Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hitting the ceiling fan. Plus, no posts in August.

Whether or no the United States Congress manages to send a bill raising the debt ceiling to the President's desk by August 2, one may yet be tempted to speculate that the dumb-show presages the overt decline of the American empire. If it makes a whit of difference at all, that is. (I am about two-thirds with The Last Psychiatrist on this one.) The center of world politics may have shifted definitively to parts of the globe formerly known as the Third World: the movements for democratization in the near and middle east, the resistances to globalization in the developing world, and the shifting fortunes, ambitions, and concerns of Marx's last stand compromise (China), not to mention the complete stagnation not only of economy but of the currents of social mobility within the United States, all suggest that the animating motives of world history (if there is such a Geist), or at least the interests of the Illuminati puppeteers, have relocated to other climes. Yes, futurology is a fool's pastime, especially when based on today's headlines; but it's hard for me to shake the suspicion that the dialectic has either caught up or gotten bored with us. Will the ceiling fan be hit with a bang or a whimper?

In other news, I will probably post nothing in August. If there are any comments, I'll respond, and I'm working on some posts for the future, but I am taking the month to work on my relationship with my preferred mode of thinking/writing: pen on paper.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The order of the day

In my old hometown, Tim DeChristopher has been sentenced to two years in prison. DeChristopher is an environmental activist who, in the twilight of the last Bush administration, grew increasingly alarmed at the government's readiness to sell off public land to the diggers of fossil fuels. One day DeChristopher stepped into a Bureau of Land Management auction, signed himself up as a bidder, and kept on raising his number.

He cost oil and gas corporations hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. DeChristopher's bids raised the average price of land from about $12 and acre to about $125. While he had no money to pay for the bids he made, and initially intended only to embarrass and confound the government and the corporations (who were, he contended, acting in defiance of the law), he and sponsors later raised money for the down payment on his bids and made the offer--which was duly refused by the BLM.

The trial has been cause célèbre for all the right reasons. The auction at which DeChristopher made his fake bids was later declared illegal by a federal judge, partially vindicating DeChristopher's argument that he acted to prevent an illegal transfer of public lands into corporate hands. The informed jury movement got involved (absolutely rightly, by the way) to the great consternation of prosecutors. The courthouse has been the scene of ongoing demonstrations and on the day of DeChristopher's sentencing, over twenty other activists were arrested for civil disobedience.

Two years in prison may seem light or draconian, depending on your expectations. He could have faced up to ten years. On the other hand, it was certainly in the judge's power to assign only community service. To put it in perspective, Will Potter at Green is the New Red puts it like this:
DeChristopher’s two-year sentence is comparable to what members of underground groups have received for property destruction. The court has sent the message that public, aboveground activists, who use non-violent civil disobedience, will be treated on par with underground activists who use economic sabotage.
There is no question that this is what motivated the sentence. U.S. District Judge Dee Benson generously conceded that "I'm not saying there isn't a place for civil disobedience. But it can't be the order of the day." The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber, had been adamant: "If a sentence was perceived as too light or inconsequential, it could be seen as a reasonable price to pay to grab the limelight or gain fame." In light of this it is clear that there was concern that civil disobedience not become the order of the day.

You may think DeChristopher misguided, dangerous, devoted to a lost cause, or the great green hope. Of this thing I am sure: he is a brave man and a principled one. As a philosopher, I will add this: I suspect that being backed into a corner, if it doesn't crush you, if you can rise above fight-or-flight, makes you free. It's not a state you can get to on purpose, but this is the secret of all the imponderable and existentially soul-pinning paradoxes from Socrates to Dōgen to Kierkegaard to Gurdieff, and sometimes it wakes you up in a way that makes all the difference in the world, even if it seems to leave things much as they were. I don't know whether Tim DeChristopher considers himself a philosopher or not, but clearly he has thought through where he stands and why. Nor is he cowed by the judicial system's ability to pass sentence. That's not the corner he's in. He believes we are all in a corner already, and most of us are too scared or too alienated to see it. He is right that his example can be enough to snap some people out of their own fear--"if he can do that, I can do something too"--and by the same token the government is right, by its lights, to want raise the cost of such freedom.

DeChristopher's courtroom statement to Judge Benson before sentencing was the only time he was able to make a declaration of his motivations and political positions during the trial (the prosecution had argued that he ought not be allowed to distract the court with these irrelevancies, though it was eager to use his public statements later to argue for a harsh sentence). While not quite the Letter from Birmingham Jail, it is still a noble contribution to the documents in great tradition of resistance to authority; moving, articulate, unapologetic, and damning:
[The prosecution] would lead you to believe that I’m either a dangerous criminal who holds the oil and gas industry in the palm of my hand, or I’m just an incompetent child who didn’t affect the outcome of anything.... they’re not quite sure which of those extreme caricatures I am, but they are certain that I am nothing in between....
[The prosecution] also makes grand assumptions about my level of respect for the rule of law.... The rule of law is dependent upon a government that is willing to abide by the law. Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law....
I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me....I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them....You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away.
Go read it all.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Flavorful mechanics

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art. All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.

--Robert Louis Stevenson, "On some technical elements of style in literature".
Some would contend that Stevenson's observations pertain not just to art, but to any object of wonder or delight or even diversion. I have a friend who, like me, has a tendency towards animism. He remembers being fascinated by a little plastic Yoda toy when he was young. One day it forcibly struck home to him that the thing was not alive, was not a little green Jedi master, but was a lump of plastic with paint. "I would swear," he told me, "that after I realized this, its eyes looked dead."

Compare the starker rhetoric of Thomas Ligotti:
Life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would have us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, staring void. (Conspiracy Against the Human Race, p. 29)
Or again, Ligotti glossing the work of Carlo Michelstaedter:
To Michelstaedter, nothing in this world can be anything but a puppet. And a puppet is only a plaything, a thing of parts brought together as a simulacrum of real presence. It is nothing in itself. It is not whole and individual but exists only relative to other playthings, some of them human playthings that support one another’s illusion of being real. However, by suppressing thoughts of suffering and death they give themselves away as beings of paradox – prevaricators who must hide from themselves the flagrantly joyless possibilities of their lives if they are to go on living. (ibid., p. 32-33)
The "silent, staring void," a process without mind, behind mind, an emptiness not rich with potentia like the radiant spaciousness of the Buddhist sunyata but blank, accidental, and joyless, an endless spinning of gears and pulleys--this is, we are assured, what the willing dupes called average human beings must conceal from themselves, in order to enjoy this confidence trick called life. But one may espouse a nihilism far less patently abject than this, and still insist, or indeed assume, that life reduces to a play of interacting mechanical processes. I want to investigate (and, implicitly, challenge) this assumption here with reference to games, and I'm going to start with a couple of examples.

Mille Bornes is a game in which players pretend to be driving a 1,000-mile (hence the name) race. It's played with cards marked either with numbers of miles (25, 50, 75, 100, 200), with certain hazards or frustrations one might encounter in a road race (stop signs and speed limits, flat tires, accidents, running out of gas), or with remedies to said obstacles (green lights, spare tires, filling up, repairs). There are special cards which grant immunity to a given obstacle: Right-of-way, Puncture-Proof, Driving Ace, and Spare Tank. One plays miles-cards (or remedies) on oneself, trying to attain (but not exceed) 1,000; one plays obstacle cards on one's opponent.

The cards are adorned with signs that are suggestive of their function: various animals with different cliche speeds (from snail to swallow), traffic signs, and so forth. In playing Mille Bornes, at least with 10-to-12-year-olds (my own significant sample), one does sometimes feel a certain frustration or excitement, similar to being stuck in traffic or zooming ahead with a "so-long-suckahs!" laugh, and one does sometimes provide oneself a little narrative: "Damn! Another flat tire!?" All of this suggested merely by the pictures and the theme of the game, of course; for strictly speaking, there is nothing at all about the structure of the game that has anything to do with a road-race.

Mechanically, Mille Bornes is a play of variables. Numbers and functions and rules interact and are operated by players. Any connotation of miles, roads, speed or slowness, is provided by the players themselves spurred on by the theme of the game. Similarly, a game of Clue unfolds by way of an algorithm of process-of-elimination and a degree of random-number generation (two dice being rolled most turns); but these could operate without any props like rope and revolver or settings like ballrooms and libraries, all of which are, strictly speaking, extraneous.

The murder-theme of Clue, or the race-theme of Mille Bornes, are what one calls the flavor of the game. The rules, mathematics, and so on constitute the game's mechanics. The mechanics of a well-structured game are balanced and give no obvious advantage to any one player. They keep a game both challenging and rewarding. A game's flavor lends a kind of thematic or narrative coherence to it.

My thoughts about the relation between mechanics and flavor were originally occasioned by watching many, many rounds of Magic: the Gathering (MTG, or just Magic, for short), a game which showcases both of these aspects in a small package. A round of Magic is an imaginary duel between mages who cast spells, summon creatures, and employ fantastic objects to defeat their opponents; players (the "mages" in question) make these moves by playing various cards in their deck (the spells, creatures, and so on). Every such move requires tapping a source of magical power called, in the game, "mana." In extremely oversimplified terms, one may say that the more potent the move, the greater the mana cost. Mana comes in one of five colors, and each color has tendencies to align with or oppose other colors. Every Magic card shows, in abbreviated form, the costs and benefits associated with it; the rules show what sorts of targets it can be directed against, what circumstances prevent it being deployed, and so on. Additionally, each card displays artwork that shows the object, creature, or spell it stands for. Many feature in addition a short passage of "flavor text": a sentence or two meant to summon up an atmosphere suggestive of the role of the card's subject in an imaginary narrative.
"Wrath is no vice when inflicted upon the deserving."

"Its diet consists of fruits, plants, small woodland animals, large woodland animals, woodlands, fruit groves, fruit farmers, and small cities."

"He ensures not only whether but also when and where the lightning strikes twice."

"The land promises nothing and keeps its promise."
And so on.

This little snippets of flavor text are both completely superfluous, and absolutely essential to the game in some way. My informal research among enthusiasts of MTG indicates that few if any give themselves a narrative of events as they play, along the lines of "Now I'll cast this spell... Oh no! She's summoned an army of undead soldiers! They destroyed my giant spider!" They are thinking, rather, in terms of scores and rules: "Shoot, I'm down to 7 life." But of course the very term life in this context is a bit of flavor text. Indeed, it's admitted, the game would be no fun at all without the flavor. And, of course; no fun, no game. I even know players who acknowledge that their best decks--the ones that give them the best odds of winning--are not the decks they prefer to play with; they'd rather play with a deck that has a coherent flavorful theme--say, all one color of mana, or lots of flying creatures, or an special types of spells. The flavor is not just why to play, it is in some measure constitutive of the game itself. One could certainly run a fairly simple algorithm with functions and quantities that would be completely isomorphic with a round of MTG, but it would not be playing a game.

Now I am aware that some games are far more "mechanical," in the sense I am using the word, than others. One could argue that a game like Go, or MasterMind, is almost purely a matter of mechanics. But even this would not be completely true, because there is an element of flavor in the tension of a contest between two players, in the challenge of trying to beat one's own record, in the very experience of playing. And indeed, I suspect that in experience itself we find the best analogue to flavor. It is very telling that the word "flavor" itself refers to a subjective experience while the word "mechanics" pertains to the objective aspects of a game. (I would suggest that the mechanical is the meta-level, but in fact this does not get it quite right, for it is of the essence of the meta- that it is about its object, whereas the mechanical in a certain sense has no object at all--it could all happen automatically, without any intentionality whatsoever. It is the flavorful that has an object and in that sense is closer to the meta-level. This is a significant detail but I won't explore it here.)

One may note that my argument here bears a certain resemblance to Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment: imagine yourself in a room with detailed instructions in English for deciding what Chinese script to put in an out-box depending upon what Chinese comes into the in-box. Searle's argument is that one could become so good at following the instructions that from the outsider's perspective, nothing could distinguish you from a native Chinese speaker, even though one may understand not a word. Searle takes this to be a refutation to the claims of adherents of Strong AI; in essence, passing the Turing Test is not a criteria for understanding, for despite my having outputs and inputs that are exactly those of a speaker of Chinese, the characters do not mean anything to me.

What I am calling, in game-terms, "flavor," is here analogous to Searle's "understanding." One of Searle's points is that understanding can be separated from the rules that generate apparent competence: or, more succinctly, semantics does not reduce to syntax. The Chinese room argument does not directly address the question of the origin of semantics, which is a separate issue; it simply underscores the distinction.

One might also compare certain arguments of David Deutsch regarding virtual reality. Deutsch contends that Turing's arguments about universal machines can be extended to the question of simulated realities. The details of Deutsch's argument are beyond the scope of this post, but one theme of his account is that while a virtual simulation can generate any number of physically impossible scenarios, these impossibilities are by definition not actually, physically existing; what exists are physically possible states of affairs, which we then interpret as different (and sometimes impossible) states of affairs.

This, in turn, is just what stage magic (not, of course, to be confused with MTG) is: a set of procedures that results in an simulation of an impossible situation. The object of the magic, however, is not the impossible situation; and it is certainly not the rendering of the impossible event into the possible explanation. Or so argues one of the great theorists of modern stage magic, Eugene Burger, when he writes:
The magical experience is not the experience of a puzzle.... [it] is...in part, the experience of mystery. Mystery operates in magic in two ways. There is, first, experiencing the mystery that [for example,] a human body is here, alive and before my eyes, floating in space. The mere "thatness" of the magical effect--that it is happening at all--is the first level at which mystery operates or is present in magic.
There is however another way...This appears when we confront mystery as something to solve or figure out--as for example in a mystery novel or film where we attempt to outguess the detective and solve the mystery for ourselves. To do this we must transform the mystery into a puzzle to be solved. And to do that is to destroy the mystery! For once the mystery is solved, the mystery is no more.
The magical experience prompts us to ask whether all mysteries are really puzzles waiting to be solved. Is there, in other words, an irreducible presence of mystery in the world that can't be turned into puzzles and, therefore, remains Mystery forever and ever? The magical worldview suggests that there is....
Conjuring, at its best, functions to awaken us to another realm of experience: the magical dimension that points us towards the mystery that lies behind and beyond all experience.
(Eugene Burger and Robert E. Neale, Magic and Meaning, pp 13, 22-24)
This is coming from a respected and acclaimed conjurer, remember, who knows very well that any number of astounding effects can be produced by strings and pulleys. What is at stake here is not the impossibility per se, but the wonder at the impossibility. It is precisely the flavor of "the magical experience," which Burger insists cannot be boiled down to the mechanics of the trick, even though these mechanics are indispensable for occasioning it.

The difference between the experience of flavor (or vice-versa) and the infrastructure of such mechanics can lend plausibility to two different conclusions: either that everything is reducible to mechanics, and there is, really, no flavor at all ("flavor" is just a [mechanical] label used by one part of the mechanics for another part); or that there is some aspect of things that is irreducible to mechanics, precisely that aspect which is the recognition of the difference between mechanics and flavor--not the difference between explanans and explanandum, but between both of these on the one hand, and understanding of the relationship, on the other.

When my friend realized Yoda was just plastic and paint--where did the "Yoda"-ness go? Where, indeed, had it come from? To say it came from my friend is to beg the question. Where did he get it?

One last, Platonist, speculation: my suspicion is that this issue of mechanics and flavor is isomorphic with the question of the relation between Being and the Good.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Off to the wilderness for a bit, so no posts (not that I am all that regular in this regard anyway); and my responses to comments will have to wait a few days. I'm not ignoring you, I'm just away from electricity and drinking up some cool, green, slow sanity.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

McLuhan centennial

Marshall McLuhan would have been 100 today. I am a little baffled over Google's failure to mark the occasion with a special graphic. I call it a case of the anxiety of influence.

But there are plenty of notices online. The official McLuhan site has a huge list on its main page of events happening (both online and out on the surface of the Earth) during the whole year. Graham Harman has a short post here, and Douglas Coupland, whose brief study of McLuhan You know nothing of my work (titled for a line from McLuhan's cameo in Annie Hall), has an article in the Guardian. (A couple of reviews of Coupland's book here and here.)

I won't try to sum up McLuhan or go on about how he saw what was coming. Anyone who reads him can tell he knew which way the wind was blowing. His reputation suffered--like Derrida's later--from people adopting his style and nomenclature, without really bothering to read him. To some degree it's still the case.

One thing that is striking about McLuhan is how much a child of Gutenberg he was. His experiments in form were very much grounded in what was possible on the printed page. He was a Joyce critic, and in some ways his conversion to Roman Catholicism mirrored Joyce's exodus away from it. Eric McLuhan has edited a collection of his father's writings on religion and they are indispensable for understanding his work.

What people often still (and, in my opinion, scandalously) don't seem to get about McLuhan that for all his attention to the way innovations in media were re-shaping human experience he wasn't such a fan of the trends he described. He is frequently writing not straight-ahead description but satire, and he was less than sanguine about what he was satirizing. It may be that people's incomprehension of this point is a function of the very thing McLuhan was addressing. Media does not just impact what we perceive, but what we can perceive.

For all that, McLuhan is not a "technological determinist," as some stupid reductions would have it, but rather, as my friend Alf Seegert once put it, a technological co-evolutionist. We are able to make choices about media, but media will also shape the very manner of our choosing.

McLuhan remarked in a 1966 interview:
Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you're in favor of it, The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I'm resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button. (McLuhan, Understanding Me: Lectures and interviews p 102)
McLuhan believed it was important to be clear-sighted about how those effects happened. Others came along afterward and tried to celebrate what he limited himself to depicting (albeit sometimes with a wicked gleam in his eye). Some of their excesses may have magnified some of McLuhan's own defects, not leat that wicked gleam. I am sure I am not the first to point out the irony that McLuhan's message was swamped by his medium. We are only barely beginning to catch on to what he was saying. And why.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ismpressionistic self-portrait

There is a strong meta-philosophical flavor in many of my posts. This has its reasons--I am constantly asking myself what it is I am doing here (what is this thing called philosophy?)--but I decided to sketch an outline of those first-order positions I find most congenial, partly because people sometimes ask, so, dude, what is it you believe? and partly because it's good to touch base with one's commitments. I won't be arguing for any of these positions here, let alone spelling out the details; I won't even argue that they are all mutually consistent. It's more or less a list of -isms, and perhaps not all that enlightening, though I try to provide some glosses-- mostly these are the from-the-hip variety, so it's possible that in refining them I will have to seriously revise.

in method, I am
eclectic (My working assumption is that the intuitions at the root of any position are valid even if the articulation is problematic);
generalist (Philosophy seeks to understand everything--which means in practice it is committed to incompletion);
traditionalist (I am always interested in what the precedents of a position are, and this interest goes deeper than the historical);
skeptical (I always think a good question is "how do you know?" and I cultivate not-having-an-opinion, which is not the same as indifference);
irenic (I am less interested in making anyone agree with me, than in how we can both get along).

In doctrine, I am an
ontological realist (the world exists whether or not I am there to look at it). This does not mean that mind is not part of this world, or that mind does not exist necessarily! Ontological realism in the sense I espouse it is consistent with certain kinds of idealism. It simply means that there are constraints upon what we can truly say.
Also as regards ontology, I am a
personalist (to be is to experience, and the conatus of experience is towards personhood);
and tend to be
relationalist (entities, and certainly persons, are, at least in time--in terms of their coming-to-be and passing-away--constituted by their relations).

I am also a moral realist (judgments about whether something is right or wrong have sense outside of who is making the claim). When one says that X is good, one is making a stronger claim than that one approves of X or that X is "good for me."

On the question of science and religion, I am an accomodationist (there is no necessary conflict between scientific and religious stances). I take this so for granted that I do not really consider it a deep philosophical issue--it's almost a more matter of current affairs--but it's worth mentioning.

In political economy:
In my aims I am anarchist (the more distant the relationship, the more intolerable coercion--because the less resistible--is within it);
in my loyalties, conservative (existing goods tend to trump hypothetical alternative goods);
in my reactions, cynical (the question cui bono? always comes to mind);
in practice, localist (the closer the relationship, the less reason within it for coercion).
(This last especially is very from-the-hip.)

I am more swayed by Marx than almost any other thinker politically: the relevant sociological category is always class.

In art: I am both a dada classicist and a romantic modernist. (Huh?) I believe with Warhol that art is what you can get away with; I maintain, with Tarkovsky, Goethe, Bach, Leonardo, and Confucius, that some things are waaay more worth getting away with than others.

In theology: I am a rational fideist (the structure of our experience is aporetic and does require a (Jacobian, Kierkegaardian) leap; but the disposition for this leap can be rationally cultivated and its consequences rationally discussed);
and at the end of the day an apophaticist (God is wholly beyond the pertinence of any created concept).

The more I reflect the more convinced I am that the best preparation for philosophy is listening to and playing music--as many kinds of music as possible.

Monday, July 11, 2011

a short poem

Arc Minora

As certain as things get, say who are wise.
Note: both sides of the mouth are talking here,
And mumbling—can you make it out at all?
Greek—none. Less Hebrew. Latin pretty small.
Recall the temptress, though, soft at your ear,
Assuring that what counts is scale, not size.
My sun unwinds, etching the western sea
Smaragdine almost. Sort of. Not at all.
Mnemonic thread my mistress gave to me,
A snaky toy to tantalize a cat
Receding just beyond where her paw’s at.
Go, serpent. O, we absolve boas for free,
And trace the tangle back into a ball.
No doubt the lamb prefers the lion tamed;
A rhyme that scans—a Tao that can be named—

Monday, July 4, 2011

Eagle and seagull

I can't help that this really did happen on the fourth of July. It was six years ago, and every day I encountered headlines about the Iraq War, but during it this encounter, I thought nothing at all about national symbolism until after the fact. Since then I have thought many things--Garuda and the snakes, the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Albanian Eagle--but at the time I only watched and felt.

I was waiting for my bus, but well before I got to the stop I heard the crying of a seagull. We had crows in my neighborhood but seagulls were not so frequent this far from the water; and it was a very insistent and repetitive cry. I looked up into the almost-cloudless sky and saw two birds: one small white seagull, and one enormous and unmistakable eagle. The wings were huge and black and straight, as if it were cut from paper. There were two small spots of of white: head and tail, I guessed, though it was very far away--yet despite the height, it was clearly not just huge, but in fact much bigger than me. I saw it flap its wings maybe twice or three times the whole time I watched. It was circling and rising in the updraft, and the seagull was diving at it, over and over. I have seen such a thing once before--I watched it from the window of the bus, and something seemed almost unbearably sad about it; but when I tried to put my finger on what, all I came up with were obviously loaded mistakes. It wasn't the fact that everyone else on the bus seemed oblivious to this amazing spectacle; it wasn't the apparent "nobility" of the great bird and the annoying gadfly-quality of the smaller; I couldn't quite tell what it was. Now, here it was again, but something was new: this time I could hear the seagull crying. I stood there for between five and ten minutes craning my neck into the sky watching. Every once in a while I had to check to see if my bus was coming; or the bright sun would blind me, and I'd lose the birds in the blue; but the sound of the seagull would draw my eye; remarkable that it could be that precise from such a distance. Rather early on, a plane flew by underneath the two birds; even then, the sound of the jet did not drown out the seagull's cry; and after that, they kept going, higher and higher. It was astonishing how high they climbed; how the eagle just rose and rose, swerving each time the seagull came in; how the seagull did not give up. So I watched and watched, bewitched; if I looked away for a moment to rest my eyes or ease my craning neck, I had to search to re-find the birds, smaller and smaller in all that swimming blue, but whenever I did, guided by the gull's voice, I was struck once again by how I could see, even from that distance, the sharp outline of pinions on the eagle's wings. A man walked by seeming not to notice; someone rode past on a bicycle. Something of my old annoyance with the apparent obliviousness of bystanders twitched inside me, but I dismissed it--too easy, probably wrong, and anyway not at all what I was interested in just then. Then a woman walked by who either had heard the bird or had seen me staring thunderstruck into the air and followed my gaze. As she passed I looked at her. "It's sad beyond words," she said. "Yes," I said, somehow both thrilled and unsurprised that someone else should perceive the same obvious emotional quality. "That eagle isn't going to let go," she said. And walked on. It dawned on me for the first time what that other little patch of white must have been. The whole significance of the scene inverted, a figure-ground reversal. I looked back up into the sky. My words with the woman had taken maybe 10 seconds. The air was silent. The eagle was gone, the seagull was gone. Nothing. They'd disappeared. Whatever final moment there'd been to see, I'd missed while getting my realization--if that was what it was. I scanned the empty air over and over.