Recently, on the subway

Recently, on the subway, a little old man walked into our crowded rush hour subway car. He must have been in his nineties, and he was walking very slowly, leaning on his cane and balancing carefully with each step. I stood up to give him my seat. He thanked me in a thick Russian Jewish accent, the kind you don’t hear so much anymore, and then asked me how far it was to Grand Central Station.

I explained to him that it was three stops. I continued to stand by, hovering over him worriedly, wondering how he was going to make it out the door at Grand Central during rush hour without getting knocked over. As we pulled into 33rd Street I told him it was the next stop after this one. He slowly and carefully pulled himself up out of his seat, so he’d have plenty of time to make his move, and I helped him up, holding him firmly by one arm to steady him until he was fully on his feet.

As it happened, a woman got on at 33rd Street, a large black woman probably in her mid forties. She saw this little old man standing there precariously with his cane, and she told him, somewhat concerned, that he shouldn’t get up so soon, he should wait until it was closer to his stop. I told her that I was looking out for him. She said “Oh, are you with him?” And I replied “No, I’m just looking out for him.” We smiled at each other, and she moved on into the car.

A few moments later, still smiling, she turned back toward me and said “I’ll fight you for him.” I laughed and said “Well, we can share, right?” Just then the subway pulled into Grand Central. The woman and I both watched with trepidation as the little old man slowly made his way out of the subway car and onto the platform. While the doors were still open, I saw him ask a young woman in her twenties how to get to the main concourse of Grand Central.

I’m pretty sure the young woman had been planning on boarding our subway car. But instead, sizing up the situation, she said to the old man “I’ll take you there.” As the subway doors closed, I could see her start to walk with him toward the stairs leading up and out of the subway, as he slowly and carefully made his way to the next part of his journey.

You’re innocent when you dream

Have you ever had a dream, which you completely forget about until suddenly it pops into your head much later? Well, I had an experience like that today: I was visiting my parents, sitting at their kitchen table (I mean in real life – we haven’t gotten to the dream yet) when suddenly I realized that last night I’d had a vivid and somewhat disturbing dream.

In the dream I was answering the phone, and a familiar voice – a man’s voice – said “Guess who?” I actually manage to guess – it was the voice of my former therapist. By the way, for those of you who don’t know, in New York City it seems that everybody has a therapist. I did have one for a while, but I stopped a number of years ago – I wasn’t really getting very much out of it. Although I could be in denial about that – how would I know, right?

Anyway, in the dream my former therapist (who in the dream has moved to California, which is where he is calling from) explains to me that my psychiatric chart was sent to him, and based on his assessment of it, he’s going to need to prescribe medication for my mental condition.

I remember feeling very disappointed in the dream that I needed drugs to have normal mental functioning. Disappointed in myself, as though I had failed one of life’s important tests. In my real life I’ve never been on any such drugs, and yet it never occurred to me in the dream to question his decision.

Of course later, sitting at my parents kitchen table when the dream popped back into my head, my first thought was how absurd the whole thing was – of course I wouldn’t have just accepted such a diagnosis. But that’s the difference between reality and dream reality, isn’t it?

My main take-away from this experience is the following question: Is there a different person there in our heads, the one who is dreaming the dreams? I mean, clearly the reactions, decisions, and possibly the values of the dream self are quite at variance from those of the waking self. Is there an identifiable person – a different and specific person – within our head when we dream? Or do we just float along, rudderless, without measureable personality of any kind, a leaf on the wind?

Any opinions?

Under the radar

Yesterday I went to a miniature puppet show in Brooklyn. Well, actually, eight miniature puppet shows in Brooklyn, at the Toy Theatre Festival at Saint Ann’s Warehouse. One of the pieces was truly spectular, several were well characterized by the phrase “oh, get over yourself already”, and the rest were somewhere inbetween: Interesting, not necessarily successful on their own terms, but containing some exciting ideas to mull over.

I realized after seeing all this puppetry, so soon after having seen Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, that I want to write a puppet opera. It’s really the only rational response, isn’t it?

During several performances I found myself sitting next to a young Vietnamese woman. We struck up a conversation, and afterward ended up taking the same subway back to Manhattan. Ikuko makes little zines, and she gave me one. Each zine is made by folding an ordinary piece of 8.5 &#215 11 paper into the shape of a little booklet with eight pages. You can print anything on the zine just by printing onto that one sheet – pictures, story, poetry. Ikuko’s zine was a self-illustrated story-poem that was really lovely.

The moment she gave it to me, I was suddenly struck by the anti-capitalist slant of these little zines, and the fact that this quality renders them virtually invisible. Generally speaking, anything in our society that does not make money for somebody is off-limits to mainstream media. The Soviet Union had Tass and Pravda, which operated under strict marching orders from the Soviet party, and we have CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, The New York Times, TIME and NewsWeek, and so on, which are governed by rule of what might be called the “American Politburo”: If it’s not likely to make money for anybody, it is generally not mentioned.

So anything like the little gathering I went to last week to make puppets, no matter how many millions of people might end up engaging in such an activity, is generally off-limits to American new organizations. After all, there isn’t really any way for somebody to make milllions of dollars from people sitting around making puppets out of spare socks.

Which is a shame, because making and giving away little paper zines is an act of pure joy: You just design them, print them, fold them, and give them to your friends. Anybody can get in the game – no need for capital investment, just flair and imagination. Of course if you know to look for them, the Web is filled with such things – but you have to know to look.

What would it take for a society to publicly celebrate such acts of individual creation through its broadcast media? I find myself wondering whether the idea of broadcast mass media and individual not-for-profit inventiveness are fundamentally incompatible. Could the former ever really celebrate the latter, or would that be a contradiction in terms?

Scenes from the novel XII

The words upon the door looked ancient. They were in fact far more ancient than they appeared, for their author had long since turned to dust. The seekers understood that they were looking at a puzzle, and that they could not pass until they had worked out the key:

As night descends, the subtle decree
The tide once forged from fragrant desire
Resplendent jewel, thrust from the fire
Beckons to yonder perilous sea
His uncouth dominion, his freighted expanse,
When the wise be foolish, no sacred vow
Could lay across that wrinkled brow
The wage of fortune’s circumstance
Forged in shadows of rising dread
Engraved upon a pomegranate seed
The tenets of mercy, the scripture of need
And so fortune’s fool is paid instead

    If truth ye seek, not knowing why
    Search the dark and glowing eye

Mixed media

Today I saw Iron Man and then, right after that, Death Note. The former is a big-budget Hollywood film made from a superhero comic book. This is so common these days as to be a cliche – Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man. The list goes on and on. I’m half expecting to see a Hollywood superhero film about Renderman. Oh wait, that’s The Incredibles. OK, never mind.

Yes, Iron Man was very well done and even well acted (any film with Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges in lead roles is going to be well acted). But it followed certain extremely exacting rules for such films that limited its appeal. Foremost among these rules is that it must be thuddingly obvious to the audience who the bad guy is, long before anybody in the movie does.

In fact, there is a clause in the director’s contract that states that after the bad guy has shown up on screen, if even one second of film passes through the projector before the entire audience has figured out both who he is and the nature of his fiendish plan, then the film’s producers are entitled to take the director out back and shoot him dead with a single bullet to the head. In Hollywood this is called a “mercy killing”. Fortunately, no director of such a film has ever been so brave or foolhardy as to try to respect the audience’s intelligence, so the situation has never come up.

There is a quality about well made comics, a kind of delightful fragmentation of time that is rarely captured on the big screen – mainly involving the implicit storytelling that goes on between the panels, which both Will Eiisner and Scott McCloud have both discussed quite wonderfully. This is not at all the same as montage in filmmaking, because in a comic book (or graphic novel if you want your work to be reviewed in The New York Times) the reader sees multiple panels simultaneously, and so different kinds of rhythm and resonance are possible.

There is another medium that is just beginning to loom in cultural importance – the medium of computer games. In spite of its mostly impressive computer graphic effects, Iron Man has absolutely nothing to do with computer games. The movie tells the audience to sit back and relax, while the by-the-numbers plot goes through its thudding paces – occasionally pausing just long enough to smash the audience upon the head with a massive sledge hammer labeled “This is what is going to happen next.”

In contrast, the second film I saw today, although adopted from a series of comic books (Japanese Manga actually), is very much a child of the age of computer games. The source comic books – the Death Note series is wildly popular in Japan – are structured like an ongoing computer game. Ostensibly it is a supernatural thriller about a young man who kills people under the influence of an otherworldly demon, but its formal structure is something else entirely.

As the film begins, a series of rules is laid out, and then some characters proceed to test those rules, pushing the rules to their limit, while other characters try to work out the rules and respond strategically. The screenplay invites the audience in on this game, and gives it plenty of opporunities to try to figure out what’s going on, who is bluffing whom, and what might be coming next. Like a good game, the rules are clear, the challenges progress in difficulty, and the audience is drawn into an entire way of thinking and problem solving.

The thing that struck me is how Death Note trusts its audience, and never plays down to them. The mostly teenage audience members around me were completely into this; it was obvious they were all having a great time. Perhaps we are seing something new: nonlinear interactive media starting to change the nature of storytelling.

Figure and ground

I was fascinated to see, in Bern’s long and very philosophical comment about Eros, that every example she gave framed life connections between people against the background of death. From Harold and Maude to Portrait of Jennie, and of course our dear wonderful Randy Pausch in real life, every example she gave (and they were very good examples!) suggested that the ways we become emotionally connected to each other, and create meaning in each other’s lives, is intimately tied up with the knowledge that death is waiting somewhere nearby.

I completely agree. I used to ask myself what kinds of creatures we humans would be, were we able to live forever. Eventually I realized that the question is practically meaningless, in the sense that any such creatures, even should they exist, would not be recognizably human. As much as we generally hate death, are horrified by it, and the way it takes away those we love the most (and eventually takes us as well), we actually define our lives by death’s shadow.

We constantly make use of this shadow, in a million little ways. The stages of our lives, from childhood to adolescence to the successive stages of adulthood, have very little meaning as steady states of being – they are literally defined by their flow from one to the other. Childhood discoveries, getting your first grown-up tooth, discovering what it feels like to fall in love, going to college and finding out what you are really good at, seeking out a life partner – just about anything you can think of in your life that has any emotional power or resonance – is defined by change and by our intuitive understanding of the impermanence of all experience.

In a sense, life is a fractal: This moment in time only has meaning by virtue of being nestled in a particular minute of an hour within a day, and so on, out to the month, year and lifetime. If a minute were taken “out of time”, it would become unmoored from that nested set of chinese boxes that individuals and cultures build from the raw material of time’s arrow.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate the fact that I’m going to die one day. But I am also acutely aware that this very brain with which I am thinking such thoughts would contain no system of values that I could recognize, would not be able to discern any light or meaningful joy, without that shadow behind it, framing and defining the edges of that joy.

For without that shadow to frame the light, how would we ever be able to understand just how precious, how infinitely precious, are the moments we have with those that we love?


Today Ted Selker called me unexpectedly. He had been on his way to give the keynote speech at a conference in Barcelona but the security people at the airport wouldn’t let him leave the U.S. because his passport had been through the laundry one too many times. Apparently a ratty passport is now considered a threat to our freedoms and to our American way of life.

So I’m putting him up for the night tonight. We had great pasta at one of those amazing little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurants that only New Yorkers know about, and then we spent hours happily talking about crazy computer interfaces.

Ted is the guy who is the most responsible for that little red pointer device on IBM computer keyboards (I’m using one right now – it’s what I used to draw that eye picture back in February).

Ted is one of those crazy inventors with all sorts of equipment and half finished devices in his basement shop, like the inventor Dick Van Dyke played in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I understand that people like this used to be everywhere back in the 1800’s. I We need more people like him in the world now. Not only do people like Ted make the world a better place with their innovations, but they make for really, really good dinner conversation!

I also think we need more inventors in the popular culture as role models for kids to emulate. We had MacGyver from 1985 until 1992, but that was a while ago. Who else has there been? Somebody help me out here…


Coincidentally, my friend Cynthia invited me today to see the Scorsese concert film Shine a Light. I say coincidentally because only yesterday I spoke of Placido Domingo – a man aged 67 in a performance that essentially conveys a romantic vision of a god. And only three days ago I talked about friendships between people of different ages, which prompted (to my great surprise) many comments touching on May/December sexual relationships – which I had not been thinking about.

Troy’s comments in particular seemed to wrestle with that question from both directions. On the one hand Harold and Maude is an ideal of the much older woman (played by Ruth Gordon) using a sexual connection to lead the young man (played by Bud Cort) away from his obsession with death. On the other hand, Troy also pointed out those unsettling relationships in which a man of seventy and a much younger woman have what appears (at least from the outside) to be a purely transactional relationship: He gives her luxury and she gives him the illusion of continuing life and vitality.

I say that this is all coincidental because Shine a Light takes a particular premise of The First Emperor much further. In Tan Dun’s opera we believe Placido Domingo’s Emperor to be a compelling and vital figure, but essentially a father figure – not a lover. That awesome voice is used to illuminate the soul of an attractive man, but decidedly an older man, concerned mainly with consolidating his legacy and power.

But in Shine a Light we are shown a different god. Where Placido Domingo was Zeus, Mick Jagger is Eros, god of love, lust and sexual potency. As Jagger is approaching 65, almost contemporary with Domingo, his figure of Eros becomes more interesting. When he was a beautiful young man in his twenties, it was an obvious choice. Everything about him exuded young sexual potency – from the come-hither eyes to the almost obscenely full lips, he was the ultimate sexualized boy-man, Peter Pan on testosterone, inviting young women out to play:

But now of course he looks completely different. His face is proudly craggy, an old man’s face. If anything he looks even more aged than his years. But the body is still that of a slender teenage boy, the eyes still flash with sexual mischief, and the energy is infinite. Cynthia and I compared notes after the film, and we realized that we had both been thinking the same thing: That when he was on stage singing and dancing, he was incredibly beautiful.

It’s not how he looks, it’s how he moves, the spirit that inhabits his body while he is up thre on the stage, as though one is seeing a Faun, a creature of pure pleasure and sexual delight. The concert was filmed at the Beacon Theatre in New York, and the filmmakers made sure that the front row of standing and swaying fans consisted mainly of beautiful young women, who all looked to be about eighteen.

I was particularly intrigued by the power dynamic between Jagger and these young women. He barely notices them – he is, after all, Eros and Dionysus all rolled into one, and they are mere mortals – whereas they can’t take their eyes off him. They seem completely mesmerized. When he sings Some Girls they are all transported. I know this is all conjecture, but at this point in the concert I got the sense that these fans were thinking: “This, right here and now, is what I wish sex with my boy friend was like.”

One concluseion to reach is that “age” is a red herring in trying to get a handle on human relationships – it is used as a signifier to stand in for other things, and the fit is not very good. The real tension – as I obliquely alluded to in a post several weeks ago – is between Eros and Thanatos. These represent, as Freud described it, the struggle within every individual between the will to life and the will to death – the constant battle between the joy of being and the pull toward annihilation.

Troy’s two examples: Ruth Gordon’s Maude and the old man “buying” the young wife, are actually on opposite ends of this scale. Maude is the Eros that rescues Harold from Thanatos. Her own real battles with death, including her obliquely referenced time in a WWII Concentration Camp, have pushed her to develop skills for embracing life, to the point where she is a healer – eventually this eighty year old woman takes the teenage boy to bed, and the film makes it clear that her influence has saved him from a life of morbid denial of joy.

In contrast, the archetypical image of the old man “buying” the young woman as a wife or companion is quite the opposite. In terms of life (as opposed to mere material wealth, which does not confer life) such a man is Thanatos – taking, not giving. He is in fact a vampire of Eros, drawing on his young wife’s vitality, since he has none of his own.

Jagger is very much in the former camp. Like all humans who become figures of Eros, he is erotically self-sufficient. He does not need the Other to provide his sexual empowerment and fulfilment – he embodies fulfillment. I think that the peculiar and enduring power of the holy trinity of American pop idols – Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean – is precisely that they are all erotically self-sufficient. People are drawn to the illusion of infinite Eros that they represent.

This image is precisely what Jagger is creating onstage, and the young women in the audience know this. I don’t think it is relevant whether any of those fans would actually sleep with him (they might or might not – I wouldn’t know), because that is not the transaction going on here. What they are drawing from him is the power of the fantasy that he creates of infinite sexual enjoyment. Because he gives, rather than takes, they see him as Eros, not Thanatos, even though he looks old enough to be their grandfather.

I think it is important, when we look at the dynamic between people, to account for factors on the Eros/Thanatos dialectic that transcend such relatively shallow categories as age, ethnicity or gender. For example, Oona O’Neil fell madly in love with Charlie Chaplin (they remained happily married for thirty four years) even though he was thirty nine years older than she was, and I strongly suspect she saw him as a figure of Eros. The bottom line is that we are drawn to those from whom we draw life.

Oona and Charlie Chaplin

We cannot change when we were born, or where we come from, or many other things about ourselves. But we can – any of us – choose to emulate Maude, to find ways of embracing Eros rather than Thanatos, and to continue at any age to reach out toward life with joy and a sense of fun. Sounds like a plan to me.

First Emperor

Today my friend Peggy invited me to the Metropolitan Opera to see Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, with Placido Domingo in the lead. An opera at the Met is always an overwhelming experience, a heady mix of pleasures: A non-stop ride of pure sensuality that you feel down in your gut, conveyed through technique so controlled and precise it makes your head spin.

In some ways it’s almost the opposite of the Broadway Theatre. On Broadway they work hard to create the illusion that we’re all just folks, that maybe you could go out for a beer with that person up there on stage if you happened to meet them on the right day. On Broadway people applaud when the star first comes on stage, no matter what the play or the role, just as they’d applaud a celebrity walking onto the stage of The Tonight Show.

An Emperor learns the great price of power

At the opera, nobody applauded the star’s entrance. I mean, what kind of idiot would start clapping while Placido Domingo is singing? You really don’t want to be making any sounds when he is singing. You just want to be there while it lasts, in a state of quiet ecstasy. When we hear him sing the role of Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor (he of the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta army), we know we are not in the presence of a fellow mortal – we are in the presence of a god. The wonderful illusion of grand opera is that these beings we witness upon the stage are creatures of mythological proportion, visions from our deepest dreams made flesh.

The Terra Cotta army

The First Emperor is unusual in that Tan Dun attempts to combine two great traditions that have virtually nothing in common – the traditional Peking Opera and our own Western opera. Hs solution is to not so much combine them as to let them live side by side – characters singing in the Eastern tradition are not so much part of the action as they are a greek chorus that introduces it, pulling us back to a time more than 2200 years ago.

I found myself wondering whether Domingo could have sung in the Eastern mode, but he was never asked to. And that was clearly the right decision – his skill is a culmination of decades of training in a very specific discipline, and that skill would not have transferred over to a completely different discipline. One might as well expect Michael Jordan to play baseball!

Placido Domingo filling the opera house with glorious sound

Tan Dun does indeed combine the two musical traditions where it can be made to work – in the instrumental parts. He incorporates such exotic elements as Chinese singing drums into the orchestra, to great effect. In one lovely moment, while the musician Qi Yao, sitting onstage, plays the traditional zheng (a large traditional zither-like instrument), she is accompanied by the two harpists in the orchestra pit. Suddenly we notice the similarities between them – two very disparate musical traditions coinciding and merging into one. I also liked the way the members of the orchestra were called upon to chant and rhythmically shout. From where I sat looking down at them in a box seat, I could tell they were enjoying themselves immensely. That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often at the Met.

With all that, it was in essence like all grand opera – a tale of blood and revenge, great hatred and even greater love, and the workings of fate in all of its magnificent cruelty. And everything portrayed with opulant visuals slendidly realized and sweeping music beautifully sung. Yet it all came down to those voices, giving us a glimpse into the passions of gods. I ended up thinking about something a music critic once said: The two most essential elements of grand opera are sex and the dominant seventh chord.