Archive for December, 2007

Inspirational poems and songs are pieces that reaffirm our core values and beliefs. This is not a great age for belief of any sort, so inspirational works are often equated with religious ones. However, even an agnostic like me can find inspirational poems and songs.

In my case, the situation is complicated by a temperament that requires that a piece has to have artistic merit as well as reaffirm in order to move me. I don’t expect inspirational works to necessarily demonstrate the same talent as poems or songs that I value as art, but, because many works that try to inspire wind up being insipid, they leave me massively unmoved. When I’m looking for inspiration, a Hallmark greeting card just won’t cut it. Still, over the years, I have found a few that satisfied me on both accounts.

For instance, earlier this year, I decided to write an email that might be hostilely received. As I psyched myself up to press the Send button, my mind flitted to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Looking Glass.” The poem is perhaps sexist in its assumption that aging is a distress to all women, but what I remember best is its insistence that sometimes you have to face up to what makes you afraid, even if the result is unpleasant.

The poem concerns Elizabeth I in late middle-age, stealing herself to look in the mirror:

Backwards and forwards and sideways did she pass
Making up her mind to face the cruel looking glass.

She is haunted, if only in her mind, by Mary Tudor and Robert Dudley, and, in the end she tells herself:

Backwards and forwards and sideways though I’ve been,
Yet I am Harry’s daughter, and I am England’s queen!

Then she draws herself up in front of the mirror, and sees what she must have known all along: That she is aging, and no longer beautiful. I always like to think that I’m the sort of person to face up to unpleasant truths, so the poem is apt to come back to me whenever I’m dealing with something whose results I may not like.

Another inspirational piece for me is Stan Roger’s “The Mary Ellen Carter.” The song is about a group of sailors – fisherman, most likely – whose ship goes down. They decide to salvage the ship, despite being mocked. The chorus apparently kept at least one man alive while trying to survive a shipwreck. It certainly kept me going in the worst period of my life:

Rise again! Rise again!
Let her name not be lost to the knowledge of men,
All those who loved her best and were with her till the end,
Will make the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again.

The song is sung when all the work is done, and the sailors plan to raise the ship tomorrow:

And the drunken lying rats
That left her to a sorry grave,
They won’t be laughing in another day.

There, Rogers leaves them to deliver the moral – the only moral, incidentally, that I have been able to tolerate:

And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go,
Turn to and put forth all your strength of hand and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Rise again! Rise again!
Though your heart it be broken, or life about to end,
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again!

Endurance, success being the best revenge, never giving in – yeah, I can get behind all of that.

More recently, OysterBand, another of my favorite musical groups, came up with a song that has always seemed a deliberate echo of “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Advising listeners to “lift your head up /gonna rise above,” they launch into the chorus:

And we’ll rise where shadows fall,
And we’ll fly where money crawls,
Looking out for a higher love,
Not gonna fall, gonna rise above.

And we’ll fly where shadows fall,
Till the pain can’t touch you at all,
Crazy things you were thinking of,
Rise above, rise above!

The independence and determination of this song also speaks to me.

Technically speaking, these aren’t the best works by any of these artists. Yet we all need some reinforcement of our core values from time to time, if only to get up on Monday morning. For better or worse, these are the works that keep me moving most often, although from time to time others join the play list: A stray line or two from Shakespeare, a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, and a satire by Robert Graves among them. I’m sure they all speak volumes about the kind of person I am.

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Today, I had the new experience of helping out with a podcast. Like most people, I hate hearing my voice (it always sounds clumsy and over-precise), and any wishful belief in my own eloquence wilts when I hear all the “ums” with which I punctuate my speech, but I hope I have the chance to take part in another one.

I could hardly be excluded from this one. After all, it was an article I published a few weeks ago, “GNOME Foundation defends OOXML involvement,” that sparked the podcast. Moreover, when Jeff Waugh of the GNOME Foundation first floated the idea, he had me in mind as a neutral third party, and I was the one who pitched the idea to Linux.com, the main buyer of my articles. Admittedly, it was an easy sell, since Robin Miller, the senior editor at Linux.com, is a part time video producer and always looking for ways to extend the print coverage on the site, but I was still the one who got things moving.

After stumbling into the center ring while technical problems occupied Robin and Rod Amis, the producer, and stuttering into the silence, I soon found my tongue. The experience was not much different, I found, from doing an ordinary interview or teaching a university seminar. In all three cases, your purpose is not to express your own opinions, but to encourage others to speak, and to clarify their vague references for the sake of listeners. The fact that there was an audience of about 650 – good numbers, Rod tells me, for a daytime podcast – didn’t really affect me, because I had no direct contact with them.

Jeff Waugh and Roy Schestowitz, the two guests on the podcast, have been having bare-knuckle arguments on various forums, so I was expecting to have to referee the discussion. In fact, the image kept occurring to me of those soccer referees who are sometimes chased off the field by irrate crowds. However, the slugfest I expected never materialized. It’s harder, I suppose, to insult someone verbally, even over the phone, that to fan a flame war on the Internet, and both were more polite live than they had ever been at the keyboard.

Besides, Robin has the voice of someone calmly taking charge without any expectation of contradiction. Perhaps, too, an echo of my old university instructor voice ghosted through my own words.
But, whatever the case, everyone survived. I even think that the increased politeness influenced both Jeff and Roy to make concessions to each others’ viewpoints than they never would have considered online. As a result, I think that the point that the dispute is one of tactics rather than of different goals came through for the first time in the month or more that this dispute has been unfolding. However, I’m not sure that either of the principals has made the same observation.

The show had glitches that better planning might avoid next time. However, I like to think that both sides had a reasonable chance to express themselves, so it could have been worse. The Linux.com regulars are already discussing the possibility of another podcast, and I, for one, can’t wait.

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The poet and novelist Robert Graves once said, that, if asked on his death bed, he would say that the secret to writing poetry is to control your “s” sounds. I’m not in his league, but if I were to give any death-bed secrets about writing prose, mine would be to learn all you can about structure.

Turns of phrases are easy. From my years of teaching first year composition at university, I’m convinced that most people of average intelligence can learn to write a literate sentence. With a little extra effort, many can produce wit. If they’re stuck, reading their favorite writer – or, better yet, typing out a page or two from their favorite work – will influence them into efforts beyond their usual range.

Structure, though, is another matter. The typical high school model of an essay with an introduction and conclusion and three points in between isn’t nearly enough. Then, just to make matters worse, we don’t have a vocabulary that describes different ways to open or conclude a story or to deal with opposing views in an essay. As a result, most writers begin to work almost blind to structure, and without the words to think about it consciously.

For some writers, these conditions aren’t a problem. They learn about structure on an unconscious level through trial and error – that is, many drafts – and are happy. However, for most writers, these conditions mean uncertainty and wasted effort, especially when they are just learning their trade.

If you are one of the majority, you have only two ways to move beyond such uncertainty and waste: Constant practice, and at least a temporary obsession with structure.

The practice part is easy enough if you’re disciplined. Write every day and after a few hundred thousand words or seventy or eighty pieces of prose, and you are likely to arrive at a point where the necessary structure becomes clear to you as soon as you have your main idea or plot.

Meanwhile, though, you are apt to become frustrated. What’s worse, if you miss a few days of writing, you may lose your sense of structure to a degree and need to build it up again.

A more solid approach is to study structure consciously, so you get in the habit of thinking about it. That means, whenever you read a novel or an essay, spending some time thinking about the structure. You may even want to create a diagram, summarizing not only the main plot developments or points, but how they relate to the rest of the work.

Works that you especially like or dislike are especially useful, because you have the motivation of trying to understand why you have the reaction that you do. However, you can also work with stories that leave you relatively unmoved one way or the other, trying to create a new or alternative structure for them.

For any work that you spend time on, you can also experiment with how reordering them affects the result. If the work is really successful, you’ll find that you can’t change the structure without changing the plot or the argument. If you can rearrange the parts, then the work is likely flawed (or, possibly, you’ve misunderstood it).

This sort of study is difficult. You have to do it without support and very few resources outside of your own powers of observation. Moreover, for a time, you may be uneasily aware of reading everything you encounter on two levels: First, as a reader, and second as a writer-in-training who wants to dissect the structure. But keep on with the study, and you’ll soon start to build a repertoire of structural strategies you can apply to your own work. You’ll start to have the sense of the different ways you can put a work together, and even, at times, of when there’s a gap in the structure of what you have written.

Difficult? Of course. But if you really want to write well, you have little choice. Either you discover structure on your own, or you learn the craft from other writers – there are really no other choices.

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For much of the past week, I was on crutches because of a leg injury. It wasn’t the first time, and, unless I learn to regulate my exercise better, probably won’t be the last. But going from an active routine to a crippled one, even for a while, can be a major change in perspective.

To start with, your entire concept of the immediate space around you changes. The horizon that represents “far” diminishes – in my case for a day or two, to the front door of our townhouse (anything beyond the door briefly ceased to exist). Even a trip across the living room is undertaken only when absolutely necessary. If possible, you try to plan your movements so you can do two or three things at once, and save yourself effort. The effort, to say nothing of the pain, makes you want confine your movements only to the necessary ones. There’s no darting back for a book you forgot, either.

Your relation with those around you changes, too. When you are sufficiently injured to need crutches, you almost inevitably need some help, if only to help you carry some things – it is nearly impossible, for instance, to carry a cup of just-boiled tea when you’re on crutches without scalding yourself at some point. Some people might adjust quickly to be waiting on, and become imperious, flinging out orders at any point, but, for myself, I find myself resentful. I don’t like being dependent on anyone for little things, no matter how close I am to them emotionally. Being an active man, I’m used to doing for myself.

Anyway, there’s a psychological difference between asking someone to do you a favor, and asking them to do something because you either can’t or would have to go to go through considerable effort and discomfort. Or there is for me, anyway.
Standing up with crutches is always a minor crisis as you look for secure surfaces to help hoist you up. Then, once you’re on your feet, you have a moment of panic as you sway and start to position the crutches under your arms.

Once underway, your progress is like that of a sailing ship: slow and stately, and accompanied by lots of swaying and groans, sometimes from your crutches (if they’re wooden) and always from your body. The problem of navigation arises, too, with even the bent back corner of a throw rug or an object on the floor becoming a major obstacle.

Perhaps that’s why I always find myself singing sea chanteys when I’m on crutches – although “Blow the Man Down” can seem terribly prophetic at such times, particularly when someone wants past you in a hallway. You need more space than normally when on crutches, and most people don’t realize that even brushing past you can leave you scrambling to preserve your balance and your dignity.

When you finally reach your destination, the relief is immense. Should that destination be bed, the relief is even greater, since you know that you don’t have to worry about moving for another seven or eight hours.

How the permanently disabled endure, I don’t know. Just the effort of getting around is so great that work or any other daily activity becomes almost impossible. For me, the first sign of improvement is like the first week of spring, and throwing away the crutches and regaining the walking reflex (which you lose after a few day of advancing one step at a time) has something of the excitement of a first love. I have to restrain myself from throwing myself unrestrainedly into my usual routine, and only the thought of fishing out the crutches again restrains me.

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