Seeing ghosts

Today, unexpectedly, I ran into somebody I hadn’t seen in twelve years. When we had last seen each other, things were not ok between us. In fact, things were very not ok between us. And after that, there was no communication at all.

To see this person again after so much time, without warning, was a strange feeling, and not a pleasant one. I was filled with an odd combination of shock, fear and surprise. Pretty much what I imagine it might be like to see a ghost.

I felt, in that one moment, the accumulated weight of more than a decade of unresolved emotions, an accordion-like compression of countless hours of agonized soul searching.

I don’t think I showed outwardly any of the complex emotions I felt. It was a very brief encounter.

Being human is complicated, and sometimes difficult. How much simpler to be a blue balloon, floating through the city, breezing in and out of subway cars, with not a care in the world.

Blue balloon

Today, as I was waiting for the express train uptown, I saw a blue balloon wander onto the platform. I’m not sure where it came from — it may have sailed across the tracks.

It was one of those helium filled toy balloons, except that this one was clearly nearing the end of its aerial life. It was hovering about two or three feet in the air, just high enough to lift most of its string.

After I got on the train, I saw, to my surprise, the same balloon floating up the aisle toward me. Along with the other passengers, I watched, astonished, as it meandered here and there, wandering from person to person. Then, as the doors were about to close, it drifted toward the door nearest to me. I thought for a moment it would stay with us, but at the very last second, just as the doors were closing, it darted out, dragging its string behind, and was gone.

As the train pulled out of the station, I found myself grinning. I looked around to see whether anybody else was as enchanted as I was. An older hispanic man, wearing a fedora, was also smiling ear to ear. He and I made eye contact.

“It came in that door over there,” he said to me, pointing excitedly, “drifted up the aisle toward us, then scooted out this door here.”

“Maybe,” I suggested, “it was waiting for the local.”

Fiction versus nonfiction

We all love a good novel, a compelling play, a movie that transports us to another world. Stories are the life blood of entertainment, and often of art.

One of the key elements of a work of fiction is that it is, indeed, fiction. There was no actual historical Hamlet, or Elizabeth Bennet, or Holden Caulfield. These people never existed, except in the mind of a brilliant author.

Of course there are also stories out there about real people. Stories about people like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Albert Schweitzer. These tales of challenge and accomplishment in the real world have their own appeal.

Yet it seems that as a general rule we prefer the fictional characters, the heroes who emerge from the fevered brain of an inspired author.

What is it about us that makes us more willing to recognize truth when it is contained in a story about made up people?

Pretty darned cool

The Supreme Court decision was pretty darned cool. It doesn’t happen too often, but every once in a while, love and understanding can win out over fear.

It’s also good to know, amid all the violence and hatred in the world, that this planet can sometimes become a slightly more caring and civil place to live.

I think I’ll give our President the last word on this, since he said it so well yesterday, in a different, much sadder context:

“Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too.” — Barack Obama, in his eulogy for Reverend and Democratic state Senator Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015

Non-colocated intersubjectivity

“Intersubjectivity” has many meanings. I like the definition once proposed by Mark Rothko, in the context of live performance: that I know that you know that I am performing for you.

Note that this definition encompasses all of theatre, and none of cinema, all live musical performances, but no musical recordings. It invokes the virtuous cycle between performer and audience. The interaction between the one and the other creates a sort of infinite loop of emotional feedback.

Today during a wide-ranging lunch conversation with Dakota Powell, I had occasion to bring up Rothko’s definition. She has been a pioneer in creating live theatre that transcends physical locality. In her work, actors in one geographic location are projected — in real time — to another location, and audiences therefore respond to performances that are co-located in time, but not in space.

One of the problems with this sort of thing has been the difficulty of providing proper audience feedback to remotely located performers. When you are acting from far away, it can be hard for you to have a good back-channel from the audience.

Recent developments in virtual and augmented reality might change this. Once we have the ability to provide rich audience feedback to actors who are performing in real time, but from a distance, then we will be able to extend Rothko’s notion of intersubjectivity.

“Theatre”, in the full sense of that word, will no longer be restricted to a single geographic location. Rich live performances, informed by audience response, will be able to span the globe.


I am disturbed by the sheer diversity of young terrorists living within our nation’s borders. Only a matter of days before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for his participation in the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon, Dylann Root murdered nine fellow Americans in cold blood in a church.

Both young men are 21.

Although both crimes are monstrous, there are differences. For one thing, Tsarnaev actually managed to apologize for his crime. I know that’s not much, but at least it shows he is aware of the horror and pain that he caused. I somehow doubt, based on what I’ve learned so far, that we will ever hear an apology from Dylann Root.

There is a cruel irony in the fact that America, which celebrates diversity, manages to contain such a diversity of terrorists, all of whom seem to be motivated by a hatred of diversity.

Everything a kid could ever want

Today I saw Tomorrowland, and while it is a total mess in terms of plot and pacing, it is a visual delight. Just to watch the imagery of that fantastical universe was a privilege and a total joy.

I spent much of the film in complete awe, like a saucer eyed little kid, soaking up Brad Bird’s vision of a magnificent utopian future. The sense of innocent wonder contained in the marvels up on the screen simply took my breath away.

I had pretty much the same feeling of wonder at the first big reveal of all the dinosaurs back when Jurassic Park came out. I am looking forward to seeing Jurassic World, because I understand it captures some of that same feeling of visual excitement and wonder.

Now if only they would make a movie with dinosaurs roaming around in a futuristic utopian world. Then I think I would have everything a kid could ever want.

Is that asking too much?

Expanded vocabulary

I’ve been thinking about that day, sometime in the future, when you and I, and everyone we know, will be wearing those cyber-context lenses.

Virtual objects will then become part of our every day reality. We will take for granted that there are objects which appear to sit on a table, stand on the floor, or just float in the air between us, yet which are “real” only in the sense that we can all see them. If we were to try to touch such an object, our hand would go right through it.

In such a world, perhaps today’s physical, tangible objects will take on a new meaning. I wonder whether we will come up with a new category for those wonderfully old-fashioned objects that you can actually pick up and touch with your hands.

And if so, what would we call them?

The rights of office products

Spending time recently in Paris, where smoking isn’t nearly as taboo as it is here, got me reminiscing back to when the “smoking wars” in New York had not yet been so decisively won by the non-smokers.

Today, of course, it would be unthinkable for a Manhattanite to light up a cigarette in the work place. Alarms would go off, authorities would be called, the perpetrator would be held up for public shaming.

In Paris they have similar rules, but the emotions around those rules are not so intense. Workers there must also go outside to smoke, but there seems to be far less social stigma attached to the process.

So I found myself thinking back to an incident about twenty years ago here at NYU. In those days you were allowed to smoke in the privacy of your office, as long as you kept the door closed. Smokers were very protective of this option — they considered it a question of individual rights.

Smokers and non-smokers managed an uneasy coexistence under those rules, until one evening when people noticed smoke billowing out of an office window. The building was evacuated, and the fire department was called. When the firemen emerged sometime later, they reported that somebody had dropped a still-lit cigarette into a wastebasket, and the papers had eventually begun to smolder and smoke.

A flurry of email activity ensued. An administrator sent out an announcement to the department explaining what had happened, and giving a stern warning about the dangers of smoking. The tide was clearly turning against the smokers.

I’ve never been a smoker, but I couldn’t help harboring a grudging admiration for their spunk, their insistence on the primacy of individual rights. So I sent out to the department a short and somewhat politically incorrect email in response.

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “The wastebasket was smoking in its own office.”

Conservation laws

The last few days I got a tremendous amount of work done, and I figured I was on a roll. I made lists of next things to do, started to organize for the next big push, and generally geared up for a really productive weekend.

And then something funny happened — funny but not totally surprising. My mind pushed back. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t turn today into a work day. Instead I found myself hanging out, reading the paper, doing the crossword, watching the occasional silly TV episode.

Something in my mind was, it seems, forcing me to take a day off, to put in some down time, kick back, relax, whatever.

At first it seemed a bit frustrating. “Hey,” I said to myself, “come on, we’re on a roll here. Just keep on moving, write that code, take that hill!”

But it was not to be. And eventually I realized that there was a good reason for it all. There seems to be some sort of conservation law at work here — a kind of optimal balance between up time and down time. Unless I make room from time to time to just chill, I can’t approach the sort of work I’m doing with the right mind set.

OK, glad we got that out of the way. Now it’s time to go back to my TV show…