Caught in the Act

To what extent are we, in the context of routine social interaction, not simply being, but rather, acting?

Masks

We’ve all heard it before: This celebrity plays the nicest character. But in real life? I heard he’s a complete jerk.

A celebrity’s persona might be vastly different when the camera’s rolling and when it’s not. But, to some degree, this is true of all of us. When we’re trying to win the appreciation of a new group of friends, or trying to ace that job interview, the cameras are rolling. And when we’re at home, chatting over the dinner table, the cameras are off. Professional actors are just like us in that sense: sometimes we’re acting, and sometimes we’re not.

The distinction between acting and simply being might not be so clear, though. After all, aren’t we always acting at least a little bit? Even among close friends, we might pretend to be a bit more interested in that story that we really are, to avoid offense. Or we might laugh a bit harder at that joke that didn’t quite hit the mark. The question becomes: are we ever truly being? Or is acting all we ever do?

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Rediscovering Edgar Allen Poe

Photos and illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe

Photos and illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe is well known as America’s most preeminent writer of gothic horror. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator fiercely proclaims his own sanity, even as he describes his perpetration of a murder: “It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! — would a madman have been so wise as this?” [1] In The Cask of Amontillado, the narrator – after suffering the last of “[t]he thousand injuries of Fortunato” – encounters the latter, drunk, on the streets during Carnival, and, plying him with alcohol, leads him deep into his underground wine cellar where he then entombs him alive. “I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within,” the narrator writes, in a chilling final passage. “There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” [2] In Berenice, the story’s narrator observes as his lover Berenice – once “agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy” – deteriorates at the hands of a hideous mysterious disease. The narrator, himself overcome with insanity, awakens from a trance-like state on the night of her burial – he finds that mud and gore cover his clothes, and scratch-marks indent his skin – and struggling to open a small box he encounters on his nearby table, he accidentally drops it, breaking it and scattering to the floor thirty-two white, shining teeth. [3]

Reopening my massive volume of Poe stories recently, then, I was surprised to discover a few stories about vastly different topics – encompassing adventure, humor and love. These, Poe’s unknown stories, will bring fascinating insight to Poe’s literary legacy. Continue reading

The Escalator’s Dilemma

This article is part of a series entitled Everyday Game Theory. See also:
1. The Escalator’s Dilemma; 2. Electoral College; 3. Passing Curiosity; 4. Lesson Time

The key to surviving the Moscow subway system is what I might call the gruff grunt.

The underground subway car is packed; in ten seconds, the doors will close, and by that I mean close. Simply plant your shoulder squarely into that of the stranger in front of you, and emit a low noise of affirmation. Venture a nod of the head if this stranger deigns to crane his neck backwards. He’ll then grunt back, and plow his way further into the crowd. “Осторожно: двери закрываются.” (“Caution: doors are closing.”) We’ve made it this time.

One also must navigate. Ride the escalator upwards, away from the platform, and proceed through a long marble hallway – past that row of inexplicable shops (why are they camped in the subway?) selling “goods” ranging from cigarettes to bras – and then take the stairs downward, precisely two levels, to finally transfer from the orange line to the light-blue line. Just don’t continue further to the dark-blue line. (The simultaneous presence of the two blues might seem confusing to us English speakers, but Russian uses distinct words for the two colors – chalk up a victory for Sapir-Whorf – and, in any case, the subway lines’ Russian names are streets, and have nothing to do with the colors that the informational signs, and we Americans, use to represent them.)

But to survive the subway’s escalators? To survive the Moscow subway system’s escalators requires much, much more. Continue reading

Mentioning Death in Polite Company

“Я прошу вас встать и минутой молчания почтить память погибших…” “I ask that you stand for a moment of silence in memory of the victims,” Vladimir Putin remarked – referring to a recent military accident in the south of Russia – as he began an unrelated speech, in 2012, on a national day of mourning in the days following the tragedy [1]. The vocal solemnity was perhaps uncharacteristic of Mr. Putin, who once announced in a televised interview, for example, “I would prefer not to discuss that subject [of religion] in detail… There are things which one must hold within himself.” [2]

And though Barack Obama introduced his comments on the Trayvon Martin ruling, in July of 2013, rather conventionally – “I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin,” he began – our president, too, soon became serious. “Trayvon Martin could have been me, thirty-five years ago,” Obama said. Pausing, he added, “There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street, and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.” [3]

These apparently disparate subjects – a national tragedy, on the one hand, and a painful history of racial distrust, on the other – will prove to share something peculiar in common. This something will be our object of study. Continue reading