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Jinn

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In my general understanding, jinn (alternate spelling: djinn) are genies – specifically, the kinds of genies trapped in lamps that provide three wishes. Or instant death, depending on the story I was reading. Some spirits get cranky about how long they’ve been trapped, so don’t assume it’s all going to turn out perfect for the holder of the bottle.

milkydayy at deviantart

milkydayy at deviantart

So let’s start with that one stereotypical image and all of the things packed into it: the ethereal nature of jinn (gotta fit into that tiny lamp somehow), their magical power, their age. Those containers are old. No, let’s not start there. Let’s go back further. How did a being so powerful get locked into a bottle in the first place, or somehow tied to it at all? Even farther back – where did they come from at all?

Origin of the Jinn

For a second time, there is more to a question than meets the eye. Geographically, stories of jinn seem localized to the Near East. In pre-Islamic Arabian mythology, such spirits or spirit-like beings were probably worshipped. Unsurprisingly then, most of the visual inspiration is Arabian Nights inspired. Ahem. To greater and lesser degrees. Of course, “worship” nowadays comes in all kinds of flavors. I dream of Jeannie Given their slippery and intangible physical presence, not to mention a certain amount of cultural overlap and general similarity-of-being, it is not uncommon for people to make note of the similarities between the Arabic-language jinn and the Greek-language daemon, a kind of chthonic spirit. I’m not getting into daemons here – that’ll have to be a topic for another day – but it’s worth noting the connection.[1] We do have a fairly precise textual notation of how the jinn came into being, however, and that is the Qu’ran. In the 51st surah (this is a division of the Qu’ran – I take it to mean something like a chapter, but I’m out of my depth here), Zariyat 51:56 reads, “And I created the jinns and men, only for them to worship Me.” (See also this article.) In other words, jinn, like humans, were created to worship Allah. Like humans, jinn have a measure of free will. They can choose to be faithful or not. They can choose to be generous or not; also cruel, loving, merciful, gentle. They’re a lot like us in behavior, if not in essence. They are no more noble, no more base. That’s recipe for miracles or disaster – which, when you think about, is the exact danger of trying to wish for something from a jinni in most of the stories about them.

The Nature of Jinn

According to what I’ve found in online research, relying where I can on sources that seem plausibly familiar with the Qu’ran and Arabic (though yes, there’s a good chunk of Wikipedia in this research), there is an order in which sentient beings were created. First the angels, made from light. Second the jinn, made from smokeless fire (Qu’ran 15:26-27). Roughly two thousand years after the jinn, humanity. The jinn had been causing all kinds of mayhem, so Allah sent a troop of angels to beat them and cast them “to islands in the sea” (Remember this! It’s like foreshadowing!) One translation of the Arabic word “jinn” is “hidden from sight”[2], which goes some distance in explaining a jinni’s ethereal nature. They are not necessarily smoke-like so much as their natural shape is not physical in the same way ours is – to reiterate, they are not made from clay. Because they are not of the world that we perceive, I am classifying them within Otherworldly Creatures, though they are not in any way divine. They are powerful, though, no two ways about it.

Imam Ali and the Jinn

Imam Ali and the Jinn

Their more fluid bodies suggest that they are not terribly limited in their physical bodies. In some textual sources[3], one frequently mentioned typology of jinn includes three categories: those that fly, those that take ugly shapes such as snakes or dogs, or those that take human form. A second three-tiered typology includes the amir, which is a jinn that resides amongst people (perhaps like the Scottish brownie?), the shaytan, which is a malicious jinni (note the similarity here between shaytan and the anglicized name Satan, which is not a coincidence), and an ifrit, which is stronger than a shaytan. Of these three, there is no moral bearing mentioned with regards to the amir or the ifrit. Rather than imply goodness, I suspect it is simply the case that those other two kinds of jinn are as complex as people, given to fits of rage, pique, or swayed by mercy and love. However, al Jahiz has something to say about this as well.

Jinn in an illuminated manuscript

Jinn in an illuminated manuscript – I can no longer find the original link where I found this image.

Writing in the 9th century CE, al Jahiz was a celebrated prose author. Among his works is the Book of Animals, in which he may have written about jinn – I’m fuzzy on this point as I neither speak nor read Arabic and I’m not finding substantive writings on the Internet in English. According to one website, al Jahiz identifies six categories of jinn (I am taking “jinn” themselves as the overall descriptor of the various beings mentioned below):

  • amir                        these jinn dwell in houses. If they refuse to leave after three warnings, they are malevolent and should be killed
  • ruh                           jinn who interact primarily with children
  • ghoul or si’lah       the two names here are, respectively, the masculine and feminine forms. Typically I see writers referring to ghouls as zombie-like creatures, but here they are described as composite creatures, human in shape but with cat-like heads or faces.
  • al-nasnas               imagine a human body bisected vertically, from the top of the crown to the groin. One leg and one arm, curiously not falling over. That’s an al nasnas. I’ve never read about or encountered these in the folklore I’ve read, only in this research.
  • shaytan                   a wicked jinn whose exists to or at least delights in the corruption of faithful believers.

In G. Willow Wilson’s novel Alif the Unseen, she identifies five types of jinn. There is the marid, which she associates with the sea and which is physically the most powerful of jinn; the efreet, who live in caves, are cunning, and may or may not be wicked; the undead-like ghoul; the shape-shifting sila; and jinn of Indian origin, “semi-malevolent” vampires, the vetala

Marid from G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen

Marid from G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen

Jonathan Stroud has five broad categories of spirits in his Bartimaeus novels. In increasing levels of power, they are imps, foliots, djinni, afreets, and marids. He implies further nuance within this. The title character is a “fourth-level djinn,” for example. Also several of the most powerful spirits – Ramuthra (The Amulet of Samarkand), Nouda (Ptolemy’s Gate), and Uraziel (The Ring of Solomon) are never identified even as marids, and in fact their power would seem to dwarf that of the marids that do make an appearance. Okay, so there are lots of kinds of jinn out there, inconsistently categorized. Good to know. It’s also worth reiterating that jinn are found male (jinni) and female (jiniri). They are very long-lived but not immortal. They can have children. Their similarities with humans, then, are many.

Where Jinn Are Found

In the same way that jinn are otherworldly, so is their home. Remember when I said to remember that jinn were thrown to islands in the sea? Well, according to legend, the jinn reside on an emerald green peak, Mount Qaf, located far to the east beyond the ocean. Alternately, Qaf may be the highest peak of range that encircles the globe. Some sources I found suggest that Qaf was where the shaytan Ibliss landed after being defeated.[4] Another source suggests that Mount Qaf was somehow doubled and was the place where the sun both rose and set. This last scenario works both if the mountain is as ethereal as its denizens as well as under the circumstances that the earth is a globe (which, given the early historical locus of these apparent legends is no small assumption).

The Conference of the Birds

The Conference of the Birds

Qaf wouldn’t seem to be an inherently evil place, however. In the medieval Persian epic poem The Conference of the Birds, an allegory of the Sufi path toward enlightenment, a group of various birds seek out the mighty Simurgh[5] who resides at the top of Mount Qaf and who will, they hope, answer all their questions (a parallel book that might be more familiar to readers with knowledge of Christian tradition is Pilgrim’s Progress, written about 500 years after Conference). More than anything, Qaf seems unattainable to mere mortals. In some Muslim tellings of Alexandrian romances, apparently, Alexander the Great journeyed to Qaf, but if he did (and I’m not saying he didn’t), I would argue that:

  1. He is the exception that proves the rule
  2. He isn’t a good example of a “mere mortal” anyway

G. Willow Wilson imagines that jinn like places that humans have abandoned (“Detroit is popular.”) and that their “native” homes are simply “turned sideways” from our own view. It our human belief and perspective that denies us vision and experience of the place. Jonathan Stroud, who removes all religious context from his spirits but keeps their Arabic names in many cases, has them originating in the “Other Place.” This is perhaps a parallel dimension, but it is not a place that is conducive to human life. It is constant fluid movement and it is only there that Stroud’s spirits are comfortable. Drawn to our earth and enslaved here they are in constant, enervating discomfort. There is no suggestion that they can die in the Other Place, but they are very mortal when physical here. Perhaps it that “turning sideways,” to use Wilson’s phrasing, that helps create the conditions for jinn to be subject to capture by humans?

The Physical Manifestation of Jinn

The Qu’ran and hadith commentary suggest that jinn are often invisible or that they take the form of low or unclean animals (dogs and snakes). Folkloric sources may identify some evil mothers as ghouls. In my previous readings (and these were primarily in Inea Bushnaq’s Arab Folktales, to which I sadly do not have access as I write this), I had grown to align her “ghouls” with European “ogres.”[6] Bushnaq’s ghouls (my memory of them at any rate) terrorize those they encounter, whether their own children or people that wander into their domains. This current research into jinn, however, suggests the additional possibility that such ghouls are equally otherworldly. Part of the hurdle in making concrete identifications of how jinn can appear is their complexity and potentially contradictory taxonomy. One of my sources above (www.jinndemons.com) has ghouls and si’lah as male and female versions of the same essential creature. In her novel, Wilson has sila as primarily female shape-changers who are comfortable in human society and who are more dangerous than marids (not more powerful necessarily, but that in turn implies elevated intelligence).

Dungeons and Dragons Djinni

Dungeons and Dragons Djinni

Dungeons and Dragons Efreeti

Dungeons and Dragons Efreeti

The 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (my first introduction to something more than simply genies) identified djinn, efreet, and marids as mystical spirits originating from air, fire, and water respectively. Djinn tended toward the good, efreet were inherently evil (shaytan without saying so) and marids were the strongest and the most disregarding and contemptuous of humanity, but neither good nor evil. Catherynne Valente’s marids from her Fairyland series are blue and human-shaped, but they exist in a separate relation to time. The marid she introduces, Saturday, sees not only his child while he is still a child himself (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland) but also has a questionable relationship with one of his future incarnations (The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland). Stroud’s spirits can take any shape whatsoever in our world, with the understanding that there are seven planes of existence in our world. If Bartimaeus wants to look like an Egyptian child wearing a leather jacket, that is how he will appear on the first plane, which is all humans can see without assistance. His essence, however, is fully revealed on the seventh plane, visible only to other higher spirits. Seventh plane manifestations are never described in the text but the implication is that they are more than the human mind can comprehend. The distinction he makes is that his spirits are fundamentally creatures of air and fire. Water and earth are anathema to them. Many visual representations of jinn fall back on simple exoticization: the male jinn are powerful with rippling muscles; the female jiniri have large breasts and wide hips. Costumes are similarly stereotypical, weapons optional. For unsurprising reasons, I’m looking at a wider range of presentation. They are not human, after all, and to show themselves in such shapes shows a rather limited imagination on their part – or perhaps, a rather limited imagination in our comprehension. In his short story “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” Saladin Ahmed writes about a self-described “ghoul or demon” who is a composite creature in appearance and suffers no imaginary lack whatsoever – jackal-headed with goat hooves and a scorpion’s tale but whose voice is more beautiful than any woman’s could be. The main character, a physician can barely keep a hold on his sanity as he struggles to reconcile the physical presence of this creature in front of him.[7] The jinn of Wilson’s Alif the Unseen “turn sideways” to be more visible, but most humans still tend to look through them. Even when he does know who he’s dealing with, Alif struggles with a jinn’s talons and wings that suggest their presence without necessarily appearing.

Aladdin and the Jinn

Aladdin and the Jinn

There is no shortage of other examples. One of the two title characters in Helene Wacker’s The Golem and the Jinni is bound into human shape by an enchanted iron bracelet. While he appears human for all intents and purposes to most people, a partially possessed man sees the Jinni for what he is, a burning shape trapped in this physical shape. The translation that I am reading of The Thousand Nights and One Night has jinn flying and taking different shapes but primarily looking like humans – though in their “natural” form they are never mistaken for humans. Robin Williams’ genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) is also a nimble shape-changer, and always blue. Castle_in_the_Air_Cover Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Castle in the Air showcases three spirits. The mighty Hasruel is gigantic and winged – very marid-like in his strength. His half-brother Dalzel is only half-djinni and his wings are smaller and ineffective. The main character finds a genie in a lamp, the third spirit, that can grant limited wishes but never through the manipulation of reality and instead typically through re-location (i.e. commanded to supply breakfast, the genie does so but it turns out that he stole the sultan’s meal). The genie is the only “ethereal” spirit, trapped in his lamp, whereas the other two djinn are not “spirits” in any sense. The Wishmaster horror film franchise showcases what is essentially a wish-granting demon from hell. The main variation? Tattoos and brands. (Tattoos also feature in Valente’s character Saturday and in a djinn in the webcomic Namesake)

The Wishmaster Djinn

The Wishmaster Djinn

Created from smokeless fire and yet marids are comfortable in the ocean? Able to take the shapes of clay (humans)? All this, potentially, and greater power than humans but like humans in temperament, yet longer-lived. Which brings up the next point…

The Relationship Between Jinn and Humans 

A rather different conception of the ghoul version of jinn appear in Saladin Ahmed’s novel The Throne of the Crescent Moon. Doctor Adoulla Makhsloodis a ghul hunter, though this title elides the truth somewhat. He does kill ghuls, to be sure, but here ghuls are more like golems. There are sand and water ghuls, flesh ghuls and earth ghuls. They are spirits that don’t so much take a particular shape as they are bound into a particular combination of materials. Given form by dark magic, they are difficult to destroy and it is questionable if they are actually killed. Doctor Makhslood is after the person who has animated these creatures. In the same sense that a physician must treat the symptoms of the disease and attack the infection at its source, Makhslood hunts the ghuls in order to hunt their masters. This relationship – that of control – is often at the crux of jinn and human interaction. First consider the intersection of power and position. Jinn were created second, after the angels, and humans third. Wilson’s jinn often refer to the main character Alif as either “cousin” or “third born,” for example. As a species, jinn are elder and therefore inherently deserving of more respect. Second, jinn are inherently more powerful than humans are. They can fly with no mechanical assistance. They are outrageously strong. They can change shape. Some can grant wishes. In these two ways, power and age, jinn should be superior to humans – and yet Allah placed humans above them. This is one source of unsurprising tension – stronger, elder siblings who resent the prestige and benefits granted to the younger. According to a handful of sources I read, the reason many jinn turned away from Allah was because he commanded them to bow to humans. Iblis, chief amongst the jinn, refused. He became the Devil, the figurehead at the forefront of all the shaytan who followed him.[8] A realted problem area is that of command. As a rule, jinn in folklore do not randomly slay their human cousins. They may be entranced by a human boy’s beauty and therefore transport him to be next to a human girl of equivalent beauty. They may masquerade as a woman and marry a man and cause him problems. They may be mischievous and cruel. They often threaten death, but they rarely carry it out. Contrast this with the fact that humans can enslave jinns. They may be contained in a lamp (Aladdin) or a bottle (I Dream of Jeannie – see also some episodes of the television show Charmed) or bound to an iron bracelet (The Golem and the Jinni) or some other physical object (Hasruel in Castle in the Air), or by mystical commands generally (the Bartimaeus novels). Given this juxtaposition, greater power cosmically placed at the mercy of a lesser power, you’d think there would be more antipathy from jinn toward us than simple disregard or general mischief. Iblis considered himself superior to humanity: “I am better than he; Thou didst create me from fire and him from clay.” (Sura 7:11-12). The shaytan react pretty much as you might expect, but not the rest of the jinn.

Clay and Fire and Inconsistency

Our base natures are what divide human and jinn. Could those natures motivate other aspects as well? In so many regards we are largely the same: free will, desire, love, hate, appetite, pain. Smokeless fire suggests purity to me – nothing is not burned in it. There is no waste. It is heat and light, weightless (or nearly so) and ever moving. Clay suggests damp earth, pottery, weight, something grounded. Clay is a medium for pottery, ceramics, brick-making, a material waiting to be shaped. Fire, contained, is a tool or a resource (fire for baking bread or for a forge). Uncontained fire is destruction. Clay is directed and given form. “Form” is not fire’s natural state. Clay is passive. Fire is active. Why should clay be superior to fire? Why should humans be elevated above jinn? Is it because the jinn’s smokeless fire is contained to begin with that they may be contained by us, their lesser cousins – that is, enslaved? Taken as a generic elemental force, the idea of fire-given-form is power held at bay. A water-based marid embodies the same two sides of power: life-giving, buoyant water and drowning undertows. Could it be that such spirits, originating in smokeless fire, embody any such tamed force?[9] Could there be spirits of air (as the Dungeons & Dragons djinni), spirits of electricity, of cold? Or are these latter spirits closer to the Greek daimones along with water-dwelling marids, chthonic spirits of a place, and the jinn are, properly speaking, closer to Stroud’s description, at home in the air and the fire and at danger in water and earth? The textual and literary record provides too many options for a clear and consistent taxonomy of jinn, though that perhaps is also a reflection of the nature of fire – inconsistently shaped, mercurial. Another possibility – clay can exist by itself but fire needs fuel. Yes, humans need food and drink to survive, while such basic necessities as sustenance seem rather beside the point in most writings about jinn. As purely as smokeless fire burns, it still needs a fuel. To me, that is the greatest mystery of jinn. Not the enslavement, not the shape-changing, not being “turned sideways.” No: what keeps them from being extinguished?

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Footnotes

[1] It’s tempting to take “genie” as a corruption of “jinni,” but in fact the former is a fairly direct translation of the Latin genius, which is in turn the translation of the Greek daemon. English translations of The Arabian Nights followed the French genie rather than the Arabic original. Language! Crazy! [2] Confusingly for me, apparently jinn is the plural and jinni is the singular. I’m used to my plurals having more letters/sounds than my singulars. The bias of language! [3] These sources are called hadith. As I understand them, hadith are supplementary writings connected to the Qu’ran and its study that have varying degrees of import depending on a variety of factors, including the particular branch of Islam and the authority of the hadith’s author, for example [4] Iblis was of great enough stature that he was considered to be on par with the angels. They angels could not and would not rebel because they were not created with free will, not like jinn and humans. Free will is the blessing and the curse that separates us from divinity. It can bring us toward divinity or it can lead us away. This is true for both of us free-willed, independent cousins. [5] For some reading on the Simurgh, see this Bestiary entry on Roc, its closest counterpart. [6] I should say that my understanding of “ogre” is not the Dungeons & Dragons beast, larger than a human and smaller than a giant. Instead, my understanding has shifted to be a brutish man (almost always a man) with cruel and cannibalistic tendencies. They tend to be more cunning than smart. Not to get too far out on a tangent, but consider the difference between someone like Bluebeard (ogrish) and Hansel and Gretel’s witch. Their characters are very similar, but Bluebeard is a rich “noble” while the witch has mystical powers. The former is more analogous to an ogre and the latter more to a jinn via her magic, though being very this-world (like Bluebeard) keeps her from moving much closer. Arab folklore also has sorcerers, so there’s no need to stretch this analogy any further. [7] The main character’s psychic suffering is positively Lovecraftian – which I don’t mean to reflect upon the writing and tenor of the story so much as the threshold of madness that the physician approaches. [8] There are several films that play on the power of shaytan – the Wishmaster series (1997,1999,2001,2002) about a jinn that grants wishes that he twists and corrupts; Djinn (2013); Jinn (2014). Don’t think this represents the end of the list of such films. [9] Note: tamed only; never domesticated.

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Other Sources

While these other webpages are not ones I cite directly in the article above, they may be of further interest. In no particular order: http://cryptidz.wikia.com/wiki/Jinn http://mythicalbeasties.blogspot.com/2008/09/d-for-djinn.html http://namesakecomic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Chapter15_36.jpg http://wendyjargonncom.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-djinn.html http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Aladdin-and-the-Djinn-Posters_i6740840_.htm?aid=1630434966&LinkTypeID=1&PosterTypeID=1&DestType=7 http://www.occultopedia.com/j/jinn.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jinn#Etymology_and_definitions http://paranormal.about.com/od/demonsandexorcism/a/aa060506_2.htm

Focus

Focus in writing and focus in general, both of which I’m struggling with these days.

The latter’s causes are easy to identify. Aside from the news about Susan and Barry, I’m in a new city (since New Year’s). Detroit is incredibly interesting and it is incredibly friendly. It is a very southern-like city in the upper midwest. Lisa and I think this has to do with the Great Migration, not that we have anything to support ourselves, proof-wise. It’s all anecdotal, trying to make sense of stuff. Friendly or not, we’ve been in a cold, long winter and moving around here pretty much demands the use of a car. I’ve been unemployed, which was great for the first six weeks as I was able to wrap up a bunch of physical therapy and lose the weight I put on while working on Betrayal, but since then – the last eight weeks – it’s been a haul. This is a consequence of decisions I’ve made. Stuck living with it now until I make some changes.

I’ve had a couple of good runs on new and old writing, but those runs come and go. I finished up Egg and began querying it – great! I sent Sovereign Palace to a top notch writer friend who liked it enough to workshop it with me. I can’t tell you how generous this is, given that she normally charges for such work. In any case, I’m back to working on that. I’m working on some short fiction. I’m studying German and brushing up my Spanish over at Duolingo. I even go to the gym! All of this sounds like I’m quite productive, but most of my days feel like slogs more than zips.

So – FOCUS.

I doubt I’ll get back into writing three times per week, but I’m going to try and return to some book reviews, maybe some more discussion of film work, and if I’m ambitious, something for the Bestiary. But I’d have to be really ambitious. Those entries take hours to write.

Though now that I’ve said that, ambition is probably exactly the sort of thing I could use to get my focus back on track.

Helplessness

You can only do what you can do. That’s not to say that there’s not room for improvement, but to think that you can fix something in someone else, that you can solve a problem that is not yours, is both arrogant (in believing in your own power) and unkind (denying that other person power of their own). There has to be a middle ground, good faith efforts on both sides.

I know this. I know this is true.

I know that being a good friend to someone on my terms does not necessarily mean that I am a good friend to that person on her terms.

A week and a half ago, Susan died. Barry called me on Monday afternoon nine days ago to tell me. She died at home, asleep. She’d called to him around 4:30 in the afternoon, he said, and was in good spirits. She wanted to know what the music was. There was no music that Barry heard, but Susan, for the twenty years that I’ve known her, has always been inclined to see and hear things outside of my experience. Not in a crazy way. Barry gave her some morphine to help her get back to sleep. The cancerous assaults of pain had been increasing in previous months, he said, which had motivated their return from California to Minnesota in January.

He wanted me to know how much our visit had meant at the end of that month. Given the progression of Susan’s cancer, Lisa and I had long planned on a visit. California didn’t work out, but Minnesota did. We ran errands for them most of a Saturday. A pharmacy. An art supply store for Susan – pens and pencils and notepads. Spiral bound for us 0ne-armed people! she said with a laugh, sounding so much like the person we knew and remembered. She was in hospice treatment at home and her meds made her anxious, however, so she would only talk to us through the patio door, unlike the person we remembered. We finished the day at a bar, drinking stiff liquor and talking about love.

And time. Because – of course. What else were we going to talk about?

Barry said that our time, even that one day, the phone call, the movies we picked up, the groceries, were important in her transitioning.

All of which is to say, when my phone rang with Barry’s name and number nine days ago, there was only one very likely reason he was calling. He was relieved in a way. He didn’t sound aggrieved or strained. Susan’s cancer, originally diagnosed as benign-ish and requiring only some radiation therapy along with the amputation of her right arm and shoulder, was only discovered a year ago. That’s a short time in some regards, twelve months, but even with her terminal diagnosis from September, seven months, that’s a long time to die. I expect that, as torn up as he was by Susan’s death, knowing that she was no longer suffering day to day was a kind of relief. Who wants to see someone they love in pain? Who wants to see someone they love gone forever?

That was really the two-choice option.

The memorial, he told me, would probably be scheduled for mid-April. Lisa and I talked it over and figured, between her workload and our lack of cash (I’m not working at the moment), we couldn’t afford to make it out. Barry completely understood and reiterated how much our earlier trip had meant.

And today Susan’s brother writes to say that Barry died last night.

And I can’t convince myself that if we’d said we’d be at the memorial that that would have made a difference.

But I can’t convince myself that I could have done more. Said more.

Even though I know I’d probably feel exactly the same way no matter what I might have done or said, however much.

Because – I think – in the end, when there is an end - it is never enough.

There is never enough love to make up for the time we do not have.

In the Light

Susan died over the weekend. Her husband called to tell me the news yesterday. It was peaceful and in her sleep and roughly one year from her original diagnosis of a relatively benign cancer that could be addressed with chemotherapy and the amputation of her dominant arm. Not just her hand, but her arm up part her shoulder. It is roughly 6-7 months from when they gave her a 6 month prognosis after a routine post-op check-up turned up lots of cancerous growth.

Also on that same day, friends of ours gave birth to twins. They’re in NICU but healthy and well.

I believe that Susan would appreciate that conjunction of life and death. For me, it’s simply a juxtaposition of joy and sorrow.

Unexpected Writings

In 2008 I ended up at a month-long artists’ residency at the Blue Mountain Center, which was amazing. I worked on two stage plays while I was there, one of which never went anywhere and which I’ve only recently begun to tackle again as a prose project. The second became a memoir play that I continued to draft throughout the following months. That became Decaffeinated Tragedy, a one-man show that I took to the Prague Fringe Festival in 2009, and which won an award there. At the time, I was using Blogger and writing about the Prague Fringe in general – those updates are here.

Decaf Poster v1 email

The script is about memory and friendship using art and coffee as the primary metaphors and devices for exploration. It focused on my friend Jen who died eight days shy of her 22 birthday back when I was a freshman in college. She was not only a talented artist, she was a really remarkable human being. She wore vibrant colors, made postcards to send to friends, and made jokes and comforted the people around her all the way to her final surgery that was supposed to keep her alive.

I’ve known and written about a couple of friends who’ve died here on this site, Anthony and Lucka in particular. It made sense and felt right at the time. I’m not writing about Susan in her current last months now for the same reasons – it makes sense and it feels right. We avoid death not simply as an end-of-life, but often as a topic-of-thought (The Order of the Good Death, rather irreverently, is trying to take a stand in the face of this nonsense).

self portrait more color copy copy

Jen, knowing that her life was perilously fragile – it always had been ever since she was born – approached it with much flair and with few reservations.

November 18.  Went to a bar in Dundas this afternoon with Sue, Darcy, Val, and Beth. I felt alive. I’m torn in half by waiting. I want to fall in love and wear my cowboy boots. I want to drive across the country, paint deserts. All these things I have to wait to do. There are so many things I want that take more energy than I have. But still, I’m coming to think that the peak of human experience is sitting around in a coffee shop, a truck stop, or a small town bar with a good group of friends. Today I felt just like I was dancing.

Her parents are currently working with a writer to see about publishing her journals. I don’t know much beyond that other than she hopes to be able to start querying this summer.

It’s obviously not my writing, but it’s still writing that is near and dear to my heart.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Natural Clusters

Here’s some more on film work and how the departments break up.

There are natural overlaps between what we do. My department, Production Design, already consists of construction (carpenters build the sets), set decoration (the folks who populate the sets with furniture), and the art department (someone has to find or make posters, artwork, ticket stubs, and so on – if you can see it on camera, it’s not an accident). Another group in there is greens, the people who work with plants, trees, and so on. Also painters. I think that’s it. So we’re big and sprawling, and that’s important to know, because that’s not the overlap I’m even talking about.

We connect most naturally with props, and somewhat less so (but still regularly) with wardrobe. Here’s a simple example – let’s say a couple is on a date and it’s chilly outside. They’ve got jackets – so that’s wardrobe, right? Everything they’re wearing is the wardrobe department. Except their wedding rings, those are props. Why wedding rings and no other jewelry, which are considered wardrobe accessories? I could make a guess, but it’d only be a guess. In any case – that couple at that dinner scene involves wardrobe (the clothes on their backs), properties (all the food that they’re eating and the utensils with which they’re eating it), the art department (for the menus), and set dressing (for everything in the background, the color of the tablecloths, and so on).

Flash forward to the end of a good – no, we’ll call it a great date. They’re in bed. They’re making love. The camera pans across the floor, following a trail of shoes, pants, jackets, panties, bra, and so on. Because, yeah, we all get undressed like that. Sorry – where was I – realism? No! That’s storytelling! I was talking about departments! Those clothes on the ground? Who’s wearing them? The correct answer is nobody, which means they are no longer the responsibility of the wardrobe department. Now they’re in set dressing territory. On the set that I work on, one wardrobe people comes over to me with all of those clothes, carefully placed on hangers or in plastic bags, and then I dress them to camera, one breadcrumb-piece at a time. Things go the other direction as well. There’s a piece of set dressing just sitting and minding its own business when an actor and a director decide now would be a good time to pick it up. Now it’s a prop.

It’s not that we squabble about who has to touch what – there may be shooting crews like that, but we’re not one of them. What it means practically is that one department is responsible for management of said item. Costume pieces are cared for by wardrobe, no questions asked, but I dress them to camera. Someone picks up a chair and shakes it, sets it back down? It’s still my department, but now props has to track that item and know when it was used, scene and episode, in case they have to do re-shoots or match it for a later episode. So: dressing, props, wardrobe. We’re a natural cluster.

Grip and electric form another one. The electrics department puts up the lights and runs power for everyone who might need it – for video village (where everyone watches the monitors and sees what the camera is seeing), for the dollies should their batteries be running low. They drop “lunchboxes” all over the set for easy access to power, but of course what that means is that the rest of us are charging our smart phones on them all day as well. It’s probably pretty annoying. If the electrics department is in charge of producing light, the grips are in charge of shaping it. They put up the flags (dark fabric for shuttering light), the bounces (light or reflective fabric for re-directing it), the tree branches (for dappling with shadows), and so on.

And here’s an awkward overlap some days: greens and grip. Basically, the rule of thumb is that if you see the leaves on the screen, it’s greens. If you see the shadow, it’s grip.

Anyway, grip and electric. Those guys have to work together all the time. On commercials and small shoots, they’re basically one and the same.

Hair, make-up, and wardrobe are often called “the vanities.” They have the most direct connection with the actors most frequently. They’re all involved with the presentation of a character and how we as an audience understand who that person is. But imagine that person applies make-up in a scene? Props! And how that person keeps their house? Set dressing.

Camera and grip interact pretty tightly. Grips move stuff that’s not dressing out of the way for camera – walls, ceiling pieces, and so on.

Dressing works with the sound department to minimize reflections from boom poles so that you, the audience, can’t see that we’re filming. We don’t want you to think about the fact that we’re filming, right? Camera and sound do the same thing, working together to look for reflections.

All of this makes for lots of potential friction. What if we don’t like one another? Play nicely? What if I’m swamped with a full re-dress of a tricked out office and the sound guy is bugging me about raising a chandelier so that he can run his boom pole more easily? Not that that’s ever happened. The thing that it all comes down to is that even though we’re structured like a machine, we’re still a bunch of people.

What I said last time – we’re built for speed, not efficiency. We could collapse departments. We could be leaner. Instead we cluster.

Leaner is not faster.

On-Set Dresser and Production Design

Here’s why I’m largely silent these days, in spite of being at a point in the fairy tale that I’m rather enjoying, and in spite of continuing to collect what I think are interesting Internet things: I’m super tired. This, in spite of the fact (again! so much spite!) that our hours average between 60-65 now per week. No more of the 96 hour work week, or the 88 hour, or even the 72! We should be coasting! Fact is, we’re also nearly 12 weeks in. Weekends always feel to short and when I can drag myself to write, it’s usually to focus on EGG. What I can focus on easily, however, is what I do.

So here is my job description, along with a bit of the structure of working on set.

The first thing to understand is that the crew is built for speed, not efficiency. That means there is some redundancy and overlap, but when we’re all going all full-tilt, we get serious work done in a ridiculously short time. Think of a car. How often do you use the ignition? Once per session, ideally, but without it, the car doesn’t go. Not all parts of the engine work at once, but they all have a job to do.

The dresser has nothing to do with clothing – that’s wardrobe (although heads up! overlap!). I am the representative for scenery. My departmental boss is the production designer, who comes up with the overall look for what the [show-movie-short] will look like, and who coordinates with the locations department and costume designer for when those locales indicate personality, for example, in someone’s apartment. If a character has a very spiffy wardrobe but lives in a dump, that says something about him/her. Gotta know what that is.

The set decorator is responsible for implementing the production designer’s vision, picking out furniture, artwork, appliances, light fixtures and window treatments (more overlap here – with photography). The “set dec” is the guy who hired me, so he’s my immediate boss, and the production designer is his boss, so I report to her as well.

And yet! In addition to departmental separations (set decoration, camera, grip, electric, props, etc.) there is a second and in some ways more important division, which is off and on set. Our department’s prep work is done by construction (building all the damn stuff) and, prepping just in time for shooting days, by the swing gang. Swing makes sure that the room we’re about to enter is dressed appropriately. Grip and electric both have rigging crews that work in advance of them as well, making sure there’s power where they need it, lighting grids for hanging fixtures if appropriate, and so on.

When we shoot, that’s when I start working. Here’s the breakdown of events for every scene:

The director rehearses the scene with the actors (for performance) and the director of photography (DP) for camera angles, where they determine how many angle they’ll be using. The director is already thinking about how to cut the scene together here in the edit.

The “first team” (actors you see on screen) are released, and the “second team” comes in – stand ins, who share a similar height, weight, skin tone, and clothing choice – so that they can be lit.

The DP works with the camera operators to figure out where they’ll shoot in the first set up. We have two cameras, A and B, each of which has a crew of four (camera operator; focus puller or “assistant camera”; and “second assistant” who runs the slate, keeps paperwork, etc.; and the dolly grip, who is from a different department). The camera dolly will almost certainly need to sit in a place where there is furniture.

I move the furniture. My job – here – is to make sure that the camera crew has comfortable room to work and do what they need. At the same time, I’m making sure that they don’t hurt the set, since I am the set’s representative and caretaker. If it’s a bookshelf or a couch that needs moving, I almost always rely on the props department to help me out, and in fact, my little cart travels on the props trailer when we’re on location. Props and set dec, we’re like cousins.

Once cameras are up and know where they’re pointing and what they’re seeing (i.e. what you’re going to see on your television screen), I work with the camera operators to frame a pretty shot. We make sure that it doesn’t look like that wall sconce is growing out of an actor’s head, or, as earlier this week, that an actor’s crotch is sprouting a fern. That’s a strategic choice, but there are plenty of aesthetic ones as well – sliding a lamp over a few inches so that the camera catches its red base, or turning a plant clockwise until a frond catches the light just so.

Then there are reflections. We don’t want you to see a boom pole hovering in that window, or a camera in that mirror. Everything has to tweak and move and I’m the guy that tweaks and moves. If I can’t take the glass out of the picture frame, I may stick a tape ball behind it to make the reflection point another direction.

I take exhaustive pictures of the set ups and off of the monitors – generally about 50-60 per day, so that my department has its own record of physical continuity and can dress the next day’s sets appropriately. Depending on the action, I may have to do re-sets between each time we shoot, say, re-setting a clock, or cleaning up broken glass. Depending on accidents, I may have to do sudden repairs of broken furniture.

I’m a bit of a janitor and a bit of a handyman. I am not a painter (different department – paint!), nor do mess with trees (greens). I might drill a hole in a wall in order to hang a picture, but anything more means a carpenter comes in. I move doors and windows, but grips move walls (in other parts of the country, grips do doors and windows as well). I adjust blinds for the camera department when they want particular shadows created by the set. Some of this is job specific and some is crew specific – this is how we’ve grown together. And we’re a pretty good crew. Minimal sniping. Lots of mutual support.

It’s a good job.

Got questions?

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