Sunday, December 04, 2005

causation and people: the living story

Some people lament the death of The Novel; others champion experimental forms: post-modernism, 3D movies, smellerama. To me, these two types of people, the lamenters and the experimenter, seem very similar. The lamenter mourns the decaying flesh, but fails to notice the thriving soul. The experimenter sees the soul but, ignoring it's subtle beauty, dresses it up in frilly costumes so that it will be more obviously arresting. Both refuse to stare the soul squarely in the face and see its true nature.

What is the soul of fiction? Causation. We're fascinated by it. This causes that, which causes something else, which causes the next thing. Without causation, we wouldn't have plot. We wouldn't wonder "What's going to happen next?" We wouldn't groan when the episode of our favorite show ends with a cliffhanger. We wouldn't even turn over one page to see what's on the next.

The funny thing about causation is that it might not exist. I know just turned the doorknob and I know that, following this, the door opened. But those are just two separate events: turn knob; door opens. What does it mean to say that the first event "caused" the second? This is a fascinating question, but I'm not going to get into it here. Whether or not causation actually exists, it SEEMS to exist. The truth or illusion of causation is inescapable, and it's the clockwork that drives fiction.

But causation alone is not the soul of fiction -- it's just one aspect of the soul. If causation exists, it exists for both humans and objects, but we don't much care about objects. One might be fleetingly amused by a story about a lever controlling a pulley controlling a gear controlling a garage door, but after a while, one would long for a person.

A "person" need not be an actual human being. It could be an android, a talking horse, a hobbit, etc. It's a "person" if it has human-like psychology. I can imagine stripping a story of almost every element, but if the characters don't get scared, fall in love, blush with shame and shed tears, they surely wouldn't keep my interest.

A person doesn't merely "get scared." Something CAUSES his fear. He fears the monster that's trampling the trailer park or the dark man following him into the canyon. So we're back to causation again. Causation involving people. Sometimes I call it "social causation," or, when I'm feeling less pedantic, "plot and character."

Successful stories -- stories that move me -- must contain these elements, but they needn't be rendered in a straightforward way. Characters can be mysterious. Plots can contain unanswered questions. Such stories merely tease my desire to tie up all lose ends. "You WANT to know what's going to happen next, don't you?" they seem to ask. "Well, we're not going to tell you!" This is tantalizing, titillating and, sometimes, aggravating, but it's still plot and character.

Some writers claim to write plotless stories; others write "genre" novels that seem to be almost all plot. But both types really utilize plot and character. Chekhov, the uber-character writer, was a master of plot. His plots are well-wrought, but subtle. In "Uncle Vanya," a professor and his wife come to stay with their relatives, the wife falls in love with the local doctor, Vanya tries to murder the professor, the professor makes plans to sell the country estate. Plot, plot, plot. And after twenty minutes of a James Bond film, I'd be bored with the gadgets and pyrotechnics if I didn't care about Bond himself. Character. Stories are about caused characters.

Caused characters will never stop thrilling us, because we'll always be human and we'll always be trapped with the the truth/illusion of causation. Which is why I laugh when I hear that The Novel is dead. It is certainly possible that people will one day stop buying paper bound between soft and hard covers, and I'll be sad when that day comes, because I love the smell and touch of printed books. But as romantic as those books are, they're nothing compared with the stories inside them. I may temporarily loath reading "The Great Gatsby" on a screen, but the deeper I get into it, the less I will care how I'm receiving the story and the more I'll be wrapped up in the complex, causal world of East Egg, West Egg, Daisy, Nick and Gatsby. If you get me to wonder "What's going to happen next?" or "Why is she crying?", I won't really care if I'm flipping pages, pressing buttons, or hearing speech.

A couple of years ago, I started listening to recorded books. I'm an insatiable story lover, so during any given week, I'm generally listening to one book and reading another one. After doing this for some time, I began to realize that once I was done with a book, I had a hard time remembering whether I'd read it or listened to it. There are some books I recall from, maybe, half a year ago, that I literally couldn't tell you whether I turned pages or turned up the volume. But I COULD tell you every detail about the story itself. The medium is not the message. The medium is the medium. The message is the message.

Maybe in some sad future, people will not only stop reading books -- they'll stop reading. The printed word will die. (I'm skeptical that this will really happen, despite the influence of television, because print is such a useful, economical way of conveying information.) If this happens, the novel WILL be dead -- but only in a literal sense. The NOVEL will be dead. Stories will be as alive as ever. Stories thrived before written text was invented; they will thrive after it dies.

I challenge any dictator to banish all stories. He'll fail. We'll cease telling and listening to stories the day we cease to be human. Stories are entwined with the core of what it means to be human. Every known culture, throughout time, has told stories. Take two babies and plop them on an uninhabited island: they will create their own language and use it tell each other tales. Papyrus may die, scrolls may die, radio may die, comic books may die, films, television and books may die... but in some form, stories will live on. We'll shed a few tears for the death of our favorite story-conveyor, but our eyes will dry, and we'll stop caring, as soon as we get wrapped up in a new story. (I bet when the printed book became popular, people mourned the death of the oral tradition!)

Stories will live, because they feed our insatiable yearning for causation and psychology. The flip side of this coin is that anything UNrelated to causation and psychology has a hard time sticking. Yet people are continually trying to innovate. 3D movies, choose-your-own-adventure books, holograms, etc. Generally, these tricks fascinate for a day or two, then they quietly die. They are all tweaks of the story-delivery process, not of the story itself. And these tweaks generally make the delivery more complicated. History shows us that the simpler the delivery process, the more likely it is to survive (books, comics, radio-plays, projected pictures). The key is to strip down the delivery to something so simple that it can be ignored -- so that we can focus on the story. The point shouldn't be that it's a 3D MOVIE. The point should be that it's a love story, a western, a mystery or a fantasy.

Innovations that HELP you sink more deeply into the story DO survive. This is why color, special effects and surround sound have been so quickly accepted in movie theatres. While you forget about them, they add to your immersion in the story.

It's mostly artists and academics who care about innovation, anyway. Audiences just care about stories. The artist, wrapped up in his ego, wants to create something new. Or rather -- and this is crucial -- he wants people to SEE that he's created something new. So he tweaks the delivery system. He directs a play in which the audience sits on the stage; He puts a CD-ROM in the back of his novel. Or he messes with the form. A simple linear progression of events generally conveys causation and psychology best, but the artist isn't content with this. So he chops up time, breaks the fourth wall, tells one half of his story in prose and the other half via comic-book, etc. All of this makes him seem more original, generally at the expense of the story. It muddies causation. (Every once in a while, someone finds a way of using a trick to enhance causation, psychology and immersion. "Annie Hall" comes to mind, as does the best of Bergman and Fellini. These are exceptions. In such cases, one DOES find oneself thinking about the story and its characters -- not about the cleverness of the artist. So, when should the artist delve into non-linear and experimental devices? Perhaps he should follow the "rule" of musical theatre? When should a character burst into song? When mere spoken-words can't convey the intensity of the emotion. When should a story become non-linear or experimental? When traditional story-mechanics fail to convey the necessary plot and character details. Any other uses of experimentation are necessarily gratuitous.)

True innovation -- the type that satiates readers and audiences, takes place within the realm of plot and character. It's generally subtle. It's the surprising smile that forms on the hero's lips when he discovers his wife has been murdered by his best friend; it's the source of that strange, grinding noise behind the door; it's the shock that the mother feels when she realizes she cares more about her career than she cares about her son.

But an artist must be selfless to pour all of his creative powers into plot and character, because he knows the result will be, "Cool story!" not "Brilliant artist!" (Also, plot and character innovation is much more difficult to create than form jiggery. One can play a parlour game of form innovation and rattle off neat tricks: what if the movie was projected into a circle instead of a rectangle? What if the book's chapter numbers counted down instead of up? What if the men were played by women and the women were played by men? Compare the work needed to come up with these cheap tricks to the work needed to find a new way, within a linear plot, to tell the story of a man leaving his wife. One must rely on an intricate understanding of psychology, great skill with language and metaphor, and a subtle sense of timing. Alas, the number of people who want to be artists far surpasses the number of people born with true storytelling skills, hence the reliance on cheap tricks that signify "I am an artist.")

The true storyteller doesn't even care about innovation. He cares about telling his story. Innovation is all about ego. Storytelling is about communication. I will tell you that I love you, and I don't care if millions of people have said those words before. I'm not thinking about them. I'm thinking about my love for you. A real story is like that -- it's a selfless act of communication. Generally it winds up being innovative, simply because the artist is pouring his heart and soul in the act of communication -- and he happens to be a unique human being. Without trying, he stamps it with his personality.

The academic often accuses the novel of dying. Or he says, "We must search for new forms!" Why? The old forms are powerful and from them, we can generate an infinite variety of stories. They will never be exhausted. Fifteen stories about revenge will be fifteen unique stories about revenge. And what if they're not? What if they're pretty much all the same? As long as they're truthful -- as long as the psychology makes sense and the plot is arresting, we (the audience) won't care. Why are there so many people who read fantasy after fantasy, mystery after mystery, romance after romance? Aren't these book all the same? In some ways yes, just as today's plate of scrambled eggs is the same as yesterday's. Yet we devour both with relish.

We don't want constant innovation in our food. And we'd scoff at the man who proclaimed breakfast dead! We do like SOME innovation in food, but within limits. We're generally not interested in eating pie made with mud and rusty nails. But we'd try pie made with unusual fruit or a crust made without wheat. We understand that subtle innovations are just as meaningful as over-the-top ones.

I'm baffled by academics who search for new forms. They only seem to care about fiction at the macro level. They notice general similarities between stories, label the stories based on these similarities, and once labeled, they move on. They don't engage with these stories the way the rest of us do -- getting involved in the minutia of plot and character detail. They can't seem to see that there's a universe of difference between the tears Julie sheds when her lover dies and the tears Mary stifles in the same situation.

I suspect these scholars operate under similar principles as the "innovative artists." It's much easier to make a splash in academia by talking in bold strokes about genre, trends, theme, formal concerns and media than it is to talk about subtleties of plot and character.

It always seems to me that there are a large number of people who hover around fiction that don't actually LIKE stories. They prefer the mechanics of story-telling, the glamour of celebrity, DVD-commentaries, special effects, the author's political or social life, collecting first editions, etc. I've spent years working in the theatre, and I'm stunned by how often I've heard fellow actors and directors say, "I don't really like going to the theartre that much." From my perspective -- as someone who eat, drinks and dreams stories -- these people might as well be from Mars. Which is why I so enjoyed Whit Stillman's parody in the film "Metropolitan." The character Tom spends hours arguing with his friend Audrey about a Jane Austin novel, only to admit that he's never actually read it.

Stunned, Audrey says, "You haven't read it?"

"No," says Tom, "I don't read fiction. I prefer good literary criticism. That way, you get the author's idea plus the critic's. With fiction, I can never forget that none of it actually happened."

The funny thing is, this too is a kind of story -- an interplay between author and critic. So maybe even the innovators and academics need stories. Odd as it seems to me, they feed their story hunger by looking outside the book. Yet they still gobble down plot and character. One finds plenty of both in gossip columns, university committees, The White House, literary journals, coffee houses and the classroom. Some people prefer stories about stories to the stories themselves.

Monday, November 28, 2005

metaphor, originality and finding one's voice

Young writers worry about "finding their voice." For instance, someone (in an online forum) recently asked how to write original metaphors. He quoted Orwell's advice: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. " I'm a huge Orwell fan, and I generally agree with his ideas about writing. Certainly, I admire his push against hackneyed expressions. But I think he was attacking the problem from the wrong angle.

Good writing blooms naturally if you (a) have a story to tell and (b) try to embed the reader into your story. The story must be so compelling to you that you want everyone to share your excitement. But they won't unless you get them to see what you see, smell what you smell, taste what you taste, etc.

Bad writing generally stems from one's attempts To Be Original. I agree with Orwell that one shouldn't imitate what one sees in print, but I'd add that one should also try not to avoid using prose one sees in print. One shouldn't care one way or another what one sees in print, because that has nothing to do with Telling The Story. Being original -- or forming any sort of relationship, imitative or reactionary, between one's own writing and other, published pieces -- has nothing to do with telling a story. And originality attempts generally weaken the story, because it's very hard to complete two goals at once. If you have just ONE goal (your story), and you're clear about what it is, then you'll follow it straight to its target. If a phrase from someone else's story is the best type of bullet to load into your gun, you must load that bullet. Otherwise, you're serving your egoistic need to be original, rather than serving the story.

Instead of "Never use a metaphor ... which you are used to seeing in print," I'd advise avoiding metaphor altogether -- until you NEED one. What's the point of metaphor, anyway, beyond some vague poetic impulse (trying To Be Original)? What is metaphor's purpose? Remember, you're trying to get the reader to smell the shit on the workman's boots, to taste the diner's bitter coffee. There will come a point when you can't convey the sensual details through journalistic, descriptive language (how do you describe a man's love for his wife this way?), so you'll need a metaphor. Metaphors are comparisons. When we can't describe something directly, we compare that thing to something else -- something familiar and evocative to the reader -- so that he can experience the original idea via a proxy. Maybe the readers can't feel what your protagonist feels when he sees his wife kissing another man, but they can understand what it's like to step in a bucket of cold, filthy water?

Without trying, your metaphor WILL be original. It will have to be, or it won't work. Just remember that the point of metaphor is to make the reader FEEL. This is similar to the point song in a musical. Producers tell their composer/lyricist collaborators to make the hero break into song only when speech will no longer convey the emotion. ("I just met a girl named Maria!"

As for finding one's voice, it also happens when you quit trying. Don't make the mistake of trying to look natural when you're posing for a photograph. You can't do it. But you WILL look natural if someone snaps your picture while you're busy measuring a cup of flour for a muffin recipe. You'll look natural because you'll be actively pursuing a goal -- other than Being Natural. So simply by telling a story as vividly as possible, your voice (which you already have, because you're a human being) will emerge.

By the way, I'm NOT advocating laziness. I agree with everyone who says writing is hard work. The hard work involves selecting words that advance your story -- that engage the reader's senses. The hard work involves pruning away all those elements that don't serve your story. This includes ego, trying to Be Original and trying To Find Your Voice. What does finding your voice have to do with the history of France in the Middle Ages? What does being original have to do with fleeing from robots on an enemy planet?

When I write, I purposefully delete phrases that sound "too original." This is really hard to do, because such phrases are rare and I'm generally really proud of them. But I mistrust them, too. I worry that the reader will think, "Wow, what a cool turn of phrase." At which point they've lost the thread of the story. As Hemingway said, you must kill all your darlings. As Orwell said (though I realize he put this in the mouth of an antagonist) the destruction of words is a beautiful thing.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I'm disturbed. A couple of days ago, I had one of those conversations from which you emerge feeling as if the ground has shifted under your feet. Whereas you were formerly standing in an Indiana of simplicity, you're now standing in a Kentucky of complexity. How did you get there?

The conversation took place online (a message board) and the topic was "spoilers." For those of you who are lucky enough to have a Real Life (as opposed to just an Internet Life), I should define "spoilers". "Spoiler" is the Internet term for an utterance that spoils the plot of a movie. Example: in the end, the hero dies. Unless you want to rob first-time viewers of surprise, you should avoid spoilers. On the other hand, it's fun to discuss stories, and you can't discuss them in depth without giving away key details. The solution: warn the readers that you're about to discuss key plot points. Example:

SPOILER: at the end of "Alien and Predator Go to Washington," Predator becomes the ambassador to India.

On the particular message board I visited, someone posted a spoiler -- without warning -- to "The Crying Game." I suspect he did this by accident (one might forget to write "SPOILER" while in the middle of a discussion). Someone pointed out the gaff, and various people started joking about spoilers. The joke climaxed when one guy posted an orgy of spoilers. This wasn't an accident -- he decided it would be fun to spoil several movies at once.

Which was when I jumped in. I begged people to try to remember to use "SPOILER" before divulging plot information. I also expressed my astonishment that anyone would purposefully spoil a story. Why do that? Naively, I expected most people -- other than the multi-spoiler guy -- would agree with me. They didn't. Here's what I was told:

1. Movies are just as good -- if not better -- if you know what's going to happen.

2. Once a movie has been out for a long time, it's fair to openly discuss the plot without warning. People have had plenty of time to see it.

3. At some point after a movie has been released, there are more people who have seen it than people who have not. Why should the majority inconvenience itself for the minority?

4. What's the big deal? They're just movies!

I will discuss each of these points, below:

1. Movies are just as good -- if not better -- if you know what's going to happen.
I once had a friend who begged me to tell him endings of movies I had seen but he hadn't. Suspense hurt his stomach, so he would only watch movies if he was sure they'd never surprise him. He's the only person I've ever met like that, but there are plenty of people who don't care one way or another about being surprised. Then there are others (like me) who love surprises. In other words, there's a spectrum. Different people enjoy movies for different reasons.

As I said, I enjoy being surprised. I also enjoy seeing movies a second (third, fourth...) time when I already know what's going to happen. The two experiences are very different and both are worthwhile. It would sadden me to lose either. Some movies are better that first time, when you're surprised; Some are better when you already know the story; but most are equally good both ways -- just different.

But you can only be surprised once. If someone spoils the plot, you can never have the experience of not-knowing-what's-going-to-happen-next. To some people, this isn't a worthwhile experience. To me, it is.

Being a movie buff, I have a shelf full of DVDs -- great movies that I love watching again and again. But often, I don't want to watch any of my old favorites. I want to watch something new. And this isn't just to broaden my horizons. It's to experience the thrill of surprise. My collection, as great as it is, can't give me this thrill.

There are all kinds of surprises, but there's one I'll always remember. I won't mention the movie, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. It was a comedy. One of the jokes in it caught me completely off guard. I laughed harder than I have ever laughed in my life. I laughed so hard, I had to stop watching to movie. I rolled around on the floor and hugged my sides for ten minutes. Since this joke was based on surprise, I was only able to have this experience once. Since then, I have watched and enjoyed the movie many times, but I have never laughed like that again. I had one shot at that. I feel so blessed to have had that experience. I never would have had it if someone had spoiled the joke for me.

One thing that really upset me during the message board conversation was though I kept saying, over and over, I like seeing movies both ways, nobody seemed to hear me. People kept explaining to me that movies were just as good (or better) when you knew the plot. Surely anyone can see -- whether they value this or not -- that the two experiences are different. And to those who admit this but don't value the surprise experience, all I can say is that your value needn't be my value.

2. Once a movie has been out for a long time, it's fair to openly discuss the plot without warning. People have had plenty of time to see it.

Except new people are being born all the time. "Citizen Kane" was released in 1941. I was born in 1965, so I didn't have a chance to see the movie until decades after it was released. When I saw it, it was new to me.

As for contemporary movies, hundreds of them are released each year. I can't see them all. I can't even see the all the ones I want to see when they come out. There's not enough time in my day. Thankfully, services like Netflix exist, allowing me to catch up in my own time. Often, I'm busy enough that I miss the hype surrounding a movie. I don't even know the movie exists until a year or two after it is released, when someone recommends it to me. What is so special about the release date, anyway? Movies continue to exist in the same form forever. Why must I hurry to see them?

Many people pointed out that, at a certain point, famous movies become part of the cultural landscape. Their stories have outgrown their sources and it's okay talk about them, because (I guess) refusing to do so means opting out of everyday conversation. Well, I choose to opt out of SOME everyday conversations -- if they are conversations that are going to spoil movies for me. But I don't expect other people to opt out. I DO expect people to respect my feelings and give me fair warning. If I knew you were scared of monsters, I wouldn't call Hollywood and ask them to cancel the production of "Nightmare on Elm Street XVIII." But I WOULD warn you not to see it.

I would certainly agree that if I had some aversion to the word "the", it wouldn't be fair for me to expect people to avoid saying it. "The" is a common word. It's would really inconvenience people to stop using it. But saying "SPOILER" once is not a major inconvenience. It takes two seconds. You say it, and anyone who wants to opt out can run for cover, then you can say what you wanted to say. Everybody wins.

(A bizarre number of people told me that "The Simpons" regularly spoils iconic movies. So? Does "The Simpsons" dictate the way one should act? Where they claiming that if spoilers are not allowed, then "The Simpsons" would have to be cancelled? Hogwash. If "The Simpsons" spoils movies, people who don't like spoilers shouldn't watch it. That's all. Which is one of the reasons I don't watch "The Simpsons.")

3. At some point after a movie has been released, there are more people who have seen it than people who have not. Why should the majority inconvenience itself for the minority?

Majorities should never inconvenience themselves for minorities? Scary!

Again, I would never expect people to seriously inconvenience themselves. "Spoiler" takes almost no time.

What's the problem?

4. What's the big deal? They're just movies!

Or we could say they are artifacts about which some people feel passionate.

I hate sports. Yet many people revolve their lives around football games. Who am I to judge them? Most of us feel passionately about something which is objectively trivial -- football, gourmet food, beer, chocolate, music, art ... movies.

Movies are stories. Stories touch something deep inside me. I make no apology for my love of stories. Stories are my life.

Friday, November 04, 2005


A is for aardvark. Aardvarks eat ants, and they have long noses. My nose isn't long, but it's fat. It's like a big jack-o-lantern triangle that's been slapped haphazardly onto my face. Which is why no one finds me attractive. Also because of my stooped shoulders and my lazy eye. And because I eat ants.

B is for boy. It's also for girl, because I don't want to be sexist. If I like girls "that way" but not boys, does that make me sexist? Or reverse-sexist? What IS the reverse of sexist, anyway? Sexy? If I like girls "that way," does it mean I'm sexy? Is that why girls are scared of me? Because I'm too sexy? Even with my fat nose? [See "A is for Aardvark."]

C is for cookie. Here's a good recipe for cookies: go to the store and buy some. Don't bother putting them on a fancy plate. Just rip open the package like a man and chow down! You'll be surprised at how many you can eat. You'll finish one and say, "Okay, that's it. I mean, I don't want to get fat or anything," but then you'll think, "One more can't hurt." And then, before you know it, you'll finish the whole pack. And you won't go to the gym, because you'll think, "Hell, I've already ruined today. I'll get back to my diet and exercise routine tomorrow. Meanwhile, I'll have some ice cream." By "you" I mean "me."

D is for dad. My dad never gave me enough attention, so I acted out in the most cliche ways, like stealing hood ornaments and TPing people's houses. Let's face it: I'm not an original thinker. Paradoxically, this is because I keep trying to have original thoughts -- so that I can impress my dad. I guess my personality never really developed. I'm like this adjunct to my dad that he refuses to acknowledge. Of course, now that I'm older, I can see that my dad is an adjunct to HIS dad that HIS dad refuses to acknowledge. And yes, I DO plan to have kids.

E is for energy. Which apparently is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Do you understand the Theory of Relativity? You should use it as a benchmark for your level of intelligence. No matter what you've accomplished, no matter how high you scored on standardized tests, no matter how much you earn or how many birthday presents you get, if you don't understand the Theory of Relativity, you're basically stupid. Sure, I'm raising an arbitrarily high bar, but I say, "Why not aim high?" I also say, "Why not eat a little humble pie?" [See "C is for cookie."] And if you do understand the Theory of Relativity, don't rest on your laurels. Aim higher. See if you can figure out a way to unify the fields. Somebody has to.

F is for frog. I feel hope whenever I read one of those stories in which a beautiful princess kisses a frog, and then the frog turns into a handsome prince. Which is why I keep kissing frogs. I hope they turn into princes, because a prince can talk and I want to ask him a question. I want to ask him, "Do you ever feel insecure in your marriage to the beautiful princess? I mean, she obviously wouldn't have married you back when you were a frog, and if you ever turn back into a frog again, you're pretty much toast. And aren't you still a frog on the inside? Don't you feel like the princess is attracted to you for superficial reasons? I mean, I know you're a handsome prince and everything, but you can't erase the fact that you were born so much uglier than your wife. Can beautiful women be attracted to ugly men?" Do you think the prince would actually give this some thought and answer me truthfully, or would he just mumble, "good question, good question," and pat me on the head. I couldn't bear being treated like a peasant by a prince who was once a frog! Also, would there be awkwardness because I once kissed him and we're both guys?

G is for Google. I tried searching for myself the other day, and I discovered a link to a really embarrassing remark I once wrote. I wrote it in 1989 and posted it without thinking. Now it's online to haunt me. And anyone who googles me can find it. I don't want to tell you what it says; It's too humiliating. Oh, okay. It says, "Sometimes I steal money from people who invite me over for dinner." Look, that was in the 80s. Who didn't steal back then? I'm mostly over it. Sure, if I see some spare change lying around on the top of someone's microwave or peeking out from under their sofa, I might pocket it. Are you saying you wouldn't? In the early 90s, when most people didn't know how to go online or do a web search, I never noticed my comment having any adverse affects. Now no one ever invites me to dinner parties.

H is for hermit. Sometimes I lock myself in my room. I'm perfectly happy being alone, as-long-as I have access to diet Coke, cheese sandwiches, a television and some lubricant. The only problem is I get these racing thoughts. I start imagining things I should have said to people or things I should say to people or things I want people to say to me. So I'm alone but I'm not alone. All my thoughts are turned outward, to an imagined social life. I wonder if this is because I've never tried being a hermit for long enough. Maybe after a few years, you completely stop thinking about other people. Maybe this is easier without television. But then how would I watch CNN?

I is for igloo. You know, I was in this coffee shop the other day, reading a paperback copy of "Ethan Frome," and I looked across the room from me, and there was this pretty girl also reading a paperback copy of "Ethan Frome." What are the chances? And I thought I could capitalize on this coincidence by striking up a conversation about our shared tastes in literature. Only I couldn't catch her eye. She was engrossed in her book and refused to look up. So I kept making these coughing noises and clearing my throat, hoping this would distract her, but it didn't work. Man! She was really enjoying "Ethan Frome." Finally, this guy by the door accidentally kicked the umbrella stand. It made a racket she looked up. I grasped the opportunity and stared right into her eyes. And she noticed me staring at her. When I saw that she noticed, I pushed my head forward, indicating her book. Then I inclined my head towards my book, trying to get her to see the connection. She just sort of smirked and went back to "Ethan Frome." I figured I blew it with her. I searched the room for other girls I could flirt with, but no one else was reading "Ethan Frome." Typical!

J is for January. I just realized that my last paragraph had nothing to do with igloos. So I'm thinking maybe I should write about igloos now. Or maybe I should just cut my losses and move on to January, or I could combine January and igloos into one paragraph -- they both call to mind images of coldness and winter. But I'm sort of distracted, because I'm still thinking about that girl in the coffee shop. She was wearing a miniskirt and thigh-high stockings and frankly who wouldn't be distracted by her? Do you think I should have asked for her phone number? Would that have come across as desperate? Maybe I should post one of those "missed connections" ads on Craigslist: saw you in the coffee shop reading "Ethan Frome." We exchanged a meaningful glance. Let's exchange more. Yours truly, Not The Umbrella Stand Guy.

K is for king. Just for one day, I'd like to be king. Just to see what it's like. I'd like to order people around without suffering any consequences. (I don't want them to despise me for ordering them around. I want them to just accept it -- as my Divine Right.) Here are some of the things I'd order: no whistling, 'cause it gives me a headache; I get to eat as much cake as I want without gaining weight; somebody else has to finish this alphabet for me. Here are some gifts I would bestow: every day is Casual Friday, except for Friday, which is Cake Wednesday; always free samples in the cheese isle; everyone gets slaves but no one has to be a slave; the alphabet ends at K.

L is for love. I love you. There, I've admitted it! I hope this doesn't lead to embarrassed silences and eyes cast downward at our place-mats. Can't we pretend I never said it and just be friends. And can't I occasionally lay my hand on your thigh, just as a friendly gesture? I mean, does it really hurt you to have a hand on your thigh? Think of it as a gift that you're giving me. It doesn't cost you anything and it affords me such great pleasure. It's almost stupid not to let me play with your boobs -- I mean lay my hand on your thigh. Did you know that in France friends kiss each other on the lips?

M is for money. Do you have a financial advisor? If not, I can be one for you. I'll tell you to buy low and sell hight, or vice versa. I don't know anything about money, but I know what I like. Ah yes, I have expensive tastes. When you see the bench in my foyer, you'll think "money well spent!" And when was the last time you saw me without a carnation in my lapel? For that matter, when was the last time you saw me without a lapel? But I don't speak of money, because one doesn't.

N is for nobody. I am very small. I'm so small I can fit into a little box that you can shove somewhere without thinking -- maybe on some dusty shelf in your closet, way up high and behind the linens. I want to be noticed for my smallness. I want you to be irritated by my unstoppable self-degradation, by my unflappable self-denial. It fills the room and weighs you down, yet if you accuse me of self-aggrandizement I can stare at you wide-eyed and say, "What are you talking about? I'm a worthless sack of shit!" Don't you know the paradox of the small penis? It's also a large penis.

O is for Olivier. The world's greatest actor. Who was better at Shakespeare, Olivier or Gielgud? Gielgud stressed the mechanics, meter and precision of language; Olivier stressed the emotion. When you tell me to stop using things you said in the past against you, I try to be like Gielgud. I try to calmly and logically explain to you that I can't discount the past. If I did, then how could I ever take anything you said seriously? I'd have to discount that time you told me you wanted to sink into the ocean of my eyes. Is that what you want? Sometimes I act like Olivier. I lash out at you. I say, "I see. It's fine when you blame me for that one time I yanked the glasses off your face, flung them to the floor and stomped up and down on them, but the moment I bring up the smallest thing YOU did to ME, I'm the bad guy. Fine. I get it." And I storm out of the room and shack up with the first "ho" I meet at the strip club. Believe me, I know this is childish. You don't have to tell you it's childish. We're in agreement on that point. So are we okay, now? Can we just eat dinner?

P is for penguin. Penguins mate for life. They can't fly. Thanks to the invention of the airplane, people CAN fly. So they don't have to mate for life. Even before the plane, sailors had a girl in every port. On the other hand, I have many ports without girls (so to speak). I also can't afford a plane ticket right now. Anyway, where would I go? Everywhere is the same as here. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush -- even if you're holding a pigeon and the two in the bush are penguins. The penguins are mated for life, so you'll just be a fifth wheel to them. Whereas at least you have a chance with the pigeon.

Q is for quicksand. Lately I've felt that various events have been dragging me down. For instance I'm burnt out in my job. At first I thrilled to the nuance, but -- honestly -- how different can one bottle cap be from another? I look down the assembly line, and all I see is a blur. And I worry that this apathy is bleeding into other areas of my life. For instance, I had this steak at Peter Lugers, and I found myself thinking of that Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?" What I feel I need is some great upheaval. I need to be jostled. I need to be slapped in the face by an unknown hand. I need someone to pull the sidewalk out from under me. But I worry that I'd just hit the dirt under the sidewalk. Or maybe a sewer pipe. What I'd really like to do is go on a quest, like Frodo Baggins. Only without elves.

R is for rust. Want to think about something odd? Imagine licking an old rusty hinge. Feel the metal shards scrape against your tongue. Maybe you'd rather not. Maybe you're pissed that I planted such a nasty picture in your brain. Believe me, brother, it could have been worse. I could have suggested you lick a piece of sponge cake that you'd rubbed in a urinal.

S is for soup. As in "Here we are: in the soup." No one likes to wrestle with disaster, but there is some solace to the recognition that you are, in fact, "in the soup." It's the solace of location. Surely it's better to know that you're in hell than to be lost in a mysterious world filled with pain and fire. Once you know where you are, you can start making plans. "Yup, I'm in hell now. My aunt Emily must be here too. She was a really bad person. I'll go look for her. She used to make really good casseroles."

T is for tiddlywinks. The younger generation is going to read this and accuse me of making up a word. We'll patiently explain to them that back before computers wiped your bottom for you, there was a game called tiddlywinks. Back then, people browsed in actual bookstores and returned their VHS tapes three days late to Blockbuster. Back then, your mother and I loved each other. She was such a pretty girl when I met her, with a waste as thin as your arm. We used to dance to The Jive Five and stay up late to watch meteor showers. You were nothing but a gleam in my eye. Where did it all go? How did everything turn dark and predatory? [See "Q is for quicksand."] Is there any way we can turn back the clock? What I wouldn't give for a second chance. What I'd really like is a way to go back to the 70s and take Netflix with me.

U is for uncle. Are you ready to say "uncle"? Do I have to pin your OTHER arm to the floor? My, my you're a stubborn little hobbit. And you're cute too. It's hard not to take advantage of you there, pinned under me. But I'm a professional. There's pleasure and there's business. Maybe I'll meet you after work for coffee and we'll take if from there. But right now we have to discuss that money you owe my employers. You should have just paid up when you were supposed to. Now look where we are! Why are you making this so difficult? You KNOW you can't win. You think I want your death on my conscience. I may not look like it, but I'm a gentle man on the inside. God fearing, churchgoing. If you promise not to run, I'll let you up so that you can look at this photo of my wife and kids. I always carry it with me. They're not really MY wife and kids. They're the wife and kids of this other guy who refused to pay up. I had to "have a talk" with him. He didn't listen, so now I have his photo. They're the wife and kids I'd like to have if I didn't have to move around so much. Oh God I'm lonely.

V is for vanquish. Vanquish ALL your foes. All of them. Don't make the mistake of sparing the children. Children grow up. They bear grudges. When you're 87, you don't want to bump into a teenager carrying a box-cutter. But that's what's going to happen if you let sentiment cloud your judgement.

W is for wabbit. Do you think Elmer Fudd is gay? He's got to be, right? I have an excellent gaydar. I got it on ebay, but it was still in shrink-wrap, and it came with a two-year limited warranty. At first, I didn't like it because it would beep loudly and say, "Warning! Gay person in the vicinity. Return immediately to home base" whenever I passed anyone on the street with a light step or a limp wrist. But I forced myself to read the manual. There's this switch on the side that puts the thing in vibrate mode. Now I can avoid the fags without disturbing any fuss. I mean "avoid the homos." I don't want to offend anyone. I have no beef with guys who choose to be gay. Trust me, I would be gay in a New York minute if I thought it would help me get laid. But I just know I'd be that one guy wearing a track suit in the leather bar. People wouldn't laugh, because they're too polite, but they'd snigger behind their napkins.

X is for XML. XML facilitates the sharing of data across different systems. Say you're selling your bookshop. You can give me a list of your inventory, and you don't have to ask what kind of computer I have or whether I'm running Word or Excel. It doesn't matter, because every computer can interpret an XML document. Or at least that's the idea. That's the great promise of XML. But we should all remember the Tower of Babel. Sure, we'll start out with this universal language. But pretty soon people will splinter into isolated groups. And inevitably these groups will develop their own in-jokes and dialects. Soon there will be pidgin xmls and then full-out separate languages. And we'll need a United Nations of former xml speakers, and we'll have bad translations of novels, movies with ridiculous subtitles, wars and ethnic cleansings. You can call me a pessimist, but I say I'm a realist. History repeats itself and all roads lead to Rome. Meanwhile, we're living in a utopian bubble -- a brief period of tolerance when we all speak the same XML. We might as well enjoy it while it's here. My advice to you is this: hug your girl tight and whisper some XML into her ear. Wrap the mantle of love around your shoulders. It's not much to protect yourself with in the black night, when the tigers scratch at your door, but in the end, it's all you have.

Y is for yellow. When you and I both look at something yellow, do we see the same yellow? Or do you see mustard while I see jaundice? What do you see when you look at my wife? You'd better not be looking at her ass! What I want is this: I want you to notice that she's sexy without actually being turned on. And I want you to envy my catch without wondering how a nerd like me could have possibly landed such a hot babe. I want you to be jealous without resenting me. I want you to be open to the possibility of a threesome, but only when I'm ready. I may never be ready. On the other hand, if I invite you over tomorrow, bring some wine, because that's only polite. And remember, anything that goes on between you and my wife is just physical. You'll never forge the link with her that I have. Even if she leaves me for you, you'll never know her like I do. Because I read her diary.

Z is for zipper. It's funny to think that there was a time before zippers. And it's even funnier to think that back then, no one thought "this is the time before zippers." Which leads to the thought that in the future, people will look back at our time and think, "Wow! There was once a time before..." and yet we don't think of ourselves as living in a time before... But if we did, what would it be? What is it that we lack? Sure, sure, sure: a renewable energy source, nano-technology, Liz Taylor, etc. But those are obvious. What is it that we lack but don't know that we lack -- and will one day have? If I had to guess, I'd say a machine that forces people to love us. Those in remote posterity will shake their heads at us and say, "Can you imagine living back in those days when you had to worry about getting a girlfriend? And what about those guys whose wives left them! Do you know how lucky we are to be living in the age of forced-love machines!" Now, I have to admit that there are aspects of these machines that I don't understand, but that's natural since my mind can't comprehend the future. For instance, what happens if Bill and I both point our machines at Sally? Does she love both of us? Do the two machines cancel each other out and she goes for Brad, instead? Does she love Bill more than me, because he bought his machine from The Smarter Image whereas I bought a knock-off at Radio Shack. It seems like the denizens of the year 2087 are just as bad off as we are, filled with doubt and suspicion and cantankerous jealousy. But we know that can't be. Somehow they have worked out the kinks, or why would they look back at us with sad condescension?

the dot

When I was five, a red dot appeared before my left eye. It was about the size of a pin head. Wherever I looked, there was the dot, floating in the air. If I closed my left eye and just looked through my right, I couldn't see it. Being five, I didn't understand it and didn't discuss it with anyone. After a while, I got used to it.

It grew. The growth was so slow it was imperceptible, but by the time I was seven, it was the size of a penny. If I turned my head just the right amount and just the right direction, I could position the dot so that it seemed to rest on the tip of my Dad's nose. Or I could place it in the upper-right corner of the TV screen. After some trial and error, I discovered I could push the dot from my left eye to my right. I taught myself to juggle it from eye-to-eye or even hover it in-between.

By twelve, it was the size of a cantaloupe. I used it to cover people's heads when I didn't want to look at them. I blocked out the heads of teachers, aunts and uncles, dentists, bullies, priests and Chinese people.

By eighteen it was the size of a tractor tire. I could cover whole people. I got a job and blocked out my boss. I blocked out the cop who wrote me a speeding ticket. I blocked out the judge in the courtroom. I had sex with fat girls without looking at them. Some people tended to move around a lot: athletes and nervous people. I didn't like them, because they forced me to relocate the dot all the time, and that grew tiresome.

I dated a little, but it never lasted long. Inevitably, we'd have that conversation in which she accused me of not paying attention to her, of being "off somewhere" while she was talking to me. I tried staring intently at the dot, thinking this might fool the girls into believing I was showing them with rapt attention. But was hard to judge just what part of them was where, behind the dot. So they would snap at me, saying things like, "Do I have a big zit on my forehead or something?" or "I know my hair is greasy. I didn't have time to wash it today!" or "stop staring at my boobs!"

One day, when I was 28 (and the dot was the size of a large boulder) I was talking to a girl a party. I rarely looked anywhere by then, except with my peripheral vision, because the dot seemed too heavy to shift. But something in her voice, a slight musical lilt perhaps, made me think she was beautiful. So with an inward groan, I rolled the ball to the right so that I could get a look at her.

I was wrong. She wasn't beautiful. She was squat and had almost no lips. This was the usual pattern: the girls who were sexy in my mind turned out to be plain or ugly when I rolled the dot away to see what they really looked like. Even a pretty girl would be less beautiful in reality – with some subtle but irritating flaw, like a crooked nose or a habit of scratching the inside of one ankle with her opposite foot – than she had been in my imagination while she was covered with the dot. In truth, I was losing my ability to get turned on by the sight of women. I only got hard while listening to a woman's voice and staring at the dot.

But something was different about this girl. Without the dot, I could see she wasn't looking at me. She was staring at me, but her eyes seemed far away. I only had a second to register this, because it took too much energy to keep the ball off to one side. When I relaxed my mind, it eased back into the center, covering her again.

But I was disconcerted. She had been looking at me the way I imagined I looked when I looked at girls. Was it possible that she had her own dot?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

pick-up artists, Shakespeare and the danger of romanticism

I just finished "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists" by Neil Strauss, in which the author tells how he transformed himself from a nerd to a stud. He wanted to lose his shyness around women, so he latched on to self-styled pick-up artists and learned their craft. He learned quickly and became a pick-up artist himself. The book is a cautionary tale (well written and fun) about his rise and fall in the pick-up community (and the rise and fall of the community itself).

For those who don't know, there IS a pick-up community. It's composed of former (some would say still) nerds who have spent years studying women and trying out different approaches. They also study psychology, biology and any other field that might help them score. They've turned mating into a science (sometimes a pseudo-science, as with their reliance on Neuro-linguistic Programming).

I remember when this community first penetrated (no pun intended) the public eye. Pick-up gurus went on talk shows and explained that they were trying to empower men. Naturally, women (and some men) were deeply offended.

The pick-up artists ARE offensive. They are offensive because they are deceptive. They "befriend" women that they secretly loath, just so that they can sleep with them. They are deeply misogynisic and opportunistic.

But there's another reason they offend people. They offend people because they treat women (and sometimes men) as if they were machines -- machines which, if you push the right buttons, will have sex with you. Or they treat women like Pavlavian dogs: dangle the right treat in front of them and they will salivate. Women don't want to be machines or dogs; they want to be PEOPLE. In other words, they have romanticized people. They have framed people as being superior to machines and dogs.

Yet biology tells us that people ARE machines. People ARE dogs (animals). We are vastly complex machines (we are super-intelligent dogs), and it's hard to master our complexity. So if you push a button, you might not get what you expect. But that's just because you haven't fully read the manual. You don't completely understand what all the buttons do and how they are wired together inside us. Good pick-up artists HAVE read the manual -- at least as-much-of the manual as has been published. And they're continually experiementing to fill in manual's missing pages.

If people didn't have buttons, then con-artists would always fail. But they don't. They often succeed. We don't want to believe we can be fooled. But we CAN be fooled. And the con-artists will always have an edge over us, because they aren't romantic. They KNOW people are machines and they accept that fact. We don't want to accept it. We want to be mysterious and spiritual and unknowable. We think we can look deeply into someone's eyes and KNOW if he is honest and reliable. We think we can look deeply into someone's eyes and KNOW that he loves us and wants to be our friend. Con men (and pick-up artists, who are a kind of con men) realize that we think this, and so they manipulate their eyes -- letting us see what we want to see while they steal our wallets.

In "King Lear," Shakespeare pits the romantic view of human nature against the con man's more cynical view. Lear (and Cordelia) are the romantics; Edmund is the con man. In "Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human," Harold Bloom brilliantly points out that "It is part of Shakespeare's genius not to have Edmund and Lear address even a single word to each other in the entire play, because they are apocalyptic antithesis: the king is all feeling, and Edmund is bare of all affect." Edmund is also a superb pick-up artist. Before bedding both Goneril and Regan, he confidently asks himself, "Which of them shall I take / Both? one? or neither?"

After becoming a master pick-up artist, Neil Strauss meets his Edmund -- an aspiring pick-up artist named Tyler Durden. Strauss discovers that Durden and his friends are mocking him in front of girls (a violation of, believe it or not, the pick-up artist's code of ethics). He confronts Durden about it, and Durden freely admits it.
I stated at him in disbelief .... It was diabolical.

"You can get me," Tyler said. "You can say I look like the Pillsbury Doughboy."

... "But I don't want to get you, man," I replied, keeping my own council and giving him a big smile like I thought it was all very funny. "Here's the difference between you and me: I like to surround myself with people who are better than me because I enjoy being pushed and challenged. You, on the other hand, like to become the best person in the room by eliminating anyone who's better than you."

"Yeah, maybe you're right," he said.

Later, I would realize that I was only half right. Tyler Durden did like to eliminate competition. But not before he'd squeezed every piece of useful information out of them.

For the rest of the weekend, whenever I talked to a person, male or female, Tyler Durden was hovering behind me, listening to every word. I could see him thinking, trying to figure out the rules and patterns behind everything I said that kept me dominant in a group .... He was studying my personality. Soon, he would no doubt know more about me than I did."
Which is exactly the con man's job: to know more about the machine than the machine itself. And the machine is crippled, because it doesn't want to admit that it's a machine. That's a horrible mistake. While we resist being called a machine, someone could flip our off switch.

People have always resisted losing their mystery (one of the most successful pick-up artists nicknamed himself "Mystery.") The biggest battles science has fought have been about (and still are about) robbing Man of his mystery: the Earth is NOT at the center of the universe; people were NOT created by God -- they evolved from animals and ARE animals; the brain is a machine that can be modeled (and one day recreated or even surpassed) by a computer. Con men and pick-up artists bypass this resistance and embrace the cynical truth, which is how they gain control over the rest of us.

On the talk shows I watched, women swore that the pick-up techniques wouldn't work on them. Maybe not, but many women are attracted to confident, funny, somewhat cocky men. And so the pick-up artists learn how to appear confident; they study stand-up comedians; they memorize cocky patter and rehearse until they can deliver it naturally. Still, the women claim that they can tell the difference between a REAL confident man and a man who is just trying to act confident.

This is the crux of the matter. We MUST believe that we can tell the difference between honest behavior and playacting. Because if we can't, then who can we trust? Everyone we cherish may be lying to us -- trying to con us. And that thought is unbearable. So we don't think it. We simply believe and trust. Which makes us vulnerable. The con men know this. They are waiting for this. They see this vulnerability and they attack. With no romanticism, they look the world squarely in the eye and see it as a place where playacting does work -- where the fake passes as the real, as-long-as it's well rehearsed.

This is the secret behind theatre. It's a paradox. Theatre is a romantic art. It makes us feel deeply. It makes us laugh and cry and recognize ourselves. Yet under the hood, it's a great con. That actor isn't Hamlet -- he's Laurence Olivier. And even within the mind of the actor (and the con man), the paradox continues. What does Olivier think? Does he think he's Hamlet or Olivier. Both, or he wouldn't be able to convince us.

And herein lies the undoing of the con man and the pick-up artist. To fool us, he must fool himself. To fool himself, he must be vulnerable. And once he's vulnerable, the Tyler Durdens will swoop down and con the conner. Human mystery is a lie, but it's a lie that -- being human -- we all believe. And the con man is, though he resists it, as human as the rest of us. He is hoist in his own petard.

In "The Game," the pick-up artists believe that male friendships should come before male/female relationships -- "bros before hos." But after Mystery is betrayed by his "friends," he (being a vulnerable human) falls in love and announces, "Unlike the last girl, I will not make her public. This time I will start from scratch and not undermine my relationship by sharing it with you guys. I will be more loyal to her than to you because the bros before hos ethic only applies if you think the girl is a ho."

Edmund is killed by his more romantic brother, Edgar.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Is God in the pudding?

God doesn't exist.

As I've written here before, he once existed for me in a weak way. I've never believed intellectually, but there was a time when, under stress, I'd blurt out a vague prayer to someone or something, usually in the form of "Please, please don't let this happen to me!" It was less a belief in God than a belief in some sort of ordering force in the universe -- some force that was choosing to be unfair but which might be talked out of it.

Was this a shadow from my childhood? As a child, I did have "gods." They were "all powerful" beings who could dole out punishment or justice, according to their whims and my behavior. They were my parents. It is so much easier to have parents or gods than to live in a random universe. In a random universe stuff just happens; you don't matter. You're not UNimportant. That implies that there's a being that's choosing to ignore you. You're neither unimportant or important; you're not deserving of rewards or punishments; you're just are. There's no one there to care or not care about you; no one to punish or reward. Things will happen to you, good things and bad things. These things aren't messages or signs. "Shit happens."

Eventually, my intellect took over my emotions, and I lost the feeling of even a vague God. Now, when something goes wrong, I no longer say, "Please, please..." I know in my bones that no one is there. So why talk?

But very occasionally, I do still feel like I'm living in a universe that understands justice. I realized this about a year ago, as I was waiting for a train late at night. I was in a subway with four platforms, and it seemed like trains were coming to every platform except mine. This seemed so UNFAIR. As if some imp were taunting me. "Oh come ON," I kept saying.

But then I thought about probability. When a train comes, there's a one-in-four chance that it will come to my platform (a three-in-four chance that it won't). So it's much more likely that it WON'T come to my platform than it will. So lets say that a train comes to one of the other platforms. When the next train arrives, it once again has a three-out-of-four chance of arriving at another platform. With each train, the "dice" are re-rolled. There's no one tallying the previous rolls, saying "Shucks, six trains have gone by and none of them have been on that poor guy's platform. Let's give him a break." (There's also no jokester causing all trains to go to other platforms -- each train has a three-in-four chance of going to another platform. That is all.) If the dice are rolled a hundred times -- if a hundred trains come by -- about a fourth of them should be at my platform. But that doesn't mean that any will be there soon. It's perfectly possible to roll a die twenty times and not once see the number six show up. That's the sort of thing that happens with randomness.

It's so hard to give up the idea of a "parent." If there's no one in control, there's no one to complain to. It doesn't matter what I do. It doesn't matter if I'm a good person or a bad person. The train will come or it won't. I just have to wait and see. Having realized this, my subway religion is starting to fade. I only feel it when I'm really tired. Maybe one day it will be gone altogether. (I'm not suggesting that this is a good thing. It may be healthy to have certain illusions. But my history points to intellectual truths gradually becoming emotional truths. This seems to be the way I'm made.)

But I'm still deeply religious about food and dieting. I assume this is because food seems like such a reward. Anything that seems like a reward (or a punishment) triggers that religious feeling. As a kid, I got ice cream as a reward for eating my vegetables. So naturally it feels like a treat from the gods: something I get when I'm good. Something withheld when I'm bad.

For the past couple of years, I've been dieting and working out. Sometimes I lapse into bad habits. I recently gained five pounds. I'm trying to lose it, and I continually find myself thinking these sorts of thoughts:

-- It's only FAIR that I get to eat a cookie after working out so hard.
-- Damn! I rode the exercise bike for an hour really fast. Now I'm stepping on a scale and I still weigh the same amount as yesterday? That's not FAIR!
-- I had a really hard day at work today. I DESERVE some ice cream. (And this treat should NOT count towards my weight! I should get an exemption for being good!)
-- I didn't exercise today (or I overate). That makes me a bad person.
-- I worked out and ate only healthy, low-calorie food. That makes me a good person.

These are all fantasies. It's a pure numbers game. If I consume more calories than I burn, I gain weight; if I burn more calories than I consume, I lose weight. That's it. It's about as mechanical as a process can get. If I gain weight, I'm not a bad person -- I'm a heavier person. If I lose weight, I'm not a good person (but I may be a more attractive person or a more healthy person). If I have a hard day and I decide to eat a cookie, those calories from the cookie will affect me just as much as calories from any other day. Assuming these thoughts sink into my feelings, will this help or hurt my chances of losing weight? Do I need to be religious in order to diet? Or will I do better if I know my body for the contraption that it is?

I can also become religious about money (another reward/punishment trigger). "I deserve to buy myself something." Maybe so, but my bank account will still be drained after I do.

As a teenager, I read a story called "The Cold Equations" by Jerome Bixby. It was a science fiction story about a man traveling towards a planet in a small space ship. He discovered that a young girl had hid herself on board so that she could also get to the planet. The stowaway wanted to be with her boyfriend, who was stationed there. But her added weight meant that the ship would crash. If the pilot threw her out into space, he would be able to land safely; if he kept her onboard, they would both surely die. There was no one to appeal to. It was a just numbers game. Cold equations.

Friday, October 28, 2005

the imaginary workshop

When I discuss stories with other people, we often exchange the following sort of comments:

Me: It doesn't make sense that a ghetto-guy like the hero would never swear.

Other person: Well, I cut the writers some slack, because they're writing for network television.

Me: There's a mistake on page six: Boa constrictors aren't green.

Other person: Well, you can't expect the author to be an expert on everything.

Me: How could they have blasted off from the planet when five minutes before that they clearly said they were out of fuel?

Other person: Hey, I'll forgive them for that, because the space battles are so cool.

Coming up for air from these arguments, I am always baffled. "Cut the writers some slack"? "Forgive them"? I don't get it. It's not that I expect writers to be perfect. I've written stories, and I know how hard it is. But when I'm reading a story, I'm not thinking about the writer; I'm thinking about the story. If there's a mistake in the story, there's a mistake in the story. I can "forgive" the writer or "cut him some slack" but after I do, there's STILL a mistake in the story. What's the point of "forgiving" the writer, anyway? I don't know him. He doesn't know me. He won't know that I've forgiven him. Heck, he doesn't know he ever offended me in the first place.

It's as if these other readers participate in an imaginary writer's workshop, in which the author is also a member. And they want to encourage him to continue writing, so they're willing to put up with a few mistakes.

I wonder what these readers do when they eat a slice of a cake in which the baker accidentally substituted salt for sugar. They may wish to spare the baker's feelings. So they may say, "Thank you so much for the yummy cake" while clandestinely spitting it into their napkin. This is admirable. Who wants to hurt the baker's feelings? But that doesn't change the fact that the cake tastes bad. The baker's feelings and the taste of the cake are two different things. And there's something odd about being MORE concerned about the baker's feelings than the taste of the cake, if you don't know the baker -- if you're eating a packaged cake you bought at the supermarket.

I have a strong desire to make a loud, startling noise -- maybe bang a couple of cymbals together -- and wake these readers out of their dreams. I want to say to them, "Look, there was a mistake in the story. Did you notice it?" If not, fine. Then THAT'S why the mistake didn't bother them. They can't be bothered by something they don't notice. Sometimes I don't notice a mistake until the fifth time I read a story. At which point it DOES bother me. But it didn't bother me the first four times I read the story, because I didn't know it was there.

Or maybe these people DID notice the mistake, but other elements of the story were so compelling that they were able to stay emotionally engaged with it anyway.

Or maybe they don't read for emotional engagement in the first place. Maybe they read in order to participate in an imaginary relationship with the author -- to cheer him on. Actually, this is a kind of emotional engagement, though very different from the kind I seek. I like the engagement of believing in a fictional world. And it's hard to believe in a world in which rockets can take off without any fuel or in which ghetto guys say "golly" and "heck."

Here's another phrase I hate: "suspend your disbelief." I don't hate it in theory, but I hate the way it's commonly used -- as if it's something the reader is supposed to do (out of fairness to the writer) as opposed to something the writer should try to make the reader do.

Me: it doesn't make sense that Phillip can fly in chapter two when in chapter one it clearly states that people on his planet don't have the power of flight.

Other person: Man, I think you need to learn to suspend your disbelief.

I hate this, because it's not something I can learn to do. I'm tempted to write "it's not something anyone can learn to do," but I try not to presume what goes on in other people's heads. Can one really CHOOSE to believe or not to believe? If so, then why not choose to believe you're a multi-millionaire with a harem of nubile babes waiting for you in your bedroom?

I either believe or I don't. Sometimes something really thrilling happens. Sometimes a gifted writer persuades me that something impossible is really possible -- at least in his fictional world. Through attention to detail and inner coherence, he makes me believe in magic. And I DO suspend my disbelief. Or, to put it in a less pedantic way, I believe.

(Children, clap your hands if you've suspended your disbelief in the non-existence of Tinkerbell.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Literary Mashups: a new game

I have invented a new game called "Literary Mashups." Here are the rules:

1. Pick a book at random, open it to a random page, and (without looking) point to a sentence. Write that sentence down.

2. Now choose another book -- something very different from the first book. Using the same process, pick a random sentence from this second book and write it down.

3. Pretend the two sentences are from the same book. Write a "bridge" between them so that they make sense together.

4. Try to make your bridge short and simple.

Here are some examples.:

The purpose of the table is to establish the connections between the nodes.
--"AI for Game Developers" by David M. Bourg and Glenn Seeman

I went in -- after making every possible noise in the kitchen, short of pushing over the stove -- but I don't believe they heard a sound.
-- "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The purpose of the table is to establish the connections between the nodes. But even though they were all seated around it, they refused to talk to each other. They didn't react at all, even when I banged my fists on the table. Fine, I thought, be like that. I got up and walked out of there and into the kitchen, which was warm and homey. Why should I ever have to go back in that dining room with those nodes who care about nothing, who care about no one? But I know my duty. I went in -- after making every possible noise in the kitchen, short of pushing over the stove -- but I don't believe they heard a sound.


I own the property, my mother owns the property.
-- "Glengarry Glen Ross" by David Mamet

Through Uncle Abe, I was drawn into the history of "cold" light -- luminescence -- which started perhaps before there was any language to record things, with observations of fireflies and glowworms and phosphorescent seas; of will-o'-the-wisps, those strange, wandering, faint globes of light that would, in legend, lure travelers to their doom.
-- "Uncle Tungsten" by Oliver Sacks

I own the property, my mother owns the property. Uncle Able is just a lodger. Mother hates him. "No good layabout," she calls him. "Bum!" She shakes her head and says, "Stop staring at the chandelier. Stop playing with that candle. Do something useful!" Uncle Abe just laughs, turns to me and winks. Or he hands me an old cigarette lighter or sometimes a tiny flashlight. Through Uncle Abe, I was drawn into the history of "cold" light -- luminescence -- which started perhaps before there was any language to record things, with observations of fireflies and glowworms and phosphorescent seas; of will-o'-the-wisps, those strange, wandering, faint globes of light that would, in legend, lure travelers to their doom.


Ray Porter parks the car and enters the house in the most efficient way.
-- "Shopgirl" by Steve Martin

Now I do turn to look at her, too uncomprehending to conceal it.
-- "Spies" by Michael Frayn

Ray Porter parks the car and enters the house in the most efficient way. I follow him. She's waiting for us in the hall, below the stairs. She doesn't speak. Neither does Ray. He pulls a gun from his jacket and points it at her. I turn and peer out the window into the night. We're alone. We're miles from anywhere. "Well?" Ray asks her. "Well, what?" she says without a pause. I keep looking out the window, refusing to look into her eyes. She says, "Are you going to shoot me before you die or are you just going to die?" I don't know what she's talking about, but I hide my puzzlement. "You do know this house is surrounded, don't you?" Now I do turn to look at her, too uncomprehending to conceal it.


The head can go up and down, side to side, back and forth.
-- "The Animator's Survival Kit" by Richard Williams

Harry Levin, brooding on this, aptly described "Hamlet" as a play obsessed with the word "question" (used seventeen times), and with the questioning of "the belief in ghosts and the code of revenge."
-- "Shakespeare the Invention of the Human" by Harold Bloom

The head can go up and down, side to side, back and forth. But this outer movement is far outpaced by the movement within, which can zigzag, hop from one place to another, and even teleport -- for the mind's destinations needn't be contiguous. This extraordinary vehicle, the mind, is never so swift as when it's asking questions. And the supreme questioner was Shakespeare, who asked all the questions that needed asking. Harry Levin, brooding on this, aptly described "Hamlet" as a play with the word "question" (used seventeen times), and with the questioning of "the belief in ghosts and the code of revenge."


The four scientists were not the first to study frog vision.
-- "The User Illusion" by Tor Norretanders

"I am laying down good intentions, which I believe durable as flint."
-- "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte

The four scientists were not the first to study frog vision. But they were certainly the last. One by one they died, until Jennings was the only one left. "We thought we could find a cure for blindness," he explained. "What fools we were." He said nothing for a minute, then, "You know, I was only trying to do some good in this world. Who knew good intentions could kill?" He sighed deeply, gathered his papers, and walked to the door. Before leaving he said, "I am laying down good intentions, which I believe durable as flint."

the best form of drama

The best form of drama is television. That's a biased statement, so I will explain my biases below. It's also an eccentric statement. Most critics call TV the bastard cousin of film. To address this, let me point to the word "form" in my biased statement: Television is the best FORM of drama. It's the form with the most potential. It's the best medium for great storytelling. Which doesn't mean it tends to be used to its full potential. Generally, TV-storytellers don't deserve their platform. They produce trash. But there are and have been shining examples which give us a glimpse of what TV could be. I suspect no one has yet pushed this medium to it's true potential, but the history of television is still young.

Okay, my biases: I consume stories for one reason only -- so that I can get the feeling of living in another world. I'm not (necessarily) talking about science fiction. The other world can be a version of contemporary New York. Every story (on television, in a book, in the cinema, etc.) creates a unique world with it's own rules. I read to escape my world and jump into that one. ANYTHING that hinders the sensation that the story-world is real detracts from the experience.

When people hear I love escapist literature, they often recommend genre novels and sci-fi shows. Though I love these sorts of stories when they're well crafted, they are usually so shoddy that I can't sink into their worlds for more than a few seconds. People usually assume that I don't care about writing style. But I care deeply. I care deeply because bad writing makes me aware of the artist's poor craftsmanship. And then I am thinking about the artist, which means that I am remembering that the world isn't real (that it is a fabrication, created by an artist), in which case I can't immerse myself in the world. For similar reasons, I'm anal about plot errors, bad acting, cliched dialogue, unbelievable psychology (the WORST error!) and other gaffs. I don't try to pick nits; I just don't like being reminded that a fictional world is fake. And errors remind me of this. It's like being torn out of a dream. This is also why I don't like didactic stories. If I'm aware that the author is teaching me a lesson, then I'm aware of the AUTHOR, not his world. For the same reason, I abhor clunky, obvious exposition.

I know that there are many other kinds of reader/viewers. Which is why I'm admitting that these are MY biases.

Anyone who shares my biases will understand why I prefer long stories to short ones. Assuming it's well crafted, a long story allows me to stay in its world longer than a short story. And since my goal is to stay in the world as-long-as possible, I'm grateful when it goes on and on and on. So I adore long novels like "War and Peace" and the more recent "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel." I want to live with characters for so long that they seem as real as people in my life. I want to fall in love with them. I want to grieve when they die.

Though I dearly love literature, immersion in a world is so much easier in visual storytelling (assuming the story well made). You don't have to imagine a street in ancient Rome. You SEE the street. You see the clothes; the buildings; the food; the dirt. Movies and television are the closest I can get to visiting other worlds without joining the space program. I will be forever grateful for this amazing technology and the for luck that I was born in a time when I could enjoy it.

Film and theatre are wonderful, immersive forms, but they are lacking one thing: duration. You can't immerse someone in a film version of "War and Peace" as deeply as you can in the novel, for the simple reason that you can't hold people in a theatre for more than a few hours. Occasionally someone experiments with an episodic sequence of films ("Lord of the Rings," etc.), but it takes so long to crank each installment out that one loses any sense of continuity. And even these series tend to be relatively short. Clearly, Peter Jackson felt he didn't have enough time to film Tolkien's whole story. He released many scenes only on the DVD versions, and even with these scenes, the story was truncated. [Incidentally, I HATED those films. To see why, read this.]

The hero is television. It provides the same visual (and auditory) immersion as film, but it can tell stories that are many hours long, in the form of episodes. These episodes can be disseminated quickly, one each week for a whole season, so one doesn't lose the thread. And one of the great new joys of the 21st Century is the advent of TV series on DVD. One can watch as many hours straight as one likes. This brings TV much closer to providing a similar experience to that of reading a long, involving novel.

Too bad TV screens are so small, compared to movie screens. A huge screen that engulfs one's whole visual field is a huge aid to immersion. Seeing "2001: A Space Odyssey" on the big screen is like actually being in outer space. Seeing it on TV is like having a small portal to outer space in your living room. But televisions are gradually getting larger. I'm confident that one day I'll own a screen that fills my entire living-room wall. (Truth is, the cinema generally teases me with the lure of immersion, but it rarely delivers. Even if the film is wonderful, the audience is usually impossible. It's hard to sink into a world when the guy behind me is shout-whispering, "WHAT DID HE SAY?!?" At home, though I'm forced to watch on a small screen, I can control the surrounding environment. If you try to call me when I'm immersed, you won't get through -- the ringer is turned off.)

So now you know why I love TV. I love it in theory. I hate most of the actual shows. But here are some I love, most of which are old (but available on DVD): "I, Claudius," "Upstairs Downstairs," "The Charmer," "Northern Exposure" (I've only watched the first season), "Paradise Postponed," "To Serve Them All My Days," "Freaks and Geeks," "The Sopranos," and "Deadwood." (Incidentally, most of the great shows of the 70s and 80s came from England. The late 80s and most of the 90s were, as far as I can tell, a wasteland. Suddenly, great television is coming from the US -- mostly from HBO. HBO is the BBC of the early 21st Century.

It's boring to talk about what makes most TV bad. Most of it is bad because it's horribly written -- containing writing mistakes that wouldn't (or shouldn't) get a passing grade in a freshman composition class. The characters are cliched types, the stories are trite moralistic sketches, the dialogue is crafted by someone with a tin ear, and the plots are impossible. I have no time for this crap. I have no time for the beautiful girl who hangs out with her dumpy (but wisecracking) best friend or the wasp lawyer whose buddy is a black guy from the ghetto. These "conventions" are an insult to my intelligence and as such should be outlawed. Let's talk about something more interesting.

TV's greatest asset -- it's ability to deliver lengthy stories -- is also, often, its downfall. The BEST shows on network television generally suck because they have no dramatic arc. The writers can't craft an ending because they must keep the series going and going until the ratings drop. This generally means that even good shows will keep going until they are bad shows. Which -- in an ONGOING story -- kills the whole project. If "Law and Order" ever goes South, it won't be the end of the world. Each story is self-contained. So later goofs won't mar earlier triumphs. (On the other hand, "Law and Order," being a series of short stories, can't ever give me that "War and Peace" thrill.) I'm currently enjoying the series "Lost," but I'm nervous about giving so much time to it, because I read an interview with the producers in which they admit that they MUST keep the show going indefinitely, until the ratings slide. How can one possibly produce a good story under these conditions. One is forced to either write each episode without knowing the shape of the story it's apart of. Or, if there's a loose shape, one must keep inserting gratuitous filler to padd the story so that it lasts longer.

At the BBC, they have the right idea. What we call a season in the US, they call a series: "The Office, Series One," "The Office, Series Two." This affords them them the ability to keep the show going as-long-as it's popular (just keep creating series after series) without jeopardizing the quality of an individual "season." Since a season is a series, it must tell a complete, satisfying story by itself. Future series might extend earlier ones, but each one is somewhat self-contained. Why does this simple idea so rarely translate across the Atlantic? HBO seems to have FINALLY gotten the idea. Which is one of the reasons their shows are so good.

But this idea, when taken to extremes can be a curse instead of a blessing. Recently, I've been watching a sci-fi show called "The 4400" on DVD. It's not great, but it kills an hour for me while I'm working out on my stationary bike. My problem is that they've attempted to replicate the BBC-series idea on an episode-by-episode basis. "The 4400" IS an ongoing story. Episodes often end in cliffhangers which propel you into the next episode. But each episode also contains,as a subplot, a self-contained story. "ER" also does this, as do many other shows. I HATE this hybrid format. I hate it because it's SO obvious that the "special guest stars" are going to have to die or move on by the end of the episode. I can't invest any real emotion in them. They are wasting my time. I just want to get on with the MAIN story.

A similar problem occurs in shows that are set in dangerous worlds (i.e. "Lost") in which major characters are not allowed to die. There's no risk. One is supposed to be scared about so-and-so's fate, but the whole thing is stupid, because the guy is OBVIOUSLY going to live. He's the star of the show! I won't create a spoiler here, but I will say to anyone who has never seen it, that midway through "Upstairs, Downstairs," there is a huge event (i.e. something like a main character's death) that propels the entire series in a fascinating, unforeseen direction. "The Sopranos" does this too (hooray for them!), as does "Deadwood" (which is somewhat constrained by history). I would cheer if halfway through a season of "24", Jack Bower would take a fatal bullet. (Not because I hate him. I enjoy him immensely. But I love good storytelling even better. And I love to be surprised. I want the producers to be one step ahead of me.) That would be a huge act of bravery on the part of the producers.

Big budgets can kill a show. This isn't necessarily true, but it's often true in practice. When producers can't rely on big effects, there's nothing left but writing and acting. Those facets are either amazing or the show dies (and good riddance). If you have any doubt about this, compare the wonderfully cash-poor "I, Claudius" with the so-so (but wealthy) "Rome." (Which is slowly getting better, but what a lousy start!)

Here's my formula for a great show. Producers, get your out notebooks and write this down!

-- Hire the best writers and actors you can find. Everything else is less important.

-- Craft a long but complete story. Know the entire story BEFORE you film the first episode.

-- When the story is over, it's over. If someone offers you a lot of money to keep it going,
turn them down. It's fine to create sequels.Sequels are new stories based on earlier stories.

-- EVERY scene in each episode must move the main series story forward. Gratuitous scenes with "special guest stars" are not allowed.

-- NOTHING gratuitous is allowed. "Gratuitous" doesn't mean sex and violence. ANYTHING that doesn't move the main story forward is gratuitous. That includes jokes (unless they help move the stories forward). Your job, as producer, is TO TELL THE STORY. That is your only job. You have no other job.

-- If a character no longer serves the story, he must go. I don't care if he's the star.

-- When you're given your budget, surprise the studio executives by saying "we'll only need half of that." Make sure that your budget is so low that you're scared shitless. Then solve budgetary problems through great storytelling.

-- Avoid formulas like the plague. Audiences should NEVER be able to guess the outcome of the current episode by studying previous episodes.

-- Obvious exposition is NOT allowed. PERIOD. The following comes straight from the devil: "It sure is nice to live in New York in the year 2023." People don't talk like that. Find another way!

-- If an actor dies or quits, write their character out of the series (and use the opportunity for story innovation). NEVER replace that actor with with another actor playing the same character. That's insane.

-- Actors may NOT play multiple parts in the same series. That's also insane. (Do you hear that "Law and Order" producers? We remember that the criminal in this episode was the judge last year! There's no shortage of actors in the world. Find someone else!)

-- NEVER try to appeal to every demographic. Don't throw something in for the kiddies, something in for the working Mom's and something for the Baby Boomers. Pick an audience (preferably people like you) and write for THEM.

-- If there's a popular show on another network, it's popular because it's well written and well acted. Remember that when you try to copy it. It's not good because "Sci-fi is in right now." Specific genres are never "in." What's "in" is good craftsmanship.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

See Me! Feel Me! Touch Me!

Am I the same "me" as I was when I was a small child, yesterday or five minutes ago? Is it fair to punish me for a crime that an earlier "me" committed? Theodore Sider's explores these ideas in an essay here (pdf file):

It's a well-written, entertaining and lucid survey to the philosophical questions that surround personal identity.

I think many philosophers start from an odd premise (it's intellectually odd, but understandable from an emotional point-of-view). The (generally) unstated assumption is "we WANT personal identity to exist, and we want it to exist free of illogic, so sets see how we can reason it to be so." The same assumption underlies most discussions of Free Will.

(For centuries, philosophers played this game with God. "God must exist," they said, "so lets try to work the logical kinks out of a universe with a god." Few were willing to say, "What if God doesn't exist? Does that elimantate the kinks?")

Few people are willing to say, "It FEELS like there's such a thing as a 'me', but maybe that's an illusion. Maybe THAT'S why I keep hitting walls of illogic -- because I believe in an illusion." Again, people feel the same way about Free Will (it's a linked topic to identity). We FEEL like we have free will, so we assume it exists. But does a feeling, no matter how strong, really point to a facet of the physical world?

I think it's fine to assume something exists and then try to show a logical framework for it. Often good science proceeds this way (testing a hypothesis). But one should be honest about one's methods. ("I know 'me' might be an illusion, but I'm going to assume it exists and see what happens.")

I suspect that there is no "me" -- or rather that "me" is an interpretation (i.e. a sort of metaphorical thinking) that we use to make sense of our world. The interpretation is imperfect, but that's okay. It's generally good enough. But if you act like it's a description of physical reality, you will eventually run into contradictions and absurdities. It's one of those concepts that help you get through the day, and as-long-as you don't think about it too deeply, you'll be fine.

Let's say I walk into a transporter. It's supposed to obliterate me and then make an exact copy of me somewhere else. But it malfunctions and creates a copy without destroying the original.

The copy will FEEL like it's me. And I will also feel like I'm me. There's no contradiction here, unless you insist on dubbing one of us "the REAL me." If you insist on this, then you run into all sorts of absurdities. The fact that we really FEEL like insisting on it (there MUST be a real me) doesn't mean that there is a real me. It just means we have a really strong feeling. Just because reality makes us uncomfortable, that doesn't stop it from being reality. In fact, reality is reality even if it's unbearable. Or inconceivable.

Let's say the copied me goes home (to what he FEELS is his home) and takes up where I left off -- living with my wife. She will feel as if she's still living with me. To her, the copy IS me. Her experience of me is from the outside -- via my actions, my appearance, my smell, etc. That is how she chooses (or is forced by her brain) to define me. And since the copy meets those requirements, to her it IS me.

I arrive home a few weeks later and am horrified. From my point of view, the guy kissing my wife is an imposter. I am the real me.

Who is right? Answer: both of us. We're both right, because though we seem to be answering the same question (Who is the real me?) we are actually answering two totally different questions. I am answering "Who is me from my point-of-view?" My wife is answering "Who is me from her point-of-view?"

She may have a hard time, now that there are two MEs. Her brain is going to push her really hard to point to the "real" me. Maybe she'll make some arbitrary choice, just to preserve her sanity. But there IS no real me. There are two versions of something me-like. There's no deep intellectual problem here (there IS a deep emotional problem) unless you insist that there MUST be a real me. (Of course, "real" is just a word, and "The Real Me" is just a title. We can bestow that word and title on anyone we want. We can arbitrarily choose some definition of "real," or we can choose a definition that makes people feel most comfortable, in which case we're admitting that "real" is a metaphor -- a human mental construct -- not a description of reality.)

Similarly, there's no deep problem when you see a dozen cans of Coke in the grocery store. We agree that they are all Coke cans. Since we're not emotionally invested in there being a primary Coke can, we're fine with doing this.

Fidelity plays a role here: think about video tapes of movies. My VHS of "The Godfather" is missing information that's in the original film. There are no scenes missing, but it doesn't look as good as the theatrical version. If I look really closely at the image on the screen, I'll see it's somewhat degraded -- lacking the resolution of the film version. But to me it's still "The Godfather." I've decided -- or my brains has made me decide -- that this level of coarseness is good enough. Someone else might differ. "Good Lord! That's not 'The Godfather'! It's a travesty of 'The Godfather!'" Who is right? Both of us! Neither of us! It's a low-res Godfather (which I simply call "The Godfather"). It is not a high-res Godfather (which my friend calls "The Godfather"). We run into trouble when we perversely insist that there must be ONE Godfather.

If the world was full of malfunctioning transporters, we'd have all sorts of problems -- which copy should be punished for a crime? Who should be allowed to spend money from a bank account? Etc. And, as the Sider essay suggests, we may already have these problems (Is it okay to punish someone for a crime they committed 5 years ago? Is the present person and the past person really the same person?). But these are practical problems, not philosophical problems. They all assume identity exists and then try to grapple with what POLICY we should pick when identity issues become complex.

I think we're trapped with the illusion of identity -- just as I think we're trapped with the illusion of Free Will. We can't NOT feel identity. We can't NOT feel free will. (Many people can't NOT feel God.) So it makes sense to come up with practical solutions to problems created by the feelings (feelings generated by illusions). That illusions are false. The feelings are real.

Monday, October 17, 2005

you can't always get what you want, but you will always want what you want

People keep fighting over rights to art. The artist wants to own his creation, and, as owner, dictate to what extent consumers can touch it with their grubby little fingers. But consumers sneer at touching. Consumers don't just want to touch. Consumers want to consume! They want it all. They want to snatch the work from under the artist's pillow and run away with it. They want to play it backwards and forwards, rewrite it, put stickers all over it, have sex with it, rip it to shreds, lick it all over, etc.

The artist won't let go. He clings to his work. "It's mine!" he says. "You can look, but don't touch!" But if we can't touch, we lose interest. The artist yearns for our interest, so he lets us touch -- a little, and is dismayed that this only makes us want more. There are only two ways he can keep us at bay: he can keep his works locked in his basement, or he can produce only humdrum works. If he keeps his work in the basement, we'll never see it. If we don't see it, we won't praise its maker. Its maker craves praise, so the basement is out. We also won't praise humdrum work. So the artist tries to make his work as exciting as possible. He pours his heart, soul and guts into it. As it gets better, we praise it more, but we also covet it more. So the artist is trapped. He needs praise and control, and he can't have both.

Consumers are stuck in their own trap. They love to possess, but they also want to be told what to do. They want a guru to guide them; but they also want to be left alone to do what they like. They want to take the artist's work and stomp up and down on it until it's smashed into pieces. Then they want to bring the pieces back to the artist and ask him to put it back together again (so that they can stomp on it and break it again!). But the artist says, "Fuck you! You stole it from me and smashed it? Well, it's yours now. YOU fix it!" Or he chains it to the wall so they can't steal it in the first place, in which case their desire to meddle is thwarted.

(Yes, there's another player in this game: the Media Holder. But he is boring. He just wants to make money. Naturally, he wants to spread the work to as many consumers as possible, because that's how he makes money. And naturally he wants to spread without giving up full control, because once he gives up full control, he can no longer make money. (If consumer's have full control, they don't need to pay the Media Holder.) He also can't make any money if he gives up NO control, because the only way to do that is to keep his wares in the basement. And consumers won't pay if they have no access. So the Media Holder, like the artist, is in the horrible position of needing to give up some control but not all control. His motives and end goal -- making money -- are obvious, so we won't discuss him further.)

Parents should empathize with artists. Parents want to control their kids, but they also don't want to control their kids. Parents want their kids to have some autonomy but not total autonomy. But once kids get a small taste of autonomy, the go crazy and become anarchists.

Kids -- even grownup kids -- want to be free, but they also want to be controlled. They defy anyone who stands in the way of fulfilling their urges. Yet they long for the comfort of the womb and absolution from heinous responsibility. "Give me back my God damned cigarettes," they say. "But do my taxes!"

These are all primal human urges. You can't stop them. They are with us. We fear loss of control, but we pine for the intimacy that we only get when we give up control. We balk at chains, but we secretly dream of being locked in a comfy room with a lifetime supply of chocolate. And it's possible these urges will always be in conflict. Maybe that is human nature. Or maybe there is a way to end the war. But there's one thing we can know for sure: the war will never end if we deny our natures.

If consumers download mp3s without paying, the artists will scream. That is his nature.

If artists ban free mp3s, consumers will scream. That is their nature.

If there's a solution -- a means for everyone to be happy -- then it must involve some method of bestowing a feeling of ownership on the artists (even if they don't literally own their works) and a feeling of free use on the consumers (even if they aren't literally free to do what ever they want). Primal needs are satisfied by the bestowment of satisfying feelings.

It's worth striving for these goals, because threatened artists produce shoddy art. We want artists to feel safe so that they can focus on their work. We all benefit from that. And consumers grow when they are allowed free play -- when they can let a work of art take them anywhere; when they can take a work of art anywhere.