CRAIG CONLEY (Prof. Oddfellow) is recognized by Encarta as “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation.” He has been called a “language fanatic” by Page Six gossip columnist Cindy Adams, a “cult hero” by Publisher’s Weekly, a “monk for the modern age” by George Parker, and “a true Renaissance man of the modern era, diving headfirst into comprehensive, open-minded study of realms obscured or merely obscure” by Clint Marsh. An eccentric scholar, Conley’s ideas are often decades ahead of their time. He invented the concept of the “virtual pet” in 1980, fifteen years before the debut of the popular “Tamagotchi” in Japan. His virtual pet, actually a rare flower, still thrives and has reached an incomprehensible size. Conley’s website is OneLetterWords.com.
I once received a challenge of sorts from within the Magic Castle, perhaps even a profound test, and though I reached the figurative finish line, I surprised myself by choosing not to take the cup, as it were. And I regretted it more than a little, once it was too late. It was, of all things, an art challenge (my first, if memory serves). Upon saying the magic word to the owl on the sliding bookcase, the first person I saw in the Castle [a famous individual whose name is withheld in the spirit of secretiveness] essentially commanded me to go forth and buy a particular (expensive) artwork. He told me the artist's name, the title of the piece, and the location of the controversial gallery that housed it. He told me that the piece might as well have been custom made for me and that I'd want it in my house. As he held my gaze, it was clear that my procurement of the piece was not so much friendly advice as an outright dare. And then the entire Castle began to vibrate steadily and worrisomely. I thought it might be an earthquake, but I overhead someone claiming that the L.A. subway passes right under the building. At that moment, though, what it felt like was some subterranean thing, perhaps pinned down by the Castle itself, getting restless. And then it fell back asleep. The why of this art challenge was deeply mysterious. The apparent trophy was the artwork itself, but another, far greater (and likely non-literal) prize was implied. Perhaps needless to say, I rushed to the gallery the next day. The place is somehow designated a church so as to sidestep secular legalities about the public display of deviant subjects. And the piece in question is a three-dimensional (and even electrically wired) nightmarish testament to humankind's eternal struggle with the interdimensional darkness that looms over our shoulders. The piece is terrifying, especially in how it pierces some sort of veil and "gets into you." Yet I was prepared for that very phenomenon, having seen it depicted in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, when one Mrs. Chalfont gives Laura Palmer a painting to hang on her bedroom wall -- a painting that Laura finds herself inside of, even while she sleeps peacefully -- a portal that transports one into a parallel dimension or overlapping reality. (See my documentary David Lynch and His Precursors for more on that striking scene.) So I was predisposed. Yet I left the gallery empty handed. The price of this art portal was not inconsequential, but as a writer I haven't technically been able to afford anything I've bought for the last twenty years, so I can't say that price was truly an issue. I'm honestly not sure why I walked away and conceded the challenge. My best guess is that I applied some Robert Anton Wilson-esque agnosticism -- I didn't know if this portal (to use black and white terms) was good or evil, and so I decided not to meddle with unknown forces. Of course, perhaps resisting temptation was in fact the victory. Who knows?! It's all so surreal, because even as [name withheld] was challenging me, it felt less like the present moment than a memory, and that weirdness was surely courtesy of the Magic Castle itself, a shrine to nostalgia for bygone evenings. It's as if nothing technically happens in the Magic Castle -- it's all past tense and bittersweet. That 600-year-old Japanese pagoda just above the Castle may very well be the time-warping engine. Our hotel room was about five steps from the pagoda, so my metabolism of time was profoundly altered. During the show at the Palace of Mystery, I wasn't at all surprised to find that the magician's corset was decorated with various clock faces, all sporting different times, or that her necklace was composed of fragmented clock wheels and pinions. (And her advice re: my quest for an ever-chiming clock array: apply reverb!) Which is all to ask: Should I have taken that artwork home?