Kentucky Route Zero, Act 1: Roll with it.

These are some thoughts on the first act of indie video game Kentucky Route Zero, which just recently – after almost a decade – finally released its fifth and final act. With all of the story available, we can at last begin.

For the curious, here’s the trailer.

This is not the real Kentucky.

I have been to the real Kentucky, as a kid; back in the days when becoming a park ranger was one of my big dreams. Mammoth Cave is here, somewhere; there’s a road that bears its name, and somewhere in my childhood home is a battered caving helmet I returned with as a souvenir from my first wild caving trip.

But this isn’t that Kentucky.

In this Kentucky, trees that burn forever are just part of the landscape. A landmark, like a corner store or a little white clapboard church or one of those memorial plaques for someone whose name rings a bell, in a vague and distant sort of way. This is just where we turn left.

In this Kentucky, there are people playing a mysterious game (Dungeons and Dragons?) in the basement, in the dark, and being unable to see doesn’t seem to bother them. They don’t seem to see me either, even with the lights on. I’m not quite sure if that should bother me.

Ah, well. We roll with it.

—-

The first episode of Kentucky Route Zero is quiet, but not shy about announcing what it is. A man named Conway is making a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, and stops for directions at one of those kitschy retro service stations, the one you’ve seen in screenshots if you’re in the habit of following gaming publications: Equus Oils, with the huge and dramatic horse’s head. Immediately I wonder if the name is just a reference to the horse, or to the play – but happily our hero’s eyes are in the usual places, at least for now.

The power is off, because the power is always off in games; the owner seems oddly unconcerned about this, perfectly content to lounge in an antique chair and chat with whoever happens by. Maybe they don’t really sell gas here? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

He has some thoughts about how to get where we’re going, though. We have to take the Zero.

Nobody bats an eye at the impossible number. If that’s where we have to go, then that’s where we have to go. That’s all. We roll with it.

—-

Everything about this presentation seems calculated precisely to lull the player into a kind of meditative dream-state. Visuals are spare, with a careful calculation of angle and lighting and colour and perhaps especially darkness that is striking without taking you out of the moment. Music is quietly lovely – here a surprising little folk song, there a kind of eerie electronic thrumming.

Everywhere I am encouraged to take my time. The spiderweb of little side-roads on my map – none of them the Zero, but it must be there somewhere, unless it mustn’t – is peppered with encounters that have the feel of those tiny little dream-fragments one wakes up with when the alarm jangles in. But the alarm isn’t coming, not here, and when the fragment is over, here is the map once more, and I am no wiser about where I am than I was before. Though perhaps I have learned a little more about Conway.

In a way that seems to be the point, really. I can’t help but notice how the decisions we’re making have a lot more to do with what kind of person our hero is and what’s behind him than what’s before him. We’ve chosen to take this ride, and we’re going where it’s going; it is our own perceptions we change with our decision-making.

We roll with it.

Delightful things, Monday, Feb. 2, 2020

In the spirit of this morning’s This American Life, some things that are delightful:

  1. Apparently, big cats are fans of perfume, and Calvin Klein’s Obsession is particularly popular.
  2. Oven spring, the magical phenomenon whereby a ball of flour and salt and water and yeast begins to resemble bread. I do not think I will ever pull a loaf of bread out of the oven without feeling vaguely like an alchemist.
  3. The tactile sensation of folding laundry while it is still warm.
  4. Watching snow fall when one does not have to go out into it.
  5. The teeny-tiny meow of small kittens.

Irresolute

The new year’s started, and I have an afternoon to myself, and I have done a Productive Thing this morning already. Several, actually; a long-overdue closet clean-out, a thorough vacuuming in the bedroom, some maintenance on this very site to get its PHP up to date and everything in tidy working order.

It feels very…efficient. Sensible. Practical.

…Strangely unsatisfying. But I haven’t written in a little while, and should do that as well, so here I am.

What am I doing, here? Writing words into the void where literally nobody will see them? I don’t have a Brand to build; I’m not “creating content” that people will want to see or participate in on YouTube; I am told, over and over and over again, that nobody reads anymore, that this is why even an email three lines long is too much for heaven’s sake, let alone the amount I can write when I get going.

What am I doing? What is the point of this endeavor?

I am not one of those people who has a book in me, or at least I don’t think so; I know several of them. They are full of a drive toward something; scenes haunt them in their sleep, dialogue springs up unbidden when they are in the shower or stirring a pot of tomato sauce on the stove.

I don’t have that. Not quite. A drive, yes; an urge toward Making in a general sort of way that cooking kind of sort of helps to satisfy a little, though it does not feel like enough. “Enough” is a completely preposterous word for it; it doesn’t feel right. Enough. Ridiculous. Can you feed a fire “enough?”

I want to do…something; but here my invention fails me absolutely every single time, proving to me over and over and over again that I am just not really a creative person, not like the ones I can see on the internet – or, hell, invite for dinner – all various shades of struggling quietly toward a goal, or hustling like mad toward it in some cases.

What am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing?

There never seems to be any good answer to that. One cannot make a convincing Kickstarter pitch for “fuck, I don’t know, trying to express myself and hoping something comes of it?”

Though that’s it, I guess. In the absence of a “real” dream, doing something, ANYthing, so that I do not feel quite so much as though I have been shapeshifted into a form I don’t quite recognize without anybody noticing, quietly doing the things that need doing to get by and support the people around me, wondering if the interior life I experience can properly be considered any more real than the things I was talking about in reality TV earlier.

And I don’t really know who I can talk to about it; very well then, let’s talk to nobody here. Or maybe everybody. Who knows.

I want to really feel like myself. Whatever that means.

But first I have to make lunch. For some reason, today that makes me laugh.

“Reality” tv.

It always seems it ought to be in quotes, doesn’t it; so much of it is every bit as staged and carefully framed as the elaborate fictions that make up our modern-day “Peak TV” landscape.

You have your major sub-genres of it – as far as I can tell, these are “Humans behave very badly to one another,” “Purposefully spectacular transformation,” and “Clash of skills” – though of course these do bleed into one another.

I’ve never had much interest in the first of these – people are quite awful enough to one another without me seeking that out on purpose – but I will confess to a bit of a weakness for a show or two here and there from the latter two categories.

I mean, even as I am aware exactly how choreographed Queer Eye probably is – surely must be, because almost nothing in real life moves through an arc that clear and direct – it’s hard to resist the appeal of the idea.  The super-team of kind and clever folk who sweep in to teach a struggling person how to love themselves and live their truth…who isn’t at least a little into that?

The Great British Bake-Off presents us with an alternate universe in which everything is cheery pavilions lined with bunting and delicious-looking desserts and the very worst thing that can possibly happen to you is that a pleasant grandmotherly British person tells you that perhaps that sponge was a bit too dry.

Masterchef is ostensibly a competition based on pure skill, one where the primary appeal is watching the food being made and the hosts’ by-play.  Watching people cook is enjoyable, of course; as I was once told by a tour guide in Prague “There are three things you can watch forever.  The sea, fire, and other people working.”  It’s true, and watching people at work is as compelling here as it is anywhere else, but unlike a normal cooking show, this one comes haunted by vague uncertainty.

How much of this is true? How much of any of this is real?

That’s just it, of course.  The answer is “none of it”; despite the label we give the genre, this kind of thing isn’t a documentary even in aspiration. Reality only in the sense that what we see has the trappings of reality.  The names may be real, the places.  The products placed just so in the scenario are almost certainly real, whether or not the effects attributed to them are.

It’s an escape, every bit as much as the most grandiose fantasy film or the most elaborately-constructed romance.  Perhaps it’s a little bit more palatable to some folks if their escape hatch of choice looks a little bit more like what they see every day.  We all need the escapes, for sure; the world is dark enough.  Hard enough.

Tuning in, I find myself caught up in the doublethink of it all – it’s real, it’s not real, does it matter whether it’s real? – and also a sort of vague, ill-defined shame.  I’m not supposed to find anything to like there at all; isn’t it a bit like I’ve been caught devouring an entire pint of ice cream on the sofa in my pajamas?  Don’t I have artistic aspirations, however poorly-defined they may be?  Shouldn’t I be queueing up something a bit more challenging?

But there are plenty of days when I feel too exhausted, after the office and the household planning and management and the constant encroachment of day-to-day nonsense on every little corner of my brain, no matter how it craves to do other things.

And sometimes, on days like that, it is pleasant to look at spectacular cake.

The truth about Miss Ellsworth

A little fictional mini-vignette, to make up for the hard time I’ve been having posting.


Okay, so nobody believes me. That’s not my fault. Doesn’t mean I’m not telling the truth about Miss Ellsworth.

It was a great night for a dare. Perfect, really – with the moon all bright and full and turning the leaves on the ground all silvery except for the little pools of lamplight where the gold and the brown and the red still show through.

And the library’s always been one of my favorite places, anyway. I don’t know how it is that a place can be so big and so cozy all at once, but it’s the best place in town to be when you want somewhere to get out of the cold, or to sit and think, or maybe just to get out of the house when Dad’s in one of his moods.

At night sometimes you can see a light in the basement, or in the attic. Some of the other scouts say it’s ghosts. I’ve always figured Miss Ellsworth lived there.

So when Wally told me I was too chicken to sneak in that night…well.

It’s funny, really, how people stop noticing things once they get used to the way things are. All I had to do was settle in behind one of those great big dogs, or whatever they are, outside the front doors and wait. I watched as Mr. Johansen went home for the day, all tidy and brisk in that long tweed coat. I waited as Mrs. Ridley and Derek and whatever the new baby’s name is – was it Lewis? – headed off home to dinner, with Derek asking if they could do corned beef. They were the perfect distraction; I slipped inside just quickly enough that the baby’s fussing helped hide the sound of my shoes on the tile.

From there, all I had to do was duck past the front desk – no janitor, not just yet, not until everybody’s gone home – and down the EMPLOYEES ONLY stairs to the basement.

I’d never been down there, of course. It’s different from the rest of the library; darker, closer, a maze of boxes with labels I could read but not understand and sleek, unlabeled doors. Quieter, too – which seems crazy when you’re talking about a library, but it was, I promise it was. Heavy quiet. Spooky quiet. Quiet in a way that made it all feel a little like a dream.

That’s just it of course. Wally says of course it WAS a dream, that I must have fallen asleep somehow. That I couldn’t really have lost the stairs, that I couldn’t really have walked for hours and hours, until the beam of my flashlight started to fade right out.

I remember that awfully clearly for a dream though. How pale and yellow and flickery the beam was. How I could only just read through it the neat yellowed label on the box in the corner I was facing: 398.469 – Accession 01/17/87. Miss Ellsworth’s handwriting, all perfect, tidy circles and squares and…

And then there was a light up above me all of a sudden. Not an electric light, either; this one was orangey-yellow and flickering and all I could think was how much I wanted to get closer. I climbed up on the box without thinking about it, and then the one after that, and the one after that, and then there was a little window all of a sudden, and the little window looked in on a fine big room, and that seemed a little strange at the time, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why. I know now, of course. It was too big, much too big, so big I think you could have fit the whole first floor of the library inside.

But it was so pretty, you know? There were big leather chairs, and one of those rugs that looks like it ought to be a flying carpet really – maybe it was a flying carpet on vacation, I don’t know – and a grand fireplace that made you just want to stretch out in front of it like Wally’s cat Seamus and sleep for a week.

And the books. It was FULL of books. Shelves and piles and stacks and…buildings of books, old ones and new ones and big ones and small ones; huge leather books with gold lettering on them I couldn’t read, and at least one of those little paperbacks Mama reads, with the pretty ladies and the man without a shirt on the cover. (Always seems to be the same guy. I wonder why he never wears a shirt.)

I was just thinking how funny that paperback looked when I heard a door open, and Miss Ellsworth came in. Her hair was still up in that coppery knot at the back of her neck, but I guess she’d changed clothes for the night: a long white dress I’d never seen her in before, sort of sparkly in the firelight.

And…and then this is the part where everybody says I must’ve been dreaming. Miss Ellsworth walked over to the fireplace – I remember watching her dress sparkling in the light – and then…then she reached up and pulled out the long gold pin she uses to keep her hair up. There was all this shining coppery hair tumbling down everywhere – and as it did she…stretched.

Just like I do when I get up in the morning, arms straight out, all long and lean. But then she kept going. As I watched she seemed to get…longer, taller, broader, bigger: from under that long swirl of hair, still falling, there sprouted wings. The wings stretched up and out and OUT, and where there was hair there were shiny coppery scales.

And the stretch kept going. Kept going until her hands and feet had claws and a long sleek coppery tail was coiled around the base of one of those big leather chairs that suddenly didn’t seem so big any longer. Kept going until the face looking up at that ceiling grew long and coppery, too, framed by horns that swept and curled like music.

Then there was a sort of long slow rumbling breath out from deep inside her somewhere, and I knew what I was looking at.

Miss Ellsworth the librarian is a dragon.

And she knows I know.

I must have made a noise; shifted on the box or dropped my flashlight, or some damn thing. Darned thing, sorry. Mama says I shouldn’t talk like that.

But suddenly she was looking straight at me, and I knew she saw me.

Her eyes are green. Her real ones, I mean, not the ones she wears every day. Green like the forest in a fairy tale, too green to be real, so green I couldn’t look away, so green I couldn’t breathe.

And then it was morning, and I was on the long couch in the children’s reading room, and Mama was furious with me. And nobody believes me.

Bet they would if I were a boy.

Well. Maybe.

I still don’t know where my flashlight’s got to.

Another first date

So here’s a little project that’s meant to help me break through a bit of…something. I would call it a creative block, if that were fitting – if I had that One Great Story in me, blocked only by an unfortunate convergence of words. Or perhaps a failed convergence. (Would “divergence” be better? No matter.)

A reconnection, maybe. Hopefully. 500 words, semi-regularly, about…anything I can manage to muster 500 words about. To see what happens if I try it. To see if anything happens if I try it.

To see if I can even DO it. I’ve tried before, with less ambitious goals.

And so, blank page, here we are. How is it that we can have had so many first dates and yet it is still as awkward as ever?

Somehow I didn’t get rained on en route home today, despite it being the sort of weather one sees described in books as “leaden.” Thick, gray clouds heaving water down onto earth too lethargic to groan under the weight; damp heat creeping up and in and under your clothes and into your lungs until lying down and choking under it starts to seem like a viable option.

Not that I did; instead I walked home past the squirrels busily ferrying walnuts to parts unknown and the sodden playground and the incongruous, hilarious “Thug Lyfe” someone has written with a stick, or a finger, in the pavement – printed letters in a schoolroom-tidy hand that is about as far removed from said Thug Lyfe as I am from ancient Phoenicia.

Though I guess Phoenicia did give us our alphabet, after a fashion, so perhaps it’s not as far as all that, if you look at it a certain way?

And now we’ve talked about the weather. Might as well tick off all the awkward-date boxes.

…So. How about those sportsball scores?

Somewhere behind me, out in the dark, a little colony of rabbits is getting on about its business. I see one every so often, loping across the garden path in the twilight – though only the one. There must be more, but where? I wonder whose shed they live behind, or under; I wonder if they live a kind of urban Watership Down life, telling and retelling stories of El-ahrairah as burlesque or beat poetry to one another so that the generations of rabbits after them will at least know the tales of those stars the streetlamps are too bright to let them see.

They’re just rabbits, I hear in my head as I write that. It’s a sensible, practical voice, the same one that reminds me that I need to buy milk and that I forgot to finish that thing at the office and didn’t the dryer beep about, oh, thirty minutes ago?

Perhaps that’s where all the creativity has gone – drowned in an ocean of to-do lists and sensible shoes, weighed down by a five-pound bag of flour and old clothes that never fit and yet wore through and about eighteen billion lost pens.

Perhaps this is foolish. It certainly feels that way. Like an excellent way of saying something stupid, of making someone angry with me, of bringing down on my head wrath or scorn or shame.

Maybe there is nothing to find?

If there were, would I know it if I found it?

…Ah, well.

Alea iacta est.

Of sunless things

So some friends of ours have expressed an interest in going to this, perhaps making it into a road trip of a couple of weeks or so. I’m not that much of a hot air balloon person, and I’m really not the kind of morning person I think you’d need to be in order to be feeling gleeful at the prospect of getting up at 3:30 AM for a morning event (ouch), but on the other hand it seems like the sort of thing that might be worth doing at least once in your life…so it looks like I’ve got some trip planning research ahead of me.

In other news, we’ve recently started the sequel to Failbetter Games’s Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies. The first game is gloriously niche – you pilot a tiny ship through a vast underground cavern dotted here and there with islands and heavily populated with menaces ranging from your standard pirates to terrifying Lovecraftian horrors. As you sail, you encounter dozens of weird and entertaining little storylets – mini-plots for all of your officers, and on each island a little thicket of tales to explore that highlight the creativity of the worldbuilding. There’s a range of victory conditions to pursue, too, ranging from the somewhat mundane (become fabulously wealthy!) to the enticingly mysterious (join an adventurer in a quest to pass through the Avid Horizon, a frigid and desolate place containing a gate to…somewhere. We loved it.

And yet we’ve only finished one of its many victory conditions. Why? Because it’s a roguelike, a decision that I still find baffling. Dying and returning to the start of something makes sense for many games, but not for one where a death can easily wipe out twenty hours of gameplay. Moreover, it can be intensely frustrating to have to re-do the first part of all of your quests many many many times before living long enough to see the end of them, setting up a weird dynamic where you find yourself rushing to try to complete things before a horror from below rips your tiny ship in half. (I’ve learned there’s a mod available that can mitigate this somewhat by not re-setting quest progress on death; this might be worth a go if i want to read more of the game’s stories.)

The second game is a roguelike as well, sadly, though they’ve made the wise decision to make the goodies you can pass on to your next captain more generous. (There IS a more merciful game mode that permits save-scumming, but naturally with Mark on the team we couldn’t go for that one.) That said, our only death so far was wiped out by the game’s locking up on us (it seems that there are some growing pains with version 1.0 as it emerges from Early Access.) There’s gamepad support this time, though it feels rather janky – it’s startlingly difficult to keep your vessel moving in a straight line. Hopefully kinks that will be smoothed out as the release progresses.

This installment in the…is it a franchise now?…takes as its premise the notion that someone, at least, was successful in passing through the Avid Horizon as I mentioned above – and as it turned out, what was beyond that was a skyscape full of new wonders. And terrors, because obviously.

Ten years on, control of the skies is a battle between The Establishment and the scrappy colonists who believe this new frontier is rightly theirs. This conflict forms the backdrop for your own story, which begins with you as first officer on a small but scrappy sky-train recently returned from the land of the dead (somehow.) The voyage did not go well for the former captain, who as the game begins is dying of…something, a strange illness that covers her skin in glowing sigils. In exchange for passing the ship on to you, she requests a promise: take the black box in the ship’s hold to New London, and do not open it.

And then she is gone, and the ship is yours, skeleton crew and all. Good luck, captain.

It’s a fairly cracking beginning really, and I’m hopeful that the rest of it will be as divertingly, endearingly weird as its predecessor. Thus far, the skies aren’t quite as oppressively dark and lonely as the Sunless Sea once was – the art’s rather lovely, honestly, and does a good job suggesting layers of possibly-infinite space despite the two dimensional plane your locomotive-ship actually moves in. But the writing’s been as inventively bizarre as ever, thus far, and we’ve got a lot of new lands to discover. Until we die or go irrevocably mad, of course.

So…more of the same, rather, I suppose. But I’m all right with that.

Onward.

Lemmings rushing to the slaughter

Today’s word of the day: “Malaphor.” This is a combination of “metaphor” and “malapropism,” and appears in such forms as:

  • “It’s not rocket surgery.”
  • “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.”
  • The title of this post

…and so on.  I use some of these myself quite deliberately, so I suppose I am not precisely helping to maintain the purity of the language.

This is courtesy of the very-delightful podcast The Allusionist, which I recommend to anyone else who enjoys wordy goodness; host Helen Zaltzman is whimsical and nerdy in proportions I very much enjoy.  Link there goes to the episode I listened to this morning; recommended for a listen if you have a spare twenty minutes or so.

As often seems to happen, nature appears to have suddenly remembered mid-January that it is supposed to be winter, and dumped an alarmingly huge pile of snow on our heads; as I walked to meet everyone for ramen last night the wind was constantly sweeping fistful after fistful of vicious glitter into my face. 

Today: piles everywhere of blinding white, some nearly as tall as I am.  (Miracle of miracles: the TTC ran like a dream this morning, and I secured a seat within a single stop.  I can only guess that perhaps most folk stayed home today.)

I’m not looking forward to the shoveling, but it IS rather lovely to look at…

As it turns out, I’m pretty bad at this.

This “blogging on the regular” thing, that is. Still, I’m going to give it a shot, once again: no merit in abusing myself for not doing it, so let’s set that aside and carry on.

As I type, it’s a frosty late-January afternoon – the laundry is on, there’s cauliflower roasting for tonight’s soup, foccacia bread is rising, and Mark is doing his best to locate some creepy swamp people in Red Dead Redemption 2. Outside, Nature has elected to dump a blinding-white powdery snow on top of everything. Probably I OUGHT to be shoveling it.

I am not shoveling it. Instead I am having a second coffee, though I will likely regret the not-shoveling later on.

The plan is: Two hundred words, most days. About anything. I can do that, surely; I can use up two hundred words writing an email to re-schedule a meeting. Build a routine, and therefore a habit.

I think the first order of business shall be to do a few improvements around here. I’m no graphic designer, but at least I can make sure all the proper plugins are installed and such.

In the meantime, here’s one of the songs that’s been an earworm for me lately:

Reading right now:

Playing right now:


Day 7: Art and music, imperial-style

It’s a little hard to believe it’s been a week.

As it turns out the street outside our hotel seems to be pretty popular with young Viennese folk; late into the night we heard them drinking with quite a bit of enthusiasm.  You wouldn’t necessarily know it by morning, though.  When I woke up (far too early, in my opinion) it was just me and the fan and, eventually, the sedate rumbling of streetcars.

For the first time in my life I have taken advantage of a hotel’s laundry service, carefully layering clothes into a little pink bakery bag (they were out of whatever they normally use) and carefully presenting it to the fellow at the front desk.  10 euros, and we get clean clothes for the rest of the trip.  Trying not to feel too much like I am being a posh git, even as I carefully try to dress up slightly for reasons that will be evident later.

Our first stop today is the Kunsthistorisches Museum – very literally, the art history museum.   This beautiful building frames the Maria-Theresienplatz, facing its opposite number the natural history museum.  (The Venus of Willendorf, apparently, lives there, though we won’t have time to swing by for a visit unfortunately.)

The interior of the building is as grand as the outside; it looks as though the Habsburgs felt their art collection deserved a suitably grand setting.  I mean.  Look at these stairs:

The production values inside the exhibits are quite something, too.  Check out the staging on some of these:

Here is where I have to admit that we didn’t make it through the entire place.  Not that it’s not worth it, I’m sure…but there is quite a lot of Stuff on display.

I do not know what it is that drives imperial-type folks to hoard massive collections of art and sculpture and artifacts.  It’s certainly remarkable to see so much of it in one place.  It’s…also remarkable how often the audio tour seemed to mention that such and such an artifact had been sent back to its homeland in Place.  Perhaps there is a little guilt, after all the hoarding?

On the other hand, it is partly thanks to that hoarding that we’re able to see some of these things today.  Like all those stories of how the original glass/paintings/carpets/manuscripts/what have you only survived the war because some enterprising person hid them in a basement somewhere, perhaps in a crate marked “Salt Pork” or something.  (Not, obviously, a story we actually heard, though kind of an aggregate of many we heard on this trip.)

It’s simultaneously a bit romantic and a bit sad.  Intrepid archivists or concerned citizens or a desperate mayor; the idea that somewhere out there in an unassuming attic there might still linger someone’s masterwork, waiting to be brought back out for someone to love it again.

Interestingly, the museum seems to have some similarly conflicted ideas about itself.  Their special exhibition at the moment is “The Shape of Time,” which sounds rather like an episode of Doctor Who but is actually a sort of…statement of self-awareness.

What do I mean?  Well…As I’ve said, the museum has a pretty spectacular collection.  A roomful of Caravaggios.  Another that seems like it kind of contains every Breughel I can think of.  You very literally cannot turn around, it seems, without smacking into something famous you’ve seen in art history books, except that here it is real and displayed in grand, high-ceilinged galleries with thoughtfully-arranged benches where earnest art students cluster to hone their craft.  (And weary tourists like me jump at the chance to rest aching feet and take it all in while listening to the thoughtful English commentary.)

But here’s the thing: Almost none of what’s here is new.  The collection is grand and full of beautiful things, but crystallized at a point before the Impressionists were around to do their thing, before we began cultivating mixed media, before photography and Banksy and mashups.  And that’s sort of what’s behind “The Shape of Time.”  We view art differently based on its context – and context is what this exhibition’s about, pairing old art with new in ways that are as much about our experience of what is around the art as the art itself.

Here’s one pairing, for example: Rembrandt was apparently mightily fond of painting his son Titus.  In a dimly-lit gallery, one of these portraits hangs.  Turn right, and you have a work of video art by Fiona Tan – “Nellie,” in which Rembrandt’s daughter Cornelia lingers restlessly in a sticky, humid room, underscored by the vague, jungly drones of insects.  Titus looks sort of quietly heroic, gazing off into a bolder future; Cornelia writes a letter, gazes out a window, tosses uneasily in her sleep.   Somewhere hanging in the dimness between them one can feel the comment on gender roles.

Another dark room, another dark pairing: Steve McQueen points a video camera at a dying former racehorse, Running Thunder, the painful immediacy of the death of a lovely and powerful creature juxtaposed with what at first appears to be a fairly dull Brueghel vase of flowers.  But, as the curator informs us, the flowers shown here do not share a season; this painting would be literally impossible.  Celebration of life?  Celebration of transience?  How does it feel to observe inevitability and impossibility together?

A sculpture of lovers’ faces bent toward one another, close and affectionate, paired with Felix Gonzales-Torres’s “Perfect Lovers” – a set of two ordinary office clocks, set to the same time and left to run down.  Already their times are not quite the same; one of them will inevitably “die” first, leaving the other alone.  It’s a poignant image, made more so when you know that the artist paired these clocks while his own lover was dying of AIDS.  He was the one left alone, in the end, though he passed away not long after.

Around another corner, in another room, medieval saints weep chastely over the crucified Jesus, unaware they now share a room with the broad white plinth containing Ron Mueck’s “Dead Dad,” a scaled-down representation of the body of his own father that is both eerily lifelike and a real punch in the guts for anyone who has ever beheld the body of someone they once loved without a life in it.

A classical sculpture of Aphrodite, someone’s long-ago image of perfect beauty, is displayed next to Eleanor Antin’s “Carvings,” a series of photographs, one a day in several different views, as a strict near-starvation diet gradually brings her nearer to a more recent ideal.

It’s a really interesting exhibition; if I’ve piqued your curiosity, there’s some further detail available at the museum’s own site, in English.

The museum isn’t JUST its special exhibitions, of course – the regular galleries are, as I said, crammed to the gills with paintings you’ve probably seen in art history books and works by people whose names you know.  It was interesting to look at all those Rubens works together and think that once upon a time, someone built like me would’ve been considered smoking hot rather than constantly reminded how nasty I am for being a bigger girl.  It’s a bit liberating; I hope I can keep a little of that and bring it home with me.

By this time we’d seen…oh, maybe half the museum, and I seriously think we could have stayed all day, just taking everything in – but we did have places we needed to be, and so not without a little regret we turned in our audio guides and set forth for Schonbrunn Palace.

Schonbrunn was the Habsburg summer palace – it’s where folk like Maria Theresa and Franz Josef went when they wanted to hit the cottage, so to speak.  These days it’s right on one of the subway lines; you can literally hop off, cross the street, and be right there, taking in a first view of that casual summer flavor.

Well, all right, for certain varieties of “casual.”

Vienna is home to two Habsburg palaces, and I think in general if you were only going to tour one of them it would be the other – but this one had an interesting package deal that combined admission with dinner and a little concert.  Sure, why not?  So here we were, picking up our tickets at the Orangery, a little building off to one side of the entrance.

As it happens, our concert was not to be there today, but in the Grosse Gallerie; more on that a little later. Tickets in hand, we set off to tour the palace itself and its grounds.

And, you know, just a modest little summer place, right?

Honestly, there is something in Baroque style that drives it with remarkable swiftness toward self-parody. Did you know, for instance, that they have a real Roman ruin there?

…Because that is totally a legit Roman ruin and not just a mishmash of any old vaguely Romanesque thing we could find, right? Right?

Okay, okay, I snark. But it was just a bit hilarious how far over the top these gardens were. Kind of lovely, yes, but dang, imperial folks:

As with many a stately home in England, the grounds are both open to the public for warm-weather ambling about and monetized within an inch of their leafy raked-gravelled lives; everywhere near the entrance are industrious folks selling ice cream and offering rides on a trainlike vehicle that seemed popular with small people, and some of what seem like they ought to be the choice gardens one must pay to enter.

Still, it’s a pleasant place to go walking on a cool sunny Spring afternoon – even if the aforementioned gravel IS of a particularly evil vaguely triangular variety that insisted on creeping into my sandals and forming tiny, insidious caltrops. I wonder if Franz Josef ever took a break to wander here, taking a rare chance to think of roses and fountains instead of business. Perhaps he was too devoted to his calling for that? I suppose I’ll never know.

The interior of the palace is hot indeed, both from the crush of the ubiquitous tour groups and from the inconvenient fact that air conditioning had yet to be invented. (Central heating, though, after a fashion: many rooms sport Bavarian ceramic stoves of majestic proportions, stoked from behind by specially-tasked servants via a network of passages in the walls.)

Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth had their own rooms, here – perhaps not so uncommon as we think, once, but here they feel like a sign of the vague dysfunction that seems to have haunted their marriage despite Sisi’s Princess-Diana public appeal. His rooms are stately, dark, even a bit Spartan by imperial standards; the iron bedstead and the prayer bench speak of a man devoted to his duty. The upright Emperor, I catch myself thinking. Responsibility to a fault, for all that those portraits of his wife speak of his love for her.

Anyone could arrange an audience with the empire’s foremost civil servant: you waited in a grand red room for your name to be called, you went in and spoke your piece, and then eventually the Emperor would incline his head, saying what a pleasure it had been, and the audience would be over.

I wonder very much what kinds of things they asked for. His people.

Sisi’s rooms, by contrast, are dainty and feminine in that lush Baroque way; here she would spend literal hours on her toilette, particularly her infamous mane of gorgeous dark hair. They face the rose garden outside; the breeze in the summer must have been heavenly. She was, they say, a truly legendary beauty; it seems a strange match for a man with such sober habits. But then, I suppose some of us do that – reach out to catch and hold a being whose presence we crave as much for the yawning gulf of difference between us as for any other trait.

The rest of the palace hearkens back to earlier eras still; you can still feel some of the influence of Maria Theresa here amid all the gilding and curlicues and baroque notions of chinoiserie. Even in architecture she is formidable. (I have a vague notion in my mind of her on a movie poster, with some wag laying a slogan at her feet: “Sixteen children. Zero fucks.”)

Eventually the time came for the evening’s entertainment to begin; we made for the little restaurant just left of the main entrance and found every table laid with white tablecloths and neatly-centred vases of flowers. Waiters stood by, a little unnervingly attentive. Time for dinner.

We ordered a glass of wine each and waited as other diners filed in. These dinner-and-concert packages are touristy affairs, but in Vienna this seems to mean something a bit different from what I normally imagine – well-heeled-looking folk largely of my mom’s generation, chatting in a mix of English and German about this and that with a hearty helping of folk speaking what sounded a bit like Russian mixed in. (For the second time in as many days I felt relieved about how dark my jeans were. Not properly dressy for a concert under many circumstances, but here, probably enough.)

Dinner is a prix fixe affair: soup, the Tafelspitz beloved of Franz Josef, and an apple strudel for dessert. All rather surprisingly tasty, and coupled with the chance to sit down for a while quite fortifying.

As the dessert plates and coffee cups were cleared, we made our way into the palace once more – and, unlike our tour this afternoon, nobody seemed to mind a quick photo or two without the flash on as we took our seats and watched for the orchestra to file in.

I mean. Look at that room.

The orchestra was small – just a handful of players, mainly strings – but they did quite well; an assortment of popular classics, mainly Mozart and Strauss (of course), mixed with some arias/art songs here and there. It wasn’t completely boilerplate, fortunately (no “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” which I would have thought an easy pitch down the middle), and at least everyone seemed to be having a good time. (The conductor got everyone in on the action by conducting the audience to clap along with a march right at the end, so there was at least a sense of good fun all round.)

Amusingly, the grounds hadn’t quite completely closed by the time the concert started – so early on I got to watch some surprised and delighted random folk outside, peering in through the slats of the blinds on the doors. By intermission, though, everyone had cleared out but the concert-goers, and we got to have a pleasant few minutes looking out over the Habsburg backyard.

(I still haven’t gotten the hang of night photography on this thing, sorry. Here’s us though!)

Eventually, though, the orchestra headed home and so did we; returning back to our hotel to find those same cute little pink bakery bags full of neatly-folded clean clothes. I still feel a bit like part of the problem…but I AM looking forward to clean clothes in Budapest.

Sounds like the Viennese enjoy their Saturday nights as much as we do. Ah well – I’m beat. Good night, partying Austrians; Vienna, I’ll see you tomorrow.

Oh – and here’s a random bonus snap of one of those cute street lights. These were installed as part of Eurovision, apparently, but everyone liked them so much they’ve kept them around.