A lot more fun than going to a movie

Today I had a real treat — not one but two old friends briefly visiting from out of town. I first had brunch followed by a leisurely walk through Manhattan with one friend, and then soon thereafter I spent several hours in intense conversation with the other.

These are both long term friendships, each going back years, with lots of trust and caring all around. So both parts of the day were completely delightful.

Yet I couldn’t help noticing that the two conversations were very different, so the day also gave me a chance to see, close up, the different ways that I may relate to people I am close to.

With one friend the focus was very personal — relationships, connections with friends and lovers, how to express emotion through art, how best to deal with joy or with tragedy, and how to move forward in life.

The other conversation was almost entirely philosophical in nature, focusing on questions of ethics, metaphysics, the role of evolution in human behavior, our place in the larger picture, and the nature of our individual and collective responsibility to society and to the world around us.

I can easily envision having either sort of conversation with either friend, and indeed I have, through the years, discussed many diverse topics with both of them. Yet on this particular day, we had these particular conversations. Looking back on it now, it feels as though each of those conversations wanted to happen.

I’m not sure what it all means, but I can tell you for sure that it was a lot more fun than going to a movie.

The other one

If you do a Google search for “Picasso”, you are told there are about 109 million results. But if you search for “Braque”, you are told there are only about 1.6 million reported results.

Similarly, a search for Pollock yields about 33 million reported results, whereas “Krasner” produces only 588,000.

Yet if you study the work, you see that these were both cases where there was intense joint research. One can find it very difficult to distinguish a Picasso from a Braque during the high period of their Cubist collaboration between 1908 and 1912, and the relationship between the work of Krasner and Pollock is similarly interwoven. Each was in a continual process of influencing the other, to the extent that it would be rather pointless to try to evaluate either one without studying both.

Today Picasso and Pollock are major stars in our cultural firmament, whereas I’ll bet that most Americans don’t even know the names “Braque” or “Krasner”.

There seems to be a pattern at work here — one member of an intellectual partnership becomes a superstar, and the other, while greatly revered by those in the field, is barely known to the general public. For example, in physics we have Einstein and Gell-Man. You can find similar cases in just about every field.

Personality has a lot to do with it. Some people have a kind of star quality, independent of the work itself. When talent and charisma coincide in just the right way, the world takes notice.

But it would also be nice if the world actually looked at the work itself a bit more carefully, and took notice, at least occasionally, of the other one.

Hyper-real ghosts

Today I saw several wonderful student projects at Trinity College in Dublin. One of them was about ghosts.

The basic idea for this project was an app for a SmartPhone that lets you see, and have encounters with, ghosts who wander about the campus. Trinity has been around since 1592, so there are lots of ghosts to choose from.

In order to make things more interesting, the students went well beyond historical tales of ghosts, creating a host of fictional ghosts to visit alongside them.

When the students presented their work, they made a distinction between “real” ghosts and “fake” ghosts. The real ones were the ones they had gotten from the historical record. The fake ghosts where the ones they had made up.

At some point I asked the students what would happen if a ghost were actually to appear. Would that be a third category? If ghosts from the historical record, in whom you don’t believe, are called “real” ghosts, then what would you call ghosts who actually show up on your doorstep?

Dinner in Dublin

I went to dinner this evening with some colleagues in Dublin, and was reminded once again just how wonderful it is to hang out with the Irish.

Whatever the topic — Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Austen, Shakespeare or Beckett — we could all speak freely, quote lines from particular works, compare one author to the other, and know that everybody would know exactly what was being talked about.

I’m not sure there is any other culture in the English speaking world where I could just relax into that basic assumption that “yes, we’ve all read the great authors, we remember them, and we’ve thought about their ideas quite a bit”. This is something you can just take for granted in Ireland — without any of it being a big deal.

I love America. I love its energy, its boldness, and its continual sense of possibility. But for whatever reason, many American friends and colleagues whom I admire just don’t seem to know any of this stuff.

Maybe the downside of a culture of bold reinvention is a relative lack of interest in what has come before.

The Newton / iPad axis

In the several years after the Apple Newton came out, the general consensus was that it had been a failure. Looking back with the hindsight of several decades, we can now see just how groundbreaking the Newton project was. Many features of modern PDAs (including the term “PDA” itself) began with Apple’s daring experiment.

By any standards, the iPhone and its later cousin the iPad have been wild successes. It is tempting to oversimplify, and think of the story as a failure followed by a success.

But I think the truth is more interesting. The iPhone and iPad are very much the beneficiaries of Bill Buxton’s “Long Nose of Innovation”. The fact that Apple had jumped feet-first into the mobile computer platform so early, going wide with a technology dangerously ahead of its time, had the effect of sensitizing Apple to the issues of what kind of PDA can be successfully brought to market, and what cannot.

In many ways, the iPhone and iPad can trace their lineage all the way back to the gestation of the Newton. There is a kind of axis that runs straight through the decades, from 1987 — when the Newton project first began — to 2014 and beyond.

It would be interesting to try to guess what are today’s Newtons — overambitious products so far ahead of their time that they won’t be truly successful for another quarter century.

Saint and poets, maybe

My mind is still reeling from having seen Linklater’s new masterpiece “Boyhood”, a work of such startling depth and deceptively simple beauty. There are individual moments that I just cannot get out of my head.

The scenes I remember most vividly were not big and flashy at all. They were simple conversations in which people found themselves suddenly able to break through and find a way to show their love for each other. These scenes always came as a surprise — just as they do in real life. The night we saw the film at the IFC, the entire audience was rapt from beginning to end.

I imagine that audiences must have had a similar experience in 1938, seeing Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” for the first time. That was another experimental work which took its audience on a journey through twelve years of “ordinary” lives, only to arrive at the same powerful conclusion — that there is nothing ordinary about life.

I am reminded of the conversation in “Our Town” between Emily and the Stage Manager, after she has found herself emotionally overwhelmed by the simple act of revisiting a single day of her childhood:

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” she asks. “Every, every minute?”

“No.” He replies, “The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”

Human goggles

Suppose you could take a drug that would temporarily remove your tendency to see things from a human perspective. While you were under the influence, you would perceive everything without any human bias.

Other people would just look like the strange fleshy things they are, with odd protuberances waving about. Faces would not have any particular significance.

You would probably notice that in human-made environments, nearly all surfaces are at right angles to each other, in an extremely unnatural and stylized way.

I’m not sure what other things you would observe, because it’s hard to take off my own mental “human goggles”.

Now here’s another question: After coming back from such an experience, would you have a new perspective on the world around you, and the people in it?

Robin Williams

I’ve been holding off on writing about Robin Williams because I needed time to process. As it happens, this morning I had a conversation about him with my Mom, and she pointed out something that I had been thinking, but hadn’t wanted to admit to myself.

She observed that one of the reasons Williams was so gosh-darn funny was that so much his humor was a reflection of deep pain and hostility. And the greater the underlying demon, the larger was the resultant laugh.

It wasn’t always thus. In his early days, as that good looking young man on Mork and Mindy, the humor was relatively benign. But by the mid 1980’s, when his one man shows first started being rebroadcast on HBO, things had turned decidedly darker.

For the last thirty years, Williams has been largely in the business of connecting us to our uncontrollable id — the deep primitive part of us that we cannot turn off, that relentless engine of anger and pain and lust which lies within every human breast.

We generally go a good job of repressing that part of ourselves, so that we can function in the day to day world. But every once in a while a shaman arises — somebody who can give us access to that deeper and more problematic level of the human condition. Robin Williams was such a shaman.

I think we loved him so much precisely because he took our powerful collective id unto himself, then showed it to us in all its terrible immediacy and said “See, our demons are not so scary. In fact, if you drag them out into the light of day, they’re kind of funny.”

The man was dealing with important stuff. And important stuff is always dangerous — sometimes too dangerous. Eventually, perhaps, it was too much for him.

Some will say it was only comedy, but they are missing the point. What Robin Williams did for us was real, and it was important. We were right to feel so much love for him — and to be grateful for his gift.

Local hero

I’m a very excited that Peter Capaldi is the new doctor. I had become a little worried that Dr Who would become too dominated by young people. Given that Time Lords are supposed to be centuries old, it’s good to see one who might actually be old enough to remember 1983.

Of course, behind every older actor, there is a younger actor lurking inside. It will be fun to see the good doctor channeling that part of himself, and to see audiences forget his age as he starts to bring out his inner youngster.

Some actors are able to effortlessly transcend age and time. After all, Burt Lancaster was already seventy six years old when he played another memorable fantasy doctor in Field of Dreams — and he nearly stole the movie.

A new doctor always creates new possibilities. Perhaps there will be stories where a love interest is half mermaid, or at least has webbed toes. Anything is possible, when there hasn’t been this sort of infusion of class into a BBC production since The Forsyth Saga.

American audiences might take some convincing, since Mr. Capaldi is still an unknown quantity on this side of the pond. But I think it will be easier in the U.K., where he is already a local hero.