroma went unrepresented
Cumquats and cabbages, squashes, potatoes
Crabapple candies with turkish tomatoes
Candied yams, cantaloupes, canapéd beets
Peliculed peppers and pomerade sweets
Artichokes, celery, endive and leek
Oversized olives (both Spanish and Greek)
Rhubarbs and radishes, parsnips on plates
Blueberries, brussel sprouts, tamarind dates

      When the meal was done they sat stunned and inert
      And nobody had any room for dessert

A good deal (a parable)

He was having dinner with his parents. Someone in their family was thinking of buying a house, and his mom, who had offered to chip in to help with the down payment, was asking if he could chip in as well. He said yes, of course. Family is family, after all. But then he thought to ask: “Would I ever get the money back?”

“Well,” she said, “I could write up a guarantee, so you’d be sure get the money eventually.” It took him a moment to understand what she was really saying – that he would get his money back when his mother was dead. “Well,” he said, trying to think of something light to say, in spite of the darker turn the conversation had taken, “by then I’ll probably be rich, so I won’t need the money.”

Then he had an inspiration. “Mom, I’ll make you a deal: It could take me a really long time to get that rich. If you will do me the favor of giving me a few decades to make my fortune before you pass on, then I won’t ask for any money back.”

She laughed, and they both agreed that it was a good deal all around.

Playing to the house

Today I went with my brother to see David Byrne’s art-work Playing the Building, in which he wires up the old Battery Maritime Building in downtown Manhattan to an antique electric organ, so that visitors can create sounds throughout the cavernous space by playing notes on the keyboard.

David Byrne’s organ within its musical web

Of course I liked the idea – turning an entire building into a musical instrument – but the execution left me cold. It felt as though he didn’t mean it. The keys were hooked up to essentially random pitches, so you couldn’t really play anything creative or aesthetically communicative. I felt as though I were seeing the illusion of audience participation, without any belief on the part of David Byrne that a true collaboration with the audience is possible – or even desirable.

The idea of turning ambient architectural space into giant immersive musical instruments has been explored by others. One of my favourite practitioners of this wonderful and arcane art is the LEMUR group (League of Musical Urban Robots). Their work often involves placing robotically actuated instruments about a room, on walls and ceilings, so that concerts come at you from all directions in orchestrated robotic cocaphony.

Two remotely actuated LEMUR drums on the ceiling

These various experiments are intriguing, and yet it’s hard not to feel cheated. Neither Byrne’s work nor LEMUR’s truly empowers the observer/participant. All day today I could not shake the feeling, a kind of nagging memory in an obscure part of my brain, that I had once glimpsed the promised land: A living space that you yourself could play, a true participatory musical architecture. The very walls could come alive under your touch, and through music you would become one with the architectural space around you.

And then, all at once, I had it. A memory dating from my childhood, when I first saw Grumpy play the pipe organ in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. If you’ve ever seen this film you’ll know what I’m talking about. The pipe organ did not merely produce sounds. It came alive, its pipes dancing and singing under the control of Grumpy’s magical hands.

Grumpy’s pipe organ

I remembered that when I saw that, I wanted to become one with that pipe organ, that house, just the way Grumpy was. For me it was a vision of the way architecture is supposed to be – a living extension of your inner self, responsive to your touch, the very environment around you reflecting the beauty you feel within your soul.

Is that asking too much?

Second order species

Over brunch today I was discussing with my friends Kaelan and Judith the old science fiction concept of waking up to find that you might be the last person on earth – and the question of what to do should you find yourself in this awkward predicament. Do you go off in search of other potential survivors? Free all the animals trapped in the zoo? All of these seem like reasonable points of action.

But my thoughts immediately went to the problem of avoiding going mad. Somehow this seemed to be the largest problem. Over the course of the day, my mind kept going back to this point, and I tried to tease out why that had been my first reaction. And that got me thinking about what really goes on between people – not within us as individuals, but between us as social beings.

We humans are so deeply social in our emotional make-up that we often don’t even notice how powerful is our instinct to connect. If you put two or more people in a room together, we immediately start talking to each other. What do we talk about? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter – the important point is the talking. Yes, we tell ourselves that whatever we are discussing is quite important – the annoying new boss, why our candidate is going to win, who is sleeping with whom – but this is merely the tail wagging the dog. The truth is that we are talking to that other person primarily because we are driven by a powerful instinctive drive to start talking and to keep talking. Since this drive doesn’t make any rational sense (being an instinct), we come up with all sorts of excuses for why we are doing it.

And so it occurs to me that, just perhaps, the moment we start this conversation we begin to create another being in the room – another intelligent entity. This intelligent entity has drives and desires, likes and dislikes, personality quirks and a hunger to exist, to grow. It has no physical manifestation, but is rather a product of the strange alchemy that happens between two human brains that have begun to communicate. Yet it is real, and when it dies (if, say, we have a permanent falling-out with a friend) we keenly feel its loss.

And so be be alone – utterly alone, as in the scenario I discussed with Kaelan and Judith – would be to suffer a grievous wound, traumatic damage to something that is organically part of us. And I think that was the source of my first worry about going mad: It is not clear to me that, over the long run, a human personality could truly survive such a severe trauma, life without our little flock of relationships.

A more positive way to look at it is that these relationships, these sentient beings of mutual thought and connection which flit and dance between two people, are deserving of study as entities on their own. What are they like, this second order species? Do relationships seek out other relationships? Do they, in some sense, mate? We have all had the odd experience of liking two people individually but feeling uncomfortable toward their relationship – or the reverse. Is there any way to test this sense of a third entity in the room?

Arias with a twist

Tonight Sophie and I saw Arias with a Twist, and I can safely say that it was a highlight in a year of great New York theatre. The basic set-up is simple: Joey Arias is a legendary Drag performer and, in recent years, first rate interpreter of Billie Holliday songs. Basil Twist is perhaps the leading avant garde puppeteer working in New York – and one of the great figures in the world of non-figurative puppetry. For this show, the two joined forces.

The result was beautiful, sexy, grotesque, hysterically funny, surprising, bawdy and lyrical, and sometimes all of those things at the same moment. And for the first time I realized (I suppose it’s obvious in retrospect) the connection between Drag performance and puppetry. In both cases, reality is replaced by deliberate artifice. The result is simultaneously disturbing and endearing, bawdy and lyrical, with an odd mixture of apparently amateurish clowning and intricately executed professional precision.

Both forms enter the uncanny valley and work their magic by forcing the audience to feel at home there. The very discomfort we feel at knowing we are seeing something patently fake – in fact emphatically fake – creates a kind of charmed circle: The underlying weirdness of it all simply becomes a given, which frees both audience and performer.

And in this space where grotesquery is forgiven, embraced, even loved, artifice becomes a kind of nakedness, an admission of vulnerability. The audience recognizes this vulnerability, and this recognition creates a bond of trust which allows the performance to go deep, to take us to dangerous emotional places that we would normally hesitate to visit (there is a similar sort of head-fake at work in Judd Apatow comedies).

A familiar exemplar of this principle at work in puppetry is Kermit The Frog. He is patently unreal – a bag of green felt with immobile plastic eyes and an obviously faked voice. So when he appears to be insecure, sad, confused, filled with vague and wistful longings, our heart goes out with him. His unreality makes our empathy safe – we are not dealing with a realistic human being, who might turn on us and challenge our right to the intimacy of caring, but rather a creature of pure idea who exists only for receiving our empathy.

Similarly, Joey Arias is, quite obviously – under all that make-up – a large, powerful man who is far from young, the very opposite of the conventional feminine ideal. The very grotesqueness of the pretense, and the utter conviction he brings to it, lifts his Drag persona into a creature of pure idea. The person we see before us exists only to embody the concept that sheer determination and will power can overcome reality itself.

And that is why his renditions of Billie Holliday songs work so well. We recognize the tragedy, the longing, the heartbreak. In the case of Arias it is the character’s heartbreak at being a creature of existential tragedy: A desire to be the pure feminine ideal, to be loved as that ideal, from a singer who is trapped within the beefy, coarse, unfeminine person of a middle aged man.

The addition of Basil Twist’s wondrous and witty puppetry makes it all work even better. It feels as though Arias’ female character is summoning up these unreal visions through the sheer force of her formidable will. We are literally transported into her make-believe world of insane conviction, in a way that constantly reminds us that it is indeed a make-believe world – and this makes it safe for us to enter.

The show has been extended until December 31. If you are going to be in New York, are interested in the possibilities of theatre, and want to see an example of pure magic at work, I suggest you go on-line and get tickets.