Friday, January 28, 2011

A MIND OF ITS OWN

   









    An active mind, like a bat in the bedroom, is a frightening thing.
    This came home to me again recently when I found myself, for no reason at all, mulling over what it would be like if all the bugs that had ever crawled on me were to be gathered into a pile on my living room floor. My common sense knew better than to pursue that notion, but my mind took wing on its own. I thought of all the mosquitoes that had ever lit on me, and of all the spiders that had ever traversed me in the night, and of all the fleas, mites, ticks, weevils, chiggers, and assorted other insects that had ever sojourned with me, however briefly, in this Veil of Confusion, without my knowing it. The ants alone would probably make a nice little  mound, I found myself thinking, and the whole lot would probably come to a writhing heap of black life as high as my chest, like something from an Indiana Jones movie.
     Before long—I couldn't help it—I was extrapolating to everything else that had ever touched my life: a hill of all the dirt I'd ever washed off, for example; a giant wad of all the hair I'd ever sent down the drain; a mob of all the people I had ever known, complete with a vat of all the body oil they had ever left behind when we shook hands. Pretty soon my imagination had filled the Superdome with stacks, batches, concentrations, conglutinations, hoards, and hodgepodges of all the detritus, living and dead, of my past. It was a heady vision, not altogether attractive. After a while, I wished I had decided to go ahead and watch Survival Island or read a political blog, instead. But a flapping imagination is not so easily netted and tethered.













    My mind is not always abuzz in this way. In fact, normally it can be found hanging upside down from the dim wall of my skull, quietly pondering nothing of any consequence, half asleep. But now and then, usually at night (usually at 3 a.m., the Hour of Dread), it awakes with a start and begins its frenetic flying. There is no telling then what it will bump into.
    All too often it bumps into questions to which there are no answers. When that happens, the night is lost, and sleep dies. I was fifteen and it was a hot summer's eve when I first experienced this. At 10 p.m., I somehow started wondering, as only a 15-year-old can, whether the universe could be put into a box, assuming you could make a box big enough. By midnight I had got to thinking that if you could put it into a box, even a theoretical box, then that left nothing outside the box. By the Hour of Dread I had terrified myself into realizing that if there would be nothing outside the box, then what could be the purpose of what was in the box, since there would be nothing outside the box for it to be purposeful for? Dawn found me twisted tight in my sweat-soaked sheets and staring wide-eyed at the walls of my room, with visions of boxes, God, and The Great Round Void ricocheting about my brain.
    I have grown up considerably since that time. My mind flutters among other profound issues now, such as 1) Why do people sing along to their favorite songs in such a way that they can't hear them? 2) Why do they never offer coupons for the things you always buy? And 3) Where, exactly, is my groin? This is not a qualitative change, though, from when I was fifteen: dawn still finds me staring.

 











   Sometimes I will awake in the night from dreams, and my mind begins to whir on that very subject: my dreams. I fret for hours over whether they are as obviously Freudian as they seem, and whether I am indeed the socio-sexual monster that that would imply. When I dream of my teeth crumbling out of my head, for instance, am I, as my psychologist friends say, manifesting a fear of losing my masculinity—or am I simply recalling the horrors of the dentist's chair and the terrible command to "Rinse!"? When I dream sweet dreams of finding bright, uncut golf balls on lovely wooded golf courses, is my sick psyche seeking testicular consolation in the forest of modern relationships—or am I simply recalling what it's like to find an immaculate Titleist under a leaf in the left rough? And what about gliding? Other people dream of flying, and I am told that that means they have a desire to break free of everyday life and do great things. But I dream about gliding: in my dreams, if I hold my head just right, I can rise an inch or two off the sidewalk and kind of glide down the street. Other people soar; I glide an inch off the ground. Even in my dreams I am essentially earthbound—a fact my hyper imagination will worry on for days at a time, and I can't stop it.











    My mind has a mind of its own, else why would it insist on making me miserable? Why, in the middle of a perfectly pleasant, thoughtless afternoon, will it snap alert and fly me off to the territory of my terrors? There I will be, in the sunshine, munching a picnic cookie or hitting a tennis ball, and suddenly my sadistic psyche will rush me off to the region of fearsome images: of humiliating, bent-over moments in a doctor's office, and of the doctor himself reporting his findings to me later with tears on his cheeks; of the woman I love ecstatic in the arms of a faceless man in the back of a Winnebago; of my aged self rocking and drooling in the middle of an empty room with no one to wipe my chin. A kind of mad mental momentum builds up at times like these, and before the fit has ended, my mind has me gaping horrified at my own autopsy, performed by giggling medical students eagerly wielding rusty scalpels and wearing dollar signs for eyes.
    Clearly, my mind pays me no mind at all. It goes its own way, and I hang on to its tail for dear life. There are days when I would just as soon let it fly off alone, without me or a map, until it has gone so far that it is lost. Then maybe I could get the bugs out and sleep through the Hour of Dread.

(The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine and several other publications in December 1984.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

INVENTORY: Summarizing the life of a baby-boomer

     I turned 65 yesterday. As I say in the intro to this blog, this puts me in the vanguard of the baby boomers. We Americans have a fairly rigid, standard timeline for our lives. It goes something like this: home from age zero to 4, school from age 4 to 22, work from 22 to 65, retirement from 65 to 85, nursing home and death watch after 85. Given this, age 65 is a natural point at which one might take stock of one’s life.
    What follows is an inventory of, well, me. Because this is already an exercise in no doubt unhealthy narcissism, I am going to use the third person after the next sentence. I don’t think I could stand all the I’s otherwise.


The Body: Ed has toted up 65 years of remarkably good health, including only one night in the hospital, to have his tonsils removed in 1951. One dislocated finger, with chipped bone, in 1974 (poorly caught basketball). No broken bones, ever. Torn right rotator cuff at age 20, from throwing baseballs. Three tendons torn off the right shoulder bone in fall on the ice 11 years ago, fully repaired with outpatient surgery (along with serendipitous repair of 29-year-old rotator cuff tear!). No chronic illnesses, ever. No allergies. LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides currently high, suggesting some heart-attack risk. HDL (good) cholesterol very high, suggesting low heart-attack risk. Takes no medicines. Lifelong severe nearsightedness, corrected miraculously by lens replacement surgery in 2010. Excellent eye-hand coordination. Under-average arm strength. No foot speed. Never been hungry. Never been cold. Never been overweight. Occasional arthritis pain in right pinky, left wrist. All told, a lifetime of great physical good luck. (For further details, see recently filled-out life-insurance form, which is more intrusive than an airport pat-down and x-ray viewing combined.)



The Mind: Ed has lifelong excellent multiple-choice test skills; show him the right answer along with three wrong answers, and he’ll zero in on the right one, even today. This is a meaningless measure of intelligence, of course, since life rarely presents only four choices. Nevertheless, because tests are computer-graded, and computers are stupid, multiple-choice tests still predominate; ergo, Ed is still smart because computers are still stupid. Ed’s official IQ was once measured above 140; he knows this because he was admitted to a high-IQ program in high school, on the basis of multiple-choice tests, what else? Current IQ unknown, but, by all anecdotal measures, dropping (rapidly forgetting multiplication tables, unable to navigate software instructions). Lifelong poor memory. No memory whatsoever for names or historical facts (who the hell was Robespierre, again?). Afflicted forever with prosopagnosia—i.e., Ed is unable to decode or remember your facial features, even if he just played four hours of golf with you. Short-term memory no worse now than at age five—i.e., not very good. Didn’t know what he went to the closet for when he was five; has no more idea now. Long-term memory average; still remembers the batting stances of every Yankee in the lineup in 1956. Never able to appreciate jazz or to understand key changes in any kind of music. Always and still good at crossword puzzles, and okay at KenKen. Embarrassingly bad at cards and Mensa-style brain-teasers. Worse at chess. Summary: Intellectual skills middling to start, no worse today.

The Heart (as emotional metaphor): A bumpy ride until age 45 or so. But a very lucky last 20 years, having given his heart to someone who is too good for it but treats it well. Remarkable, undeserved coronary contentment (in the metaphorical sense) at present.



Talents: Few. Ed is able to write nonfiction quite well, having made it his profession and object of study and teaching for 45 years. He is a published but uninspired and unmotivated poet. Poetic impulse diminished in recent years. No fiction ability whatsoever, ever. Writing skill diminishing a bit at age 65—difficulty finding the right word that used to come quickly. (Could not think of the work “chronic” in the third paragraph, above. Had to use thesaurus. Thank god for Roget—the mental equivalent of a cane.) Good tennis player ranked eighth in Men’s 60s in Mid-Atlantic Region. Respectable golfer (5.5 handicap index). No other talents: can’t draw, sculpt, paint, make cabinets, repair electrical devices, renovate bathroom, ski, skate, sail, sing, dance, compose, play an instrument, knit, or garden.

Regrets: Not too many. Four or five people gave him affection that he wouldn’t or couldn’t return. Occasionally he acted superior to other people. Occasionally he showed off. Occasionally he got angry when he shouldn’t have. He has, over his lifetime, given three speeches that ran much too long. Never learned to dance.


Character flaws: Where to begin? Lifelong fear of embarrassment—his own and others'—has led Ed to avoid many kinds of risk and been the primary motivator of his life. (See “Never learned to dance,” above.) General physical cowardice and weakish nerves. More than occasional unjustified intellectual arrogance. Inability to do a good deed or achieve some success without letting everyone know about it. (Did I mention my high IQ score and tennis ranking?) Lack of ambition. Dislike of work. Overaffection for play. Occasionally overcompetitive. Poor storyteller. That’s enough for here. All of this has been true from the start. None of this has changed over the decades.

Virtues: Mostly negatives: Lack of malice. Lack of greed and gluttony. Lack of prejudice. A few positives: Reads a lot (but poor memory renders this a somewhat moot virtue). Loves to gather information (but see, again, poor memory). Can concentrate rather well, but requires greater silence to do that at age 65. Willing to show affection in public. Quick to smile. Enjoys making people laugh.


Appearance (current): Six foot, 160 pounds. 33-inch waist in jeans. 40-inch chest in sports jackets. Generally skinny. Unblemished, slightly age-mottled skin. Tans well. Thin hair, still more brown than gray (a genetic gift from paternal ancestors). View from overhead: more scalp than hair. Prognathous chin. Squinty eyes. Moderate wrinkling, especially of ears.





Lost loved ones: Mother, father, brother George, friends Tom and Lee.

Personal philosophy: Ed stopped believing in gods at age ten. Still doesn’t believe. No confidence in an afterlife; believes it’s probably the same annihilative nonexistence that preceded his conception. Believes in his own existence (see “cogito, ergo sum”). Has faith that others exist (and that these memories weren’t just installed in him). Believes in treating presumed other people nicely. Generally utilitarian: greatest good for the greatest number, being sure the big picture and long-term consequences (not just nearby short-term results) are kept in mind. Thinks this existence we swim in is a strange kind of miracle-thing hard to think about. Has not quite got his head around how there can be a point to any of this weirdness called existence.
     I’ll do another inventory in five or ten years. Should be interesting to chronicle the changes between now and then.
    

Thursday, January 20, 2011

JFK'S OVERRATED SPEECH

John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address




Kennedy and Sorensen

Today is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address. The man who actually wrote that speech, Ted Sorensen, died just three months ago. On the useful website “American Rhetoric,” the speech is ranked #2 on the list of 100 Top Speeches, just after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The most memorable phrase from Kennedy’s speech is, of course, this: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” You have to go back to FDR’s line “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” from his own first inaugural address in 1932, to find a politician’s words so famous.
      Well, I was fond of JFK. He was the first presidential candidate I ever campaigned for, when I was 16. My dad admired him; my mom adored him. Losing him was awful. As presidents go, he wasn’t perfect (Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs), but he was pretty good (the Cuban missile crisis, the Peace Corps, the moon program).
      All that being said, however, I will now say this: I think Kennedy’s inaugural address is overrated. Vastly overrated. It’s only real virtue for me is its brevity: it is only 15 minutes long.
      Go back and listen to the speech (it’s on the “American Rhetoric” website).  The speech is very much a product of the Cold War—mostly thinly-veiled threats against the Russians and fears about nuclear annihilation. It is for the most part a quiltwork of clich├ęd ideas calling for peace-through-strength, all wrapped in nice little rhetorical devices. (Sorensen was especially fond of alliteration, antithesis, and parallel structure.) The speech was hardly designed to draw people from their bomb shelters; it is, in fact, full of subliminal fear. Moreover, there is almost nothing in the speech about the central issues that were to drive American domestic politics in the next decade: civil rights, poverty, health care. Surprisingly, there is nothing about nonmilitary volunteerism, though many in retrospect mistakenly see the seeds of the Peace Corps in its most famous phrase.
     Let’s look at that phrase. The call to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" rang false with me at the time, and it still rings false. Just whom was Kennedy addressing? In fact, in the first half of the phrase, he was conjuring up some phantom population that has never existed. In the U.S. in 1961, or ever, just who was asking what their country could do for them? Almost nobody. In 1961, there were certainly some folks who had every right to ask their country to do something for them: injured veterans of WW II and Korea who were still receiving negligent medical care; blacks whose states forced them to drink from different fountains and stay out of certain restaurants, hotels, and universities; the poor who wanted to work but couldn’t, and were going hungry; the sickly old who were facing bankruptcy from medical bills. Surely Kennedy wasn’t saying that these people had no right to “ask what their country could do for them.” They had every right. They did ask. Thank god, the country listened, and, after Kennedy was gone, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Medicare, and Medicaid were the answer.
     So the first half of Kennedy’s (Sorensen’s) famous phrase evoked a fear that had no cause. It rested directly on a false premise. How about the second half? “Ask what you can do for your country.” This has always struck me as jingoistic. In my most altruistic moments, I have personally never wanted to do things for my country—I just wanted to do things for people. I want there to be less poverty, hunger, disease, and ignorance throughout the world, not just in my country. I distrust nationalism; “ask what you can do for your country” stinks of nationalism. In the actual speech, although Kennedy mentions world poverty (barely, in passing), the phrase “ask what you can do for your country” actually comes in the context of “defending freedom” around the world—that is, in the code words of the time, Kennedy seems to be asking Americans to be willing to fight against the communists. In retrospect, given the Vietnam War that Kennedy himself was leading us toward and that tore the country apart for the next decade, the words “ask what you can do for your country” become hauntingly inapt.
       For me, the phrase "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," though rhetorically clever*, is warped in content. I don’t say the speech is terrible. It is, again, the product of its time. But it hardly rings down the ages. It is no dream of a speech.

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*For the record, the rhetorical device used in “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—that flipping of syntax—is called “antimetabole.” (I looked it up.) If you’re a Democrat and you want to see a speech that deserves immortality, listen to Barbara Jordan’s keynote speech to the Democratic Convention in 1976. It is listed as #5 on America’s Top Speeches.

Barbara Jordan's 1976 Keynote Address is a top-5 speech.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED CRUCIVERBALIST


     When I retired last spring, I added to my bucket list the goal of creating a crossword puzzle that would be accepted and published by The New York Times. I thought I could do it: I’m pretty good with words; I like to solve puzzles both verbal (crosswords, acrostics) and mathematical (Sudoku and, especially, KenKen); I’m good at following rules; I’m not uncreative.
      I have since created three Sunday puzzles and one weekday puzzle that, in theory, meet the basic puzzle criteria of the Times: 15 X 15 (daily) or 21 X 21 (Sunday) squares in size, axial symmetry, a mix of high-culture (opera, medieval tapestry) and low-culture (baseball, rap) answers, not too many blacked-in squares, not too many crosswordish clues or answers (Konrad Adenauer’s nickname, Irish airline).
      I thought my puzzles were pretty good. I sent one of my Sunday ones to the Times, waited three months, and finally heard back from them. It was a nice rejection from Will Shortz’s assistant, complimenting me on the puzzle but saying it wasn’t right for them. If you don’t know who Will Shortz is, then you’re not really a crossword fan.
     I then sent my second Sunday puzzle to the L.A. Times, one of the two other newspapers that accept unsolicited crossword puzzles. The puzzle editor there also complimented my puzzle (in a rather perfunctory way, but nicely). He said he had already used my theme in a previous puzzle. I think it was his way of saying (nicely) that my puzzle was as common as bacon and eggs.
     I sent my third Sunday  puzzle to the puzzle editor of Newsday. I thought it was an especially brilliant puzzle. I also thought I had an inside shot because the editor lives where I grew up, on Long Island. Hell, my brothers delivered Newsday a million years ago. I quickly received a curt email rejection that basically told me that there was nothing good about my puzzle and there was too much wrong with it for the editor to make time even to offer me any advice other than to tell me to find a crossword puzzle “mentor” who could help me learn how to make a proper puzzle.
      A mentor? Huh? I thought that, if you were a crossword-doer, you just read each paper’s puzzle specs, made a puzzle, and sent it in, kind of like a letter to the editor that stays within the word count. Then you got published.
      No, no, no, no, no.
      It turns out that there is an entire hierarchy of puzzle-makers around the world and a vast subculture that cultivates and sustains it. I had figured there were maybe 300 people in the U.S. with the interest, time, and skill to make a crossword puzzle. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Of the 306 million people in the U.S., approximately 300 million make crossword puzzles. They are doing it right now. Of those, 290 million are better at it than me. There are thousands of people who do nothing but make crossword puzzles. I believe they do not eat or sleep. Sex for them is just a convenient three-letter word with a little extra cachet for containing an “X.”
      There are scores of crossword puzzle websites. The best is Cruciverb, which you can find at this link. All serious crossword people live on Cruciverb, which is of course a pretentious Latinish way of saying “crossword.” On another site, there is a man who maintains and updates a database of all New York Times crossword puzzles since, like, 1993, including all the clues ever used for all the answers. Here’s the link. When I wanted to use “limo” as an answer in one of my puzzles, I used the clue “a long way to drive.” Clever, no? Actually, it was. The New York Times has never used that as a clue for "limo," at least not since 1993. That clue is, so far, my proudest crossword accomplishment.
      The people in the crossword subculture are fanatics. Fanatics, I tell you. They each make puzzles by the dozens. Every day. They deconstruct every day’s Times and L.A. Times puzzles as if they were Finnegan’s Wake, in long comment strings that are downright political in their fervor. (There’s a crisis in the NY Times crossword puzzle! A scandal! Some people have been receiving the puzzle earlier than others!) Not surprisingly, the comments are very well written. There are a gazillion blogs devoted to crossword puzzles. The New York Times has its own crossword blog (here). One of the comments on the Times site today is in the form of a limerick. A very clever damn limerick.
     There are crossword-puzzle-making superstars who receive all the adulation of NBA all-stars. They are the LeBrons of les grids. They make puzzles with almost no blocks (the black squares) or with super-clever wordplay in the answers and brilliant pun-tastic inter-referential clues. The Newsday puzzle editor is so revered that he even stars on ocean cruises devoted to teaching people how to make puzzles. People pay big money to learn from him. These are people I dislike.
     An hour ago, I finished today's NY Times crossword puzzle. Today is Saturday. Saturday is Challenge Day for crossword puzzlers. The Saturday puzzle, if you don’t already know, is by far the hardest of the week, with clues that could mean anything. (Clue: “No wear for waifs.” Answer: “plussizes.”) Solving the puzzle took me about two hours of very hard brainwork. I needed a shower afterward. I was so proud of myself that I expected a trophy presentation to follow the shower. Most of the people on the crossword websites finished the puzzle in 15 minutes. I hate them all.
      Now I’m discouraged. I thought I was going to be able to check “crossword, Times” off my bucket list fairly quickly. But it turns out I’m in competition with people as freakishly talented as Mozart. Millions of Mozarts.
      I’m very fond of the Internet. It has brought together people of kindred spirit who elsewise would never know others like them existed. There are hugely populous subcultures now devoted to everything—from the Fibonacci sequence to fibromyalgia. This is, on the whole, good; it creates a sense of belonging, of community, of shared effort and appreciation. But it does have its drawbacks. Those of us who are dilettantes, unwilling to devote every waking minute of our day to Chinese checkers, say, or cockfighting or, yes, crossword puzzles, have no chance against these masses of experts and fanatics egging each other on.
      I suppose I should be grateful to the Newsday editor who replied so rudely to me. He has forced me to face the world of crossword puzzles realistically—kind of like the hero/villain of The Iceman Cometh who sets about exploding the pipe dreams of all the ne’er-do-well alcoholics in the bar where the play is set. What was that guy’s name again? Six letters. Starts with an “H.”
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Thursday, January 13, 2011

IN DEFENSE OF “SANITIZING” HUCKLEBERRY FINN: A current event on which I actually have the qualifications to speak


It’s often been said, and I agree, that the most courageous act of moral decency committed in American literature is the moment in Chapter XXXI of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck, faced with the choice of returning the slave Jim to slavery or helping him go free, decides to help him go free. Huck struggles with the decision. In fact, all alone, he agonizes over it. He even tries to pray over it but can't, believing himself unworthy of God's attention. In the end, having decided to help free Jim, he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
      It’s difficult to make a modern audience understand the astonishing courage implicit in Huck’s decision. “Of course,” we say today, “helping free a slave is just the right thing to do, and Huck’s a good person.” But what makes Huck’s act remarkable is that he believes, in his very being, that freeing someone else’s slave is the wrong thing to do—it betrays everything he knows, his very history, his region, his family, his friends, and who and what he is. By god, he does it anyway. He never says to himself, “Even if everybody else believes this is wrong, I’m going to do it because I think it’s right.” He doesn’t think it’s right. He can’t think it’s right because he’s never been exposed to a moral system in which helping someone else’s slave escape is right. In his decision to help free Jim, Huck is banishing himself from his own moral universe and, as he sees it, throwing himself into a hellish world of moral chaos.
      The words “I’ll go to hell” are in fact no mere metaphor for Huck. He believes that God himself will damn him for helping Jim. And for Huck, hell is real, an actual place of eternal fire and pain, and by helping to free Jim, he believes, literally, that he will spend a tortured eternity in that pit of fire. Huck condemns himself to hell to help a friend. As I said, it is the most courageous act of moral decency in American literature.
      In 1975, as a young instructor, I taught an American literature survey course to sophomores at Memphis State University. As part of the course, I had my students read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I had written my Master’s thesis about the novel; my thesis was called “Huck Finn in the Land of the Dead.” Those who think of Huck Finn as a children’s book have never read it; it is filled with murder and other forms of violent death. The Mississippi River in it is choked with bodies, including that of Huck’s own father. As for the land, it teems with ghosts, as real to Huck as hell.
      I’ve got a couple of graduate degrees in American literature. I’m qualified to talk about this book.
     Anyway, back in 1975 at Memphis State, I decided to focus one class period on a discussion of Chapter XXXI of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Huck’s “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” moment. To refresh everyone’s memory of this section of the book, I decided to begin the class by reading the seven paragraphs leading up to “I’ll go to hell” and the two paragraphs after. This, I realized, would require me to say the word “nigger” six times. In my youthful arrogance, I decided this wouldn’t be a problem in a sophisticated college class—even in a class where exactly half the students, like half the population of Memphis, the city where Martin Luther King had recently been murdered, were black. I began by apologizing to the class for having to say the word, and then I began to read.
      I’ll put this as delicately as I can while still being truthful: Each time I spoke the word “nigger,” I felt as if someone had forced me to swallow a spoonful of shit.
     My students, black and white, were good about it all. They could tell how uncomfortable I was. The sweat on my forehead probably gave it away. As I recall, we ended up having a good discussion of the chapter, and I think we all understood how a boy who uses the word “nigger” could be a morally good, indeed morally courageous person, even as he used the word. In fact, as it becomes clear to anyone who reads the book thoughtfully, Huck’s use of the word helps prove just how morally courageous he is when he helps a man whom, because of his culturally limited vocabulary, he can only refer to as a “nigger” escape from slavery.
      All this, of course, is my way of leading into a statement about the recent controversy surrounding the “sanitized” version of Huckleberry Finn which Auburn professor Alan Gribben is soon to publish and in which he replaces the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” Here’s my statement, and it may surprise some of my friends: I think what Dr. Gribben is doing is okay. And I think it’s rather humorously hypocritical that the commentators of both the left and the right who are so eager to defend the word on TV can almost never bring themselves to say it out loud or even show it on the screen.
      As far as I can tell, Dr. Gribben does not wish to prevent anyone from reading the original text, with the word “nigger” in it. He is not saying that there’s anything wrong with the original text as Mark Twain wrote it. In fact, I’m pretty certain he himself prefers the original. All he is saying is that an alternative, “nigger”-free version might serve a useful purpose.
      And I think he might be right about that. This isn’t about giving in to political correctness or the forces of ignorance who have tried to remove the original Huck Finn from library shelves. No one is advocating censorship here or the taking of books out of any libraries. What this is about is making the book more accessible and less likely to be misunderstood by youngsters not yet sophisticated enough to understand the extraordinarily complex workings of literary irony by which the book is driven. The book is still great without the word “nigger.” Those of us who love it know that it is even greater with the word—but that doesn’t mean removing it is somehow an act of moral cowardice.
      My father grew up in Confederate-sympathizing Kentucky. He had ancestors and cousins who used the word “nigger” freely. But he, having transplanted both his body and his mind from the South to the North (which has its own racism, certainly), was as prejudice-free a man as I have ever known, and he despised the word. I am my father’s son. I would go to prison before I’d call someone a nigger.
      Yet I would encourage my own granddaughters to read the original book, complete with that word—as long as they have a parent or teacher to help them understand the complex of issues surrounding Huck’s own use of racist language. But some children have no such parent or teacher. Perhaps Dr. Gribben’s book will help such children take their first steps into Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without tripping over its not-so-easy subtleties. They can come to the real thing later.
      In any case, as an American lit specialist myself, one with a particular, abiding, deep love for Huck Finn, both the boy and the book, I am not prepared to consign Dr. Gribben to hell. Few of us have ever shown the moral courage that gives us the right to do that.
      
      

Thursday, January 6, 2011

F(n)=F(n-1)+F(n-2), WILL YOU MARRY ME?


Is it possible to be in love with a mathematical formula? I’m kind of in love with the Fibonacci Sequence. I have been ever since I first learned about it. Which, strangely, was from a poetry textbook.
      The Fibonacci Sequence is a series of numbers that begins like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and so on, forever. You can probably see the pattern: After you start with 0 and 1 (by convention), each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. I won’t try to write it out in math-formula style here because I don’t know how to do subscripts on this blog (it has a bunch of capital F’s and small n’s, a bit like in the title of this piece, which is the best I can do). Many of you are no doubt already familiar with the Fibonacci Sequence and know what the formula looks like. It’s pretty popular, and not just in math circles. Like most guys, I tend to fall in love with the most popular math formula in the class.
     The sequence was unleashed in the Western world by an Italian, Leonardo of Pisa (no relation to Leonardo da Vinci), around the year 1200. Leonardo’s father was named “Bonacci”; the mathematician came to be called “Fibonacci” because that is a short-hand way of saying “son of Bonacci” in Italian. Fibonacci was a pretty sharp mathematician. For example, he was largely responsible for weaning Europeans away from Roman numerals and shifting their math over to the Hindu-Arabic numerals and the decimal system we still use today (at least those of us not living in the 0 and 1 binary world of Tron). There’s a statue of the mathematician near the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I think I kind of have a crush on Fibonacci, too. Here he is. That headgear is kind of cute.
     (The usual disclaimer: This sequence of numbers was also well known in Asian parts of the world, probably earlier than Fibonacci studied it, but we Westerners of course like to give credit to our own.)
     The Fibonacci Sequence is an eye-opener.
     First, it describes the rate at which animal populations grow. In fact, Fibonacci supposedly came up with it when he posed the question of how, in theory, rabbit populations would increase over regular periods if you begin with a single mating pair.
     Second, if you divide each number by the previous number as you go higher in the sequence, you also get closer and closer to a number (or should I call it a ratio?) called the Golden Section, which starts off 1.6180339 . . . and then goes on forever. Mathematicians call this special number Phi. Why Phi? I don’t know why Phi, says I. Phi just happens to be the ratio of the width of the Parthenon to each of its sides. That particular ratio of width to height also shows up in a zillion other pieces of architecture, including the windows of the United Nations building.
       Third, painters, especially that other Leonardo, da Vinci, have used the Golden Section, and the Golden Rectangle (the ratio of width to the side in such a rectangle yields that 1.61880339. . . number—that Phi thing) to structure their paintings.
       Fourth, and most amazingly, the sequence and Fibonacci numbers in general show up all over the natural world—and not just in the way rabbits multiply. It also shows up in the numbers of petals on many flowers, in the shape of the nautilus shell spiral, in the way many plants branch, and most dramatically in the spirals of seed heads in the dark center of the daisy flower (see below). There are, for example, exactly 34 left-oriented spirals of seedheads and exactly 55 right-oriented spirals of seedheads in the center of the daisy flower. Two Fibonacci numbers. Yeah. Like, wow.
      Finally, as other Fibonacci lovers (most way more knowledgeable, but no more ardent than I) have pointed out, humans have two hands, five fingers on each hand, each finger divided into three bones—2, 5, 3—Fibonacci numbers all. Measure your finger bones from knuckle to knuckle: In most people, the ratio of the length of the longest bone to the middle bone is pretty close to 1.6; likewise, the ratio of the middle bone to the shortest bone. You carry the Golden Section at the end of your arm.
      Mathematicians warn us not to get too carried away by all this; there are lots and lots of things in nature that have nothing to do with the Fibonacci Sequence, and some of this may be pure coincidence. But I don’t care. The Fibonacci Sequence is still so cool that I want to marry it tomorrow. I promise to buy it a rectangular wedding ring with just the right ratios.
      The very best web site devoted to the Fibonacci Sequence is here. It is created by a guy named Ron Knott at the University of Surrey in England. I’ve never met him, but I dislike Dr. Knott; I’ll bet he thinks he has the inside track on marrying the Fibonacci Sequence because his name has a Fibonacci-like eight letters and mine doesn’t. And because he has a fabulous altar of a web site devoted to it. But I love you more, Fibonacci Sequence!
      As I mentioned at the start, I first learned of the Fibonacci Sequence, not in a math class, but in a poetry book. The book was an excellent introduction to poetry called Western Wind, by John Frederick Nims. Nims begins his chapter on form, rime, meter, and structure in poetry by discussing the Fibonacci Sequence and its role in nature. His point is that nature loves form, and poetry is “natural” in this way. That seemed a bit much to me, but I thank Nims for introducing me to the Fibonacci Sequence. He can be my best man.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

DO IT YOURSELF: Does your neighborhood have a Wemblish?

My neighbor Wemblish can do anything around the house.
     On Saturday mornings, having slept till ten, I go out to get my paper, and there is Wemblish, or the bottom half of Wemblish, sticking out from under the hood of his car, a spread of socket wrenches, bright as swords, arrayed on the driveway beside him as he resets the timing on his distributor or redistributes the setting on his timer. Whatever.
     That same afternoon, having risen from a two-hour nap following a brief check of my Facebook page, I look out the window, and there is Wemblish, or the top half of Wemblish, leaning over the peak of his roof next to his chimney as he adjusts his rotating ventilator fan or ventilates his fanning rotator adjustment. Whatever.
     Finally, well after dark, having gorged myself on a diet of red meat, Coors, and sitcoms, I open my back door to let the cat in for the night, and there is Wemblish, emerging from the wood shop he's added to his garage. There, never sleeping, he builds his wife new kitchen cabinets or builds his kitchen cabinets a new wife. Whatever.
     At that point I go to bed.
     Wemblish likes to be a good neighbor. Periodically, he will offer to clean out my gutters for me or prune my oak tree. Once, he insisted on attacking my driveway with his Weed-Whacker; when he was through, I discovered that my driveway was four feet wider than I'd thought. Another time, he dug something called a "dry well" for me in order to relieve a drainage problem; like magic, the pond that used to be my front yard disappeared. Wemblish is handy, generous, modest, innocent, fit, and pleasant. I hate him.
     Every woman on the block gushes over Wemblish. This includes his own wife, which is especially distasteful. The women of the neighborhood can often be found standing in front of Wemblish's house admiring his handiwork. "Ooooh, look at those wonderful gingerbread shutters!" they squeal. "Handmade, you say?" Or: "Well, I just wish my husband Weasley were here to see those marvelous bay windows! And you did them both in just one weekend with nothing but a hammer and a pair of pliers?" Or: "What beautiful stained glass! And you fired it yourself, did you?"
     One day I even discovered my own lady friend, Gilda, in a state of animated adulation in front of Wemblish's house, telling his wife how perfectly darling was the hand-carved Victorian trim around the Wemblishes' gables (Wemblish has gables, for god's sake), and how simply fetching was the little fountain in their front yard, with its spouting cupids. It was disgusting. Not the fountain--Gilda. I had to drag her off by the elbow.
     I learned long ago that it doesn't pay to compete with somebody like Wemblish. I would rather wield a putter than a power saw, and I will never learn the difference between a two-by-four and a four-on-the-floor. So I don't fight the Wemblishes of the world. Instead, I play along, pretend to share the admiration showered on them by silly women, and, most of all, I take advantage of them. People like Wemblish enjoy being taken advantage of, and I'm happy to do it.
     The other day, for example, I asked Wemblish if he would show me how to fix my toilet, which had developed the habit of yawning in the middle of the night. Barely able to contain his ecstasy at being asked, Wemblish hurried to his (hand-built) toolshed, hefted a gigantic steel toolbox, and began striding across the street toward my bathroom, which didn't stand a chance.
     Once there, he rolled up his sleeves, took the top off the commode, and dove in, figuratively speaking. As he went along, he explained everything he was doing, a big smile on his face. People like Wemblish love to share their knowledge.
     "This is the stipplepopper" he said, tapping a dripping mass of metal. "It granulates the burble ratcheter. See?"
     "Uh huh," I said, nodding enthusiastically. "That's fascinating!" I belong on the stage.
     "And this here is the flommalator," he continued, overjoyed to have such a willing pupil. "It exacerbates the munripple if the spillik isn't garbling. Got it?"
     "You bet," I said. "Boy, that's some nice engineering, isn't it?" I have no conscience.
     Twenty minutes later, my toilet was fixed, never to yawn again, and both Wemblish and I were happy as slugs in a dog dish.
     "Want to come watch me defibrillate my Toyota's crabulator?" he asked eagerly as he headed home, high on handiness.
     "Gosh," I said. "I'd love to. But I promised Gilda I'd bib her tipple and osculate her omphalos this afternoon."
     "Golly," he said, with new respect in his voice. "Can I give you a hand?"
     "No, thanks," I replied. "With something like that, you just have to do it yourself."