Monday, August 27, 2012

Hardly Working

Thursday and Friday at the School of Music, I suffered the death of a thousand pinpricks. Every five minutes, some new little thing came up. Sometimes, I found that by doing what I thought was the right thing, or by thinking ahead, or even by doing what someone had asked me to do, I actually just caused more trouble. I thought about giving an example, but the memories were too traumatic. In any case, I kept trying to clear the inbox and get a few quiet minutes free to get a Coke and start a new book, but that didn’t happen until late Friday afternoon.

Then, when I started reading the translator’s preface to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, I read that Professor Weber discovered that the esteem of hard work and of putting work first comes late in history and only in certain corners of the world. I felt relief and frustration all at once to think that I had done all that work without a break only to have time to read that most people don’t feel any duty to work long hours without a break. I could only laugh at myself. A second irony: since the thousand pinpricks really had nothing to do with the three assignments of my job – preparing and teaching classes, research and writing, and a “fair share” of administrative service – did I really do it all out of a sense of the need to work?

The translator, Stephen Kalberg, reports that Europeans in general work two-thirds as many hours per year as Americans. Having just come back from an extended sojourn in Italy, Nancy and I guessed that the citizens of our home-away-from-home might work 40% of the hours that Americans do. They seem happy and friendly, and they have everything they want (which mostly seems to consist of clothes, food and wine, and a good train system). No one cares that the family businesses are closed from Christmas to February 15. I never saw anyone look at a locked shop door in frustration because the owner didn’t offer services before 3:00pm.

And yet the Italians still thank the Americans and British – we were there for Liberation Day when they do it – for fighting their way up the peninsula and driving the Fascists and Nazis out. That drive wouldn’t have happened without a strong work ethic. I think I’m in for a good think.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

On the Border of Love

C. S. Lewis says (in Mere Christianity, I think) that loving the lovable actually just means responding naturally to something pleasant, and that true love kicks in only when it is directed to the unlovable. Many quotation lists on the internet claim that in Heretics Chesterton said, “Love means loving the unlovable – or it is no virtue at all.” But a quick search of that book on the Gutenberg Project proves that the sentence isn’t there. It sounds like the kind of paradoxical expression Chesterton would have loved, though, so, to paraphrase the old woman in The Ladykillers (1955), it’s such a lovely sentiment, let’s hope he expressed it.

Wherever Lewis said it, and whether or not Chesterton said it, in The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene’s Major Scobie comes to the same conclusion. He likes the dreary, economically depressed town he works in on the western coast of Africa, with its culture of perpetual lies and under-the-table deals. Only here, he reasons, can one truly love his neighbor, because it exposes all the true ugliness of human nature. In England, by comparison, Scobie sees people only able to love the customs and affectations in others that culture has taught them to cover up with.

Scobie seems to have discovered a grand secret to life in learning that love means loving the unlovable. His problem, though, is that he can’t see through to attributing the same viewpoint to God. Scobie can’t believe that God would love him. What kind of God was God anyway, putting himself on a cross like that and offering his flesh to just anyone?

What an interesting conflict to put at the heart of a novel! I loved this book! I first became excited about Greene a few years ago when I read a collection of his short stories. After that, I read The Power and the Glory, just because that seems to be the one to read. But it disappointed me, as interesting as it was. Heart of the Matter brought back the Greene I first encountered, an author whose images and words all have layers of meaning, an author who places his characters on the borders between starkly contrasting worlds and then explores whether they will or even can cross those borders.

Most reviews I had read (including the ones on the cover) said the book is about an affair. Yes, Scobie’s affair with a young shipwreck survivor plays a key part in his spiritual slide, but it does not constitute the story. Scobie’s descent begins with a flick of a report into the trashcan. The affair only shows him that he has committed himself perversely to the descent, which he contemplates bringing to a logical conclusion by killing himself. For Greene, the question of suicide is the all-important crux of the problem, but of course our sex-crazed culture has trouble seeing suicide as more important or interesting than adultery.

One night near the beginning of the book, Scobie thinks about the cozy appearance of the town’s homes, warm light streaming out of their windows, and realizes that the pleasant exteriors, like those affectations at home, cover up little communities of conflict and hatred. If we could always see through to the heart of the matter, he thinks, we might even learn to pity the stars. But he can’t see  (even though his job is to search for smuggled diamonds on ships!) that he might pull back one more curtain and find something precious under the lies and conflicts and hatred. If he can see that he hasn’t yet reached the heart of the heart of the matter, he might learn that God has no trouble piercing both cultural mask and human depravity in order to find the lost soul over which angels will rejoice.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Kant by Numbers

It’s time to write about Kant once more, and again I find myself hesitant to comment on the content of his very difficult writing. Without hesitation I can admit gratefulness that the original ten-year plan in the Britannica set spread out the Kant readings over the entire decade, and I can say that I’m just as glad I gave myself a second ten years to review it all. I definitely understand the overall system better this second time around, but I also find many specific passages more opaque this time than I did before, if my sketchy notes offer any sure indication. I probably didn’t understand then as much as I thought I did, which tells me I probably don’t understand now as much as I think I do, either.

Ironically, considering my diffidence, Kant appears to have gone to great lengths to present his ideas systematically and in the most organized fashion, suitably for a man whose philosophy states that our minds by their nature organize and systematize all sensations, perceptions, and ideas. I’m now reading the third and longest section of the Critique of Pure Reason, the section on Transcendental Dialectic. Here Kant says that our logical reasoning unifies three things we can never possibly perceive: our thinking selves, the conditions for all the phenomena we experience, and the condition for the existence of all things (i.e., God). Whether these things are actually unified, we can never know, he says. Our reason simply leads us to believe that they are so.

Part of Kant’s drive to organization reveals itself in numbers. According to Kant, these three unified ideas correspond to the three types of syllogism: categorical (which begin All A are B), hypothetical (which begin If A then B), and disjunctive (which begin Either A or B). The longest chapter of this longest section of the book concerns the ideas arising from hypothetical reasoning. Kant critiques them by examining four antinomies. Each antinomy has two contradictory yet seemingly airtight conclusions, and one solution.

As an example, Kant presents rational arguments to prove both that time had a beginning and that time has no beginning. If time had no beginning, he says, there would have been an infinite span of time before us. But an infinite span can by definition never be traversed, and so time would never have come to our point. Therefore time had a beginning. But if time had a beginning, then what would have been before time? More absurdities. His solution to the conundrum declares that time has no objective reality but exists only as a mode of human perception, and as humans, we can never imagine enough time to know if it has a beginning or not. I wish Kant had occasionally provided vivid analogies to aid in assimilating his dense prose and quirky ideas. Perhaps we could think of being on a tall mountain (with clear skies and a good telescope) and seeing a road stretch from one horizon to another. It does no good to say whether the road goes on forever or comes to ends. We are absolutely incapable of seeing far enough to determine.

Curiously, Kant mentions Zeno’s similar paradoxes about time, which I read about twice already this year, once in January and once in March. Neither Plato nor Aristotle can fully approve of Zeno’s logical contradictions, but Kant says Zeno got it right. I thought the coincidence of reading about Zeno twice in one year remarkable enough to blog on earlier. Who would have thought I’d come across the Eleatic philosopher for a third time in 2012?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Similes Like Ladybugs

 I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I do not like the tiny tickle of a fly that’s landed on my skin. On the first day of Marching Band camp in 1974, the drum major told us that while at attention we couldn’t move, not even to swat away a fly. He yelled it at the two-hundred of us with such fierceness, I had the sudden conviction that I would never dare to swat a fly at attention, even though he never specified any bite to back up his bark.  But I knew holding still would be hard. Refraining from swatting a fly that had landed on my face would be harder even than marching and playing in a black uniform worn over my usual clothes in 95 degrees of August heat and the 95-percent humidity of the soup Missourians call air. I hate the feeling of a fly on my skin.

But when I feel that annoying tickle, and a shake of my arm doesn’t end it, and then I look down to see a ladybug, all my repulsion suddenly disappears. Ladybugs are cute; they’re like little spotted Volkswagens. (OK, actually VW Beetles are like oversized ladybugs.) They’re not afraid of a little shaking; they want to spend some quality time with you. I’ve never known them to swarm or to attack picnic food, and I’ve never heard of an association between ladybugs and disease. When I see one, I stop whatever else I’m doing or thinking about, and I just enjoy the moment.

The first thing that struck me about Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter was his frequent use of weird similes. Several from the first forty pages or so stood out from the rest of the prose, prickling my sense of lostness in the world of the book and making me think about the language of the narration. They annoyed me at first, like a fly on my skin, but I soon found that I enjoyed these still little pockets of contemplation within the flow of the story.

The first odd simile I noticed concerned “a great stone building like the grandiloquent boast of weak men.” I thought it strange to use the ephemeral to help describe the concrete and material. I don’t think it would have jumped out at me if Greene had described some weak man’s boast by saying it was like a great stone building. But I enjoyed contemplating the connection, and when I returned to reading, I knew what kind of people to expect inside the building.

I’m embarrassed to say that Greene stumped when he said one character calling another’s name was like Canute crying against a tide. I had to look up Canute to be reminded of the story of the king who proved his earthly limitations to his sycophants by commanding the tide to stop. I got a refresher on history (whether legendary or actual), and I got some foreshadowing on what might happen later in the story if man and ocean ever came into contact.

One of the strangest similes comes when the main character, Major Scobie, steps into his bathroom to find “a rat that had been couched on the cool rim of the bath, like a cat on a gravestone.” Why compare a rat with a cat? The only things I’m aware of that cats have more than rats are positive things: beauty, dignity, potential for relationship. And why compare the bath to a gravestone? The picture made sense: a dark, furry animal atop a hard, white manufactured object. But what was I to get out of this connection? In puzzling this one over, I ended up learning more about the cat on the gravestone than about the rat. What business does a cat have in a graveyard? I’m afraid he may have been about some unspeakable mischief.

The oddest of all these similes says that the frequently laughing Father Rank “swung his great empty-sounding bell to and fro, Ho, ho, ho, like a leper proclaiming his misery.” Again, I think I learned more about the describer than the described. To a leper, his cries of “Unclean! Unclean!” cease to have any meaning after much repetition, just as any word (even one’s own name) seems to become an objective shell of sound after being repeated fifty times. I don’t know what to say about Father Rank after this description. He seems otherwise a decent fellow.

After writing the introduction to today’s post, I thought of Pascal, who called the fly mighty because he can stop a human’s thoughts, quietude, or determination just by landing. The ladybug is just as mighty, but Pascal’s argument for humility wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if he had used her instead.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Increase Your Word Power with Patrick O’Brian

In the past two years, I’ve posted a couple of vocabulary quizzes incorporating some of my favorites among the words I associate with Charles Dickens. Most of these words I didn’t know when I first came across them; I learned them while reading the Great Man and always think of them as his.

Patrick O’Brian also fills his books with words I couldn’t define the first time I came across them. The special jargon of nineteenth-century sailing, of course, make up the bulk of this category. But this year quite a few nonnautical terms came to my attention. Today I present a short quiz based on ten unusual words from The Nutmeg of Consolation, most of them unrelated to ships and the ocean. Match each word with one of the lettered definitions given. I’ll provide answers at the bottom of the post, so don’t scroll down all the way!

1. barmecidal
2. bight
3. carious
4. catholicon
5. coriaceous
6. crapulous
7. orlop
8. strake
9. thaumaturgical
10. wether

a. intemperate in eating or drinking; ill from liquor
b. a stripe
c. capable of performing miracles
d. panacea
e. plagued by tooth decay
f. the bending coastline of a bay
g. the lowest deck of a ship
h. providing only the illusion of abundance
i. a castrated sheep
j. resembling leather

I use many of my Dickens words from time to time, enough that some of my friends associate them with me. Will any of the words from this post become useful or make their way into my vocabulary at all? (In other words, have I really increased my word power?) I have great confidence that I won’t ever find myself in a position to refer to the castrated state of a sheep, not having come near that situation in my first fifty-three years of life. I already know several means of describing someone who has consumed too much alcohol. But I suppose I might want to put a word to the substitute leather of some car seats, and I feel certain that I will find occasion to expose the illusion of abundance in the near future. Now if only I can retain the new vocabulary. Actually remembering the words and having the presence of mind to use them when opportunity arises may provide evidence that I’m thaumaturgical.


(Don't scroll farther until you're ready!)

OK, here are the answers:

1-h, 2-f, 3-e, 4-d, 5-j, 6-a, 7-g, 8-b, 9-c, 10-i

By the way, Blogspot’s editor recognizes only eight of the ten words.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Nature, Nurture, and More

Trying very hard to be good, one of my teachers in high school said something once about nature and nurture. But when I replied, “Oh, like Tarzan. He was raised by apes, but he still had noble blood in him,” she just stared at me as if I had mispronounced a non sequitur in a dead language she didn’t know. Her virtue only went so far. Sure, my response reeked of complications. Did I really think some socio-economic classes of humans had purer blood than others? Since Tarzan is fictional, can he provide a helpful example at all? But at least I understood her point and cared about it. I think I was the only student who had anything to say, and my comment showed a ready habit to make personal, fresh connections, applications, and extrapolations from material covered in class. So, teacher, whoever you were, thanks for teaching me something interesting about human character, but I wish you hadn’t embarrassed me publicly or disappointed me by proving that reading thoughtfully had no place in a public high school.

Well, these days, I have my vindication. I walk around the town with my nose in a book, and I publish my thoughts about what I read in a blog. (That’ll show her!) And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian. And, as it happens, this volume in the Aubrey-Maturin series has a lot to say about nature and nurture, or let’s say nature and culture. As represented in these novels (I’m perfectly happy now with drawing examples from fiction), the intrepid adventurers who sailed the seas for England in the early nineteenth century weren’t just sailors and surgeons and marines and diplomats. They were all explorers as well. They were naturalists. They were scientists. While their first mission was to help stop Napoleon, they also appreciated the opportunity to learn about new places, new customs, and new life forms. (Cue Star Trek theme now.)

Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the two main characters of the Master and Commander books, seem to have little in common except a love for music. Stephen can’t move from one craft to another without landing in the ocean. Jack can’t keep his promises to stay in one place long enough for Stephen to explore the wildlife. One tells bad puns, and the other tells jokes in Latin. (I give some examples in my previous post on Nutmeg.)

But they both have a deep interest in nature. Jack looks at the planets and stars for more than navigational guidance. The sailors at that time sometimes had to perform lengthy, difficult calculations on the figures taken in observation of the moons of Jupiter in order to ascertain their longitude. But Jack also sees the beauty and romantic grandeur of the golden king of the stars. Stephen on the other hand, can’t remember the names of the moons of Jupiter and out of embarrassment quietly ignores Jack when he tries to talk about them. Stephen has his own abiding passion for science, as long as it has something to do with living things. And Jack in his turn humors Stephen patronizingly when he mentions an ornithorhynchus anatinus.

In The Nutmeg of Consolation they each get into discussions about what is or isn’t true about particular people according to nature. Stephen, part Irish, finds himself in several uncomfortable discussions about a supposed natural inferiority of the Irish. Jack debates whether an officer has any natural moral authority. They both get interested, though, in the test case offered by two little native girls they pick up from a Pacific island, the only survivors of a small pox epidemic. Since the girls learn English very quickly, with enough understanding even to change their vocabulary and grammar when moving to and from the quarterdeck, they prove intelligence as natural to human beings and show dialects to be mere convention.

O’Brian explores a third explanation, though, for what we see in other people. An observed characteristic may come from nature, and it may come from culture, but it may also arise only as a result of the observer’s interpretation. Thinking that they won’t be able to overcome their “natural” inclination to heat, Stephen wants to put the two girls in an orphanage in tropical Botany Bay rather than take them back to cold, damp England. But the girls escape the institution and make their way back to the ship before it sails, telling Stephen that they don’t want to stay in a place that has black children. He discovers that they have learned the cultural prejudice from some of the sailors before the mast, but can only marvel that the girls would “see” a natural inferiority in other children whose skin is no darker than their own.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Euclid, Even in His Rational Prime, is Odd

In last year’s posts about Euclid, I reported on my slow journey of discovery through book V of the Elements. I began by assuming that what appeared to be geometry was really algebra – that the ratios and proportions at issue were ratios of numbers Euclid merely represented as line segments. Then I slowly figured out (so I thought) that what appeared to be algebra in the guise of geometry was really geometry – that Euclid couldn’t think of some hypotenuses, for instance, as representing numbers since his universe of numbers included only whole, positive integers, not irrationals like the square root of 2. But then I peeked ahead at book VII, where Euclid talks about ratios of numbers and does indeed represent them by line segments (although never in triangles with potentially irrational sides).

This year I read book VII and must admit that I learned a few things. For instance, I don’t know that it had ever occurred to me that one could prove the commutative and distributive properties of multiplication. Some good teacher, possibly my dad, showed me to think of multiplication in terms of rows and columns of squares; these properties become absolutely obvious when you look at this kind of representation of a multiplication problem. Also, Euclid had methods I didn’t know for finding the greatest common factor and the least common multiple of two and even three numbers. For all I know, there could have been ten “New Maths” between Euclid’s time and the 1970s, when I took algebra in high school. Having read Euclid’s explanations, I’m grateful for the changes in math pedagogy and newly appreciative of at least one aspect of the high-school education I still strive to overcome. But then I’ve never complained about the math curriculum at my high school; math and science were the weapons with which we were winning the Cold War, so these subjects were taught fairly well. (I have, though, complained about some math teachers I had. I once “proved” to one that division by zero was possible.)

But Euclid confused me just as often as he enlightened me this year. He gave definitions for terms he never used. He repeated himself and proved special cases after already proving more general cases. And he worded some proofs so strangely, and in apparent contradiction to his definitions, that I couldn’t make even any consistent guesses as to what they were about. I can’t help but wonder if the genius who proved the Pythagorean Theorem hasn’t suffered in transmission and translation here.

Speaking of the Pythagorean Theorem, I found out more about that famous proposition this past spring as I tutored a student in geometry. She had to write a short history paper on the Theorem and include a critique of three proofs. Three? The one I knew about, which I assumed was as clear and straightforward as Euclid could make it, was so complex, I felt religious exaltation when I first understood it, as if I were looking directly into the mind of God. What must the others be like, and how was I ever going to help this student compare three of them?

As it turns out, this most unintuitive of geometric truths has at least ninety-seven proofs, as shown on this website, and many of them are much simpler than Euclid’s I.47. One was concocted by James Garfield four years before his tragically short Presidency. One was submitted by a fourteen-year-old girl from Iran. After going through a few of the ninety-seven with the student, I came up with one in my head on my walk home. As it turns out, I “found” number 4. So I’ve learned some about geometry this year, but surprisingly enough, mostly not from Euclid.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Patrick O’Brian Does the Impossible

About four-fifths of the way through The Nutmeg of Consolation, my second Patrick O’Brian novel for the year, I’m again impressed at how interesting a book can stay without serving up much plot. While the information-conveying function of the words tells the reader what life at sea in the Napoleonic era was like, the pace of O’Brian’s sea stories shows what it was like. As the reader floats along through dinner conversations, telescopic glimpses of the crescent Venus, and the routines of the heaving of the log and the turning of the glass, he gets the sense of the months spent traveling with a perfectly circular horizon.

Sure, every once in a while the lookout atop the mainmast calls down with news of a sail or an uncharted island rising above that circle. In parallel fashion, action crops up from time to time in these long passages. A sailor receives a flogging. A young midshipman requires surgery. Someone says something inappropriate in front of Mr. Martin, the ordained minister acting as surgeon’s mate. I’ve actually come across two gun battles and an epidemic of smallpox in Nutmeg so far. But these events are quickly told and don’t seem to have great impact on the overall story. At my place in the book, Captain Aubrey is still trying to complete the mission he began in the previous installment. Once back on Albion’s shores, he will receive official reinstatement, adding to a story that began three or four volumes back. Two characters even have a discussion in Nutmeg about their preference for novels with no ending, or at most a brief final chapter coolly noting the ends of certain threads. When I quit reading this morning, the crew had stopped at Botany Bay for supplies, where a major character has just committed an indiscretion. Since earlier conversation has established the notoriety of Botany Bay for draconian punishment, I have a feeling that in chapter 9 (of 10) I’m about to encounter the only extended event of the book: an incarceration threatening the completion of the mission.

O’Brian does the seemingly impossible, writing books mostly devoid of driving plot that nevertheless stay engrossing, smart fiction that has slowly become popular with a major motion picture and, even after forty years, a continued presence on the shelves of almost any general-interest bookstore. A joke provides a brief demonstration of the impossible. Jokes come up from time to time in the Aubrey-Maturin novels. For instance, in the one that made its way into the movie, Captain Aubrey says that in selecting a piece of infested hardtack, one should always choose the lesser of two weevils. But in the volume I read earlier this year, after a steward overturns a serving dish of squid, Doctor Maturin says it was quite the lapsus calamari. After he explains that lapsus calami means a slip of the pen, his messmates politely laugh. But I had a stronger reaction. Seriously? A popular novel with a joke in Latin? Patrick O’Brian has done the impossible, and, as the captain of another fictional ship might say, that makes him mighty.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Dramatic Death of Julius Caesar

Writing about Mrs. Brandenburg last month got me thinking about Julius Caesar. My sixth-grade class put on a production of a young person’s version of Shakespeare’s play. I most recently read the Bard’s original (or as I tend to think of it after my sixth-grade experience, the “full-length” version) in year 2 of my reading plan, before I started blogging. I wish I had thought to write about it a couple of months ago when I read Suetonius’s account of Julius. But thanks to Mrs. Brandenburg, I’m thinking of it now.

After that last reading of the play (while visiting Oxford and London), I wrote in my notes that attitudes about death come up often in the play. Caesar says that he thinks it best to give death no thought since it “will come when it will come.” Cowards think about it often, he says, and as a result “die many times before their deaths.” Brutus may well fear death, but he says his love of honor outweighs the fear. Cassius argues that they will do Caesar a favor by killing him since the act will “cut off” several years of fear. Brutus responds by saying that death in that case should be welcome, since it shortens the period of terror. Besides projecting his own fear into Caesar’s head, Brutus’s argument makes no sense since, if death were welcome, we wouldn’t fear it, and thus it wouldn’t be welcome.

Ah, but Brutus says it is so, “and Brutus is an honourable man.” I love Antony’s funeral speech in which he turns the crowd against Brutus by continually calling him an honourable man. After a while, he starts to include Cassius in his damning praise and then declares that he wrongs “the honourable men whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar.” And then, what a powerful moment when Antony performs the first C.S.I. forensic exercise and recreates the sequence of the assassination by looking at the bloody knife marks in Caesar’s mantle. The Bard of Avon at his best!

Sadly, I knew nothing about this famous speech until I read the actual play; the sixth-grade version ended with Caesar’s death. Maybe Antony got to say that Nature could stand and declare that “This was a man!” But Caesar got stabbed, and that was pretty much it. What a shock to find later that the play went on for another two-and-a-half acts! Ah, but this was American public education in 1969. Starting the next year, I became aware that traditional curricula and standards were crumbling around me. If I had known more about Shakespeare (in other words, if I had known anything about Shakespeare), I would have noticed it one grade sooner.

I actually got to play Julius Caesar in that production. Mrs. Brandenburg had tryouts and I went up for the lead against Randy Webber. We each read a scene, and then later that day, Mrs. Brandenburg asked us both to come back up to the desk and read, “You too, Brutus? Then I die.” Randy read it with a voice like a cross between the Emperor in Star Wars VI and that guy from Nickelback. And I thought, “Ooh, he’s going to get it. He’s so good!” So I headed in a different direction with my reading and tried a simpler approach. I think maybe I was going for Linus Van Pelt reciting the Nativity story from Luke. I suppose I read it OK, but I was really, truly shocked to find I had landed the role.

The experience of putting on that play was a total blast. My mom made a very nice stola and toga for me. (I don’t know that she ever got to see the play. Mrs. Brandenburg only had us perform it for each other and for another sixth-grade class.) Over the course of several weeks, I learned all the lines, even though I’m as weak at memorization as Linus. I looked good, and I sounded good, and as far as I knew Mrs. Brandenberg was pleased and everything was going well.

Almost everything, that is. Mrs. Brandenburg told me during one rehearsal that I wasn’t dying right. “Collapse your knees,” she said. “You know, you’ve seen your mother faint.” Oddly enough, I had seen my mother faint. Again, this was 1969. But still that didn’t help. I was probably clutching and falling ridiculously like a kid playing Cowboys and Indians, and then making it worse by bracing myself because I was falling on gray speckled linoleum and not Kentucky bluegrass.

So one day before the big premiere, we’re playing softball outside for P.E. I’m in the outfield, as I always was, since infielders have to have some degree of coordination. But very few sixth graders can hit to the outfield, so I started doing what sixth-grade boys do when standing in a field with nothing to do: I started daydreaming. I may have been thinking about the dandelions. I may have been dreaming about a career in acting. I don’t know. I only remember that a lot of dim, distant screaming slowly worked a tiny toehold into my consciousness, and then suddenly my stomach hurt like never before. All the air I had ever breathed left my lungs (including, no doubt, some molecules breathed by the noblest Roman himself), and I collapsed on the ground. A fly to left field had done the statistically impossible and hit me squarely in the gut.

I started realizing that that fly ball was what the kids had been screaming about. Then I noticed some kids starting to run my way: maybe a couple to check on me, and probably one or two of my teammates to shag that ball back to the infield and try to cut off the home run. But Mrs. Brandenburg stayed safely behind the backstop. I’m pretty sure she didn’t know the rules of the game and had no idea how the accident affected the play. I’m certain she had no idea how the accident, or anything that might occur to her to say about it, affected my feelings. But the woman knew her acting. She cupped a hand to her mouth and yelled loudly enough for everyone in the schoolyard to hear – heck, loudly enough for everyone in the neighborhood to hear. And I’ll never forget these words. My teacher, the woman entrusted with the care of helpless, innocent babes, screamed at me:


Friday, August 3, 2012

Two Years Ago

Two years ago at my wife’s suggestion, I started this blog about my ten-year reading plan. Since then, has become a favorite hobby and an important part of my reading activity. In the first few months of the blog’s life, I wrote a lot about the details of the plan and ways I find time to read, and I posted several posts about books I had completed earlier that year or in the first three years of the plan, before I started blogging. Starting in January of 2011, in order to keep posting regularly, I had to start thinking about blogging while I read, and I started taking more careful notes. Sure, that’s exactly the wrong approach for some books, but for the most part, the exercise has improved my attention and retention. This is the 237th post, so I have continued to write a new one almost every three days on average, and I hope to keep up the same pace in the future.

In these last two years, I’ve read and blogged about a lot of old favorites, some exciting new finds, and some exasperating slogs through sloughs of words. The familiar friends include Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, Dicken’s Dombey and Son and David Copperfield, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, and The Odyssey. The most exciting works new to me include the classic Persian saga called the Shahnameh and Byron’s Don Juan. The most frustrating reads include . . . oh, why bother mentioning them again?

I average about 700 pageviews a month now, over 11,000 altogether over the two years. I don’t understand how blogspot’s stats work: the “pageviews” are all keyed to a particular title, but I suppose that the number of posts read could be even higher if one someone clicks the main page or a particular month and then reads more than one post on the page. Most of these views originate in the United States, but at least 40% of them are registered in other countries – Russia, Germany, the UK, Ukraine, Italy, and France being the most frequent.

Most posts show from 8 to 16 views a piece. But then some posts have had 40, 60, 80, even as many as 350 views. And I have no idea why. The most viewed posts include my ramblings about  the best way to read O’Brian’s sea stories, Augustine’s view of angels, Latin phrases, a Chesterton essay on Christmas, Plato’s atomic theory, and Dickens’s view of human depravity and redemption. Fiction and nonfiction. Ancient and modern. Christian and pagan. I ponder what makes these posts show up appealingly in Google searches, but I have no good hypothesis.

I do know my favorites from the last year, though. Here are a round dozen:

Good and Bad Science Instruction
A Loser Like Jane Austen
Nelly and Descartes
Human Mysteries in Bleak House
Lights Will Guide You Home
Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2011
Funny Things Are Everywhere
Dining with Dr. Johnson Again
Durant’s Retrospective
Peabody’s Improbable History
Glory Is Out of Date
She’s a Funny Girl, That Belle

The hardest post to write was “Dining with Dr. Johnson Again.” I worked for hours in a fit of inspiration – and then watched it disappear from my screen. It seems that blogspot’s editor sees CTRL-Z differently from every other application on the planet. Apparently, blogspot thinks the “undo” code means that the writer wants to undo the last several hours of his life. I was sure I could never repeat the performance; I had to have that post back. It was somewhere on my computer or in cyberspace, I knew. Stuff doesn’t actually disappear from hard drives. A few more hours of work led me to the world’s most useful webpage. If you ever have the same horrifying experience, follow the advice the very kind Villeneuve family posted there. But better yet, avoid needing their help: use a word processor to compose, and copy to blogspot’s editor only as a last step.

Thanks again for sticking with me.