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Puzzling behavior

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

This morning I finished a 1,000-piece puzzle that I’ve been working on, in spare moments (in short supply these days!) since Labor Day weekend. It probably takes me a lot longer than most people to do a puzzle like this because I don’t have enough table-top space in any one room to do the puzzle in one place; I have two small tables in two different rooms. I dump out all the pieces in one room and start to assemble them, and then take the assembled bits into the other room. When I get a fixed idea of what, say, the next ten pieces I need look like, then I go back to the other room to hunt for them, but usually I end up finding something else, etc. I can’t keep more than about a dozen puzzle pieces in my memory at one time, so there are many trips back and forth.

It also probably slows me down that I don’t spend much time looking at the box to see what the puzzle is supposed to look like. (In fact, back when my vision was better and I had more time, I used to enjoy doing puzzles upside down and then flipping them over to see what the picture was, a game invented and mastered by one of my grand-aunts.) My wife uses the opposite strategy — she spends a lot of time looking at the box and figuring out exactly where each piece goes, so she can put a piece exactly where it’s supposed to go even if she hasn’t found its neighbors. I don’t know where things go in the final image, but I know which pieces are their neighbors. I tend to do things like blue skies, snowy fields, and other monochromatic areas first, because anything that distracts my eye from the shapes slows me down. As I have mentioned before, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be.

I think my younger daughter uses the same sort of method as my wife, but it all happens too frighteningly fast to be sure. She can put together a puzzle of a painting in less time than it took to paint the original.

A side effect of the way that I do puzzles is that I tend to start at one end and fill in or expand out.  In this case, I started near middle of the puzzle, where there is a river in the image, and all of the pieces have a characteristic color. In the foreground, on the near side of the river, are some farmers, and a little past them, in the distance, are some people strolling along a river. Beyond them, there is a boat on the river. I finished this part of the puzzle — which contains all the people — by Labor Day. Today I finished the top part of the tree that dominates the entire image, and then stepped back and viewed the image in its entirety. I had been focussing so much on the tree that I’d almost forgotten about the people in the image.

p.s. I’ve done this puzzle before; you might have seen the photos I posted. You can find an image of the original work here. It’s a wonderful work and I’m thinking of buying a large copy to hang in our dining room.

Prayer

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

For Alice

I had a professor who would put extra questions at the end of each
assignment. The extra questions weren’t numbered, and they weren’t
assigned a point value. He put them there because he thought that
they were fun problems and that some of the students would enjoy
trying to solve them. Computer Science, after all, is populated by
people who think that solving hard problems is fun.

One day a student asked the professor whether the extra questions
were worth extra credit — whether successfully answering them would
improve his grade in the class.

This was a question that hadn’t come up before, and it took a moment
for the professor to compose his answer. It was one of the few times
I witnessed, over several semesters, when someone had asked this
professor a question that had required obvious effort to answer.
Even the other faculty admired his intellect and gift for exposition.

“You won’t get extra credit for them,” he answered. “Anyone who can
answer them should already be doing very well in this course, as far
as grades are concerned. However, if you do answer them correctly,
then if you wish, before graduation I will write you a strong
letter of recommendation.”

I don’t write about religion very often, because I don’t have much to
write, and even less that I think anyone would want to read. Every
once in a while, however, I am moved to write something about my
spiritual beliefs. I hope that you won’t thing that I’m
proselytizing or looking for converts; I don’t expect that what I
write will have any effect on your own beliefs, nor will I be
offended if you disagree in whole or in part.

I don’t believe that God answers prayers. More generally, I don’t
think that God modifies the course or outcome of events based on the
desires or wishes, however fervent or well-phrased, of his
worshippers.

However, this doesn’t mean that he is not listening. I believe that
he’s listening very carefully.

I believe that God judges us primarily on the impact of our decisions
— how we respond to things, and what we make of our personal
circumstances. Different people are faced with different challenges,
and make different decisions, and these decisions have an impact on
other people, and so forth. Our decisions give testimony to how we
feel about ourselves, others, and our place in the world.

Note that this belief does not agree with Christian philosophy.
There are many instances where Christianity tells its worshippers not
only how they should act, but how they should feel about
things. For example, the tenth commandment makes it clear that one
should not covet the possessions or circumstances of another.

I find it hard to go this far, but maybe this is just my personal
weakness. If someone else has something desirable, I tend to desire
it also, and I don’t know where to draw the line between simple
appreciation for an object, desiring
that thing, and coveting it. The dictionary definition of “covet” is
little help; it says that to covet is to desire inordinately, or in
some cases “without due regard for the rights of others.” This
doesn’t seem to provide much traction; simply trying to come up with
suitable and precise definitions for the terms “inordinate”, “due
regard” and “rights of others” have kept philosophers busy for
generations.

Is it possible to covet someone else’s happiness, or their state of
mind, or their good health? Is it only possible to covet things
whose possession can be transfered? Is it permitted to desire to be
as happy as my neighbor, as long as I do not actually perform any
actions that would harm my neighbor (or anyone else) in my pursuit of
equal happiness.

In my thinking, the line is crossed when your desire for something
begins to cloud your judgment, leading to bad decisions. It is OK to
wish that you had an automobile as luxurious as that of your neighbor,
and it’s even OK to make decisions about how you spend your time and
money in order to make it possible to purchase an automobile just
as nice. It is not OK, however, when your decisions lead to you to
act inappropriately.

I realize that I haven’t defined what “innappropriately” means, and
that an attempt to do so would lead to endless debate of the same
sort that would be required to settle on defintions of terms such as
“inordinate”, but this is beside the point. The essential point
is that how we choose to react to our emotions is more important
than our emotions, over which we often have little control.

Prayer is different, because prayer is internal. If you believe, as
I do, that God does not answer prayers, then prayers have no impact
on the real world. For example, you’re not ever going to be able to
tell God anything about the plight of the hungry that he doesn’t
already know; praying for the hungry to be fed accomplishes less than
contributing something to the local food pantry.

However, God is listening, and notes prayers. He notes what you
ask for, how you ask it, and why. Arguing with God is pointless.
You can’t win a debate against the all-knowing. God is not asking
for suggestions about what he should do.

But he is listening. Not so much to your requests as to the
reasoning behind them.

And when the time is right, if your reasoning is sound and your
motives are just, God will write you a letter of recommendation
that will open any door.

Do people think that you are smart?

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

There’s another one of those “answer a bunch of questions” things floating around again, and I’ve recently received several copies.  I don’t believe that the answers to most of the questions in this particular quiz are actually going to shed new light on my personality, but one of them caught my eye:

  • “Do people think that you are smart?”

Perhaps it would be best to answer this question with a story about a hypothetical situation.

Let’s imagine that we are going to meet for the first time, and we’ve arranged to get together for dinner.  Perhaps I am on a business trip, staying near your home, and you invite me to get together for dinner.  For whatever reason (and there might be many) you invite me to pick you up at your house.  Maybe you don’t drive, or maybe the idea of being environmentally responsible and only using one car appeals to you.  The precise reasoning is not important.  The essential fact is that I will be coming to your home.

I arrive slightly early, or perhaps exactly on time, but you aren’t ready yet.  Something came up.  You mean no disrespect by being late, but you’re not worried.  We’re under no time pressure and I am not put off when you tell me that you’re not ready to go and will require a few more minutes to prepare yourself.  I seem calm and unconcerned; nonchalant.  If we arrive at the restaurant late, it will not be a problem.  The restaurant will not be crowded and they will hold the table.  I have no other obligations for the evening, and small, random acts of fate such as this do not annoy me.

You ask me to make myself at home in the living room while you go and finish whatever task you need to complete before we can go.  You see me scanning through the books on the shelf behind your couch.  You wonder whether I read the same books as you do, as you go off and finish whatever it is that you need to do.  Maybe you are feeding the cat.  Or moving the laundry from the washer to the drier.  Or putting the finishing touches on an important memo for work.  Or maybe you’re finishing your face.  Or perhaps you are slipping a small dispenser of mace into your purse and making a quick call to your best friend, asking her to eat dinner tonight at the same restaurant so you have a get-away driver if I turn out to be a creep.  It could be any one of a number of things, but the details, however interesting, are not salient.

When you are finished, we go out and have dinner.  We have a light conversation.  I nurse one drink all evening.  I am amusing and passably witty, but seem to have disappointingly little familiarity with current trends, celebrities, as well as politics and recent world events.  I am polite, but I answer questions about my family and upbringing with playful evasiveness that is subtle enough that it is hard to detect when I am being honest and when I am also being disingenuous.   Eventually you conclude that my real life is not particularly interesting and I am trying to insinuate via my vague or ambiguous answers that it is much more interesting than it seems.  My answers are always honest, but perhaps incomplete, or imprecise.  Sometimes you guess that I am willfully misinterpreting your questions, but in such a way that my answers are more entertaining and illuminating than the answers you expected.  For example, when you ask me “Why did you adopt children from China?” I will spend at least fifteen minutes talking about the myriad differences between the adoption programs of different countries and the manifold differences between the different adoption services and agencies that assist people going through the adoption process.  At the end of my explanation you will have a complete taxonomy of the adoption options available and a process by which anyone interested in adoption can choose the most appropriate country from which they should adopt a child.  By the time I finish talking, you will have forgotten that what you were really interested in asking was why I considered adoption in the first place.  You have paid the price for asking the wrong question, and that price is having to listen to a facile speaker describe, with candor, humor, and insight, a topic about which you have little interest.

I mumble, and sometimes I don’t hear your questions or comments, particularly if the restaurant is crowded and noisy.  If it becomes a constant issue, I might explain that I’ve suffered quite a bit of hearing loss over the years and have a hard time understanding what people are saying when there are a lot of distracting sounds, and that sometimes I mumble or speak too loudly because I don’t always know how loudly I am speaking.  I will avoid mentioning this if I can get away with it, but if you look very puzzled by some of my answers I will assume that it is because I didn’t understand your question and responded to something I only imagined you’d asked.

At the end of the evening, I drop you off at your house and drive away.  You do not invite me in.  There isn’t even any question in your mind about whether this is an option.  I am married, as I have mentioned many times during the evening, and am not physically attractive.  You feel some doubt that whether meeting me in person was really a great idea–in your imagination, I was much better looking and more scintillating than I turned out to be in real life.   You also imagined that I would be a snappier dresser, but you chalk this up to the fact that you imagined that I would be shorter and thinner.  People who shop at Big and Tall shops don’t have the same fashion choices as people who buy off the rack and Abercrombie and Fitch.  You are willing to cut me some slack here.

The next morning, you notice something unexpected in your living room.  Over the years, from strange relatives, coworkers, and well-meaning but poorly-advised friends, you have collected a small pile of brain-teasers, puzzles, and things of that ilk.  Tangles of chain or rope and twisted metal from which the goal is to remove a ring.  Pieces of plastic or wood that have been carved or formed in strange shapes that allegedly combine in some unknown way to form a pyramid or a cube or polar bear or something.   Things that came in boxes that said things like “10,000,000 wrong ways, but only one solution!”  Things you took out of the box and played with for a few hours, or maybe a few days, and then put up on the shelf, unsolved, forgotten.  When children come over to the house, you can distract them for a few minutes with these as games or toys, but generally they just catch dust on the bookshelf behind your couch.

Today six of them are catching more dust than usual, because they are arranged in a neat line spanning your coffee table.  Each of the puzzles on the coffee table has been solved.  There are more puzzles on the shelf behind the couch, but they appear to be untouched.  You notice that the untouched puzzles are the “easy” puzzles.  The solved puzzles on the coffee table are the really hard ones, including a few that you’d given up for impossible.

How did this happen?  Who put them there?  You couldn’t think of anyone else besides me who could have arranged them like that.  But how?  How long had I been there?  You run through your memory.  I couldn’t have been alone in the living room for more than fifteen minutes, and there are six solved puzzles.  One hundred and fifty seconds per puzzle, and these are the puzzles that nobody you know has been able to make any headway on.  Just putting the pieces together, even with the answer in hand, would take most of that time.

You look again at the puzzles on the shelf.  They’re not exactly where they were.  The puzzle that your niece managed to take apart but couldn’t put back together again is whole once more.  The pyramid composed of plastic pieces now has a green piece on top, even though you are certain that when you solved it, the piece on top was red.

You revise your estimates.  The six on the coffee table aren’t the only six I solved.  They’re simply the ones I was still working on when you yelled from the other room that you were ready.  They were the six I didn’t have time to put away.

Now, if you’re still reading this, and believe that it might be even somewhat accurate, then the answer to the question is that at least you think I’m pretty smart.

Less hypothetically, the people who pay me think I’m sufficiently smart, and the people who love me don’t care all that much, and as for the rest of you, well, it probably doesn’t really matter.

Around the yard: 7/29/2009

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

If this seems familiar, it’s because I messed up the first upload and am trying again.

The last box

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

(My last thread on TBD, before the site closed on 7/13/2009)

Whenever I move my domicile, the first steps of packing are always quick and easy: dump all of the things I don’t need daily into a box, tape it up, slap a label on it, and put it in pile with the rest of the boxes. It’s a mechanical process and most of it goes very quickly.

But there are always a few odds and ends that don’t seem like there’s any box of them to go into, or that I feel I need to have with me. The things that never get packed, because they’re not really part of my belongings–they’re part of me.

The compost of notes on top of my dresser. The knick-knacks on my desk. The curios on the mantle. The stuff that can’t be replaced.

They’re all small things. Their physical sum doesn’t fill a packing box, but their meaning fills my life.

I have a number of small things like that here, but I can’t pack them. TBD is an organic part of them. They’ll have to stay. But first, I rifle through them one more time.

You know how this game is played–I’ll show you mine, and then you show me yours. I know you have some. We all do. Small things we want to say.

I’ll go first.

= = = =

First, I never knew that I could write things that people would find entertaining. Informative, sure–at my day job, I write dry, informative things all day. But I never had a clue that I could write things that people could actually enjoy reading. Not even an inkling.

But now I do have an inkling. I can string words together in a way that people enjoy reading, and I enjoy doing it.

I love it when I find something new that I enjoy doing. Isn’t it a wonderful feeling?

So, if you ever wrote to me telling me that you enjoyed what I wrote, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And if you were just bullshitting me, I will thank you from beneath the bottom of my heart to keep it to yourself.

= = = =

I’m going to miss my pile of kudos.

Positive feedback–what a breath of fresh air!

I live in a world of negative feedback. I suspect that I am not alone. What a pleasant thing it is to have a way for someone to tell you that you’ve done something that they appreciate.

The first rule of blogging

Monday, May 25th, 2009

When you get more kudos for your entry that simply reads “it’s such a nice day that I don’t think I’ll post anything today” than any of your other entries, it’s time to pack it in.

What goes around

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

It was a beautiful afternoon in May, and the campus was at the most glorious point in its delightful transition from the bleak barren wasteland of Spring recess, immediately before senior theses were due, and the lush vegetation characteristic of the grounds and students during Summer School.

Having nothing better to do, Professor Joe Biggs decided to take a stroll across the campus. On the slim but plausible chance that his amiable peer, Professor Mary Gooly, might be on campus as well, his apparently aimless wanderings brought him, as if by chance, to the neighborhood of the art building. To say that Joe and Mary were an item would be to overstate the case, but since the previous weekend, when they had met at a dinner party hosted by a common friend and shared a pleasant evening of conversation, bridge, and Wii, Joe had felt that there was a certain spark. Telephone numbers had been exchanged, email had been swapped, names googled, and discrete inquiries made. Joe knew that Mary was single, and, bucking the stereotype for her department, straight and tended to have long-term monogamous relationships.

Joe realized that his relationship with Mary had potential when he found himself imagining how he was going to explain to his family that he was involved with a woman with a notorious reputation for leading no-trump on hopelessly weak hands, but he felt confident that they would come to respect and eventually love her for her many other virtues.

The landscaping of the grounds in this area of campus was different than the history quadrangle, where Joe spent most of his time, and both the flora and fauna were considerably more colorful. As Joe approached the steps at the front of the art building, his eyes were drawn to a spiky-haired undergraduate of indeterminate gender and unnameable garb who was consulting a poster that had been taped to the door. The poster advertised the opening of an installation of the work of the students about to graduate from the department, and Joe was mildly relieved to see that the exhibit was open. This gave him a reasonable excuse to go inside the building. Perhaps he would be lucky, and Mary would be at the exhibit. After a quick calculation, he determined that his story was quite plausible, and would not sound entirely creepy. There were a number of other people walking through the doors, most likely on their way to the exhibit, so this was clearly something an ordinary person would do. Besides, he honestly enjoyed art, and some of the students were gifted artists, and so Mary’s presence or absence was really just a red herring. With a clear conscience, Joe ascended the stairs and entered the building.

The exhibit was interesting, but few of the works made much impression on Joe. Although he was the first to confess that his knowledge of art was, at best, shallow and unschooled, he knew what he liked. None of this work spoke to him.

As he neared the end of circuit, one painting caught his eye. It was simply a still life–a pencil drawing of three pears in a bowl–but it was done in a manner that appeared almost photographic in the realism and level of detail. Joe had never been able to draw anything more complicated than a smiley face, and it amazed him that someone could capture and express such detail. Even more interestingly, he knew that most of the detail was actually being supplied by his own mind; the image was constructed of stark black lines on a flat white surface, yet somehow he was able to interpolate, between these extremes, an image of fruit. He sincerely wished, as he had many times in the past, that he had the gift of being able to draw or paint.

Joe noticed that the name of the student artist was the same as the name of a student he had had in one of his classes in the previous semester. He wondered if it could it be the same Alice. It seemed likely; how many Alice Barnchesters could there be?

She had been a good student, but not exceptional, except in terms of her attendance at his office hours. After her first few visits, Joe was not sure where the earnest curiosity ended and the brown-nosing began, and by mid-term he was beginning to wonder if it would save a lot of his time if he simply gave her the answers to the homework assignments rather than endure her endless questions and requests for help. Although he was tempted more than once to remind her that he was not her personal tutor, and that many of the questions she was asking could be answered by a small amount of diligence, a library card, and a network connection, he never succumbed to that temptation. Instead, he succumbed to the temptation of permitting her to continue coming to his office hours and asking more detailed questions than appropriate, because the alternative was to resign himself to the tedium of an empty, silent office punctuated only by the the occasional unscheduled visit from someone complaining about how his or her test was graded. Joe remembered Alice with a mixture of fondness tempered with mild annoyance, and idly wondered what she was planning to do after graduation.

Joe was unfamiliar with the art building, and after he left the exhibit he found himself walking down a hall lined with small studios with large glass doors. One was occupied by someone drawing a portrait of a young man sitting on a chair and reading a book. As Joe passed, the artist came into view from behind her easel, and he recognized Alice. Without thinking about it he rapped on the glass door. Alice looked up as her model turned around, and Joe recognized Andrew, one the other students who had been in his class with Alice. Alice recognized Joe, smiled, and waved for him to come in. Andrew removed his earbuds.

“I was just at the exhibit, and I saw your still life. I thought it was remarkable. You really captured the, well, I don’t know what you would call it. The essence of the fruit. It looked very real. It impressed me, anyway.”

“Thank you.” Alice smiled and looked down.

Joe continued. “I don’t know how to draw anything myself, and you are obviously have a gift, or a knack, or whatever it would be called, and so I was wondering, if you don’t mind, if I could watch you draw for a few moments. But only if you don’t mind. I don’t want to break your concentration or get in the way or anything like that.”

“It’s OK. You can watch for as long as you like. I’m afraid it’s not very interesting to just watch, however. It might be more fun if you tried doing it, too.”

“No, I’d just like to watch for a minute. Is it OK with you, Andrew? I don’t want to get in the way.”

“It’s OK, I guess. It’s cool, as long as Alice says it’s OK.” Andrew shrugged and put his earbuds back in.

Joe sat on a folding chair at the back at the back of the studio, several feet behind Alice and a few feet to the side, where he could watch her draw on the paper and look at Andrew at the same. The drawing looked like it was nearly finished, but Alice would occasionally erase a small part of the drawing or intentionally smear other parts with her fingers, and then start on that area again. Joe was captivated. He watched as an impossibly small number of lines, seemingly placed at random, suddenly knitted together to form the image of a mans hands. A bit of shading, and they were just as suddenly Andrews hands.

“That’s amazing, how you drew his hands like that,” Joe said.

Alice continued drawing, but started to describe what she was doing. “It’s not hard. I’m not sure I can explain it, at least as well as Professor Gooly can, in technical terms, but it’s sort of half intuition and half practice.”

The mention of Mary engaged Joes attention. Joe decided it made sense to pay attention, if this was something that Mary found interesting or important. Even if he couldn’t draw, at least he need not sound completely ignorant.

Alice continued describing the process, although very little of it made much sense to Joe, who soon began to wonder whether he lacked some particular mental ability crucial to the understanding of free drawing, or whether he was suffering because another part of his brain was overdeveloped. Joe had always prided himself on having a fully functional and unusually sensitive bullshit detector.

“You know,” said Alice, “you would probably learn a lot more by actually trying to draw something than by listening to me talk. Why don’t you try drawing something right now?”

Joe was was suddenly very self-conscious. He did not want to draw in front Alice or Andrew. “I really can’t draw. I’m not being modest–I’m really terrible. It’s probably pointless for me to try and it would certainly be a waste of your time to try to teach me.”

“After all of your time I took in your office hours, it’s the least I can do to take a few minutes to tell you some pointers. Go ahead. There is an extra easel leaning against the wall, with paper already tacked on. Just move it over here, and try.”

There was a certain sweetness in her voice that made Joe overcome his embarrassment. He set up the easel and Alice handed him a pencil that looked to Joe like a fat graphite crayon.

“What should I draw? I don’t think I’m ready to draw a person.”

“Well, you can start by drawing simple forms–spheres, cones, cubes, things like that. Try to make them look real, with shading. You can make a shadow by rubbing the paper with your finger like this.”

“Maybe I will try a sphere.” Joe began to draw.

Joe began to draw. He tried to draw circles, but the results were not round. Sometimes he had problems getting the start and the end of his circles to meet, but by being slow and methodical, his circles gradually evolved from potatoes to ovals to eggs.

As he was drawing, Alice watched over his shoulder for a moment, but made no comment. Andrew looked bored and restless. Noting Andrews discontent, Alice walked over to his chair, gently pulled out one of his ear buds, leaned over and whispered a few words into his ear, and then lightly kissed him on the top of his head. Andrew popped the ear bud back in, nodded once, and smiled.

Alice returned to her work, only glancing at Joe from time to time. Joe felt that he was making great improvement, but was painfully aware that all improvement is relative. His circles were barely round, and as he tried to shade them, the results were very different from what he expected, and never seemed to be the same twice. He soon decided to simply try to reproduce the same shading more than once, in order to feel that he had any control over it at all. After several minutes he felt he had made some progress, and returned to the task of shading spheres.

Before he realized it, at least fifteen minutes had gone by. He stepped back to inspect his work. The paper was tiled with four rows of irregularly space and sized circles of varying roundness and shading. None of them looked like spheres. None of them looked like a drawing of anything in particular.

Joe thought it had been fun to try, and although he felt a slight sense of accomplishment about keeping the smeared graphite approximately where he had intended, he didn’t feel like he was making any real progress.

He put the pencil down on the easel and turned to thank Alice and tell him that he needed to go. He was surprised to see her standing immediately behind him, looking past him, at his paper.

“I thought you said you couldn’t draw,” she said. “You’re too modest. You’re great! Andrew, what do you think?”

“They’re fantastic! Practically leaping off the page! From here it looks like someone glued ping-pong balls to the paper–I can’t believe it’s really flat. I wouldn’t believe it myself, if I hadn’t watched you do it.”

“Do you really think so?,” asked Joe. He was puzzled. He turned back to look at his paper again.

A small movement at the bottom of the easel caught his eye. A small fish-eyed mirror had been glued to the bottom of the frame. Joe remembered why they were there–because the walls of the studio were mostly glass, and many of the students who worked there late at night got nervous about whether someone was looking in on them, especially after there had been reports of strange men who had an unhealthy interest in some of the nude models employed by the painting classes.

Joe glanced at the mirror. He saw Andrew flash a thumbs-up at Alice and saw Alice wave back, motioning his hand down. She had a broad smile on her face.

Joe turned to face Alice. Her face was earnest. Andrew looked enthusiastic.

“You have a gift, Professor,” said Andrew.

“I don’t see it,” said Andrew.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s awfully good,” Alice commented. And this is the first time you’ve ever tried this? I’d say that is remarkable. With a little more practice, who knows?”

Joe turned to the easel once more. In the mirror, he saw Alice motioning for Andrew to be quiet. Andrew cleared his throat.

“Which one do you think is best?” he asked.

“There are several that are good, but in different ways,” Alice answered. “I like the last two you did best.”

“I was so engrossed that I didn’t even notice that you were watching me,” Joe remarked. “These two?” he asked, turning again towards Alice. “I can hardly tell them apart. None of them look that good to me.”

“Maybe your problem isn’t that you can’t draw,” said Alice. “Maybe your problem is that you can’t recognize it when you draw well.”

“I recognize it when other people draw well. I think I can tell a good drawing from a bad drawing. Do you really think they’re that good.”

“Well, they’re a beginning. But definite signs of a gift. You’ll have to cultivate it. Nurture it. And practice a lot. But eventually you’re going to be fantastic. In fact, I think in a few weeks you could have something to submit to the faculty art magazine.”

This is complete bullshit, Joe thought to himself. But looking past Alice, he saw Mary Gooly walk by.

“Thank you very much for the lesson, Alice, and the kind words, Andrew, but I just realized that I’m very late for something,” Joe said, and quickly left the studio, in pursuit of Mary.

“Mary! Hello!,” Joe said, seeing Mary ahead of him in the hall.

“What brings you here? Doing a little drawing today?” Mary asked, looking at Joes hands, which were covered in graphite. “I thought I saw you in the studio with Alice and Andrew when I walked by, but I thought maybe I was imagining things. Are you helping them?”

“No, that’s not it at all,” explained Joe, quickly outlining the course of events that had led to this moment. “I came to see the senior projects exhibit, and when I was leaving, I ran into Alice, and stayed to watch her draw for a few minutes. I think she’s really very good.”

“How do you know Alice?”

“She was in one of my classes. So was her model, Andrew. Last semester.”

Mary looked closely at Joes face. “Is that it?”

“That’s how I know her. That’s it. But I’m intrigued by the way that you asked. Is there something about Alice that I don’t know?”

“Is it normal in the history department for professors to just drop by and socialize with their students?”

“No, not particularly, but since she used to come to office hours quite a bit, I guess a certain familiarity grew between us, so I didn’t feel uncomfortable about it. Nothing improper, in my opinion.”

“You were with an undergraduate in a closed studio, in an area of the building that doesn’t see a lot of traffic on the weekends,” Mary hissed.

“I was in a studio with a glass door, with a student and her boyfriend, and people were just walking right by. For example, you. Are you accusing me of something? If you thought there was something going on, why didn’t you poke your head in and check?” Joe struggled to keep his voice from rising. He did not see why this conversation was becoming heated.

Mary took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her shoulders relaxed. She continued in a lowered “I’m not accusing you of anything. I don’t think you’re that kind of person. Not that stupid. But Alice–she’s something to worry about. I’m worried about you.”

“How so?”

Mary looked in both directions to check that the hall was unoccupied. “Do you remember Jenkins, who left last year to take a post at UC Davis? Do you known why he left, just one year before his tenure decision?”

“No, I don’t know anything. We don’t really know what goes on in other departments. We don’t spread rumors. Historians hate rumors.”

“Well, there were rumors in our department. Rumors that he was having an affair with an undergraduate. With Alice.”

“That’s awful for her. Why wasn’t he fired? He shouldn’t be teaching at a University, if he’s that sort of person.”

“He’s not. He didn’t do it. I don’t know the details of what happened, but I know Jenkins. He wouldn’t ever have done this. I’ve known him for years and there’s no way the rumors are true. No way. But once rumors get started, the damage is done. Nobody ever remembers whether you got exonerated, they just remember that you were accused.”

“OK, that’s awful for him. But still, why the concern?”

“I don’t want the same thing happening to you.”

“I’m not involved with Alice. Not in any way.”

“I know. But it only matters what people think. And what rumors people start. She’s scary. I think she started the rumors to get rid of Jenkins.”

“That’s a strong accusation.”

“I’m her advisor. The one thing she’s good at is drawing. Academically, she’s not good at much else, but she manages to pass all of her classes, one way or the other. She works the system. It’s OK; lots of students here work the system. But last semester, she was having real trouble in Jenkins class. She wanted to transfer out, but it’s a required course not offered this semester, so she needed it to graduate. I don’t know what happened, but here’s my guess. She tried to get Jenkins to help her, one way or the other. He refused. She filed harassment charges with the Dean.”

“OK, look. She’s not in any of my classes. I probably won’t ever see her again. After this conversation, I’ll make a point of it. There’s nothing going on, and frankly, I don’t even like her right now. In fact, I’m pretty annoyed.”

“Oh?”

Joe told about watching Alice draw, and, with some embarrassment, about his futile attempts to draw spheres, followed by Alice and Andrews sarcasm and attempts to set him up for future humiliation.

“Are you sure they were joking?”

“I’m sure. I can’t draw. I stink. They were laughing at me.”

“And you’re sure she was drawing a portrait of Andrew, reading a book?”

“Yes. It would be pretty hard to miss that.”

“Well, that’s interesting. That’s her final assignment, and she’s only supposed to spend three hours on it. By my count, she’s already spent far longer, and is still working on it.”

“Final assignment? For what course?”

“Drawing and critiquing. The final assignment is to draw something to spec, and to critique a drawing submitted by another member of the class.”

“It sounds harsh, having to hear people tear apart your work.”

“It’s not like that. The critique is supposed to focus on the positive elements. No drawing is perfect–there’s always something bad to say. That’s too easy. The skill I try to teach is to find what is good about it. There’s always something good to say.”

“Not with my drawings. Unless you’re teaching people how to bullshit, they’re not going to find anything good to say.”

“Are they really that bad?”

“Horrible. I’m dying inside, just thinking about them.”

“Hmmm… I have a nasty idea. Do you think you can tolerate seeing Alice one more time?”

“What do you have in mind? Am I going to get into trouble?”

Mary quickly explained her idea. Joe added a few modifications. They smiled at each other.

“This will take careful timing,” said Joe.

“Trust me.”

“They might already be gone.”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Without answering, Joe turned on his heel and retraced his steps to the studio where Alice and Andrew had been working. They were still there, and Alice was still drawing. Joe rapped on the glass for a second time, and Alice waved him in.

“I was practically back to my car, when I realized that I have no idea where to get this kind of pencil,” he explained, standing in the doorway. “Can I have the one I was using? Or can I at least write down the brand name and number, so I can buy my own? I really want to do more drawing. Thanks to your encouragement, I think I’m really getting the hang of it.”

Joe hoped he wasn’t overplaying his part. Acting had never been one of his skills.

Leaving the studio door open, and without waiting for Alice’s response, Joe walked to the back of the studio and picked up the pencil from the easel. Andrew appeared to be rolling his eyes.

Mary appeared at the open door and quickly entered.

“Hello, Alice and Andrew. And hello, Joe! Alice I’m surprised to see you working so late. Is your final assignment finished? Haven’t you used up all of your time?”

“I’m working on something else. A graduation present for Andrew. My final drawing is finished and I’ll bring it tomorrow morning,” Alice lied without hesitation.

“Excellent. I look forward to seeing it. If it’s half as good as this drawing of Andrew reading, you will receive high marks. It’s too bad this isn’t your final project. It’s a wonderful subject.”

Alice bit her lip but said nothing. Mary paid no attention to her silence and continued talking, turning towards Joe.

“And Joe, I’m quite surprised to see you here at all! What brings you here?”

“Alice was showing me how to draw shaded objects. She said I have a gift. I drew a bunch of shaded spheres. Andrew said that he thinks they look like they’re leaping off the page. Anyway, long story short, I just came back to get a pencil.”

“Alice, are they really that good?”

Alice looked at Joe, and then back at Mary. “I thought so.”

“Can I see them?”

“Joe has them, I think. They’re not here.” The easel was empty.

“Joe, do you have them?”

“I think I left them here somewhere. They’re probably somewhere in the stack over here, by the garbage. In any case, I know I left them here, so they’re somewhere in the room.”

“Good. Listen, I have to go. But I have an idea. Alice, I want you to critique Joes spheres tomorrow morning at class. If they’re really that good, it will be a pleasure to hear your insights.” Mary turned and walked quickly through the door and down the hall.

“Ah, found them,” said Joe, pulling his work of art from the garbage. “I don’t need them. I think I’ve learned the lesson. You can have them. I hope everyone likes them tomorrow. And congratulations on graduating.”

Joe followed Mary out the studio and down the hall. He caught up to her on the steps.

“I was wondering, are you busy tomorrow night? Would you like to get together for dinner or something?”

“You want to know what happens.”

“Partly. But I also want to get to know you better.”

Mary smiled. “OK. I’ll call you tomorrow. We’ll work something out.”

– – – –

Joe didn’t ask until the waiter brought the coffee.

“I’m curious about how Alice’s presentation went today.”

“I’m curious about why you didn’t ask earlier.”

“I wanted to show that I was more interested in you than Alice.”

“Are you that kind of a schemer?”

“You’re asking me? This thing with Alice was your idea.”

“Touche.”

“You would have figured it out anyway.”

“Of course. I just wanted to hear you say it.”

“OK, so what did happen?”

“First, she presented your spheres, and did a critique.”

“How did they look? Were there any survivors?”

“They looked fantastic. They really did look like they were three dimensional, like they were sticking out of the page.”

“No.”

“Yes!”

“They weren’t mine.”

“No, of course not. She probably stayed up all night drawing her own spheres. They looked like her style, and they were magnificent. Her best work. It’s too bad she couldn’t get a grade for your work.”

“I didn’t think she’d do that. I thought she’d confess.”

“I was a little bit surprised too. But not very surprised. You don’t know her as well as I do.”

“But what about her drawing? What did she present? If she stayed up all night doing the spheres, and she couldn’t do Andrew, what did she do?”

“You’re going to laugh.”

“I’m dying to know.”

“A quick hard pencil sketch of a man and woman making love. No shading, very few lines. A remarkable work of minimalism. Unlike anything I’ve taught her. Better than I could have taught her. Could go straight into a museum.”

“Wow. Sounds amazing. What happened to it?”

“All the students own their artwork. She took it away at the end of class. She has it. If you want to see it, you’ll need to ask her.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

Mary took a sip of her coffee and looked at Joe. She held his gaze until he cocked his head to one side, raising his eyebrows quizically. “There’s something else, isn’t there,” he said.

“I want you to know something first. Miles, your squash partner, is an old friend of mine. I talked to him earlier this afternoon.”

Joe waited patiently. Mary wasn’t finished.

“He knows something about you that I didn’t. I apologize for asking him. I should have trusted you. I trust you now. You need to know that first.”

“I don’t know Miles very well. We just play squash together a few times a month. I can’t imagine what he told you.”

“He told me that you have an appendectomy scar. A big one. From back when they had to slice people open to get it out.”

“I was a teenager. It was a big deal back then. I’ve got staple marks. They’re not pretty. But I am still baffled about where this is going. What does my appendectomy have to do with anything?”

“The women in the drawing was Alice. The man in the drawing had your face. But no scar.”

“I am at a loss for words. No, I have words. I’m going to have nightmares about this.”

I dream of cherry pies, candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies…

Friday, May 1st, 2009

Actually, I don’t like cherry pies, or cherries in any recognizable form, but I dig “Nothing But Flowers” by Talking Heads.  It’s almost frightening to think that this video is more than twenty years old, and yet it feels like it could have been made last year, or even some time in the near future.  The lyrics “… and as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention” ring far too true.

This song is a milestone on the journey of Talking Heads from being (relatively) harmless entertainment to entertainment with a social conscience. There had been political and social themes in their early work (such as the sublimely minimal, whimsical and utterly perfect “Don’t Worry About the Government“, and the disturbing and perhaps prophetic “Listening Wind”), but following this they started to show much more of their social and political concern in their music and performances–or at least the concerns of David Byrne, the principle writer.  They didn’t last much longer as a band.  Byrne eventually but inconsistently refocused his undeniable genius on the intellectually rigorous silliness that made Talking Heads so great, but it was too little, too late, and we can only lament the loss of the greatest swivel/groove band the world has seen, as illustrated in “Found a Job“, “Slippery People“, and the elemental “Psycho Killer“.  But the bloom was off the rose.  You can’t be the grooviest punk in the world and an angry young man at the same time.

Focus and limits

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

A friend of mine has a blog that has an interesting twist; the blog entries are stories limited to 250 words.  It makes for some interesting reading, because she knows how to get the job done within that budget.

This isn’t a new idea (I’ve seen several variations on the idea) and I’ve even played along myself, trying to write a story using only six sentences.  It was fun, but I confess that I needed to bend the rules (or at least, I felt I violated the spirit of the rules) by abusing punctuation and sentence construction a bit.  Some people seemed to enjoy the result, however, although perhaps enjoy isn’t the right word.  It’s a sad story.

I’ve also participated in games involving writing haiku that include a certain set of words, or address a certain theme, or something along those lines.  Since the structure of a haiku is rigid, there are very few decisions to be made or distractions to conquer about form or meter, which actually makes things much easier in some ways.

But the idea popped into my head that there might be different sorts of limits or restrictions to writing that one could attempt to explore. Instead of a word or sentence limit, or an even more constrained verse form, perhaps it would be possible to ignore structure and attempt to limit some of the other fundamental building blocks of narrative prose.

For example, could I write a short story that did not use any similes or metaphors?  (Immediately an argument would spring up about what constitutes a metaphor; when we use a non-specific word such as “food” or “eating” are we invoking the ideals for “food” and “eating” and applying them as metaphors?  Perhaps there is some way to split this hair with an adequate definition of metaphor, but I don’t usually like playing games with rules I can barely understand)

As another example, could I write a story with a completely linear structure?  Again, I’m not sure what I’m talking about when I say the words “linear structure”, so I’ll have to try to be more careful.  What I mean is a story that leads with no twists and turns.  It is as predictable as a roller-coaster, following an utterly predictable course but interesting (or even thrilling) nonetheless?  Great writers can do this; I can reread Wodehouse until I’ve got pages on end nearly memorized, but I still enjoy the ride.  Like listening to familiar music, things do not have to be surprising, novel, or unexpected in order to be enjoyable, but I do not usually write in this way.  I write jokes.  There’s almost always a twist at the end, and that’s the amusing part.  What if I disallowed the surprise twist?

Could I write a story that was simply a naked conversation?  No clues as to the speakers identities except what they provide, in an uncontrived way, as part of the conversation?  No “he said, rubbing his freshly-slapped face” or “she shouted, her lips twisted in rage”, but just the words, without annotation or adornment, and, most importantly, without artifice.  It’s been done, but can I manage it?

Maybe I should take some baby steps first.