The Inevitability of Cultural Appropriation

Picasso in Native HeaddressI’m on a TGV from Paris to Monaco. The sun was out this morning and the Jardin de Tuileries was filled with homages in tulips to various still lifes at the Louvre. Two days ago, at the Musée de quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, I saw the Picasso Primitif exposition that showcased the influence of indigenous arts on Picasso’s work through the years, often by presenting statues from Africa or Papua New Guinea side-by-side with examples of Picasso’s efforts through the years. If you never made the connection between his cubism and the statuary of Chad (like me), it is eye opening. He wasn’t particularly culturally sensitive—like everyone else until at least the 1960s—because the fascinating people and their cultural works were largely aesthetic objects to him. If he was aware of the significance of particular pieces (and he might have been), it was something he rarely acknowledged or discussed. The photos that tie Picasso to the African statues are the primary thread of the exhibition, with each one, taken at his California atelier or in Paris or whatnot, inscribed by the curators with a dainty red circle or oval to highlight a grainy African statue lurking in the background. Sometimes they provide a blow-up in case you can’t quite make it out. It is only with a full Native American headdress given to Picasso by the actor Gary Cooper that we see him actively mugging for a camera and providing weight to the show’s theme. Then, next, Brigitte Bardot is leaning over him at the California studio and her cleavage renders the distant red oval uninteresting.

I am writing daily about things I don’t fully understand but try to imbue with a sense of character, of interest, and even of humor. In Against Superheroes I try to give a feel for Turkey, despite having never been there and only been introduced to one Turk, a computational linguist for the language, once. Did I do a good job? I can’t say. The audience is not necessarily Turks who would find fault with my renderings. Yet I do strive towards accuracy. I drill down with Google Earth. I read the history. I read recent  politics and analysis and try to imagine what it can be like to be a person there, immersed in that cultural microcosm.

Similar things are afoot in ¡Reconquista!, my newest novel. Though I grew up in the border region with Mexico, I, unlike my son who took three years of it in California, have only telegraphic and pornographic Spanish at my command. Yet I am developing an elaborate plot that weaves together the lives of an underemployed blue-collar white man with a revolutionary-minded Hispanic woman professor who drinks tequila like it’s water and speaks in elaborate abstractions about topics like, well, cultural appropriation. That’s a fighting phrase for her, despite the other incongruities in the tapestry of her life.

Should I feel confident about writing like this? And if I should not, what can I write about? And, the obverse might apply: should an outsider feel free to write about the array of complex social and political issues that make up America? In 2015, Lionel Shriver, the author of a book that got some press and was made into a movie, caused an uproar when she donned a sombrero in Brisbane, Australia and made a series of declarations that such cultural appropriation that might arise from, especially, white males writing about other cultures, should be treated as a celebration of those cultures rather than an attack upon them. Identity is a nebulous concept, she seeemed to be saying, and tying it down to ability, disability, tendency, orientation, upbringing, religion, culture, or nationality does a disservice to the spinning of a good yarn.

I’m certainly not fully in agreement with this, but I do sympathize with the notion that it is critical for writers to embrace the complexity of the pluralistic world we now live in. Doing less than that, avoiding painting pictures that are as polyglot and multifaceted as America and Europe, leaves little room for authenticity unless the works are written by a balanced committee. Perhaps the more important take-away is that building a more diverse collection of critics and reviewers can help, in turn, provide a better filter for the authenticity that, perhaps, critics of Shriver are looking for. This would parallel efforts to rectify the lack of diversity among Hollywood producers, directors, writers, actors, and voting members of the Academy.

I will close by noting that a chubby little French senior is attempting surgery to extract a splinter from his finger across from me. His wife was helping for a bit, too, stabbing at his index with a white Swiss Army knife that he spent some time surveying and unfolding before landing on the right weapon for the job. She hurt him too much, though, it seemed, and he waved her away. This, in public, and in first class? I suppose I need more data points on the French mind that is increasingly moving towards a closed focus on preserving Frenchness against the outsider. Safe for splinter-stabbing, I suppose.

Amazonian Griffins and the Fantastical New World

Background research for ¡Reconquista! (or any book) takes unexpected dips and turns, from Google Street Views of Mexicali, Mexico to the origins of Alta California and the campaigns of Colonel Frémont. But the most unusual find in a week punctuated by trail running in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and a brief, one hour, twenty minute circuit of Carlsbad Caverns (I was first in and had the descent largely to myself!), was a 19th-century translation of the Queen of California from Las Sergas de Esplandián. This 1510 book by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo related an amazing tale that, as the translator and commenter Edward Everett Hale notes, provided the origin of the name of California, for Cortez imagined what is now Baja California to be an island that was to the West of the Indies, following Columbus’ lead in mislabeling the New World.

Hale’s translation and commentary are even more remarkable in their intertextual reading of the postbellum mindset that pervades all the way to San Francisco. He carries a descriptive thread likening the battle prowess of the Queen of California’s man-killing griffins to Civil War naval craft:

These griffins are the Monitors of the story, or, if the reader pleases, the Merrimacs.

And in those comparisons, he shows a careful traversal of residual war sentiments, though he is more direct in calling out the implicit racism of Hiram Powers’ statue of California for being incorrect in depicting Queen Calafia (sic) as classically whitewashed when she was described very clearly as “large, and black as the ace of clubs.”

But what of the story of Calafia? She is queen of an island of Amazonian-like women who kill men and boy children alike by feeding them to a hoard of semi-controllable griffins. The island is made of gold and gemstones litter the ground. Calafia decides to go to war, joining several sultans in an assault on Constantinople. She ultimately gets her chance to deploy the griffins and they kill legions of men on the walls. But when she directs the Sultans’ armies to scale the walls, the griffins slaughter them, too. Oops. She gets control of the griffins, finally, but then the assault becomes more problematic.

Finally it resolves that the Christian-side king will meet with one sultan and Calafia in personal combat to resolve the conflict. The losers will become the subjects of the winners. But before that happens, Calafia wants to meet those with whom she will fight. She is quite taken by the beauty of one of the king’s sons and arrives to check him out on a wild beast:

They brought out an animal which she rode, the strangest that ever was seen. It had ears as large as two shields; a broad forehead which had but one eye, like a mirror; the openings of its nostrils were very large, but its nose was short and blunt. From its mouth turned up two tusks, each of them two palms long. Its color was yellow, and it had many violet spots upon its skin, like and ounce. It was larger than a dromedary, had its feet cleft like those of an ox, and ran as swiftly as the wind, and skipped over the rocks as lightly, and held itself erect on any part of them, as do the mountain-goats. Its food was dates and figs and peas, and nothing else.

So the bestiary contained more than just the ravenous, man-eating griffins. But she and the sultan are ultimately beaten in combat. Indeed, it seems inevitable that the Christians must triumph and the man must best the woman. She even gives up her pagan ways in the end and gets married to a random, good-looking member of the ruling class. She gets her sister a husband, too.

What becomes of the island and the women? They convert, take husbands, and help with further adventures we are told. The story and commentary concludes with some interesting notes on Columbus and his beliefs about the New World (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1872). Learned men knew Dante and few other things then, so it is not surprising that Hale suggests that Columbus took seriously the cosmic geography that Dante laid out in the Divine Comedy.

The New World, it seems, was named and traversed in equal parts reality and fantasy.

The Ethics of Knowing

In the modern American political climate, I’m constantly finding myself at sea in trying to unravel the motivations and thought processes of the Republican Party. The best summation I can arrive at involves the obvious manipulation of the electorate—but that is not terrifically new—combined with a persistent avoidance of evidence and facts.

In my day job, I research a range of topics trying to get enough of a grasp on what we do and do not know such that I can form a plan that innovates from the known facts towards the unknown. Here are a few recent investigations:

  • What is the state of thinking about the origins of logic? Logical rules form into broad classes that range from the uncontroversial (modus tollens, propositional logic, predicate calculus) to the speculative (multivalued and fuzzy logic, or quantum logic, for instance). In most cases we make an assumption based on linguistic convention that they are true and then demonstrate their extension, despite the observation that they are tautological. Synthetic knowledge has no similar limitations but is assumed to be girded by the logical basics.
  • What were the early Christian heresies, how did they arise, and what was their influence? Marcion of Sinope is perhaps the most interesting one of these, in parallel with the Gnostics, asserting that the cruel tribal god of the Old Testament was distinct from the New Testament Father, and proclaiming perhaps (see various discussions) a docetic Jesus figure. The leading “mythicists” like Robert Price are invaluable in this analysis (ignore first 15 minutes of nonsense). The thin braid of early Christian history and the constant humanity that arises in morphing the faith before settling down after Nicaea (well, and then after Martin Luther) reminds us that abstractions and faith have a remarkable persistence in the face of cultural change.
  • How do mathematical machines take on so many forms while achieving the same abstract goals? Machine learning, as a reificiation of human-like learning processes, can imitate neural networks (or an extreme sketch and caricature of what we know about real neural systems), or can be just a parameter slicing machine like Support Vector Machines or ID3, or can be a Bayesian network or mixture model of parameters.  We call them generative or non-generative, we categorize them as to discrete or continuous decision surfaces, and we label them in a range of useful ways. But why should they all achieve similar outcomes with similar ranges of error? Indeed, Random Forests were the belles of the ball until Deep Learning took its tiara.

In each case, I try to work my way, as carefully as possible, through the thicket of historical and intellectual concerns that provide point and counterpoint to the ideas. It feels ethically wrong to make a short, fast judgment about any such topics. I can’t imagine doing anything less with a topic as fraught as the US health care system. It’s complex, indeed, Mr. President.

So, I tracked down a foundational paper on this idea of ethics and epistemology. It dates to 1877 and provides a grounding for why and when we should believe in anything. William Clifford’s paper, The Ethics of Belief, tracks multiple lines of argumentation and the consequences of believing without clarity. Even tentative clarity comes with moral risk, as Clifford shows in his thought experiments.

In summary, though, there is no more important statement than Clifford’s final assertion that it is wrong to believe without sufficient evidence. It’s that simple. And it’s even more wrong to act on those beliefs.

The Dynamics of Dignity

My wife got a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon a few days back. It has necessitated a new education in off-road machinery like locking axles, low 4, and disconnectable sway bars. It seemed the right choice for our reinsertion into New Mexico, a land that was only partially accessible by cheap, whatever-you-can-afford, vehicles twenty years ago when we were grad students. So we had to start driving random off-road locations and found Faulkner’s Canyon in the Robledos. Billy the Kid used this area as a refuge at one point and we searched out his hidey-hole this morning but ran out of LTE coverage and couldn’t confirm the specific site until returning from our adventure. We will try another day!

Billy the Kid was, of course, a killer of questionable moral standing.

With the Neil Gorsuch nomination to SCOTUS, his role in the legal and moral philosophies surrounding assisted suicide has come under scrutiny. In everyday discussions, the topic often centers on the notion of dignity for the dying. Indeed, the autonomy of the person (and with it some assumption of rational choice) combines with a consideration of alternatives to the human-induced death based on pain, discomfort, loss of physical or mental faculties, and also the future-looking speculation about these possibilities.

Now I combined legal and moral in the same sentence because that is also one way to consider the way in which law is or ought to be formulated. But, in fact, one can also claim that the two don’t need to overlap; law can exist simply as a system of rules that does not include moral repercussions and, if the two have a similar effect on behavior, it is merely a happenstance. Insofar as they are not overlapping, a moral argument can be used to criticize a law.

In formulating a law, then, and regardless of its relationship to a moral norm, the language that is used performs a significant function in directing the limits of the application of the ideas involved. And the language goes further by often challenging the existing holistic relationships in our individual and mental representations of the term. This is also why objective morality seems so nonsensical: in making a moral proposition one is assuming that the language and terms are identifiably externally and internally referential to the objective basis. It is an impossible task that results in either everyday revisionary squeamishness (“Well, sure, ‘do not kill’ should be ‘do not murder,’ but that might exclude killing in warfare or retribution because, well, look at the fate of the Amalekites,”) or a reversion to personal feeling over the matters at hand. Hardly objective at all.

Dignity, then, should be considered as part of this dynamic definitional structure. It has evolved in the legal framework to have at least three meanings, as Lois Shepherd analyzes in some depth in her article, “Dignity and Autonomy after Washington v. Glucksberg: An Essay about Abortion, Death, and Crime,” in the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. For the topic of assisted suicide or euthanasia, SCOTUS and lower courts have used a definition that is in accord with the notion that the individual should be allowed to avoid extreme discomfort and loss of faculties. In so doing, they preserve their physical and mental dignity that arises from their autonomous and rational selves. Any concerns over the latter bring additional scrutiny as to whether they can be said to have autonomy.

The other ideas of dignity, though, include the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to represent herself. And, if given assistance from a court-appointed attorney, the assistant must act in a manner that preserves the perception of the jury as to the dignity of the defendant. And, finally, again related to the autonomy of the individual with regard to medical decision-making, that there it interferes with the dignity of a woman when denied the right to abort a fetus because such an action imposes a barrier to her autonomy and that autonomy has precedence over any case for the fetus to, as yet, have legal status as an individual.

These are arguable points as we all know in the struggles and opposition to abortion and assisted suicide rights. And it is just this dynamism in definitional limitations that has evolved through the legal engagement at the edge of dignity semantics.

(As a postscript to this post, I’ll just add that I’m not trying to specifically pull out legal positivism versus natural law distinctions. Instead, I think there may be an overlooked area of philosophy of language and its intersection with epistemology that could use some emphasis. Where the positivists might agree with me on the general disconnect between moral and legal justifications for laws, they might not have embraced the role of linguistic evolution that is apparent in the definition of terms like “dignity.” It is there, I suggest, that law gets shaped, as we can surmise from any consideration of “fairness” as a legal concept.)

Against Superheroes is live on Amazon!

Grab a copy immediately if you must, but there will be a five day promotional give-away of the Kindle edition starting tomorrow. If you prefer print, the paperback edition should be available in a day or two.

This is the first edition and it is trimmed down from a rather portly initial cut, though it still runs to 300+ pages. The metanarrative that was removed will be available in the second edition. And then, I imagine, there will be the extended cut with additional excised spelling mistakes or something…

Twilight of the Artistic Mind

Deep Dream Generated Image: deepdreamgenerator.com

Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, co-authored a paper on using deep learning neural networks in her new movie that she is directing. The basic idea is very old but the details and scale are more recent. If you take an artificial neural network and have it autoencode the input stream with bottlenecking, you can then submit any stimulus and will get some reflection of the training in the output. The output can be quite surreal, too, because the effect of bottlenecking combined with other optimizations results in an exaggeration of the features that define the input data set. If the input is images, the output will contain echoes of those images.

For Stewart’s effort, the goal was to transfer her highly stylized concept art into the movie scene. So they trained the network on her concept image and then submitted frames from the film to the network. The result reflected aspects of the original stylized image and the input image, not surprisingly.

There has been a long meditation on the unique status of art and music as a human phenomenon since the beginning of the modern era. The efforts at actively deconstructing the expectations of art play against a background of conceptual genius or divine inspiration. The abstract expressionists and the aleatoric composers show this as a radical 20th Century urge to re-imagine what art might be when freed from the strictures of formal ideas about subject, method, and content.

Is there any significance to the current paper? Not a great deal. The bottom line was that there was a great deal of tweaking to achieve a result that was subjectively pleasing and fit with the production goals of the film. That is a long way from automated art and perhaps mostly reflects the ability of artificial neural networks to encode complex transformations that are learned directly from examples. I was reminded of the Nadsat filters available for Unix in the 90s that transformed text into the fictional argot of A Clockwork Orange. Other examples were available, too. The difference was that these were hand-coded while the film example learned from examples. Not hard to do in the language case, though, and likely easier in certain computational aspects due to the smaller range of symbol values.

So it’s a curiosity at best, but plaudits to Stewart for trying new things in her film efforts.

Apprendre à traduire

Google’s translate has always been a useful tool for awkward gists of short texts. The method used was based on building a phrase-based statistical translation model. To do this, you gather up “parallel” texts that are existing, human, translations. You then “align” them by trying to find the most likely corresponding phrases in each sentence or sets of sentences. Often, between languages, fewer or more sentences will be used to express the same ideas. Once you have that collection of phrasal translation candidates, you can guess the most likely translation of a new sentence by looking up the sequence of likely phrase groups that correspond to that sentence. IBM was the progenitor of this approach in the late 1980’s.

It’s simple and elegant, but it always was criticized for telling us very little about language. Other methods that use techniques like interlingual transfer and parsers showed a more linguist-friendly face. In these methods, the source language is parsed into a parse tree and then that parse tree is converted into a generic representation of the meaning of the sentence. Next a generator uses that representation to create a surface form rendering in the target language. The interlingua must be like the deep meaning of linguistic theories, though the computer science versions of it tended to look a lot like ontological representations with fixed meanings. Flexibility was never the strong suit of these approaches, but their flaws were much deeper than just that.

For one, nobody was able to build a robust parser for any particular language. Next, the ontology was never vast enough to accommodate the rich productivity of real human language. Generators, being the inverse of the parser, remained only toy projects in the computational linguistic community. And, at the end of the day, no functional systems were built.

Instead, the statistical methods plodded along but had their own limitations. For instance, the translation of a never-before-seen sentence consisting of never-before-seen phrases, is the null set. Rare and strange words in the data have problems too, because they have very low probabilities and are swamped by well-represented candidates that lack the nuances of the rarer form. The model doesn’t care, of course; the probabilities rule everything. So you need more and more data. But then you get noisy data mixed in with the good data that distorts the probabilities. And you have to handle completely new words and groupings like proper nouns and numbers that are due to the unique productivity of these classes of forms.

So, where to go from here? For Google and its recent commitment to Deep Learning, the answer was to apply Deep Learning Neural Network approaches. The approach threw every little advance of recent history at the problem to pretty good effect. For instance, to cope with novel and rare words, they broke the input text up into sub-word letter groupings. The segmentation of the groupings was based, itself, on a learned model of the most common break-ups of terms, though they didn’t necessarily correspond to syllables or other common linguistic expectations. Sometimes they also used character-level models. The models were then combined into an ensemble, which is a common way of overcoming brittleness and overtraining on subsets of the data set. They used GPUs in some cases as well as reduced-precision arithmetic to speed-up the training of the models. They also used an attention-based intermediary between the encoder layers and the decoder layers to limit the influence of the broader context within a sentence.

The results improved translation quality by as much as 60% over the baseline phrase-based approach and, interestingly, showed a close approach to the average human translator’s performance. Is this enough? Not at all. You are not going to translate poetry this way any time soon. The productiveness of human language and the open classes of named entities remain a barrier. The subtleties of pragmatics might still vex any data driven approach—at least until there are a few examples in the corpora. And there might need to be a multi-sensory model somehow merged with the purely linguistic one to help manage some translation candidates. For instance, knowing the way in which objects fall could help move a translation from “plummeted” to “settled” to the ground.

Still, data-driven methods continue to reshape the intelligent machines of the future.

Solstice in the Crystal Cities of Talon

A chance encounter, a sloshy woman at a corner bar, a recollection of an uncle who fell into a well, all the tequila poured, all the prejudices spun out, about my accent and my allegedly highborn ways, about the elections and conspiratorial meanderings, my filters built into a Great Wall against a bareknuckle dustup, bloodied noses and cops and lights, and then, as the night drew up into its cold intestines, a mention just in passing that this uncle fell in the well on the solstice morning and became some kind of sloganeer, some kind of soothsayer. But it was more, I heard her faintly say, and that the shocks of that icy water aroused some otherworldly spirit within him, around 1958 or so, and he was cast out of his church and lost his business, an upwardly-mobile fin-tailed car magnate with a country-club future. He wandered the countryside with his well-sprung tale until impoverished and abandoned by his wife and two adorable children, her cousins, one who was now dead (the boy), crushed by a front-end loader at a construction pit, and the other who was a retired school librarian down in Fayetteville. That cousin had kept all his writings, all about the physics of Tlon.

My ears perked up and I asked her again what she had uttered, about the slurred syllables that came forth from her salted and limed lips. She repeated the word again, then laughed at me, hissed “Tlon” once more and shuttled her head side-to-side. It was another world her demented uncle had bragged about, some agitated dream erupting from his freezing parts while captive in that black bore. It was a solstice night, long, with the snows of the preceding week in skirts around the trees. He had lost the tips of his fingers crawling out of that hole, but how he survived beyond that he was unable to say. He only talked about that world. He only talked about mystery people and the universe.

I begged her for a bit more and maybe some context for the daughter and she slanted her eyes suspiciously. I was informed, as she drew up and away from our conspiratorial hunches, like a raptor asserting dominance, that she wasn’t going home with me, which was a relief, and to which I readily agreed. I nevertheless passed her my cell number and insisted I wanted to know more about the uncle, that was all, and could she maybe, if not too much trouble, arrange for me to see the writings of this madman?

I had no expectations that she would remember any of the evening. She was high above the Eiffel Tower and heading for the moon as I left to return to my dreary hotel room down the road, stepping carefully to avoid the slippery tendrils of ice built from the runoff of the day. I slept fitfully with the wall-mount heater tracking a blistering seventy-eight. Had I heard her right? Was my quest beginning to reveal fruit?

I scanned the directory of the local college that morning over black coffee and found a Doug Henders, M.A. Hist., listed among the instructional faculty. Mr. Henders was the only regional history specialist, with far too many of his fellow professorial sorts focused on far-flung matters in Europe, Asia, and even one emeritus who seemed to be exclusively an historian of arctic expeditions. While intriguing, his experience could likely shed little light on the matter of the uncle.

I finally phoned Mr. Henders and, following brief introductions, including an effort to convey my scholarly credentials while not emphatically calling out this-or-that publications or little professional accolade in the broader community, he asked how he could be of assistance. I asked about the uncle, about the story of the well, about the car dealer gone righteous, about the cryptic writings and, specifically, I avoided mention of the word in question. He claimed to be unaware of these developments and began to convey little hints of irritation. I finally dropped the bombshell term, about Tlon, casually as an aside. He stopped cold, there was a hard pause on the line, the static-free encodings of digital transmissions robbing the moment of even the faintest hiss that might provoke a conclusion that the line had dropped.

He asserted quite precipitously that he had a college disciplinary meeting to attend to and could not help me further. I thanked him but, before I had even concluded my statement, an actual and exaggerated chirp of a disconnect sounded from my phone. It was curious, I realized in hindsight, that he not only had pushed me away but had responded with an odd intimation of violence, of control, of discipline, as if to threaten and steer me from my endeavors. And it had only happened with the mention of the key word, not before. But maybe I elaborate to much? Perhaps my pursuit has heightened my senses to such an extent that the background noise of even these casual social interactions pops with a radiative glow drawn from speculation? I could only pursue the southern librarian’s written records at that point, though I was at the mercy of my barfly for that.

I waited through the next two days. I considered returning to the bar and begging the woman for more information, but I had not the boldness to pursue the lead in such stark terms. And then, around 11 AM the next day, a Tuesday I believe, I received a call from an unknown party on my phone. I was in the local library at the time and the orchestration of my ringtone caused the librarian to raise his startled gaze as I peered over family records in the white, cotton gloves of an archivist. Berlioz does not appeal, I surmised.

I staggered out into the winter light flashing off the ectoplasm of cars in the snowy parking lot as I took the call, asking twice for her to please wait and not hang up. I was given the coordinates then, and told that I must arrive precisely before 10AM to get an hour-and-one-half with the records or interest. I could have no more because the lady in question had an appointment of an urgent matter with her proctologist. I agreed to all the terms readily, worrying as well for the poor woman’s health and the implications associated with such a narrow medical speciality. The documents could vanish completely, I realized, and be lost among her transitory possessions, were she to succumb to some asinine malaise.

I arrived as required at the nondescript clapboard house. There was a single string of colored Christmas lights around a black side-window. A potpourri of plant pots—crimson, fuchsia, taupe, lime, mottled turquoise—denuded in the winter freeze but for a stray twig or two, covered the small porch before the screen door. A knock, a wait. A knock again. I began to fear she had rescinded the offer, this retired librarian, and had left early to have a coffee before her dreaded appointment with the medical establishment. But then there was a shadow of motion through the small window, an eye looking up to me, shaded by the blue of the day, and the door opened.

I was admitted then, dear reader, and allowed to shed my heavy coat and stomp my shoes against the thick mat of the mudroom. Minnie Mouse stared up at me in delighted wonder as I wiped salt and ice from the edges of my shoe. It smelled of wool and cooked eggs in the living room, of natural gas and sulfur. My host was surprised at the interest in her father, gone so long and lost in so many ways.

I inquired perhaps too indelicately how he had died, but she turned from me and pointed me towards the kitchen, never answering the question or seemingly even acknowledging the significance of the query. I saw a small stack of yellow sheets of paper starkly offset by the warm red of Santa holograms cleverly embedded in the plastic tablecloth, their form shifting from sleigh to decorated tree as I shifted above the scene. I was asked to hand over my cell phone, which I did readily as I stooped towards the pencil-etched mound of calligraphy before me.

Soon, following agreements and safeguards of the namesake, the family reputation, and the probing appointment close at hand, I was deeply entranced by the inscrutable documents. And, let me assure you dear reader, that the scribbles and markings did not disappoint. We start, page one, with a description of a crystalline city supported by the mental capabilities of masters who live below and follow an exacting timeline for their rotations in their duties, lest the city shudder or, worse, fall from its tenuous perch. There are always hints of return in these documents, of recurrence, I realize. Where the masters were before they will be again. When their capacities are exhausted, they rest and come again to aid the city in its meditative hover.

But there is more, so cryptically encoded yet so tenderly elucidated, for the masters know of another world that is so very like our own. They dream of it when they are not busy in their scholarly and masterful duties. It is a subject of great discussion. How can it be that they all dream of the same seasonal change, of the same calamity of purpose, of the same ritualistic dogmas and contempts? They hold salons to try to unravel the mystery, expressed in epigrams and enigmas. They write on these matters but cannot unravel the core, perplexing mystery. This parallel universe is an exaggeration of the purposes that they know, an unraveling and corruption of the sensible progression that enervates their thinking and that of the steadfast people of the city. The dream people are locked to ancient sky beings, they are contemptuous of the world that they are immersed within, they are riddled with petty preoccupations. It is only in this realization that the right course of action can be understood.

I leaned back in my steel and plastic chair, feeling the flush of the furnace from the ceiling vent. It washed over me, drawing in the premonitions of tears that began in my conjunctiva, and then evaporated them in a blink. My kind host appeared in the doorway, silhouetted by the flash of blue television light in the living room.

I reluctantly departed after thanking her. I told her that I would like to phone her with a few more questions if I might, maybe later, perhaps in the afternoon? She agreed and closed the door. I was almost to my car when the door reopened and I stomped back to fetch my phone that she had held hostage.

Driving back the hour or so to my original perch, my mind was awash with the remarkable details and rich orchestration of what I had read. But, I realized, that the word never appeared anywhere in the documents. I had been so mesmerized by the elliptical phraseology, by the incongruent grammar, and, mostly, by the tale of woe and cataclysm, that I had not seen or noticed that signal term.

I phoned in the afternoon and thanked the librarian/cousin again. She had been very kind. I hoped her appointment had been acceptable and that her health outlook remained positive. I continued my encouraging words for a few more minutes until she indicated that she needed to see to her needlepoint activities. I fully understood, I assured her, but then asked if she knew the word Tlon from the writings.

There was a pause, deep and consuming, and I worried that I was about to receive the same angry disputation that the instructor at the college had provided me for my unexpected impudence. But no, she cleared her throat briefly, apologized, and asked me to say the word again. T-lon, I repeated, trying to de-emphasize any inadvertent alveolar flapping that arises naturally from my first-language slurring of the dialect.

There was an oooh of recognition then, and I waited breathlessly. I think you mean Talon. His name was Barry Talonik Denzigger—the middle name from the old country in Bohemia—but folks called him Talon for short. He went by that for many years after falling in the well.

I held the phone fast against my face and asked her to repeat that. He was called Talon. That was all. No surprise that I didn’t see that in the documents. They were written before he got the name. She offered to write Talon at the top of each page for future scholars who might be passing through, though I quickly asserted my professional opinion that the pages should be preserved as they are between sheets of acid-free paper, even as a crestfallen gloom began a rapid attack on my gut. As a former librarian, she understood what I meant, it seemed. I hung up and updated my notes.