Internet Sampler

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Juliet’s Balcony

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

I’m not a big fan of fiction. At best I get through the first chapter of a novel, sometime not more than several pages. Then comes the sensation that I’ve seen it all before and that neither enlightenment nor entertainment are likely to ensue.  Alas, I feel like the fellow in the New Yorker cartoon, “The man who knew enough.”

Courtyard, Casa di Giulietta
If fiction is dying as Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, speculated a while back, I wish it a good and speedy demise. Too many novelists, it seems to me, labor mightily trying to make sense of characters who are but avatars of themselves (however much they may deny it) in what amounts to a game of amateur psychoanalysis. And an amateur psychologist who has himself for an analyst has a fool for a client.

Professional psychology, on the other hand, has achieved such remarkable levels of sophistication (some view one imminent psychologist, Steven Pinker, as a contemporary hero) that it has arguably far surpassed fiction as a means of understanding ourselves.

Real life Juliet on a Verona 
street corner. But where’s 
For example, why bother with novels based on the 20th century’s two world wars plumbing the darkness of the human soul when you can read psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (or watch the film)? Far more engrossing than Hemmingway, the Zimbardo experiment might yet be called “A Farewell to Norms.” For what it reveals about the average person’s potential for evil, yours and mine, is more compelling – and appalling – than anything to be discovered in fiction. Indeed, it’s an archetypical example of truth being stranger than fiction.

Anyway, aren’t real people always more complex and appealing than the fictive ones who crop up in novels –  from whence perfervid book reviewers gush over them as though they were long-lost acquaintances, and authors with much-studied coyness and gravitas “explain” them to credulous talk show hosts?

“Doctor, I have this acquaintance who has these hang-ups about sex…”

Or the young woman I once knew who always referred to herself as an abstraction, “my organism.”

Some novelists, of course, blame the internet for the genre's decline, but they ought look closer to home. The truly self-aware writer handy enough with prose to be actually worth reading is a rare bird indeed. Give me non-fiction any day.

Still, fiction has a long and illustrious history stretching back to the Gilgamesh tablets and other such myths, and it’ll always have its enthusiasts. Its seven or eight basic stories will be told and re-told (mainly as short stories, one hopes) forever.

Two gentlemen, Piazza Bra, central Verona
Books that treat on fiction can be just as loopy as fiction itself. Recently, I consulted Nicola J. Watson’s work, The Literary Tourist, for insight into the phenomenon of literary travel, and right away the wickets got sticky. Such travel, as she explicates it, sounds like a turn through a Disneyland for literati during which time one’s cognitive life, despite the road trip (or perhaps because of it), bleeds profusely into the imaginary (or vice versa). Indeed, it sounds like a journey from which one might not fully recoup – as though stepping into the pages of Madame Bovary whilst in Tostes or Yonville (the book’s settings), say, you find yourself hopelessly entangled in a whale bone corset with patent leather bindings and no end in sight.

Here’s Watson evoking her children’s visit to the Lake District, setting of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (I’d never heard of it either), as a metaphor for the emotional experience of the literary tourist:
“In miniature this is a description of the emotional experience of the literary tourist. It is not simply that so and so was there, but rather that so and so imagined something there, and it was and was not the same thing, just as parents are and are not, ever, children, and just as children are and are not the same thing as their parents. It is a perfect description of the eruption of the uncanny, the familiar rendered strange.”
To me, this does and, well, doesn’t make sense, may or may not add up to jamais vu. Would you very well stray into the drink during an outing at Walden, say – on account of the sudden uncanny strangeness of ponds – because you happened to read Thoreau? The credulous reader should bring water wings.

Watson again:
“Indeed to go somewhere in order to read or contemplate a particular
book just there may be one of the most direct ways we have of unsettling
our sense of the real and experiencing precisely Derrida's sense of
the non-existence of 'natural presence'.”
Maybe. Or perhaps one is just a reader with an overactive imagination and a penchant for tourist traps. You wonder to what extent some books on fiction might ought be considered fictional themselves.

Still, one can imagine a kind of merging of the real and the fanciful that for some folks might invest certain places with particular meaning, and Watson’s book does contain interesting tidbits.

The 18th and 19th century, she says, saw tourism to places connected with literature grow significantly, witnessing the rise, for example, of William Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon, Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford, Robert Burns’ Alloway, and the Bronte sisters' Haworth. The phenomenon persists today so that by now there’re any number of such places to visit, e.g., 'Inspector Morse Country' and the 'Morse Bar' at the Randolph Hotel in central Oxford; King's Cross Station with J.K. Rawling's train platform for Hogwarts school marked “Platform 9 ¾,” complete with a trompe-l’oeil luggage trolley disappearing into the wall; Sherlock Holmes’ digs (a museum) at 221B Baker Street; or Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in Cornwall.

A few months ago I happened to find myself a literary tourist by default – in Verona, the setting for among other things two plays by Shakespeare.

Arriving at the Piazza dei Signori one afternoon we learned that our next stop would be Casa di Giulietta or Juliet’s house, reportedly the city’s most popular tourist attraction by far. The guide then warned us to beware of pickpockets in the crowd that was likely to be packing the courtyard (Italy, you know).

According to urban legend, touching Juliet’s
breast assures eternal love and good luck. Some
might consider giving her a lick like this in poor
taste, but not this brassy lad.
And so it was. The courtyard was jammed with young folks, some apparently so eager for proximity to the famous love story they’d set about debauching the Juliet statue.

Besides the Nereo Costanti bronze of Juliet, the courtyard's other focal point is the balcony, albeit not an original feature of 13th century Casa di Giulietta. It was constructed for the benefit of tourists from pieces of a 17th century sarcophagus sometime after the house was purchased by the city of Verona in 1905.

The balcony, for that matter, is not an original feature of the play, Romeo and Juliet, either, first appearing in 18th century Drury Lane productions by actor, producer, theater manager, and Shakespeare adaptor David Garrick. Earlier productions had Juliet conversing with Romeo, not from a balcony, but a floor length or tall window.

Perhaps aroused by erotic symbolism,
Juliet takes a page from the Brothers Grim:
“Romeo, Romeo, my hair art for thou, Romeo.”
As Lois Leveen breathlessly explains in a piece for the Atlantic, balconies, especially Juliet’s, are rife with sexual symbolism, which is the reason a balcony was added to productions of the play in the first place:
“Indeed, it's become a trope in stage and film versions of Romeo and Juliet to have Romeo climb up to the balcony, an architectural mounting that anticipates the sexual mounting that will end in both characters' death. This may be precisely why the balcony has become irresistible, despite its absence from Shakespeare's play.”
If you feel this might be a bit of a stretch for modern eyes, you’re not alone. But it’s Shakespearian fiction, after all, so you can see whatever you like in the play. Anyway, it’s probably no greater a stretch to image that at some point Elizabethan set designers may have installed a few bars across the lower section of a floor length window, creating what we know today as a Juliet balcony, even if it wasn’t as sexy.

In spite of it all, I must admit to fancying certain pieces of fiction, notably the works of Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. If these stories appeared fantastic at the time they were published, today perhaps they seem just a shade less so, anticipating as they do the discoveries of quantum physics.

Love notes to Juliet plaster a courtyard wall of Casa
di Giulietta. A 2012 city ordinance imposing a find of
€ 500 for such postings appears to be little enforced.
What’s more, I have it on good account that the actual bunny hole down which the White Rabbit disappeared is to be found, not in Oxford or Godstow, but in Llandudno, Wales, of all places, and I can’t wait to go and see for myself.

Even if it seems stranger than fiction.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Justice of Dogs

“Justice is…not some bone-in-the-sky ideal…”
– Robert Soloman, A Passion for Justice

What is justice and what has it to do with dogs? To some these questions might seem odd, but the answers turns out to be quite interesting. For dogs, like other mammals, have a practical or operational sense of fairness that’s not dissimilar to our own even if they don’t think about it in abstract terms.

Joe in later years backpacking on the trail. 
Accommodations such as this had become 
constitutive to his sense of equity.
Amongst us humans, abstract ideas about justice have varied greatly over time and have differed in nearly every culture. One of the earliest examples is from Plato around 348 B.C. To him, justice was having and doing that to which one is best suited. A just man is a man in just the right place, doing his best and giving back exactly in proportion to what he’s received.

If that sounds a bit arbitrary, perhaps it’s because justice, at least in its application, so often is. All too frequently, the administration of justice proves to be haphazard, hit or miss, dependent upon one’s being in just the right place at just the right time. Not every mess, after all, gets sorted
by Judge Judy.

For animals in particular, including man’s best friend the dog, injustice has historically been more often the rule than the exception. Only in recent times with the enactment of sanctions against animal abuse – the criminalizing of animal cruelty in many jurisdictions, outlawing of blood sports like dog fights – and novel research into animal psychology has progress has been made toward the protection of sentient species other than us humans and a better understanding of how the social functioning and behavior of non-human animals might shed light upon our own.

Still, it’s not too much of a stretch to surmise that Plato, say, may have owned a dog and been inspired by it. Perhaps a rescue dog from the pound, wise in its ways, a genial companion like those garrulous interlocutors in the Phaedo, from which he garnered particular insights. Every idea starts somewhere, and dogs as we’ll see possess a sense of justice or fairness that is in certain respects curiously Platonic.

Dogs were the first species to be domesticated and after millennia as our boon companions have become attuned to us in surprising ways. Some suggest that cohabitation with dogs may have significantly improved the chances of survival for primitive human groups, dog domestication thereby contributing to our own evolutionary success. More than any other species, dogs have acquired over time the ability to understand and communicate with us  through a set of social-cognitive skills that seem almost akin to those of human children.

For their part, human children have been known to communicate as though they were dogs as can be seen in this letter from ten-year-old Richard Nixon to his mother:

My Dear Master:
“On balance, the fundamental issue before
the courts is bones, the ineluctable attraction
of bones and how to pick them.” –  Justice
Dächson “Pooch” Barcley, Fido District Court
of Appeals. His honor it was who first propounded
the novel doctrine of qui subducto ossium (who
ran off with the bones?).

The two boys that you left with me are very bad to me...I wish you would come home right now.                 
                Your good dog, Richard

Maybe young Richard felt mom was more centered on the family dog than on him and so assumed a canine persona in order to attract her attention. Dogs accorded the status of a family member, a common occurrence in many households, can take up a good deal of attention in much the same way that, say, a handicapped child might. So fairness of focus could conceivably become an issue.

Still, any social worker will tell you that in homes where the pets are well-cared for, so are the kids, probably even Nixon.

You wonder what Plato’s dog would have made of it.

In a recent book, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, authors Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce argue that morality is basically a set of behaviors – altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness – that cultivate and regulate social interactions and are readily apparent in the interactions of dogs at play.  Morality, they assert, is an evolved trait humans share with other social mammals. While such ideas may make anthropomorphophobes apoplectic, they come as no surprise to pet owners who’ve long recognized that the family dog was pretty much one the of the kids.

Our dachshund, Joe, adopted as a puppy and part of our family for nigh on fifteen years, was a prime example. Until he was housebroken and in the habit of sleeping through the night, he bunked in a cardboard box. After that he moved into our bedroom – and into our bed. Since his short little legs made it hard for him to reach the bed in a single bound, he’d use the cedar chest at the foot as an step. Sometimes, if the night were warm he‘d just sleep on the cedar chest.

Henry in a pensive mood. 
Every so often, we’d have to negotiate with Joe over who got the best spots in the bed. Such deliberations usually took the form of a log roll accomplished by hoisting one edge of a sheet or blanket. This may have seemed unfair to Joe at times, but such is the life of a dog.

Like all dogs, Joe loved to play games. Among his favorite was keep-away with rawhide bones. Next to chewing these bones, what he loved most was guarding them from potential thieves – the covetous brigands amongst us intent on stealing those bones – whom he’d vigorously recruit by barking at the rest of the family until he got our attention. He’d casually toss out a bone a few feet in front of himself, then lie in wait for someone to try to snatch it. You’d get down on all fours and creep up, growling as you came: “I’m gittin it,” or “I’m gonna git it.”

Joe would tense, hold his ground, and gaze fixedly at the bone, growling himself. When you finally made your play, he’d yelp and bound forward, grabbing the bone in his little snapping jaws. Why thwarting these mock attempts at bone theft gave him so much pleasure, I’ll never know but it did.

Still, this play was not without its hazards. Joe seriously wanted to win, and you had to take care not to get bit. So it was a good idea to remind him ahead of time not to bite you.

“Now don’t bite Daddy.”

One time he did bite me, pretty hard though unintentionally. When I scolded him for playing too rough, he remorsefully brought the bone over with a hangdog expression and dropped it in front of me by way of apology. Like any dog, he knew that biting too hard was against the rules of play, felt remorseful, and wanted to make amends.

Indeed, dogs understand the practice, if not the principles, of justice quite well. Studies have shown that they’re very careful to signal their intent to play –  to communicate that their subsequent behavior should be interpreted as play, not aggression. And if things get too rough, they’ll apologize and regroup in order to preserve the game.

Caynighn “Saggy” Barksdale, decd.,  R.H. Kenilworth Distinguished
Professor, Howland-Packwood School of Law. Critics averred Barksdale was
a dogmatist and – despite appearances – altogether too snug in his skin
on the Constitution. Yet to many jurists, he seemed ceaselessly appealing –
the Yoda of jurisprudence.
We nearly always let Joe win at the keep-away game. For another rule, you see, is that stronger members of the pack must handicap themselves or role-reverse in order to allow younger, weaker members a fair shot at winning – fairness here again being a sort of social expectation, not something abstract.

One Christmas Eve as we were distributing presents from under the tree, my wife noticed Joe off in one corner of the living room looking glum. Without saying a word, she went to the kitchen and gift-wrapped one of his rawhide bones. Then with great fanfare, we “discovered” his present under the tree. You never saw such a happy dog! He leaped for joy and rushed over to claim his gift. Clearly, he’d recognized that treats were being distributed to everyone but him and was feeling left out. Just handing him a bone later in the evening wouldn’t have been the same. He needed to receive a gift along with everyone else. It was only fair.

As Joe grew older we got another dachshund, a rescue dog named Henry, to be a sort of companion for him. Henry took to this role surprisingly well, allowing Joe to be the alpha and comforting him by licking his ears. The day Henry arrived, though – equipped with several rawhide bones of his own – Joe felt he had to establish who was boss. He studiedly picked up the largest of Henry’s bones and stalked off with it, pausing to glance over his shoulder just to make sure his brazen ploy was being fully appreciated.

Over the next several days there ensued a series of bone raids as Henry and Joe took turns stealing each other treasures back and forth. Their beds were on opposite sides of the bedroom, each with an adjacent pile of bones. First, one pile would grow while the other shrank, and vice versa.

Finally, I intervened by dumping a large pile of new rawhide bones midway between the two beds. With the market thus flooded, theft of bones somehow lost its cachet.

When it came to milk bone treats, we likewise made sure that Joe and Henry received them in equal portions and at the same time – dogs being quite sensitive to inequitable treatment. Observational trials have shown, for example, that if one dog sees another receiving a reward for doing a task or trick for which he himself has received nothing, he’ll quickly stop cooperating.

Joe and Henry weren’t Yodas of jurisprudence nor canines of letters.  But like most dogs, they had a surprising sense of what was fair and what wasn’t – and on occasion, of how to ignore it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Aesop’s Fables: The Fox, the Mouse, and the Snack in the Grass

The Fox, the Mouse, and the Snack in the Grass
One day a Fox was out hunting for his lunch. Fruitlessly, he searched hill and dale, meadow and wood, finding nothing to eat. On the verge of despair, he suddenly came upon a thick crust of  bread dropped in the grass by some careless passerby. As he had not eaten for two days the Fox was quite hungry and at first thought to seize the crust at once before someone else made off with it. But just as he was about to snap up the morsel, he noticed a Mouse eyeing the bread from the door of its nearby burrow.

So the Fox paused.

“Why, hello, honored sir,” the Fox called out to the Mouse. I happened to be passing by with this crust of bread and thought you might enjoy it. I’ve been waiting here this little while to make sure you were home. Winter is coming on, and I imagine you may be hungry. I myself have more than enough to eat. That is why I wish to share this crust with you.”

The Dog, the Cock, and the Fox
“Thank you, kindly,” replied the Mouse. “That is very noble of you. It’s not every day one encounters such generosity as yours.”

Still, the Mouse was hesitant, suspecting the Fox of mischief.  Furry woodland folk had a way of disappearing whenever the Fox was about, never to be seen again, and the Mouse did not wish to share such a fate himself.

The Lion, the Bear, and the Fox
Yet like the Fox, he, too, was very hungry and eager to claim the enticing snack the Fox had offered him. And waiting until the Fox had departed seemed almost too much to imagine.

Noticing that the Fox had seated himself a considerable distance off, the Mouse ventured “Folks say you are an accomplished jumper, but I can hardly believe the tales of your prowess. How far can you really jump?”

The Lion, the Ass, and the Fox
“Don’t believe everything hear,” replied the cunning Fox. “My skill is not so great, especially since I injured a back leg. I can barely jump the length of my own shadow and prefer not to jump at all.”

Believing the Fox’s words and throwing caution to the wind, the Mouse scampered out to grab the crust and retrieve it to the safety of his burrow.

Whereupon the Fox, pouncing easily from just where he sat, dined happily upon both crust and Mouse.

Bide your time, the better to dine – and don’t believe everything you hear.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Blue Lagoon: Heaven and Hell in Iceland

“Hell is other people!” French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously exclaims in No Exit, his existential play set in the metaphorical hell of a closed room populated by three individuals condemned to spend eternity in each other’s company.

Sartre had the notion that the gaze of others, observation by others, somehow deprives one of one’s freedom, locks one into a particular way of being, thus making one weak and fragile, a subject. So an eternity of such scrutiny was an idea of hell.

Yet Sartre himself hardly eschewed the limelight. Like the pop star who flies into faux dudgeon at the sight of paparazzi but somehow makes sure to wind up in the viewfinder, he had a devious propensity for headlines. Even his refusal of the Nobel Prize for literature may have been a publicity stunt. You wonder if for him, existential angst didn’t somewhere run headlong into narcissistic self-absorption.

A guardian angel wrestles with nicotine addiction.
According to one authority, an angel’s celestial service
corresponds to the function it performed in a prior
earthly existence – as a lifeguard at the Y, say.
Indeed, for most of us, the regard of others is what keeps us sane, prevents our descending into self-deception and delusion. When you’re about to go off the deep end, isn’t it typically others, your friends, family, sometimes even strangers, who restrain you from the brink?  A balanced, realistic view of oneself must to some degree take into account what other people think. Sartre’s solipsistic perspective is apt to be more than a little prejudicial, and taken to extremes, a conduit to lunacy.

In the end, despite being given an opportunity to escape, the three characters of No Exit resign themselves to an eternity of togetherness. Even Sartre, it seems, couldn’t get his head around the idea of perpetual solitude no matter how free it might make him.

Magic bar where but the touch of your chip-equipped
bracelet conjures up intoxicating libations.
Which brings me to my point: what seems like hell at first might begin to look better, even like heaven, later on. And visa versa, of course. Heaven and hell can be hard to tell apart.

Indeed, philosophers and clerics have debated forever about the nature of hell and heaven. For some, they are actual places, whether temporary or permanent; for others, merely states of mind or spirit. Modern physics asserts that no information about the body or mind is preserved after death so that heaven and hell could just as well be inventions of Marvel Comics.

For my part, I believe there is a physical heaven – in a black lava field southwest of Reykjavik, Iceland, of all places! It’s a geothermal spa called the Blue Lagoon. And though you don’t have to be dead to get there, who knows? For some, death might very well be part of the journey.

Heavenly bodies call to mind the martyrs’
reward of 72 virgins in Paradise. But even
dried out like prunes by the Blue Lagoon’s notorious
powers of desiccation, these ladies  wouldn’t
muster for the prophecy’s actual promise of, not 
virgins, but 72 raisins.
The Blue Lagoon, you could say, is an accident of industry, a byproduct of the Svartsengi geothermal power station.  This facility uses brine superheated to 464 °F by a mantal plume 6,500 feet below ground (hell down there) to generate electricity and pipe hot water (via heat exchanger) to Reykjavik twenty miles distant. Effluent from the plant, rich in minerals like silica and sulfur, is continuously pumped into a waste water lagoon, the blue one, at 99-102 °F, maintaining a depth of 3-4 feet and completely exchanging the lagoon’s volume about every two days. Silica suspended in the water renders it an opaque milky white. Sunlight refracted by the silica creates the lagoon’s eponymous pastel blue.

The way the spa manages its guests is a marvel of near celestial wonder. For starters, you have to have a reservation. Upon arrival – after standing in line with the rest of the faithful (or patient) for what already seems like eternity – gatekeepers vet your credentials. Deemed suitable for admittance, you’re issued a plastic bracelet with an electronic chip for identification purposes and sent on your way to a sanctum of communal showers (segregated by gender, however). This is a sort of cleansing purgatory where earthly impurities are washed away like sins before you enter the lagoon.

After a good dousing, you walk down a flight of steps, then pause for a moment or two to sort out the three-fold way – pick a path for the final leg of your journey into the salubrious blue.

The first path leads to an unobtrusive indoor incline some eight feet or so wide that continues out through a set of low plastic curtains into a secluded estuary of the lagoon, just the ticket, perhaps, for anyone who’s been feeling the chill – agnostics, say, or the faint of faith. For this route permits you to completely immerse yourself in the lagoon’s reassuring warm waters while still indoors before braving the curtains to the cold out yonder.

A second route leads directly through a set of swinging outside doors that give upon a much larger incline, like a boat ramp, which you descend into the water on foot in full view of the assembled host – as though you were making an entrance for baptism, say. This would be the way of the zealot or true believer.

Finally, off to one side, there’s a wheelchair ramp where once submersed, the lame and halt may float free of the confines of earthly affliction.  At my age, it’s a miracle I didn’t have to go this way.

In the event, I was inclined to the indoor warm-up.

Because the lagoon is so shallow, no one really swims in it. You simply walk about. Or if it’s cold and blustery as is often the case, you submerge yourself up to the chin and glide about in an effortless crouch – buoyed up as by faith, in a manner of speaking, or at least by the mineral-laden waters.

Scattered strategically around the periphery of the lagoon are wooden housings accessed by boardwalks that contain hot water feeds from the power plant. When the wind gets intense, you can shelter in the lee of these structures and luxuriate in the heat plume. Feeling the warmth of the flush, it’s as though some benevolent leviathan of the nether waters were peeing on you just to vouchsafe your coziness.

Sometimes a bright notion
On account of steam rising into the cold air, the atmosphere at the surface of the Blue Lagoon can be nearly as opaque as its waters.  Out of this ethereal mantle, blissful souls emerge as though from nowhere, only to fade again into the mist as quickly as they’d appeared – a natural cadence of being and nothingness, as it were, sans espresso, cigarettes, or Simone de Beauvoir.

It was a rainy, chill afternoon. As the air grew colder and the wind picked up, guests began to congregate in intimate groups around the pump house plumes, sharing greetings and stories of their stay in Iceland. One charming Canadian couple, newlyweds, told of their hassle-free nuptials at a rural Iceland church following arrangements they’d made online. Another Canadian, a military person, spoke more somberly of experiences during deployment overseas.

At a pump house close to the paddle-up bar, a gaggle of young men, apparently in town for an IT convention, sipped drinks from plastic cups and kept an eye out for young women adrift of their moorings.

Afloat for four hours or more in this aqueous Eden, at last it was time for me to leave. Getting out, however, proved to be hell. The prolonged, exertion-free soak in warm mineral water left me dehydrated, flaccid as a noodle, dizzy, and weak. I’d have almost preferred the wheelchair route.

Then there was an obligatory pass back through the purgatorial showers – ironic when you’re returning from heaven. Making my way to the lockers – bypassing the showers – I learned of this exit rinse-off requirement from a demonic-looking attendant or custodian who barked out a reprimand like Cerberus in broken English. You never know when error or corruption may overtake you, especially in Paradise.

Still, heaven had thought of just about everything. Just a touch of my chip-equipped bracelet popped open my locker. There was even a dispenser for shear plastic baggies with which to pack up your sopping wet bathing suit.

The road back to Reykjavik passed under lowering skies and rain showers through miles of jagged black lava, bringing to mind the Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, and the Divine Comedy, his epic journey through heaven and hell. Unlike mine, however, Dante’s afterlife doesn’t serve Egils Gull lager or feature the LAVA Restaurant. It has more to do, I'd say, with vengeance served cold than fine dining.

Sure, I’d return to Iceland’s heaven-cum-hell in a trice. One of these days. One way or another.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Wolves of Canyon Road

                                         “Goodness, what big eyes you have!” said Red Riding Hood
                                         “The better to see you with,” replied the Wolf.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a mile-long stretch of Canyon Road, can be found the greatest concentration of art galleries in the U.S. Among these, at Canyon and Garcia Street, stands the Carole LaRoche Gallery. Ms. LaRoche has been proprietor and artist in residence there since 1982.

Red Wolf and Flowers (33/100), giclée 
on paper, 8.25 x 10.25 in., Carol LaRoche
LaRoche’s work at first glance appears deceptively simple – basic, figurative depictions rendered in pastels or acrylic on paper or canvas, prints in monotype or giclée. The backgrounds are characteristically spare and schematic or completely monochromatic and solid. The central or dominant forms or figures are typically bold and forthright. Standing out sharply against the expanse of more muted background hues, they often appear solitary and self-contained, even monumental.

LaRoche favors animals, particularly wolves which she regards as guardians and protectors, though she also creates images of other creatures, both wild and domestic (burros, bears, buffalo, birds, horses, deer, cats, and the occasional elephant, lion, and zebra). She does shamen-like human images as well.

But her main passion, it seems to me, is wolves – wolves that come singly, a few at a time, or in packs. Red wolves, black wolves, golden, blue, or magenta wolves. Wolves cradling birds (Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom comes to mind).

Opined one reviewer of LaRoche’s creatures, “their still, vulnerable faces reflect their inner souls, conjuring up angels, oracles…”

That’s certainly true as far as it goes, but to me there’s a good deal more going on in this work, especially when it comes to the wolves.

LaRoche’s wilderness canines are looming, portentous creatures – almost mythical or archetypal. Indeed, when confronted with the likes of them, it’s the observer who’s apt to look still and vulnerable. Gazing in fascination, one can but trust that these resplendent beings are protectors and guardians as LaRoche prefers to think of them – and not, say, covetous of your soul!

Red Riding Hood
A few years ago, during one of my visits to the LaRoche gallery, I purchased a limited edition wolf print, Red Wolf and Flowers (giclée on paper). It came in a sturdy black wood frame faced with glass – intended primarily to shield the art, of course, but perhaps the new owner as well. The print has hung over my desk ever since.

Thus far, Red Wolf has yet to escape that picture frame, at least from what I can tell. Still, though I fancy him securely confined, staring at me through a bed of brightly colored flowers that conceals his face almost up to his eyes, he in turn keeps me constrained – transfixed, almost paralyzed – with that piercing gaze of his.

For a truly overpowering prospect he be! The great mass of his orange-red head, thick neck, and truncated portions of shoulder and chest contrasts starkly with a dark grey background. His ears point nearly straight up like horns, signaling a state of high alertness and perceptivity. His muzzle, rendered with no more than a single black line, thicker at the left angle of the jaw to suggest shadow or space, is broad, flat, and puissant; a roughly triangular smudge partially concealed by the flowers comprises his nose.

You feel a frisson of disquiet and foreboding about the piece. Is Red Wolf stalking from cover, or is he merely peering through the flowerbed? Is his hard stare meant to convey some sort of remonstrance, or is he simply indifferent, looking straight through you?

Ironically perhaps, there’s also a touch of edgy comedy here. It’s as though crafty Mr. Lobo were contriving – with obvious difficulty and little success – to hide his imposing presence behind but a scant nosegay, to conceal himself with a posy of wild flowers instead of the usual sheep’s clothing.

Yet droll as this seems, you're left laughing nervously. For if the wolf's intentions are malign, he doesn't seem to care in the least if you know it! A taste for gallows humor comes in handy here.

But without a doubt it’s the eyes that have it. The most arresting aspect of the work by far is Red Wolf’s great yellow eyes and a gaze of such intensity you wonder if he’s some sort of demiurge. Eye contact is a powerful force that, sustained like this, could variously signify aggression, affection, or deception.  It’s physically and mentally challenging, yet hard to escape. A fixed stare of this sort obliges you to respond in some manner – perhaps by adjusting your tie, looking at your watch, or even walking out the door – but you have to allay the unease somehow. It can be downright discombobulating.

Even now, Red Wolf hovers up there on the wall, staring at me inscrutably through the flowers…tulips...maybe daffodils…

In other news, there’ve been rumors recently of unusual grassroots unrest on Canyon Road, though it's not clear just how it all started. Ms. LaRoche’s wolves, it seems, have been slipping the confines of her studio and venturing off on their own, turning up surreptitiously as interlopers in musical compositions, legends, folk tales, and children’s stories – in some cases, making quite a muddle of things.

Thus, Deacon Carroll’s Cheshire Cat seems to have disappeared once and for all, courtesy of you-know-who. And guess who’s been stalking Little Red Riding Hood.

Now it appears the Boy Who Cried Wolf may have had good reason to all along.
Three Billy Goats Gruff – Lazy M Ranch ‘Annunciation’ version

The Wolf and the Seven Kids has somehow acquired a replacement antagonist – never mind about Richard Scarry’s. Likewise for Maestro Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

As for the Three Billy Goats Gruff, it’s no longer a troll that awaits them under the bridge.

And someone’s been trying out new insufflation techniques on the houses of the Three Little Pigs.

Clearly, things in Santa Fe have gotten out of control, and I suspect Carole LaRoche could use a hand. So thither I suggest you hie, there to become like me a guardian of the guardians: adopt a wolf – better still, a pack of them – frame and all, at the Carole LaRoche Gallery. Her staff will be happy to assist you. Or you can establish custody online or by mail.

Got to run now. I’m all out of ink – and somebody’s at the door.

                                                           Carole LaRoche Gallery 
                                                           415 Canyon Road Santa Fe, NM 87501

                                                           Phone: (505) 982-1186

                                                           Carole LaRoche Gallery on Facebook

NB: I have no commercial or financial relationship with the Corale LaRoche Gallery.

Images used with permission

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Virtual Reality? Really?

My Rift with Oculus

Several months ago, the New York Times sent me a strange cardboard contraption with plastic lenses that looked like an awkward pair of goggles, part of the Times’ venture into virtual reality.  The thing rattled around the back seat of my car awhile before I tossed it in the recycle. I hadn’t even bothered to figure out how it was supposed to work. I simply couldn’t feature that a mash-up of cardboard and plastic would somehow transport me to another reality, let alone do much for the one I appeared to be in.

The contraption sent by the New York Times 
could have just as well come from Mars
That's because virtual reality (VR) is, for one thing, a contradiction in terms, a phrase as dubious as the phenomenon it’s meant to describe – albeit probably still very useful when it comes to selling computer games and cybersex toys (more about those later).

There’s just reality, you see – that’s it.

What varies is not reality, but the way our lying eyes, ears, and other senses, with an assist from high-tech gadgetry, fool our poor brains into a kind of meretricious processing of light, sound, and sometimes haptic (touch) and proprioceptive (movement and position) sensory input in order to create an elaborate illusion.  VR is nothing more than trompe l’oeil gone high-tech with a vengeance.

But as you gaze glassy-eyed about the tiny IMAX 3D strapped to your face, the state of things around you, things as they actually are, remains precisely the same. At our level of quantum emergence, everyday physical reality is remarkably stable – if you drop a brick, for example, it never falls up – and its behavior surprisingly knowable. Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves,
verified only recently, more than a century ago.

Observed one pundit, “the cloth-made Google 
Daydream View looks and feels like something you 
would find at an expensive clothing accessory store…” 
Maybe in a virtual sense.  Still, even Dacron 
polyester would be an improvement on cardboard.
Yet, perhaps on account of the way our brains process information, we constantly reinterpret reality, making it feel as though it were somehow inconstant and changeable. It’s not just in a court of law you may find yourself lying like an eyewitness. Virtual reality, in effect, has you doing much the same thing – deftly bamboozling your hapless little grey cells.

To be sure, we’re all prone to creating personal sanctuaries, private amusement parks of the mind – VR being just the latest way of going about it – but the real challenge, I think, is to hew as close to objective reality as you reasonably can. And for that, you might want to avoid heavy doses of VR-derived “telepresence” (complete cyber immersion and interactivity) and the narcosis that’s apt to come with it.

Not that “digital environmental simulation” (DES) – let’s set aside the misleading virtual reality trope for a moment – is all bad. Today, there’s a host of promising applications, real or potential, in medicine, law, education, the arts, marketing, media, and more. Besides, the fact that DES abets escapism isn’t all bad, either; escapism in moderation can make for good entertainment.

Still, DES has significant pitfalls, including it own kind of sickness. Wearing one of those head-mounted displays (HMD) for even brief periods can cause Simulator Sickness (“SimSickness”), so-called – "a sense of general discomfort, headache, stomach awareness, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness, disorientation, and apathy.” Makers of VR paraphernalia, e.g., Oculus, HTC, will tell you its just a matter of getting your sea legs, like getting used to the pitching deck of a sailboat, and that the symptoms will pass. But before spending $500 or more on a HMD and other gear, you might want to make sure. As with motion sickness, some folks are more susceptible to Simulator Sickness than others.

Don’t count on VR improving your social connectedness any time soon, either. “For all of the overwrought promises about the futuristic technology connecting people, it's a pretty isolating experience,” says tech reporter Heather Kelly. “The hardware shuts out any view or sound of people physically near you, not many people own headsets yet, and interactions inside virtual settings are still limited.”

But even with improved connectedness, you have to wonder if people will end up segregating themselves in VR metaverses or tribes the way they do on Facebook, say.

Some have suggested that exposing VR gamers to violent situations, especially ones that incite them to violence, could result in risky desensitization and sociopathic behavior. This has already been observed, for example, amongst online gamers.

Addiction will be a problem, too. The more realistic and life-like VE experiences become, the more likely users will become addicted to them – again, something already seen in cyberspace. Author journalist Steven Kotler compares VR to “legal heroin,” saying that “when video games start producing ‘full-scale flow states’ is arguably the point that VR becomes more fun and perhaps more meaningful than actual reality.”

The Thrill of Teledildonics. But beware i-rape by a hacked
device. Or maybe an Oculus incubus! In cyberspace, you
never really know who’s pushing your buttons.
All these risks – addiction, social isolation, anti-social behavior, and the like – would presumably be greatest for VR’s avid contingent of computer gamers and cybersex junkies.

If cybersex has been a major Internet moneymaker (it has), VR cybersex is set to top it in spades. American porn company BaDoinkVR, for example, is partnering with Dutch adult technology company Kiiroo to market sex videos that combine virtual reality and “teledildonic” devices (vibrating sex toys) synced for interactive experience with adult film stars.

VR Bangers, an L.A. porn producer, is developing the “VR Bangers Hotel Experience” for clients in Las Vegas.  For $19.99, you get a VR headset preloaded with interactive 360-degree views of a steamy scenario set in a virtual mock-up of your hotel room.

“Next you will hear a knock on the door (in the virtual reality world), and the girl or guy will come into your room in order to enjoy an erotic or sex experience with the viewer,” VR Bangers CEO Daniel Abramovich explained to PC World.

“Hopefully the rentals come with a few disinfectant wipes, too,” PC World shot back.

Those wipes would be good for sure, but not nearly enough. If you ask me, VR Bangers should throw in some sterile C++ filters to guard against virtual STDs, especially the viral kind. Otherwise, hackers might horn in on your holiday and leave you irate about having been i-raped!  It’s something to think about. A few bytes of prevention here might be worth untold megabytes of cure later on.

Declension of iMan I: Homo devolutiens, ssp. Alienensis.
Some may dismiss such speciation as specious, but don’t
be so sure.
Finally, what really grabs you about VR is the whole appearances thing.  Who hasn’t been struck (nay, clobbered) by the painfully silly look? The headset with its patented vacuum stare suggesting horse blinkers for spaced-out homies or maybe a Dadaist idea of scuba gear for the blind? Worse yet, you can’t escape a nagging impression of a  schnoz disorder (rhinophyma – think geriatric W.C. Fields), or perhaps a malformation of the jaw (prognathism), and with some VR getups, an improbably protuberant occiput-cum-tail.

And that’s just for starters. Wait ‘til you get a load of these VR contenders! Several look like agitated, hallucinating schizos or acidheads on a really bad trip. Some appear to be falling-down drunk. All of them seem in major need of just getting a grip and taking a seat pronto. It’s enough to give cyborgery a bad name.

Yet – form following function – cyborgs presumably mutate, too. One day, for example, VR habitués might wake up to find their headsets fused to their faces, the result of some catastrophic phenotypic mutation. Of necessity, their children would be born by Caesarean section – the infants’ heads being too misshapen for natural birth. But no matter! The mutation spreads like wildfire. The few remaining humans of the archaic phenotype end by frantically gluing on VR gear or even resorting to plastic surgery in order to look like everyone else.

Rod Serling explored such an idea in an episode of the Twilight Zone (Eye of the Beholder, 1960).

Perhaps one day soon we’ll discover the need for a brief VR educational short, themed along similar lines – call it Why the Long Face, VRGameBoy?  It would give VR regulars a heads-up (preferably while they’re sitting down) about the potential for things to come. It would warn about the dangers of too much telepresence and encourage contact with real humans beings and the world outside.

Declension of iMan II: Homo devolutiens, ssp.
Prognathicans. Some may dismiss such speciation
as specious, but don’t be too sure.
Even if it meant settling for that much more reality TV.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Princess Lil Ti and the Tangerine Mandarins: A Tale of Old Beijing

Chinese history is replete with stories of remarkable women. Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty, led troops into battle, conquering neighboring states.

Princess Pingyang, daughter of the first Tang emperor, played an important role in the founding of that dynasty, raising and commanding an army of 70,000 soldiers to assist her father’s campaign.

Li Ye, famed for her literary talents, was summoned to the court of Tang Emperor Dezong to compose poetry for him.

Yet for originality and shear force of character, none compares to Princess Lil Ti of the latter Qing dynasty – not even the redoubtable Dowager Empress Cixi, according to most authorities.

Lil Ti was born gulun gongzhu, or "princess of the first rank,” to Xiaozhuang, wife of the Xianfeng emperor, in1705. Many of the details of her upbringing remain sketchy, but as distinct from most women of the Chinese imperial court, the sources indicate that she was well educated.

At the age of six she was placed under the supervision of "Grand Tutor of the Royal Princess" Wei Zhongxian, a learned court eunuch who by dint of skillful heuristics imbued in her a thorough knowledge of the Chinese classics. This even if at times coping with his charge proved daunting or downright parlous!

At only ten years of age, for example, whilst reciting for her tutorial the Three Obediences and Four Virtues handed down by Confucius, Lil Ti paused, then suddenly blurted that the venerable Chinese philosopher “might just as well be called ‘confuse us’!”

Peasant rice farmers  of the Nong social class
wearing traditional hemp smocks over tunics of
ramie. Tongshan, Hubei, c. 1735. Cultivars of
indica and japonica rice were grown in Central
China by the 3rd millennium BC, though most
farmers made little distinction. “Mǐfàn shì mǐfàn”
(rice is rice), the saying went.
For the Three Obediences and Four Virtues had to do with the expectation that a woman would first obey her father, then her husband, and in the event of her husband's death, her sons – and to Lil Ti this made no sense at all. Indeed, according to Confucius’ own precepts, it added up to a sort of duplicity. One of the meanings of the Confucian virtue Rén, she pointed out, is "not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself.”

So why should men seek to dominate women, she wondered, if that weren’t what they’d want for themselves?*

Or did Confucius have a dominatrix in Shanghai? (Lil Ti, it seemed, was growing up fast.)

More than a few Chinese scholars of the time had been executed for unorthodoxies less serious,  and Wei Zhongxian, trembling like a willow in his green silk changshan, stood to be blamed.  Struggling to dissuade Lil Ti from pursuing heresy any further, he grimaced and made a slashing motion across his throat with the edge of his hand to indicate the likely outcome of her apostasy.

Prosperous silk merchants of the Shang social class.
Shanghai, c. 1745. Involvement in the silk trade could
bring great wealth. But in an agrarian proto-
communalist society that held the Shang in low esteem,
silk traders were often distained as “dirty silk roaders.” 
Now, as Lil Ti was quite fond of Wei Zhongxian and not insensitive to the hazard she’d created, she decided to let the matter drop even though retaining her views about the injustice of it.

Then to her surprise, in a private concession that came not long after, Wei Zhongxian, who’d been mulling things over, allowed she’d been right all along.

“Philosophy only makes sense if you think about it as little as possible,” he admitted.

When it came to the rest of Confucius – the Four Books, including the Analects, and Five Classics – however, the sailing was smoother. Likewise for the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars (classics of Chinese mythology and folktales), the Twenty-Four Histories, the Hundred Schools of Thought (eventually boiled down to the Nine Schools), and the Three Hundred Tang Poems.

Even so, with such a program as this, Lil Ti necessarily began to wonder if, in a quaint sort of way, Chinese learning might be summed up as a collection of numerals, odd and even – the nines of these, the twelves of those, and so forth.

Successful citrus growers in silk dǒulìs (conical hats)
and dajinshan jackets displaying samples of prized
Zaoshu Nanfeng tangerines or honey mandarins.
Jiangxi Province, c. 1740. 
“I’d bet even odds you very well could,” she mused, “and cover it with no more than, say, the Three Explanations.”

By the time she was eighteen, Lil Ti had discovered (and read to dog-eared attrition) two classics of the Chinese novel, works that would effect for her a sort of coming of age epiphany: Slapping the Table in Amazement by Ling Mengchu, and The Carnal Prayer Mat, an erotic thriller by Li Yu. There followed not only a spate of philosophizing (which coming from Lil Ti seemed ironic) – her thesis of the Ten Blandishments and Seven-and-a-Half Ratiocinations – but also authorship of a scandalous romance novel Lotus Steps of a Song Virgin in which she explored her philosophies in (perhaps too much) depth, reaching a wide audience of enthusiastic nobility. From this she emerged for a time as a sort of Qing dynasty Françoise Sagan.

And still more ingenuity was to follow. At nineteen, to celebrate an erotic assignation with a Han Bannerman, one Geng Zhongming, Lil Ti composed a one-act Cantonese opera, Fragrant Sacrifice that would remain popular even to modern times.

But it was literature, particularly poetry, rather than music that proved to be her métier. Yu Xuanji and Li Ye, famous women poets of the Tang dynasty, became her exemplars. Besides composing extensively herself – she would write for hours on end – from 1725 onwards Lil Ti oversaw the publication of a periodical for aspiring poets, Tooth and Claw Monthly.

Yet fancy sometimes got the better of the princess, conjuring as it did, figments of an especial sort that for her surpassed the merely imaginative.  She would wander the back allies and street markets of Beijing in a conical coolie hat, disguised as a corvée laborer from Yunnan (a tour de force in itself since most such conscripts were men who remained tethered close to their work), absent her attendants. And thereabouts would whimsy overtake her.
Top-ranked Jinshi Jidi scholar-bureaucrats, or mandarins,
of the Shi da fu social class, bearing insignia of office
symbolizing the duality of their roll: individual or personal
versus administrative or formal. Beijing, c. 1750. The oblong
shape of the insignia, probably Manchu in origin, is distinct
from the usual Qing mandarins’ square badge of rank. Similarly,
the official Zhan Chi Fu Tou (spread-wing head cover) is
typical of an earlier era. The colorful mandarin drake, a sort
of unofficial periapt or mascot, was seen as a mark of cultivation
and good taste.

And no wonder! The Beijing bazaar was an exotic, raucous, voracious place – a veritable Götterdämmerung of the senses. Jugglers, fire-eaters, beggars, and thieves plied their trades. On offer were all manner of comestibles hanging from racks or heaped in bins: millet, wheat, beans, barley, and mountains of rice.  For the wealthy, there were meats from the farm – chicken, duck, goose, beef, and pork. Trappers and hunters offered rabbit, sika deer, turtledove, bamboo partridge, magpie, pheasant, crane, and owl. Fish caught by indentured cormorants in the nearby Chaobai River could be had year round. Also, shark fins, frogs, snakes, and even centipedes.

More seasonal were vegetables and fruits such as jujube, pear, plum, peach, apricot, and myrica. Oranges, prized as a delicacy, could be had as a treat for Chinese New Year’s or given as gifts.

Beyond the farmers’ market were the stalls of the dry goods sellers, purveyors of everything from bronze oil lamps to iron plowshares to silk – countless skeins and bolts of silk in myriad patterns and hues, shimmering in the afternoon sun.

Finally, there were imported luxury goods – tortoise shell, objects of gold and silver, incense and spices, tall Ferghana horses prized by aristocrats.

The experience could be overwhelming, like Stendhal’s on steroids. Indeed, for Princess Lil Ti, it quite begat an altogether novel dimension, an alternative space curiously amended as from beyond the looking glass wherein she encountered an odd assortment of notional, yet all-too-sensible, characters.

Thus did she come upon Ding and Dong, two rice farmers from Hubei, who were (a little too) eager to feign for her the sensation of rice paddy muck oozing between one’s toes or tilapia snogging one’s ankles in water knee-deep. Lil Ti dismissed them, along with their Ten Secret Recipes for Glutinous Congee (with Mung Beans), as merely garish.
Debased and venal, some miscreant mandarins
ceased to trouble themselves with scholarship and
official decorum as bit by bit they sank into corruption
and carnality.  Note the horde of coin-like gold discs,
relics of the Western Han period (202 BC – 9 AD)
filched from the Forbidden City. Of particular regret,
a single fateful line ("Fill your plates with roast duck…”)
from the Duan Zhu Zhi Ci, a collection of Beijing verse,
saw the baking of mascot drakes into a famous Peking
. Such could be the degree of degeneracy.

She met Ping and Pong, silk merchants from Shanghai, who affected smoothness and luster but simply couldn’t maintain a good back and forth.

Zing and Tang, smarmy citrus growers from Jiangxi, in a fruitless attempt, likewise vied for her notice.

Then one afternoon near the pavilion of Cai Xingfeng, a Uyghur spice merchant – swooning amidst aromas of frankincense, styrax, and bdellium, attars of garam masala and camel dung – Lil Ti encountered an unusual pair of reprobate mandarins, Ming Mong and Mong Min.

Theirs was a truly a tale of woe, for from positions of probity and regard they’d sunk headlong into corruption and depravity, squandering both wealth and the public trust.

But their story aroused in Lil Ti the deep-seated compulsions of a reformist, and she at once undertook to “struggle” the two, tersely reminding them of the Confucian virtues of justice and propriety and of the mandarin’s responsibility to the state. Then, having somehow remedied their every transgression in the space of but a few minutes, she advised them to take up poetry, particularly shi and ci – these forms being held in especially high regard, and poetry considered the proper avocation of mandarins.

In the event, evangelism was its own reward. So pleased was the princess with her handiwork that she invited the pair to dine with her at the Summer Palace that they might celebrate their redemption and discuss matters further.

At the appointed time, from the palace’s great kitchen came a sumptuous repast: Peking duck, steamed pancakes, spring onions, sweet bean sauce, dim sum, and baijiu ("white liquor"). It was a feast fit for a Qing, a royal one anyway.

But as the waiters and stewards entered the royal refectory adjacent the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, they were startled to discover the princess seated before a large Ming celadon filled with luscious zaoshu nanfeng tangerines (honey mandarins) – quite alone, yet engaged in earnest conversation. Now and again she would pause as though listening for a reply from unseen interlocutors, then continue apace.

Princess Lil Ti clad in a flowing eucalyptus-green
silk gown embellished with fringed embroidery. A
ceremonial Phoenix headdress and Chinese New
Year’s sorceress mask complete her costume. Hall
of Jade Billows, Summer Palace, Beijing, c. 1740.
Though she fancied herself adept at both “ku”(black)
and “wu” (white) magic, in the popular mind the
princess was seen to possess an imagination on a par
with her vivid attire. Formidable nonetheless when it
came to palace intrigue, rivals dubbed her Imperial
Nobel Lady Qing Kong.
She still had a great deal to say, it was clear, about corruption among Beijing’s mandarins – how several candidates for the Imperial triennial court examination had cheated by bribing court officials or hiding test answers in their underwear (in one case, even a five-character, 12-line shi poem for the exam’s poetry section).

From the look of it, the princess was setting the tone, and if supposition were any guide, the invisible dinner guests simply followed her lead.

Meanwhile, the attendants, loyal retainers of the royal household, went about serving the meal as though nothing were out of the ordinary.

Until of a sudden, disturbed by the clink of porcelain, the princess started alert as though awakening from a trance or dream. For a moment or two she looked about in a daze, not a little chagrined by what had transpired.

Then quickly regaining her composure, she announced she would celebrate the entire experience, street markets and all, in an anthology of verse.

“After all,” she explained, glancing toward the celadon, “it’s in the very nature of creativity to turn adversity into, well, verse!”

And with that, she gave a wink to, well, no one in particular.

For Lil Ti, the upshot of this drama was a classic of Chinese poetry, The Garden of Jade Chrysanthemums: Dreams from the Heart of Beijing, which she completed three years later.

Sadly, in the turbulent years that followed, during the decline and fall of the Qing dynasty, China’s last, Lil Ti’s masterwork was lost to posterity. Still, one can hope that someday, like the Terra-Cotta Warriors of Xi’an, it may again come to light, revealing more to us of this remarkable Chinese princess.

* Years later, anticipating Andrea Dworkin, one might almost say, Lil Ti threatened to “bind the heads" (with a Medieval cruncher, of all things) of those who subjected girls to foot binding. But it was not until the People’s Republic that the practice finally died out.