Sunday, May 22, 2011

Looking Through an Old Dictionary

My roommate has the same dictionary from 1979 that my parents had when I was a kid.  American Heritage, with a glossy red cover, and the outside edges of the pages flecked with little pink dots.

I was looking for a word the other day, but I was immediately drawn in by the illustrations and photos on the side of each page, images I hadn't seen since I was a small child, rendered in black and white.  Pictures of Schopenhauer, of Emile Zola, of aardvarks and zebus.  I knew what Zola looked like years before I knew anything about him.

And there were the tables.  The tables of the orthographic pronunciation of the English language, in both IPA and proprietary American Heritage style, and of the derivation of the many languages of the Indo-European family.  Modern Assamese and Manx traced back through Middle High German, Faliscan, Avestan, Umbrian.

But the best was the measurement table.  The image of the table brought back memories of writing on sheets of printer paper that my mother had brought home from work; they still had copy from the Des Moines Register on one side.  I drew out diagrams of machines that had never been invented, pictures of rocket cars and maps of imaginary towns, always using the measurement table as my benchmark.  In my sketches, I endlessly divided length into rods and yards, weight into measurements both avoirdupois and apothecary.

On the right was the table of scientific units.  But I didn't approach it in any kind of scientific way.  This half a page seemed to contain all the mysteries of the adult world.  This was how they controlled everything-- they knew the eldritch rites of the joule and the coulomb, the farad and the candela.  If I was ever to enter the adult world, I would need to be inducted into their mysteries.  My drawings became decorated with meaningless measurements in hertz and ohms, an elaborate nonsense of Greek letters and decimals, all seeming to carry the gravity of profound science.

Remember Back to the Future?  The flux-capacitor?  You've almost certainly heard the words flux and capacitor elsewhere.  How many of you can actually define them?

The important thing isn't the science.  It's the ritual crossing into something that seems like science but is completely meaningless.  That's what I did as a seven year old child.  Without knowing it, I took the chart of scientific measurements approved by an international association, something so technical and positivist, and turned it around, took flight with it, used its symbols as the basis for something completely imaginary.

When I look back through the dictionary, the mystery of it is gone.  It has become a tool-- and not a very good one, it didn't have the word I was looking for-- instead of a totem of grown-up knowledge.

But a trace of that opacity and mysteriousness remains.  The long-dormant memories that are summoned forth are memories of these specific pictures and tables, independent of any underlying meaning.  These images of Schopenhauer and Zola have nothing to do with the Schopenhauer and the Zola that I would go on to read in my twenties.  They are little crystals embedded in the continuum of memory.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Blogging

Why do we blog?

I shouldn't be blogging.  I'm not a technically apt person.  I write-- always have-- but why blog?  I don't even have an Internet connection at home.  I used to have a blog when I was 17.  A Livejournal.  You know the type, I complained a lot about girls not liking me and claimed, with a straight face, that Sufjan Stevens changed my life.

Blogging is probably the most self-indulgent form of human communication.  The solitary writing process is transformed into public flailing.  People want to believe that their own musings have value, and so they type unedited streams of half-formed thoughts and expect people to read them.

There are bloggers who fetishize and giggle over their insecurities and postmodernities, there are bloggers who gush over the latest gadgets or remixes, there are bloggers who write hopelessly misinformed political screeds based on their own provincial preconceptions.  I don't want to be any of those.

OK, so it's self-indulgent.  But eating a nice meal is self-indulgent, having that second beer is self-indulgent.

I read some blogs sometimes.  Ones written by friends.  Or ones dealing with totally wonky topics that I think are rad.

I really can't think of a good reason to write this thing, other than that I've been contemplating it for a long time, and that I want someplace to collect the thoughts that I feel have some validity... the sorts of thoughts that arrive on a gray fall afternoon on one's back porch.

So let's set up some ground rules.

1. Every entry must be at least 300 words.
2. Don't ramble.  Keep on topic.
3. Edit, edit, edit.  After writing an entry, wait at least 24 hours before posting it to the web.
4. I can post pictures of things I think are dope.  The Internet is good for pictures of things.  But this isn't Tumblr.  I barely understand what Tumblr is.  It seems to have a lot of pictures though.
5. There are many events in daily life that make great stories when told to friends over a coffee, but are totally unsuitable for writing down.  They have relevance within a specific moment or with certain people.  They don't deserve to be broadly disseminated.
6. We may have experiences that have great value to us, but they shouldn't necessarily to be translated to print.  Maybe what makes them special is something we can't even grasp.  Or maybe they are experiences that everyone has had and, because of that, it's difficult to make them interesting.  Have you ever noticed that everyone's story about the first time they do mushrooms is the exact same?
7. Lists are fun, but they get annoying pretty fast.  I used to think they were super cool.  I still kind of do.  But does anyone not skim those long lists of stuff in House of Leaves?
8. Try to avoid expressly political diatribe.  It's really, really easy for me to fall into that and become some sneering little punk spouting Marxist cant.
9. Don't fall into the trap of constantly reviewing the books I'm reading or the movies I'm seeing.  You can read a book or a movie review anywhere.
10. Don't try to make grand statements.  They tend to be Procrustean beds.

Onward and upward.