Wednesday, May 07, 2014


Wheel.  Helix.  Screw. Circling, gyring, spiraling, orbiting, twining.  I used to let the kids at Heart Butte watch a movie on Friday afternoons -- the remnant still in attendance -- on condition that they would let me talk, supplying commentary both technical and about the plot-line, which they sometimes lost in their admiration of explosions and search for sex.  I would point out how the set designers of sci-fi used those huge factory twenty-foot-across air evacuation fans, along with hanging chains and dripping water, to indicate danger, industrial power and a pulse beat, a drum beat, a heart beat.  Pretty soon they were talking about “Mrs. Scriver’s fans.”  They didn’t mean the kind that form clubs. 

I didn’t think of the mammoth “London Eye” or “Millennium Wheel” because it hadn’t been built yet.  “When erected in 1999 it was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until surpassed first by the 520 ft Star of Nanchang in 2006 followed by the 541 ft Singapore Flyer in 2008 and lastly the 550 ft High Roller in 2014. Supported by an A-frame on one side only, the Eye is described by its operators as "the world's tallest cantilevered observation wheel.”   BBC thrillers love having spies meet near it.   Of course it’s thrilling to be up so high, and the machinery feels risky.  But consider the above brag-phrase word-by-word:  world’s (universal); tallest (prestige in a hierarchical world); cantilevered (one-sided, overhanging); observation (The EYE!  The eye in the sky.  Watching.)

Jantzen Beach ferris wheel in early days

I used to love the ferris wheel that was permanent at Jantzen Beach in Portland.  Most of all, “parks” like the one in Jantzen Beach are industrial; machinery used as entertainment, sources of income, controlled mysteriously by mechanics one hopes know what they are doing -- like the people who fix our cars. Or, well, rocket scientists. Because machinery is dangerous, inhuman. 

The wheel and the incline -- Ferris wheels and also roller coasters, “oh, the rush!”  Basic physics that kids internalize in their play.  The wheels of the bicycle, the skate board.  The machinery of an entertainment park is festooned with lights, a structural marquee for a theatre of internal adrenaline.  Even to see it is to get a little jolt.  If you read in the paper about someone being killed on a ride, it's a bigger jolt.

Happy Days at Jantzen Beach, riding the merry-go-round with my father, 1941

When I was just graduating from the eighth grade, fully grown, my family drove to Salem to the State Fair where my father had business to do with his job for Pacific Supply Cooperative. Five years earlier a car crash concussion had changed his personality, making him far more violent and intolerant.  My brothers and I were quarreling in the back seat.  My father lost his temper, pulled the car over, dragged me out, bent me over the car trunk and spanked me as hard as he could.  Today someone might stop and accuse him of sexual assault.

Already humiliated and rebellious, at the fairgrounds I went on rides by myself.  One was a tower where the people each sat in a swing seat dangling at the end of a chain and then the center turned fast enough to make the chains move out by centrifugal force until the seats were sideways.  It WAS scary. 

When I got off, my parents and some family friends were standing there white-faced.  The friends had witnessed this kind of ride when one chain broke. The victim’s body was recovered from the parking lot where it had smashed a car.  If that had happened to me right then, I would not have minded.  I wanted to be out of control.  No-guilt suicide, instant death, I’ll show YOU.  Typically, no one talked about it.  Ever.  A photo exists because my father hid behind his camera, his little machine.

When one reads something that expresses such an indelible but secret moment, there is a special thrill of recognition.  Even the milder little surprises of the crazily laughing life-size puppet woman and the distorting mirrors of the Fun House or the Tunnel of Love where things flash on and off or things jump out can give us a pleasant bump of adrenaline.  The robot fat lady exploits the “uncanny valley,” a term to explain how something that seems human is at first attractive but then if the inhuman indicators can’t be resolved, it becomes uncomfortable and finally repulsive, even terrifying.  Zombie.

Terror of clowns has become a staple of horror movies.  A children’s ward in a hospital was decorated with murals of clowns, but had to be repainted because the kids hated it.  John Wayne Gacy didn’t help.  I’m puzzled by the attraction of adults to the idea that clown disguises and shticks can be funny and rewarding, but that’s a different essay.


Industrially based thrills are far more basic, anchored in our muscles, our infant fear of falling, the necessity of trusting machinery to lift, cantilever, drop, and rock us.  And yet we seek to challenge ourselves, our physical limits, and we do.  Modern urban life requires it daily on subways, in elevators, in traffic, in airplanes, on ferries.  We’re also aware of the cameras that watch everything, the alarms -- some silent and some we WISH were silent, like car alarms.  Sirens.  And now drones.

“Matrix”  cleverly exploited the “uncanny valley” from the inside, playing off one’s own felt identity against illusion in both what you see and what you are.  The internet has meant that our inner selves can be accessed or -- in the reverse -- projected out to others.  Images, sounds, and their arrangement can pluck the strings of our connectome.  Instead of an industrial source of entertainment, in a cybernetic amusement “park” you park your butt in front of a screen.  Or wear the “eye” on your own spectacles.

Extra-human additions to the sensorium (the first level of thinking) require response to speed, strangeness and certain kinds of danger, challenge the brain with a lot of sorting and editing work (the second level) in order to know what the body ought to do.  Say something?  Run? Shoot? (third level).  Then we come to the influence of the “fourth brain,” the community.  What is the family response?  (Denial, control, punishment?)  What is the response of friends? (Understanding, intervention?)  What is the denial/explanation embedded in whatever larger communities a person might discover, including those of literary genres like sci-fi or medical mysteries or psych texts?   “Game of Thrones”?

This essay is also meant to address GLBTQX, whose worlds may seem so uncanny to others -- far less now that we realize that they were here all along, not some weird tribe likely to attack us.  Because it is a distinction based on sex, which is an entitlement for only adults in our society, gay kids find themselves criminalized by their exploration of their natural impulses.  Their communities are suppressed, displaced.  Their internal felt uncanniness makes them identify with werewolves, vampires and wildlings.  Authorities intent on capture (“rescue”, “help”) only makes them run away -- if they aren’t thrown out already as faulty freaks.  Criminalized, they are locked up.   Tim Barrus, in his short-story anthology “Genocide”, conflates the carnival ferris wheel with the holocaust.  The entertainment value of torture -- “broken on the wheel” -- is combined with the destruction of unwanted people.  This is more history than fantasy.

Writers/actors/artists create a virtual community that might be in their own image or might expose the dilemmas of the times.  The environmental community is beginning to talk about how we can handle our emotions when human beings destroy life, which is an achieved fact in many senses.  Senses.  How do we cross the “uncanny valley” to a new way of life that is neither industrial nor digital, neither war nor suppression, hopeful but not smug, not festooned with little slogans but beckoning us toward something transcendent that includes us all? 

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