Archive for June, 2012

Because it is my heart

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Today, upon looking up a quote I had read in the newspaper, I discovered the wondrous and deeply thoughtful poetry of Stephen Crane.

For some reason, we were never taught Crane’s poetry in school. I knew about him only as the author of “The Red Badge of Courage”.

This might be just as well. When I was in school, the below poem might have appeared incomprehensible. Now, of course, this poem makes perfect sense to me.

      In the desert
      I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
      who, squatting upon the ground,
      Held his heart in his hands,
      And ate of it.
      I said, “Is it good, friend?”
      “It is bitter — bitter,” he answered;
      “But I like it
      Because it is bitter,
      And because it is my heart.”

Cannibal socks

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

It is well known that socks eat other socks. That is the only logical explanation for why socks disappear whenever I do laundry.

Sometimes they disappear in the washing machine, and sometimes in the dryer. My theory is that there are two distinct phases of the food cycle of soccus domesticus, a “wet” phase and a “dry” phase.

On the evidence of today’s laundry results, I have finally realized what should have been obvious all along: Socks are not merely cannibals, they are beyond cannibals. For a sock will only devour its own kind — a sock of the same color. So in a sense, socks are to cannibals as cannibals are to other carnivores.

How else to explain why, no matter how many socks I purchase, sooner or later I end up with one of each color?

Smells like song lyrics

Friday, June 8th, 2012

It might be interesting to create a story, or a collection of stories, with a hidden structural back-story borrowed from some other medium. This might be an intriguing way to infuse a story with the aroma, as it were, of another work — say, the lyrics of a popular song.

For example, the emotional beats or merely key details of a narrative might trace the imagery of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, or Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon”.

The story would not literally represent the lyrics of these songs, but would merely use their mysterious imagery as a series of touch points.

Of course it would not do to be too obvious about this. If you are immersed in reading a story, and you suddenly notice that you’ve just read about a mulatto talking to an albino, and now a mosquito has shown up, I would consider that a fail. 😉

Incomprehensible

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Today I was on a panel — one of those panels where people talk about ‘the future’. At one point the moderator described how odd it felt to come home and see his fifteen year old kids and their friends all sitting around using two thumbs to type onto their smart phones.

“It’s strange,” he said, trying to describe how it felt to encounter this incomprehensible new world, “They are talking with each other, watching TV, doing all these things. They are clearly `present’, yet at the same time they are also continually sending text messages.”

He asked the panel “What do you think kids will be doing twenty five years from now? Gesturing with their hands to conduct things in space?”

I volunteered to answer his question. “Twenty five years from now,” I said, “When one of your grown children goes into their living room and sees their own fifteen year old kids, whatever those kids are doing will be equally incomprehensible to them.”

The Bradbury Chronicles

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

My childhood was filled with stories by Ray Bradbury, who sadly passed away today at the age of ninety one.

Yes, like any geeky kid, I was obsessed with science fiction — Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, all the greats — but Bradbury was in a different category entirely.

Yes, there are the obvious successes, such as “The Martian Chronicles”, but there is also so much more. Many of his stories — “The Veldt”, “A Sound of Thunder”, “All Summer in a Day” — resonated with something deep in my soul and forced my young mind to look at the world around me in a different way.

In particular, his masterpiece “Dandelion Wine” was, as I saw it, the perfect example of what might be called “inverse science fiction” — ordinary life seen as a thing of wonder. Absolutely nothing happens in defiance of the laws of reality, yet the reader is left with a feeling of delight and magic beyond the reach of any mere space opera.

There really was no other writer like him. We will miss you Mr. Bradbury.

A touch of Venus

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

I did not see the transit of Venus today. Alas, the sky in Manhattan was overcast. Not to worry, another transit will be coming through in 105 years.

But I did wander around in Washington Square Park during the transit. Somehow just knowing that an extraordinary event was occurring somewhere behind the clouds made me see everything differently. I noticed a man in a large Wizard hat, serenely sitting before a small table that contained a miniature version of himself. I saw another man on a bicycle smiling with delight as he clutched a bouquet of impossibly large black-eyed susans. I saw a large dog gazing soulfully at the fountain, and then lean over and appear to whisper something into the ear of the human sitting next to him, and I saw the way she appeared to listen very intently and nod in agreement.

These and many other things probably happen every day, but most days I would have walked through the park without really seeing them. Today though, I was wide open to all of it, life in its delightful weirdness taking place before my eyes.

It’s a shame that Venus herself did not make an appearance in downtown Manhattan. Oh, the transit was easy enough to follow, thanks to the wonder of the internet. There were plenty of websites showing a live stream of the event, in gorgeous detail and thrilling color. But getting your information from the Cloud just isn’t the same, even on cloudy days.

There is something magical about forgoing cyberspace altogether, and just strolling around a park to witness life as it is lived in person, in all of its infinite and delightful variety. In such moments it becomes clear that everyone, in their way, has a little touch of Venus.

The language of music

Monday, June 4th, 2012

When I improvise on the piano, I have the sensation not so much of creating music, but rather of channeling music that comes from somewhere within me that is a bit mysterious. The simple act of moving my fingers over the piano keyboard brings up a kind of emotional resonance distinctly different from the feelings I experience in other contexts. It’s almost as though there is an alternate personality in my head, one that speaks not in words but in music.

Just as there is a kind of split in our brains between the left side and the right side, perhaps there is a similar split between the musical and the non-musical parts of our mind, reflecting some schism that began long ago in human evolution. When we create music, or sing along to a favorite song, or simply listen as a beloved tune comes on the radio, maybe we are actually experiencing a kind of identity shift, becoming — for a time — this alternate version of ourselves.

Who is this person that I feel inside me when I improvise on the piano? What existence does he have outside of musical expression? I get the feeling that he feels emotion more deeply than I do, and that I might have much to learn from him. It would be great if we could one day just go for a coffee and have a good chat.

But that is unlikely to ever happen, because we don’t speak the same language.

Colors

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

When I was little, one of my favorite things was to tag along with my dad on weekends as he went about his day running errands. It didn’t matter whether he was picking up something from the store, fixing something in the garage, paneling the basement, or raking leaves out back, it just felt good to hang out with him. No matter what the context, his calm reassuring presence always made me feel safe.

I have long remembered that he would often sing a song as he went about his chores. Yet only recently did I realize there was a common theme: All the songs he sang featured colors.

For example, some of my dad’s favorite songs were “The Red Red Robin”, “The Autumn Leaves (of red and gold)”, “Bye Bye Blackbird”, and of course “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. These were songs that were fun to sing, and also fun for a little kid to listen along to. And every single one featured colors.

The funny thing is, my dad was color blind.

The Shoggoth came over the mountain

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

Today I finished Alice Munro’s brilliant story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, which I had been reading at a friend’s excellent suggestion.

The very next story I read today was H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”. I had picked it up at a different friend’s equally excellent suggestion, and I greedily finished it in one sitting.

The two stories, in an odd way, form a perfect pairing. Both are about the abyss, the unnameable horror lurking just around the corner of our safe illusion of life’s normalcy. And both are about the struggle we can face in finding a path of sanity in the face of the unfaceable.

Yet the two stories proceed by exactly opposite methods. Munro is a miniaturist, using the tools of everyday situations, of tiny precise moments and emotional shifts, all with a perfect economy of mood and description. She never uses three words where two would suffice, and her characters reveal their pain entirely through indirection, by the very process of holding back.

Lovecraft is, if anything, a maximalist. He revels in the bubbling horror, the revelation of the unfathomable beast from the depths — spun in extravagantly turgid word poems — of humanity’s worst nightmare made hideous flesh. In a Lovecraft story, one word will never two where ten could suffice.

And yet the two authors speak to the same theme — the theme of how precious is this little illusion we have of safety and sanity, how fragile is the wonderful and oft-overlooked refuge of the everyday. In the hands of an expert author we are made to see and to cherish this simple truth: That just outside our little circle of human warmth, the bitter cold and howling winds lie ever ready.

Antimedia Lab

Friday, June 1st, 2012

I had dinner this evening with an old friend. She and I were reminiscing about something that had happened soon after we first met, when we were both very young. We were both attending a panel discussion about the MIT Media Lab, which at the time was fairly new.

On the panel were assembled the senior faculty of the MIT Media Lab, including such luminaries as Marvin Minsky. At one point they were fielding questions, when a young man stood up and said, rather indignantly: “You people are dangerous. Thanks to folks like you, one day we will all be tracked — our identity, our whereabouts — and there will no longer be any privacy.”

Marvin responded by saying, rather dryly, “We have gathered together some of the best minds of of the world to study media technology. You are very welcome, if you like, to gather minds together for the purpose of studying anti-media technology.”

My friend and I had thought that this was a marvelous suggestion, and we immediately set about working out what would constitute such an “Antimedia Lab”. We quickly realized that possibilities abounded. For example, there was a project at the Media Lab called “Put That There”, consisting of an interface that allowed people to interact with a computer using voice and gesture. We figured that an antimedia lab should discourage people from talking to and pointing at their computers, so we devised an anti-media project called “Put That Away!”

Similarly, the Media Lab had a project called “Transmission of Presence”, whereby a person, thanks to the miracle of computers and networks, could transmit a sense of their physical presence across great distances. In reality of course, it’s more common to find yourself face to face with somebody you would really rather not deal with. An Antimedia Laboratory should aim to render such an inconvenient person undetectable. Hence our anti-media project: “Transmission of Absence”.

We had lots more of these ideas. Alas, our wondrous Antimedia Lab never got beyond the brainstorming stage.

Which may be a good thing. I guess history will decide. 😉