Sunday, October 31, 2010

Let Your Motion Be Your Medicine

I have been keeping irregular hours of late and have had difficulty maintaining my prescribed schedule for taking blood pressure pills. When I slip up, the symptoms of a spike in blood pressure soon overtake me: headache, poor concentration, and a general feeling of being disconnected from the world, as if I were looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Fortunately, I have found a reliable palliative: a brisk thirty minute walk. I can usually get a 25 point systolic drop from a constitutional around the nearby park.

One last colored tree

One could contend that I have been photographing quite enough colored trees this month. However, I could not resist this bright red specimen.

I spotted the tree as I returned from the early service at church. The sun's light was coming from a favorable angle, making the tree look like it was aflame but not consumed. (Moses would know what I mean.) I rushed to get my camera and record the striking sight. But, alas, the camera was unable to capture a sense of the miraculous; it only managed to turn photons into pixels. You can't depend on mere photons to show you the deeper things of life.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Life: A User's Manual

I am reading the marvelous novel Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec (1936-1982). The writing is reminiscent of Borges's for its intricate structure and rich detail. In the novel Perec constructed a world around a Parisian apartment building: every flat and every tenant's life is described in dispassionate yet curiously beguiling prose. Here is a sample. (under 400 words to avoid abusing fair use)

Let us imagine a man whose wealth is equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe, and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through....

In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.

The idea occurred to him when he was twenty. At first it was only a vague idea, a question looming – what should I do? – with an answer taking shape: nothing. Money, power, art, women did not interest Bartlebooth. Nor did science, nor even gambling. There were only neckties and horses that just about did, or, to put it another way, beneath these futile illustrations [...] there stirred, dimly, a certain idea of perfection.

It grew over the following months and came to rest on three guiding principles.

[In summary, the principles were that the programme had to be simple (albeit challenging), amenable to strict planning, and self-extinguishing.]

Thus a concrete programme was designed, which can be stated succinctly as follows.

For ten years, from 1925 to 1935, Bartlebooth would acquire the art of painting watercolours.

For twenty years, from 1935 to 1955, he would travel the world, painting, at a rate of one watercolour each fortnight, five hundred seascapes of identical format (royal, 65cm x 50cm) depicting seaports. When each view was done, he would dispatch it to a specialist craftsman (Gaspard Winckler), who would glue it to a thin wooden backing board and cut it into a jigsaw puzzle of seven hundred and fifty pieces.

For twenty years, from 1955 to 1975, Bartlebooth, on his return to France, would reassemble the jigsaw puzzles in order, at a rate, once again, of one puzzle a fortnight. As each puzzle was finished, the seascape would be "retexturized" so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted – twenty years before – and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper.

Thus no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall colors

I enjoy looking at the various colored trees in my nearby park. To sound more highbrow, I suppose I should say that I enjoy looking at the deciduous chromatic melange.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Orange tree

The fall colors in Denver have been marvelous this year. Unfortunately, I got dragooned into writing a proposal at work and have had no free time to snap pictures of trees.

The photograph above was a striking tree located a block from my parents' home in Davenport, Iowa. A lot of orange in eastern Iowa this year.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Let the Greening Begin

A friend at work tells me about his conversation with one of our company's personnel managers.

"They intend to green the work force," says he.

"Make us more energy efficient?" say I.

"No, make us younger," says he.

I expect the Green Gestapo to round up us older workers any day now.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The First National Bank

Yesterday I returned home from a week's vacation in Davenport, Iowa. Spending time with family was the preeminent benefit of the trip, but I also found a few idle hours to walk around downtown and enjoy the landmarks. After visiting a very fine used-book store, I made my way to the First National Bank, a grand old building built in the flush times before the Great Depression. US Bank is the current tenant.

The bank's entrance dazzled me in my youth. It was obvious that any bank decorated with Roman sculpture must be a safe and secure place to store one's wealth.

The classical figures in the bronze screen above the door are especially interesting. They are conducting business. However, the violence of their gestures suggest that a war or an orgy could break out at any moment.

On each side of the door are statues showing the primary occupations of antiquity: art, philosophy, agriculture, labor, etc. The place of honor -- right side, very top -- is given to banking. Naturally.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Knowledge Lust

This weekend I became obsessed with learning how to play George Harrison's song While My Guitar Gently Weeps as arranged for guitar by Eric Schoenberg. I had seen some YouTube clips of guitarists playing Schoenberg's arrangement and I became fixated on finding the sheet music.

Now even while I was in the throes of this obsession, one part of my mind remained objective and understood that there was nothing urgent or crucial about learning to play Harrison's 1968 song in the style of Schoenberg's 1999(?) fingerstyle guitar arrangement. After all, nobody was clamoring to hear me play it. But what should have been a passing whim had me in a powerful grip. I was suffering from a flashback of knowledge lust, an affliction that had often troubled me when I was in college, so long ago.

Back in my college days, I would frequently find myself overpowered by the desire to suddenly and intensely research arcane subjects that were far removed from my engineering studies. This would lead me into weekend knowledge binges. Examples of topics: the linguistics of Noam Chomsky, the deciphering of ancient Mayan script, the frenzied reading of every novel ever published by comic writer Peter De Vries (see his characteristic wit in Comfort Me with Apples and his sensitivity in the poignant masterpiece Blood of the Lamb). After spending every waking moment of Saturday and Sunday in exhaustive (and exhausting) study, I would return to my engineering classes on Monday with bleary eyes and a head buzzing with poorly digested ideas. While I never drank as an undergraduate (more owing to poverty than temperance), the sleeplessness and over-concentration associated with a knowledge binge produced damage comparable to a severe hangover. During one Monday morning class I remember being groggy to the point of near incoherence, prompting the professor to upbraided me for partying too hard over the weekend. Being labeled a rake and a womanizer in front of my fellow engineering students was such an improvement over my customary nerdly reputation that I was not inclined to correct the professor's misconception.

Anyway, for most of the weekend I searched and searched the internet until I found a PDF file of an simplified tutorial adaptation of Schoenberg's arrangement of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Then, after only six or seven hours of practice, I succeeded in playing a half-speed version of the song that more or less resembled the Schoenberg arrangement.

At last the binge was over; the knowledge lust departed. I was left with sore finger tips and a sour feeling of dissipation at having wasted an entire weekend on a Beatles song with a pleasing melody but some of the most insipid lyrics in pop music. Curses on whoever gave George Harrison a rhyming dictionary:

"I don't know how you were diverted
You were perverted too
I don't know how you were inverted
No one alerted you."

Dreadful. At least Harrison didn't force "blurted", "flirted", or "squirted" into the lyrics.