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Saturday
Feb012014

The Painted Life

Saturday
Feb012014

A Better Way to Text

My good friend Brandon M. Schneeberger (secretary to and executor for the esteemed essayist Sam Snow) were eating a sandwich lunch in Kansas State’s windowless lounge for employees in the English department when the subject of cell-phone texting arose. Brandon is an avowed skeptic of all things digital and, though my distrust of the digital world does not reach to Brandon’s alarming levels, I do recognize its shortcomings, especially when it comes to texting. I said so to Brandon, and the conversation that followed was something along these lines:

Brandon: “When we write in texts, we just don’t write very well—bad prose, I mean.”

Me: “Yes, but there must be a way to ‘redeem’ texting . . . find a way to improve our writing as we do it—maybe rhyming all our texts?”

Brandon: “How about this: we only text each other in rhyming couplets. That will force us be creative and branch out from the standard, ‘sounds good’ rot we normally write.”

Me: “It’s a deal. From now on, only rhyming couplets.”

Brandon: “Good.”

So began a long string of rhyming couplet texts between the two of us—some painfully bad, some middling, some approaching wit and humor. In the course of time we lassoed our friends and fellow English graduate students Elizabeth Hoyt and Bryn Homuth into the rhyming ‘rodeo’. The exercise has been a smashing success. True, texts now take much longer to compose, but once they are written they have value beyond their simple utility. It could almost be argued our humble digital missives are literary and, by necessity of definition, literature. Therefore, I have decided to share a few of the best of our rhyming couplet conversations from the past month. Enjoy.


Brandon M. Schneeberger: “When shall we The Aeneid read? / Before or after our mouths we feed?”
R. Eric Tippin: “Why don’t you come to my humble abode? / Yes, even though the lawn is hardly mowed.”
BMS: “That’s a good place to read this tale; / Would you care for an Ad Astra ale?”
RET: “How could I pass that generous offer up? / You bring the ale, and I’ll provide the cup.”

 

Bryn Homuth: “Do we still plan to meet [at the Rec Center] at the hour of five? / Will Heather join us as well, the one called your wive?”
RET: “Could the time move now to four forty-four? / Either way, we’ll be a bit sore.”
BH: “Four forty-four is reasonable indeed; / I’ll leave quite soon, by mechanical steed.”
(Time Passes)
RET: “We’ll be a bit late. We’re leaving now. / Please don’t be mad or have a cow.”
BH: “The only cow I’ll have is a nice ribeye steak, / To build muscles so strong as to make the earth quake.”

 

BMS: “I ask only because I’m quite a dunce: / How do you save a web picture on your comp just once?”
RET: “Hold control and click on the picture with your mouse; / Click ‘Save Image’ and give that file a house.”

 

RET: “I printed the Classical Rhetoric syllabus for you; / It just seemed like the decent thing to do.”
BMS: “Oh thanks for that; it will be nice. / To read ahead keeps one from vice.”

 

RET: “Are you making the trek to work today? / Or will you sleep and while the day away? / Or Are you sick? In which case, please stay home. / Disease can be quite nasty when its hosts are prone to roam.”
BMS: “I did not think you were even in town. / I was out late but will be down.”
RET: “Sleep if you need. / Sin on sleeplessness prefers to feed.”

 

BH (to RET): “How many beverages should I bring for drink? / 4 cans that ‘ting’ or 6 bottles that ‘clink’?

 

BH: “Last night’s fun was a wondrous delight. / I thank you and Heather for one such a night.”
RET: “It was our pleasure being hosts. / Next time, though, we’ll have more toasts.”
BH: “Many toasts I would drink to one such a pair— / The union of Tippins Eric and Hea-there.”
RET: “Your rhymes are unmatched by any of your piers. / Your use of ‘Hea-there’ was met with loud cheers.”

 

RET: “The office is quiet like a graveyard at night, / But unlike that graveyard, it’s a joyful delight. / While most are hung over and many still slumber, / My liver is happy—my brain unencumbered.”
Elizabeth Hoyt: “And I hope you will manage to get a lot done, / So that once in Newton you might have some fun.”
RET: “I’m having fun now, though I see what you mean. / Have fun in St. Mary’s; stay out of Lafene [a local hospital].”
EH: “I shall indeed try (though I might not succeed). / I’ll follow my heart and see where it leads.”

 

RET (to BH): “1-(913)-***-**** is Brandon’s number. / It’s more valuable than a barge-full of lumber.”

 

BH: “Will you go tomorrow to church? / Before which service will your car first lurch?”
RET: “We’re churching in another part of the state. / Our Manhattan spiritual journey will have to wait.”
BH: “Alas, I forgot you’re in Newton right now. / Forgive my blunder; out I will bow.”

 

BMS: “I will be a few minutes late. / My quick speed I did mis-anticipate.”
RET: “I’m angry like an adder in a fight. / I’ll try to forgive you with all my might.”
BMS: “Just tell [the others] it wasn’t my fault. / Make up a story of battery or assault.”

 

(In a series of texts with Brandon and Bryn about the time of Lunch, Brandon suggested 11AM and I suggested 11:30)
RET: “Since I don’t wish to be mean, / Let’s strike a compromise—11:15.”
BH: “But indeed you were “mean” as you averaged the two; / With our appetites sated, ECS won’t become a zoo.”

 

BH: “Our composing these couplets—an admirable feat; / The worst to befall us—if one pressed ‘delete’.”
RET: “We’ll save these missives for our children to see. / They’ll be oh so proud of Brandon, you, and me.”


Sam Snow, for whom BMS works as secretary, has some cogent thoughts on the virtues of our texting experiment in his own post on the subject:

"Since the rhyming couplet does take longer to reply, it serves two purposes. It keeps one from responding too quickly and saying whatever random thing comes into their head, thus creating a sense of anticipation on the other end. The one waiting for a couplet to come back waits with such eagerness but yet does patiently because he knows it will be worth it; it will not be mere information coming from his friend. The solution creates a world of communication in which the pithy, information-driven texts of the modern world are replaced with eloquent and interesting rhyming couplets."

So the texts continue on every day. / My thought is, “They’re literature,” but what do you say?

R. Eric Tippin
In My Office at Kansas State University
February 1, 2014

Image: http://mysterious-kaddu.blogspot.com/2013/07/when-we-received-telegram.html

Saturday
Feb012014

Killjoy Children's Literature

        As Killjoy critics we have a special interest in one of the newest fields of literary criticism, namely, children’s literature. However, there has been a disturbing trend in lit for children that cannot continue. If any grave, solemn, stern, earnest, weighty, meaningful study of children’s Literature is to carry on we must staunch and stifle this movement. Perhaps I might be better served calling it a “demographic,” for it is a group—a group of individuals—individuals who are tracking mud all through the halls of academia and wiping their snotty little noses on our pristine tweed suits. Who is this fiendish flock threatening children’s lit? This ghastly gathering, this loathsome lot you ask? Well, they are only the single-most dire threat to the seriousness of children’s literature and, by default, the future of children’s literature since the writing of George MacDonald. Their very presence is perilous to any supercilious scholar wishing unravel the mysteries of books for children, for when in the company of even one individual in this pusillanimous pack one suddenly fills with unexplainable warm joy and cosmic hope: the two emotional arch-enemies of the Killjoy critic.

       Yes, the one group that should never be welcome in the study of Children’s literature is . . . real children. They cannot understand the deeply subversive and dark meanings in their own books. Expose a serious children’s literature scholar to a single real child, and within the hour that scholar will begin asking such absurd questions of herself or himself as, “Is my work deconstructing—through an eco-Marxist lens—the definition of the word “definition” as defined by children’s dictionaries printed on March 4th in 1974 really that important?” Expose that same scholar to two real children and the questions will grow ludicrous, like, “Does it matter if the Little Engine that Could only could because it embraced its true gender identity halfway up the hill?”

      Just imagine if children were asked what they thought of Children’s literature. They might tell you Green Eggs and Ham is a funny book, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs makes them happy. Funny? Happy? How about twisted, existentially problematic, dark to the core, patriarchal, dangerously positivist, and full of phallic images demonstrating unjust male dominance and the author’s latent chauvinism? If children had their way with children’s literature they would enjoy reading the books; they would think princesses and princes were different because they were “made that way;” they would think good and evil were real and not just social constructs. In short, academia would fall like Rome to . . . whoever sacked Rome; I don’t read history. Imagine a world full of people who believed Beauty and the Beast demonstrates selfless love to a father and an unlovely creature instead of what it obviously teaches—strong female agency and praiseworthy self-love and self-interest in the face of a father and a beast-of-a-man who are out to stifle Belle’s self-expression and the power of her matriarchal will.

      Although there have been encouraging signs in Universities all over the country of late, our institutions of higher learning will always be in danger of infant infiltration, because—alas, it cannot be avoided—there will always be children.

      It is time to send out a strong call to action, so we Killjoy Critics here and now pick up that proverbial megaphone and send out that call: “Keep children out of children’s literature.” They have no place in it. They will only be responsible enough to read children’s books when they have grown up and learned the seriousness of life generally and their books specifically.

Signed,
A Killjoy Critic
In An Undisclosed Location 

Image:
"A Corsican Child"
Oil on Canvas - 1901
James Abbot McNeill Whistler 

Tuesday
Jan282014

The Satisfaction of Goodness

       Last Saturday morning I shuffled to the kitchen at 5:15 AM, ate a oat-bran breakfast, drank my coffee in eight to ten large swigs, dressed for the day, carried out my daily hygiene regimen, and drove to my accustomed spot in my accustomed parking lot about an eighth mile from my office. I walked quickly through the cold and the dark, past the University’s roaring nuclear reactor bellowing steam and down a service and drainage road lit only by weak industrial floodlights. My office and all the offices down my hall were empty and quiet that weekend morning. Many of my coworkers had planned a binge the night before at the local bar district, and, no doubt, were spending their final day of the week recovering from their excesses. As I sat at my desk (writing my list for the day in a quiet so complete I could hear my pen scratch against the paper on which I was writing) I felt the satisfaction of goodness, brought on by a series of wise decisions, made by the power of God’s Spirit, which led me into that peaceful place with a relatively clear conscience. It was a genuine pleasure in that moment to have a clear mind, a fit body, and a full stomach, and all the more because I knew the alternative. My coworkers had their pleasures in gluttonously large helpings the night before, and in the peace of the morning I was receiving mine—the little joys of routine, discipline, and predictability all adding up to a deep, warm happiness.

      That ritual peace, that deeper joy I was feeling on Saturday morning was in its essence a celebration of God’s holiness. Of course, my morning was an imperfect shadow of God’s substantive perfection, but even the shadow gave me a happiness more satiating, more hunger-allaying than any manufactured “high” in the world. In addition, that pleasure is—unlike many other pleasures—also a memory I can cherish without a blush. I’ve indulged in a few forbidden pleasures in my day, but none that I look back upon with fondness or anything but distaste. It is the difference between the pleasure of a home-cooked meal and a pile of candy-bars; they both bring their eaters delight, but only one will be a delight a day later.

      Except in a cosmic-eternal sense, virtue is hardly ever its own reward, but goodness can bring great satisfaction, and last Saturday brought that truth home to me. My quiet morning was a shadow of the life on the Earth as it will be when God remakes all things and when the veil over virtue’s joys is pulled away forever. 

 

R. Eric Tippin
In an Office that is No Longer Quiet
January 28, 2014 

Image:
"An October Morning" 
Oil on Canvas - 1921
Ernest Herbert Whydale 

Tuesday
Jan142014

Ask Less of Your Technology

The definition of freedom has been under dispute as long as words have been symbolic. Either freedom is defined as the existential right to do as you wish or the ability to act as you should within reasonable restraints. Hedonists, anarchists, French post-modern philosophers, and eighteen-year-olds leaving their parents’ home tend to champion the first definition. Most others hold the second—though in many cases unknowingly. This silent majority stops at red, goes at green. Yet they don’t feel oppressed by those restrictions, for they know that by them they are given freedom to drive a car without fear of collision at intersections. Further, they value restaurant chefs who submit to regulations on hand-washing and glove-wearing. They ascribe to the time honored principle that anarchists make dangerous cooks. It is a simple vetted fact that humans tend to function more efficiently when placed under certain basic restrictions. Author Os Guinness puts it this way, “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like; it’s the power to do what you ought.[1]

Yet one area of modern life ignores this definition of freedom—technology, more specifically, mobile device technology. Each year another five or six features are added to smart phones, from flashlights to fingerprint detectors, making it easier to do more with a smaller machine. This appears time-saving and efficient—very American, in fact. In the old days one had to go to the library for books, gossip with the neighbors for local news, and pound the typewriter for a story or letter. Now all that and more can be done with a few taps and a couple swipes. But has efficiency really increased? Yes, the old days were bothersome, even cumbersome, but there were benefits. Your library book never doubled as a gaming device. Your typewriter never notified you that a distant acquaintance was in a new relationship and thirteen of your friends liked it. In short, when you sat down to read, you read; when you sat down to write, you wrote, for that was the only function of the object or machine on the desk in front of you. We continue expanding the capabilities of our phones and tablets, but is it possible that those capabilities are the very things limiting our productivity? It brings to mind something Thoreau said while considering the burgeoning technology of the telegraph in the nineteenth century:

"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.[2]

Now, with a dash of discipline, distractions should not be a problem. A person may choose to ignore news alerts, e-mail notifications, friend requests and weather updates while they read Dante on their iPad, just like someone can choose to do their sleeping in an arcade. But neither environment seems ideal for the task at hand. Why? Because distractions cause delays. It could be said that reading on an iPad gives too much freedom to choose not to read. All those features become unwanted temptations when one simple task is the goal. In many cases, the myriad capabilities of mobile computers, tablets and phones cripple rather than empower their users, because those capabilities become diversions from real work—“They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”

Most of us have been maddened at having spent fifteen minutes on social media or mindless web browsing after solemnly resolving to get to work on some project. It is not that we wish to waste time, but those fifteen minutes seem magically outside the power of our will. The option for browsing or e-socializing was there, so we—somehow­—just did it. Every time we sit down at a computer or pull out a smart phone we are faced with a choice of how to use those machines, and not a simple choice. It may be between a game that we want to play and a project we should begin or a movie that would be amusing and a lecture that would be informative. Choosing between the good and the entertaining is no easy task.

Maybe our basic paradigm should shift from expanding technological options to limiting them, at least in certain cases. Doctor Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, Irvine recently conducted a study on the effects of removing e-mail in a workplace as an option-limiting measure and demonstrated, “without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus.” The study goes on to conclude, “there are benefits to not being continually connected by email.[3]” Dr. Mark added in a personal interview on the subject, “Never before have we been able to have so many choices to access people and information faster . . . It's not just the fact that we have access to technology options but that the options lead us to serious distractions[4]” Solution oriented thinking would conclude, if extra functions are distracting from meaningful activity on our phones, tablets and laptops, the best way restore that activity would be to limit the option of accessing those features. Buy a simpler device or limit a current device. Much like turning off your work phone while on vacation or staying away from all-you-can-eat buffets while on a diet. It is giving your will a rest and ensuring you will use your time as you plan on using it.

But the benefits of option limitation are not limited to productivity. Paul Miller, a writer for The Verge recently spent a year off from the internet. One major question he had had to deal with from readers during his experiment was in regards to his pornography use while web-free: “How did do get it?” they asked. His answer is simple, and intriguing:

“The basic, circuitous answer to that loaded question is: I don't . . . Nope, I'm porn-free and I love it. After years of wanting so badly to stop, a quick rip of an ethernet plug was all it took.[5]

His solution for eliminating his pornography usage seems inanely simple, and yet has proved most effective. He found freedom by limiting his options.

Time is a limited and immeasurably precious resource, and our ability to use that time well will determine our productivity and societal usefulness. Productivity has little to do with the capability of the device, and everything to do with the discipline of the device’s user. The less disciplined the user, the more they will be distracted by multifunction devices. The more disciplined the user, the less need there will be to limit choice. As our phones, tablets and laptops shrink in size and bloat in capabilities, they demand more willpower of their users. Means have definitely improved but what about the ends? If they are to be protected, it will require a mature understanding of freedom and a willingness to limit technological options. 

In other words, buy a typewriter and a kindle.

R. Eric Tippin
In Semi-Sovereign State of Kansas
Last Spring 


[1]Guinness on the topic, "A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future," at Socrates in the City, NY, September 13, 2012.
[2] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, chapter 1, p. 67 (1966). Originally published in 1854.
[3] “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email, May, 2012 http://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CHI%202012.pdf
[4] Personal Interview, January 30, 2013 by R. Eric Tippin
[5] “Offline: How do You Look at Porn.” Miller, Paul. December 3, 2012 http://www.theverge.com/2012/12/3/3721904/offline-how-do-you-look-at-porn
Photo: http://yaledailynews.com/weekend/2010/09/03/backstage-the-oldest-typewriter-repairman-in-new-haven/