Archive for June, 2009

Pain is temporary

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Yesterday I saw a wonderful talk by my good friend Wave who works at Pixar. He was describing their creative and production process, and how everyone at the company is committed to making each film something that they will all be proud of in the years to come. Clearly the process is working!

I learned a lot from the talk, but my favorite moment (apparently the favorite moment of many in the audience) was this choice quote from Pixar character designer Jason Deamer:

“Pain is temporary. Suck is forever.”

In addition to being incredibly funny, this is just about the perfect motivational statement, and it might very well become my new Mantra. I tried to do a Google search today on this phrase, and came up empty. But I did learn that there is a song by Don Diablo called Pain is temporary. Pride is forever. I confess I had not even heard of Don Diablo, so I watched the video of this song, which is clearly popular (over 256000 hits on YouTube). The video showed that the man is very talented, so I went to his Wikipedia page, and that stopped me up short, because it seemed to be unintentionally hilarious. I mean really laugh out loud unintentionally hilarious, filled with the sort of over-the-top shameless self-promotion you might see in a comic character created by Ben Stiller or Sacha Baron Cohen.

Then I checked out the video of his his breakout hit Blow, and suddenly I saw the humor, the deliberate absurdity, behind the apparently deadly serious pose. Which is when I realized that his entire Wikipedia page is a construct. It’s not exactly a piece of shameless self-promotion – rather it is a sketch of a made-up character. Don Diablo (whose real name is Don Pepijn Schipper) is creating a fictional persona named Don Diablo, and is placing just enough hints in his portrayal of that character to invite us in on the joke.

Diablo’s clearly self-scripted Wikipedia entry is an example of postmodern advertising. What is being advertised is not the character, but rather the producer behind the character. He wants us to understand that his real talent is as a producer, a creator of images, and that his acting, singing, songwriting, musical production and post-production, etc., are all merely aspects of this work as a producer. The description is intentionally ridiculous because Diablo the producer is sending up Diablo the character.

So it all comes full circle – Jason Deamer and Don Diablo are both, in their different ways, character sketch artists, creating concepts for what are, in the end, highly sophisticated cartoon versions of reality. Whether it’s a love-sick futuristic robot who listens to old Jerry Herman songs, a little gray rat who makes the world’s greatest ratatouille, or a white Dutch rapper voted Holland’s best dressed man of the year whose web page reports that he does all his musical production in the nude, the goal here is the pointed send-up, the artfully exaggerated illusion that holds up a mirror to society and its absurdities.

And in each case the illusion requires that every detail be placed carefully, no matter how much work is required, so as not to ruin the effect. Which is important, because, like the man says: Pain is temporary, suck is forever.

Stonewall in the Park

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Yesterday Greenwich Village was transformed into one large joyful parade, and it was a delight to see the sheer exhuberance and joie de vivre of thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers. Strange how an event that was once so sad could be transformed, forty years later, into an occasion for celebration.

Some eighty blocks to the north, we spent yesterday evening at a different sort of traditional New York celebration – watching Shakespeare in the Park – “Twelfth Night” in fact, with Audra Mcdonald as Olivia (amazingly good) and Anne Hathaway as Viola (even better). The moment when Audra plants a big joyful, lusty kiss on Anne’s lips seemed to be a happy shout out to my thousands of friends and neighbors celebrating down in the Village.

Although of course one must acknowledge that some things have changed in four hundred years. In Mr. Shakespeare’s time, it would have been two men kissing.

Z to A

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

People have told me that I remember things, A to Z, that most people don’t remember. I know odd things like obscure songs from long before I was born, who wrote them and why, as well as the minor characters in B movies and who played them.

It’s not that I try to remember these things. It’s more that there seems to be something appealing to my mind about the obscure pop cultural oddity – the strange inside jokes about Eisenhower’s family in an old Ethyl Merman film, the quick aside to the audience by Groucho Marx about the latest Eugene O’Neill play, or any reference to performances by the once huge and now pretty much forgotten instrumental star Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians (he also invented the blender that carries his name).

Something about the detritus of times gone by, the very ephemerality of these things, must somehow be beautiful to my psyche, because my psyche can’t seem to get enough.

But my memory is not really A to Z, it’s more Z to A. I do really well with the “long tail” – the stuff nobody else seems to remember – but I’m pretty much a disaster when it comes to the stuff everybody knows.

For example, it was many years before I knew what people were talking about when they referred to “Mickey D’s”. I somehow thought it was an oddball reference to Walt Disney’s animated mascot. Finally one day somebody explained to me that it’s a nickname for McDonalds – the ubiquitous fast food giant. Who knew? Well, apparently everybody but me.

Similarly, I never knew what people were talking about when they said they were going to IHOP. It sounded cool, like maybe some sort of Hopi Indian themed restaurant, and I thought it might be nice to try it out some day. Imagine my surprise when one day somebody clued me in that all those people were actually referring to the International House of Pancakes, another popular American restaurant chain. I had eaten there many times, but had simply never made the connection.

Perhaps one of my strangest misunderstandings was over “It’s All about the Benjamins” – the 2002 inner city action film. I completely got, from the ads, that it was about tough young black dudes trying to make it in an unforgiving world. But in my mind the title conjured up an image of a family – the Benjamins – and I somehow thought that at heart this was a family film. As in: “We may badass inner city black dudes with guns, but in the end it’s family that counts – just keepin’ it real.”

Turns out that the “Benjamin” in the title (originally from a 1996 song turned into a megahit by Puff Daddy in 1998) refers to the image of Benjamin Franklin on $100 bills – a cynical reference to making money any way you can. Boy was I off base.

I still think it would have been interesting to make the other movie – the one I thought it was. All those tough young black guys in the hood, puttin’ down their semiautomatic weapons long enough to give mom and dad a hug.

But what do I know?

Y R U …

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

(with apologies to William Steig)

U C I M O K 2 U
Y R U N N M E?

4 I M 1, N U R 1
N 1 N 1 R 2, U C

U R A Q T 2 I C
I 1 2 B D 1 4 U

R U D 1 4 U? O G
U N U R W!

:-)

X people

Friday, June 26th, 2009

There is an intriguing contradiction in comic book culture between extreme iconoclasm and extreme universality. Take something like the X Men. These folks are of course unlike you and me. We don’t actually have friends or relatives who can read minds, teleport things, change shape at will or grow metallic claws – unless the people we know are seriously good at keeping secrets. And the X Men don’t just have super powers – they generally have particularly zany and over-the-top super powers.

And that’s sort of the point. These people are mutants, misunderstood, mistrusted, dangerous in spite of themselves. The whole situation is one step from being out of control, as though any moment everything could just blow out and turn into a Sam Raimi movie (I mean the good kind, not the ones he just makes for the money).

The details of a fantasy like X Men are nutty, but the underlying feeling is deliberately familiar. The barely disguised subtext of such a tale is the experience of being a teenager – lost, misunderstood, on the verge of raging out of control, abounding in odd and embarassing physical and mental changes, seemingly a new one each day.

Even when you are well past that age, you still carry around those feelings, the potential for imbalance, the scent of blood and crazy romance somewhere in your soul. This edge between our civilized selves and the feral nature lurking just below is part of being human, part of what makes us feel alive.

Such comic books, and their various spin-offs, are not actually obscure iconoclastic works, but rather engines for making money through market share. After all, a franchise such as X Men requires a sizable audience to succeed. Otherwise it will simply cease to find its way to outlets for publication. And so here is an entire genre, huge in its appeal (millions around the world flock to see the X Men films and similar celebrations of alienation from the herd) which is, at its core, about channeling a feeling of being alone, set apart, misunderstood – precisely the reason it appeals to a vast audience.

In a sense this kind of entertainment ends up joining huge numbers of people together through a shared feeling of being unlike anybody else. We are all bond togethe by channeling our inner outsider, as identification with the quirky misunderstood individual within each of us ends up making us alike. It’s like some sort of MacDonald’s lifestyle commercial for Goths.

And then, every once in a while, such a tale breaks off the screen and enters real life. Wolverine, Magneto, Rogue and their kind are strange people indeed, with outsized powers and outsized psychic issues to match. But we know they are not real, and that makes them safe – mere objects of projection.

But Michael Jackson was a real flesh and blood human, who happened to have insanely outsized talent, as well as outsized psychic issues. I don’t think anybody could have predicted the emotional outpouring in the wake of his untimely death. As I walk around New York since yesterday, I hear his music playing everywhere I go – on the streets, in coffee shops, in department stores. I see people walking down the street suddenly break into one of his songs, sometimes seeming to surprise even themselves.

I think that this positive reaction – accepting this man as somebody who was astoundingly talented in spite of being strangely troubled – reflects a recognition that we are all, in our way, X people, and we all struggle with our demons. Every once in a while somebody like Michael Jackson comes along who found a way to channel his demons into something beautiful – at least for a while. We understand this, and we honor it.

W

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

It has now been about half a year since the transition from one presidential administration to another, perhaps time to get a little perspective on things.

Seen from here in June 2009, the reign of W seems a bit like something from another world. The whole tone of things is different in the Obama presidency. That much is obvious, but I’ve been trying to figure out the precise nature of this tonal difference, the underlying fundamental principle that distinguishes then and now.

I don’t think it’s just about political left versus right, liberal versus conservative, although clearly that is a big part of it. I wasn’t really sure what it was until the recent revelations about the two Republican presidential hopefuls who were caught out having extramarital affairs, pretty much back to back.

And that’s when I realized that what W’s presidency offered the country, first and foremost, was a kind of Puritan certainty, a reassurance that Sin had left the building – not only in his policies but in his tone. The “decider” clearly believed he was getting his marching orders from a higher authority.

This might be connected to to our former president’s history with alcoholism. There was a strictness to his views, and this strictness suffused through everything – all of his decisions and policies.

The engagement with sin and redemption was not new, of course. Bill Clinton was clearly playing out a grand narrative of sin and redemption throughout his presidency.

That entire dialectic has now receded. Obama brings a far more secular tone to the White House. No longer is the Devil standing over the shoulder of our highest ranking government official, ready to pounce. Obama is neither the unyielding patriarch of the Bush years nor the failed penitant that Clinton projected. The whole gothic focus on sin, on a personal struggle against Evil, is gone.

For example, it would have been nearly unimaginable to see W taking a drink. So much of his public persona was predicated on his absolute renunciation of the habit that had once brought him low. And this certainty, this refusal to engage with the Devil, crept into all of his policies.

Obama, on the other hand, is able to effectively push legislation that prevents tobacco companies from marketing to children, while openly admitting to smoking the occasional cigarette – his personal struggle with an unwanted addiction.

It all has a far more secular tone. I think it is this sounding of a secular note, despite the fact that Obama is a religious man, that has been appealing so strongly to young people. Rather than seeing the world as an eternal struggle between a stern and wrathful God and the evil forces of fire and brimstone, the citizenry is being asked to see a struggle simply to make the world a better place, without all the trappings of old time religious sturm und drang.

Seen from this new perspective, one driven not so much by stern moralizing as by can-do optimism, the receding world of W begins to seem far away indeed.

V

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

“When you see a fork in the road, take it.”
-Yogi Berra

The letter ‘V’ looks great on a page, doesn’t it? Majestic yet simple – two slanted lines rising up simultaneously from a common source, reaching toward different places in the sky. Some letters just have a way about them, a natural panache that other letters lack.

Contemplating the letter ‘V’ I realize that I’ve actually been sensing, without quite realizing it, that each letter captures some essential quality of human thought and desire. Together they can be used as a lexicon of much that matters to us, but that we hardly ever articulate. For example, our discussion the other day around the letter ‘S’ captured some of this – the way its form visually suggests both transitions and relationships between opposites, and how the two poles of any such dialectic loom far larger in our perception than all that lies between.

Just as the letter ‘U’ may represent turning back, ‘Y’ can be a choice glimpsed in the distance, whereas ‘V’ is the choice that is now upon you, the one that can no longer be put off. ‘T’ suggests a stopping point, the place at which you may need to abandon your current path entirely and make a hard choice. But by the same token, it also suggests a new adventure about to begin.

‘L’ is the sudden change of direction that reorients your thinking, and ‘Z’ the crooked path that will leave you continuing on your original journey, but perhaps with some unexpected life experience gained along the way. ‘O’ is finding you’ve been going in circles (a pattern I find all too familiar in my own experience, sad to say).

‘X’ is perhaps the best form of all – a sign of those rare and wonderful moments in life when you encounter someone and realize that, in some important way, your paths have crossed.

U turn

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

“Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

– Robert Plant

There is something in our minds, some quality inculcated deep into us from the time we’re little, that works to prevent us from simply changing paths when things start to go wrong. I suspect it has something to do with the sheer complexity of the decisions we are called upon to make in our lives – from the really big things like job and home and love and spiritual purpose, down to the little things like what brand of bread to buy.

There is so much we need to do that we set up these self-actuating mechanisms, little automatic pilots guiding the various choices in our lives, so that we can feel free of the weight of continual decision making.

It all works, except when it doesn’t. From the global financial meltdown to that brand of salsa you bought three weeks ago that is slowly going bad in your fridge, we are victims of our own efficiency at multitasking and auto-delegation.

I sometimes wonder whether the world would be a better place if we all had a little psychological restart button that we could press from time to time – something to tell our fearful habit-driven selves that it’s ok to change things up, to try a new path, to drive off the main road at the next exit and just explore a little.

I guess this is a form of spiritual enlightenment, the ability to see situations as they really are, and not through the misleadingly comfortable glasses of how things should be but aren’t, or the dangerously comfortable glasses of the way things used to be, but are no longer.

Maybe it’s something we should teach our kids in school, when they are still young and the lesson is more liable to stick: That yes, it’s wonderful to set a bold and daring course, plan for your future, charge forth with gusto and all steam ahead. But it’s also useful to know when you might be heading the wrong way, and to have the presence of mind – just every once in a while – to make a U turn.

T Rex

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Why do children have such a fondness for the Tyrannosaurus Rex, possibly the most brutal and deadliest land predator that ever lived? I distinctly remember, as a small boy, thinking that the T Rex was incredibly cool and wonderful. Even after I was a teenager, when I finally got around to seeing Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”, it was the T Rex I enjoyed the most, out of all of the wondrous creatures of old brought to majestic life while Leopold Stokowski conducted the “Rite of Spring”.

In reality of course, if through some quirk of time we were to coexist with one of these monstrous behemoths – in the flesh, so to speak – the mighty and relentless reptilian predator would almost certainly gobble us up in an instant, bones and all, and then have some of our friends for a snack. There was nothing even remotely sentimental about this creature – the T Rex was, from all evidence, one of nature’s more impressive and relentlessly efficient killing machines.

Yes, I knew all that when I was seven – all little kids know that – and yet we love them, with a kind of completely irrational exuberant love. And when, as small children, we are not musing fondly about our friend, the savage and deadly king of the dinosaurs, our innocent young thoughts often turn appreciatively to Orca the killer whale.

Why do we do this? Perhaps there is some deep instinct at work here.

S curves

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

People often talk about the “Bell curve” – a statistical distribution among a population of any property, such as athleticism, natural longevity or various kinds of intellectual ability. For most such properties, the great majority of people are located fairly near the mean. As you go further away from this mean value for any given property, the percentage of people represented tends to drop off precipitously.

That is one reason we are so astonished when one person is far from average in two properties at once – because it is quite rare. For example, there just aren’t that many astonishingly beautiful people who have also made groundbreaking and fundamental innovations in technology, such as Hedy Lamarr, or extraordinarily talented actors who have also had a nearly off-the-chart high IQ, such as Judy Holliday.

I don’t particularly like the image of the Bell curve (or as the Little Prince would say, a snake swallowing an elephant), because I think it tells the wrong story. A Bell curve visually suggests that in the center are the “normal” people, thereby implying that all the people who are far from the center are somehow deviant. I think this way of thinking misses the point, because it focuses on the middle – the boring part – rather the two ends, which is where things are most interesting.



I think it is better to embrace the two ends – rather than marginalizing them. For example, if I were extraordinarily nearsighted I would want society to help me to find ways to see better without subtely placing me in some marginal category because I am not like everyone else. The same would be true if I knew a child with a learning disability. I would want society to honor that child as an individual, by coming together to help her reach her maximum potential.

Similarly, a high intellectual ability in some area should be seen as a call to service. A talented artist or musician is fortunate, not because they are “better” but because they have a unique opportunity to enrich the lives of those around them. Similarly, those of us who either have or acquire an ability to teach or to do research have a responsibility to others, because we are in a good position to lend a helping hand to those around us in a particular way: Every ability you possess provides an opportunity to serve others, not an opportunity to imagine yourself superior to others.

For this reason, I prefer to replace the Bell curve by a set of S curves, to visualize the ways that each of us may need a helping hand in some way, as well as the ways that we may be in a greater position to lend a hand to others. Each of us, every individual, finds ourselves on not one but many S curves, and we are most interesting for the ways that we are either to the left or the right on any given one.



Every once in a while I see an interesting (and fun) sign that somebody is at the extreme of some S curve. For example, today my sister Joan told me about a conversation she’d had just this morning, during a car ride with my eleven year old nephews Jack and David. They were all discussing the fact that today, June 21, is the longest day of the year (at least here in the northern hemisphere). The boys pointed out that there must therefore be a shortest day of the year. When Joan quizzed them on when that day might be, they quickly realized that it must be a hundred eighty two and a half days away – exactly half of three hundred and sixty five days.

As Joan was telling me this story, something started nagging at the back of my mind. It wasn’t the fractional day – that was ok. Rather it was the assumption that a year has 365 days. That is not quite right, since it doesn’t take into account leap days. I told myself that I was probably being hopelessly nerdy, and that I should just be pleased that my two wonderful nephews where discussing science and fractions with such ease and facility – not to mention avid interest.

But then Joan got to the end of her story. She told me that toward the end of the ride Jack became rather quiet, and she could tell that something was bothering him. She only realized what it was when they got out of the car, and Jack turned to her and declared, correcting his earlier statement, “A hundred eighty two days and five eights”.