Saturday, June 26, 2010

Essays and Blogs

Here it is, my 75th post. My astute readers will have noticed that for every 25 “postings” I do a piece explaining essays. I say “posting,” not “blog,” because hey, I’m not a blogger: I’m an essayist. But today I'll try to explain blogs too.

When telling people I have a hobby of writing, I merely say I write “nonacademic” essays, and leave it at that. I couldn’t begin to explain in just a sound bite how the essays school kids learn to write are—ahem!— for kids. In the wider world essays start out with different goals and functions, and of course follow different forms. Open any magazine and see: An adult essay never ends with “in conclusion;” it very seldom begins with a topic sentence as a thesis to be “proven.” Such writing would be “bad form.”

I’ve heard that essays in The New Yorker will begin by meandering along and then finally, at the bottom of the first page, announce the topic. This form allows busy New Yorkers, in their fast-paced city, a nice chance to stop rushing… and fix on something that rewards an adult attention span. I wish internet blogs were simularly aimed at adults.

It was a guy with a decent attention span, Paul Graham, who inspired me to do my own internet essays. Graham noted, in his Age of the Essay, that the internet had existed for a few years before people figured out they could use it for blogs. (web log or public diary, with people's comments) His hope was that soon people would figure out they could use it for essays too. This hasn’t happened yet, and I’m losing hope it ever will. So far, no one else writes wide ranging essays like Graham, while my number of bookmarked essayists I can count on the fingers of one hand—not including my thumb.

I was at university when personal computers arrived for the public—but not for the university, not yet. Computers weren’t quite an everyday topic of conversation for people, not nearly as often as when color TVs or 10-speeds arrived, but still there was a trace of the old “left out” feeling if you didn’t have one. Naturally, among us starving students, only the nerds were motivated enough to get one. After all, a computer cost more than a used car.

I remember, back then, being at a seminar of people from Strategic Studies. Some one asked why armies still had those big expensive all-too-vulnerable tanks. I quipped, “Tanks are like personal computers: Everyone knows you should have them… but no one knows quite what to do with them.” As for computers, what we did with them was do household accounts, write letters, address envelopes and, uh… mostly guys resorted to playing computer games like Space Invaders.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Students, Alumni and Couches

I was pleased to see the smiling face of a university alumnus, Bob Van Wegen, pictured in the Calgary Herald. I knew he lived in the beltline, downtown, and there he was, the instigator for getting that drab old Memorial Park revitalized. I had first known Bob when we were involved in volunteering at the university student newspaper, the Gauntlet. Since then, down the years, I have occasionally run into him in person, and I’ve seen his name in passing as being a part of various downtown community initiatives. Other people, unknown to me during my campus years, remain unknown to me still.

I suppose Bob’s volunteering has included lots of ongoing meetings, dull and dreary, meetings no perky TV voice would call, “exciting, new-improved, and revolutionary!” Of course, it would easier for Bob to watch TV than to get involved, easier to wear out a cushion on the couch while holding a cell phone to one ear. For a lot of graduates, the sort I never hung around with at university, the weekday default is work...TV/electronics...sleep.

This I know because

Friday, June 11, 2010

Older Work Ethic 

He was the man that cannot steer, that cannot splice, that dodges the work on dark nights; that, aloft, holds on frantically with both arms and legs, and swears at the wind, the sleet, the darkness; the man who curses the sea while others work.
-Joseph Conrad, The Nigger and the Narcissus

A colleague and I were talking about how we both used to feel badly, many years ago, at how older grown men were such better workers than us. I don’t just mean seeing old farmers laboring better than us healthy kids; I mean how older folks in general had a tougher work ethic.

I might compare my work observations to seeing younger kids playing ball: it was natural for boys to step back when receiving a hard pass. At some time this changes for them. As young adults it was natural for my peers to step back from work. They’d rather work than be bored, but still, it was natural to step back. I didn’t notice when this changed. Come to think of it—ha!—I remember a guy who used to hate me for always smiling on Monday morning!

There was a scene in one of my childhood young adult novels, Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein. The colonel of the regimental spaceship is in the office having a relaxed very late afternoon conversation with his executive officer. They are talking about Life and departed comrades. The exec jokes about “I’m no hero” and being “lazy.” Next day the colonel comes to work quite early and is not surprised to find his professedly “lazy” exec already at his desk working. The two work silently in the early hours.

I recall once finding my platoon sergeant at his desk very early. I was up working too, but only because I’d worked out a deal with him: In return for time off for an important afternoon errand, I said I’d have the decks swabbed and totally dry before any one else was up.

Today, at last, I’m older than my sergeant was.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Art and Big Brother

"We are reminded that, in power, both the Nazis and the Soviets banned and burned abstract art. Curious, that art which which claimed to represent nothing nevertheless represented so much to them. Perhaps art is a threat to totalitarianism when it does not have a clear, censurable subject and is left to the musings of the public."
Roger Ebert's review of the movie Max, about a post-war sympathetic Jewish associate of Adolph. 

"...   but I kind of understand the power of where religion comes from, because art comes out of that same kind of fervour. The first artists were shamans and priests. And contemporary art, including rock music, has some of that same power—which is why many cultures ban the arts, because they know they have the power to influence and inspire."
Julie Taymore, director of the stage play Spiderman, interviewed by Oprah in O, the Oprah Magazine, p. 199, February 2011 

"When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives."
“If this goes on—” (1939) By Robert Heinlein, published in Revolt in 2100.

I cannot prove it intellectually, but I feel emotionally certain that art is vital to freedom and democracy…

You know the concept: The world is your mirror. Learn a new word, and you start coming across it. Buy a special automobile, and soon you start seeing that model on the road. Believe in racism, you meet racists. Believe in goodness…

The mirror can be changed, of course, and you know that concept too: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Unhappily, the opposite is also true: My mansion has many windows, but most of them are covered in black velvet. Or as Nancy Friday once expressed it in My Mother, Myself, when her therapist told her something important “it would run out of my head like water.”

This has recently happened to me. I had contributed a comment to one of my bookmarked essayist/bloggers, Scott Berkun. His wife is an artist, so I presume he is not your stereotypical computer nerd, although he is indeed a computer guy who used to be software project manager. Now he is a consultant and writer. His post was about needing design skills, art, and not solely computer skills. My comment, in the middle of other folk’s comments, included “hey, I’ve just realized” and “wow.” None of the other comments, understandably, picked up on mine, partly because (wow) it was a little out of emotional sync and partly because the students were not ready. And neither was I.

This I know because a few weeks later, reviewing Berkun’s works, I came across my own comment. What? Did I say that? And I realized: My insight had run from my head like water. At the time, I wrote how I couldn’t imagine a pimp allowing his stable of “girls,” not women, to buy easels and learn art and excitedly share their growing power with each other. So let me grapple with this insight again so it sticks this time.