Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Take Notes

To celebrate the end of the semester and the fact that I only have to drag myself through this five more times, summers not included, I now present you with Professor Quotes Episode One, or, The Girl In The Back Is Listening.

Professor WW, Southern Literature and Culture. My favorite professor ever. Imagine a tall, distinguished southern gentleman with white hair, icy blue eyes with a sardonic twinkle, an Alabaman accent, and the habit of mercilessly satirizing modern "culture" and politics.

"Music these days is a bunch of people who don't play guitar so much as they play amplifier."


on hunting:
"I believe all God's creatures have a place. Next to the mashed potatoes."


"Democrats never spend a dime. They invest trillions, but they never spend any. Oh, no. Ha, ha."


on a stupid promotional movie for the university, on youtube:
"It was so awful that parts of my body relocated as my skin crawled."


"Why do I need a transition here?"
"Because without one, you will cause cognitive whiplash."


on term papers:
"Don't write The Collected Quotations of So-and-So, with a Connective Tissue by Yourself."


"Why does everything have to be a science these days? They just changed the name of the home economics board to The Department of Domestic Sciences. Does that make us The Department of Punctuation Sciences?"


on the cotton gin:
"Eli Whitney saw a cat attack a chicken and come away with only a pawful of feathers, or so the story goes. And immediately a candle went on over his head, since the electric lightbulb hadn't been invented yet."


"If you email me at 2:30, I likely won't get it until the sun comes up."


"Is 'good-bye' the opposite of 'bad-bye,' like for people y'all don't like? It's all that's left of 'God be with ye,' telescoped down to 'bye.' In another hundred years we'll be saying '-ye' when we hang up the phone."


on being teased for his venerable age:
"I don't remember the War of the Northern Aggression... not clearly, anyway."


on an obstreperous interruption during a lecture:
"Oh, a car alarm. Let's hear it for technology."


on Go Down, Moses:
"The grammar of the sentence is there, but in between is a lot of... Faulkner."


on Pong:
"There are probably a lot of people pumping gas today because of that game."


"What is "The Brown's" or "The Smith's" supposed to mean? What is that apostrophe for? Do you go up to the door and knock and say, "Hello, are you the Smith?" I am going to spend my retirement going around with a belt-sander removing apostrophes from signs."


Professor MW, Biology. Imagine a short man who looks like Vizzini from The Princess Bride and talks with the same emphatically explosive manner.

"The Ice Man was definitely killed. They say he went out hiking and just fell over dead, but he must've fallen on his arrows."


"Plants don't care if we get colon cancer. They probably want to see us all DIE!"


"The cow just falls over. That doesn't seem 'mad' to me. Now, if it was running around killing other cows..."


"Cadherins are the reason why you can go into the shower in the morning and your arm doesn't wash down the drain."


"All fatty acids are hydrophobic, just some are more saturated than others. Like Animal Farm."


"One student came up and told me that my lecture of the sun supernova-ing in 4 billion years was giving him nightmares. He must have an inflated view of his self-worth and longevity, because there's really nothing to worry about."


"When do legos become fun? When you put wheels and propellors on it, and send it into your cat. It's the function of carbon when you attach it to things that makes it interesting."


"Any more questions for test one? No? Ok. I'll think up fifty or so for you."


"Arsenic is a necessary mineral. You need a tiny bit. If someone tells you to go take arsenic pills as a supplement, is that good? No, it's natural selection."


Moment of the Year:
"What kind of mammals regulate their body temperature?"


"Telophase undo's... undo's... UNDOES... prophase."


"I wanted you to see Gregor Mendel's garden. Now, there's nothing testable about this picture- but look at the size. It's a 20x30 space. That's tiny. Like if we took over the geologists' little rock garden in the courtyard. I don't even know what that's good for. Rock garden. Are they waiting for them to mate, or something?"


on plants and the visible spectrum:
"If plants were strong enough to utilize gamma rays, they'd probably get up and chase the cows around the fields."


on the real definition of organic:
"Up until about two years ago, you could grow a head of lettuce in a plutonium dump and call it 'organic'."


on electrons, with sound effects:
"Now, the electron is traveling at the speed of light, like this: zing! Zing! Bazing! Zing!"
*class stares*


Professor JM, Western Civilization I (with the favored adjective "bloody" dropped from the front of most nouns). Imagine a middling-heighted man with grey hair and eyes, a ringing loud voice, highly-caffeinated movements including perpetual motion and hitting the boards for emphasis, and way too much energy in general.

"And so, near the end of the Hundred Years' War, we see one of the most brilliant military geniuses in all of history. And that is- ?"
"St. Joan of Arc?"
"THANK YOU for not saying Napoleon, like my morning class."


"Oh, so you think the panic surrounding the Black Death was funny? You think people don't do that today? Ok. What if you heard some mysterious illness struck Miami. The next day, the people who had are dead. The day after, a hundred people are dead. It appears in Orlando, and Jacksonville, and Charleston SC, it's coming up 85! Tell me the people in the Middle Ages were stupid for panicking."


a student asks,
"So... why do people sometimes say Catholics aren't Christian?"
"Because they're confused."


to the people who whisper during lecture:
"Why don't you open your notebook and close your mouth."


"You think you're all so independent and original, don't you. Most of us are independent thinkers who think exactly what everyone else around us thinks."


"American Catholics don't like to confess things. It's not part of our culture. Unless you confess it on Oprah and she forgives you."


in a moment of ire towards historical inaccuracy in modern entertainment:
"You get this from television, from those idiot shows on television!"


"The word 'university' is from the Latin 'universitas.' This same word is translated as 'guild.' Universities began merely as teachers' guilds. So if you think you're not stuck in a medieval institution... *evil snigger*"


"In the teachers' guild, apprentices correspond roughly to students, journeymen to those with a bachelors' degree, and masters to those with a master's degree. Grad students are practically serfs."


"I don't mean to make light of global warming, but hell, anyone who thinks the climate always stays the same has too much AC."


"Pikes were twenty feet long. If I had a pike, I could WAKE UP STUDENTS IN THE BACK OF THE ROOM WITH IT."


"If you were at war in the Middle Ages and suddenly captured the king, what would you do with him?"
"Kill him!"
"NO. When will you start thinking like a Medieval warlord? You ransom him."
"And that's just what happened, at Poitiers in 1356. Devastating loss for the French. So now the English have the king, and they hold him ransom for five years' worth of English revenue. Just imagine what would happen if we captured Hugo Chavez and held him for five years' worth of oil! You know, I sort of like that idea."
"Dr. M... they might not want him back."
"Oh, true."


"And so what did the English charge Joan of Arc with?"
"Witchcraft and crossdressing."
"Well- ok."


"A lot of manners in the Middle Ages were very bad, almost as bad as manners have become in America today."


"There are people who believe the Bible dropped complete from Heaven, in English. This may come as a surprise to some people, but the Bible was not written in English."


"Jesus is not the son of Mary and Joseph Christ. That is not a name. Do not write it in your notes."


"Ancient Greek was like text messages. There was no punctuation, and no spaces between the words."


"Please ask me before you ask the person next to you. Because, you know, I might actually know the answer."


on the syllabus:
"If you can't stay awake during class, you're probably not getting enough sleep at night."


"Dr. M, so... did Diocletian insist on keeping being called 'Dominus et Deus' even when he wasn't emperor anymore?"
"Well, he didn't go back to, 'Oh, just call me Dio.'"


every five minutes or so, invariably:
"Ok. Questions about... what we have... saidaboutthis."


"And so, by 1200 B.C., we enter a period of crisis. Raiders! Who can tell me who the raiders were?"
"The Mongols?"
"NO! The Mongols didn't come until millenia later! Why do people always blame it on the bloody Mongols!"
[People continue to guess Mongols at regular intervals whenever invaders come up until Professor M bans them. Towards the end of the semester:]
"Then, raiders came. Who were they?"


"Who can name some other catastrophes that happened around this time period?"
"The Protestant Reformation?"
"Well... that depends entirely your point of view, but... ok. Any more?"


"Why was the nobility at first skeptical of Joan?"
"Because she was a woman?"
"Why did it matter if she was a woman?"
"Because... saints don't talk to women?"
"Some of the saints are women."


"Ancient Greeks were not voted into the assembly. Any free, adult male citizen was automatically part of the assembly. Citizens were NOT voted into the assembly. Write that down. 'Citizens were not voted into the assembly.' And on the test, someone is going to tell me that they ran for office."


Episode Two, including foreign language and music professors, can be awaited in the future.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Tooth Fairy is Naked

Two afternoons of every week, I work for a taekwondo studio's after-school care program, teaching a group of about thirty kids martial arts and helping them with their homework. As an instructor, I also teach some of the regular evening classes. It's not an easy job- no kid wants to sit in a room for four hours waiting for their parents to come pick them up. Quite a few of them are typical kids with no self-control that their parents think martial arts training will magically transform into model children with superpowers. Nearly all of them are from the upper-class both-parents-have-careers families in this corner of town, and are spoiled rich-kids.

It's a challenging job, and there are days when I want to defenestrate them all, but I do love each and every one of them. As an instructor I have to hold myself to my rank and not be their "friend," especially with the older kids, but with the little ones it's different. I've gotten to know them quite well in the past two months; I love people-watching. Here are the nine most enjoyable ones- most of the other 21 are insufferable, and perhaps I'll describe them at some later point. There are also a few funny ones in the evening classes, but I don't see them regularly enough to get to know them, so these nine are the ones I'll end up mentioning most in later posts.

-Amanda is five. She's Chinese, pale with a very grave face, steady, thoughtful brown eyes, and long black hair that she doesn't like touched. Her head is full of the most outrageously creative ideas, but almost no one listens to her, so she's pinched and reticent and sullen in attitude. She somehow reminds me of a crumpled flower. When I teach her, I have to listen to a little idea from her here and there, and just the joy of having been listened to is enough to make her obey me enthusiastically for the next five minutes. She's cold, unaffectionate, and a little peevish, but fiercely loyal and intellectually engaging. She insists I smell like butterflies.

-Zach and Xandra are siblings, eight and five respectively; they both have the same dimples, freckles, and warm brown eyes, and sensitive natures, but Zach's hair is blond and Xandra's is butternut brown. Both are respectful, cheerful, affectionate, and enthusiastic; Zach likes to read and Xandra likes to draw pictures. I've never had to ask either of them more than once to do something, and I've never had to punish either of them. Zach is usually one of the first people to greet me when I come upstairs. Xandra is effortlessly flexible, and always declares that stretching in a straddle split makes her look like a strawberry cake. This is a mystery that will haunt mankind forever.

Here is Xandra's impression of what I look like. I had a Malacandrian moment, looking at it.

-Seth is seven. He's half Filipino, with short black hair and very bright eyes. He has elfin features and a chipper, piping voice, and reminds me of a little bird. He has a very symmetrical smile and impeccable manners. Seth is a lot like I was, at his age- precocious, but in an enthusiastic and scholarly way, with nothing of the show-off in him. He soaks up information like a little sponge and squeezes it out all over everyone. When he stops to think about something, he places one tiny finger against his chin, tilts his head, and gives a little high-pitched sigh, and then looks up quickly like he's been zapped with the answer. He says he is motivated to work hard so that he can become a plastic surgeon when he grows up, because his grandmother told him plastic surgeons make a lot of money. He's an innocent but calculating little capitalist.

-Logan is nine. He has a very long face and enormous prominent caramel-colored eyes that make him look like a combination of Silas Marner and an insomniac horse. His hair is ash brown and very thick, growing in a coarse, rounded mop. He likes to play marbles, and is impressed that I can flick shooters better than he can. Logan likes birds, especially raptors, and saves all the rough sketches I make for him so that he can color them in. He can be a bit of an instigator, sometimes, but he mostly keeps to himself. He says I am one of the three nicest teachers he's ever had.

-Harrison is five. He's Korean, and one of the hardest of the kids to work with. I suspect he gets made fun of a lot for his heritage, especially since sometimes he seems to understand Korean better than English. He always insists very firmly that his name is Harrison; I wish I knew what his Korean name was. He has very soft black hair and a peach complexion and those eyes that Koreans have, warm brown with lanterns behind them. He's a solemn child, and usually doesn't speak when spoken to unless I kneel down by him and ask him things very gently; he doesn't obey commands. For some reason, I am the only English-speaking instructor he trusts. He likes to draw fish and name them all Kim.

-Jayden is eight. He and Zach are friends. He's African-American, with very light gold-brown skin. He's a good student and usually spends his free time reading. He wants to be a math teacher. He always has a gently concerned expression on his face, and is soft-spoken and considerate. I don't know him very well, since he tends to keep to himself, but he's always more than happy to show me what he's doing, or have me sitting by for quiet companionship.

-Camden is seven. He has pale skin, freckles, alarming blue eyes, a skeletal grin, pale red hair that sticks straight up, and a general appearance of having been violently electrocuted and infatuated with the results. He's like a little stick of dynamite throwing off sparks and waiting to go off, and yet at the same time he's very calm and gentle. He only just started, but his pushups are better than most of the higher-ranking students'. Camden likes to draw, frequently starting out his pictures with a wedge-shaped sun shining out of the top right corner of his page and a quantity of blue water along the bottom, and staring dreamily at it while he tries to decide what to add next.

-George. I really oughtn't to have a favorite, and I'd certainly never betray the fact to the kids themselves, but George is the dearest little monkey in the world. He's five, Chinese, with sparkly dark eyes that disappear in crinkles when he laughs, downy black hair that sticks up all over his head, and what he describes as "a dark skin." Georgie is very earnest and insistent, and his narrow eyes are always fixed on me seriously when he's talking. He's not afraid to show affection, and likes to reach up and hug me around the knees with a blissful little smile on his face. Last week when I was sitting on the floor with Xandra, he came up and jumped on my back and wrapped his little arms around my neck and kissed me. For obvious reasons that kind of behavior is unacceptable, but it touched me deeply. He's so small that he always tugs on my belt to get my attention. Once a couple kids were arguing over which of them had just scribbled on the other's homework, and in my peripheral vision I saw George coloring at the far end of the room and listening attentively, and then he pattered over to inform me that it couldn't've been him because he had been sitting at the far end of the room. I feel extremely maternal toward him, and he responds to it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He looks at my eyes very gravely sometimes, knows I need love, and tries to give it to me in his own endearing little way.

This is a house Georgie designed especially for me.

I think it's the moments when they're with me and able to forget about society and just be little kids, that makes the job worth it- they say the drollest things, sometimes, and give the most fascinatingly outside-the-box answers. A lot of them only want to be listened to. And in a child's eyes, there's a pristine innocence and eternity that is nowhere else in this world.

Amanda: (during my first week, when she couldn't remember my name) Look! It's Long-Hairy!

George: I'm hungry.
Me: You may have some of my pretzels, if you like.
(George proceeds to commandeer the entire bag)
George: (generously noticing now I don't have any) Here. I'll share these two.

Seth: (chattering while playing War) I know I'm going to win this, because I'm a Libra, and Libras are born with good luck.
Me: Is that so.
Seth: (matter-of-factly) Yes. I always have good luck in everything I do, and it helps me through life. That's why I'm glad I'm a WHERE DID YOU GET THAT ACE?

Amanda: My sunflower seeds taste like french fries.
Me: Do you know why?
Amanda: Yes. Because they are made out of french fries, and have bits of salt up and down their bodies.

Me: (Playfully, during meditation) You should all be focusing and centering yourselves right now. Back straight, hands on your knees. Eyes CLOSED. I don't want to see any of you roughhousing before class; it drains your energy and then you turn into dead jellyfish as soon as I ask you to do anything. (Pause) Why do I hear laughing?

Amanda: You can't see the tooth fairy, you know.
Me: Really.
Amanda: Yeah- (whisper) I think it must be naked.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Addendum to the Post Previous

In reading through the previous article again several hours prior to having posted it, I realized why it had seemed so incomplete to me while proofreading- through whatever slip of mental outline, I neglected to define anachronisms and how they are connected with renaissance men.

An anachronism is, quite simply, anything appearing in an era to which it does not belong. Historical inaccuracy can sometimes fall under this category, as in movies or illustrations where something is depicted as being used or existing when it had not yet been invented or discovered. When a person is described as an anachronism, it is implied that they are outdated or otherwise no longer compatible with the present time.

As can be inferred from my previous post, renaissance men in the 21st century are clearly anachronisms, since their mentality and lifestyle are not understood or accepted, let alone desired, by modern society.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Anachronisms & Renaissance Men, Part II

In the introductory post of this series, I mentioned anachronisms and renaissance men without elaborating upon the terms. Now that you've had a good three months to research them yourselves, I have returned to sate your curiosity with the fascinating details.

A renaissance man, simply put, is someone who is passionately gifted or deeply knowledgeable in many different fields, and is unlimited in the desire to pursue each of these to the fullest, relate them to one another, and moreover feels that such a universal embracing of learning is perfectly natural. The term originated, as one might guess, in the renaissance, to describe individuals who embodied the cultural and intellectual blossoming characteristic of the era. Common marks of a renaissance man included an aptitude for languages, studying and experimenting with the known sciences, the composition of scholarly works along with poetry, fiction, and music, deep thinking in philosophy and theology, and sometimes skill in physical feats. This well-rounded, life-pervading education was considered an ideal state of being.

Of course, the concept of the renaissance man is not peculiar or limited to the period of the European Renaissance; a term perhaps more chronologically inclusive, but which I disappreciate for sounding too arithmetical to my traumatized brain, is polymath. Every age of history has seen notable figures of polymathic capabilities: Aristotle, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Benjamin Franklin, to name a few.

St. Albertus Magnus was a noted scholar of his day, writing eruditiously in a multitude of different disciplines which aside from theology and philosophy included logic, alchemy (chemistry), mineralogy, ethics, astrology (astronomy), physiology, politics, botany, phrenology, and geography. He also would have spoken some form of German, Greek, and Latin. Much of his scientific aptitude was derived from the study of Aristotle's works, the preservation of which are largely due to his efforts. St. Thomas Aquinas was blessed to have him for a professor.

The idea here is that different fields of study do not coexist but are interdependent, and not only are they highly compatible with each other, but one person can excel in many. In modern times, this seems to be looked on as somewhat of a remarkable phenomenon, and anyone displaying any level of expertise or even interest in multiple fields is in danger of being stuffed and put in a museum.

This mentality is deeply a part of who I am, as is manifest in the syzygial metaphor I use for my mind. While some people are certainly graced with a gift to be exceptional scholars, this open, balanced, life-long inquisitiveness in every area of learning is something every education ought to be based upon- radiating connectedly in all directions from a Center, like an orb-weaver's web.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Because I Can't Just Have an Ordinary Houseplant

During finals of last semester, my mind cleared momentarily and I found myself in the garden section of a local hardware, looking for monarda. I didn't find any, but they did carry a small selection of carnivorous plants, and I suddenly discovered a great curiosity within myself to learn about them. In the next few weeks, I did some extensive research on carnivorous plants in general and venus flytraps in particular, and decided that if I passed a particularly traumatic math class, I would get one.

As most of you know, I passed precalculus. As most of you have probably guessed, this post will be about my flytrap. If you are one of the handful of people to whom I have related the marvels of my little green friend ad nauseam, you needn't read it if you don't like.

Venus flytraps are native only to the vanishing wetlands of eastern North Carolina. Since the soil is poor in nutrients, they have the fascinating ability to capture insects to obtain the nitrogen they would otherwise lack. To simulate the stagnant atmosphere of NC and the soil of the wetlands, it is best to grow flytraps in peat moss in a small terrarium with plenty of sunlight. After satisfying its conditions of habitat, it is relatively easy to care for- water once every week or so, and just let it sit there. My kind of houseplant.

Mine came in a small terrarium. It had two open traps, one of which had the remains of a fruit-fly inside of it, one unopened trap, and seven leaves from which the traps had not yet unfolded. The traps unfold from the tip of each leaf. It is entirely green- the traps, in some cultivars, turn bright red when they have enough sunlight. I'm not sure if mine is one of those- it probably is, but green is nice enough on its own.

From my researches, I understood that flytraps are notoriously difficult to grow and slow-growing in general, so I was surprised when within a few weeks it was cramped within its terrarium. I began the slippery and redolent task of transferring pickles from one large jar to two smaller ones and absconding with the former.

My researches have since indicated that the interior of a pickle jar is the best substitute for the atmosphere of certain parts of North Carolina.

Being a scientist, I scorn the idea of calling a plant by anything but its established name, but being an artist I rather like the idea. This particular specimen got named Milo, after the Venus de, in honor of its common name. One of my brothers and I are also fond enough of The Phantom Tollbooth to rightly appreciate the appellation.

I have fed the flytrap on two separate occasions. The first time I tried, the only trap open was the one with the remains of the fruit-fly, indicating that it had already caught something before. Each trap can only be used so many times before it simply wears out and dies, and since its edges were curled outward, I suspected that it would not close anymore. I was right.

When a new trap opened the next week, I fed it by hand. The traps are about the size of my smallest fingernail, and while they could capture something like a fruit-fly on their own, they are not strong enough to catch any larger live insects by themselves. Even if a trap is able to hold an insect larger than itself, if it is unable to seal itself completely around it, that trap will die. I fed it a pre-killed mosquito. When a live insect brushes against small trigger hairs on the pads of the trap, the trap snaps shut. Since I fed it by hand, I had to be sure and brush the insect against those hairs so that it would close.

I forgot one thing, though- after the trap closed initially, I neglected to keep prodding at it and brushing against it to simulate the action of a live insect trapped inside, and later that evening the trap reopened. The plant does this to prevent expending energy trying to digest inanimate objects such as sticks, rocks, bubblegum, and mathematics professors, which might accidentally fall into its traps. It takes so much energy for the plant to trap something that setting off empty traps just for fun will eventually kill it. When a newly-caught insect within the trap struggles, it causes the trap to seal itself and begin filling with digestive acids.

So far, all three traps that I have fed took three days to finish digesting their insects. When the traps reopen, the indigestible exoskeleton of the insect remains stuck to the leaf-pad. Unless there is a prodigious number of traps on the plant, it's not a good idea to feed more than one at once. This week, there are twelve traps open, with three additional ones unfolded as of yet, and two emerging leaf-buds, so on Wednesday, I fed two traps.

Here is a short video of the process. The voices heard in the background, with the exception of myself begging them not to shake the table, are my two botanical art students and their parents. Sometimes if the two rambunctious boys sit still and draw various plant specimens well enough, I have a flytrap-feeding afterwards.

Isn't that amazing? Watch it again. Isn't that amazing?

Here is a fly's-eye view. Look at it cross-eyed to imagine the way it must look to compound eyes.

I was greatly engrossed, edified, and entertained by Dr. Barry Rice's Carnivorous Plant FAQ, which I would recommend to anyone who was interested in growing or learning about carnivorous plants, or just for fun. Dr. Rice is a leading expert on them, and the FAQs answer everything concerning them imaginable. His book, Growing Carnivorous Plants, is also a great resource and full of lovely photographs of flytraps and other fascinating carnivorous plants, such as pitcher plants, sundews, waterwheels, and bladderworts.

Doesn't God have the most interesting ideas? Just look at what he made. This little plant, perhaps more than any other, shows evolution for the profane mockery that it is.

(Unfortunately, I was unable to exact revenge upon the mosquito that bit my forehead.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Anachronisms & Renaissance Men, Part I

Yesterday, a friend sent me a couple links to Mary-Sue tests designed to help writers ascertain if their characters are realistic or too idealized. A Mary-Sue is a character who is so endowed with desirable attributes, talents, characteristics, powers, and circumstances as to be annoyingly unbelievable and rather like a shapely plastic mannequin on which an exorbitant amount of jewelry has been hung. They're commonly seen in fanfiction and fantasy novels, and are more often than not the author fantasizing the way he would wish himself to be if the world went his way.

My characters aren't afflicted with Mary-Sueism, but as I was going through the questions and laughing at them and the results, I noticed something oddly familiar about them. After thinking about it for a moment, I retook the test answering each question for myself as if I were a book character, checking only the boxes that would indisputably apply.

For any score higher than a 71, the results say, “Irredeemable-Sue. You're going to have to start over, my friend. I know you want to keep writing, but no. Just no.”

I scored a 122.

My dears, I am a Mary-Sue. Shocking much?

Now, before anyone dashes off to run their characters or themselves through the test and despair, there is a note at the end that says the results will contain some degree of inaccuracy, and that it is even possible for someone to score very highly and yet be a well-developed, balanced, and original character. The test only takes a tally of the most commonly clichéd traits and situations, not of how cleverly or originally they are integrated into the story or of the counterbalancing challenges the character might face.

The questions that caught my attention were the ones regarding hobbies, tastes, and mental abilities- things like knowing multiple languages, singing and playing musical instruments well, having “refined” tastes in books, music, and movies, learning skills quickly, practicing martial arts, collecting interesting things, knowing a wide range of assorted facts, possessing a high level of intelligence, being expert in more than one field, being astonishingly good at something which is not one's profession, photographic memory, and dressing in an unusual style.
Are these things so unattainable that someone who lays claim to some, most, or in many cases all of them is some superhuman wonder?

My mind went spinning off down several tracks. What is so unusual about listening to good music, reading good books, and watching good movies? Is there something particularly stunning about collecting something, whether it be mollusks or stamps or minerals or bird's-nests or postcards? Is having a hobby that interests one, be it building models or crafting or photography something unheard-of? Is knowing trivia or odd bits of interesting information a superpower? Is knowing and being interested in languages besides American English the very stigma of otherworldly superiority?

The next thought was, what are people supposed to do instead? Excluding a few other unmentioned yet obvious categories such as playing sports, exercising, and any other wholesome activity, what one thing is there left to do? What is one to do, when there are no books and no music, nothing to collect, to study, to want to know simply because it's interesting, to build or sew or play with or talk about? It begins to sound like a desert island scenario. So, what do real people, not unrealistic Mary-Sues, do with their time? I asked several friends if they could enlighten me, and discovered that without these phenomenally unknown activities, modern people get addicted to video-games, shop, go to the mall, gossip, and enjoy bad music, books, and movies. Please note that I am not, of course, speaking of people who may not be particularly blessed with gifts in art and music, or whose pecuniary standing or otherwise lack of opportunity prevent their proper nurturing.

The next mental track was the realization that throughout history, the cultivation and enjoyment of these marvelously impossible activities was something that the commonest of people strove for. Even 100 years ago, these accomplishments were held in what was apparently another half of education, and one whose almost complete absence today has perhaps catalyzed the atrophy of the artistic intellect in society. I have know for a long time that I am an anachronism, but the fact that my anachronistic tastes may lead people to believe that I am not old-fashioned but unrealistic to the point of nonexistence is beyond disturbing.

Is the tendency to want to give now-unusual abilities to a character really a manifestation of a half-forgotten, almost inaccessible latent desire to pursue these things for oneself? Is it the mysterious gravitation toward a culture which is missing in the world today? Do they feel instinctively that sometimes the only progress is moving backwards? Perhaps- yet at the same time, they remain so depraved or deprived that it cannot be recognized, and until that balance comes, modern culture will remain one-sided, and what ought to be normal will remain the epitome of eccentricity.

Perhaps this was rather a far station from where my train of thought set out, but the idea I began with remains- the world shuns the enjoyment of simplicity, and the cultivation of gifts, to the point that someone who chooses otherwise is regarded as almost unreal.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story

Between writing my seventh novel, editing my third, and trying to make myself helpful with those of a handful of friends, I haven't had time for any demanding reading commitments this summer- but I can never pass up a good nonfiction picture-book whenever I come across one in the course of my rambling researches.

Be it known that I shall rant on the state of our local library system in another post.

Be it known that it meets only the most primitive of requirements to deserving the appellation of Library, viz., it contains books beneath a roof.

Be it known that it might not even be a library after all, since it doesn't really have any books and warehouse-style skylights aren't quite the same as roofs.

Anyway, I did find a fascinating book last week: The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story, by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola. It came up on a search in the library system for nonfiction books on caving (one of many things I love reading about) and I ran to hunt it down before someone else got to it first.

It begins with telling how the authors, two expert American cavers, were exploring some cave systems in the Ukrainian countryside. On later hearing locals allege that several Jewish families had hidden there during the holocaust, they became interested and attempted to investigate- but all their searches for more information deadended, until they were contacted by a survivor who shared the harrowing and almost incredible story of courage and raw determination.

The families had indeed lived in the caves, concealed in a subterranean world, from October 12, 1942 to April 12, 1944. Assisted only by neighbors who left them food, they lived day to day in complete darkness, under threat not only from the Nazis who frequently searched and blocked the sinkholes and known entrances, but from the dangers of the caves themselves.

After meeting with the survivors of the families, the authors returned to the caves and found the chambers where they had lived and the tortuous passages they had penetrated. The book is full of photographs of the simple artifacts, the caves and their surrounding regions, and haunting black-and-white pictures of the families themselves.

The darkness of their experience is almost unfathomable. Perhaps the saddest part to me was one survivor who had been a little girl at the time, and who, in her unbroken year underground, had forgotten the sun.

Read this, if you can find a copy- it is sobering and inspiring. History books written by those who experienced and discovered it have something no textbook can ever teach. Besides what it said in itself, it heartened me to know that books like this are still written and published (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2007) and furthermore that such compelling stories can be about the strength of families.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I suppose I've kept you wondering about my blog name and picture for long enough.

Astronomically speaking, a syzygy is when three or more celestial bodies come into conjunction and for a while stand in alignment with each other; the word is from the Greek σύζυγος. It has less common meanings in astronomy, and is also used as a technical term in other fields including philosophy, poetry, and zoology.

Syzygy has been one of my favorite words since the first time I heard it many moons ago, and particularly describes the way I think- and hence the content and style of this blog.

I had originally intended to start a blog in which to post musings and advice on the mysterious art of writing and my wanderings in the world thereof. That began even further back, when I conceived the idea of writing a book about writing books, which ended up on the back burner as I actually wrote the books I was going to write about writing about. Several people expressing a degree of impatience at the nonforthcoming help, or otherwise, that I had vaguely promised, I figured that I could start smaller with a blog, and if I ever came up with anything press-worthy I could always compile, edit, and publish my posts in print.

Pondering the idea more, I realized that while writing may be the way in which I am best gifted to communicate my passion with others, it would be nothing without the things I write about, the things which inspire me, and the things I love besides. Among these are the worlds of music, literature, poetry, philosophy, the sciences, the outdoors, martial arts, foreign languages and cultures, and history- all within the universe of my Catholic Faith. What I have to say about writing would mean nothing if I excluded them.

The picture represents the galaxy in my multidimensional, multifaceted, multifarious mind.

I walk in many spheres. When these come into alignment with each other, my mind and soul are illuminated, ignited, and inspired.

It's a Syzygy of Worlds.

Also, it sounds cool.