Archive for January, 2009

Democracy

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill, 1947

I was talking with a friend today about the tragedy of countries where a benevolent monarch or dictator – someone good and kind and truly caring of the people – is succeeded by some corrupt idiot who causes untold suffering. I found myself conjecturing that in such situations one of the benefits of family succession from parent to child is that a monarch’s own child is more likely to remain true to the ideals of the original ruler. This might tend to help maintain stability and decent rule for a few generations. But of course – as history consistently shows – sooner or later the wrong descendent ascends to the throne, and then the situation quickly goes to hell.

And so I found myself thinking about Churchill’s famous dictum – something he said, by the way, after he had been voted out of power, and before he had been voted back in again. Our nation has just been through a terrible time – a disastrous war, an erosion of civil liberties, natural disaster met by government incompetence, lack of federal oversight leading to financial meltdown, the list goes on and on.

And yet when push came to shove, we still had the power to throw the bums out – to give somebody else a chance to try another way, for better or worse. This remains our greatest strength, and the greatest legacy bequeathed by the founders of this nation.

With all of the problems we face, it is worth taking at least a moment to give thanks that we have managed to hold on to a system of government that empowers its citizens to give themselves another chance.

Mr. Rogers

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

When I was a child Mr. Rogers – the host of the wonderful kid’s TV show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” – was the coolest guy in the world.

I remember, when I was just out of college, I had a huge crush on a cute girl named Cara. One day, during one of our many long walks together (which led to nothing, because my crush went only one way), she told me that when she was a little girl she not only watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood every day, but she really believed that Mr. Rogers was her boyfriend. I confess a certain schadenfreude in the knowledge that as Cara grew up she would realize that her crush went only went one way. 😉

The really wonderful thing about Fred Rogers is that he really was exactly the way he seemed on TV. He would talk to grown-ups with just the same tone of earnest and serious respect that he used when talking to the young viewers of his show. I remember once seeing him on a talk show (I think it was with David Letterman, but I’m not sure now) and he was exactly the same with this guy in the other chair, while talking in a very learned way about such serious issues as child education, as he had been all those years when talking about King Friday and his puppet friends. Personally, I found this to be incredibly heartening.

My friend Paul used to live in Pittsburgh, back when Fred Rogers still lived in his house just off the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. One day Paul was getting into an elevator with his son Thomas, who was seven years old at the time. The door opened and Fred Rogers walked in, and then it was the three of them.

Paul realized that he had only a limited amount of time – until the elevator doors opened again – to impress his young son with the fact that they were in an elevator with Mr. Rogers. So Paul turned to Mr. Rogers and said, in as casual a voice as he could muster “Nice day, isn’t it?”

According to Paul, Fred Rogers immediately assessed the situation, realized what was going on, and intuited what was being asked of him. Turning to Paul and his young son, he replied “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.” Then the elevator door opened, and he was gone.

Whereupon Thomas looked up at his dad, eyes wide open with astonishment, and said “Wow, you’re friends with Mr. Rogers?”

That is just so cool.

Somebody is watching

Friday, January 9th, 2009

I was talking with some friends this evening about Google Earth, and we were swapping stories about places around the planet we had “visited”. There is a great temptation to look for the most remote corners of the earth – the city furthest north, the most obscure island, or the most tenacious outpost of civilization in the midst of a vast desert wasteland.

At one point somebody talked about zooming in on the specific street of somebody you know – and I found myself thinking how odd it is that somebody might be out there in celestial cyberspace looking down on me at this very moment. And then I had an even odder thought.

Suppose that every time somebody who is flying around on Google Earth decides to zoom in on where you happen to be, your cellphone would buzz. You would become aware, in a physical way, that somebody is watching. And wouldn’t it be cool if you could then look at your cell phone and see who it is. For all we know, somebody might be writing an application to do this even as we speak.

So be careful – the next time you look in on me on Google Earth, I just might give you a call.

A fellow traveller

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Today I met a fellow traveller – someone who “makes art with math”, as my friend Athomas once put it. I was visiting Microsoft with a group of fellow university folks, and met this guy Frank, who is a Microsoft developer. He started showing me the stuff he’d been working on, like writing a computer program to allow kids to explore the stars in the Universe, and I showed him some of the stuff that I’ve been working on.

I could tell almost the exact moment when eveyone else in the room realized that the two of us had drifted away from the general conversation into our own space, the point when we both started to feel free to use words, phrases and concepts with each other that we know not to use when talking to others.

What’s interesting is that neither of us – or people like us – consider ourselves to be mathematicians, but math is essential to our art. We reluctantly acknowledge that we are artists, but don’t think of ourselves as part of what most people would think of as the “Art world”. We are procedural artists, who like to make things of aesthetic beauty using techniques that arise out of concepts of intellectual beauty. In a way we are fellow travellers, who recognize each other immediately and with a sense of relief, a sense of recognition of somebody else who understands why this is exciting, and why we go about creating things the way that we do.

As we said goodbye, after taking a joyful guided tour of each others’ work, we jokingly agreed that it was nice, at last, to meet somebody else who was normal. In this case, of course, “normal” was a winking code word for something very simple and emphatic, something that everyone experiences at various points in their life: “I recognize you – you are like me.”

An uplifting experience

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

I’m typing this while taking a cross-country flight. Three thousand miles in one straight shot.

These periodica plane flights are strange experiences, not really like anything else. They start out (at least in this country) with the bizarre police-state stress test that has now become standard operating procedure. I don’t know anybody who actually believes that this whole taking off shoes and removing belts and laptops thing is more than theatre. Anybody who might actually be interested in causing us harm would have figured out by now how to do it without shoes, belts and water bottles.

Ridiculous as this pageant may be, humor is not an option. If you are foolish enough to say something that could be construed as funny, the rules say that they are supposed to send two muscular individuals in uniforms to put you in handcuffs and an orange jump suit and take you away for rendering.

Perhaps the government is doing this as a kind of stealth public service – a new kind of path to enlightenment. You see, by now we have all learned how to find within ourselves a state of zen-like calm in the face of this whole xray/security show, some inner space of deep stillness within which we can meditate and become uplifted, while removing footwear.

I wonder, now that we are exiting the Bush era, whether they are going to cut back on this Orange Alert performance art and focus on actual threats from terrorists – like the alarming number of commercial shipping containers that slip into our country each day without proper examination.

So far I get the feeling that the incoming government is less invested in figuring out clever ways to make sure we stay scared enough to follow orders unquestioningly.

Or at least I’ll continue to believe that until somebody in the Obama administration warns its critics that people should watch what they say. Remember that one? Just one of so many fond memories of the outgoing administration.

But I digress..

Once you manage to get past the government sponsored wierdness, flight really isn’t that bad. In a way the physical strangeness of it – being strapped into a little seat in a glorified tin can for six hours – is positive. I find (assuming I’ve remembered to bring little snacks and have filled my trusty bottle of water – after passing security, needless to say), that I tune out of everything around me while in flight.

Personally I find that there is something wonderful about having an entire six hours where I can make things on the computer without even the possibility of being on the internet. It’s sort of a mini-vacation from cyberspace.

There’s nothing really like it. Except, of course, for the occasional conversation with a gorgeous TV actress in the next seat…

Bialy

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

BROOKLYN – It was the equivalent of finding a perfect old matzoh pudding or an unexpected marzipan hidden away in your aunt Esther’s attic.

Relatives of Dr. Harold Carowitz found an extremely rare 1937 Bialy Type 57S “Atlantic Avenue” — a Holy Grail for bagel collectors — as they were going through his belongings after his death.

The dusty roll, untouched since 1960, didn’t look like much in the cold storage in back of the Carowitz kosher bakery in Teaneck, near Newark in northern New Jersey.

But only 17 were ever made, and when it’s cleaned up and auctioned in the Paris bakery on Mott Street next month, experts believe it will fetch at least 3 million dollars, and possibly much more.

Bialys once represented the height of baking achievement. The onion-topped nosh was so ahead of its time it could hold up to 130 calories per bite, when most other bagels topped out about 50 calories.

This particular bialy is even more valuable because it was originally owned by Earl Howinsky, a prominent kother foods enthusiast and owner of dry cleaning establishments, and because its original onion topping is intact, so it can be restored without relying on store-bought ingredients.

“It has all the finest attributes any connoisseur collector could ever seek, in one of the ultimate deli breads from the golden era of the 1930s,” said James Nylofsky, head of the bagel department at the Paris international kosher bakery on Mott Street, which will auction the prized roll Feb. 7.

Nylofsky and a small number of bialy enthusiasts knew of Carowitz’s proudest possession, but not the eight relatives who inherited Carowitz’s bakery.

The deceased, who died at age 89, was described by relatives as an eccentric hoarder who never threw anything out. He also left behind a rare rye bread kaiser roll, which was sold, and a sesame seed challah loaf that was scrapped because it was in such poor condition.

The Bialy marque is famed for its taste and chewy texture and was a frequent baking contest winner in the 1920s and 1930s. The 57S Atlantic Avenue was one of the most successful bialys, each one made by hand with unique details.

The company founded in 1909 by Ettore Bialystok collapsed in the 1940s after a long string of baking contest victories.

The rights to the legendary Bialy name were purchased in 1998 by Entenmann’s, which has built the Bialy Vey iz mir, one of the world’s tastiest and easiest to slice bagel foods.

(With apologies to Gregory Katz)

Let the right one in

Monday, January 5th, 2009

Last night we went to see the wonderful Swedish independent film “Let the Right One In”. I don’t know how to talk about this film properly to anyone who has not yet seen it, so….

(1) If you haven’t seen this film, please stop reading right now, go out immediately and watch it, and then feel free to proceed on to the rest of this post.

(2) If you have already seen the film, by all means keep reading.

 


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OK, I assume that if you’ve gotten this far you’ve seen the film, and that I won’t be spoiling it for you.

What struck me about this film is that it has the form of one tale and the content of a completely different one. On the surface it’s a tender coming-of-age romance, the story of a tentative adolescent relationship growing, like a delicate rose-petal, in the midst of a vampire movie. The sort of sweet and delicate romance between twelve year olds that we’ve seen before in “My Life as a Dog”, “A Little Romance” and similar films.

But if you really think about what you’ve seen, it’s not that at all. In fact it’s nothing like that. What’s actually going on is that an inhuman monster – powerful, ancient and bloodthirsty – is in need of a new human slave, its previous slave having reached the end of his useful lifespan. This monster sets about seducing a confused young boy, playing on the boy’s loneliness, nascent sexuality and innocent need for connection, into becoming its next slave. He should be good for another fifty years or so – then the monster will get another one.

This is not a new concept in vampire stories. “The Hunger” showed a similar master/slave dynamic between the two vampires, and of course this was also the defining relationship between Dracula and Renfield.

What’s intriguing about “Let the Right One In” is that this is all shown entirely from the point of view of the innocent twelve year old boy who is being drawn in by the monster to a life of slavery. We the audience find ourselves idealizing the monster just as he does – we are taken through the boy’s process of falling in love – even when (as it must) the monster reveals its true horrifying nature.

Objectively we are given all of the information we need to understand what is really happening here. We are shown, in painful detail, the tragic fate of the monster’s previous servant, and we are shown the monster’s complete lack of compunction about killing one innocent victim after another.

And yet at the end, when the boy has walked away from everyone he loves to enter into a lifetime of servitude to a ruthless and bloodthirsty vampire, the audience feels as though it has reached the happy ending of a romance. This in spite of the fact that the penultimate scene contains the single most bloodthirsty depiction of horror and atrocity against children that many of us will ever see on-screen. The film is so effective in controlling our point of view that by the time it sees these children brutally murdered, the audience is actually rooting for their death.

The film plays various tricks to keep us inside the boy’s head. For example, all of the adults around him are portrayed as ridiculous and/or self-absorbed fools. There is not a single adult he can turn to help counter the illusory reality that the monster is weaving around him.

And of course the title of the film is a brilliant reversal. Because this is a vampire film, we assume that the title is referring to the need to invite in only the right vampire – since a vampire cannot enter your home without being invited. But in fact it’s the other way around – the vampire has clearly been searching a long time for the right servant to replace the one it is about to discard. In the end, we see that it is the boy – merely the latest in a series of human servants the vampire will keep around for as long as they are useful – who is being let in.

It’s amazing what you can do when you know how to play around with genre expectations.

The Numostic cycle

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

When you look at Sontag’s progression, when describing a writer’s development, of nut → moron → stylist → critic (ie: passionate impetus → spewing forth → aesthetic shaping → deeper thought and purpose), it becomes clear that a mature writer will not experience a simple progression so much as a cycle:



As one becomes more clear in one’s thoughts and purpose, internal passions will change and evolve to reflect this. For example, an author might have started writing in response to the pain of a failed love affair, but the things she writes will open doors to new passions long after that love affair has receded to a distant – and even somewhat nostalgic – memory.

But the intellectual doors that writing can open, both in the writer’s mind and in her interactions with the world around her, will fire new passions, new questions and enthusiasms. And this is especially true of the mature writer, who has reached Sontag’s “critic” stage. Because such a writer is tackling real issues, she will find herself in a place that is rich with new doorways and passages, new questions to ponder and new nuts to crack.

The exhilaration of this process of endless enrichment that is one of the greatest rewards of writing.

Numostic theory

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

What fascinates me about Sontag’s theory of the writer as nut/moron/stylist/critic is that it really is a theory of how creativity works in general: Which aesthetic/expressive “muscles” need to be developed, and in what order. I love that she starts out with the “nut”. For any artist to be sufficiently motivated to reach others, there needs to be some initial governing passion. What I especially like about Sontag’s way of describing this is her intimation that this initial passion, while necessary, need not remain – a different nut can be swapped in, as the artist develops through the stylist and eventually to the critic stage: What first got you into writing, or painting, or dance, or composing music, might not be what keeps you there.

Just from this observation alone we can start to see ways of distinguishing between the arcs of careers in different corners of the arts. For example, there are very few Rock and Roll song writers who can create as relevant and passionate a song at age forty or fifty as they could when they were twenty three. The particular nut, or obsédé, that pulls you into rock and roll are tied up with youthful obsessions – sex, alienation, new love, rebellion, rejection of the status quo, together with an ability to see the strange world of adult life with the freshness of a newcomer.

People who in their teens discover a talent for expressing the emotions around such things can skyrocket quite quickly to stardom. But by the time they reach their late twenties, many of these things are no longer relevant to them. A writer of prose can more readily trade in a youthful nut for a different one, but that isn’t so easy to do in rock and roll – the audience for this genre isn’t very focused on issues of child rearing, career change or the onset of mid-life crisis.

More tomorrow.

Four writers

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

The journals of Susan Sontag have just been published. Here is one journal entry by late Susan Sontag. This was written when she was all of twenty eight years old:

The writer must be four people:

1) the nut, the obsédé

2) the moron

3) the stylist

4) the critic

1) supplies the material

2) lets it come out

3) is taste

4) is intelligence

a great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1) and 2); they’re most important.

The more I think about Sontag’s NMSC (numostic?) model of writing, the more sense it makes. In fact I would say that the fundamental principles she outlines here apply to many forms of creative expression. Tomorrow I’m going to expand on this theme.