Attic, part 26

Around the central spire of the palace, the city was circular. There were five ramparts, spaced equally around the circle. Atop each of these ramparts was a flaming torch, eternally lit with a greenish flame the color of the sky. The travellers walked in silence through the seemingly deserted streets. Gradually the sky darkened, and the gloom settled around them like dust.

Charlie was the first to speak. “I remember back when these streets used to be full of life.” The large demon looked around with sadness. “It was like one big party here, and everyone was laughin’. I would come home at night through the crowds and it’d just feel great to be alive. I remember once, back when I was just a boy, my mom…”

“Your mom?” Jenny interrupted. “But you’re a demon!”

“Yeah,” he replied sadly, “You got that right. I am a demon. But I wasn’t always like this,” he said. “I had a life once — before I was, um, taken.”

“Taken?” she said. “I don’t understand.”

He shrugged. “Not sure I can explain it right, at least not till you understand more. Reality is, well, a kind of prism, and even truth itself can bend. That’s as true on your world as it is on mine. And wherever the light bends, we gotta see what it shows. Sure, I’m now a demon, can’t argue with that. Every bit as much as your teacher there,” he pointed toward Mr. Symarian, “is now human.”

“Mr. Symarian?” Josh broke in, looking at their teacher in alarm. “You weren’t always human?”

“Perhaps,” their teacher said, smoothly changing the subject, “We can continue this fascinating discussion another time. As you can see, we have arrived at our destination for the night.”

The inconstant house

It would be interesting to expand the notion of the Subversion Clock to include other aspects of everyday life. A motion sensor could be placed in every room of a house, and assorted mechanisms installed in the walls, doors, windows, cabinets, floors, closets, and miscellaneous nooks and crannies. Anyone entering a room would encounter a perfectly ordinary space. However, whenever the motion sensor in a room detects that nobody is present, various changes start to occur.

Towels might change color, or wallpapers vary in pattern. The woodgrain of the doors might mutate from one visit to the next. The picture on the mantel could change in both content and position. A throw rug may appear on the bedroom floor one day, only to be gone the next time you enter. Window curtains might change to slats, or vice versa.

There are so many possibilities for the inconstant house, so many opportunities for play. And of course the best changes would be the little ones — those that require attention to be noticed. It should not be too obvious that the height of a picture upon a wall has changed, or that a trim little mustache has appeared in that old black and white photo of grandpa during the war. And the pair of old work boots which one day turns to a pair of lady’s shoes should be discretely tucked away in a corner of the library.

Much of the fun would be in designing the house in such a way that the underlying mechanisms remain unseen. There should be no tell-tale strings or wires to trip over or to catch the light. Plumbing fixtures, bookcases and alternating styles of furniture should rotate cleanly around a central hinge, so that the unseen version disappears behind the nearest wall.

And of course, upon entering any room, one should see one of those subversive clocks, always reliably set to a new and unpredictable hour.

Attic, part 25

The distance to the gleaming city on the horizon must have been greater than it looked, Jenny thought. It seemed like countless hours since the travellers had begun crossing the vast plain, as the magnificent skyline on the horizon gradually grew larger. There were long stretches of silence, with no words passed between them.

At last Josh turned to Jenny and said, in a still quiet voice “have you noticed something?”

Jenny was startled out of her reverie, and jumped in surprise at the unexpected sound of a voice. “What?” she said. “Noticed what?”

“We’re not hungry. And we’re not thirsty. And this has been going on for, like, forever.

Slowly Jenny nodded her head. “Yeah, that’s weird.”

“Not weird, precisely,” came Mr Symarian’s voice. “It’s the curse, you see. The effect is centered upon the city you see before you. It begins just outside the city itself, and pervades the countryside for a considerable distance in each direction. Within the affected region, time itself appears to change. Two weeks or more can go by, and it might seem to be the very next day. Or the reverse.”

At this Sid chimed in. “Yeah, like the little lady said,” he grinned. “Weird.”

Interactive tragedy

A century ago people didn’t take movies seriously. The view of the intelligentsia (the kind of people who took books seriously) toward films was roughly akin to the view many people now have of interactive media such as computer games. This parallel came up today in a discussion that touched on both computer games and the history of romantic tragedy.

Take, for example, Sidney Carlton, who is initially presented as a self-absorbed wastrel in “A Tale of Two Cities”, yet ends up being willing to sacrifice his own life so that another man (a man he detests) can live on happily with the woman he himself loves. It is perhaps one of the most moving examples of self-sacrifice in all of Western literature.

There are many other examples of “beautiful tragedy” — whereby the hero makes a noble decision that personally destroys him, and yet (in the mind of the reader/viewer) affirms a kind of transcendent and redemptive dignity of humanity. Many film noirs starring actors like Robert Mitchum share this quality. The hero willingly chooses death, knowing that this is the act which will redeem his/her soul. The tradition dates back to antiquity, and continues on today in films like Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”.

I participated in a discussion today about the relationship between tragedy and interactive media. At some point I raised the question of whether such scenarios of redemptive sacrifice — with their attendant echoes of emotional catharsis and existential affirmation — could exist in interactive media such as computer games.

Of course this is not a straightforward question. The agency of the player complicates things considerably. How can you truly be moved by the decisions a character makes if you yourself might be responsible for that character’s choices? Yet one could argue that there would be enormous resonance in presenting a player with a set of decisions in which the ethical or psychological “win” involves a powerful self-sacrifice for the sake of a loved one, or just for the sake of what is true and right.

I’m not sure exactly how something like this could be pulled off, but I do think that it’s a key question, if we are looking at computer games as a medium that might, at some point, take its place as a serious forum for cultural production and reflection, just as films have come to take their place alongside the novel.

Subversion clock

I came up with an idea for an art piece. It looks just like an old-fashioned clock, complete with ticking second-hand. And as long as you are in the room, it behaves just like any other clock, advancing steadily, one second at a time.

But this clock comes equipped with a highly sensitive motion sensor. It can use this sensor to determine when there is nobody in the room. As soon as the room has become devoid of people, the clock starts to advance quickly.

This means that the next time somebody enters the room, the hands of the clock will have been reset to some completely random time. And yet, to anybody looking right at it, it always behaves in a perfectly normal way.

In essence, the clock acts as a subversive agent, playing with our expectations of how clocks are supposed to behave, and turning those expectations upside down. Insidious in a way that a mere broken clock could never be, the clock becomes an agent not of order but of chaos. Essentially, this “subversion clock” is a wolf in sheep’s clothing — not so much a time keeper as a time destroyer.

It would be especially fun to have one of these in every room.


Today I started going through all of my blog posts for the last two and a half years. And I am finding the result to be a bit overwhelming.

You, dear reader, do not actually see the back-story, the sequence of real-life events that are transformed here into words on a page. There are secrets here — necessary secrets. There are real identities, off-stage happenings and behind the scenes action, a host of players you do not know directly, but can only intuit through the prism of these posts.

When I read the sequence of posts myself, through the backward telescope of time, I see these secrets revealed, in all of their blaze and messy magnificence. I see arguments in my life, unavoidable rifts. I see that on this day the bombs fell, on that other day a birthday was mis-remembered.

Each event is grist for the mill, just one thread among many. Perhaps the weave of these threads, all these slivered echoes of reality, form into a single reflecting tapestry, or maybe just a rag and bone shop of the heart.

Mix tape

There is something uniquely personal about creating a mix tape, although there are perils in the enterprise. Of course I don’t literally mean “mix tape”. The use of actual magnetic tape went out with the aerochronometer and the autogrammatatron. Tape eventually gave way to writable CDs, which were in turn replaced by flash memory sticks. Recently these too have gone the way of the velociraptor.

The current fashion is to refer your loved one to a page on Facebook, with links to YouTube videos, since (as everyone knows) the proper way to show affection in the modern age is to steer one’s beloved to a social network, where they can admire your taste in music while selling their identity to a giant soul-sucking corporation that will forever track their every move and their reduce their very existence into a money-making commodity.

In modern times, this is what is known as “romance”.

Back in the old days, somewhere in the now distant “burning onto CD” era, I made a mix tape for a friend which happened to contain Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”, followed immediately by the Gorillaz’ song “Clint Eastwood”. I know it’s an odd pairing, but it works. In fact, it works very well. In one of those magical confluences of musical alchemy, the first of these songs flows into the second with silken perfection. At the time I thought little of it.

The problem is that now, every time I hear “Famous Blue Raincoat” — in fact every time I sing “Famous Blue Raincoat” — I get to the end, with those poignant lyrics “… sincerely L. Cohen.”, and in my mind the Gorillaz song immediately starts up. I’m not complaining, mind you. I like hearing the Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood”. It’s a great song, and a fine example of its genre. But it sort of alters the mood, if you see what I mean. Imagine if every time you got to the end of “Pachelbel’s Canon” your mind were to suddenly jump into “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly. Would you ever be able to resist giggling uncontrollably at friend’s weddings? I know I wouldn’t.

But I’m counting my blessings, since things could be worse. In fact, there are serious worst case scenarios here. Imagine if every time you finished listening to Jeff Buckley’s recording of “Hallelujah”, you were to find your mind jumping to the Alvin and the Chipmunks version of “I’m Too Sexy”.

That would truly be tragic.


I realized the other day that all of the vowels in the English language are in odd positions in the alphabet (even if you count ‘y’ as a vowel). If you label the letters a,b,c,… as 1,2,3,…, then a,e,i,o,u,y are, respectively, 1,5,9,15,21,25. Quite a nice little progression.

This suggests that we could throw out all of the even letters of the alphabet, and still have an interestingly rich set of letters to work with: a,c,e,g,i,k,m,o,q,s,u,w,y. We could then define an “completely odd word” (or “COW” for short) as a word that only uses this subset of the alphabet. There so many COWs, like ACE, QUICK and SEQUOIA, that the mind boggles (sorry — couldn’t resist).

The word COW is itself a COW, oddly enough. I wonder what kind of speeches could be written using nothing but COWs. I guess a speech with nothing but COWs might be called a “maximally odd oration”, or a “MOO”.

V versus Glee

Through the wonders of internet streaming, I have been watching two TV series — V and Glee — in parallel. You might think this to be an odd combination of choices. After all, one is a horror tinged science fiction epic about invasion by evil aliens, teeming with dark and deeply disturbing special effects and filled with paranoia. The other is a light-hearted comic parody of high school musicals, complete with topical pop-culture references and wall-to-wall song and dance numbers.

Which is why it’s so interesting that they turn out to be essentially the same show.

First off, you have the most important character, the central deus ex machina who drives the show — the evil villainess. Anna, the soulless and calculating lizard queen, is pretty much the same character as the evil coach Sue Sylvester. Both are all powerful forces of pure darkness, charming in their way, but utterly and single-mindedly ruthless and bent upon world domination and the utter annihilation of their enemies. We’re talking classic Disney villainess here, a powerful older woman who dares to be smarter than the guys around her, and therefore — in old Walt’s view of the world — must by definition be scary and evil. Sometimes I wonder what was really up with Mr. Disney. Can you say “mother issues”?

Then of course you’ve got your basic plucky heroine, strong yet vulnerable. She’s the best in the world at what she does — whether it’s being a crack FBI agent or belting out a capella show tunes — yet consumed by unresolved emotional issues. For all her success, she is a failure at relationships with men, doomed to forever search for the very emotional intimacy that her neurotic nature is, ironically, always driving away.

Then there’s the hunky guy, strong yet sensitive, with leading man looks and a tragic romantic flaw. Whether it’s having joined the priesthood and sworn a vow of celibacy in order to run away from a dark and violent past, or watching his marriage fall apart because he spends all his time singing and dancing with teenagers (I’m not sure which of those two back-stories is more tragic), the guy is both emotionally present and absent at the same time — a projective fantasy for all women watching the show precisely because his powerful inherent virility can never find consummation.

Of course there is also the boyish teen guy with the great smile — sensitive, beautiful, catnip to adolescent females, yet rather thuddingly stupid. Whether he is obliviously lusting after a sexy young woman he doesn’t realize is actually a cold-blooded lizard, or merely spending his years in high school being jerked around by teenage girls who just act like cold-blooded lizards, the guy is seriously clue-impaired. Yet it is clear that in this show his role is to be God’s fool, so he’s probably going to be ok.

Both shows feature good people who find they have become outsiders in their own world, pitted against an all powerful force of darkness and evil. And both narratives center around a very weird and rather disturbing pregnancy, the symbol of a dysfunctional future for our characters that draws us in even as it repels us.

The similarities are endless, the parallels uncanny. I don’t know about you, but I would like to see these two shows combined into one. In particular, I would love to see Kurt go up against Anna. You just know the alien ruler wouldn’t stand a chance. Although I’m sure young Kurt would take a moment, before finishing off the astonished lizard queen, to tell her how much he admires her make-over.

Comedy and tragedy

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” – Mel Brooks

Saw Strindberg’s play “Creditors” this evening, wonderfully directed by Alan Rickman, at the BAM Harvey Theater. It’s a fascinating play. For most of its 90 minute length the audience is presented with an hysterically funny black comedy. A clever man weaves an elaborate web of lies around a gullible husband and wife. It becomes clear rather quickly that he is trying to break up their relationship because he wants the woman for himself (although eventually the truth turns out to be somewhat darker).

The audience laughs along with the smart jokes and clever dialog (this version has a great new translation by David Greig). It’s very much like an elaborate bedroom farce, ever so gradually rising in pitch as the lies begin to build one upon another — except that all of the pratfalls are verbal, and all the pies in the face are metaphorical. As the plot thickens, the jokes get funnier and darker, the punctuations of audience laughter more explosive.

Until the very last moments of the play, when comedy suddenly turns to tragedy. And this is accomplished not by some surprise plot twist, but rather by the simple expedient of shifting the point of view. In the last moments of the play we are made to reconsider everything that has just happened. No longer are we viewing the past 90 minutes from the point of view of the trickster, but rather we find ourselves seeing the same events from the point of view of the duped couple. And suddenly the result seems devastatingly sad.

Strindberg’s play is, at heart, a truly masterful commentary on the nature of comedy and tragedy. Or, in the immortal words of R. Miles, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”