Attic, part 38

It had been a harrowing time. The beast had seemed to come quite near several times, but at the last moment Josh had always known which way to turn. After many bends and twists in their path, the travelers now found themselves at the tower itself, but in a decrepit little dead-end alley, littered with junk. The place looked abandoned, with old bottles and jars and pieces of bric-a-brac piled into a corner.

There was nothing at all auspicious about their location, except the door. Or at least, it was sort of a door. There was clearly the outline of a door, arched at the top, and the door itself was made of a distinctly different stone than the tower wall. Yet there was no handle, no visible hinge, nothing that could tell them how to operate the doorway.

“Well,” Jenny said.

“You can say that again sister,” Sid joined in.

“Tales of this place speak of a riddle that one must solve before one may enter the tower,” said Mr. Symarian.

“You mean like what’s her name — the one with the big statue,” Charlie said.

“Lady Liberty?” Josh asked, looking confused.

“I think Charlie’s talking about the Sphynx,” Jenny said.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Charlie nodded.

“Yes,” Mr. Symarian continued, “precisely. But what is the riddle? What we are facing is clearly a door, yet one without egress.”

“Egrets?” Sid said, looking alarmed. “Nobody said there’d be egrets. I hate birds.”

“Egress,” the teacher explained. “From the latin egressus. `A place or means of coming out.’ I should have thought it was a common enough word.”

“Big intellectual,” Sid sniffed. “While we’re standin’ here talking about statues or egrets or whatever, that beast is getting closer every minute. And in case you didn’t notice, this here’s a dead end.”

Josh looked pale. “Um, Sid, could you try not to use the word ‘dead’?”

But Jenny was looking at the doorway thoughtfully. “I think,” she said, “we’re going to need to figure out that riddle.”


Today is the hundredth birthday of Frank Loesser. The man himself is long gone, having died back in 1969, but his influence towers, and our culture is infused with his brilliance and originality, even for those who have no idea who he was.

There were many geniuses who wrote the songs we associate with classic Broadway, from the teams of Lerner and Loewe to Rodgers and Hammerstein to Kander and Ebb, to those who managed to do it all by themselves, writing both music and words, such as Cole Porter.

Loesser was in the latter category. He wrote over 700 songs in his all too brief life. He wrote the words, and he wrote the music. And oh, such sublime combinations of words and music. From “Guys and Dolls” to “The Most Happy Fella” to “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”, the man completely redefined the American musical.

I remember the very first time I ever heard “Fugue for Tinhorns” — the opening number of “Guys and Dolls”. Really just a couple of mobsters talking, discussing how they placed bets on the races, and yet at the same time an expression of the most beautiful and sublime musical harmony. I’d had no idea that such a thing was possible — the everyday music of conversation transposed into deliriously irresistable song.

The great thing about Frank Loesser was the way he could draw you in to a true feeling of intimacy. Not the grand passion between lovers, but the small talk, the little things said to one another, the quiet intimate moments when real connections are forged.

A new generation has discovered “Baby it’s cold outside” — a song Loesser performed at parties with his first wife, years before anybody ever recorded it. Emo hipsters now associate it with the version by Zooey Deschanel, but its lineage goes all the way back to 1944 — 36 years before Ms. Deschanel was born.

I often wonder which creators will stand the test of time, and whose songs the human race will be singing centuries from now. I suspect that the songs of Frank Loesser will continue to be sung, long after I and anyone reading this today are long gone.

There is perhaps no more noble way to be immortal.

Attic, part 37

The city was old.

Some said it was as old as the stones themselves. Some said it had always existed, a thing beyond time. And now time itself held no meaning. There was only the endless night, the pale green light that never changed, and the mist that never left.

Outside the palace walls, the mist now rose and swirled. He had observed long ago that its movements reflected his mood, and there were times when he had looked out through the palace windows at the swirling shapes, vainly hoping to learn the secrets of his own mind.

But now the mist went unnoticed. His footsteps echoed as he walked through the bare halls, as he crossed the empty tapestried rooms. Where once were parties, voices, echoes of music and laughter, these walls now echoed only with his footsteps, for there was no other sound.

He paused just outside the bedchamber, and thought about the city — his city. He knew that rumors of the city swirled about like mist. Such foolishness, such empty patterns in the air. He, alone among all, knew the true nature the city, for it was his nature as well.

He stared into the mirror, at the ageless face that stared back. Can this be my true face, he wondered, or is this merely another illusion? For what is a face that never changes, but a mask?

When reasonable people disagree

I learned a lesson from the discussion after my post of two days ago. When reasonable people disagree — generally because of a disagreement about first principles — words matter. What makes this especially difficult is that the same words can have substantially different meanings to different listeners.

Getting these word choices right can make the difference between saying “this is my view of the world” and saying “your view of the world is wrong”. We would all agree that these are two very different statements. Yet it is all too easy to slip from the one into the other, when you are trying to speak across a fundamental divide of first principles.

For example, in my post, I used the phrase “fellow sentient creatures”. To me this sounds virtually identical to the phrase “sentient creatures”. Yet to someone who feels no tribal kinship with any being that is not human, the inclusion of the word “fellow” becomes an argument from conclusion, which in this case — as Dagmar pointed out — effectively came across as an (unintended) accusation.

It is perfectly non-controversial to say “this is a sentient creature, and I feel no kinship with it”. It is quite something else to say “this is a fellow sentient creature, and I feel no kinship with it.” The latter statement would be absurd — so my use of the phrase was de facto a provocation, although I didn’t realize this until Dagmar pointed it out.

This kind of thing comes up in other discussions that take place across fundamental divides of first principles. For example, to someone opposed to abortion on principle, the statement “a fetus, when born, will become a person”, might sound very close in meaning to the statement “a fetus is a person”.

Yet to someone with a different worldview, these two statements are completely different. The former is non-controversial. The latter is heard by many people as an accusation that they approve of murder.

So here you have it — to have a discussion between people who differ on first principles, each participant must somehow learn to hear what words sound like to somebody who may have a completely different worldview.

This seems to me to be a rather difficult skill to acquire – yet one that would be very valuable to have in a civil society. Perhaps it is a skill that we should teach our children in school.

Two at fifty

Being in Paris made me think of Godard’s game-changing early masterpiece “Breathless”, which turned fifty years old this year. 1960 was also the year of another game-changer: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.

In retrospect it’s a bit astonishing that these two films came out the same year, on different continents. In its way, each was completely disruptive — ushering in an era of post-modern commercial filmmaking that has never left us.

Before these two films, the audience for commercial films was generally asked to forget about itself. Even in those cases where a character directly addressed the audience (which Bob Hope and Groucho Marx did with fair regularity), the audience being addressed was merely an aspect of the film. You were the normal person sitting comfortably in the theatre, the way you always did, laughing as the comedian on-screen made a show of noticing you.

But Godard and Hitchcock had something else in mind. They were out to disturb, to provoke, to make the audience uncomfortable with itself. “Breathless” forces you to realize, in scene after scene, that the very act of watching a movie, of accepting its romantic conventions, is an act of artificiality. The characters in the film are simultaneously sincere and winking — all at the same time. They know that they are play-acting at being the characters you see on-screen.

In a strange loop, that post-modern knowingness is in fact integral to the characters they play — characters the audience nonetheless ends up caring about deeply. This contradiction forces the audience to be both inside and outside the fantasy of the movie, all at the same time. When we watch “Breathless”, we are forced to recognize our own complicity in creating the “magic circle” of the film reality.

“Psycho” is up to something equally insidious. Hitchcock breaks rules right and left: The person we thought was the main character is killed off relatively early in the film. The one person we find endearing and vulnerable, the only person truly presented as appealing, turns out to be the embodiment of terror itself — a monster beyond anything we could have expected. And the movie seems to switch genres unexpectedly as it goes on, taking frequent zigzag turns of tone and viewpoint.

In short, Hitchcock manages to scare the daylights out of his audience, while simultaneously forcing that audience to recognize the utter artificiality of its own feelings toward, and experience of, the movie.

There were many films in the wake of these two that did essentially the same thing. It is now almost expected that a certain kind of film will force the audience to see the film itself as an artifact, outside of the ostensible arrangement of plot and characters.

Think of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde”, Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” or just about any film directed by Wes Anderson or written by Charlie Kaufman. These are commercial films which, each in their own way, are emotionally resonant and affecting while also being about their own artificiality. From the point of view of, say, the 1950’s, this is a completely radical change — practically a revolution.

A revolution that is now half a century old.


I suppose this post isn’t going to make much sense to someone who is not vegan. Oh, it will make intellectual sense — but emotionally it will probably result in the equivalent of a blank stare. One of those odd consequences of being part of a decidedly minority subculture. But what the heck.

Recently I was having lunch with a friend/colleague. He said that the thing that bothered him about vegans is the hypocrisy. After all, he said, how could you buy a product with the name of “Fakin'” (a product that is more a less a vegan substitute for bacon).

Something told me to stay quiet, and not give a response. It was one of those moments when you realize some process is going on in the back of your brain, and that you are not going to figure out what it is in time to say anything sensible. Besides, I don’t eat “Fakin'”. So I let it go.

But later that day it occurred to me that the ethical situation he’d laid out was more or less the same as arguing that violent video games are bad for you because playing them is hypocritical.

After all, if you really feel like blowing somebody away with a 57 Magnum, isn’t it cheating to buy “Grand Theft Auto” and merely pretend to walk down the street shooting people?

The truly honest thing would be go to your local gun shop, buy a piece, and proceed to wander through your neighborhood, randomly blowing away pedestrians. That would be the honest thing to do.

Now, of course there is something absurd here. The vast majority of people who play action video games would be completely horrified, if not traumatized, to witness real world violence against actual people — let alone to partake in it.

My take-away here is this: Of course I can eat whatever I like, and you can eat whatever you like. Presumably we are all responsible adults and we all know what we’re doing. Nobody is perfect, and we’re all struggling in our own way.

But to call other people to task on some kind of ethical grounds for the way they eat plants? That’s just — pardon the harsh language here — ridiculous.

Paris in the evening

There is nothing people in Paris like to do more than talk. And they are most in their element when sitting at a little outdoor café on a summer’s night, intensely absorbed in conversation with each other.

I took a little random walkabout this evening, more or less around 23:00 local time, near where the Boulevard Saint-Denis meets the Rue du Foubourg Saint-Martin in the 3ème Arrondissement.

It was a joy just to watch the happy Parisiens enjoying life, the night air, each others’ company, and the delight of expressing whatever thoughts had just popped into their own heads.

There is something so life affirming about seeing any living creature completely in its natural element, whether it is a dolphin at play within the open sea, a hawk soaring swiftly upon the night air, or — that most joyful of all creatures on this planet — a Parisien with une bière, a thought to express, and a willing listener.

Wagging the dog

I was talking with some colleagues today about the misconceptions people have about what they see on TV, movies, and other media, and I suddenly remembered an odd moment I had when I saw the first run of the 1997 film “Wag the Dog”.

It was during a scene in which Dustin Hoffman, as the Hollywood producer, is using the techniques of film magic to manufacture the video illusion of a war between the U.S. and Armenia. He’s in the post-production studio with his CIA client, played by Robert DeNiro.

In this particular scene, the young Kirsten Dunst is a young actress hired to pretend to be a traumatized child in a war zone. Hoffman shows DeNiro the magic of special effects by giving the young girl a box of cereal and then having her run across a bare blue-screen set. He then uses a digital console to replace the bare stage behind her with an Armenian village under fire — a scene of war and terror.

DeNiro, rather sensibly, questions the fact that she is running through this ersatz village with a box of cereal under her arm. Dustin Hoffman’s character the proceeds to twiddle some dials on the console, and in the video feed the cereal box is magically replaced by a kitten.

So far so good. We’re watching a fantasy of Hollywood special effects in action. Of course special effects don’t really work that way, but it’s perfectly legitimate for a movie to spin such a fantasy. It’s all part of the same “willing suspension of disbelief” that allows us to accept a movie star as a great physicist or a distinguished politician.

Except that on this particular day, in this particular movie theatre, something rather odd happened. Just as Dustin Hoffman’s character twiddled those dials to turn the cereal box into a kitten, the woman in the row just in front of us turned to her companion and said — in a rather loud voice — “That’s amazing!”

Frankly, her comment made a bigger impression on me than anything I was watching on-screen. Clearly she thought that the instant transformation from cereal box to kitten was real. But why?? Did she believe we were watching some sort of documentary? Suddenly I started to worry that all across America, moviegoers might be unable to distinguish reality from movie fantasy.

Do people actually believe that the house in “Up” could really float in the air from the buoyancy of a bunch of party balloons?

Do people really come away from Oliver Stone’s “JFK” believing that our 35th president was done in by a secret homosexual cabal led by Tommy Lee Jones?

And did people really leave “The Matrix” believing that we are all living in a fantasy dreamscape created by evil robots who are only keeping us alive to be used as spare Energizer batteries?

I had always assumed, before this incident, that audiences would knew how to draw a firm line between the tall tales on the silver screen and the reality of their actual lives. After all, basing your ideas of how reality works upon what you see in a Hollywood movie would be — for want of a better phrase — the tail wagging the dog.
Wouldn’t it?

World cup

The general hoopla around the World Cup — especially here in Paris, where I am spending the week — reminds me of the window that soccer opened in my own life. It was 1994, the year that Brazil barely edged out Italy to win the championship, which happened while I was spending some months in Sao Paulo. Needless to say, by the time I got back to NY I was completely immersed in all things soccer (or, as almost everyone in the world calls it, football).

It was the first time Brazil had won after a dry spell of 24 years, and several months in that atmosphere had converted me from a mere clueless Americano to a fan. When I returned to Manhattan, I wanted to share the excitement with everyone in my research lab at NYU. Yet the people in our lab at that time fell into two categories: Americans and Italians. The Americans had no idea what I was talking about — they just looked at me blankly when I started talking about the greatness of the Brazilian team and its achievement. The Italians were even worse. They all just gave me a tragic and baleful look and pretended to not know what I was talking about.

But that was the year that I discoved the other New Yorkers. Not my fellow intellectuals in their ivory tower, but the guys at the coffee shop, the taxi drivers, the men behind the counter at the greek diner. Everywhere I went, ordinary working New Yorkers — immigrants from just about every part of the globe — were excited that I had just come back from Brazil, and were eager to talk about the World Cup and its dramatic outcome.

There was one man — a really sweet guy from Greece who worked in the deli down the block — who had asked me, months before, to bring him back a soccer shirt sporting PelĂ©’s retired number 10. I had remembered the request, and upon my return from Brazil I presented him with the coveted shirt. For years after, that guy was my best buddy — he would light up in a huge smile whenever I came into the deli.

And so, thanks to the magic of soccer, I learned the shared language of the vast network of immigrant New Yorkers — the ones I had never before thought to get to know — who form the life blood of the city where I live.

G.I. Jane Eyre

Today someone was showing me sequences from various violent action computer games. I was impressed with the high level of realism in the combat scenes, the rapid fire editing, the authentic explosions, the powerful dynamics and convincing sound as bullet slammed into body armor.

And I thought to myself, what a shame that so much loving care, so much detail, is being poured into a genre that focuses so little on the human element, the deeper emotions, the psychological back and forth. For those who have read Jane Austen or the Brontes know that a voice speaking calmly in a drawing room, over tea and biscuits, can convey depths of cruelty, of psychic violence, beyond anything the players of Halo or Half Life 2 could ever imagine.

And so, perhaps it is time to combine these genres — to render in flesh and blood the depths of psychic violence that lurk within the romance novel. If we could get the brilliant minds that brought us Assassin’s Creed and BioShock to incorporate the remorseless human drama that lies just below the affable surface of a Jane Austen novel, we might achieve a new synthesis.

Perhaps we would then see such fine crossover games as “Pride and Extreme Prejudice”. Or maybe “G.I. Jane Eyre”.

I wonder what kind of ESRB rating these games would get.