I have always been an eager surreptitious listener to strangers’ conversations, curious about what other people have to say, and their manner of communication with each other. But nowadays I do not have to strain— on the New York City subways, for example, people no longer have a sense of appropriateness, and they’re as public and loud with their private conversations as a Twitter feed. It’s like the town square. Here are a few snippets that I overheard—or rather that were broadcast—on the subway last week. Each could be a story starter.
Man to another man: “Just because you look stupid doesn’t mean you have to act stupid.”
Woman to another woman: “New Year’s with my parents will be sweet, it just won’t be any fun.”
High school girl to another high school girl: “Every text, make it funny, so that he’ll take you serious; laugh at everything he says. He’ll like that. Just write “Ha-ha.”
Man to woman: “I wonder if I just need to be less sugar-coated.”
Woman to man: “Every time my boss gives a presentation, he looks at me. I want to tell him on a scale of one to ten, it’s a two.”
Woman to another woman: “What was so important that he didn’t text me at all for five hours?”
About forty years ago, I spent an hour in a flotation tank. It was a coffin-like affair, filled with salt water, light-proof and sound-proof. The specific gravity of the water was set to a point that allowed one to float in the water without any effort at all, as if one were floating in the Dead Sea. The water was also heated to about body temperature, so that I became completely oblivious of the environment. The situation is such that without the distractions of the outer world, the only sensory inputs are the sounds of one’s own breath and heartbeat, along with the mental phenomena that the brain is generating.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to do this again, coincidentally only a block away from the building where I did it the first time. But time marches on, and so it is with flotation technology. No longer does one go into an enclosed pod. Instead I went into a small bathroom-sized room with a shower. I took a shower and then opened up a door on one side of the shower into a smaller room, which contained what looked like a large bathtub. I could stand up in the bathtub which was filled with about a foot of epsom-salt treated water. The room was dark and soundproofed except for a light switch on the wall that could be controlled by myself. I lay down in the warm water, and because the dimensions of the tub were large enough, no part of my body touched any of the walls of the tub. And since I was floating, my body essentially simulated a weightless and suspended mass.
For the first ten minutes soft music was piped in, (it seemed very soft, because beforehand, in the shower, I put in the supplied earplugs) and I reached out to the wall with my right hand to turn off the soft purple light, which left me in total darkness. There was a brief moment of panic, like What am I doing? Maybe I should just get out (no, there are no locked doors or anything like that), but that feeling quickly passed and I decided to just relax with it.
Now forty years ago, when my body was a lot more co-operative, I remember relaxing very quickly. In a few minutes back then, I was hallucinating without drugs, seeing color cartoons in the black space above my head. This time, I did not experience such phenomena. But I wasn’t in it for the tripping this time, instead, I thought that it might help with some back pains I had been feeling a lot more this year. The experience for me was really enlightening: I realized that in a way, I was in the same position as that of a patient in analysis. That is, in analysis you are presented with the blank wall of the analyst, and eventually you realize that everything you are surmising about the analyst is in fact the result of your own mental projections onto the blank slate of the analyst. So you begin to understand the prejudices of your own mind. Under flotation, a kind of analogous process happens: because there are no physical stressors on the body from the outside environment, you realize that the tensions you are holding onto in your body have nothing to do with say, coping with gravity, or the lousy mattress, but are in fact tensions that exist despite those factors.
And what happened for me as I was floating was this: I felt very little tension in my back, but very much in my neck, a lot of pain. I realized that this was the source of the pain I was feeling in my everyday world. The environment and gravity may have masked it and transformed it into back pain, but in reality it was the neck that was the problem. I put my hands under my neck for a while, and it started relaxing. Soon, I felt a lot less neck and back pain. I then went into a deeper state of relaxation. It was not before too long though, that I heard the music being piped in again—a signal that my hour was about to end. It had gone more quickly than I had realized. I gently sat up in the tub, and turned back on the dim purple light. It surprised me how harsh the light now seemed; I had to shield my eyes as it seemed as bright as sunlight after an afternoon movie.
When I got dressed, I was told to sit down for at least ten minutes, and drink some water or tea, before I went back out into the street. I felt less anxious and calmer than usual, more focused and centered, and I had much less back pain. I read some of the literature in the office, and it mentioned that the first float is often about adjusting to the new experience, and that after subsequent floats, people tend to get into the relaxation state more quickly. I signed up for another session for a few weeks later.
The rest of the afternoon, I was quite relaxed and had little pain. But unfortunately I can’t say that the positive effect lasted more than the day. The next day was a very high humidity day, the kind of day that really aggravates my muscles, and the effects of the float were no longer apparent.
Will I have the same experience in float number two? I’ll let you know a few weeks from now.
The satirical online and print periodical The Onion has been at it for over two decades now, and sometimes I take it for granted. But over those years, it has given me plenty of laughs with its pitch perfect satire that never breaks character. My wife recently emailed me a link to an Onion article that made me literally laugh out loud so many times during reading the piece, that I had to share it.
Here it is. If you’re a man and it doesn’t crack you up, you’re a better man than I am:
Last Thursday WBAI broadcast the interview I did with filmmaker Ken Burns, whose new PBS documentary Jackie Robinson airs April 11-12. Burns talks with me about the myths that have grown around the legend of Jackie Robinson, and the whole process of filmmaking.
If you have any interest in baseball, film, or American history I think you’ll greatly enjoy listening to this interview with a great American documentarian.
Thanks to Mario Sanchez for helping to edit this radio piece.
I teach mathematics to new immigrants to the United States. Though the students are of high school age, some of them had not had any formal schooling in their own country. Yesterday, one student, a West African girl to whom I have been teaching basic arithmetic, was struggling with her twos and fives multiplication tables. We worked for a while with only some success, and then she turned to me brightly and said, “Ask me 379 times 13.” I was a little skeptical, but I wrote it out on the paper in front of us, the 13 beneath the 379. She looked at the example quizzically, and said, “Are you sure that’s how you write it?” So I wrote it across in a line, and she became much happier. “Ahh,” she said, “that’s 4,927.”
I thought about it for a few moments and realized she was correct. I was stunned. A minute ago she was having trouble with five times six; now she was answering this difficult multiplication problem seemingly in her head. I asked her how she knew.
She smiled at me and said, “I saw it in a movie in my country. In the movie, there was a school, and the teacher in the classroom put that example on the board. I have been waiting for someone to ask me 379 x 13 ever since!”
Kevin Spacey is a marvelous film actor; what isn’t as well known is that he’s a first-class impressionist. Here he is with Inside the Actors Studio‘s James Lipton, and Spacey regales the audience with nine hilarious dead-on impressions:
My pick hit? Definitely Marlon! But they’re all great. Click on the video to play.
In the mid-60s, comedian Soupy Sales had a local daily children’s show in the days of live television on WNEW in NYC; there was a freedom and sense of chaos on his program that appealed to my anarchic junior high school heart. If I rushed home quickly enough, I’d be able to catch Soupy, Pookie, White Fang, Black Tooth, and the rest of the gang doing the expected unexpected. Click on the video above to watch some rare footage and foolishness.
I’m not a big fan of “story” magic, but this close-up magic piece by Dr. Hiroshi Sawa with shells and sand is very charming. The conception and execution are really lovely. Click on the video above to watch.
Through a strange turn of events last year, I found myself, for a few months, occasionally in the company of a fairly well-known professional magician. Now it’s true that keeping company with this convivial fellow usually meant keeping up with him at the neighborhood bar. For the sake of convenience, let’s call the magician Peter. I haven’t seen Peter for a long time since then, unfortunately, but he was quite a raconteur, and here is one of the best stories he told me.
Peter had a small role in the Batman blockbuster movie in which Jack Nicholson played The Joker. Every day on the set, Nicholson would bum cigarettes from him. Peter gladly gave up his cigarettes, happy to have the opportunity to talk to Nicholson. But as this mooching of cigarettes went on day after day, Peter, no mean moocher himself, started to get ticked off. Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he blew up at Nicholson, saying, “Here you are, an extraordinarily wealthy man, yet everyday you come to bum cigarettes off me! How can you look yourself in the mirror everyday, and keep doing that?”
And Nicholson, perfectly calm, looked Peter straight in the eye, and flashed that killer smile of his. Slowly, killer smile still intact, he said, in his most Joker-like voice:
“It’s Good To Be Jack.”
PS Here’s a little postscript to the story (disclaimer: it’s quite possible that either my memory or Peter’s memory is hazy on the details of this part, but for the sake of the story, we’ll ignore that). As the filming continued, Nicholson kept on bumming cigarettes from Peter, and Peter, ever so reluctantly, kept on giving them to him. At the end of the shoot, however, Nicholson walked over to Peter and handed him a bag. Peter, puzzled, opened it: in the bag, were several cartons of cigarettes, and an engraved gold-plated cigarette lighter.
When I started this blog exactly one year ago, 365 consecutive posts ago, I never thought that it would bring the fun and opportunities that I’ve experienced over the past year. I started it mainly as an exercise and a way to document for myself where my life was going. But I’ve met so many nice people and enjoyed myself in so many ways directly due to this blog.
So I want to thank all of you who have ever visited this site for your support. It’s really gratifying to think that there are others who have some of the same strange interests that I do, and that I’m not just writing into the wind.
To celebrate, I’m listing my favorite posts from the last year. They may not all have garnered a lot of hits, but I think you’ll enjoy catching up with them. Sometimes people don’t have the time at first to read a long essay, follow the links, or listen to an audio clip when it’s first posted, so now is the time to sit back, relax, and catch up with what you’ve missed. Here, grouped by category, but in no particular order otherwise, are my top 30 favorite interviews, stories, poems, essays, and photos of the past year.
If you like this blog, the one single way you can best help spread the word is to please click on the Facebook or Twitter share buttons at the bottom of each post each time you see something that you enjoy. It’s incredible what a difference it makes in the number of views a particular post gets, and it gives me encouragement. Again thanks for a great year, and Music will be back tomorrow!
I’m looking at all these books on my bookshelves, and wondering about how they have followed me all these years. There are other books, too, books I once thought indispensable which are now sitting in a basement, books that have now not been touched in over two decades. I always thought I would have them. They are still there, as far as I know.
There were more, the books that I grew up with, before my marriage, that I stored in my parents’ house. When my parents remodeled the house, they packed them up, and eventually the boxes of books were moved to the garage. Years later, they told us they were selling the house. We went to the garage to scavenge and sort through the books, eagerly anticipating the reunion of old acquaintances, but on opening the boxes it became clear that there would be no homecoming for these books—they were filled with mold, little bugs, covers were stained, pages were crumbling. I left my friends behind.
When I was in my twenties, I would move from apartment to apartment, roommate to roommate, as one does at that age, and I’d always leave something behind—an old coat in the closet, a sweater in some bottom drawer, a throw rug underneath a piece of furniture. But never, never, ever did I leave behind so much as one book, they traveled with me, as if they were my children.
I remember once in those days, when I was a college student, walking along Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan, near where I lived. I saw a pile of books on the sidewalk, and they stopped me. They looked interesting—the sort that appealed to a geek like me—vintage mathematics books, some science, some history. Never too proud when it came to books, I rummaged through them until I saw the nameplates inside them; I was stopped in my tracks when I realized that they were the books of the professor who had just died in my girlfriend’s apartment house. I didn’t know then, you see, that that’s what happens. It’s not like the books get adopted by the ASPCA. When all is said and done, the contents of the apartment gets dumped once the family has gone through the belongings, while the rest ends up on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage truck. At the time, this was a horrible revelation to me. That a person’s life—for what else, I thought, could you call the books that a person has owned?—would just be dumped on the sidewalk unceremoniously when he or she dies, was just too sad for me to contemplate.
So I look around at all my books now, and I wonder how many of them are going to get dumped on the street when I go. I’ve got a fair amount of magic-related items that, let’s face it, nobody normal is going to want. I’m in generally good health, but I’m at the age where I’m wondering what to do about this. I suppose they could be sold for some money for my family, but the truth is, my wife and surviving relatives wouldn’t know what to do with them, nor would they know how to evaluate and value each item. And yet I think it would be a shame were they to end up on the street or in the dump. So what I’m thinking about now is, to whom could I give them before I go? I guess this is a morbid thought, but if there’s anything that gets me going, it’s the thought of my limited time on this planet. It’s probably the thing that has kept me at the writing keyboard these past few years—knowing that if I don’t do it now, it’s not likely to get done later. And if I don’t figure out now what to do with these books, they’ll end up on the sidewalk. So I’m trying to get to know some young magicians who one day might appreciate such a collection.
The Players, Shakespeare said, are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. What is it that we who are the brief chroniclers do in this brief time? Artists hope that what they’ve made is forever, or at least has a lasting impact. It never seems consciously that what I do is a fight against the dying of the light, but the closer I get, the more I understand. Do not ask for whom the sanitation worker comes. S/he comes for thee.
Diane Ravitch, that tireless fighter for students and teachers, brought the above video to my attention on her blog. I re-posted it elsewhere, but got some reactions which I had not expected. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say. The high school teacher in the video, Joshua Katz, asks his students to watch the video as their first assignment. What do you think of Mr. Katz? Would you do well in his classroom?