Saturday, June 23, 2007

Round Top

Round Top
Originally uploaded by aceblush
Round Top is the name of the hill in the background. In the left foreground, behind the palms, is the chapel and the lily pond where Sarge hangs out. The shadow in the foreground is the same tree as in the first picture I posted tonight, from a different angle. It's all about the light.


Originally uploaded by aceblush
And then, later, I ran into this guy. A family was tossing koi pellets onto the sidewalk to draw him out, and he at this moment making the Big Decision: am I hungry enough to risk getting closer to these large creatures who are dropping food on the rocks?

I and Thou

I and Thou
Originally uploaded by aceblush
Went for a walk on campus tonight as the sun was going down. Wasn't looking for anything in particular, just keeping my eyes open. The sun was casting some long shadows, including this one, of me and the tree some distance behind me. A souvenir.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Alternate Lives

From time to time I've wondered, as I suppose most of us do, what it would be like to be living another life completely. If I had the chance, or if by some magic I was told that I would have to switch places, what life would I switch to?

One person whose life looks pretty impressive from my point of view is Bill Bradley. An All-American basketball player at Princeton, Bradley led the Tigers into the final four in the NCAA basketball tournament. In his final game, under instructions from his coach to stop being such a team player and just shoot the ball, went deeply into the zone of unconsciousness and set an NCAA scoring record of 58 points. (There is an awe-inspiring play-by-play description of the last moments of that game in John McPhee's early Bradley bio A Sense of Where You Are. ) Having been drafted by the New York Knicks to play in the NBA, he elected instead to accept a Rhodes Scholarship, then returned two years later to become an NBA All-star, winning two NBA championships and winding up in the Hall of Fame. As if that weren't enough, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1978 and won, after which he was a Senator for nearly 20 years. An athlete, a scholar, a politician: not a bad life, if one had to choose.

Another candidate would be Sam Shephard. Shepard, who in his early days was a drummer for the Holy Modal Rounders, is an academy-award winning actor, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, and the author of several collections of what might be characterized as creative nonfiction. Cruising Paradise, for example, is one of my favorite books, and one that I have come to like even more because there is an excellent audiocassette version which features Shepard reading his own work. So Shepard has been a winner at just about everything he's tried. He's funny, he's smart, he's artistically and musically talented and he's a terrific writer. I won't even mention who he's married to. So yeah, he's on the list.

Today in class I played for the sophomores the segment of the audiocassette entitled "Winging It." This story is offbeat and funny, especially in the audio version, where you can hear how Shepard uses a high pitched, frantic, somewhat overwrought voice for the director, and a low-pitched, deadpan, laid-back voice for the actor. But what's interesting is that even though their personalities and their basic approaches seem to be at odds, they ultimately complement each other and by a complicated network of interactions, based on intuition and experimentation, come up with a satisfying solution to a somewhat daunting artistic challenge. Its one of the best short demonstrations I know of in literature of the how professionals collaborate in the creative process. Here's the story:


In this scene I'm playing now, I'm supposed to burst into this shack on a run-down tobacco plantation and discover that my childhood friend, whom I haven't seen for twenty years, has hanged himself from the rafters. The "friend" is played by a dummy, complete with broken neck, bulging eyeballs, phony blood trickling out its mouth and all its skin turned puffy and milky white. Anybody can tell it's a dummy. It wouldn't fool a house dog. But I'm supposed to somehow muster up the belief that this is indeed my long-lost buddy. He bears no resemblance to anyone I've ever met, dead or alive. I've seen corpses, but they never looked like this one. The only dead things I've seen hanging were deer and pheasant. I've been in the presence of death several times, but the memory of those dying ones doesn't provoke anything like the correct response to this situation. Grief is different from horror. I know what my character's reaction should be, but I know if I try to imitate this idea in my head, it will come out being exactly what it is — an imitation. I cast my fate to the wind and try to just wing it on the first take. No rehearsal; just wing it and see what happens.

I burst into the shack and discover the swinging phony corpse, but just as I look up at it, the entire door of the shack breaks off its hinges and slams me square in the head. It's a rude awakening. As I'm recovering from the blow, it occurs to me that this might in fact be a way to approach the moment of the character's discovery. As though he's been hit in the head by a door. Why not? I haven't come up with anything else. On the second take, after the door's been remounted, I try it this way. I wing it. The director says: "Yes, yes! But it appears to be more physical than psychological. Why is that?"

"Oh, you want 'psychological'?" I say. "I didn't know you were looking for that."

"Well, 'psychological' is perhaps the wrong word. But you know what I mean. Something to do with his torment."

"Ah, okay. Psychological torment. Okay."

"Well, these are perhaps not the right words. I just wasn't sure what it was you were responding to in that moment."

"I was trying to play it as though he'd just been hit in the head by a door."

"I see. But why? What has this got to do with the situation?" he says.

"I don't know. I thought it might work. I'm desperate for suggestions."

"Well" he says, "it's very simple. You haven't seen your dear friend for twenty years, and you walk in and discover that he's hanged himself from the rafters. That's quite different from being hit in the head by a door, isn't it?"

"I suppose you're right. I don't know. Yeah, I guess you're right. I was just experimenting."

"Good! That's good! I love experimenting. I'm an experimenter myself. Just try something else. Are you ready? Are we ready, everyone? Let's try another one."

"Ready," I say.

"Good! Camera! Camera! Let's have silence, please! Silencio! We're going to go again!"

On the third take I burst into the shack, the door stays on its hinges; I don't play as though I've been hit in the head by it; I stare up at the phony corpse; nothing happens; I see a prop radio on a bench, and for some reason I stagger over toward it and turn it on.

"Cut! Cut!" he screams. "I don't understand this either. What is happening here? Why are you all of a sudden turning the radio on? I don't get this."

"I have no idea," I say. "It was just an impulse."

"Good! Very good. I love impulses. That's the way I love to work myself, instinctually. That's very good. Let's try again."

"But I thought you said you didn't understand it."

"I don't, but it's very mysterious. It has a mysterious quality. It might be good. It gives me an idea. What if the radio is already on, and it's playing as you burst in the door. Then you see the corpse and you cross to the radio and turn it off. Shall we try it like that?"

"You mean turn it off as opposed to turning it on?"

"Exactly," he says. "That's exactly right. You turn the radio off—"

"That's the only thing you want to change?"

"That's it. Everything else is perfect."


On the fourth take, I burst in, discover the corpse; the radio is playing; I cross over to it and just stand there staring at it. The camera keeps rolling on my back. The radio keeps playing.

"Cut! Cut! Did we forget something?" he says.

"Well, you know, I was wondering—I was trying to follow this new impulse that came up."

"Which one was that?"

"I was just wondering what it would be like to keep listening to the radio for a while, after seeing my buddy hanging there."

"Yes, but for how long?" he says. "We can't just keep rolling film on your back. It's not interesting."

"Right. I see your point."

"Let's try one more, please. We've almost got it. I feel good about this. I think we're very, very close."

On the fifth take, I burst in the door; discover my dummy buddy; walk straight to the playing radio and snap it off.

"Cut! Cut!" he says, "Now, what I feel — what I'm feeling now is that it's too automatic. He just walks over there and turns the radio off as though nothing's happened. There's no reason. It's lost all its mystery now."

"I felt that too," I say. "I've felt that from the very start. A lack of mystery."

"Well, let's try one more. We're very close now. I can feel it"

On the sixth take, I burst in the door; discover the corpse; pause for a second; cross to the radio; pause again; then I smash the radio to the floor with my fist. I just cold-cock the sonofabitch.

"Cut! Cut!" he says. "That's perfect! Absolutely perfect! That's the one. Print this one! It was perfect.”

So. There you have it. Great story. In the context of a couple of alternate lives. Bradley and Shepard are the first two that occur to me to be on my list. Who's on yours?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Boundary Issues

A couple days ago I quoted John Stilgoe on reflected light, and the other day I quoted Sven Birkerts on the "gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal," a phenomenon which Birkerts says "parallels the overall societal shift from bounded lifetimes spent in single locales to lives lived in geographical dispersal amid streams of data." Here is Stilgoe again, from earlier in Landscape and Image, describing what a "bounded lifetime" looked and felt like:

Smallness was both absolute and subjective in the typical medieval landschaft. The twelve-to-fifteen mile area was home to perhaps three hundred people satisfying almost all of their own wants. Every rod of ground was fully recognized as vitally important. Meadows, arable fields, and pastures were precisely divided and bounded by paths and balks, and everyone spoke a vocabulary of landmarks. Space was symbol. A family's dwelling bespoke economic and social status as clearly as its fields expressed skill at husbandry; every spot was invested with memory or some other significance — the copse where someone saw the Devil, the corner where the cart collapsed, the hill struck twice by lightning long ago. To move about the landschaft was to move within symbol, to be always certain of past and present circumstance. The laborer, woodcutter, baker, and husbandman understood each other's responsibilities and associated each responsibility with a specific place. By place, men understood social position and spatial location: the woodcutter's place was hewing timber in the woodlots, not directing apprentices at the bakeshop. Cycles of birth, marriage, and death, of sowing and reaping, of building and rebuilding all found expression in space. (33)

That bounded harmony was broken first by the road:

The integrity of the landschaft was broken by princes and kings intent on consolidating their rule. From the fifteenth century onward, at first hesitantly and then decisively, they made forests and other wastes safe for travel... The new concern for roads, and for exploration, developed as slowly as political unity and long-distance overland commerce, but eventually it entered the popular imagination as strassanromantik. The romance of the road found expression in ballads and tales and, most importantly, in wandering. The newly safe roads which passed from landschaft into forest promised excitement and fortune... Self-sufficiency vanished as capitals and large towns drained surrounding regions of talent and produce and flooded markets with fashionable goods... Local values contested with those of the road; the husbandman prized honesty, but the peddler prized sharpness...Travelers were anonymous, and their larger experience was approached with a mixture of distrust and deference by adults and adolescents alike. The road introduced the kind of marked change in interpersonal relationships which one usually associated only with city life. Strangers met knowing they might not meet again, judged each other as types according to dress and occupation, and talked of matters of importance only among themselves. (35-7)

And then came the turnpikes, and then the railroads:

Railroads only sharpened the dichotomy between traveler and inhabitant already implicit in turnpike design. Trains followed their rights-of-way too quickly for casual communication between passengers and spectators, and forced riders to look sideways at a silent blur. Soon space was ordered about the track; towns focussed on stations, water towers, and grain elevators which blocked passengers' views of the towns...The railroad traveler was denied a long-distance view and the opportunity of stopping to analyze nearby space. The inhabitants of trackside areas could in turn only gape at the faces staring behind the glass. (37)

This dynamic in the evolution of the modern world is captured quite precisely by a painting I've always loved, often taught, and recently found myself thinking about often as I was reading Stilgoe and Birkerts. The Lackawanna Valley was painted by George Inness in 1855. It shows the new railroad roundhouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania. At some point in the not-so-distant past, Penn's Woods were cleared to make pasture for the cows: both the stumps and even the cows themselves are visible in the painting (not so visible in this digitial reproducation, but in a larger version you can make them out just to the right of the large tree in the foreground. And now the pasture has been cut through by the railroad. The locomotive is steaming from the background right into the center of the picture, heading right for an old man in a white shirt, red sweater, and straw hat sitting alongside the cowpath. This is a man who presumably has a connection to this place, who has been witness to its history and its continuing evolution from forest to farm to industrial park. A world becoming flatter, more horizontal, with each passing day.


A friend of mine sent me a link to this video of Andy Mckee on guitar. If you watch what he's doing it's pretty amazing. He's using both hands for percussion on the body of the guitar at the same time that he's using both hands to play. He's also coming over the top of the fretboard to play certain chords essentially upside down in order to get his hand in position to slap the body of guitar, using two different slap styles — heel of hand against the side of the body, and fingers against the soundboard — to produce two different tones: tick, tock, tick, tock. Nice sound, and he looks like he's having way too much fun. Thanks, Georgie.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reading in an Electronic Age

I've been re-reading Sven Birkerts 1994 The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Thirteen years later, the book still seems relevant, perhaps even more relevant than it was in the mid-nineties. I've always been impressed, even a little dazzled, by Birkerts. He has a very sharp intelligence, a gift for clear and persuasive interpretive commentary, and a fluency with vocabulary and syntax which is, at times, almost musical, not to say Mozartian. I'm going to quote one passage at length from the chapter "The Owl Has Flown," both by way of example and because it pulls together many threads of concern that I have written about in various Throughlines posts during the last six months. I admire (and am persuaded) both by his initial description of the situation of mankind as he sees it, and by his subsequent articulation of the essential questions which follow hard upon his observations:

What is most conspicuous as we survey the general trajectory of reading across the century is what I think of as the gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal—the sacrifice of depth to lateral range...a shift from intensive to extensive reading. When books are rare, hard to obtain, and expensive, the reader must compensate through intensified focus, must like Menocchio read the same passages over and over, memorizing, inscribing the words deeply on the slate of the attention, subjecting them to an interpretive pressure not unlike what students of scripture practice upon their texts. This is ferocious reading — prison or desert island reading — and where it does not assume depth, it creates it.

In our culture, access is not a problem, but proliferation is. And the reading act is necessarily different than it was in its earliest days. Awed and intimidated by the availability of texts, faced with the all but impossible task of discriminating among them, the reader tends to move across surfaces, skimming, hastening from one site to the next without allowing the words to resonate inwardly. The inscription is light but it covers vast territories: quantity is elevated over quality. The possibility of maximum focus is undercut by the awareness of the unread texts that await. The result is that we know countless more "bits" of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. We know them without a stable sense of context, for where the field is that vast all schemes must be seen as provisional. We depend far less on memory; that faculty has all but atrophied from lack of use.

Interestingly, this shift from vertical to horizontal parallels the overall societal shift from bounded lifetimes spent in a single locales to lives lived in geographical dispersal amid streams of data. What one loses by forsaking the village and the magnification resulting from the repetition of the familiar, one may recoup by gaining a more inclusive perspective, a sense of the world picture.

This larger access was once regarded as worldliness — one travelled, knew the life of cities, the ways of diverse people... It has now become the birthright of anyone who owns a television set. The modern viewer is a cosmopolitan at one remove, at least potentially. He has a window on the whole world, is positioned, no matter how poor or well-to-do, to receive virtually the same infinite stream of data as every other viewer. There is almost nothing in common between the villager conning his book of scriptures by lantern-light and the contemporary apartment dweller riffing the pages of a newspaper while attending to live televised reports from Bosnia.

How is one to assess the relative benefits and liabilitie of these intrinsically different situations? The villager, who knows every scrap of lore about his environs, is blessedly unaware of cataclysms in distant lands. News of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 took months to travel across Europe. The media-besotted urbanite, by contrast, never loses his awareness of the tremors in different parts of the world.

We may ask, clumsily, which person is happier, or has a more vital grip on experience? The villager may have possessed his world more pungently, more sensuously; he may have found more sense in things owing both to the limited scope of his concern and the depth of his information — not to mention his basic spiritual assumptions. But I also take seriously Marx's quip about the "idiocy of rural life." Circumscribed conditions and habit suggest greater immersion in circumstance, but also dullness and limitation. The lack of a larger perspective hobbles the mind, leads to suspiciousness and wary conservatism; the clich├ęs about peasants are probably not without foundation. But by the same token, the constant availability of data and macroperspectives has its own diminishing returns. After a while the sense of scale is attenuated and a relativism resembling cognitive and moral paralysis may result. When everything is permitted, Nietzsche said, we have nihilism; likewise, when everything is happening everywhere, it gets harder to care about anything. How do we assign value? Where do we find the fixed context that allows us to create a narrative of sense about our lives? (72-3)

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Week That Was

Well, it's Friday evening after the first week of what will eventually be six weeks of summer school. I've been working to get my sophomores oriented with regard to the goals of the course — which have largely to do with becoming more capable readers, writers, and thinkers — and I've been trying as well to weave the various strands of the course (the readings, the writing assignments, the class discussions, the group activities, and so on) together so that they reinforce one another and help the students come to see themselves as part of a community whose members value certain habits of mind and support one another in their pursuit of quality. Each day this week, for example, we have begun class by reading a passage that has something to do with thinking. On Tuesday, our first day, we read a poem by Grace Butcher entitled "Crow is Walking," which begins

Crow is walking
to see things at ground level,
the landscape as new under his feet
as the air is old under his wings.

The self-imposed change of behavior, the intentional shift in point of view, leads the crow to reflect on his past and to consider an alternate future. He

checks out his reflection
in a puddle full of sky
which reminds him
of where he's supposed to be,

but he's beginning to like
the way the muscles move in his legs
and the way his wings feel so comfortable
folded back and resting.

Hearing voices coming from down the road ahead of him, he starts to head in their direction:

His tongue moves in his mouth;
legends of language move in his mind.

His beak opens.
He tries a word.

The crow's decision to abandon his old habits and try something new, walking, even for a short time, has brought him to the bring of self-transcendence. He's about to attempt a most un-crow-like thing: he's going to try to speak. I love that the poem ends on that note. What is going to emerge from his mouth? "Four score and seven years ago..?" "Polly want a cracker?" "Caw?" It hardly matters. What matters is the shifting of identity, the broadening of the sense of self, that is the consequence of the self-chosen shift in point of view. This is one of the core principles of critical thinking, as I understand and teach it: you need to be able to step out of your skin, out of your normal way of looking at things, if you want to grow. This is a poem about a character called crow. But it is also a poem about Grace Butcher, who in the writing of it is attempting, like crow, or like me, or like any of my students, to transcend the limitations of background and native ability and produce an utterance, a verbal artifact, which is better than it has any right to expect to be.

Other related readings this week: William Golding's personal essay "Thinking as a Hobby," a short excerpt from Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind dealing with Garry Kasparov's competitions against chess computers, and the lead article from the June 9 Economist entitled "Lessons from Apple: What other companies can learn from California's master of innovation."

This is by no means all we did this week. It was one strand of perhaps six or seven. But I think that one way to get the students to become more mindful of how they are thinking and how they might begin to strategize about becoming better thinkers is to ask them to read, discuss, and write about, examples written by people who themselves are making an effort to be thoughtful about what is going on in their heads. There is certainly no shortage of relevant texts. The only one of these texts that I have used before with students is the Butcher poem. Next week I already have some followup texts lined up. The first written assignment I asked the students to do this week, after we had begun our readings, was to write a short essay in which they were to discuss something that they have learned or come to believe is true about thinking. (There are some samples from previous classes here.) Several students chose to write about the danger that can attend — in sports, for example — when you think too much, when you overthink. So Monday I think we'll take a look at a page or two from Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.

It's early yet, and I don't have a full read on the class. But my sense is that they're getting it, and that they're poised to make some strides this summer. I like these kids. I like this course. I like this work.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sunlight and Shadow

Last Saturday the annual King Kamehameha Day parade was held in Waikiki. I had gone down to play some chess and I had my camera with me, so since there weren't any chess players around during the parade I slipped into my reportorial mode and took a number of pictures of the parade. The one which wound up pleasing me the most was this picture of a small group of marines making their way up Kalakaua Avenue.

I like the way they are emerging from the shadowed background into the light, and the way their foward march is emphasized and dramatized by the white arrow. I like the contrast between the disciplined and purposeful formation of the Marines and the relaxed, self-indulgent postures of the onlookers, most of whom are just enjoying a day at the beach, while the Marines have their backs, at least in the metaphorical sense. The more I looked at the picture, the more heavily freighted with metaphor it became. It is a pretty good embodiment of the balance between freedom and discipline in the United States today. The vacationers had the good grace to applaud the Marines in appreciation for what they do to ensure and protect the freedoms we all enjoy.

There is, of course, more, not all of it pretty. Kamehameha is celebrated as a warrior king. It was Kamehameha who united the Hawaiian Islands under one rule for the first time. He is admired by current Hawaiian sovereigntists, who advocate for restoration of the Hawaiian kingdom, for his forcefulness and leadership. The time of his rule is now looked at as a kind of golden age. The fact that he attained his power by systematically destroying his enemies is the part of the story that is not often emphasized. Kamehameha's government, like every government in history, before and after, was built on conflict and bloodshed.

And yes, the American armed forces played a significant role in the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893. I'm sure that the presence, even this token deployment, of the Marines (and of a similarly small group from the army) in this parade was not welcomed by everyone who participated or observed.

Hawaii became a state on August 21, 1959. Since that time the third Friday in August each year has been celebrated in the state as "Admission Day." But in recent years the Hawaiian nationalists have been calling for the day to be "celebrated" as a day of mourning for what they feel has been lost. Some say stolen.

So here's a picture of "another beautiful day in Hawaii-nei." The sunshine is very pleasant, and everyone loves a parade. But shadows, and ironies, abound.

The First 10,000 Hits are the Hardest

I'm pausing for a breath here, and raising a very small glass of virtual wine. There are lots of sites that get this many hits every day, but I'm still sort of amazed by this number. Thanks to all of you who have been paying attention.

- B


Ken Ronkowitz posted a link today to a site which has Billy Collins doing readings of some of his poems to animated videos. Here's the one he highlights, a clever dramatization of one of my favorite Collins poems. It's not one of his most effective readings—I actually prefer this poem on the page—but it's a clever animation.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Reflected Light

The other night my wife and I were out at Auntie Pasto's, a local restaurant that serves up a credible quantity of decent food at a reasonable price. Two tables over there were two women eating dinner with a little girl, about three years old, who sat quite happily through the hour the two women were eating and chatting, mostly because she was transfixed by the movie showing on the mini-DVD player her mother had placed directly in front of the little girl's dinner plate.

Three weeks ago we had a visit from my son, his wife, and our two grandchildren, ages three and almost one. My grandson is just getting the hang of crawling, and during the time he was with us he was engaged in a pretty much continuous set of explorations. He is, like most one-year-olds, restlessly inquisitive. He moves from one novelty to another and back again as things cross his line of vision. There were really only three times that I recall, other than when he was sleeping, when he was not in motion. One was when he was eating, either strapped in his high chair or being held for a bottle. One was when he was sitting in his father's lap being read to. And the other, the most striking one, was when his older sister was allowed to watch a DVD of Dora the Explorer.

At the moment that video came on, I was sitting in my easy chair reading a book, and my grandson was crawling around playing with the toys that were spread around on the living room floor. As soon as the video started, he sat up straight, directed his attention to the TV screen, and kept watching it with great intensity for the next twenty minutes. He obviously had no idea of what was going on in terms of the story. But the photon bath was a source of extended fascination to him.

We read a lot these days about the decline of print culture and about the power and omnipresence of image-based communications. But I hadn't given a lot of thought to the physiology, much less the epistemology, of this phenomenon, until I heard from my son about an essay by John Stilgoe, Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard and author of a number of books, including Landscape and Images, which contains a pretty thought-provoking essay called "Reflected Light," in which Stilgoe sketches out a theory about the differences in the way the brain responds to reflected light versus emitted light:

Books reflect light. From the open page bounces the illumination of sun, candle, lantern, and incandescent bulb, light that suits the reader best when it bounces perfectly. Let light grow dim, let it flicker or glare, and the reader squirms slightly, reorienting the open book or adjusting the lamp. So obvious is it all that few readers consider reflected light any more than the rustle of the turned pages. But reflected light insures the survival of the book, the primacy of print on paper.

Computer, television, and video monitors all emit light. Fundamentally different from the cinema, in which imagery basks in projected light reflected from a screen, video-screen imagery snares the eye. Once only fire emitted eye-snaring light, and lovers, old farmers, wayfarers, and others often sat rapt, gazing into the flames. Open fire, usually a controlled wood fire confined to a fireplace, meant more than hearth, good cooking, and home; it meant the special light encouraged mental states once called fantasy or reverie—not imagination. Firelight proved slightly hypnotic, but hypnotic without particular message or directive. Its ceaseless movement, continuous change of color, and varying intensity not only intrigued Hawthorne and other romantics mourning the coming of cast-iron stoves, but thoughtful individuals of any period intrigued with its peculiar mental effects. Self-disciplined intellectuals valued imagination over reverie not only because imagination is volitional, but because fire-induced reverie could become addictive, and often choked imagination. The natural world—excluding fire—and the world of art, books especially, take visible form in reflected light, they argued, and reflection, and its illuminating counterpart, imagination, are beyond the reverie of fire-watching.

It's an interesting distinction, I think, and one that bears out my experience: reflected light stimulates the imagination, but emitted light stimulates something else, and has the power to ensnare, to generate addiction:

Video screens snare the eye as the fire snares gnats... People, especially children, walk past the single or multiple monitors and lose volition, their eyes snared by the images, their legs slowed to a stop. But unlike fire, video imagery directs the mind, keeping it even from reverie, keeping it from much except passive receptivity. Programming, be it Desert Storm news or Nintendo games or word-processing menus, receives far too much attention. It is the emitted light that deserves scrutiny in these multi-cultural times.
At one time, the primary source of emitted light, other than fire and sunlight, in our daily lives, was fire. Now, of course, we have computer screens, handheld video games, portable DVD players, and, everywhere you look, cell phones. Here is Stilgoe contemplating the generational implications, and coming down, as perhaps a college professor of his generation must, on one side of the photonic divide:

A division deeper than anything racial or ethnic or economic now splits the Republic, but the division slices so sharply and so deeply that few mark its crucial importance. For the vast majority of American adults, and for almost all children, electronic media dominate information flow, shaping everything from speech patterns to attention spans. But a minority, a very smug minority, understands the raw profit in eschewing the screens, in engaging in imaginative, self-disciplined, self-directed inquiry, in reading hard-copy only, in reading books…Those who know only light-emitting screens know only tawdry entertainment, cheap exactitude. Their imaginative potential shrivels before flickering bluish light or yellow letters glimmering against a black ground. Others, slightly wiser at the start, or guided by sages learning the power accruing to the wired-out, read in reflected light, figure in pencil, doodle as they think, as they imagine. To those few come understanding and appreciation of ambiguity and estimation, of echoes and innuendo, of personality and meter, but above all comes self-directed imaginative inquiry. They, not the manipulators of music videos or spreadsheets or paintbrush programs, understand reflection, imagination, even serendipity, types of mental effort scarcely mentioned by the champions of the VDTs. They know how rarely a fireplace co-exists with a video screen, how the fall of light on a printed page works its own imaginative magic.

Dora image:
Fire picture:

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Well, school's been out for a little over a week. Tomorrow is a state holiday, and Tuesday I start teaching summer school for six weeks. So one of the reasons I wasn't posting much is because I was on summer vacation. Sort of.

School ended on Friday June 8 at 11:30. I had been absent the day before because I was in the jury pool for the state district court. We went through a whole day of jury selection, and we had been told that the day's work would be completed at 3:30. At 3:28 the entire jury, and the two alternates had been empaneled, and we were down to the defense attorney's final peremptory challenge. There were about 25 people left in the jury pool, and we were all keeping one eye on the clock and two fingers crossed as the defense attorney, who had passed on her previous opportunity to challenge, rose to speak.

There's a poker game I often play called "Confusion." It's a five card stud game. It's a high-low game in which are dealt two cards, face down, and turn one of them up. There's a round of betting, and you are dealt another card down, which gives you two down cards, and you again turn one up and bet. You continue in this fashion until you have five cards, four up and one down. At which point you can replace any one card, up or down. What gives the game its special flavor, and its name, is that your hole card is wild. And any other cards like it in your hand are wild as well. In many hands, everything turns on the fall of the last card. If, for example, I am showing J-5-4-2 of spades, my hand looks like its not going to be very good either as a high hand, or as a low hand. But if my hole card is a jack, I actually have A-2-3-4-5 low, and a straight flush for a high hand. Or, supposing I have, say, a nine in the hole, I might choose to replace the jack and luck out with a nine as a replacement card, which looks like it has busted me but has in fact made my perfect two-way hand. So everything depends, ultimately, on the fall of the last card. Often the decision of whether to take a replacement card is based on a feeling, a hunch. In the courtroom on Thursday, I had a feeling. It said, Here it comes.

"Your honor, at this time the defense would like to thank and dismiss juror number 13."

The woman who had been dismissed rose and left the courtroom, the court secretary spun the little cage that had the names of all the remaining members of the jury pool, then reached in and pulled out—here it comes—my name.

So after attending the end-of-school ceremonies on Friday morning, I spent Friday afternoon, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday (Tuesday there were no trials, it's a work day for the courthouse staff to get caught up on pending cases) as a juror in a case about which I am not going to say much, since I don't even know if it has been decided yet. Both sides rested on Thursday, and since I was an alternate juror and no one had dropped out, I was dismissed on Thursday.

Tuesday and Thursday I spent with my wife buying a new car. Our '94 Toyota Corolla had accumulated 125,000 miles and was beginning to feel about as old and creaky as I myself feel most mornings, so we had decided to look for a replacement. I had originally intended to buy a Prius. I would like to think of myself as being environmentally responsible, and I admire Toyota for taking th lead in supporting better fuel mileage cars and would like to support them in that. But then I did the math. A Prius costs roughly $10,000 than a Corolla. Even without figuring in interest, that translates $500 a month for 20 months, or $250 for 40 months. That's a lot of money. Even if the Prius gets double the mileage of a Toyota, figuring gas at about $3 a gallon, I'm going to have to buy $20,000 worth of gas to break even over time. We live on an island. We fill up the gas tank maybe once a month. Even if we bought fifty dollars worth of gas a month, which we don't, it would take 400 fillups to break even. That is, uh, lemme see, 400 divided by 12 equals... 33 years! It would take 17 years just to get half my money back. That's a lot of money to put into a gesture. So in the end we wound up buying a second-hand 2006 Corolla, a former rent-a-car with 16,000 miles already on it, for $14,000.

The third thing I did during my summer vacation was play a lot of chess. I've become a fan of You can play as a guest for free up to a certain number of games, and after that they have several signup plans that allow you to play real competition in real time with a rating system built in. Most of the games are rapid (15 minutes per player) or blitz (five). Most games take about 15 minutes to play, which is just long enough to tempt you to play another, and another. It's been fun.

But now summer vacation is over, at least this leg of it. Tomorrow I have to go to school and get my materials ready for the start of classes on Tuesday. I'm teaching sophomore English, the critical thinking-based course that is my core course and my favorite. That means getting back into the rhythm of teaching, and, hopefully, back into the rhythm of blogging. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Women in Art

This from YouTube: