Thinking outside of the box

We were meeting today with some researchers who look at ways to help older people avoid falling. Most of us are too young to fully appreciate what a serious danger falling is to anyone over eighty years old. It’s a double whammy: Your balance and muscles are not what they used to be, and also your bones are much more fragile. So not only is it harder to keep from falling, it’s also far more dangerous if you do.

These researchers were meeting with us because we have some cool new technologies in our lab that should be able to help in two ways: (i) making it feasible to provide computer-controlled devices that give people continuous feedback to help them keep their balance, and (ii) helping to train people, if they do start going over, how to fall in a way that’s least likely to break something.

At one point one of the researchers explained how difficult it is to train older people what to do, should they find themselves starting to fall. She explained: “The danger is that it’s all happening too fast, and they can’t react quickly enough.” We were all somewhat at a loss, realizing that the thing we were up against here was gravity itself. It’s hard to combat the forces of nature.

Then, all at once, I had an epiphany. Politely I cleared my throat, and when I had the attention of everyone I solemnly proclaimed: “Retirement colonies on the Moon.”

The room exploded in laughter, although afterward I could tell that some people were thinking about it.

But of course I didn’t really mean it – it was one of those things that pops into your head that you just know will get a good laugh. I mean, would you have had the will power to hold back a thought like that?

On a technical level the idea works: With only 1/6g of gravitational force pulling down on your body, you would indeed find it easier to remain upright. And if you did fall over, you’d have six times as long to figure out how to react properly. So yes, lives would be saved.

But of course, from the point of view of anyone over eighty, there is one large flaw in the plan that seriously diminishes its appeal.

Think about it: If your kids and grandkids don’t visit you now…

Have you ever found that

Have you ever found that you were out of sorts,
Feeling, with a particular keenness,
That sense of alienation, that sense
Of the space between you
And the human race?

And just at the moment when you thought
That all is empty
The phone rang, and sure enough
You heard the one voice
That you were hoping to hear.

And you both felt a giddy excitement
Because, it seems,
The feeling was quite

And no matter what you talked about
(and it doesn’t matter what you talked about)
The topic of conversation was really about
The way you both felt, at that moment
When the conversation began.

Have you ever found that?

Today I managed

Today I managed
To write one perfect haiku
(It wasn’t this one)

I could write some more
But none of them would capture
That sublime moment

When I felt the Muse,
Looking over my shoulder,
And words wrote themselves

I shall not tell you
What, in a moment of grace,
I was moved to write

But I will say this:
Sometimes love is just knowing
The right thing to say

Freud conquers space and time

It’s strange what lasts and what doesn’t. Today my friend Vivian and I went to Astroland at Coney Island, on its very last day of existence – ever. Astroland opened in 1962, with a flourish and a strong dose of forward-looking optimism. Its futuristic theme rode the high that the nation was feeling during those heady early years of the Space Age.

Over the years Astroland lost most of its lustre, and pretty much any sense of optimism or wonder. As often happens, its futuristic logo came to represent an opposite idea: A moment stuck in the past, caught in amber like Buck Roger’s 1936 Art Deco spaceship.

But the main attraction of Astroland today was not Astroland, but rather the Cyclone. To merely call the Cyclone a rollercoaster would be to demean it. It is, in a sense, the Ur-rollercoaster. Built in 1927, it quickly established itself as a work of genius – an amazing contraption of rattling wooden slats and impossible curves that was built for one purpose only: To create the ultimate fusion of fun and fear – a perfect product of the Freudian age.

To plunge down the Cyclone’s merciless 60 degree slope is to experience that moment of disaster, just before the speeding train goes over the trestle, just before your falling body strikes the ground, to witness your feral mind’s terrible knowledge that in a moment you will no longer exist – and then to walk away, laughing, face red, newly appreciative of just how wonderful is that next breath of air.

Here is an image from when the Cyclone was new. Since then it has remained unchanged, even as the world has changed around it:

After 35 years of wildly successful operation, the Cyclone was rebranded, made part of Astroland, and has remained so for an additional 46 years, until today – and only until today. Tomorrow – by the time you read this – Astroland will be no more, lost in that place where they keep Frontierland, Palisades Park and other fabled childhood places destined to fade from the collective memory of humankind.

But the Cyclone will live on.

Mere fantasies of the future like Astroland can fail, and be swept away by a real estate developer’s grasping hand. But such a fate will not befall the Cyclone, for the community realizes that it is a sacred thing. The Cyclone is no mere gimmick, no empty promise of the future, but a valuable instrument – a gift from long ago. Each time we ride it we are reminded, in a way we cannot ignore, of the preciousness of our lives.

Ray tracing

Earlier today a friend said, somewhat jokingly, that Sean Penn’s best performance was as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which got me thinking about Ray Walston, who played his history teacher, nemesis, and in an odd way his truest friend, Mr. Hand. When Ray Walston passed away in 2001 he had been most recently known for having starred as judge Henry Bone in the TV series Picket Fences. But when he passed away, some young colleagues of mine sent out a tribute email saying “Goodbye Mr. Hand”.

I was indignant, and was fully planning to send a rebuttal email. Now don’t get me wrong – Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a fine film, and the interplay between Spicoli and Mr. Hand was the best thing about it.

Well, except of course for a certain short scene involving Phoebe Cates, which was in a category all by itself. As some may recall, in about five brilliant seconds of screen time Ms. Cates managed to grab the collective American male libido by the short hairs, lift it high into the air, slam it effortlessly against the nearest wall, and leave it cowering and sobbing in abject wonder and gratitude. The American male libido was never again the same. I know mine wasn’t.

But I digress…

My issue was that if you were going to honor Ray Walston for greatness in something before Picket Fences, Mr. Hand was not the role to choose. I guess I was feeling protective of Mr. Walston, and resentful that these young whippersnappers were ignoring the true genius of the man, by ignoring the role that had originally catupulted him to television superstardom.

I speak of course of Martin the Martian, in My Favorite Martian. This show, which my brother and I slavishly watched in re-runs, was the perfect kid-friendly science fiction show – the TV equivalent of all those boxes of junk sci-fi paperbacks that my uncle Lou used to bring us, which we would avidly devour as soon as we got our hands on them. To a small kid, Martin was the fun and romance of all those stories brought to vivid life – an actual Martian who lived in the garage behind your house, with a real flying saucer and everything. Watching the show when I was little, I always found myself half expecting to see that flying saucer turn up in my parents garage. And Ray Walston was the living embodiment of those sublime expectations.

Full of righteous indignation, I mentioned to my mother that I planned to defend the honor or Ray Walston by sending out this corrective email. “Ray Walston?” she asked, a strange smile playing on her face. “You mean the guy who played the Devil in Damn Yankees in the 1950’s? I love him!”

And that’s when I realized that my younger colleagues’ Ray Walston, the man whom they had claimed was not Judge Bone but Mr. Hand, the man whom I had thought was actually my Ray Walston, was also just as much my Mom’s Ray Walston. For half a century he had been creating a succession of indelible characters, and at least four distinct generations of audiences had fallen in love with different personalities that the same man had brought to life, each generation believing that Ray Walson belonged to them alone, that they were the unique audience for his genius.

But of course his true genius was precisely this: That he could create such great romance, time after time, in a serial monogomy of fictional fantasies that stretched over fifty years. All at once I realized the majesty of the man’s achievement, and I was humbled.

I never sent the email.


Walking around Manhattan earlier this evening, watching people hanging out and enjoying a Friday night on the town, I was struck by a particular paradox of human existence: On the one hand we are all so completely connected with each other – we quite literally give meaning to each others’ existence. All of the people I saw out on the street were focused upon each other, watching each others’ facial expressions and body language, not just communicating but performing the act of being themselves – or the version of themselves that they were bringing to this particular social situation.

So yes, we are all deeply connected, that is clearly true, and yet the paradox is that this connection matters precisely because we are each so separate. Nobody can reach inside the mind of another. Outside of science fiction, there is no actual mind-reading. And if you think about it, the very fact that the fantasy of mind-reading is so prevalent in science fiction – given that the real thing does not in fact exist – suggests that we are deeply and emotionally engaged in this paradox of connection and separateness.

There is one person on this planet with whom I have regular extended conversations which can last for hours – we quite literally never run out of things to talk about. Movies, novels, songs, weddings we’ve been to, when and how relationships in our lives went wrong, which friends we can trust and which we cannot, or the best way to cook broccoli. It doesn’t seem to matter – whenever Sophie and I are together, our endless conversation continues, full of life, sometimes darting here and then there, but constantly moving, and always fascinating. And after all these years, this conversation we have is always thrilling to me, as we continually discover new topics to explore and old ones to revisit.

I find myself wondering whether it is the fact that we each start out trapped in our own minds that makes this connection so thrilling. Imagine, just for a moment, some alternate universe in which true mind-reading indeed existed. Sophie and I would have no need to explore the coastline of each other’s thoughts – and there would be no surprises. In such a world, the thrill of connection, at least as we now know it, would be gone. All of those hours and years of conversation would be as pointless as sitting in a room alone for years and talking to yourself.

I would argue that this is the glorious paradox which gives pleasure to our existence: Each of us, so very separate and unable to see directly inside the mind of another, must work to bridge that gulf – through conversation, art, poetry, even conflict. We need to struggle, to exert effort, to achieve that connection which makes life worth living.

And as soon as we make that effort, the moment we communicate to each other that our bond with them is worth struggling for, that is the moment when we create the very meaning that we are seeking.

Dr. Evil

“All children, except one, grow up … and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.” – James M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Nobody thinks of themselves as evil. Except of course for Dr. Evil – the fiendishly brilliant and touchingly insecure nemesis of that man of international mystery, Austin Powers. But you could even argue that Dr. Evil doesn’t want to be “Evil” (he said, making quote marks in the air with his hands), but rather to be loved. And the only way he knows how to be loved is to have a brand name, an identity, a tag.

And who’s to say that his is a bad strategy? When you think back now on the Austin Powers films, who does your heart go out to? Surely not the eponymous hero. His desire to be loved is too diguised, too baroque. But Dr. Evil is pure naked emotional need. He will have our approval and our respect, even if he needs to destroy the entire planet to get it! Who amongst us does not recognize this need? To put it more plainly: Who amongst us has never been two and a half years old?

The strange (and, I admit, secretly entertaining) thing about the current presidential race is how both sides – not the candidates, who are never permitted to say this outright, but their supporters – categorize their opponents as evil. Or, should I say, Evil.

It is so incomprehensible to those on the right that anyone could embrace the philosophy espoused by the left – and vice versa – that each side looks at the other with gaping astonishment, wondering why on earth these people are spending all that effort and money to betray their country.

If you are a McCain supporter, you scratch your head and wonder whether people really want to lose the war in Iraq, just when victory is in our grasp, why people are so eager to turn their backs on the Alaska oil reserves, or whether liberal mothers actually want to murder their unborn children.

If you are an Obama supporter, you look at what the Republicans are saying, and you find yourself struck speechless. Secretly you wonder if they can actually mean such things, or whether it’s all some sort of elaborate act.

Obviously neither side is evil, and neither side hates America. We’re talking here about millions of people, Republicans and Democrats alike, who love their children, work for a living, care for elderly parents, contribute to community funds, and wish for tomorrow to dawn upon a better world.

And yet, here they are – both sides – glaring at each other, teeth bared, wondering how these others, these Pod People, managed to steal the souls of half the populace, and replace them with an evil thing of uncertain menace.

Seeing this spectacle, I am left wondering whether this is just the nature of human existence. Perhaps the middle is unstable. Perhaps human nature demands that we choose sides, that the reasonable citizen who tries to comprehend both narratives, like the character of Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit, will be torn apart by the angry clawing hands of the adversarial hordes on either side.

And in the end nobody will understand what happened here, whatever the outcome, except for Dr. Evil and Peter Pan.


I was talking with a new acquaintance this evening who told me that she used to work on the production team of a certain New York film director who is well known for his neurotic tendencies. She described how the producer and key members of the team were out-of-control sufferers from Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder. Working for them was mainly about making sure the food was lined up properly on the tray, that the salt was placed under the bed at night to ensure good luck, or – for one particular person – that any building was exited by exactly the same route through which it had been entered.

She told me that she had found the experience to be quite unpleasant, since these people did not seem to have the bandwidth to treat their assistants with decency – all of their energy was directed toward their particular OCD rituals.

My acquaintance wondered aloud whether this ability to exercise unbridled power was actually detrimental to the people who had it. Perhaps, she said, they would not have become so Obsessive/Compulsive if they had not been given free reign to indulge their OCD. She also wondered how people who have so little room for kindness could place themselves into such a vulnerable position as to rely on people who would eventually come to detest them. Then she said something curious, which kind of turned it around: “Always be nice to the waitress, because she has the power.”

This was a strangely resonant conversation for me because just last night I had finally seen Martin Scorcese’s superb film The Aviator – a 2004 biopic about the strange and tragic life of Howard Hughes. The film makes the case that Hughes’ power – the driving force that propelled him to become the world’s wealthiest man – was another side of the same OCD that ultimately destroyed him. It was his drive to perfection, a compulsive drive that ultimately consumed him and tore apart his psyche, which allowed him to apply his genius so effectively in so many areas.

By the way, if you ever rent the DVD, there is a brilliant and completely unexpected moment at 01:37 which (in typically sublime Scorcese fashion) visually sums up and explains the entire tragic connection between Hughes’ genius and his ultimate doom. It’s a moment unlike any other in the film, and it is also the only moment when Scorcese explicitly allows us inside the mind of Howard Hughes, and lets us see just how difficult it must have been for him to move among the world of ordinary mortals.

After having watched Scorcese’s vision of how much internal struggle could be required for Howard Hughes – the wealthiest man in the world – simply to eat a meal or open a door – activities most of us take for granted – I was struck by my acquaintance’s “waitress” comment. What is this power that the waitress supposedly has (even if she doesn’t want it)?

Trying to understand, I made the connection that a kind of learned helplessness can be a signifier of status in our society, and perhaps in all societies. We could eat far more cheaply (and often better) at home, and yet we go through the ritual of paying rather high prices to have strangers cook for us and serve us food. In a way, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, the restaurant experience plays out a fantasy of upper-class entitlement: The high price we are charged pays for the rental of make-believe servants. While we are sitting at that table, we are in temporary metaphorical possession of fellow human beings. Within that proscribed space, these people exist to serve us.

So now I wonder, could this potentially be bad for us, this learned helplessness in restaurants and other places – if we allow ourselves to rely upon being served? Could we become slaves to a need to be waited upon – Eloi tended to by unwitting Morlocks – to the extent that we give up our ability act for ourselves?

I don’t think there is anything wrong with the kind of play-acting that we do when we go to restaurants. This is just a train of thought, probably brought on by a random downer of a conversation right after having watched The Aviator. But maybe it’s a good idea, every once in a while, to cook a meal at home.

Truth or “truth”

I have been interviewed on TV, as have a number of people I know, and when you’ve been through that experience you realize something very odd: No matter what you say, the story usually comes out the way the folks who interviewed you already wanted it to – before they’d ever talked to you. In other words, they were only interviewing to find a sound bite in support of the story they were already planning to tell. That’s just the way things work.

And here’s the odd thing about it: I don’t think there is any attempt to deceive. Rather, I think what we are seeing is a symptom of the fact that the very structure of mass media is based upon self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t get people to watch news by telling them things that they know to be wrong. Even if the things they know to be wrong are actually right.

Mainstream newspapers, magazines and television networks can only sustain a relationship with millions of citizens by speaking to the conventional truths that culturally bind those citizens together – even if those “truths” are falsehoods. And as Bill Maher discovered in 2001, you cannot even say something that is obviously true, if people are not ready to hear that truth.

I was reminded of this recently when I was describing to a friend something I was told years ago by my brother, who does cutting-edge research in computational DNA analysis. OK, bear with me here…

Everybody knows that there are various races in the U.S., right? Let’s see … there are caucasians, asians, africans, etc., and subgroups within those, like Latinos, Swedes, Chinese, and so forth. Everything you hear in the news reinforces the categorization of people by “race”. People even get into strange quasi-religious discussions about these things, such as this one: “Since Barack Obama’s father was actually born in Kenya, Obama wasn’t descended from slaves. So is it proper to call him an African American?” After a while this might all start to sound like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Yet there’s a glimmer of understanding hidden under the feet of those dancing angels. People having such discussions seem to understand, on a subliminal level, that the fundamental issue on the table is not biology or genetics – but rather cultural heritage. “African American” is often used as a shorthand reference for: “A group of people whose forebears were enslaved by another group of people, which caused a big mess that we are all still working out.” Which is why the label of “African American” on someone with Obama’s particular cultural background can sound slightly odd.

Consider this: The poor and undereducated children of Irish or German immigrants used to be seen as distinct racial types in this country. But now, some generations later, their descendents are no longer seen in racial terms – they are simply educated and sometimes affluent Americans whose forebears were Irish or German immigrants. Many younger Americans today have no awareness that Irish or German Americans were ever thought of in “racial” terms – an evolution that would have seemed amazing to the Americans of five generations ago. Whatever their false beliefs about “race”, people do sometimes understand on a deeper level that the real issue is culture and its clashes, not biology.

Which gets back to what my brother told me all those years ago. He was relating a scientific fact that is well understood by people who work in his field, but that never gets reported in the popular media. It goes like this: Choose two men at random from Sweden. They will probably both be tall, have blonde hair, fair skin, and various other “ethnically identifiable” features. Now pick a man at random in Kenya. He will of course look quite different from the first two men.

But here’s the interesting part: Look at the three billion or so base pairs of the DNA sequence within each of these three men, and ask the following two questions:

  1. How many base pairs are different between the first two men?
  2. How many base pairs are different between the first man and the third man, due to systematic differences between men in Sweden and men in Kenya?

It turns out that the first number (DNA differences between individual men in Sweden) is twelve times as large as the second number (systematic DNA differences between men in Sweden and men in Kenya).

In other words, for almost any practical purpose, what we call “race” is a myth, in the sense that genetic differences between you and any other individual in your own ethnic group completely dwarf any systematic difference between you and a person from another ethnic group.

And this is not so mysterious when you trace back the history of our species (this has actually been done, by tracking the rate of random mutation in the sequence of the male Y chromosome, which is not subject to sexual recombination). Some sixty thousand years ago there was a “pinch” in human population – down to maybe a few hundred individuals in Africa. About forty five thousand years ago the first humans made it to asia.

Since then there just hasn’t been much time for the species to diversify much – only a few thousand generations. Most of the diversity that can now be seen in genetic markers – what we sometimes refer to as “race” – is associated with highly superficial characteristics that mainly correlate with adaptations to weather, such as the loss of skin melanin in groups that migrated away from tropical climes (which we now associate with “white” people), or eye folds to protect against cold weather (which we now associate with “asian” people).

All of which basically means that talk about “racial differences” – so confidently bandied about in all of our civic discussions – is based on a myth. The substantial differences between us are cultural. And if we wish to deal with those cultural differences effectively, it might be useful for people to know this.

But you’re not going to see any of this in a newspaper or on TV, because, sadly, this is a case where the truth clashes with the “truth”.

Would you do it again?

Many of us have seen Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town, in which a girl, now deceased, is given the option to repeat any one day of her life. Of course the “gotcha” is that the experience of reliving an ordinary day proves to be emotionally unbearable. From her rather unusual perspective, each moment of that day – which seems so banal to everyone else living it – is filled with overwhelming pathos.

Looking back on particularly wonderful moments in my life, days that I have ended up remembering for years afterward, I don’t think I generally realized how extraordinary those moments were while they were happening. Sometimes a quiet conversation, a simple moment of connection, has, over time, become one of my most cherished memories. This can be particularly true in cases where I later ended up losing my connection with that person.

We are used to experiencing treasured works of art more than once. We might hear a favourite song hundreds of times and never grow tired of it. We can experience some books or films over and over again, and they only grow better each time (I don’t believe I could ever grow tired of certain films, including Casablanca and Annie Hall, and I see something new and surprising every time I watch them).

Today I saw several of my favourite sculptures at the Metropolitan Musum of Art, and I felt a complete thrill at the sight, even though I have seen each of those same sculptures many times before. And I remember having felt that same thrill, that same feeling of my heart leaping up at the beauty of these sculptures, when I saw them years ago. This particular feeling is something that always seems to connect me with who I have been at different times in my life.

But perhaps Thorton Wilder was right. Perhaps reality itself is too precious, too intense for such reenactments. An important conversation, a meal that you’ve shared, that first quiet chat with somebody who has become precious in your life – that one afternoon you spent wandering around an old church in France, just talking, with a cherished and now lost friend from India. Even if we could somehow go back and experience such things again, should we?

If you’ve spent a perfect day, would you do it again?