Thursday, November 18, 2010

1999 (For All Confirmands)

Here is a poem I just discovered wasting away in a metal filing cabinet in my basement.  I wrote it more than ten years ago, but just put the finishing touches on it today.

1999 (For All Confirmands)

The world is young and in her lover's hands.
She's not the aged spinster some have said.
Regeneration has released the bands
Of Lucifer, who chained her in his bed.

Another lover now caresses her,
Who found her torn and bloody and in need.
And lately he has compassed her with myrrh.
And lately, too, has given her his seed.

Another thousand years will soon be gone.
Another thousand soon to hear his mirth.
A new millennium can safely dawn
With such a lover ravishing the earth.

Come, drink, all you his holy confirmands.
The world is young and in her lover's hands.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Courting Danger

I don't really like safety.  There, I've said it.

One of the great things about hot rods (other than that they are loud, fast, and cool looking) is that they are just a tad dangerous.  That is why they draw the attention of adrenaline junkies such as myself.

I do understand both the feelings and the logic of those who are more risk-averse than myself.  I just can't seem to feel it the same way they do.  And they, in turn, do not understand the fact that I am drawn to situations in which there is an element of risk. 

Yesterday some friends, who had been without heat in their house for four days, called me with an urgent request.  The man was coming to their Hamtramck house to turn on the gas, but they were delayed while helping a relative, and were trapped out of town.  They asked me to go over to the house and let the gas man in.  "But I have no key!" I objected.  Oh, you can just climb in the front window and let yourself in that way.  This is not something I was at all comfortable doing.  So ... I did it.  Partially to help them, and partially for the thrill of it.

It is exactly as I wrote the other day, here:
I need to feel myself a rebel in some sense, and part of a conspiracy. At the same time, I need to feel that my actions are righteous, and that I am fighting on the side of the angels.
And this "mission" filled the bill quite nicely.  It was a mission to help some friends not freeze at night ("fighting on the side of the angels":  CHECK!), but at the same time it was breaking into a house in broad daylight in a not-very-nice neighborhood ("feel myself a rebel in some sense": CHECK!).
But I was supposed to be talking about hot rods, wasn't I?  One of my (and my son Eliot's) heroes is Wild Willie Borsch.  You will notice in these photographs that, though drag racing is intended to be a straight-line sport, the car is usually sideways.  Do you think Wild Willie got out of the throttle during those crazy losses of control?  Not on your life.  Then he would have been "Safe Willie" Borsch, or perhaps "Mild Willie" Borsch.

In summary, I don't want to hurt the people around me.  I don't want to die before my time.  But if you are going to be my friend, you are going to have to watch me get sidewise every now and again.  I can't live any other way.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Splendid Sparsity (Part 2)

Here is another of those splendidly sparse songs.  The kind that works magic on your heart, but falls to pieces if you try to take it apart and see why it works.  Under analytical scrutiny, there doesn't seem to be any reason why this song should work so well.  But it does.

Today, I Started Loving You Again

Today I started loving you again
I'm right back where I've really always been
I got over you just long enough to let my heartache mend
Then today, I started loving you again

What a fool I was to think I could get by
With only these few millions tears I cry
I should have known the worst was yet to come
And that crying time for me had just begun
Cause today I started loving you again
I'm right back where I've really always been
I got over you just long enough to let my heartache mend
Then today I started loving you again
Well today I started loving you again
I'm right back where I've really always been
I got over you just long enough to let my heartache mend
Then today I started loving you again
Then today I started loving you again
This song has basically two unique verses, and only one idea.  But I bow before its majesty.  My only clue is that it works by putting the hearer to work.  The listener hears what the song is about, and fills in all the voids with the sad tincture of his own sorrow.  At least, I do.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Splendid Sparsity

Up until about 8 years ago, I fancied myself a songwriter.  Until that time, I was pretty happy about the songs I was writing.  They accomplished what I had intended for them to accomplish.

But then I started running into a series of songs that I perceived to be infinitely better than mine.  They were, for one thing, more general than mine.  This allows the listener to imagine that the song is about him.  But it wasn't just that.

As I began to dissect some of these songs, usually in order to learn to sing and play them, they seemed to fall apart in my hands.  When I wrote out the lyrics on a page, there seemed to be almost nothing there.  And yet, when sung, they gave me goose flesh.  They almost made my heart stand still.  I still don't really understand this type of songwriting magic very well.

But I can give you instances of it.  This is Good To See You, from Neil Young.  (I'll feature another song some other day.)

Good to see you
Good to see you again
Good to see your face again
Good to see you
I'm the suitcase in your hallway
I'm the footsteps on your floor
When I'm lookin' down on you
I feel like I know what my life is for

Good to see you
Good to see you again
Good to see your face again
Good to see you

I've been down on the endless highway
I passed on the solid line
Now at last I'm home to you
I feel like making up for lost time

Good to see you
Good to see you again
Good to see your face again
It's good to see you
Behold the economy of words used by Neil there!  My jaw just drops when I look at this.  Look how much room he leaves for the listener to do the work of putting together the story, instead of finishing every corner himself.  Here is just one phrase I love:
I passed on the solid line
Now, if I had written this line, it would have said something like: "I drove home real fast."  But look what he does:  He paints an entire picture of the driver as eager lover, taking the risk of passing when the line on the road tells him not to.  He badly wants to be back home to his beloved.  You can just see his car swerve out around a slow truck, blow past it, and fall back in line.  And Young tells us this, paints this entire scene, in six (6!) words.

And that is why I don't write songs any more.

Monday, November 8, 2010

My Version of Chesterton's "Double Spiritual Need"

In the first chapter of his landmark work Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton set forth a "double spiritual need" which is common among men and which, by his reckoning, only the orthodox Christian faith can adequately answer:

I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.  I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool.  I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one's self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.  This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?  How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?
To show that a faith or a philosophy is true from every standpoint would be too big an undertaking even for a much bigger book than this; it is necessary to follow one path of argument; and this is the path that I here propose to follow. I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance.

Lately, it has occurred to me that I also have a dual spiritual need, which has only been adequately fulfilled, really, since I have been Anglican.  I thought at first that it was separate from and parallel to the dual need expressed by Chesterton, but now I think it is merely a specialized case of it.

It is this:  I need to feel myself a rebel in some sense, and part of a conspiracy.  At the same time, I need to feel that my actions are righteous, and that I am fighting on the side of the angels.

This need is, of course, precisely delineated and answered in our Lord's command, recorded in the 10th Chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel:

... be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
Because the world is currently captive to a usurper and his forces, we can easily get our fill of rebellion, insurgency, and adventure.  Yet, because we fight for the true King, we can be comfortable in the knowledge that our actions (if we are good soldiers) are ratified by Heaven.

I have felt this double need, simultaneously fulfilled, many dozens of times since becoming an Anglican.  I felt it particularly when I was still organizationally linked to that great Satan, The Episcopal Church.  We traditionalists were always embattled, almost always losing, rebellious to the death (if necessary) against the Zeitgeist, but at the same time, innocent as doves regarding the commandments of God.  I don't know any other feeling which satisfies me as much.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On Being Stuck at a Local Optimum

It seems that my seven years of engineering school were not a total waste.  For they have given me ways to think about life's problems that might otherwise not have occured to me, such as the distinction between global and local optima.  ("Optima" is the plural of "optimum", which means "the best" place.)

My contention (from looking at my own life and the lives of others) is that we humans often get stuck at a local optimum, and that we lack the faith or the initiative to seek for the global optimum.  There are reasons for this.

In the accompanying plot, the vertical axis could be anything you seek in life (e.g., happiness), or anything you wish to eliminate from your life (e.g., fear).  I have drawn the curve so that the lower you are on the curve, the better things are for you.  The horizontal axis indicates things in your life over which you have direct or indirect control.

Picture yourself at the point labelled "Local Optimum".  As far as you can tell, things are going as well as can be expected.  How do you know this?  You know it by sensing the gradient (or slope) to the left and right of your position.  If you move to the left, the curve goes up (meaning: your life gets a bit worse).  If you move to the right, the curve also goes up (your life gets worse in that direction also).  So, it seems logical to stay where you are.  Right?

Well, perhaps not.  There may be some much better point (the Global Optimum) where your life would be much happier.  But there are two problems:

(1)  You probably cannot see the Global Optimum.  You may only be able to see for a short distance in either direction from your present location.

(2)  Even if you know it is there, your life has to get worse (or at least, harder) before it gets better.  There will be sacrifice (moving far up on the curve) before things begin to improve.

Of these two problems, I think that the first is by far the worse.  Without a vision of a better place, it is not easy (and, perhaps, not advisable) to set off to find it.  This calls for faith, and for the vision of another, who can see both your position and the Global Optimum.  The second problem is still daunting for some.  One knows of and believes in the existence of the Global Optimum (or even some better Local Optimum), but one seems unable to gather the required strength to climb the hills necessary to reach it.  This part calls for courage.

Maybe you fancy yourself to be at your life's Global Optimum; I do not.  Today, let us catch a vision of how our lives could be better, more glorifying to God.  And let us start climbing.