Monday, February 28, 2005

precision writing

I've been reading the Sabriel trilogy, by Garth Nix. He's really good, but every now and then there's an awkward phrase or a wrong word ("vertice?") or something that's just puzzling. The winner so far: the phrase "with goat-like precision."

Goat-like precision? Yep. If you know what that means, let me know. But as far as I know, that's not really a thing, is it?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

sick weekend

This was going to be the Weekend of Love. I arrived late Saturday night, driving into town straight from a show that lasted till nearly midnight, to be with my wife. We did the usual Sunday morning things, but then we were to have the evening Sunday and all day Monday and Monday night together.

Then we got sick. Catherine started feeling terrible, and I started feeling terrible too. All our plans of love and romance were scrapped; we've just been sitting around tending each other.

Then again, what better weekend could there have been? We've had the privilege of serving each other for a couple of days now, reaffirming our vow to remain together in sickness and health. And certainly it's better than if we'd been sick separately, in different towns, without each other to lean on.

One does wish, though, that blessings didn't always seem to come in such bitter wrapping.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

to sing with the understanding

There's been a convergence of themes in my life recently. First of all, Catherine and I just had our 1,123rd day of knowing each other. The Eleventy-leventh day was fun, but of course the 1,123rd is our Fibonacci day. (Actually, real Fibonacci numbers would be 987 or 1597, but, taken separately, 1, 1, 2, and 3 are the more well-known.)

Second, I was just reading a rather one-sided interview with Benoit Mandelbrot, in which he looks back over his life as this rambling series of curiosities, to which he can only now ascribe a shape. What a brilliant man, and a kindred soul, recognizing as he did and does the beauty of numbers and their relationships.

And, third, for a few weeks now I've been haunted with a phrase from the writings of St Paul. Everyone recognizes his great rhapsody on love from his letter to the Corinthians: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love.... Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things.... And the greatest of these is Love." But on the next page there's a little rhapsody on the mind that very few know. It culminates with a phrase I've loved for a long time:

I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

I've inscribed that line on the doorposts of my life. It says so much about who I want to be. Most people don't even recognize the idea of singing with the understanding. Our culture creates dogfights between the heart and the mind, stacked so that the heart always triumphs, as if it had to.

Ah, but the brain has its passions, of which passion knows nothing.

When I think of singing with the understanding, I think of the guys who developed the remarkable Graphing Calculator for Macintosh computers. Their story itself is worth knowing, and the product itself is gloriously worth seeing. It's exactly the sort of thing that Mandelbrot would appreciate: indeed it's the sort of thing he paved the way for, turned on as he was with how things looked. You can come up with an equation like this:

sinxy + .5cos2x + .33sin3y + .25cos4(x+y)

1 + | sin5y + .5cos6x + .33sin7y + .25cos8x |

and know that it's a simple prescription for a surface, but when you actually see it, rendered and painted, it becomes something else entirely.

It becomes easy to imagine that you could come up with an equation that would produce the Rocky Mountains, and another the Himalayas. And, from there, who couldn't wonder about the great creator of all this, the developer of phi, whose sorcery brought into existence the properties called — well, what were they called, for millennia, for eons, until just a moment ago when Mandelbrot decided to call them "fractals"? Yet there they were, nameless to us lower creatures, shaping our existence.

Who couldn't fall in love with such a creation? Who couldn't desire to leap among the numbers and letters, to whale-leap through the naked cosmos? I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

i can do that

I've been listening, for professional reasons, to the song "I Can Do That," from the soundtrack to A Chorus Line. That's the one where a guy tells the story of how he became a dancer: watches sis go pit-a-pat, says I can do that. Goes to dance class, has it made, "and so I staaayyyeeed, the rest of my life."

On the cast recording, that last line resonates. The way he sings it, you can hear every drop of pleasure he takes in having stayed, every bit of gusto in having danced the rest of his life. But there's a great line that happens toward the end of the song that fills in a lot more: after a showoffy dixielandish dance section, he recaps with the shouted line, "That I can do!" before ending with the final titular line.

That phrase says it all, no? The song doesn't go into detail about what this person's experience was in school, trying to do all the other things that boys are supposed to be able to do: throwing balls, catching balls, snapping towels, tackling, bantering with the girls. But the grammatical inversion of "that I can do," with its unmistakable meaning that his discovery of something he's good at is an arrival and a homecoming, puts a ping into the song that lifts it to another level, without ever wallowing in the usual outcast-art-fag tropes.

It's the most redolent phrase in the whole show. Of course, the show being what it is, that's not saying a whole lot. To be more accurate, it's the most redolent phrase I've come across in that genre in a long time. Fun to have something to point and click on.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

le petit mort

I was lying in Catherine's arms last night, after a particularly wonderful evening, when I thought once again that I don't want to live without her. She's mentioned the same thing. Wouldn't it be ideal for us to die together?

That's when you're tempted to want some product like Male-Female Final Cialis, guaranteed to cause mutual death at the best of all possible moments — but of course such a thing isn't ultimately desirable at all. It's the very unpredictability of life, including the timing of its end, that makes it so wonderful for us to have each other to go through it with in the first place. Now I guess I finally understand why the French refer to le petit mort.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

the cuddly menace

Just what is it that's so wrong with so much religious pop art? And what is it that's so wrong with so much of what's directed at children? And what if you combine the worst of both?

Apparently, one guy decided that the best way to resolve all this was to, in the manner of the late great Dysfunctional Family Circus, replace the text of a children's book he found with his own far more fitting text.

The result: The Cuddly Menace. Especially toward the end, where he makes use of the children's eerie blank eyes, it's truly worth a visit for anyone who desires to think deeply about faith and culture.

(Thanks to Jason Young, whose journal is finally running again, for turning me on to this.)

Friday, February 4, 2005

unelected mullahs

Condoleeza Rice's smug remark about "unelected mullahs" surely has a good audience here in America: even critics of Bush's invasion have recently shut up as he and his gang have trumpeted the Iraqi elections as their own victory.

What on earth do people think, that this election was actually part of anyone's plan a year and a half ago? Is everyone really just rolling over and saying, "Wow! A free election in Iraq! Bush was right after all! Hooray for Bush!"? Where's that famous Liberal Media?

Of course, this election was far from Bush's (or Cheney's, or Rumsfeld's) mind until well after the mushroom-cloud sunglasses came off. We originally planned, you do remember (don't you?), to install our own man, admittedly not a mullah but certainly unelected, as Iraq's leader. That was Ahmed Chalabi. No election in sight, free or otherwise — just stick him in an office and call him the head honcho, and off we go.

Well, you recall what happened when the Chalabi plan didn't quite work out, right? Yep: Paul Bremer. Ah, the white man's burden! Old Kipling is probably the only quotable *not* blushing in his grave. Of course, that idea wasn't incredibly popular, there or here.

That's when one of those unelected mullahs Condi Rice so despises — actually a Grand Ayatollah — incited his followers to riot, demanding none other than a free election. The Bush team at first stonewalled, then reluctantly agreed, with the following stipulation: that the election be put off till after November 2nd.

So here it is February and, once again, Bush's summary is "Mission Accomplished."

Thursday, February 3, 2005

indian food

I sniffed my armpit yesterday and noticed that it smelled exactly like the Indian food we'd eaten the night before. This can mean either of two things. Either the food is so pungent that it comes out of your pores, or Indian food smells like sweat.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

zen instructions

Last summer, Catherine and I got a beautiful, well-designed wake-up clock. It's hard to even call it an alarm clock because it's so un-alarming. The signal is an actual bell that sings a pure clear high E, ringing on a 10-minute pattern of quickening pace, based on the Golden Mean. It's ingenious. We love waking up to it.

But I was just now reading the instruction book that comes along with it, to see about its highly touted special features. My first clue was the long discourse on the clock's "Pythagorean" tuning. Meaningless! The bell is, after all, a single tone; Pythagoras's ideas were on the ratios between tones. Somehow they get from there to "reflecting the vibrations of nature — the motion of the planets and the frequencies of life." OK, maybe we'll forgive the corny bogusness, along with all the new age claptrap about dream incubation and affirmations — standard post-Peterman issue for this type of thing. But then the booklet talks about how you can use the chime in meditation.

And I quote:
"The first and most basic use of the clock in your meditation practice is as a signal of the end of your allotted meditation time. If you want to meditate for 20 minutes, simply set the alarm 20 minutes into the future and begin your meditation."

The wonder of it all! But it ain't over. There's also the future-matic acousto-organic volume control feature, available on all models free of charge:
"For a softer chime, simply place the clock some distance from you."

Don't they know that an instruction book like that actually makes the clock seem less valuable? Ah well. The thing itself remains. I'll toss the book (or send it to Jay), and enjoy this truly well done marriage of function and form.

Tuesday, February 1, 2005


It's not often that you get to use the word Eleventy-leven. But we used it yesterday, because yesterday was the 1,111th day Catherine and I have known each other.

We celebrated by going to the doctor, eating at her parents' house, and then coming back home for who knows what. It's just a pleasure to have her in the car with me, sitting next to me, sleeping beside me. How many years will we have each other's company? Eleventy-leven, I hope.