Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

Take Away.

Michelangelo said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” Probably not in those exact words since he spoke Italian, and I haven’t been able to find the exact source, but even though Michelangelo was known for being a gruff, difficult individual who could do hard manual labor, he also wrote poetry. And even though those who knew him described him sometimes attacking a piece of raw marble, taking hard and fast swings to break away that superfluous material, the features he carved are so detailed and so delicate they seem alive. And sculpture is probably the most unforgiving art there is. Chisel a little too much and you’ve ruined an entire work. It’s not like painting where a mistake can be wiped away or painted over–not that I’m saying painting is easy. What I am getting at is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of art: it’s supposed to be creative but the process of creation is also destructive. It’s an idea that various philosophers began to consider in the 19th century. Nietzsche, in Also Sprach Zarathustra, said the artist, the creator “must first be an annihilator and break values”. It’s an idea that influenced Cubism, which isn’t true abstraction but is always based on breaking down and re-envisioning something. To get back to sculpture, though, it may be the medium that best expresses this principle. To create something–to release the form in the stone–the sculptor must destroy the stone.
All this also suggests that creation and destruction aren’t opposites but rather parts of a single process.
We often talk about what artists put into their art, but what’s just as important is what we take away from it.

https://youtu.be/2z2bCQVGVEY

Saving Time.

It’s dark now when my wife and I get up in the mornings to go to work, and soon it’ll be dark in the evenings when we get home too, thanks to Daylight Savings Time and the autumn tradition of falling back, as opposed to springing forward, although I’m never quite sure what’s “back” and “forward” on a clock. It’s even worse when someone tells me to move the clock up an hour. Does that mean I should add an hour or subtract one? And why do we have to change the clocks anyway? The American poet Randall Jarrell said that when he was training for the Air Force during World War II he and his fellow airmen were put on Double Daylight Savings Time which still baffles me because I can’t imagine telling someone they’re getting up at 5am when it’s really 3am is going to do anything to boost morale, and might even makes things worse because it just puts dawn that much farther away. At least there’s a benefit to the end of Daylight Savings Time in the autumn and that’s one extra hour of sleep on Sunday, which makes me think we should just change the clocks once a year, but that’s another story. Anyway here’s an ode to the end of Daylight Savings Time I wrote several years ago.

It’s over. Time to crank the clocks back an hour

And face the fresh week with a little more

Sleep. An hour to live over, to wince in the light out

Earlier than before. I have to wait

A few days until morning dark again wraps the house.

I march to shed sleep’s robe with a quick wash

While the digital clock’s bright gash

Fades into a faint red nimbus.

The hour went as quickly as it came

And added a trace of storm

To my hair. My legs rebel at the thought,

With pain, of lifting me out

Into this light. It’s made me a witness.

A life is composed of hours.

Unwatched they collapse into years

And in a moving moment condense.

The leaves talk against the window in this bright

Wind. Movement, all of it, can’t separate

From time, but the fall of day has a taste

Of denial, a wrinkle that wants to be missed.

Dawn wicks away night’s flesh and color

Until it’s only a skull bleached

By the cold. In a moment that never

Happened blood surged through skin touched

By time turning backward. My hand

Slid that hour through falling sand

And like a dark red worm from my chrysalis

I come into a clean, dry place.

“Yes, Have Some!”

It’s that time of year again—specifically the time of year that makes my wife ask, “How old are you?” And she’s got a point. It’s one thing to eat an entire box of sugary cereal when you’re young—say, thirty-seven—but it gets more difficult as the years go by and I think more and more about my health. This is especially true of the Monster Cereals. Boo Berry turns the milk a bluish color, Frankenberry turns the milk pink, and Count Chocula makes the milk a pale brown, all of which, these days, makes me think of various bodily fluids. And also a little glad that they haven’t brought back Yummy Mummy or my personal favorite Fruit Brute because multicolored milk is more than I can handle on some mornings depending on what the night before was like, but that’s another story.

For that price it should be in perfect condition.
But not “mint condition” because mint is terrible flavor for cereal.

And then of course once all the cereal bits are gone and there’s nothing but colored milk left I tip up the bowl and drink, because I’m still young enough to do that, and expect to be for at least six or seven more decades.

Everyone except Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy.

Anyway I hope I haven’t ruined the annual return of the Monster Cereals for anyone because 18.1 ounces may not sound like much, but that’s dry weight and also more than half a kilogram, and at my age I could really use some help finishing all this.

The Happiest Place On Earth.

Source: Wikipedia

If you’ve decided you want your final remains to be cremated what plans have you made for your ashes? Yes, I know, that’s a macabre question, but ‘tis the season, and that’s going to be my excuse even though I am the sort of guy who might ask you that sort of thing out of the blue on a sunny day in May, mostly because I’m curious but also because it’s an interesting way to get to know strangers. Also it pretty much guarantees I’ll have the window seat to myself on the bus, but that’s another story.
What also got me thinking about that question, aside from simple curiosity, is a recent story about how frequently Disney park employees have to clean up an incinerated loved one who’s been brought for a final visit. According to the story about once a month park employees get wind of someone’s ashes and use a special vacuum to remove the lifeless loiterer and send them to a less family-friendly final resting place.
I have my own creative plans for my cremains, although I plan to go out with a big “Please Recycle” stamp and hope that any parts that can benefit someone else after I’m done using them get passed on. Still I appreciate that many peoples’ last wish is to be laid to rest in a place that made them happy, and the story did get me thinking about where, if I wanted a Disney disposal, I’d want to be consigned. My first choice–which I’ll come back to–turned out to be very popular, which reassures me that I’m not alone in my morbidity. And it does seem pretty obvious that I’m not. A lot of us tend to imagine that every smile is merely a portal to a dark underbelly. The film Escape From Tomorrow, parts of which were illicitly filmed at Disney World and Disney Land, even imagines Disney’s dark side, or at least one man’s experience of it.
Anyway the more I thought about it the more I thought, strange as it might sound, that I’d want to spend eternity on the monorail, or the Train Ride, because I like the idea of touring the park, never stopping in one place. I think I’d even prefer, and this is going to sound even stranger, the trams that carry visitors to and from the parking lots. I have very clear memories of my first visit to Disney World, memories which, when my family went back a few years later, seemed more like things I’d merely imagined rather than seen, my first experience with how memory is malleable. But the trams were the same, and that final ride back to our car in the dark, seeing other trams lit by a single bulb taking other people back to their cars, was the perfect cap to the day.
Of course my first choice is one that a lot of others also prefer:

Popular lore has always attached this gruesome ritual to one ride in particular: The Haunted Mansion. Current and former Disney employees say that riders carrying cremains onto the spooky attraction are a serious problem, with one Disneyland custodian telling The Wall Street Journal that the ride “probably has so much human ashes in it that it’s not even funny.”

No, it’s not funny. It’s hilarious.

 

Monsters Or Mouthwash?

You know not by what a frail thread we equally hang;
It is said we are images both – twitched by peoples desires;
And that I, as you, fail as a song that men time agone sang!

-Thomas Hardy, Aquae Sulis

When I first heard that gargoyles were added to medieval cathedrals to ward away evil spirits I thought, sounds legit. After all there are plenty of examples of what’s known as apotropaic magical symbols, which are intended to ward away evil. And what better way to keep away demons than to have some demons perched on your building to say, “No need to come here, guys, we got this one covered”? Then I started doing some reading about gargoyles and their history and things got a little more complicated. Why some—but hardly all—gargoyles take demonic shapes isn’t clear, and their original purpose was to serve as decorative water spouts. The word gargoyle probably derives from the Latin word gurgulio which means “throat”, although weirdly enough it also means weevil, maybe because the Romans couldn’t keep the bugs out of their bread and swallowed so many, but that’s another story. And it’s the same root word that gives us gargle and gurgle.

Anyway a lot of gargoyles are also strictly ornamental, so why did workers carve these creatures? Maybe there was some lingering pagan influence, or maybe they were created by artists who were just really into that sort of thing–the Gothic period must have been a pretty good time to be a goth–or maybe they were just expressions of the id, of our deepest fears and desires.

See Androids Fighting.

Source: Wikipedia

Kino’s red eyes pulse gently. The effect is disquieting. It’s as though he’s really looking at me.

We’re in Athena’s workshop in a corner of warehouse in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, a space she shares with other “artisan engineers”. We’re surrounded by peg boards covered with tools and heavy tables with meters, oscilloscopes, cogs, wheels, and other spare parts. It’s like being in a combination of Frankenstein’s laboratory and a hobbyist’s garage.

She has her own carefully organized tool box with multiple trays of carefully labeled parts, as well as peg boards with a wide array of larger tools, and a safe where she keeps Kino. I’m surprised when she pulls a small screwdriver out of the red bandanna that holds back the thick, curly hair that frames her head like an enormous halo.

“It came with my first kit,” she says. “It’s my magic wand.” The metal end is still shiny but the plastic handle is worn and cracked. It still works, though, and she uses it to tighten screws in the back of Kino’s head.

Kino, of course, is Athena’s android. She dislikes the term “robot”, derived from the Czech for “forced labor”, and Kino’s humanoid body, she explains emphatically, make the term “android”, from the Greek for “man-like”, more accurate. It—Athena insists on gender-neutrality—stands three feet tall and is very much what you might expect an android to look like. More than anything else it resembles a stripped-down astronaut, all molded white plastic, with a slightly squashed helmet and, of course, those red eyes. Advances in battery power have allowed the removal of the bulky backpack from earlier models. The name comes from Robert Kinoshita, one of the original designers of Robbie The Robot, not the first robot in film but arguably the first robot film star. Kino’s only decoration is a decal on its torso of a red, snarling beast on two legs, the monster from Forbidden Planet, a movie that Athena’s father loved.

“I wanted to pay tribute to him,” she tells me. “This is not where he first wanted me to be but I think he’d be proud.”

Her father, who died when Athena was nine, expressed hopes she’d be a lawyer like him, or perhaps a college professor.

“He used to put me to sleep reading The Iliad and The Odyssey to me,” she says, then gives a short laugh and emphasizes each word. “Put. Me. To. Sleep.” When she took apart and rebuilt his lawnmower he changed tactics and started buying her robot kits, a practice her extended family continued. She excelled academically and would eventually go to MIT where, in spite of continuing to excel, it would still take her six years to graduate.

“I came home a lot. There weren’t a lot of girls in the engineering program, and most years none who looked like me, you know?”

I know and yet I don’t know, unable to really imagine the challenges of being an African American woman in engineering, a field where the pace of demographic change has been glacial. After school she went on to a successful career in robotics, advancing autonomous vehicles and the machines that would build them, and was even a founding partner of a robotics firm. All of which leads to the question that brought me here: why did she leave all that to build fighting androids on Coney Island?

Instead of answering me she says to Kino, “Bed time.” Kino’s head swivels around and it steps backward into its storage safe. Then she turns to me. “You like Hungarian food?”

While we’re waiting for the food to be delivered she carefully puts her tools away, saying, “A place for everything and everything in its place, that way there are no surprises.” Then she says, “I really didn’t leave my career. This is more like a sabbatical. I was all wrapped up in the business side of things and I wanted to get my hands dirty again. I wanted to build something again.”

There’s a knock at the door. She taps her phone and the door at the end of the warehouse slides open. A young man with straight black hair comes in carrying a canvas bag.

“Sawasdee,” he says.

“Good evening Adrien,” Athena replies. “You know where to set it down.” She then turns to me. “Adrien prefers the restaurant business but he helped with the coding of all the androids except Kino. I did that one myself even though programming is something I can do but it’s not the strongest item in my wheelhouse. Sometimes staring at a screen it gets to be like staring into The Matrix, you know?”

I think I do know: computer code is less of a language and more of a filter, a way of processing input and generating output.

As we tuck into our soup Athena continues her explanation of why she and a small band of followers Athena continues her explanation of why she and a small band of followers have embarked on this project.

“Everything I was helping make was also putting people out of a job,” she says. “Automation is a growing field but it doesn’t always create as much as it takes away. We’re still adapting and some people are being left behind. And while I was thinking about that I was seeing what was going on in sports, all the injuries, even all the deaths. And I thought, here are these African American men injuring themselves for entertainment in almost every sport.” She snorts. “Except hockey and wrestling. I don’t want to put them out of a job either but I also said, why not let technology do what technology does and build something to take people out of harm’s way? Boxing forces two men to beat each other until one can’t get up. If people want the spectacle we can have that without the hurt.”

“But you’re setting up something you’ve made to be damaged or even destroyed,” I say. “What about that?”

Athena shrugs. “Pyrotechnics. People who make artistic fireworks put all that effort into something they know will get blown up. How different is that? Or this?” She plucks a dumpling from her soup with her chopsticks and holds out in front of her. “Why make food that looks good when all it really has to do is feed us?”

We talk a bit more about how machines, even though they’re supposed to create leisure time, seem instead to prompt us to spend time creating more machines. Then I change the subject slightly and ask if she’s concerned about the singularity, the hypothetical artificial intelligence that could exceed and even wipe out humanity. Athena shakes her head.

“It’s possible but we haven’t even started to reach that. Predictions that put that within a few decades, or even this century, are way off in my estimation, even at technology’s current pace. Look at Kino. Everything it does is programmed and predictable. Right now even if we could build even the equivalent of a human brain the space needed would be enormous, and you have to build a brain before you can build a better—.” Her watch dings and she looks at it. “All right. Let’s go fight some robots.”

The fight is held in a theater near Luna Park. From the outside the building doesn’t look like much, a smaller version of the warehouse we just left. A wooden cutout painted to look like a circus tent frames the door. Ahead of me Athena and Kino walk side by side. I expect to see them greeted by fanfare. Instead they step aside behind the bleachers. In the center of the theater a band is performing “Little Red Riding Hood” by Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs. It turns out the android fight is the lower half of a double feature. I settle into a seat to wait while Athena and Kino go to the back to get ready.

The fight does not go well.

Kino is, structurally, indistinguishable from its opponent, Gort, but still seems outmatched. At first the robots circle each other, hands up, not unlike real fighters, but it lasts too long and the audience gets restless. Then Gort throws a punch. Kino blocks it with a hand but is still thrown off balance and falls to the floor. Traditional-looking boxing ropes mark the ring but the floor is concrete, not canvas, and Kino crashes hard. Athena, in the corner, is unable to help, but the referee, a bald man with wire-framed glasses and a tie-dye Doctor Who t-shirt, steps in to put him upright again. Gort punches with his left fist. Kino steps aside but Gort, apparently having predicted this, hits with the right. Kino goes down again, this time cracking an arm. More parries and hits follow, with both Gort and Kino having to be lifted up, but Kino takes the worst of it. After several more blows and visible cracks and pieces of shattered plastic thrown to the floor Athena walks around the ring and talks to the young man on Gort’s side of the ring. Together they step into the ring and talk to the referee, then Athena turns to the crowd.

“Thank you, everyone. We hope you enjoyed the show.”

Later, outside the theater, Athena looks slightly dazed. To our left we can see a low yellow moon almost perfectly framed by Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel.

“Do you think you’ll try to reprogram him?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. That was hard to watch.”  She pats Kino’s head. “Come on, let’s go.”

As they walk away from me Kino reaches up and touches Athena’s arm. She stops and looks down at him, then takes his hand, like a mother and child, and they continue on.

Just Ringing It.

The school bus always took us through neighborhoods, unlike the regular city buses that mostly stick to major thoroughfares, and one fall I started noticing a yard that had a fairy ring in it. This was pretty remarkable and even got a small feature in the newspaper, and it annoyed me that I never could stop the bus and take a closer look, although I did intentionally sit on the side of the bus that faced it so I could see it as we went by, even dashing out the door at the end of the day so I could get to the bus early, although that wasn’t unusual. It seemed liked it was there for weeks, although it probably only stuck around for days, mushrooms being a fairly transient organism. Or rather the fruits of mushrooms being fairly transient. What’s underneath can be very long-lived. Maybe that’s why Emily Dickinson called them the “Elf of Plants”. A friend asked me, “How do the mushrooms know how to make a circle?” And I said, “Because they’re all part of the same structure. Imagine an apple tree where you could only see the apples. Oh yeah, and the apples just happen to form a ring.” It’s also why they get bigger every year.

I spotted an amazing three fairy rings in one yard on the way to work one morning but I’m too old now to go tramping around in someone’s yard, although at least this time I got some pictures. They reminded me of seeing that fairy ring years ago, and also, because of their size and because of what must be underground, of the X-Files episode “Field Trip” in which Scully and Mulder find themselves trapped inside a giant underground fungus that creates hallucinations that everything’s fine and they’re merely going on about their normal lives while they’re slowly digested. It’s a fan favorite but what bothers me about the episode is the same thing that bothers me about such wildly different stories as The Matrix, The Wizard Of Oz (the film version), and even Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. After such an intense experience–was it imagined or wasn’t it?–how can a person ever trust reality again? Zhuangzi said, “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” Edgar Allan Poe said, “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream.” And Samuel Johnson kicked a stone and thus refuted Bishop Berkeley, but that’s another story.
The mushrooms are here one day and gone the next, but they come from something and they leave something behind, and I always wonder, how can we ever know if we’ve left the ring?

Immortal Remains.

One of the classical ideas about art is that it should outlive its creator. Nothing lasts forever, although there is the saying, “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” And there are cave paintings that look at the pyramids and laugh and say, “Kids,” but that’s another story. Freud wrote about the same idea, saying that art isn’t just creative, it’s procreative. And how many artists speak of their works as their children? Well, I don’t have exact numbers, but it’s pretty common, even among artists who have actual flesh and blood children–and I’m not talking about artists whose medium is flesh and blood.

Another way of looking at it is that every work of art is the remains of an artist. Sometimes that can be taken a little too literally. In 2001 the mystery writer Patricia Cornwell was so convinced the Victorian painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper she purchased more than thirty of his paintings, spending more than £2 million, and had forensic scientists cut one up in search of DNA. Sometimes you’ve gotta roll the bones, but in this case it came up snake eyes: no DNA was found. Cornwell may be right but the evidence that Sickert worked in more than just oils is still sketchy.

Cracking the case of one of the most famous serial killers of all time–2018 marks 130 years since the Ripper’s spree–would be something, but maybe some ghosts are best left alone.

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