Monthly Archives: July 2012

Misty Indoors and Out

Pump Station Cafe

The Pump Station cafe, where I’m sitting as I write

It’s a misty day today here in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, and when I went running around the giant lawn at the Military Museum, it was to the accompaniment of a few drops of rain. This was the last time I’ll run at the museum, and I’ll miss it, with the view of the long green ridge that the village leans up against, the church steeple set against that ridge, and the creek and wildflowers that separate the museum from the lawn where I run. From the cafe where I’m sitting now, I see that they are setting up an old car show over there on the lawn.

I have a philosophy that I’ve lived by for years: a brave life is better than a safe life. I can’t definitely say if that’s true, but I couldn’t live otherwise. To always choose the apparent safe option, to live without taking risks, even frightening risks, would feel like death to me. I’ll take my chances on keeping my arms open to life, even when it smacks me.

Duffy's Tavern in Boalsburg

The center of Boalsburg village

In three days, if the plan works, I’m moving down to Washington, DC, where I have a place to live in Rockville, Maryland (which is sort of Washington). If the plan does not work, I’ll still go soon, but I’ll be held up by the fact that my car is in the shop. I also have an old car, not the kind you display at car shows, but the kind you tow to a mechanic now and then.

I’m sad to leave here, and as long as I’m still in this pleasant valley my melancholy focus is on the ending of my current life. At the same time, I gladly anticipate the opportunities of the city, and once I get to DC, along with adjusting to all the routinalia, I’ll focus on how exciting it is. Maryland will be, by the way, the fourteenth state I’ve lived in.

My current apartment, up the side of that green ridge, is on Torrey Lane. A couple of years ago, on a snowy day, I wrote a poem about it, so for my last blog entry in Pennsylvania, I’m putting that poem in here.

Torrey Lane

I am startled by this day.
When I finally go outside,
standing by the open car door,
I cannot move
from feeling the day in front of me.
I’m transfixed by sunlight on the snow,
the shadow of one building on another,
and trees beside them.
A flock of birds dances a hundred patterns
in the air beyond the trees.
For two minutes I don’t move,
feeling the cold air on my face.

There must have been a bright morning like this
in a meadow in southern France,
when Julius Caesar emerged from his tent
and noticed the light.
On such a snowy morning
in Cracow, Poland,
Copernicus must have stepped into the street
to see birds flying over the buildings.
And surely there was a clear cold morning
in Camden, New Jersey,
when Walt Whitman stepped outside
before bending down to talk to a child.

Caesar then turned to consider the Gauls,
thinking of where to mass his troops,
and altering European history.
Copernicus looked up at the sun,
seeing a new universe,
and changed the location of the world.
Whitman rose up from his conversation,
his mind already composing lines about children,
and changed the course of American poetry.

I am not changing history, or the world, or even poetry.
I am only getting in my car to go to the gym,
to live my common life.
But in an unexpected moment of clarity
all I need
is snow in bright sunlight,
a cold wind on my face,
and a flock of birds
dancing a hundred patterns across the sky.

*   *   *

Tussey Ridge

The valley where I live

And it’s time for me to walk back through the village and up the ridge, to do some more packing. A new life is waiting.

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I Think There’s Something Written On Here

Dead Sea Scroll fragments

Everybody likes a mystery

Let’s say you’re digging in your garden. After a few minutes you strike something hard and up from the soil comes a piece of broken pottery. In one version of this story, it’s smooth, blank, and uniformly colored green. In the second version of the story, someone took that same green pottery and used a hard pointed object to scratch words on it, so you can read several phrases. Would one of these versions of the story be more interesting than the other?

I believe for most people the pottery with the writing would be more interesting. There is something about writing that fascinates us, that adds an extra layer of meaning to whatever the writing is on, especially when we find it in somewhat mysterious circumstances. And writing does, both literally and figuratively, add another layer of meaning.

Even if the pottery merely had the name of the city where it was made stamped on the bottom, it would be slightly more interesting than if it were blank. Or the object might have some foreign writing: 中文 (Chinese), милочка (Russian), γράμματα (Greek), which would be more mysterious, but still interesting.

Suppose the object you found was not pottery, but broken fragments of papyrus, looking something like paper, colored brown, and with dark lines of writing, אַל-תּוֹסְףְּ. Without those lines of writing, what would you have? Basically, a pile of ruined papyrus.

With the writing, however, what you might have is the Dead Sea Scrolls. This week I had an unusual opportunity to go to Philadelphia for a couple of nights, and when I got there, I found that the Franklin Institute had an exhibit on the scrolls, with samples on display. Naturally I went, in spite of the expensive entrance fee, because, you know, it was the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I imagine that the very best of the scrolls would not be put on a plane and sent to a foreign museum, but we did have ten samples on display for viewing. They were small, mostly broken into multiple fragments, and in such a dim light down in the case that they couldn’t be seen very clearly. Visually, they were pretty underwhelming. I would compare most of what I saw as looking like broken pieces of dark brown autumn leaves.

The story of how the scrolls were found in caves beginning in 1946 is interesting, and the arguments about them may be interesting. People pay attention to those things, but in the end none of that is the real point. Even the objects themselves, although they are being carefully preserved, after sloppiness in the beginning, are not the real point. Without the writing, what was found would just be jars full of blank papyrus that got spoiled. What is important about the Dead Sea Scrolls is the information they contain because of the writing.

Most visitors would probably not find those broken little pieces of papyrus very interesting to look at, except that we know. These are the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they have writing on them, and there are people who are reading that writing. There is information here, knowledge, revelations, shifts in how we understand the past, what we know about Judaism, how that affects our understanding of the Bible. It is the writing that makes the difference.

It is that magic of writing that gives these scrolls such profound meaning that we create large museum exhibits about the world that created them.

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Please I Am Honest Family

Brightly painted room

If you live here you can even use our dog!

How long has it been since we talked about rhetoric on this blog? Yes, I hear your chorus of cries: “Too long, blog boy!” So by popular demand, let’s look at some recent attempts at rhetorical persuasion. (“By popular demand” means I thought of doing this and no one was around to say no.)

Of course you’ll want to know where I acquired these interesting samples of rhetoric. A couple of weeks ago I decided that I should go ahead and move away from where I live, and since moving means moving to somewhere, I chose Washington, DC, as a place where I think I can find a job. So I need to find a place to live. In my naivete (i.e. dumbass ignorance), I thought there might be a few cheap places in Washington, if one could just find them.

No doubt you’re smarter than I am (though if I was you, I wouldn’t pat myself on the back for meeting such a low standard), so you probably know that in Washington, DC, even dead people can’t live cheaply. Back when I didn’t know better, two weeks ago, I found ads for cheap places on Craigslist and I emailed them. At that time I had four replies.

Since we’ve already established that you’re smarter than I am, I’m sure your antenna of suspicion would be raised at the number of people who have suddenly been transferred out of the country, to west Africa, Great Britain, the Philippines, taking the only set of keys with them. If you wish to rent out your house or apartment, wouldn’t you naturally take the only keys to the other side of the planet?

Let’s look at one such letter. The general rhetorical approach of this letter is to try to create an illusion of trust between two strangers who have never met. The letter attempts this with two overall rhetorical strategies, mixed together.

The first is to try to make the writer sound like he is open, informal, and almost intimate in revealing information that would not normally be part of such a conversation. Such openness and intimacy is to make him seem honest. If he is talking in this open way, surely he is telling the truth and we can trust him.

The second rhetorical strategy is to make the writer seem extremely trusting of the reader. We surely don’t want to be distant or cold toward this guy who is trusting us.

[1] The first strategy can be seen in the opening sentence [in the examples here, I’m correcting some, but not all, of the chaotic punctuation]. The letter begins: “Thanks for your email and interest in renting my house. Actually I resided in the house with my family, my wife and my only daughter before and presently we have moved out due to my transfer from my work now in West Africa.”

Notice that the very first sentence begins with an emotional appeal, that the writer lived in the house with “my family”, and in case that isn’t clear enough, he even adds “my wife and my only daughter”. Not just his daughter, but his only daughter, for a heavier emotional appeal, some of that tone of intimacy.

In a more obvious attempt to say “I’m an open, decent person” the writer even includes a philosophical statement: “all the bad people have Spoilt the good people in the world to trust each other”. There is also an appeal to the conscience of the reader with the sentence “Please i want you to note that i spent a lot on my property”, not only with the opening “please” but also with the revelation that the writer was put to expense for this (also implying it must be a nice place). At the end, the letter just comes right out and drops any pretense of subtlety on this point, telling the reader: “we are a kind and honest family”.

Since the writer’s purpose is to make us believe him, the letter is clumsy and poorly written because the rhetoric is so obvious. Rhetoric stops working almost instantly when we notice that someone is trying to use it. (For that reason, I always thought it was important to teach an awareness of rhetoric to my students.)

[2] The clumsiness is just as evident with the second rhetorical strategy, to make the writer sound as if he is trusting the reader. There are many phrases in support of this strategy:

  • want you to treat it as your own
  • i want you to keep it tidy all the time so that i will be glad to see it neat
  • I also want you to let me have trust in you as i always stand on my word
  • I’m looking for a quick responsible tenant

Toward the end of the letter, again the writer just drops all pretense of subtlety (as little as there is) and writes [in bad English], “Could you please let build a trust and honest together for now as one family”. Now we have become “one family” with the writer. The letter ends with “so in one accord,we are soliciting for your absolute maintenance of this house”. The key phrase there is “in one accord” implying now we all agree with each other, but there is also the implication of trust with the phrase “we are soliciting”.

In case you don’t follow the scam all the way through, the ultimate idea is to convince the apartment hunter to send a check of several hundred dollars for a deposit to the decent, honest writer, in order to receive the keys by mail. And lest you think this is a rare example of internet theft, I will quickly bullet point a few phrases from a completely unrelated second email:

  • I resided in the apartment with my family for some months and we moved away due to my transfer from my working place
  • I’m in West Africa for a crusade
  • Please I want you to note that, i am a kind and honest man
  • I spent a lot on my property
  • I want you to treat it as your own

I think you get the idea. And there were still other emails using the same tactic. So while I have your attention, I am kind and honest man being transferred to Washington by my lack of work, and…

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Table For Two

Laughing woman by Cindy Pincus

This isn’t going well

Did I mention that I know some poets? Surely I did. They’re a little bit like fruit flies—and I mean no disrespect to the biological order Diptera, nor to the animal kingdom in general. One day you’re sitting around peacefully scratching private concerns, and then you look around and think “Who are these people reciting T. S. Eliot and trying to rhyme a word with lemur? And why are they hovering around the bananas?”

Ha ha, I’m kidding about the bananas. The poets actually hover around the wine bottles. Which I know because I’m hovering there myself. One of the poets of my acquaintance is a young man named Rasfried. That’s what he says his name is. I didn’t see a birth certificate, or a driver’s license, or a note from anybody. I just have to take his word for it, and…well, he is a poet, so who knows?

Rasfried met a woman named Sharon who had all the attributes in a woman that might attract a male poet: charm, beauty, and a willingness to listen listen listen to someone talk about the uncultured philistine nature of America and the loss of appreciation for subtle linguistic artforms. After a couple of hours of telling Sharon about the problems with American culture, Rasfried thought he might be falling in love with her. She had looked at him the entire time, breathing slowly through her mouth.

To accelerate this new romance beyond abstract devotion, to something more…hmm…palpable, he decided to take his new princess to a movie and to dinner afterward. In the euphoria of looking for something formal to wear (a T shirt without obscenities on it), Rasfried overlooked the fact that it would be him who was paying. For everthing. The dawning horror of this realization reminded him of the financial crisis—not the one in the country, but the one in his pocket.

In a panic Rasfried called his friend  Bellio, another poet whose mother was probably not responsible for his name. “I prance along the abyss!” Rasfried said, in his poetic way. “The coins in my pocket are as numerous as white whales, as valuable as discarded economic theories. I can pay for a movie, or for dinner, but not for both.”

In the dramatic flow of the story I’m telling you, we have to consider Bellio a heroic figure. On hearing of Rasfried’s dilemma, he boldly stepped forward with a little known fact. “I know Sharon,” he said. “I’ve seen her eat, and I know that when she’s sad, she loses her appetite.”

“Oh?” said Rasfried. This might be functional information. As a poet, he certainly had the capacity to make people sad. If he were to see that following the movie Sharon was in a state of melancholia, they might eat cheaply. Or if she was thoroughly depressed, maybe they could skip dinner altogether.

Unfortunately for the happy prospect of a sad evening, Sharon said she would love to see the new Woody Allen movie, and it was Rasfried’s miserable luck (poets always have bad luck, don’t they?) that it had been years since Woody ended his experimentation with grim, depressing movies. People said the latest one was marvelously funny. Rasfried’s last refuge was his knowledge that all humor is based on a dark subtext. Everything that’s funny is about something that isn’t funny. He would just have to explain to Sharon during the movie why it wasn’t really funny. Then when the movie was over she would be sad, they could skip dinner, and the evening would be a success. Another tender victory for sweet romance.

As an emergency backup plan, Rasfried spent a day before their date memorizing sad lines of poetry. “And ask ye why these sad tears stream? Why these wan eyes are dim with weeping?” That was good. “There was a man whom Sorrow named his Friend.” That was OK, not quite as strong. “Hark, how he groans! Look, how he pants for breath!” When Radfried had memorized enough lines to obliterate the joy from a graduation party, he approached his date with Sharon with excited anticipation.

They entered the movie theater, and only a few minutes into the movie, Sharon laughed at what someone in the movie said to a friend. Rasfried turned to her and said, “Friendship can be a bitter herb that taints the meal of life.” Sharon turned to him and said, “What? Are you hungry already?”

A few minutes later, she laughed again, and Rasfried tried to explain that underneath the—admittedly—very funny line, there was a sad cri de coeur if only you thought about it the right way. Sharon apparently was watching the movie from her own limited point of view, and while Rasfried was trying to whisper gloom into her ear, she was again laughing at something on the screen.

When the disaster of hilarity finally ended, Sharon turned to her poetic beau and said, “Wasn’t that great? And I’m starved. You must be hungry too. You wanted to eat when the movie first started.”

As you can imagine, our poor hero was too depressed to eat, but he did accompany Sharon to a restaurant. By not eating himself, he had enough money to pay for her meal, though while sitting there he wondered why he had never noticed before how unpleasant it is to watch another person eat.

When I asked Rasfried later how the date went, he said, “She didn’t have the soul of a true devotee of the poetry muse. We live on the food of divine inspiration, but she wanted to live on steak, french fries, a large salad with extra bluecheese dressing, and a slice of pecan pie. How could I ever love someone like that?”

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