Time shift

Flying from New York to Delhi is a surreal experience. The flight I took is 14 hours – direct – but of course there is the 10.5 hour time shift. So landing was just around a full day later from departure, by the sun.

The flight to the other side of the world puts your mind into a strange fugue state. I am writing this on a lovely Sunday morning in New Delhi, and yet it is still the evening before back in New York City. I know objectively that this post is following my sequential one-per-day habit of posting, but on some deep instinctive level, everything tells me that Saturday – yesterday here now – is something that didn’t really happen. Rather than being a full day in my life, it felt like a strange interstitial experience, somewhere in that place where we keep memories that hover in our recollection between reality and dream.

The sun is so bright here, and of course the people in the bustling city outside my hotel window are so insistently – and enjoyably – loud and pleasant. People are shouting directions in all mixes of Hindi and English, cars are honking, strange clanking noises emerge from the never-ending construction with such intensity, that it is hard to deny the reality of this time shift. I enter a bright, and somewhat strange world, ready to be – as James O’Brien might have put it – on the far side of the world.

And so it will be, until I return back to New York, when I will most likely have the equally magical and uncanny experience of receiving back that lost half day in my life, this loan of time that I have made – simply by moving across the planet – finally repaid.

First Prelude

I recently picked up my guitar again after a long time away. This has happened to me before – it’s a long-standing pattern for me. Usually I’ll pick up the guitar in response to some emotional crisis in my life. I’ll start playing intensely, go for lessons again, really work at it. Then the crisis will subside, or I just won’t seem to need to go to that place anymore, and eventually – it might take two years or five years – the guitar will recede from my life. Until the next time.

But this time the pattern is different. Nothing is wrong – I’m just drawn to the guitar, and I find myself playing at odd moments of the day or night, enjoying the sound of it, the feel of my fingers over the fretboard.

But one thing remains the same. As always, my way back in is the “First Prelude” by Heitor Villa Lobos. It was the first “classical” piece I ever learned, and it’s the one piece I never forget. My fingers just seem to find it automatically whenever I pick up a classical guitar, no matter how many years I’ve been away.

There is no other pleasure on earth quite like playing a piece that has seeped into your soul on some deep level, the one you can simply escape into, the one that has gotten you over your crises in times past. You know you can just show up at its door like an old friend in the middle of the night, and you know it will let you in, will put on a pot of tea, and stay up talking with you until you’re ok again. For me, the “First Prelude” is that friend.

Señor Villa Lobos, wherever your spirit may be in the universe, thank you.

Social Darwinism

Evolution is not an absolute – survival is always relative to an ecosystem. Which means that almost any idea you come up with can fail when dropped into an incompatible ecosystem – even if the same idea has been a wild success in a different ecosystem.

The idea I described yesterday for finding the best young minds and nurturing them along to success – an idea that is being used successfully in India right now – might simply not work in the U.S. There are so many differences between the two cultures.

For example, I noticed the last time I was in India (I’m actually flying over there again tomorrow, which is probably why I’m thinking about this) that people over there have a much more intense and idealistic view of democracy than we do here in the U.S. It’s not that there isn’t corruption – there is lots of corruption. It’s more that even local elections in India are approached with an air of fierce pride. From what I saw when I was there, they take the right to vote very seriously. I think many people in India would be astounded by the fact that so many people in the U.S. have the right to vote yet don’t bother going to the polls.

That’s just one example, among many, of a difference in the way the two cultures think about things. I wouldn’t be surprised at all, given those many differences, to find that the idea I described yesterday simply wouldn’t work over here.

Darwin pointed out that every genotype requires a viable phenotype. In plain english, that just means that every generation along an evolutionary path needs to survive – not just most generations. A mutation that kills off its population at some point is a dead end, no matter how wonderful would be its final outcome three generations later.

And in the case of creating and maintaining an incentive program to find and support the top one percent of kids, there may simply be no viable phenotype – no path for growth without a fatal weakness – along the many steps that would be required for such a program to take root and flourish.

I’m not saying that this is true. But I am saying that if you did want to create such a program here, it would be a good idea to think about ways of providing it with an immune system of some sort, some way – at each stage of its development – to defend itself from its enemies.

Enlightened self-interest

A colleague of mine, a university professor here in the U.S. who is originally from India, told me recently about a program he is involved with back in his native state in India. Throughout the state, which has a population of about 50 million, in every town and village the top one percent of kids are identified by academic achievement. These kids become eligible for a program in which the state government pays for their college education.

One thing you might note right away about this plan is that there will be a huge disparity between the top one percent in a major town and the top one percent in a poor rural village. In the latter, even the best and the brightest may be practically illiterate. If you were simply to put all the kids in the same classroom, the ones from the richer areas would vastly outperform their counterparts from the impoverished countryside.

And so the plan contains the following provisions: If you fail your first year of college under the plan, you get to take it over, and the government will continue to pay. If it takes you seven years to finish college under the plan, the government will still pay. Also, after you graduate, the government will reimburse itself by automatically deducting a certain percentage from whatever job you take, for a certain number of years. But here’s the kicker: If you don’t get a job after you graduate – for whatever reason – there is no penalty. None whatsoever. The government simply swallows the loss.

My colleague reports that the plan is quite successful. Not only are the top one percent of students thriving in the program, but a number of top students selected from impoverished and relatively illiterate regions are making it through college as well, gradually gaining the skills they need as they go – albeit more slowly than the students from more well-off backgrounds. And the great majority of the students who graduate go on to well paying jobs.

It’s clear what the state is doing here. This program is not being done as some sort of favor for these kids. This is an act of pure self-interest on the part of the state. Find the students with the best natural ability, structure things so that the debilitating effects of even the most enormous economic disparity can be overcome over time, and do it all in such a way that there is no risk to the student – ie: no reason not to enroll in the program.

What you end up with is a sieve to discover your very best natural talents, and to make sure that as many as possible of those talents will be directed toward improving the state’s economy. If you end up with a few bad eggs along the way, that’s an acceptable level of loss, given the return on investment to the state’s economy coming from those students who thrive under the program and become financially successful.

What struck me when I heard about this plan was that (1) it’s brilliant, and that (2) it would never be tolerated in the U.S. Why is that? Because it would make people uncomfortable – the idea that somebody might be getting something for nothing. The idea that you might pay for a student’s education on the basis of pure potential, and then not punish that student in any way if they do not succeed, would be anathema in our society.

And the irony is that the real beneficiary of such a program is not the student, but rather the state – ie: everybody else. A program such as this is an engine for success precisely because it aligns with the state’s own enlightened self-interest. Find potential engines of the economy, nurture them and help them to reach their full potential. Your state will become richer and more competitive within the global marketplace.

Lyric poetry

Many people seem to have a sort of love/hate relationship with poetry. People will recite even the most obscure song lyrics with an easy familiarity and almost a pride of ownership – as though those words were their own personal anthem, and the song’s authorship by somebody else merely a quirk of fate.

But if you quote from Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or Byron’s “Don Juan”, many people will just grow pale. Rather than an act of cultural inclusion, quoting poetry is often seen as a form of cultural exclusion.

I’m not sure I understand why this is. Is poetry really so fundamentally changed when you add a melody to it? Does verse set to music become magically transform from “high culture” to “low culture” – and only then become valid as a medium of emotional exchange and comfort between ordinary folk?

By common consensus all song writers belong to the people, but few poets can claim that distinction. Perhaps Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings and one or two others. There is a mysterious wall of perception between “song lyric” and “poetry”. And something there is that doesn’t love a wall… Can anybody shed any light here?

Uncharted regions

Isn’t it astonishing that our minds are capable of exploring an endless variety of hypothetical realities? Just as those alternate realities are not limited by the bounds of physics, neither are they limited by the bounds of any other constraint of plausibility, whether psychological, cultural or ethical.

Every time you pick up a novel, you are entering in a world that was created entirely within the mind of a fellow human being. That world can be vast – filled with nooks and crannies, minute details and cataclysmic events, never seen upon this or any other world.

When I was a teenager I read Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” series. On the level of discovered worlds, I found it far more compelling than Tolkien. Not only was Peake’s fantastical world insanely detailed, but those details differed from our own in telling ways. There were physical differences yes, but – more important – were the psychological differences.

The driving forces within the people of “Gormenghast” bear only a tangential relationship to those within the people we know. They are recognizable by analogy, but only in the way that, say, an American might recognize a dinner of boiled cricket to be food.

Tolkien, in contrast, is far more conventional – and therefore less exciting in my book. His hobbits and elves think very much the way we do. They may look different, but they are essentially us, in thinly veiled guise of chestnut brown and kelly green. Only Tom Bombadil is fundamentally different (unless you count Sauron as a character). Tellingly, Bombadil never made it into the film.

Not that this is a fair comparison. Tolkien was far more concerned with mythology than with psychology. Exploring uncharted regions in mythology can a lot less disturbing than uncharted regions in psychology. Which is probably why Middle Earth is a much more popular place than the Castle Gormenghast.


As it happens, I just saw the film “Milk” this afternoon. So when Sean Penn won the Academy Award and gave that lovely and inspirational acceptance speech, I was not at all surprised.

The friend I saw the film with knows Mickey Rourke, and says that Mickey had said that he would be happy were his friend Sean to win, and he knew that the feeling was recipricated. So it came as no surprise at all to me when Sean Penn paid special tribute to his friend and fellow actor.

I thought the this year’s show did a much better job than usual in helping the TV audience to understand what all those various awards are actually for – and what is actually done by the many kinds of people who help make a film possible.

As somebody who has long worked in computer graphics, I was heartened to see that Ed Catmull has finally been foiled in his decades-long campaign to render himself utterly invisible while being by far the most important force behind the emergence of computer generated films. No honor was ever greater deserved.

And I was very happy to see that the writers had the best lines. Tina Fey and Steve Martin, in their few minutes on-stage, practically stole the show (I particularly liked Martin’s beautifully subtle dig at Anne Heche). Although Philippe Petit’s wonderful antics topped even them, reminding us all – in case we ever needed reminding – that movies are very much a visual medium.


I read a review today in The New York Times on a new book by David Denby – the film critic of the New Yorker – decrying snarky humor. In honor of that book, I humbly submit the following blog post. Please don’t hate me.


On a whim, today I did a Google search of “Obama is the Antichrist”. Because this is America, I knew something juicy would show up. Sure enough, this double-quoted phrase returns 37,600 hits. That’s very respectible in anybody’s book. Many people would kill to get 37,600 hits for their name. And I think there is no doubt that the act of killing someone would increase anyone’s hit rate – an incentive for cold-blooded homicide if I’ve ever heard one.

When you follow the links, you find the expected assortment of nut-cases, most linking the ascendence of this particular Democratic candidate to the end of the Universe. The very idea of an “antichrist” presupposes that the Universe actually cares about our little planet and the strange two-legged creatures buzzing around on its surface. We are so full of ourselves, aren’t we?

Just to be fair, I then did a Google search on “McCain is the Antichrist”. Disappointingly, I got only 3200 hits. So it would seem that John McCain (assuming that is the McCain being referred to) is less than 1/10 as diabolical as Barack Obama. Imagine how disappointed McCain and his advisors must be, after all of the time and effort they put in last autumn to pierce the public consciousness.

And then I did one more search. OK, this is not fair, and I apologize in advance. I just had to do it. I mean, wouldn’t you? For completeness, I did a Google search on “Palen is the Antichrist.” Three lousy hits. And every one of them actually said “McCain/Palen is the Antichrist.”

That is just so unfair. She must be very disappointed.

Points of light

Last night we went to a concert of breathtaking intensity. Every moment was a revelation, and these successive revelations piled one atop the other, in seemingly endless cascades. At some point I looked around at the faces of others in the audience. There was rapture everywhere. I saw smiles of recognition and delight, and some tears that I believe were tears of joy. Some listened with heads bowed, others moved unconsciously to the music, lost in old memories rediscovered.

And I realized at that moment that many of these people were coming to this concert with their entire life in tow. Some were hearing songs that they had adopted as personal anthems more than forty years ago. You could see the resonance of lives telescoping in the faces of listeners, of past and present fusing and coming majestically together.

And in this moment of intensity I understood a strange thing about human existence. We are all so unique, so particular, so very much ourselves – each unlike any other. My feeling of seeing the entire world from my head, of being the narrator of an unfolding universe, is your feeling as well – only in your case you are the narrator.

And so all of human reality is experienced from the point of view of these separate hard, shiny points of light, each one compact and tensely coiled. Identity is not at all spread out or diffused among us. There is no “half-way identity” between you and me. Everything is all or nothing – seen either through my pair of eyes or through yours.

Together we work to create a consensual illusion of a common vantage point – that is part of the process of socialization. But it is an illusion. In our essence we are like the tiny nuclei of atoms or the stars in the heavens. The core of each essential self is concentrated within a tiny speck of locality, whilst the distance separating us is inconceivably large – a vast empty liminal space between incandescent points of living light.

The reason we value our greatest poets, like the one who brought so much comfort to so many last night, is for the way they help us to create the illusion that there is something other than empty space within the vastness between us. We listen to their voices, and we do not feel alone.


They were lost in conversation, the two of them
On the street as though it were just another day
I had not even seen her for five years
She looked the same, in that brief moment
Before I made myself look away

They might have seen me, or maybe not
It might make no difference at all
Or all the difference in the world
Five years of accumulated pain, and wondering
All resolved in a moment

I was happy for them – am happy for them –
For me the betrayal was always in the mystery
Why such anger? Why friendship so rejected?
Questions I have asked myself every single day
Because there was nobody else to ask

But today was the day of revelation
The first day when I know for certain
That the cobwebs that have covered my heart
Can at last be cleared away, to make room
For whatever may come next