Sunday, August 29, 2010
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Johnny Angel bowed and mimed opening a gate. Larissa hopped nimbly over the fence. Johnny just stepped over: it was waist-high to Larissa, but Johnny had been growing like a weed since he’d left home. He was taller than many of the street people now, although still a bit gawky. The three of them ambled over to the statue’s pedestal and sat comfortably on the lowest level of its ziggurat-like base. They kept a wary eye out for the cops or the park police, but old Farragut here wasn’t much of a target for terrorists, so they didn’t really expect to see any. Johnny Angel turned their way and looked kindly over at them. “What can a tired old man do for you two vessels of youthful élan?” Despite his words, his eyes sparkled with more energy than Johnny himself felt.
Larissa immediately turned to Johnny, sharing the older man’s stance and curious stare. Now with two pairs of eyes on him, Johnny was a little unsure of himself. “Ummm ... well, I’m not sure. I just feel like ... something’s wrong.”
Although his eyes continued to smile, Johnny Angel let his mouth grow serious in deference to the young man’s problem. “You feelin’ like you can’t get your head on right, boy?” he asked. His voice was low, but still he preached. “Is there something pulling at your steps, turning your path from the forward? spinning you round so you be walking backwards, always looking back at where you been?” Somehow Johnny got out of that that Johnny Angel was asking if he was homesick, missing his old life.
“No.” He shook his head slowly. “It’s not that. More like ...” He grasped for the right words. “More like something’s sneaking up on me, you know? Like I should be worried about something but I don’t even know what it is.” He looked to see if he was making any sense.
To his surprise, Johnny Angel’s face was actually concerned all of a sudden. “May I touch you, boy?” he asked gently. Johnny tried to control the puzzled look on his face. “Um, sure,” he said.
The calloused black hand in its shining white sleeve reached across Larissa’s blonde locks and touched Johnny’s thick mane. Johnny was conscious of the fact that he hadn’t properly washed it in months, needed a haircut badly, no longer owned a comb or brush ... it seemed as if the mundane was all he could concentrate on as Johnny Angel’s strong fingers found his scalp, wandered around, explored the topology. Johnny remembered reading once that there was a strain of fortune-telling where the diviner read the bumps on your skull instead of your palms; was this what the old street preacher was doing? All this went through his mind as he concentrated on the blackness that had filled his vision; unfocussing his eyes slightly, he realized that the blackness was composed of the two pupils of Johnny Angel’s eyes. He started to shake his head to clear it, but somehow realized that would interrupt the process (what process?) so held still. Somehow the other man’s eyes had filled his and then swallowed them; those pupils were huge, and yet he knew that they were fixated exactly on him, and, whatever they saw, whatever the questing fingers felt, it was all coming from some well deep within him, someplace he hadn’t even known he possessed ...
Then Johnny Angel’s left hand was retreating, and his right was patting Johnny’s clasped hands, which were in his lap and (he was surprised to note) trembling. “There you are, boy, you got nothin’ to vex about. Just breathe deep now.” Johnny realized he had been holding his breath and suddenly sucked in a giant lungful. “I think you feel somethin’ powerful, though, boy. I ain’t felt that myself in a long day. Not myself nor myself for nobody else, if you see what I’m saying.” As usual, Johnny both did and didn’t, but he nodded anyway. The old man was staring at him curiously now, with his head cocked to one side. “Could be nothin’, of course,” he said. “Or, then again around the bend, might be somethin’. More circumspect to favor caution in the face of uncertainty than to court compunction by failure to adhere to due mental process.” Johnny stared at him blankly.
“Better safe than sorry,” Larissa translated.
Johnny Angel smiled with one side of his mouth. “As the little lady says,” he agreed. “Is there perhaps someplace where the two of you might seek sanctuary from this abysmal late summer heat?”
Johnny felt confused again. “It’s not that hot,” he started, but Johnny Angel squeezed his hand.
“Johnny Bones!” he whispered. Johnny had never figured out why the man called him that sometimes, but he only did so when he had something important to say, so Johnny shut his mouth. “My acumen ain’t what it used to be, of that there can be no doubt. This here gray hair tells a story could wring tears from a turnip if it could stand to listen. But you come to me to see what nuggets I had to offer, and I done offered ’em unto you. You feeling what I’m saying, boy?” Johnny nodded. “So hie yourselves off to some haven that smells like home mayhap, if I may alliterate. But not elaborate. Am I epiphanous?”
Johnny smiled. “Yessir, you have lit my bulb.”
Johnny Angel threw his head back and his rich throaty laugh rolled over the small park, frightening the pigeons. “Good, good. It’s a joy to my ears. And I especially appreciate a young person with such a gracious anatomy and an articulate demeanor. But now you two fly on outta here. You going to have to shepherd the egress of this one for me, boy; she’s way too chatty for a settled old man like myself to put up with.” He grinned at Larissa. She smiled up at him.
As the two younger people moved off down K Street, they heard Johnny Angel starting up his monologue again. They both smiled despite the weirdness of the previous scene. Then Johnny sighed. “Of course, I have absolutely no idea where we’re going to go.” He looked at Larissa for inspiration.
She thought for a moment, then looked back at him very seriously and said one word: “Jet.”
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Un bon mot ne prouve rien.—
So, we know what’s in a name (according to Juliet, not much); what’s in a quote?
Quotes are interesting. I collect them for my “fortune file.” Now, for those of you not from a Unix background, fortune is a program that spits out little fortune-cookie-like sayings, or (more relevant to our discussion here) quotes. Typically you run it from your profile, meaning that every time you log in, you get a little nifty nugget of something.* The fortune program comes with a huge batch of files, each of which has a huge batch of quotes or sayings in it, and, when you run fortune with no arguments, you get a random quote from a random file. But of course you can change that. You can change the weighting of the different files, so that instead of being equally likely to receive a quote from Star Trek as you are to get a passage from the Tao Te Ching, you can favor some files, and completely eliminate others (I first discovered this when trying to eliminate the Zippy quotes, which personally I find just annoying, especially out of context**). Better yet, if you learn a little bit more, you can make your very own fortune files. Currently, I have one giant file with all my favorite quotes in it, and I weight that so that anywhere from 50 to 70% of the time, my fortune comes from my collection.*** And I also have it set so that it doesn’t only happen when I log in; any time I start a new terminal, open a new window in a terminal, or even shell out from another program.
Now, keeping a big file full of quotes is more trouble than you might imagine. I have to collect the quotes. I have to reformat them. Every time I add a new quote, I have to regenerate the index that fortune uses to pick quotes quickly. And I have to sync that file amongst all my various machines: my home server, my laptop, my work machine, the sandbox server at work, the server from my old company (well, before it crashed anyway) ... You can see that I really must love my quotes to be going to this much trouble. I was wondering the other day: why do I bother?
Good question. I’m not sure there’s a single answer. Different quotes have different reasons that I hold on to them. For instance, some are nostalgia-inducing. I have a whole series of these, generally referred to as “Barefoot Quote of the Day” (named after Barefoot Software, my old company). Here’s one:
Barefoot Quote of the Day:
I’ll try to be good but it’s very hard for me because I’m very evil.—
Now, if you happen to know Christy, that’s quite funny. And it has the added benefit for me personally of reminding me of the time in my life when those words were uttered. Like when you smell a scent or hear a song that takes you back ...
Speaking of songs, that’s another category of quotes I collect. Sometimes a song just has a line or three in it that catches the ear. In these cases, it’s not even so much that the quote has a message as it is that the language lends itself to appreciation for the words themselves. For instance:
They say Confucius does his crossword with a pen.—
Tori Amos, “Happy Phantom”, Little Earthquakes
There’s a certain poetry in that line that I always enjoyed. No deep message, just a lyricism that’s pleasant to savor.
And then there are some quotes that are just amusing:
Randall: Do you want to be leader of this gang?
Strutter: No, we agreed: no leader.
Randall: Right. So shut up and do what I tell you.—
I think it’s always good to have a few quotes that are there just to give you a chuckle. Never can tell when you might need one of those.
But the best quotes are the ones that have something to say. I’ve used a few of them in past blog posts—
For those of us who don’t speak French, the translation is generally rendered “A witty saying proves nothing.” So this is actually a quote about quotes, which gives it a nice self-referential quality that’s practically post-modern, despite the fact that it dates from a book Voltaire published in 1767. And, really, if you’re going to write a blog post about quotes, you really have to put a quote in it, don’t you? Because, as yet another quote tells us, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And, following this vein of logic, if you’re going to post a quote in your post about quotes, oughtn’t it be a quote about quotes?
Perhaps the reason I like this quote so much, and wanted to use it for my first post about quotes, is that it appeals to my sense of paradox. Because, on the surface, there’s not much to argue with. A quote is, after all, just words that someone said. It might have been a famous person, sure, but then again being famous certainly doesn’t make you any smarter than the rest of us. Even if the source of the quote was someone for whom we have great respect, well, as the Buddha (is supposed to have) said: “Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.” In the end, it’s just words, and it doesn’t matter how cleverly they’re put together, or how clever the person was who originally said it. None of that makes it any more true.
But now you see the paradox. We are now smart enough to reject the intrinsic value of a quote ... because a quote told us so. In fact, in my supporting arguments for why we should believe the quote and not believe quotes, I used ... that’s right: another quote. So obviously the quotes are good for something.
The truth is that quotes are often condensations, tightly-wrapped little nuggets of wisdom. Extremely quotable folks like Mark Twain often tried out many different versions of their quotes until they got it just right. Why not take advantage of all that hard work they already put into it? I often find that a quote doesn’t actually say anything different than what I want to say, but it often says it more succinctly, more lucidly, with more flair and energy than I personally could muster up. Plus, even without the fame factor, at the very least a quote shows that there’s someone else on the planet who agrees with me. If that person happens to be a well-respected scholar or teacher, that’s just a bonus.
At their best, quotes make you think. They force you to evaluate just whether it’s true that a witty saying proves nothing, or whether there’s something deeper hidden in the words. A recognizable name attached to it is nice, but not necessary. Many of our best quotes have no famous names—
In the end, a quote is a message. It may speak to you, cause an epiphany, light a fuse, spark a train of thought ... or it may not. For, as the quote says:
There are truths which are not for all men, nor for all times.—
Voltaire ... or Richard Whately
* Like a fortune cookie ... get it?
** Inasmuch as Zippy can be said to have context, which is not much.
*** Since this was originally written, I’ve now switched to using that file exclusively.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Sometimes when people ask me what religion I subscribe to, I tell them I’m a Baladocian. Primarily I do this because it sounds cool and it gives them something to chew on. The truth is that I believe that all the major religions are right ... and they’re all wrong. Heck, that probably applies to most of the minor religions too. When it comes to Truth, you take it where you can find it, be that the Bible, the Tanakh, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, the Analects, the Tao Te Ching, Stranger in a Strange Land, or Cat’s Cradle. The Buddha (supposedly) said:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
and I reckon that pretty much sums up my views on religion, authority figures, and urban legends all in one.
So what is this “baladocian” thing I sometimes go on about? Well, in actuality it’s less religion than philosophy of life, although I suppose a sufficiently motivated person of evangelical nature could turn it into a religion with enough effort. (But then that’s true of just about anything.) But what I mean when I speak about “the Baladox” is that I believe in balance and paradox. Not just that I believe that they exist, but that I believe everything in life is ruled by those two principles. That the world is not black and white, but that sometimes it is gray, and sometimes it is both black and white and the same time. And, recursively, sometimes it’s sort of halfway between gray and both black and white at the same time, and then sometimes it’s black and white and gray, all at once.
That’s the short version that I sometimes give people when they ask. But, really, it’s sort of useless. Oh, it sounds vaguely “deep,” but what does it really tell you? Not much. So let me see if I can explain it a bit more understandably.
Balance is a curious thing. If I tell you that there is no black and white, no pure good or pure evil, neither pure enlightenment nor pure ignorance, you will likely give me an insulted look. “Of course,” you might say. “Everyone knows that.” I think the majority of people accept that there is a place between extremes, and it’s the place where the vast majority of us live ... at least in theory. But the problem is, even though we think we believe it, we don’t. And we don’t because we’re totally screwed up by Aristotle.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Aristotle was a really bright guy. He profoundly influenced our ways of thinking, and mostly for the better. But he wasn’t always right. For instance, he thought there were four elements (okay, five, if you count “aether,” whatever that was supposed to be). And today we know about the periodic table. How about if I ask you how many senses you have? Did you say “five”? Do you have any idea why you said “five”? You guessed it: because Aristotle told you so. And was he right? No, he was not. Don’t believe me? Go look it up. I’ll wait.
See? All this time, you’ve firmly believed in something that wasn’t true just because “it is spoken and rumored by many”: “merely on the authority of your teachers and elders,” we might say. And now you know better. Probably won’t stop you from referring to “sixth senses” and whatnot, but at least, intellectually, you know. It’ll worm its way down into your hindbrain at some point.
Now I’m going to ask you how many “truth values” there are. Go ahead, look at me like I’m stupid. “Two: true and false.” I’m sure that’s your answer. Now, riddle me this, Batman: how you can say you believe in shades of gray when you believe that everything—
But, you know, there’s a reason why we all claim to believe in the “shades of gray” theory, a reason why this meme has persisted to the point of cliché. It’s because our experience of the universe is in direct contrast with what we “know.” We know that light and dark are never absolute: there are an infinite number of shades in between. We know that things don’t have to be either “hot” or “cold”: they can be lukewarm, cool, temperate, warm, chilly, freezing, or scalding. We know that in between black and white reside not only gray but in fact the entirety of our visible spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The universe pushes us over and over to forget this whole silly zero vs one idea. Computers may be binary, but real life ain’t.
Which is not to say that “true” and “false” aren’t useful concepts. I am a programmer, after all: boolean logic is one of my most well-worn tools. I just tend to view them along the same lines as “infinity” or “the square root of negative one”—
Now, if the concept of “balance” is contrary to what you think you know, the concept of “paradox” is much worse. After all, paradox is that thing in time-travel stories that’s always destroying the spacetime continuum. Paradoxes are impossible ... by definition. Aren’t they? Well, if you look up “paradox” on Dictionary.com, you’ll see that three of the four definitions are not impossible at all. My favorite is the first (a.k.a. “most preferred”) one:
a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.
Yes, that’s right: a paradox is a possible truth. Which you already knew, if you’d have thought about it. If you are a Christian, you are a monotheist who worships a trinity: that’s pretty paradoxical. If you prefer science to religion, then you are forced to confront the idea that light is (paradoxically) both a wave and a particle simultaneously. And if you are a human being with any depth of emotional experience whatsoever, then you’ll know exactly what I mean when I refer to a “love/hate relationship.” The truth of the matter is, we’re surrounded by paradox every day, in all areas of our life, but we try to ignore it, because it makes us uncomfortable.
And when we can’t ignore it, we try to explain it away. How many of you, when I talked about love/hate relationships, immediately discounted that as not paradoxical at all? Perhaps you said, “no, no, that’s when you love someone sometimes, and hate them other times, but not both at the same time.” Perhaps that made you feel better about the whole thing. But you’re just fooling yourself. It certainly is possible to feel like you’d lay down your life to protect someone at the same time you’re fervently fantasizing about wringing their little necks, and most of us have felt it. Hell, if you’re a parent, you probably feel it most every day. So forget all the hand-waving. Just embrace the paradox, I say.
So when I say I believe in balance and paradox, I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy. For all the above reasons, it is in fact damned hard. But you can do it if you try. You can learn to reject the concept of extremes. You can learn to be okay with feeling two contradictory things at once. You can learn to stay in the middle and ride both ends at the same time.
This turns out to be far less useful as a general theory than in specific application. I do believe in almost all things in moderation—
I’m not sure that understanding this about me is going to make much sense on its own. But it certainly makes understanding my views on reality vs. perception, or parenting, or quotes, or other things (including the third sentence of this very post) easier. Or at least less nonsensical. I hope. Your mileage may vary.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
The Park Tour
It must be Monday, Johnny decided, because the cameras and short sleeves of the tourists had given way to the suits and carefully pressed shirts of lawyers, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and all the other people who live off the cranky engine of democracy. They were still day people though. Dressing them up didn’t change that.
They did a park tour. Northwest on Mass to Mount Vernon Square, then straight west down K Street: Franklin Park, McPherson Square, Farragut Square. In Mount Vernon they met Parking Jimmy on his way to crash and caught up with some gossip (“that bitch” Whiskey Sally had apparently sided with Polish Peg, and Jimmy’s hyperactivity was in disapproval overdrive). At the edge of Franklin they found a food truck out early whose owner knew Larissa, and they cadged some free breakfast. And, at McPherson, they found Toady Barker playing his fiddle for spare bills and spent an hour or so redirecting pedestrian foot traffic past his station to help increase his take. Toady wasn’t a street person, but he was a good person, and he gave them a thankful smile and a few bills apiece as they moved on.
Something was bothering Johnny, and he wasn’t sure what it was. He hadn’t known why he needed to leave the Court last night—they certainly didn’t end up going anywhere in particular—and he didn’t know what was bugging him now, but something felt ... wrong. It was like the world was different somehow, and he couldn’t figure out how. His world hadn’t been particularly different from one day to the next since he arrived on the streets of DC. Even his two brief forays into foster care seemed a part of the whole, somehow all blended together and every day ran into the next, like water spilling on a chalk painting, blurring one figure or building or tree into the next, making it all seem like some pastel, impressionistic version of life. It was less a nightmare than a daze; Johnny had been moving from one day to another running on auto-pilot. And now, today, something was different. And the quality of “difference” was itself so different, in some recursive, abstract fashion, after so much sameness for so long, that the difference was unsettling. Johnny tried to put his finger on when it began: when he woke up and saw the cop? when he and Larissa were scared by the whatever-it-was in the alley? in the liquor store, listening to the drunken ramblings of an old redneck judge? in Sally’s court? on the Mall, panhandling with Larissa and Dotty? in the subway, with the confrontation with the CCF? before that, somehow?
Johnny had kept shaking his head throughout their leisurely stroll through Downtown, the whole time they were chatting with Parking Jimmy, and eating breakfast burritos, and encouraging people to come listen to the music with plastic smiles. All those things were, in fact, part of the same sameness he had lived for the past however-many-years-it-was-now, and yet ... something was still off.
Thus it was, as morning rush hour wound slowly down and they finally arrived at Farragut Square, with its Farragut statue (just as McPherson Square had its McPherson statue), celebrating some Civil War dude who had once said something famous (he turned to Larissa and she helpfully supplied “damn the torpedoes,” pointing at the plaque), that he heard the ringing tones of Johnny Angel’s voice, and he smiled.
If Whiskey Sally was the matriarch of the DC street people, then surely Johnny Angel was its patriarch. Always resplendent in his white suit, which of course was never entirely clean, yet was never so dirty it didn’t seem to shine, Johnny Angel was a moderately light-skinned black man with kinky hair that stuck out in all directions—not like an Afro, but more like its owner had stuck his finger in an electrical socket. And yet he was undeniably regal, in some indefinable manner. Years later, when Johnny finally saw a rerun of Bruce Almighty, he would wonder why Morgan Freeman, playing God, was dressed up to look like Johnny Angel.
But the person most clearly called to mind when you first met Johnny Angel was probably Don King. They looked nothing alike facially, but the hair was strongly reminiscent of the famous boxing promoter, and there was something in the way Johnny Angel preached—and you could never describe it as anything other than preaching—that sounded like he wanted to sell you something, even when he was just asking how you were doing. Perhaps something in the way he over-enunciated some words, perhaps the way his voice just naturally seemed to carry, perhaps something else, but Johnny Angel was a street preacher in the classic sense, except that he wasn’t actually religious. Or not overtly so, at any rate; there was something else that Johnny Angel was preaching about, and, in general, the day people didn’t get it, because he wasn’t beating them over the head with it. Johnny wasn’t sure he got it either, but he knew that Johnny Angel was a good person to talk to when you were bothered by something that wasn’t capable of being physically subjugated to Whiskey Sally’s dominion.
“And the People rise up, saying, Why dost thou forasken me? But you turn your blind ear, you hear not the whimpers of the once-mighty, you pass on by. That’s right, sir, just as you are passing on by me right this very second.” An older white man glanced uncomfortably at Johnny Angel, then quickened his pace. Johnny Angel never paused. “You cannot taste the despair, you bounce around in your rainbow world while the monochromatic undermasses drone on and on and on. Or is it you, living in black-and-white 2-D gone-to-the-store home-by-six rescission of your natural demesne in currying favor to your corporate overlords? Put on your glasses people! You can spit or you can pine, but you cannot do both at once! We the People, forming our most perfect union, defend our common welfare, liberate our security, bless our posterity ... do you want it? You say you do! But the cock is crowing, my brethren. Hear the bells.”
Johnny and Larissa stopped and sat down just outside the low fence that surrounded Admiral Farragut’s statue. Johnny Angel was actually inside the fence, which could get him yelled at if a cop happened along. He acknowledged them with a tiny nod of his head but didn’t stop holding forth until he had finished making his point (whatever it was). Looking around at the thinning crowds, he gave himself a satisfied nod and came over to stand on the other side of the metal fence from Johnny and Larissa. He was leaning on a well-worn black stick. He called it a cane, but it was a long time since it been anything resembling that, if it ever had been. “So the children come home, to wait on the doubtful wisdom of a meandering old man.” His words still rang out as if he were lecturing them, but his dark eyes twinkled. His teeth were impossibly white—dental hygiene was always a difficult problem among the street people, but never for Johnny Angel. He smiled and it was almost blinding.