Friday, July 31, 2009

Song of the Open Road

I was on my way to Iowa yesterday afternoon, about 152 miles from Omaha on I-80, when I had a sonic experience. At the time I was fretting that the Nebraskan landscape had not inspired me to any insights that I could distill into a blog entry. Even the music of Bob Dylan (Greatest Hits Volumes I and II) had not produced anything but idle daydreams and threadbare memories. But as I drove along in my Mazda rental car, I became aware that the sound from the road surface was fluctuating between different notes. The sound was so easy to distinguish, much like the pounding bass notes from a cranked up stereo in a nearby car, that I even looked over my shoulder to see if another car was next to me.

With growing curiosity and delight, I listened more intently and identified the notes of the old Church Dorian scale (the piano's white notes starting from D). The notes were distinct and on pitch. There was no smearing or chromaticism in moving from note to note. Most of the notes were leisurely whole notes or longer, but there were frequent instances of relatively rapid passages up and down scale.

I did not understand how the road vibration could change pitch like this. The road surface appeared uniform. The terrain was flat and the cruise control kept my speed at a constant 80 miles per hour. The song - for a song was what my mind perceived in the shifting patterns of the notes - continued until the moment that the highway surface changed to smooth asphalt.

Medieval writers associated the Church Dorian mode with serenity, balance of mind, and self-control. Plato considered this modal scale to be conducive to a cheerful and pious attitude.

I was pleased to have such an encouraging overture to my Iowa vacation.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Cornfields New

On the morrow I will drive to eastern Iowa for a two-week vacation. This is my opportunity to adorn my blog with travel articles.

My approach will be shaped by the advice given in 1906 to the comic writer George Ade before he set off for Europe to write travel letters for a newspaper syndicate.

From Ade's In Pastures New:

"Don't put in too much about your travels. People have read about European travel until they know Munich better than they do Montana. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, write something entirely irrelevant - something that has nothing to do with anything in particular. The less you say about foreign countries the better you will please your readers; and if you can arrange to write a series of letters in which no reference is made to either Europe or Africa, who knows but what you will score a hit?"

I intend to follow this excellent advice. I will downplay the customary descriptions of fields of corn growing high as an elephant's eye. Instead, I will describe whatever strikes my fancy.

Note: If I have trouble getting ready access to the internet, blog postings could be erratic over the next two weeks.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Musical Orienteering

My younger son played in five concerts last weekend at the Underground Music Showcase downtown. (Given the remuneration, you could also call it the Underpaid Music Showcase.) Only two of these concerts had been rehearsed. The other three concerts were with acts who observed my son's skill as a rock violinist and invited him to sit in as an impromptu guest player. This challenged my son with performing on songs he had never heard before.

Sizing up an unfamiliar song is like reconnoitering unknown terrain. The first objective is to get the general lay of the land. My son does this as he listens to the first verse of the song. He immediately identifies the key and then concentrates on spotting any peculiar chord changes or rhythmic jolts that could send his playing off a cliff.

He begins playing simple accompaniment and fills on the second verse, getting a feel for the song's topology. His playing now is analogous to blazing a trail through the wilderness.

By the third time through, he is confident enough with his understanding of the musical landscape to take a solo. The solo is a virtuoso performance, an exciting dance along the trail, akin to the cadenza in a classical concerto. When my son is in fine fettle, his solo revisits the musical landmarks – vivid melodies or catchy rhythms – from the song's earlier verses and then dances away from the trail to discover wilder vistas. But if he is feeling sluggish or is uninspired by the song, his solo stays safely on the trail, trudging along with formulaic noodling. Fortunately, this weekend my son's solos did more dancing than trudging.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Afterimage Moth

In a curious natural adaptation, the pale green afterimage moth has taken on the complementary color of its flowery habitat (shown above). A predator's eyes have trouble distinguishing between the moth and afterimages of the deep pink blossoms, which have a brightness nearly luminescent in the late afternoon sunlight. In this we note the subtlety and playfulness of Nature.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Cask of Armadillo

It's quite late and I have returned from a long walk to Wal-Mart. Fatigue is making me unsteady, as if I have chugged a glass of wine on an empty stomach. My mind wanders.

Speaking of wine...

Today began the Underground Music Showcase with its swarm of 200 local bands downtown. My younger son (the violinist-composer-bassist) is playing violin accompaniment for a singer-songwriter at a wine bar this evening and is playing in two more shows tomorrow.

Speaking of wine and underground...

The Underground Music Showcase probably has much in common with "the supreme madness of the carnival season" in Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado. I hope that nobody leads my son down a "long and winding staircase" onto "the damp ground of the catacombs."

Speaking of amontillado...

The word "amontillado" reminds me of "armadillo" for some reason tonight. I had a friend in Texas who once kept an armadillo as a pet. It was an unsatisfactory pet. It wouldn't play, it wouldn't come when my friend called it, it wouldn't learn tricks – unless you count finding its food bowl as a trick.

Speaking of armadillo...

I saw B.B. King play his wonderfully expressive blues back in the 1970s at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. The venue was a former National Guard armory with lousy acoustics and an ever-present blue haze in the rafters from all of the marijuana smoke rising from the cheap seats in front of the stage.

At the end of his set, B.B. King was joined by a local journeyman blues guitarist who had considerable dexterity but no originality. The journeyman could deftly stitch together the dozen or so blues cliches that he had cribbed from authentic blues musicians, but he had nothing to say musically of his own. Listening to this hack play his guitar was like listening to someone recite random pages from a novel. All the same, the crowd went wild. I was incensed when the potheads sitting around me in the cheap seats cheered louder for the journeyman's flurry of mechanical, meaningless notes than they had cheered for B.B. King's spare, heartfelt playing.

Speaking of a hack playing the guitar...

I think that I'll play a few folk tunes on my old guitar and then head for bed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Word with the Post Office

I went to the Post Office to mail a birthday card to my niece. Before I slid the envelope into the slot marked Stamped Letters, I read the official sticker beneath the slot:

"Due to heightened security, all mail that bears postage stamps and weighs more than 13 ounces must be taken by the customer to a retail service counter at a Post Office."

I was curious how the Post Office had settled on the threshold of 13 ounces. Did Post Office scientists experiment with bombs of various weights and find that a 13-ounce bomb was annoying but a 14-ounce bomb was truly devastating?

The sticker continued with the terse warning in smaller print:

"Failure to do so will result in a return of your mailpiece."

I was discomfited that the Post Office had created the word "mailpiece" as a substitute for "piece of mail." No dictionary sanctions this word, which would fall fittingly, given its injury to proper English, between the dictionary entries for "mailman" and "maim". Does the Post Office think that pirate treasure is denominated in "eightpieces" rather than "pieces of eight"? Anyway, "mailpiece" is a clumsy and unnecessary word that strikes me as altogether too suggestive of "codpiece".

The government should not be making up words; modern life is already too Orwellian. I have a notion to give the Postmaster a talking to. And don't think that I would quail at doing so. For me it would be a cakepiece.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Domestic Engineering

During the hot summer months, my old refrigerator runs almost continuously. I decided to help the heat exchange process by shunting some air conditioning to the back coils. It seemed to work.

An engineering solution of this magnitude is never the accomplishment of a lone individual. I must credit the excellent instruction in heat transfer that I received from my engineering professors at Iowa State University. Also, my success could never have been achieved without my Iowa primary school training in the use of scissors and Scotch tape.

Advice for General Motors

General Motors has emerged from bankruptcy. To help the newly constituted General Motors start off on the right foot, I pass along the wisdom of Tom Swift from 1910.

In this excerpt from Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout, Tom and his father are talking in the machine shop:

"Have you thought anything of the type of car you are going to build?" asked the aged inventor of his son.

"Yes, somewhat. It will be almost of the regulation style, but with two removable seats at the rear, with curtains for protection, and a place in front for two persons. This can also be protected with curtains when desired."

"But what about the motors and the battery?"

"They will be located under the middle of the car. There will be one set of batteries there, together with the motor, and another set of batteries will be placed under the removable seats in what I call the toneau, though, of course, it isn't really that. A smaller set well also be placed forward, and there will be ample room for carrying tools and such things."

"About how far do you expect your car will go with one charging of the battery?"

"Well, if I can make it do three hundred miles I'll be satisfied, but I'm going to try for four hundred."

"What will you do when your battery runs out?"

"Recharge it."

"Suppose you're not near a charging station?"

"Well, dad, of course those are some of the details I've got to work out. I'm planning a register gauge now, that will give warning about fifty miles before the battery is run down. That will leave me a margin to work on. And I'm going to have it fixed so I can take current from any trolley line, as well as from a regular charging station. My battery will be capable of being recharged very quickly, or, in case of need, I can take out the old cells and put in new ones."

So, how does Tom's electric runabout compare to the Chevy Volt, which is scheduled to show up on the GM showrooms in 2011? (I am taking my Volt facts from the Green Car Journal's website.)

Tom Swift's runabout: Electric motor
Chevy Volt: The Volt is a plug-in electric vehicle propelled only by an electric motor. The small gasoline engine works strictly as a range-extending generator to recharge batteries and provide current to the electric motor.

Battery configuration:
Tom Swift's runabout: Batteries are located under the middle of the car.
Chevy Volt: The Volt's lithium-ion battery pack is a "T" shaped structure designed to evenly distribute weight down the center tunnel of the car and over the rear wheels.

Total Range:
Tom Swift's runabout: Design range of 400 miles
Chevy Volt: A full charge from household current will provide a maximum EV range of 40 miles. After battery power is depleted, the Volt should offer another 360 miles of range with the gasoline engine/generator providing the juice, for a total of 400 miles.

The two vehicles are very comparable. However, I would give Tom Swift's electric runabout the edge because of its ability to charge from a trolley line. GM needs to add this feature.

Suddenly, he cried "Hark!"

Years ago Elmore Leonard, the acclaimed novelist of Westerns and crime fiction (Hombre, Three-Ten to Yuma, Get Shorty) wrote a short article for the New York Times called the 10 Rules of Writing. I discovered the article at the public library in the form of a book, a ridiculous book with vast areas of white space intermittently tricked out with pen and ink drawings. To pad the article's sparse text out to book length, the publisher sprinkled only a handful of words per page and went to the desperate measure of using paper stock as thick as the cardboard sheet that stiffens a packaged dress shirt.

Putting my disdain for the publishing silliness aside, I can recommend Leonard's rules as providing good guidance for writers aspiring to write taut action novels. Here are his rules about dialogue and adverbs:

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ...
... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs."
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

To illustrate the validity of these rules, I offer some excerpts from the old Tom Swift books, which flout these rules repeatedly.

An example from Tom Swift and His Great Search Light (1912):

Suddenly the silence of the night was broken by a distant humming and throbbing sound.

"Hark!" cried Ned.

They all listened intently.

"That's an airship, sure enough!" cried Tom.

He sprang to the lever that moved the lantern, which had been shut off temporarily. An instant later a beam of light cut the darkness. The throbbing sounded nearer.

"There they are!" cried Ned, pointing from a window toward the sky. A moment later, right into the glare of the light, there shot a powerful biplane.

Here's an example from Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle (1910):

The wind carried to Tom the sound of the explosions of the motor, and he could see the man clinging tightly to the handle-bars. The rider was almost in front of Tom's house now, when, with a suddenness that caused the lad to utter an exclamation of alarm, the stranger turned his machine right toward a big oak tree.

"What's he up to?" cried Tom excitedly. "Does he think he can climb that, or is he giving an exhibition by showing how close he can come and not hit it?"

A moment later the motor-cyclist struck the tree a glancing blow. The man went flying over the handle-bars, the machine was shunted to the ditch along the road, and falling over on one side the motor raced furiously. The rider lay in a heap at the foot of the tree.

"My, that was a smash!" cried Tom. "He must be killed!" and bending forward, he raced toward the scene of the accident.

And, finally, here's an example from Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout (1910), featuring the great-grandfather of the Chevy Volt:

He turned on the current. There was a low, humming purr, which gradually increased to a whine, and the car moved slowly forward. It rolled along the gravel driveway to the road, Tom listened to every sound of the machinery, as a mother listens to the breathing of a child.

"She's moving!" he cried.

"But not much faster than a wheelbarrow," said his father, who sometimes teased his son.

"Wait!" cried the youth.

Tom turned more current into the motor. The purring and humming increased, and the car seemed to leap forward. It was in the road now, and, once assured that the steering apparatus was working well, Tom suddenly turned on much more speed.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fishy business

The picture of the largemouth bass on the manhole would make a dandy clue for a pirate treasure hunt:

If 'tis pirate gold ye seek, look for it 'neath the circle of the fish that cannot swim.

The embossed fish is a fine example of bas relief. Or should I say bass relief?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Peevish about demographics

I have noticed a spate of alarmist articles about the demographics of population aging lately. A recent special report in The Economist magazine is typical of this subgenre of horror writing. Forsaking British reserve, the Economist immediately sounds its warning:

"STOP thinking for a moment about deep recession, trillion-dollar rescue packages and mounting job losses. Instead, contemplate the prospect of slow growth and low productivity, rising public spending and labour shortages. These are the problems of ageing populations, and if they sound comparatively mild, think again."

The report explains that the world's population is graying because people are living much longer than they used to and, even more important, people are having far fewer children. The world will soon be awash with ancient, cranky pensioners -- you can't spell "geriatric" without "irate" -- cared for by the relatively small cohort of their overworked, impoverished children. Images of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine come to mind: old Morlocks attended by young Eloi.

Every demographic article has some variation on the statement: All the people who will be 70 in 2020 are already alive. Yes, Mr. Handwringing Journalist, we soon-to-be geezers, who will have provoked this impending demographic imbalance by our exaggerated lifespans and our parsimonious reproduction, already walk among you, like the insidious Pod People in the 1950s horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We are here, we are organized, we are poised to remake the world into our own retirement community. We will prevail.

I for one will be a benign master. As long as all my whims are gratified and the chrome on my walker is kept nicely polished, the whippersnappers need not fear my wrath.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Walking, supermarkets, and Shakespeare

Walking has proved to be my most reliable means of finding tranquility or consolation. Walking quiets my mind and frees it to consider subtle thoughts that would otherwise be overpowered and swept away by the concerns of daily life.

A nature walk is the ideal way to restore the equilibrium of the psyche. I can enjoy my surroundings while mentally rummaging through the reminiscences, associations, and daydreams that are packed into the untidy storage unit I call my mind.

Second to the nature walk is the supermarket walk. I find that walking through the aisles of my neighborhood supermarket has a pronounced calming effect on me, a Zen-like feeling of appreciation detached from desire. I gaze upon a thousand items that I would never put in my shopping cart. I lose myself in the profusion of potential tastes and textures.

I especially enjoy strolling past the antipasto bar, which boasts such things as exotic olives (not the green ones stuffed with pimento) and those little bundles wrapped in grape leaves. Although I have never once felt inclined to purchase any of the antipasto bar's Mediterranean delicacies, I am grateful that the supermarket has provided such an appealing display for me to admire.

On weekends a tall, dignified man works behind the antipasto bar. He wears a white pillbox hat that for some reason I associate with bakers in medieval Venice. The man is the supermarket's authority on expensive cheeses. I have often wished to ask him about his shelves of expensive cheeses. But, as my only interest is in increasing my knowledge rather than actually purchasing his expensive cheeses, it doesn't seem fair to waste his time. Still, I find it reassuring to stroll past him during my supermarket walk and know that I could get his expert advice if I ever hankered after some stinky foreign cheese.

Shakespeare made use of many images from nature. Imagine what he could have done with images from the supermarket. He gave us this (from Sonnet XVIII):

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

But he could have given us something like this:

Shall I compare thee to a produce aisle?
Thou art more bounteous and better stacked.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Faux Landmark

I noticed this old building as I was walking to the library today. From the look of its rough-hewn clapboards, I guessed that the building was a hundred years old. I saw an old man behind the white van and walked over to inquire about the building's history.

I introduced myself. He said his name was Jack. He appeared to be in his seventies. We shook hands and I asked how old the building was. He had difficulties remembering dates and had to work backwards from the present: it was so many years since he began renting the building to the current tenant, a craftsman who makes rustic furniture out of aspen logs; so many years since the city widened the street; and so many years that the original owner used the building for a farmer's market. By the end of all of Jack's calculations, he had worked back to about 1970. So, the building was only forty years old. It's old-timey appearance was just an advertising gimmick for the farmer's market.

To make up for disappointing me with the building's unimpressive history, Jack treated me to his political opinions, which began with his disagreements with the current occupant of the White House and ranged all the way back to his disgust with the traitoress Hanoi Jane Fonda, who gave aid and comfort to our North Vietnamese enemy.

I hope Ms. Fonda never drops by to shop for an aspen coffee table.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

After reading a book, I often try to distill the essence of the book into a short summary. Perhaps I should seek employment with Reader's Digest.

I have just finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, a French novelist and philosophy professor. This award-winning book tells the story of two closet intellectuals: Renee, a middle-aged concierge whose voracious reading has given her a knowledge of High Culture far above her station in life, and Paloma, an ultra-precocious girl of twelve. (Paloma owes a bit too much to the writings of Amelie Nothomb. Why are the French so fond of hearing social criticism from the mouths of young girls? It must trace back to Joan of Arc somehow.)

The delightful characterization of Renee is the chief reason for reading the book. In other regards, the book is less interesting: the plot is thin; the Paloma sections seem forced; and the ending is a complete botch. But, as novels are primarily about characters, a great character such as Renee redeems much.

I decided to check out the book from the library upon reading Renee's forthright description of herself:

My name is Renee. I am fifty-four years old. For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a fine hotel particulier with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments, all of which are inhabited, all of which are immense. I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with my cat, a big, lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species. Because I am rarely friendly -- though always polite -- I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.

To console herself and to give her fine intellect expression, Renee has become a autodidact:

I have read so many books...
And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading -- and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she's been reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact. Deprived of the steady guiding hand that any good education provides, the autodidact possesses nonetheless the gift of freedom and conciseness of thought, where official discourse would put up barriers and prohibit adventure.

I enjoyed Renee's frequent diatribes against modern French life. Here she inveighs against television:

Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning.

I recommend the book, especially the beginning chapters. Skim the last fifty pages.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

More Self Help

I checked out a library book called The Power of Story by Jim Loehr. I was hoping to learn something about storytelling but instead found that I had gotten yet another self-help book, one which used the story metaphor as a planning framework for life improvements.

Loehr defines a story as having Purpose, Truth, and Action. This isn't a bad formulation, although a fiction writer might prefer the labels Theme, Realism (or maybe Narrative Consistency), and Plot.

The book is most useful when it poses basic questions associated with Purpose, Truth, and Action. Here are some extracts.


What is my ultimate purpose? What am I living for? What principle, what goal, what end? Have I articulated to myself my deepest values and beliefs, which are the bedrock of who I am and which must be inextricably tied to my purpose (and vice versa)? What legacy do I want to leave? When all is said and done, how do I want to be remembered? What do I believe must happen for me to have lived a successful life? Is my story taking me where I want to go?


Is the story I'm telling true? Is it grounded in objective reality as fully as possible; that is, does it coincide with some generally agreed-upon portrayal of the world? Or is it true only if I'm living in a dreamland? Do I sidestep the parts of my story that are obviously untrue because they're just too painful to confront? Is my story something I still believe when I really dig down, when I listen to my most candid, private voice, when I do my best to shut out other influences and hear instead what I genuinely think and feel?


With my purpose firmly in mind, along with a confidence about what is really true, what actions will I now take to make things better, so that my ultimate purpose and my day-to-day life are better aligned? What habits do I need to eliminate? What new ones do I need to breed? Is more of my life spent participating or observing? Does the story I tell myself move me to action? Am I confident that I can make any necessary course correction, no matter what stage of life I'm in, no matter how many time I may have failed at it in the past? Do I believe to my core that, in the end, my willingness to follow through with action will determine the success of my life?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Pet cigars

Combine two disgusting things and you get a truly repulsive image: the pet cigar.