Tonight at Lincoln Center I saw Basil Twist’s riveting and brilliant puppet version of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Thinking to learn more about it, I ended up surfing on-line to There I found a page entitled “Questions with ‘Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps; Petruchka; Firebird; Apollon Musagete'”. On that page I learned all kinds of things about the great composer, such as when was his birthday, how many sisters he had, and what year he composed Petrushka (1910). But I think my favorite question of all was: “Will the same method for removing the water pump on a 1992 Firebird work for a 93 or 94 Firebird?” I suspect that this question would have given even Stravinsky pause.

One thing that struck me, listening to the wonderful music this time, was a feeling that the first melody in its final scene was rather shamelessly borrowed by Cole Porter for the song “Tom, Dick or Harry” in Kiss Me Kate. Does anybody else hear this, or is it just me? According to Wikipedia (so it has to be true, right?) Stravinsky himself adopted this melody from an old folk tune called “Down the Petersky Road”, which suggests that I might just be carping about honor among thieves.

Speaking of honor, another thing that struck me was the strange dramatic resonance of the death of Petrushka, which is in some ways an inquiry into the nature of free will. It could be said that he died for honor, and yet at the same time he died as a puppet, his fate decided from above by a puppeteer’s hands. And that reminded me of an odd conversation I had the other day with a woman I know.

She was absolutely convinced that the guys that she and her boyfriend had recently been talking to in a New York City bar were with the Black Ops – those shadowy elite government forces that we never hear about (although sometimes The New York Times publishes articles about their nifty arm patches).

I asked her what made her think such a thing. She said that all of them were very big and burly, and they kept sprinkling their conversation with references to their trip to Burma and other exotic places. But then, when her boyfriend asked them what they did for a living, they all got mysteriously quiet.

I asked her whether she would really have wanted to know if she was hanging out with an elite squad of professionals trained to go on suicide missions. She thought about it and said no, probably not. But still, she felt that even if they were a secret government suicide squad, they should at least have some reasonable response ready, in case somebody should happen to ask them what they do.

I tried to think of something that they could say, under the circumstances. The only thing I could come up with was: “Well, I could tell you, but then of course I’d have to kill myself.”

Scenes from the novel VI

For ten thousand years the box had lain at the bottom of the lake. Entire civilizations had risen and fallen since that long ago time, countless stories told and then forgotten. Once, in other days, there had been legends, outlandish tales, stories told to frighten children. But many centuries had now passed since the box – and what it contained – had last been spoken of within the world of men.

And yet in recent days, in the sleepy town that now bordered the lake, there had been an unease. At first only the children were having the dreams. And at first their parents were not alarmed. Parents know that moods and crazy notions can sometimes jump and catch like chickenpox between children. But the dreams persisted and deepened, grew in detail.

And then the grownups started to have them too.

People began to talk out loud about their dreams, to compare notes. How could it be that each of them was seeing the same things, having the same dream? And such strange things they were seeing! For there were no words to describe these visions. Their forms and colors were like something from out of time.

Something needed to be done. A town meeting was called, debates held, resolutions were promptly passed. A declaration was prepared and duly signed. And so the people went back to their homes, secure in the knowledge that they had met the situation head-on.

But the thing in the box did not care about the people in the village or their resolutions. Its message had not been for them, but for another. And then one day, from far off, it received its answer in a dim and tenuous whisper, a promise delivered in a language that was somehow not language.

It was a promise that would take some time to breat fruit. But the thing at the bottom of the lake was in no hurry. It had waited for ten thousand years, and it could wait a little longer. Meanwhile it turned the thought over and over in its ancient mind, the thought that had been whispered from so far away. It savored the words that were not words: “We are coming.”

Why I like birthdays

Today is my sister Joan’s birthday. Like a lot of families, we always telephone each other on birthdays. When I called her this morning the first words out of her mouth were “I was thinking this morning, while I was brushing my teeth, how nice it is that there is at least one day when I get to talk with everyone in the family.”

Because Joan is my younger sister – five and a half years younger – her birthday constitutes one of my first memories of feeling grown-up. You see, my memories of my own early birthdays are rather inchoate and mysterious, coming from somewhere deep within the foggy mists of my personal development, mixed up somewhere in there with my first word and beginning to walk upright. Like something out of Darwin, or perhaps that deleted scene from the beginning of 2001, A Space Odyssey where the Monolith teaches the very first ape how to blow out all the candles.

I was presented with my first candle to blow out long before I had any clear understanding of what “birthday” meant, and I have no memory of that candle, nor the second or third. But there did come a day, I think when I turned five, when I suddenly became aware of The Birthday as a fixture in life, the great Ritual that always was and had always been.

But my sister’s birthday was different. See, by the time she came around I was already in on the action, right from the beginning. I knew what was happening, what it all meant. This time I was playing on the big kids’ team.

I especially remember that for Joan’s second birthday my parents got her a HUGE blue stuffed teddy bear. That bear was to become known, with great affection, as Big Bluie. Only now, as I write this, do I finally realize that this strange name was actually a riff on the name of my Mom’s youngest brother Louie (formally “Louis”, but I have never, even once, heard him referred to by that name). Such are the ways of family ritual.

After a few years Bluie lost first one eye, then the other, and at some point began to look distinctly raggedy. But Joan’s loyalty to her Big Bluie was something fierce. For a while she carried him around with her everywhere, which no doubt contributed to his ocular troubles. It was a great love while it lasted, as early loves go.

When parents introduce their children to the magic of birthdays, I suppose they must think back on their own childhoods, their own unique rituals. It’s like introducing a new generation to The Wizard of Oz, only you get to skip the scary flying monkeys.

In a way a birthday is the great secular religion, isn’t it? It’s the one personal rite of passage that is universally recognized, understood by all races and creeds. Indeed, it is the one occasion in life when, as Woody Allen might have put it, you get to be honored just for showing up.

Maybe that’s why I like birthdays.

Don’t go chasing waterfalls

Recently I’ve been getting into the habit of renting old films that have something in common. Sometimes they share a common director, or a particular actor, or they just share a particular obsession, such as “time travelling star-crossed romances”. It’s amazing how many TTSCRs have been released, and even more amazing how awful and silly most of them are. I mean, if Sandra really wanted to find out whatever became of Keanu, couldn’t she just have Googled him? Oh, don’t even get me started…

Several months back I took in the films of Visconti (see The Leopard – it will change your life), and that led me to late-period Dirk Bogarde, which in turn led to Julie Christie (by virtue of their shared turn in Darling). And so it turned out that I somehow managed to watch Death in Venice and Don’t Look Now back to back, two films that both try really hard to convince you that it’s a very, very bad idea to go to Venice, if you value your life.

Fortunately, I had already been to Venice, and had managed to make it out alive and healthy, thank you. I highly recommend it. But I wouldn’t go swimming in the canals, if I were you.

Last month I raced through the career of Montgomery Clift, from the beautiful young man he was in A Place in the Son to the ruined and immobile countenance he tried valiantly to act through a mere eight years later, post-accident, in Suddenly, Last Summer. Although even the young and intact Mr. Clift may not have fared all that well, since Katherine Hepburn’s take-no-prisoners performance steals that film in a walk, while leaving no scenery unchewed.

Now I’m on to early Warren Beatty. Which led me to the oddest experience. First I saw him in his very first starring role in Splendor in the Grass (1961), opposite the impossibly luminous Natalie Wood as a beautiful young woman in love with him who literally goes crazy trying to sublimate her unconsumated sexual desire toward the sexy but inarticulate Mr. Beatty, and who therefore tries to end it all by throwing herself into a swirling waterfall. Lots of shots of swirling waterfalls.


Then the very next day I saw Lilith (1964), in which the impossibly luminous Jean Seberg plays a beautiful young woman literally insane with sublimated sexual desire for the sexy but inarticulate Mr. Beatty, which leads her to contemplate throwing herself to her death into a swirling waterfall. Many more shots of swirling waterfalls.

Ok, what on earth is going on here? Did the mere presence of the virile (if inarticulate) young Mr. Beatty cause an entire generation of filmmakers to go mad? Or was it just something in the water?

If somebody can explain it to me, please do.

Angelic tendencies

I’d like to talk more about The Counterfeiters today, and how it is put together dramatically. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to do so before reading on.

It’s interesting to examine The Counterfeiters from the point of view of what drives its main character. Basically we are handed a protean individual – he is presented as neither good nor bad, but rather complex, intelligent, unpredictable, enormously charismatic, a seducer and a survivor, a force for both order and chaos. And then he is put through the ringer, severely “leveled up” as they say in computer game parlance – thrown into a whole new dynamic and faced with circumstances more challenging than any he has ever before encountered.

Just as this is happening, we are introduced to two new characters. One serves as a kind of bad angel. This character is suave, charming, in control, seeming to hold all the cards. The bad angel entices our hero to give in to old ways of thinking, to choose seductive moral shortcuts and selfish survival strategies that have worked in the past.

In contrast, the other character – the good angel – is seemingly humorless, an idealist preaching self-sacrifice, representing the pain and difficulty of making the leap to a more grown-up and responsible view of the world.

It is made screamingly obvious to the audience that both of these characters represent aspects of our hero himself. In these two opposing external forces pulling on him we – and he – recognize the two halves of his inner self, battling for supremacy.

And then, in the midst of this war over our protagonist’s soul, a third character starts to emerge. This character is really a child, passive, innocent, dependent, needing only to be nurtured. Not so much a fully fleshed out character as the symbol of one. The protagonist gradually embraces the opportunity to nurture this child, and starts to see survival not merely in terms of taking care of one’s own self, but rather as taking care of the future, of those who need us. The basic set-up is shown in this diagram:

Over time, the protagonist is changed by embracing his role as a nurturer. He realizes that being able to grow, to take care of another, is the way to true survival. This requires rejecting the easy answers of the seductive bad angel, and embracing the more difficult path.

So why does all of this seem so familiar? Perhaps because I’ve just described Juno. It wouldn’t seem that there would be much in common between the story of a womanizing counterfeiter trying to survive a Nazi concentration camp and a sixteen year old pregnant teenage girl in a small town in Minnesota. But in fact both are driven by pretty much the same character engine.

Separated at birth?

In a sense, these two are really the same character, the unformed hero who recognizes the path to spiritual survival only when called upon to be a nurturer. I guess what this shows is not all that surprising: If you start with a solid foundation in how you drive and motivate your characters, you can build a hell of a great story.

By the way, I was only joking yesterday about Americans not telling great stories about outwitting Nazis. Of course there is a long history of American films built upon just this premise, including, among many others, Casablanca, To Be or Not to Be, The Great Escape, and Schindler’s List.

If you’ve never seen the original Ernst Lubitsch version of To Be or Not to Be with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, do yourself a favor and run out and rent it. See if you can spot the line of dialog from which Woody Allen shamelessly stole one of the best jokes in Annie Hall.


This evening I saw The Counterfeiters, the winner of this year’s Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film, and an extremely powerful and moving film based the true story of how one small group of Jews escaped extermination in the Nazi concentration camps. I know it’s probably hard to read that and then say to yourself: “Oh yes, what a lovely idea – let’s go out on a Saturday night and take in a nice film about the Holocaust.” But it is a masterfully made film, and that means that it works thoroughly as gripping drama. And indeed, this evening the audience was on the edge of its seat from beginning to end.

You have to hand it to the Austrians. When they set out to make a film about outwitting the Nazis, they end up with something as honest and searing as this. When we tackle that theme here in the U.S., we end up with The Sound of Music. Well, ok, that’s not really fair. Sorry. Hogan’s Heroes.

One thing that really struck me about the film (this is not giving anything away) was the fact that the label “Jew”, used as an excuse for the Nazis to round people up and throw them into concentration camps, was presented as just that – a label. In the film, none of the victims ever says or does anything that we would think of as expressing a Jewish religious or cultural identity.

I think that was a good choice. It effortlessly gets across the true evil of what the Nazis were up to. Nothing that happened to the Jews during that terrible period actually had anything to do with them at all. It could just as well have been “the left handed people”. The scary brilliance of this aspect of Nazi strategy was precisely that it was based on nothing. If you give reasons, people can argue with you. But if you simply assign labels, just declare someone to be a non-person, then there can be no argument.

It makes me think about prejudice against black people in this country. And the fact that it actually has nothing to do with black people. That’s kind of the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Prejudice against black people is actually a sickness of white people. Similarly, prejudice against homosexuals is a sickness of heterosexuals. The people being prejudiced against are “involved” in pretty much the same way that the person who has been hit by a drunk driver is involved. Yes, they end up getting their bones broken, but no, it is in fact not their fault that this thing happened to them.

My father is a very wise man, and he often has extremely simple and elegant ways of conveying powerful insights. I remember that once he told me that when he was a young man, there were two things that “everybody knew” about Jews in this country:

  • They are money-grubbing capitalists who care about nothing but getting their hands on money any way they can;

  • They are dangerous Marxists, intent on doing away with private property, who are scheming to impose their radical communist ideology on an unsuspecting America.

If you examine the above statements, you find that they are in fact polar opposites of each other. Each one, if true, renders the other false. And yet everybody knew that both statements were true; it never seemed to bother people that they were going around thinking two opposite thoughts at once.

Maybe this is a useful way to get a handle on prejudice, and to understand why prejudice is so difficult to fight. You can think two opposite and incompatible things at the same time only by shutting off your rational facility to detect the contradiction, and replacing that facility with some counterfeit process. In other words, you must become neurotic.

What is the cure for an entire society in the grip of neurosis?

We fly in our dreams

Ah, how depressing – all of the comments explaining it away. “There’s nothing to see here, move along. No flying today.” One comment says we fly because we see birds and want to be like them. But we see elephants with their trunks, spiders with their webs, beavers with their dams. Yes, we copy these things, take the core ideas and build them into our technologies. But they are mere tools, not paths to ecstasy.

Flying is different. It is the very essence of freedom, of grace and transcendence. Even the word “flight” conjures magic. I think that in some way the dream of flight suggests an eternal childhood, a notion of living forever in a state of innocence. J. M. Barrie knew exactly what he was doing when he had Peter teach this particular skill to the Darling children.

In the TV series Heroes everyone has a super power. But only Nathan Petrelli is the man who can fly. In some ways he is the most contradictory character. Everything about him suggests the cynic, the man who does not believe. And yet, he is the man who flies. The casting here was brilliant, exquisitely on point. Adrian Pasdar is a perfect example of what I call “Alan Rickman casting”. In other words: “I am suave and rakishly good looking, yet my eyes are too close together, so you suspect that you cannot quite trust me, and there is very little chance that I will end up with the girl.”

And yet, he is the man who flies. Unlike the other heroes, his particular super power generally leaves him near naked, embarrassingly vulnerable, unable to explain himself. When faced with a crisis, all he can really do is leave. Of course Nathan is not the cold-hearted cynic that he at first seems to be. How could he be? He is the man who flies. For all of his longing to be the man of power, the most grown-up of grownups, his destiny is to channel innocence.

I think we should not dismiss such ideas too blithely. Yes, of course they are archetypes, mere phantasms, creatures of the imagination. But they are within us, and they are a kind of music – music that on some level we all share. And I think we need to be able to hear them sing.

Why do we dream of flying?

Why do we dream of flying? I don’t mean the get-in-an-airplane kind, where they make you take off your shoes and search you for toenail clippers. I mean like Daedalus and Icarus, soaring majestically through the air, gliding and swooping and skimming the treetops on our way to alighting down softly in a sun-dappled meadow. I mean that kind of flying.

There never was a time, as far as I can figure out, when our ancestors had the experience of flight. Perhaps we are playing out a deep-buried memory of our ape forebears swinging through the trees. Or perhaps it is just a trick of the inner ear. What I do know is that from time to time I get flying dreams – often on a night when I’ve had a Tequila drink, oddly enough. In my flying dreams I am generally doing my majestic swooping and gliding in the neighborhood around my parents’ house – where I lived when I was growing up from around the age of eight.

There is never any sense of danger. In my dream I’ll be walking along and then suddenly it will occur to me that it would be a lot easier just to lift up my feet and skim along above the ground. Sometimes I wonder whether my transition to flight will unnerve passers by, but nobody ever seems to mind. Pretty soon I’m high in the air, and that’s when the fun starts. It always fascinates me, every time, that flying toward houses and buildings holds no danger at all. As I near a building, I automatically just rise up and clear it, just as easy as stepping over a log. Clearly I know what I’m doing!

I’m guessing that some of the above will seem familiar to you. Many people have told me that they have had such dreams, although I suspect everyone’s experience of dream-flying is unique. And it is certainly an experience that is well represented in the popular culture. It can show up anywhere from Mary Poppins to Brazil (both fantasies by Americans about the Brits, interestingly enough). Where does this come from, this virtual skill? And why do so many people have their own version of it? In what universe that we all seem to share, what universe not of this physical world, do we fly?

Scenes from the novel V

Author’s note: as some of you have already noticed, scenes are not being posted in the order of their appearance in the story.

“My dear sweet cowboy!” Clarissa exclaimed. When she saw him standing in the doorway, holding his battered old stetson, her face lit up. He’d been travelling all night, since he’d got word she’d been wounded. He’d ridden Blossom hard, maybe harder’n was good for the old gal, and he felt bad about that, but he’d just needed to get there and that was all there was to it.

Now he was looking down at Clarissa’s pale delicate face, lovely in spite of the bruises and swelling, framed by her black hair against the pillow of the hospital bed. He could tell she’d been through a lot of pain. Her striking eyes still held him fast, like they always did, but the light in them was weaker somehow, and that had him worried.

“Well, how’s my gal? Pretty as ever I see.” He grinned his best grin, feeling awkward. He wasn’t the best with words, but she knew that, so it was ok.

“My knight in shining armor, come to rescue me,” she smiled. “So lovely to see you. I must say, I have known better accommodations. A simple request, such as tea with lemon, is met with a level of incompetence that does not bode well. One’s hopes for surgical proficiency are severely compromised by such episodes.” She gestured weakly toward the teacup and pitcher of milk with her slender right hand. He’d never noticed before how thin and fragile her arms were.

“Whatever would I do with milk?” she exclaimed in wonder, glaring at the tray. She wrinkled her nose. “Perhaps there is a fence somewhere that needs whitewashing. How is our Drog?”

“Well, he’s pretty tough. I was told they’d blasted a hole nearly clean through him, but he heals up quick. Hole’s mostly gone by now, I’d reckon. Sorry you couldn’t see him.”

Clarissa laughed, and almost managed to hide the spasm of pain that flickered across her face. “Poor dear Drog. In my diminished capacity, I fear I would not have been able to shelter him from the disapproving glances of the nurses.” She looked ruefully at her left arm, encased to the elbow in a cast. “From the little that I can remember, I believe I owe him my life. Without our friend’s timely intervention, I suspect that rather more of me would have ended up in pieces. If you see him…” She grew silent for a long moment, closing her eyes. Then she opened them again and continued on as though there had been no pause. “When you see him, please convey my fondest regards.”

He looked down at his hat, embarrassed. It had to be hard for her, being … broken. “The battle went our way – this time. We pushed ’em back good. But they’re regrouping. I, um, I gotta get back. The General’s gonna need me.” He gave her a long sorrowful look. One day he’d talk to her straight out about things. But not now, not like this.

“Yes, my dear knight, the battlefield beckons. I feel reassured knowing the world is in your good hands.” She smiled, and gave him a lingering look with her eyes. He thought he saw something in that look, but he couldn’t be sure. But it was enough to give him courage for the fight to come. He squared up his shoulders, and turned, and was gone.

Afterward Clarissa lay back on the pillow, staring at the ceiling, willing herself to ignore the pain. Once again she tried to feel the fingers of her left hand. Nothing.

She held her right hand before her face, made the familiar gestures. At least her memory was intact. She looked over at the pitcher of milk and sighed. If only they had brought her the lemon.

Her right hand traced out the patterns again, and somewhere in her mind she imagined that her left hand was following along, mirroring the movements. The tray beside her shimmered, and then there was a plate of freshly sliced lemon next to the teacup, just the way she liked it.

“Ah,” she thought to herself, “Time to get back to work.”

But she was

I saw my friend in the hospital today. The operation was this morning, and from what I know I think it was rather long and difficult. They had to put some things back together.

Yesterday her friends had spent the day frantically calling around everyone we knew in the medical profession, trying to find out who her surgeon was, since as of Sunday the nurses had been able to tell us nothing except his last name. We wanted to know, was he good? Was he the best? Eventually we did find out who he was, that he is a top surgeon, and that she would be great hands.

I thought she was unconscious this afternoon when I came into her hospital room. When I got there somebody told me that she hadn’t really wanted any visitors today. But I wanted to sneak a look at her sleeping.

Some people manage to be beautiful even when they are all banged up. I’m sure I wouldn’t be, but she was. Even lying there amid all the tubes, her stricken face white as a sheet. At first I thought she was unconscious. But then she sort of opened her left eye just a little, and to my surprise she made a brave attempt to lift one hand slightly off the bed and move it weakly back and forth to wave to me. I could tell this was not an easy thing to do. I felt guilty that she was making such an effort on my behalf, that she felt the need to do anything on my behalf at a time like this.

I’m sure the last thing she needed was anybody near her right now, some well meaning fool touching her poor bruised post-operative body. I blew her a kiss from where I was standing, and smiled, and told her I would see her tomorrow.