In a flash

This evening I went to McSorley’s Old Ale House (New York City’s oldest continuously operated saloon) with my friend Rachel. We went to escape the hot muggy weather that hung over the city like a thick blanket. McSorley’s is only about one short city block from the #6 train, which Rachel needed to take to get home. We got about a quarter of the way to the subway – literally a minute away from the subway entrance – when we encountered a weather event. It got very suddenly cooler, the sky lit up in a flash of lightning, followed by a loud clap of thunder, and although not a drop of water had fallen, something in the air had changed.

Without really thinking about what I was saying, I told Rachel that it was just about to rain very dramatically. She wanted to make a dash for the subway entrance, but I told her not to bother, since there was no way we were going to make it in time, for in about twenty seconds it was going to start to rain very hard, which would only be the beginning of something far more intense in the twenty seconds or so after that.

The way I described it – even as we dashed for the nearest shelter – was that a giant mass of water several thousand feet above our heads was falling fast; when it hit, all hell would break loose. I already knew that what we were about to experience was to rain as TNT is to a firecracker.

Sure enough, in the twenty seconds it took us to get ourselves over to the porch of Cooper Union, the heavens opened up, and a solid wall of water descended, inundating everything in its path, an powerful explosion of rainfall gone wild that was thick enough to obscure the view even across a city street,

From the safety of the porch we looked in awe at this oceanic deluge, and Rachel asked me how long it would last. I told her it would be all over in just about two minutes, and then we’d have a clear cool evening, and we’d be able to walk to the subway entrance without getting wet at all.

Sure enough, that’s precisely what transpired – down to the smallest detail.

What is fascinating to me about this is that I knew just what would happen from that first moment, well enough to narrate each step before the fact, even though such a weather event is extremely rare. Comparing notes afterward, we realized that it must be because I grew up in New York, whereas Rachel grew up in San Francisco. She said that she has similar moments of sensory clarity just before the fog rolls in. In situations like this you are utilizing skills you developed when you were seven years old, or even younger.

I didn’t have conscious access to all the things going on in my head in those few seconds, but I suspect that I was tapping into childhood memories of smell, air pressure, sound quality, light, and many other subtle sensory cues. I couldn’t tell you now what the moment before a flash thunderstorm smells like, but I certainly knew when I was smelling such a moment.

It’s so fascinating to get even such a small glimpse into the vast world of heavy mental lifting that our brains are doing all the time. We are so used to the illusion that our processing of the world is confined mainly to our conscious thoughts. How nice to be reminded that something far richer is always going on in our heads, just below the surface of our conscious awareness – subtle knowledge we possess about the world around us, that seems to come to us in a flash.

Leonard Cohen II

        It’s four in the morning, the end of December…


When he appears on stage your first impression is of a somewhat frail old man, sharply dressed but of humble demeanor. The iconic features have grown even wearier with time, if such a thing is possible. He removes the microphone from its stand, cradles it close to his body, leans gently down into it.

And then that voice emerges, a deep, low rumbling, full of power. Leonard Cohen’s voice has improved over the decades. He is now seventy five, and somehow, despite all the years of too much drink and cigarettes, his voice has a newly magisterial quality.

        My friends are gone and my hair is gray,
        I ache in the places where I used to play…


And then, singing his great song The Future, he gets to the line “white man dancing”, and he begins to dance lightly about the stage, with a graceful lilting spring in his step, and you realize that the old man was only an illusion, you remember that he has been a Buddhist monk for these past years, and that he really is coming to us from a place where deep spiritual reflection has led him to a kind of untroubled joy.

The love from the audience that flows to this man in continual waves is unlike the mere adulation one sees at other music concerts. This audience knows each of these songs inside out, from decades of intense listening and reflection. With the very first chord of each intro comes a collective cry of pleasure. It is clear that for this joyful crowd this is well loved country. These songs are that path behind your parents’ house where you used to pick blueberries when you were a kid, that oak tree you used to climb with your brother before they chopped it down. Cohen is singing people’s own lives back to them, deeply, unhurriedly, with powerful gentleness, and the mutual energy flowing between the man and his audience is something beyond mere gratitude.

        Like a bird on a wire
        Like a drunk in a midnight choir
        I have tried in my way to be free…


His tone remains humble, unhurried, serenely joyful, as he leads the audience to drink from one deep well after another. Hearing him sing these iconic songs, you understand how many have been his children: Jeff Buckley breaking your heart in Hallelujah, Antony lending his angelic voice to If It Be Your Will, and so many others whom Leonard Cohen has helped to find their own place in the tower of song.

While he sings, your mind goes to other songs, the vast tapestry starts connecting, the story of a long life deeply thought about, shared through the decades in poetry and verse with such unrelenting honest and generosity. This one man is an entire world, a world that connects to our own inner worlds on so many levels. I realize that in times of crisis I often hear his words running through my head, helping me to make sense of things.

        And what can I tell you
        My brother, my killer
        What can I possibly say?

        I guess that I miss you,
        I guess I forgive you,
        I’m glad that you stood in my way…


He never does get around to the sad personal story songs – Famous Blue Raincoat or Chelsea Hotel No 2, and I can understand why. He is no longer in that place of the vulnerable rueful lover. He’s moved to another place entirely now. When he sings I’m Your Man there is no longer any sense of complaint in his rendering of the absurdity of love and lust. There is only humor, a joyful appreciation that people are so delightfully strange in the ways they try to connect one to the other. And yet, all the songs he never sings run through your head anyway, tumbling together.

        I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel
        You were famous, your heart was a legend
        You told me then you preferred handsome men
        But for me you would make an exception

        And clenching your fist for the ones like us
        Who are oppressed by the the figures of beauty
        You fixed yourself, you said “Well, never mind,
        We are ugly, but we have the music…”


You realize how much he has helped you to work through the emotions of loss, of transience, the way that intimacy has a way of slipping away before our eyes, and learning to accept such loss as a part of life.

        He’ll say one day you caused his will
        To weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
        And then taking from his wallet an old schedule of trains
        He’ll say I told you when I came I was a strange

        I told you when I came I was a stranger…


When, quite late in the concert, he finally begins to sing Suzanne, the audience falls to a hushed, slightly stunned silence. For some (myself included), this was the starting point, the song in which we first discovered how music can describe a state of transcendence, can reveal the connection between spiritual and sexual longing. For some in the audience that journey began perhaps forty years ago or more, when the world itself was a very different place. And somehow, after such a long road, this man is still here, still able to convey his soft amazement at the intensity of his feelings for the young girl who had once lain by his side:

      Now Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
      She is wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
      And the sun pours down like honey on our Lady of the Harbor
      And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers

      There are heroes in the seaweed
      There are children in the morning
      They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever

      While Suzanne holds the mirror…


Well, almost everyone was sitting in hushed silence. My companion, generally a very aware and sophisticated intellectual, a professor of media arts, had the opposite reaction. She began to sing the words aloud, happily, obliviously, forgetting who or where she was, completely transformed into a gleeful five year old child. She told me afterward that she had had absolutely no idea that she was the only one singing aloud.

When the concert was over, my friend and I realized that this had been a defining moment for both of us – certainly a defining moment for our friendship. I suspect that many others had the same reaction.

There are indeed holy beings who walk among us, who have much to teach us from the wisdom of their old souls, from souls that have perhaps always been old. And every once in a while, we find ourselves fortunate enough to be in a place where we are prepared to listen. And if we are very fortunate indeed, we might even remember what we have been taught: to be humble, to really pay attention, and to be grateful for the beauty to be found in each other, not in spite of our flaws, but because of them.

        Ring the bells that still can ring
        Forget your perfect offering
        There is a crack, a crack in everything
        That’s how the light gets in.


Leonard Cohen I

So I did something somewhat crazy, which might have been one of the sanest things I’ve done in a long time. I bought tix for the Leonard Cohen concert in Toronto, figuring I would somehow get myself to Toronto when the time came. The tix were outrageously expensive, the plan utterly insane. I hopped on a train from NY to Toronto on Thursday, spent a few days visiting friends, and tomorrow morning will take the train back to NY. The train from NY to Toronto takes about the same time as the direct flight from NY to Beijing. Having done both, I would definitely recommend the train to Toronto. The seats are way roomier.

Friends that I’ve been running into all weekend in Toronto have been reacting ruefully to the news that I was going to the Leonard Cohen concert, as though I had told them I was planning to live out the secret dream of their childhood. Even the immigration officer on the train seemed jealous, and a little awestruck. Tonight was the concert, and it was a pure slice of heaven.

The experience of seeing Leonard Cohen in concert at this point in his career – he has said it will be his last tour – is so overwhelming, so transcendently unlike anything else, that I’m not going to attempt to describe it now. I will take a day, ruminate, think upon it, let my dreams of the experience collide and debate with one another tonight. Then tomorrow, when I have come back down to earth, I will make the attempt. Meanwhile, I will leave you with this bit of cautious wisdom, courtesy of Mr. Cohen:

        There is a crack … in everything
        That’s how the light gets in.


Some enchanted evening

Hearing Paulo Szot sing Some Enchanted Evening in the recent production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center will probably go down as one of the high points of my life. Knowing that my dear sweet Sophie, sitting beside me, had never seen this musical, and hearing that soaring baritone voice describe with such uncanny accuracy my feelings toward her, has made for one of the most thrilling experiences in my recent memory. When the song ended I leaned over and kissed her, in sheer appreciation of the privilege of being alive and in the company of someone I love.

Paulo Szot and Kelli O’Hara in South Pacific

I remember that the first time I saw the film, when I was a teenager, I had thought that the premise of its basic conflict was hopelessly out of date. In short: We are introduced to a romantic couple who clearly belong together. The conflict, introduced at the end of Act I, is that one half of the couple turns out to be a racist, repulsed by the fact that the other had once been married to a Polynesian.

I remember wondering when I first saw the film how any modern audience member could expect to identify with or be sympathetic to the plight of someone who holds such absurd beliefs. Perhaps it made sense in 1949, when the play first opened on Broadway, or in 1958, when the film premiered, but certainly not in modern times.

In the play, the racist character eventually overcomes this prejudice, and is rewarded by becoming capable of experiencing true happiness within a relationship. But I remember as a teenager losing all sympathy for the character at the end of Act I. To me the play’s central dramatic device seemed fatally flawed: Why would an audience continue to care about someone after witnessing such ugliness within their soul?

But now, seeing it again, I realize that this is a theme that never goes out of date, because irrational prejudice is always with us, and I now understand it to be an illness, albeit one that can simultaneously afflict millions of people. Rather than turning away in disgust from the afflicted, we need to maintain our belief that they can overcome their limitations. The audience is being asked to continue to have love and compassion for someone in spite of their racism, and to understand that they are capable of redemption.

In the current U.S. political climate we are being told that some Americans might refuse to vote for Barack Obama merely because of his mixed race heritage. This in spite of the fact that, unlike John McCain, Obama as president would clearly begin the long healing process our nation needs after the self-inflicted wounds of the last seven long years – the polls indicate that Americans are well aware of this need. The idea that anybody would not vote for this beautiful and inspiring man because of some nonsensical construct in their own heads would once have inspired in me nothing but an uncomfortable sense of disgust. But now I’ve come to realize that racism is indeed a kind of illness, one that sometimes can be cured.

Yes, there are many people still walking around with, in essence, ugly festering sores upon their souls. But those sores are curable and these people can be helped. Barack Obama might just be the catalyst that motivates Americans to heal their wounded souls. If we can help people to realize the sheer absurdity of applying nonsensical labels to a man who is possessed of such lovely ideas and eloquence of expression, we might very well be helping to transform and heal our culture.

After seven years of misuse of military force, erosion of both civil liberties and judicial independence, massive unnecessary death of innocents abroad, rising poverty at home, and astonishing incompetence in the face of human suffering all around, our nation is at long last nearing the sunset of the Bush presidency. With luck and sufficient compassion for those among us who need to be helped to find their better natures, that sunset may just turn out to be an enchanted evening.

At play

I found out today that a friend of mine, who is not quite fourteen years old, is writing and directing a play. A realist drama in fact. It sounds like quite a good drama too from the brief description I heard. I guess it takes a certain kind of focus to not only write a play, but also to gather your peers together, cast a play, direct it, navigate past the egos of your fellow fourteen year olds, and on top of all that find a friendly adult willing to act as a hands-off official “advisor” so that the other adults will leave you alone to follow your vision and create your art.

How many of us have written and directed a play by the age of fourteen? How many of us have written and directed a play at any age? Maybe it is something everyone should do. Would that really be so bad?

The greatest threat

Yesterday the closing talk at the Games for Change Festival was Sandra Day O’Connor. She was introduced by Bob Kerrey (now president of the New School, which hosted the festival), who quite eloquently said that ignorance of the populace is the single greatest threat to a democracy. He went on to point out that currently millions of U.S. citizens have firmly held beliefs in things that are just plain factually wrong, and they make decisions based on those mistaken ideas.

He also pointed out that the Judicial branch of government is the only one that allows individual citizens to successfully challenge laws that infringe on their rights. By appealing to the judiciary, a single citizen can successfully sue to strike down an unwisely framed law, even though that law has passed both houses of congress. He rightly pointed out that this balance of power in our government is remarkable. He talked about how brilliantly these principles were layed out by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in The Federalist Papers, which he suggested everyone should read.

All of which was an excellent way to introduce former justice O’Connor. She walked up to the podium, a pleasant looking little white haired lady. And then she began to speak, and it was like a light went on in the room. You realized immediately you were in the presence of a remarkable and powerful intelligence. Everything she said was straighforward, down to earth, unadorned, but I was struck by the clarity of her thought and the intellectual force behind each sentence.

She began by noting the recent vitreolic attacks by some in the legislative and executive branch on what they called “activist judges”. Her response: “I always thought that an activist judge is one who got up in the morning and got to work.”

She went on to point out that the better educated are our citizens, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. And she described a partnership she is starting with Arizona State University to create an on-line computer game or 7-9 grade kids to play, where they get to argue real legal issues against the computer and against each other.

Along the way, she pointed out that one unintended effect of the No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes math and science education,is that it has squeezed out civics education, because there is no longer any funding available for civics courses. And she cited some remarkable statistics, such as: Only one in ten U.S. citizens can name even one Supreme Court justice, whereas two out of three can name at least one judge on American Idol.

In answer to a question about the effectiveness of games as a vehicle for learning, she pointed out that people learn by doing. We remember concepts better through active engagement than when we just read a textook or hear a teacher in a classroom. She even outlined a series of experiments that neuroscientists might do to study how different parts of the brain are stimulated through active versus passive learning.

She summed up by saying: “I think things learned in this manner stick with us longer That’s what I think. What do you think? Do you agree?” The response in the room was wild applause.

While I was sitting there listening, I surfed on-line and downloaded a copy of The Federalist Papers. I’ve started reading them, and my eyes are popping from the specificity of Hamilton’s detailed and lucid descriptions, over two hundred years ago, of internal threats to a representative democracy posed by an overzealous executive branch, a cowed and coopted legislature, or attacks upon an independent judiciary. It feels like I am reading current events.

And so I wonder, should I just read The Federalist Papers, or should I make them into a computer game?


Today I attended a workshop as part of the annual Games for Change conference. G4C explores ways that people can use computer games to effect positive social change.

In the workshop we formed into small groups to try our hand at designing potential games for change, based on the brilliant values-based Grow-a-Game Cards approach developed by Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum. I contributed an idea that our group ended up going with. Actually, I asked the other group members if it would be ok for me to hijack the group agenda for my own purposes, and everybody said that was just fine.


Unfortunately, the person who later presented our game got nervous and didn’t convey it properly. One nice thing about having a blog is the way it can help to keep an interesting idea from getting lost. So please indulge me while I try to rescue my crazy proposal.

The basic notion is this: A member of the group had mentioned an upscale Connecticut community whose residents argue that they shouldn’t have to share their resources (eg: money for schools for kids) with less affluent communities. I proposed to build a game which demonstrates that this philosophy could eventually lead to a nation’s ruin.

In particular, I claimed that the economic self-interest of a nation-state is best served by identifying and nurturing the talents of its children, so that those talents can be turned toward increasing the economic wealth of the nation itself. In each generation a certain number of children are born with unusual natural gifts for engineering, or medicine, science or artistic expression. If those kids’ minds are not nurtured within the first seven years of their life, much of that talent is irretrievably lost.

I would argue that a nation’s best “selfish” capitalist strategy, particularly given the competitive pressures of a global economy, is to identify as many of those kids as possible. In a society with entrenched social inequality, a large percentage of those talents will be lost, through substandard housing, education and healthcare. Society never gets the benefit of that potential Einstein or Edison of the next generation.

We proposed to build a game along the lines of “God games” like SimCity or Civilization, but in which a player’s potential resources would come from the random occurance of particularly bright little minds, which if properly nurtured would increase economic wealth in specific ways for any community that contained them.

A player who adopts the strategy of throwing all resources into wealthy enclaves would be able to make short-term gains, but would find that there just weren’t enough bright minds showing up in each generation to sustain maximum growth over time.

I wanted to call the game Meritocracy, but I was out-voted. The group ended up calling it A Leader is Born, which I thought was a bit misleading, since most of the benefit would come from kids who didn’t grow up to be leaders, so much as small-scale economic powerhouses.

BTW: the word “meritocracy” also has a negative meaning (cf. Michael Young’s original coinage of the term in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy), in which a privileged class hordes resources, justifying its actions by pointing out that its kids are the brightest and most capable. Which is a self-fulfulling prophecy, since these kids become exposed to better education, superior health care and greater opportunities, as well as growing up with higher self-esteem. I would argue that this is a false meritocracy, which actually keeps a society running at only a fraction of its economic potential – which would become clear when playing the Meritocracy game.

I also argued in the group discussion that properly nurtured talented minds in poor communities are actually more economically beneficial to society than are bright young minds that show up in wealthy communities. This is because it is more liketly that talented kids from poor communities will relocate to places where they can help improve local economic potential, whereas rich people generally try not to migrate socially downward. So the talent that a game player can identify and nurture in the next generation of a poor community is actually more valuable for increasing the nation’s wealth over time.

Pretty much all of this got lost in the presentation; we picked one spokeperson, who I think became flustered. Most of the ideas I described above did not come across in her presentation, not even the core idea that gameplay would span multiple generations.

But there is no reason I can’t take back my little Meritocracy game, and use these blog pages to develop it properly. I’m happy to hear any and all suggestions. After all, this blog is a meritocracy!

All the king’s men

Recently I went on a little personal journey through a little bit of American pop-culture history. I saw both Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949) and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). In the Rossen film, Broderick Crawford plays a charismatic self-described hick who develops into a populist demagogue, beloved by the poor folk, and gaining in corruption as he gains in power. Eventually he becomes the despotic and neo-fascist Governor of his state, just one step away from the White House.

In the Kazan film (screenplay by the great Bud Schulberg), Andy Griffith plays a charismatic young country boy who parlays his “aw shucks” charm into a successful radio show. He continues to gain power and influence, eventually getting one step away from installing a neo-fascist into the White House.

By the way, if you only know Andy Griffith from his genial Andy of Mayberry persona, you’re in for a real treat. In this film he plays a character who is not merely monstrous, but also layered, complex, full of contractions. It is a genuinely great performance.




Both films are enormously powerful and effective, and both tap into the same fears: that democracy is fragile, and is always in danger of being destroyed from within by a corrupt charismatic figure who has the charm and wiles to win over the uneducated poor. On the one hand, both films were clearly reflecting cold war fears – the spectre of Communism as insidiuous opiate of the masses – but in fact the monster who arises in both films is not actually a friend to the poor, but rather secretly allies himself with the very rich, in order to pull off a far-right-wing takeover of the United States.

It’s fascinating to compare these two films in another way: Writer/producer/director Rossen was blacklisted in the McCarthy era as a communist fellow-traveller, whereas Elia Kazan famously supported the purge of Hollywood leftists by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Both of these films are arguably very relevant today. There may be no way to know what the current occupant of the White House has actually been thinking for the last seven years, but it is clear that our nation has been led into some very questionable places mainly because many very sincere citizens without a lot of money were won over by the down-home folksiness and country charm of a man who is in fact very much a friend to the extremely rich.

It seems that over half a century ago, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, we were warned. And not just warned: We were told exactly what to look for.