Monthly Archives: October 2013

General Characteristics of Lasers

laser artThis week I was sitting in a coffee shop where I’ve lately been having breakfast, a place attached to the Georgia Tech Barnes and Noble. It’s the kind of spot to find brainy people doing their brainy things in the presence of coffee. Near me sat a man engaged with a book, and from curiousity I looked over to see what he was reading. Whatever the book was, I caught sight of the chapter title, “General Characteristics of Lasers” and I thought I’d love to come up with a reason to use that as a blog title. I never could think of a good reason to use it, so I used it anyway.

Sitting in that coffee shop at the time, I was reading in the presence of coffee. I had just started a modern novel (I mean “modern” in the real sense of the word, not the stupid literary sense of stuff written 100 years ago). I wasn’t loving the book. There were things about it that I kept clunking over, particularly the unlikely behavior of the characters. I always focus on how characters act, and it’s not like I don’t make allowances for eccentricity. I’m all about eccentricity, as you may know, but they need to seem like real people.

So finally I said to hell with it, I’m in a bookstore, I’m going to buy something else. The Georgia Tech Barnes and Noble isn’t really much of a bookstore, mostly full of Georgia Tech junk, sweatshirts or textbooks on laser technology. They do have some fiction, though, and I found a section of inexpensive paperbacks of classic writings. Classics? Check. Cheap? Check. That was my section, and I bought the novel Persuasion by Jane Austen.

I read old things, I read new things, all the centuries to me are between the two covers of a book. When I really connect with the writing, I feel like the writer is someone I should have known, maybe been friends with. Within a few pages of Persuasion, I was thinking, “I’d like to meet Jane Austen,” maybe over beer and sushi. Maybe she would like to meet me, too. Maybe she liked eccentric writers.

Primarily I admire the fact that Austen is such a good writer, with a strong control of language, very capable with plotting, and skilled with the subtleties of character and feelings. While our world is filled with writers, meticulously recording a tidal wave of trivia for future social historians to do research, my personal world is not filled with a plethora of very good writers. Indeed, no plethora.

I would also like to meet Austen because she strikes me as an intelligent person, a quality that pulls me the way the sun pulls plants from the ground in spring. Describing a minor nobleman’s need to live on his income, she writes: “While Lady Elliott lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness, and from that period he had been constantly exceeding it.” At a later point Austen says, “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”

There are two further inducements to invite Jane for sushi (and I would like her try unagi, if she’s never had it). I especially like the fact that she seems to have a good sense of human nature, with a real sympathy for our hopes and sorrows, as well as a laser eye for our remorseless stupidity. To deal with the foolishness, she has satire and a sense of humor. Describing Lady Russell’s attitudes toward the upper class, Austen writes: “…she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them.”

Jane Austen’s writing seems to focus on the parasite social classes with which English history is littered. It’s kind of amazing in some of these British novels to see people go through their days without the slightest hint that anyone should be working. Austen is smart enough to satirize such lives, even though she is sympathetic to many of the human beings who live them. Asahi beerAs a woman living in an oppressive time period (pretty much always, if you’re a woman), she also shows women trapped in the cold iron social rules that have withered so many lives, though it’s Austen’s way to leave us with some optimism.

I’m OK with optimistic endings. It is only in the modern world that artists and intellectuals, like a herd of moody lemmings, have confused bleakness with reality. In doing so, we show ourselves to have little sense and even less sensibility. I’d rather spend the evening at Umai Sushi Palace with Jane Austen. We’ll be in a corner having a beer.

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And God Said, “Read My Blog”

girl playing drumsWhen you read this, chances are you assume that I exist.

Maybe you sort of know I exist because you’ve actually met me, if the silver river of good fortune has carried your sweet boat down that stream. But if you haven’t met me, then you interpret the shapes of letters on the screen to make the sounds of words, recognize the meanings of the words, and compose them into sentences with even more complex meanings. That process somehow implies that I exist.

Now that I exist, I suggest we consider something from a different writer (it’s poetry, so I’ve inserted the / symbol between lines): “But first I make a protestacioun/ That I am dronke, I knowe it by my soun;/ And therfore, if that I mysspeke or seye,/ Wyte it the ale of Southwerk I you preye.” This is considered Middle English, written by Geoffrey Chaucer, in The Canterbury Tales.

My extremely free, unpoetic translation to modern English is: “But first I want to say that I can hear I’m drunk, so if I say something wrong, I want you to know it’s the beer talking.” Reading Chaucer’s lines helps me to believe he existed. The lines allow me to be in the mind of someone who knows what it’s like to talk to people who are suspicious of what you say, who knows that getting drunk can cause people to say what they ain’t got no business saying, who knows that it’s human nature to try to make excuses for behavior. This feels like a human being I can relate to.

The words in a piece of writing can declare our existence, and people have certainly latched onto this notion. I have the impression sometimes that anyone who knows how to type has a blog, or is thinking about it. At last count—and this was done with strict scientific methodology—there are 8 billion blogs in the world. That’s more than the number of people, so there must be some animal blogs included in that study.

Blogs are tremendously popular, but as I can tell you, you can blog for years with mostly just your own imagination of people who might read it to keep you going. Readers? Blogs are supposed to have readers?

But people blog anyway, with only their best friends pretending to read it once in a while. This widespread social passion for writing must be a good thing in some way. Lots of people want to use words, to write, to put ideas into text. But why is blogging so popular? Why are people so intent on this? I believe it’s mostly because the blogs declare our existence.

At one time in history you needed to conquer a weaker tribe, but now you can just blog about wanting to. The entire Trojan War could have been avoided, with Achilles writing once a week about going to dinner at his mother’s house, slaying a sheep, roasting it over an open fire, and how his mother always expected too much from him.

Myself, I’m interested in a question that precedes coming up with a title for the blog, that even precedes considering whether or not to blog. I wonder why we want to declare our existence at all. We got born, and if we’re lucky we get to sleep late sometimes, have sex sometimes, not suffer so much we can’t bear it, and then die. Poof, the dust blows on. So what?

The question I’m trying to raise in my tendentious, roundabout way has profound metaphysical import for me. What does it matter if anyone knows we exist? Really, what does it matter? And yet, how much of our lives, how much of our effort comes down to crying out, “But look! I’m here!”

And so we conquer Gaul, or found cities named after ourselves, or blog about how we just found a cool new band with a girl drummer. And by the way, I believe you exist, too.

Here’s a poem by Stephen Crane (in its entirety), the author most famous for the novel Red Badge of Courage.

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”

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In a Blue Minor Key

Man alone looking at waterHere in blogland I may not have mentioned that I’m working with one of my brothers on a musical. Since my musical ability is, ahm…not expansive, my brother is writing the music. At my brother’s request, I wrote the play (called “Spinning Addie”) in which to insert the songs, based on his idea, and I’ve also written the lyrics to all but one of the songs. It’s been fun, but the coolest thing is that it looks like he will manage to get this staged. He’s got people who have agreed to play all the roles, along with others who are doing whatever it takes to put on a show, I don’t know, make popcorn, and—most amazing to me—two theaters have put this show on their calendar for next year. They’re small theaters in small towns, but still, since I ain’t nobody, I’m glad about it.

Writing these song lyrics, which I mostly did while I was living back in Washington, DC, was quite a different experience from the poetry I’ve done. When I imitate real poets, I generally follow the twentieth-century trend in English poetry, in which you do whatever the hell you want, and it’s a poem because you said so. (I know, real poets don’t say that, but I’m not one.)

For the lyrics, which came first, knowing that he had to put music to them, I required myself most of the time to use some kind of regular meter, and I often carefully counted syllables and noted where the stress fell. For song interest, I also made a point of using various rhyme schemes. It was quite challenging but a pleasant diversion to work within those strictures.

This lyrical experience carried me into writing words for two more songs, not intended for our show, but hoping eventually my brother will put my other songs to music as well. I’m a great admirer of music from the Big Band era, torch music, and so on, anything Ella Fitzgerald would sing. There are songs from that era that want to be hopeful, that want to believe happiness is possible, but they’ve lived too long in the world and slip off into jaded cynicism. I like that.

That’s what I’m trying to do with the lyrics below. I’ll say something about format on this song. It has two verses and chorus, repeated three times, and for interest I used a slight variation on the chorus in the middle. The first two verses are a personal point of view from the “narrator”, about his own experience. The middle two verses are supposed to be more abstract, moving away from the narrator to other people. The final two verses I wanted to make more abstract still, with a more general statement about life. I also worked pretty hard to try to use an interesting rhyme once in a while, not just a bunch of moon-June.

The Wrong Man, Once Again

A hint of smile, a lifted brow,
all past failures disavowed.
You like movies? So do I.
And you like your humor dry?

I have to say you’re cute and funny.
You think rhubarb pie is yummy,
once you sailed the Baltic Sea—
look how perfect we must be.

It’s an old and tragic story,
sad, forlorn, a little boring.
We meet, I fall in love, and then
I’m the wrong man, once again.

Someone walks into the room,
heartbeats stop and then resume.
Hope begins once more to dream,
flowers bloom and dark eyes gleam.

Boy meets girl and what a day!
Suddenly it’s not cliches.
Of course there is no guarantee,
But look how perfect we must be.

It’s an ancient, endless story,
sad, forlorn, a little boring.
We meet, I fall in love, and then,
my God, the wrong man, once again.

Fervor, passion, adulation,
from an innocent flirtation.
Laughing, smiling, telling jokes,
to learn that love is just a hoax.

Holding hands is rather nice,
but asking fate to roll the dice.
Love is like a bullet flying,
who it hits is slowly dying.

It’s an old and tragic story,
sad, forlorn, a little boring.
We meet, I fall in love, and then
I’m the wrong man, once again.

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This Isn’t Rocket Surgery

Verona-Juliet's BalconyBefore I get into something substantive and profound, which is obviously probable on this blog, I remember a year or so ago when I was working as a cashier at Lowes and a man came by with a shopping cart with fifteen or twenty hammers. I asked him if he was an exterminator. He wasn’t, but then why buy all those hammers?

Anyway, this is a blog entry about metaphors, and I want to consider the phrase “dumb as a bag of hammers”, which I first heard on the comedy TV show Second City years ago. I loved it as a description of stupidity, especially because it had the appeal at the time of freshness. Since a metaphor is a comparison, what is being compared there? The phrase works because it compares the mental capacity of a person with something that has connotations of closed containment (a bag), heaviness (the weight of the hammers), dullness (the shape of the hammers), and perhaps brainless repetitious behavior (banging away with the hammers). There are still deeper levels of metaphor in my list, such as why heaviness might imply stupidity.

In a previous blog entry I wrote about the fact that metaphor is a basic aspect of how our mind makes sense of the world. Having already written on that, I’m not going to repeat it until enough time passes that both of my readers have forgotten about it. Here I want to write about simply playing with words, delighting the mind with the bright sparkle of a metaphor (“bright sparkle”, that’s a metaphor there, but you knew that).

One of the most brilliant metaphors I ever heard is also remarkably famous, and from hearing it so often, it’s easy to overlook how good it is. I used to play a game with my students, writing it on the board one word at a time, to see how quickly they guessed it. Some people knew it after two words—“what light”. You got it?

“What light by yonder window breaks. It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Picture the actual setting of this, a world much darker than anything we know, and all artificial light was something literally on fire. In a very dark garden Romeo is looking up at at the balcony when Juliet enters the room above carrying a candle. From down below he would see a faint light gradually growing brighter as she walks across the room.

Shakespeare used that fact to compare Juliet’s entrance to the sun rising, which of course happens in the east. The line uses the interesting reference to light that “breaks”, which we don’t much say anymore except for the fixed phrase “daybreak”.

This imagery of Juliet as the sun is already pretty smart stuff for a writer, but it’s even better than it seems. Human beings have a compelling fascination with light, and we use many other metaphors of light as goodness and knowledge (“Jesus is the light of the world”, “enlightenment”). The ultimate source of light for us is the sun, and by saying “Juliet is the sun” Shakespeare not only used clever language, he also showed something of how highly Romeo regards Juliet, how infatuated he is with her.

Metaphors swarm around us like linguistic insects. Some are bright and gaudy, butterflies of the word world (like Shakespeare’s phrase), while others sneak by generally unnoticed, such as the word “swarm” in this paragraph. One of the great delights of a good writer is the unique vision they bring to seeing the world in new ways through fresh metaphors. It’s something I love about writing.

[The photo that accompanies this blog entry is of “Juliet’s balcony” in the city of Verona, Italy. I’m not making this up. I took a group of students to Verona, and they took us to that courtyard and said “here’s Juliet’s balcony”, and I thought “What is this shit? It’s a story.” True or not, it’s a popular tourist attraction.]

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