Feb 14

Tanith Lee on love

My favorite author is named Tanith Lee. I’ve previously posted a favorite Lee quotation, Disturbed By Her Song. That’s a beautiful one, though it seems sad to me. Here are two more bits from Lee’s writing about love.

From The Silver Metal Lover:

A rose by any other name
Would get the blame
For being what it is —
The color of a kiss,
The shadow of a flame.

A rose may earn another name,
So call it love;
So call it love I will.
And love is like the sea,
Which changes constantly,
And yet is still
The same.

From Delirium’s Mistress:

“Love is everywhere,” said Chuz gently, stroking her hair, “and the death of love. And time, which is built of the histories of death and love. Death and time I had always conceded, and acknowledged. And now I see plainly what love is. Not in you, pretty, mortal child. But in my arms that comfort you for wounding me, in my hands which soothe you for it, in my words which say to you, in despite of me, Do whatever you must. This lesson I will not remember. Nor shall I ever forget.”

(Delirium’s Mistress is part of the Flat Earth series, which is one of the best fantasy series ever written. It’s incredible and I strongly recommend it to anyone, even if they think they don’t like fantasy. The first book in the series is called Night’s Master.)

Dec 21

Mridangam, the roleplaying game of Indian dance

Nerd alert: This is a post about obscure roleplaying game theory. :)

When I worked in game design, there were a number of indie designers whose work I admired, like Shreyas Sampat. Years ago, Sampat published a fascinating thought experiment called Mridangam. Mridangam is a game written for an alternative history of our world — an imaginary world where roleplaying games evolved from Indian dance instead of American war games.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

In the city of Srikakulam, it was once the tradition that the Rikha and Sibarat theatre dynasties would engage in a competition for the firstborn princess’s hand in marriage. Before the Sky-Dwelling King, the finest storyteller of each line would oppose the other in an improvisational performance that began with the seed of a myth.

The loser of the contest would be given as tribute to the barbarians of the eastern plains, who demanded the stories of Srikakulam in exchange for their fatted yaks and protection from the silver-faced pirates of the distant north. (i.e. If you win, you become a princess; if you lose, you get to be a bride of the royal eastern mounted yak men.)

In time, this competition became a meaningless charade; the gestural language of dance-drama fell into disuse, and soon the laity forgot its meaning. Rather than using the gestures to communicate messages to their audience, the dancers began to use them as a secret sign language, to communicate amongst themselves while they performed.

In 1956, Rachana Melwani created the first roleplaying game, when she realised that she and the other dancers were telling stories that only they could fully understand. She pared down the gestural language, reducing it to a simple system that could easily be understood by the laity. This is her creation.

Each of the dancers in Mridangam takes on a heroic persona. A dancer may only speak in her character’s voice. To indicate that she is speaking the character’s thoughts rather than his words, a dancer may hold the palm of Ardhachandra toward her face and look into it, as though examining herself in a mirror. If a dancer wants her character to do something besides speak, this must be stated as something the character thinks or says. For instance, if she wanted her character to climb into a chariot, she may say, “Now I must climb into my chariot.”

Sampat’s text goes on to describe the hand gestures of Mridangam, and he then explains how each gesture can resolve conflicts and move the game’s story forward.

Mridangam was originally published in Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying, Volume 1, back in 2006. Sadly, Volume 1 was the only issue of Push ever published. (Experimental roleplayers are both a tough crowd and a small market.)

I live in fear that Push will vanish from the internet, so I asked the lead editor Jonathan Walton to let me host a backup of Volume 1 here on my site, and he agreed. Thanks to Walton’s generosity, if the above link isn’t working, you can also grab Push in PDF right here.

Oct 22

Writing a letter to Alice, for Lewis Carroll

Last night, in New York City, I got to see the beautiful immersive show Then She Fell — based on Alice In Wonderland. My favorite moment: After a mad tea party filled with aggressive and ritualistic teacup motions, I became separated from my companions, alone in the 19th-century asylum. Somehow I ended up with the White Rabbit, who took me into a tiny office to paint white roses red. He left me there as I painted.

I began to wonder whether I had been forgotten when a nurse came to fetch me. She led me through a bower filled with hundreds of red and white roses, into a small reading-room, where she instructed me to wait.

I waited. In his formal suit, Lewis Carroll soon came through the door and found me there. “Do you take dictation?” he inquired. “Sometimes,” I said, and he handed me a pen and paper. To the best of my memory, here is the letter he dictated. His manner was both melancholy and uncertain:

Dear Alice: I hope this letter finds you. Letters have a way of getting lost. I have been immersed among these reflections of myself, and I fear that I may never escape.

As I wrote, Mr. Carroll led me through another door into a new room, which was flooded inches deep in water. We walked along a raised wooden pathway. In a corner was a velvet-stuffed chair with its feet submerged in the water, surrounded by small bottles, corked and floating. Mr. Carroll had me finish the letter, and then he took it from me and signed it. Then he stepped off the platform and ankle-deep into the water, and sat despondently in the chair. He produced a glass bottle, identical to the ones already floating in the water, and he put my message into the bottle. And then he corked the bottle and dropped it into the water among the rest.

I had only a moment more in that room, for a nurse came through a door behind me, and gently took me away.

(Then She Fell is an immersive theatre production similar to Sleep No More NYC or The Speakeasy SF, although it’s more linear than either of those shows, and it’s also more interactive because only 15 people get to see each show. The show has a strong focus on the actual real-life relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, who was a little girl when she knew Carroll. It’s a matter of historical record that the relationship ended suddenly, but no one knows why.)

I posted this account to my Facebook wall, too, and there were many comments where friends shared their own experiences of Then She Fell. And of course, here’s the Facebook thread for Sleep No More.

Every year — once, and all over again — Burning Man re-teaches me how not to be cynical.

Filigree balls, Burning Man 2014
Click here to see this picture full-screen

It’s easy to hate Burning Man. The dust is poisonous, the trip is a giant expensive hassle, and we Burners can be remarkably irritating (especially when evangelical). There are class issues, and other issues too.

I considered giving you a “How To Write About Burning Man” article, which would explain how to get people to click on your website using headlines like:

• “How Does Burning Man Reflect [Insert Inflammatory San Francisco Stereotype]?”

• “Are Burners [Stereotype A] or [Stereotype B]?”

• “Are Burners Techies or Survivalists?”

• “Are Burners Libertarians or Communists?”

• “Are Burners Visionary Artists or Useless, Dissolute Addicts?”

• “Burning Man: Inside The Desert Debauchery That Is A Clear Sign of America’s Moral Downfall”

These questions are crucial to our time. They must be important, because every time I log into Facebook, I cannot escape similar articles posted by 300 of my friends — and that’s how you know a topic is important, right?

But after attending the Burn this year for my fourth time, I realized that all I want to do is tell you about my favorite art piece.

I found it in the middle of the night on Saturday. My companion and I were wandering across the desert on foot. We had seen many wonders:

• We were coming from three exquisite, delicate, light-filled geometric sculptures that threw filigree shadows across the sand.

• Before that, we visited a vast and extraordinary steel pigeon skeleton that held a riding seat and bicycle pedals in its ribcage. People could sit in the seat and control the metallic wings.

• Later that night, we would discover a wooden outpost from “two years in the future” — a fanciful monument to the apocalypse, built and then abandoned by desperate survivors in 2016.

But none of these things, in the end, were my favorite piece of art.

Metal riding pigeon, Burning Man 2014
Click here to see this picture full-screen

We were not tired, but we were hungry, and we didn’t want to make the half-hour journey back to camp just to eat. Fortunately, we had prepared for our art trek by packing several meals; now we hoped to find a place to sit down.

Continue Reading…

Aug 10

My new piece in The Atlantic about Internet pseudonyms and anonymity

I have a new piece in The Atlantic about pseudonyms and anonymity on the Internet. This is an issue that matters to me for personal reasons, and I also believe that it matters on a broader social level.

Note: The original article mistakenly said that I used to fight with my mother about the Internet 15 years ago. In fact, it was more like 20 years ago. ;) Thanks to Mom for calling out the mistake, and to my editor at The Atlantic for being willing to update the piece.

Jul 17

The malocclusions, the inconditions of love

I don’t have kids, although I hope my life works out so that someday I do. I know people who are very pro-kid and very anti-kid, but I don’t hold strong opinions about how other people should think about having kids.

Yet years ago, I was attending the wonderful Printer’s Ball out in Chicago, and I picked up a postcard printed with this poem about children. It really struck me. I’ve kept the postcard ever since:

People who have no children can be hard:
Attain a mail of ice and insolence:
Need not pause in the fire, and in no sense
Hesitate in the hurricane to guard.
And when wide world is bitten and bewarred
They perish purely, waving their spirits hence
Without a trace of grace or of offense
To laugh or fail, diffident, wonder-starred.
While through a throttling dark we others hear
The little lifting helplessness, the queer
Whimper-whine; whose unridiculous
Lost softness softly makes a trap for us.
And makes a curse. And makes a sugar of
The malocclusions, the inconditions of love.

That’s the first stanza of Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1949 poem, “The Children of the Poor.”

Apr 15

Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could

I haven’t read The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich, but a quote from it was read aloud to me recently. It goes like this:

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up.

And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

Mar 20

The appointment in Samarra

Once there was a wealthy merchant in Baghdad who had a servant that he liked very much. This servant came to him one day pale and trembling, and the merchant said, “Whatever is the matter?”

“Master,” said the servant, “I saw Death in the market today, and he pointed at me. I am sure that my time has come, but I think I can outrun him. He seems a bit rickety. Please, master, give me a fine horse and the money to go to Samarra tonight, and maybe I can evade Death. I beg you, for the sake of all I have ever done for you.”

The merchant said, “Of course. Take my best horse,” and he outfitted the servant with fine clothes and food besides. He saw the servant off from the gates of Baghdad. Then, as he was returning through the city, he ran into Death at the market.

“My good fellow,” said the merchant sternly, “why did you point at my servant this morning? You scared him.”

“Oh,” said Death contritely, “I’m quite sorry. I didn’t mean to point at him — I was simply confused, and I was trying to make sure that I still see straight with these old eyes. It’s just that I was surprised to run into your servant here today, for I have an appointment in Samarra with him tonight.”

* * *

There are a zillion retellings of The Appointment. It’s an old Middle Eastern tale, retold as one of the The Thousand Nights And A Night, and it may be even older than that frame. I recently read a modern fantasy version that made me want to share the original.

Mar 2

My favorite Marc Chagall quote

“I am against the terms fantasy and symbolism in themselves. All our interior world is reality — and that perhaps more so than our apparent world.

“To call everything that appears illogical, fantasy, fairy tale, or chimera would be practically to admit not understanding nature.”

Feb 23

My new piece in The Guardian about high tech and social issues

Yesterday I published a piece in The Guardian about high tech, gentrification, community engagement, and all that good stuff. I have some follow-up thoughts and reactions today….

I took a lot of time writing that piece, because I wanted to make it impactful within a limited word count. I worked very hard to make it as gentle as possible, because these are highly charged issues. I often find it harder to write something short-and-blunt-yet-kind than to write a very long piece that covers all the angles.

Social justice problems are culturally entrenched, and they take advantage of deep flaws in human psychology. What I was trying to say with my Guardian piece is this: The people most likely to move the needle on those problems are people with very strong social skills and cultural understanding. Anyone who wants to contribute would be well-served to start by developing those skills.

None of this is easy for anyone involved. I have never felt like I was working harder than I did when I spent most of my time in the social justice world. Sometimes there’s not a great place to start — and sometimes you have to take a step back. Since I broke my neck a few years ago, I myself haven’t done as much of this work as I used to — I’ve had a lot on my mind. ;)

So I just wanted to acknowledge that this work is very hard, and also to acknowledge that my piece only scratched the surface.

Thanks to everyone who read my piece and sent feedback, both positive and negative. I know it was simple and didn’t cover all the bases. But maybe if we start from that simple place, we will eventually get somewhere more effective and complex.