Archive for May, 2009

Storytelling

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

I went to see a storytelling show this evening. Each storyteller gets ten minutes to go up on stage and tell a story from their own life. They’re not allowed to look at notes. There were six storytellers, which made for lots of variety. Four of the stories were complete failures – for various reasons. One was rather fun, but a bit of a mess. And one was just sublime. For me the entire event turned into a lesson on what makes for good storytelling.

The first thing I learned was that you can’t announce to the audience what it is supposed to feel. The first storyteller made this mistake, and you could just feel the air going out of the room. If you tell people who the good/bad guys are, or who they are supposed to sympathize with, you’d better be doing it ironically. Otherwise the general response will be “Who are you to tell me what to feel? Why aren’t you showing me?”

Another thing I learned is that self-promotion is a total disaster. One of the storytellers was rather blatantly using the occasion to promote her career and her other “real” show. I think much of the audience was simply puzzled that anybody would have the audacity to get up on stage just to be patronizing and self-serving.

Wisely, they saved the best storyteller for last. You could tell from the first breath that you were in the hands of a master – someone who knew how to play an audience like a fine violin. His key rhetorical device was to create a deliberate difference between what he told you, as the narrative voice, and what he was really telling you, as the story’s author. Gradually the audience came to understand that this supremely reasonable man standing before them was an extremely unreliable narrator, just loaded with hidden agenda.

Gradually the difference widened between what the man was saying and what the audience realized was really going on in his story. Every time this gap grew larger, the tension increased, until we were all on the edge of our seats, letting out little explosions of nervous laughter along the way, as the story built to its outrageous climax.

It was quite a beautiful thing to behold. The audience knew it was being manipulated, but it didn’t care. We were all three years old again, watching somebody lift a water balloon higher and higher in the air, knowing that sooner or later it was going to drop. Everybody was holding their breath, waiting to see how high up this particular water balloon would go before the inevitable plunge and awesomely messy splash.

Finally came the delirious climax, and people were practically falling out of their seats with laughter. The valuable lesson I learned is that people are perfectly happy to be manipulated – in fact they are expecting it. But you have to do it properly – through a true revelation of the contradictions of character – or they’ll never forgive you.

Up and down

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

I have often found that in times of personal stress, when there is something very sad or emotionally difficult in my life, I throw myself into work, and in those times I achieve spurts of enormous productivity. But I generally can’t sustain the pace. The constant weight of what is happening outside the work continues to pull on me, and eventually the fun to be had from escaping into the work starts to diminish.

In contrast, there are times when I’m feeling ecstatic. A relationship might be working out, or I’ve heard good news about somebody I love. In these times I am filled with energy. Ironically, I often deal with this excess energy in the same way – creatively. I throw myself into my work, charging up whatever hill happens to be nearest. In this case, the energy can continue to flow through me and into the work for much longer periods of time.

I find it strange that I deal with Thanatos and Eros in such similar ways. They are quite opposite feelings, and yet my psychic struggle to seek higher ground operates in similar ways under both circumstances. Yet, I wonder, is there a fundamental difference between the fruits of these very different energies?

For example, only I know the chronological back story behind the many little Java applets on my NYU home page. I made some of them in times of great sadness, and others during the slightly manic good times. I am not entirely certain that even I would be able to tell which is which, although I could find out in a moment, just by checking the date when each was created.

I wonder whether a person who did not know me would be able to tell the difference.

Funny, he doesn’t look Vulcan

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Saw the new “Star Trek” film yesterday. Those of you who have seen it know it’s a delightful movie – a real rip roaring ride. The new film also contains a huge number of brilliantly clever thematic shout outs to the original series, none of which get in the way of the story.

The film contains so many knowing homages to the original, ranging from extremely subtle (the older Spock making a winking dig at the absurd conventions of parallel universe stories) to laugh out loud overt, such as the particular way that Scotty ends up saving the day in five seconds of insanely inspired engineering – one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

But I think my favorite inside reference was the casting of Ben Cross, of all people, to play the Jewish patriarch. Yes, I know, he’s supposed to be a Vulcan, but anybody who remembers the dynamic between Mark Lenard and Leonard Nimoy in the original series knows exactly what Roddenberry was up to back in 1966. The back story here is clearly about the complexities of love between a devout Jew and a woman not of the faith – shades of “The Jazz Singer”.

Who better to take over for Mark Lenard than the man who iconically played a proud Jew who married a non-Jewish woman and then, with her by his side, took on the whole world? Watching Cross channel Sarek, I could almost hear the theme song of “Chariots of Fire” blend into Al Jolson singing “Kol Nidre”.

Which sets up one of the best of the film’s many surprising plot twists. In a lovely departure from the original series, this dynamic is continued into the next generation, in the romantic heart of Spock himself.

The P word

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Today I was passing TKTS, the place on Broadway where they sell half price same-day tickets. As usual, the line for musicals stretched around the block, while the line to see straight plays was pretty much empty.

Out of curiosity I looked at the electronic board where they post what performances are available for half priced tix. Out of the dozen or so shows listed, three of them were marked with the letter “P”. A helpful note at the bottom of the board explained that “P indicates shows that are not musicals”.

It took a moment for the significance of this statement to register in my brain. Gradually I realized that they were trying not to use the “P” word itself, presumably because its very utterance might scare off the valuable tourists who had come to the city to spend their money for an evening of dancing ogres or singing cats or whatever.

For a moment I was offended. And then I realized the logic. Imagine the poor unsuspecting tourist, hoping for an evening of mindless revivals of big-hair bands from the eighties, or winsome cartoon mermaids come to life, who accidentally wanders into a theatre only to find, um, well, theatre.

Seeing “Waiting for Godot” or “Exit the King” or “Death of a Salesman” could totally screw with this hapless tourist’s brain. Unwanted ideas and cultural connections might start to be made, as long unused synapses inadvertently begin to fire.

Once you’ve been exposed to this kind of stuff – tasted the poison, so to speak – you can’t really go back again. The next evening you turn on the TV to settle in for a cozy night of “American Idol” or “Desperate Housewives”, and suddenly it all just seems like mindless crap.

You find yourself avoiding your television. You begin to lurk in sections of bookstores you wouldn’t have been caught dead in a week earlier. You pick up a collection of stories by John O’Hara or a Saul Bellow novel. You start to work your way through “Gravity’s Rainbow”. Old friends start to avoid you, a vague look of fear in their uncomprehending eyes.

Now that I understand the logic of avoiding the dread “P” word, I think we should extend this concept. We can employ the letter “A” to safely denote pictures that aren’t secretly trying to sell you either a car or clothing, and the letter “L” for books that cannot be read within three sittings on the toilet.

The letter “C” would warn you if you are about to pick up any book with a publication date earlier than the date stamped on the milk carton in your refrigerator. And of course we must not forget the “T” word, warning that the customer might actually be required to – well, you know.

Jazz talk

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Today I read an interview with Christopher Guest, who was talking about how he makes all of those delightful improvised films like “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show”. He explained that the key is to work with people who understand how to improvise. In a Christopher Guest film, there is no rehearsal. The actors first read the plot outline and character sketches, which Mr. Guest and Eugene Levy have prepared beforehand. Then they just start filming, right out of the gate. In the interview, he likened the process to a Jazz ensemble. When you play with a band long enough, you intuitively pick up on the rhythm. You know what chords and riffs to reach for, and when to go for the solo.

Coincidentally, I had my own little jazz moment a few days ago. I was scheduled to give a talk at a small conference, and I didn’t want to give the same old talk, so I thought I’d try to shake things up a bit. Sitting in the back seat of a car on my way to the conference, I started pulling images from the internet that went with the general theme of what I wanted to talk about. When I had gathered enough images, I arranged them in what seemed like a nice order.

The whole process took maybe twenty minutes. The car got to the conference just as my talk was scheduled to start. I got up on stage and started speaking, with a slideshow of those newly found images as my visuals.

It turned out to be one of my more successful presentations. Afterward people seemed to think I had worked really hard to polish my talk. In fact, I suspect that it was lack of polish in the preparation that made it all work. I was actually forced to think while I was up there on stage, and I ended up making connections in a fresh way, rather than just repeating variations on things I’d already said at some other conference.

After reading the interview with Christopher Guest, I now wonder whether it might be a fun to try putting together this kind of “Jazz talk” as a group activity. Give people a general theme, and, say, twenty minutes to pull some images off the web and put them in some sort of order. Then each presenter needs to get up and give a talk, using those images as their visuals.

Better yet, switch it around: Have one person assemble the images, and a different person give the talk. The general hope is that the presenter will be surprised into saying something new, something even they hadn’t thought of before, as they find themselves talking their way through this novel visual landscape.

I suppose each presenter should get a few minutes to look over the sequence of images beforehand, so they can build a general story in their head before they get up to talk. We’d need to play around with it a bit, to find the sweet spot.

Anyway, it’s worth a try.

Local restaurant

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

I was having dinner with family earlier this evening, when suddenly I got a great idea for a blog post. Surreptitiously, as I often do these days, I pulled some business card or other from my wallet, and wrote down a key phrase on the back. The phrase, I see now, was “Local restaurants”. I was quite pleased with myself – the night was still young, and I had already settled upon a topic for today’s blog post.

When I checked later at home, the phrase was staring at me, just as I had written it, but I had no idea what it meant. Yes, I had indeed written the words “Local restaurant”, and there was little doubt that we had eaten at a local restaurant. After all, they are all local restaurants, aren’t they? I mean, if it weren’t a local restaurant, then it wouldn’t be, um, here, would it?

Not to put too fine a point on it.

I have gradually come to terms with all those other little business card backs with the little phrases scrawled on them, each one a two or three word hint that undoubtedly seemed to be a brilliant nugget for a blog post when I first wrote it down – and that now means nothing at all to me. “Frog judge”, “School lunch”, “Apple friends!!!” (I am faithfully transcribing those exclamation points). It’s like I’m visiting some foreign country, where they speak a different language. The language of Ken’s own incomprehensible ideas for blog posts. I hear the natives are quite friendly.

Speaking of which, it was indeed a local restaurant – the one where I had dinner with my family this evening. And it was quite nice. If I remember any more about that, I’ll let you know.

Gone but not gone

Friday, May 15th, 2009

I was taking my usual walking route from home to lab this morning when I unexpectedly found myself thinking about a friend who died quite a few years ago. I can’t be sure, but I think the memory was provoked by two confluent circumstances: First, a stranger passed by me on the street who bore a passing resemblance to my old friend.

Second, as it happened, at that very moment I was just walking past the restaurant where my friend had explained to me, years ago, the regime of chemo- and hormonal therapy that he was undergoing in an attempt to arrest his spreading cancer. I remember that he had recounted this ordeal to me calmly, with no rancor. It was simply what was happening, and he was observing it all with a kind of intellectual grace.

How strange it is that each of us has all of these people in our heads. Some of these people are now passed on, yet they are still vividly alive to us. We know a thing or two about what they would say in a particular situation that is happening now – long after they are gone from this earth – or the kind of joke they would toss off, the particular way they would smile.

I am glad to have these fine people inside me, and to know I share them with others whose lives they also touched. In this way we are – each of us – never really gone. Our essence merely becomes disbursed into the minds of those who knew us, and those people are changed by this infusion. One day they may pass those little infusions of individual essence on to others.

Perhaps a hundred years from now somebody – someone I will never meet – will gesture in a certain way, or tell a joke with a particular spin, or laugh with just an exact kind of sardonic humor. And that will be a little bit of me, still echoing through time in the collective living memory.

Ruins

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Different cultures seem to have wildly varying attitudes about the proper way to treat historical ruins. In Germany the government is busily rebuilding old buildings to their original glory. Not really surprising, considering how much of that nation’s historical architecture was reduced to rubble during a certain large war.

In marked contrast, I have learned that the English have an abhorrence for putting back up anything that has fallen down. They consider such acts to be a kind of sacrilege, a violation against history. If you ever find yourself in York, you can walk through the ruins of was once the extensive castle, built in 1069, by William the Conqueror, where today nothing remains but vague outlines of what were once magnificent buildings, and the occasional crumbling stone wall.

As far as the English are concerned, this state of affairs is just fine. To bring such buildings back would not occur to them. They would think such a project to be not so much architectural restoration as a kind of gross indecency, a displacement of the true historical reality by a sort of Disney-esque ersatz fantasy.

There is a seeming contradiction in this, for in England it has long been a favorite pasttime of the wealthy to erect “follies” – elaborate ruins consisting of crumbling old walls, pillars of ancient greek temples, the remains of an ancient Egyptian pyramid or obelisk – all completely and utterly fake.


Painting of a typical English “folly”

 

But after a little thought this makes perfect sense. To the English, the resurrection of a long-gone past falls firmly into the category of amusing fantasy. Indeed, there is a good reason these constructions are called “follies”. In a sense, the very artificiality of such projects, their deliberate absurdity, serves as a reminder that the past can never be recaptured.

Seen in this context, the refusal of the British to rebuild the walls of William the Conqueror’s castle, or any other artifacts of history, is a gesture of true respect.

Vim and vigor

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Craig said in his comment on yesterday’s post that our discussion about the word “vim” had made him think of the film director “Vim Venders”, and he noted his surprise when, weirdly enough, the name of that august artiste showed up on this blog several days later.

When I first read Craig’s comment, I thought to myself “yes, that is quite a coincidence”. And suddenly I realized that my “Stealth ads” post was probably the result of my own subliminal word association from our earlier discussion.

Now I wonder how many of my posts – indeed how many things one ends up saying and doing in the course of a day – are just word associations tumbling forward. Perhaps we make decisions in life – even large decisions – based on random bits of half-remembered verbiage from conversations left over from earlier in the day or week.

We each think of ourselves as rational beings, and yet the human mind is probably more like a loosely connected soup of tendencies, a mental amoeba, floating through its little sea of immediate possibilities, extending its thousand tentative pseudopods of thought and action. When one of those pseudopods comes upon a tasty morsel, the entire organism will drift that way, seeking with renewed vigor the gradient that may lead to higher concentrations of mental nourishment.

It is not easy to see this happening, for the process generally goes on beneath our level of awareness. We find ourselves making decisions, and we rationalize those decisions, spinning complex and plausible stories for ourselves and for each other to explain the zigzag path of our own mental focus over the course of a day.

And so the mind, that ultimate amoeba, drifts ever toward its nourishment.

Owning the fourth dimension

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

I was at a conference today in which speakers were asked to combine topics of art and science. I was surprised by the number of speakers who focused on visualizing things in the fourth dimension, and the loving obsessiveness with which each would describe their work.

I was even more surprised to find, during the Q&A, that a number of these artists are highly protective of the fourth dimension. When asked about the work of others, some of the speakers would become dismissive, or otherwise shrug off the work of their peers. I felt as though I were getting a glimpse not just into the fourth dimension, but into a kind of higher dimensional school playground – an exotic place that had been frozen for decades into adolescence, with its own arcane rivalries and turf wars.

Perhaps this is one of the ironies of the fourth dimension. One would think it contains more room for multiple explorers than our paltry three. It could be that higher dimensional exploration is so fraught with the danger of becoming lost, that those who dare enter into its mysteries find themselves compelled to cling, even more firmly, to their limitations.