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Friday
Jul112014

The Alice Springs Telegraph Station

 

The central station of the Overland Telegraph [in 1897] was at Alice Springs, the first nucleus of that famous little town. It was a clump of shacks and a stone bungalow above the springs, themselves named for Alice Todd, wife of the chief engineer. This was on of the loneliest places in the [British] Empire. It was a thousand miles north to Darwin, a thousand miles south to Adelaide — the nearest towns. For company the little group of cablemen had only themselves, their animals, the odd incoherent bushman and the occasional grazier or overlander dropping in for a beer in a country where hospitality of the pioneers was still a rule of life. At night especially the Alice cable station must have seemed a properly epic outpost. Then the wind rustled off the desert through the eucalyptus thicket, armies of frogs croaked in the fringes of the pool, the air was heavy with dust and gum-smell, and the horses stood silent beneath the pepper trees. Oil lamps shone through the windows of the huts, and sometimes a sudden chatter of the Morse machine miraculously linked the Alice, for a moment or two, with Calcutta, Malta, and the imperial capital on the other side of the world.

--James Morris, Pax Britannica

Image:
"The Alice Springs Telegraph Station"
Ian Mallory
http://malloryontravel.com/2013/08/cool-places/australia/alice-springs-larapinta-adventure-travel/ 

Monday
Jul072014

Ambler, No. 16 [On Friendship]

Primitive Authors... deliver themselves very dubiously. -- Sir T. Browne

It is a sign of a degenerate generation that upholds romance above friendship. Romance, that is, in the erotic sense,1 for every friendship is a sort of romance in the literary sense — life is romance. But today the whole attitude regarding friendship is that it is a right and not a gift. It is similar, I suppose, to the common notion of happiness and pleasure, two concepts the average American lives for and believes he deserves. Friendship, in like manner, because it has been downgraded from a gift to a right has lost much of its value. For if friendship is a gift, one can properly appreciate its function; if friendship is a right, one can merely look at it as one does oxygen or their living quarters. In our times, friendship is misunderstood, though, not because it is undervalued so much as because the pleasures that come from it are overvalued. In overvaluing the pleasures, we undervalue what is the spiritual substance of friendship, and those companions and cronies with whom we revel in the night become means to an inferior end.

A very wise man2 has made the distinction between the nature of romance and that of friendship. Friends are friends not necessarily because of anything peculiar about the companion but because both men have a common interest. This is why the common church practice of placing eight random people in a room and expecting them to be lifelong soul mates rarely works. But I do not wish to comment on the modern church here. I wish to make the argument that a true friend sticks closer than a brother partly because the true friend knows half as much as the brother. It is simply to say that friendship looks outward and upward in a way that romance and solitude, family outings and social gatherings, cannot.

Friendship is simply two like-minded individuals coming at a thing from the similar yet different perspectives and complimenting each other’s opinions. When strolling across this globe in solitude, I may muse on the beauty of a tree or seek to discover a new path, fraught with danger and excitement. Like Andrew Marvell in his Garden3, I bask in the glory of my own free-flowing imagination, and rest in peace, knowing that no one can possibly contradict me. But the nature of my adventures changes when a companion comes alongside and agrees with my thoughts. While there is a danger the man will disagree with me, if he is a true friend, it is only a disagreement that presents a new way at observing the same reality. In the miracle that is humanity, he adds something both unexpected and enlightening to my own opinion. Friendship gives us added perspective to a world based in absolutes. It is not to say a friend must necessarily agree with you that the rhino at the zoo is majestic. The friend may think the rhino a very hideous creature. It is to say that friends, true friends, will at the very least agree that a rhino is rhino.

It should be noted that the temptation of friendship is exclusiveness. Friendship must necessarily have some degree of exclusiveness, but it should never look down on outsiders. But this has been discussed,4 and what I believe is even more dangerous to friendship today is that two men can stare at a rhino and disagree that it is a rhino at all. That is, so few people today believe in any common ideal of morality or truth that their basis for friendship becomes, out of necessity, open-mindedness.

Now, friendship based on open-mindedness is like a sailing ship with multiple masts, hoisting sundry sails all pointing in different directions causing the ship to spin around in awkward circles upon a raging sea of hot air. And the irony of open-mindedness is that it is the surest way to close-mindedness. Consider a day at the zoo among modern pseudo-friends. One member of the group, a Marxists perhaps, is forever commenting on how the bourgeoisie have improperly commodified the rhino—not using it for something productive, while the eco-critic comments that the rhino should be set free to wreak havoc on the Marxist. The feminists of the group agrees with the eco-critic but only if the conditions on freeing the rhino allow for a female human to release a female rhinoceros, keeping the male rhinos in captivity. Of course, this is complicated if the Marxist happens to be a female, in which case, the feminists has to make a calculated decision: either the female rhino must be slaughtered for the sake of female commodity, or the female Marxist must be sacrificed for the sake of feminist rights making way into the animal kingdom. We then ought to muse a bit on what happens when their dear friend the existentialist comes along and questions whether there actually is a rhino or Marxist at all.

In saner societies friendship can be based on common standards. If friends agree that the rhino was created by a transcendental God, they can both look at it with a wonder that is founded on truth but colored and flavored by individual experience. We can both marvel not even at the majesty of the rhino but at the very fact that a rhino exists at all, and that it looks like a rhino.5 We can both place value on it because the rhino exists in a worldview where things can be valued because there is a common standard. One friend believes the rhino is quite a disgusting creature, wallowing in the mire; another friend believes the rhino’s habits proper and pretty; both agree that the rhino looks like a pre-historic version of the unicorn.

All this is to say that friendship, true friendship, cannot exist properly without a foundation. Without some agreement on morality and truth, with mere open-mindedness, the friendship will inevitably be based on the lesser pleasures, those toys that give instant gratification and allow men to forget or ignore the differences that divide. This is why so many pseudo-friendships fall back into the same petty pleasures such as drink or sex or T.V. For these pleasures are instant and allow for a certain level of disinterestedness toward those in company, and any chance of intellectual or spiritual conversation is squelched as quickly as any campfire within eyesight of a raging rhinoceros.

True friendship, then, embraces generalities and common beliefs; it sticks closer than a brother because it can offer a much different perspective on a very similar reality. It is this foundation that allows friends to fall back on each other—why a three-fold cord is not easily broken. It is why true friends can stand side by side, and, without ever acknowledging the other, take pleasure in the company. For both men look out on to the same horizon but through their conversation look beyond to those higher plains, more magnificent than any mountain, more spacious than sea. Friendship affords us what solitude only hints at and romance impedes. It gives us not a lone world but multiple, not a world limited to the beloved, but a world unlimited with things to praise. With friends one sees multiple worlds in one, full of plentiful perspectives and cascading colors—full of as many possibilities as there are souls.

______________________

1I proceed to use Romance in the erotic sense throughout.

2C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves.

3See Andrew Marvell, “The Garden.”

4C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.

5Thought courtesy of G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
Written at "The 'Ole Midshipman,"
In a moment of independence,
July 4, 2014

Painting: "African Rhino"
By Peter Philip
Oil on Canvas, n.d.

Saturday
Jul052014

The Soul of the Phone

 

  The other day, in a moment of wild rationality, I deleted the browser from my phone, and, in effect, banned myself from frivolous internet browsing. Sometimes, the most rational thing is the most rash thing, and in order to free oneself from some modern time leach one must show unthinking disregard for modern conveniences. When I pressed my finger to the small “x” at the top right of the app icon, a weight—a moral weight fell from me. I no longer had the option of wasting time reading droning Buzz Feed articles or banal tweets.  In taking away the option to do the worse thing, I gave myself the option to do the better thing. I was, you might say, rashly rational.

Take another example. Last Friday and Saturday I moved my good friend Brandon M. Schneeberger—sometimes secretary, sometimes boss of the esteemed Samuel Snow) into new snug quarters, which he has since dubbed The Ole Midshipman. Now, Brandon M. Schneegberger is a very old fashioned person who can become verbally violent in his condemnations of modern technology. Some may even call his ravings “unbalanced” or even “over-general”—perish the thought! Some have said he is agéd beyond his years (he might tell you the same). Whatever his critics might say, Brandon M. Schneeberger understands the concept of rash rationality, for he has chosen to keep the internet—the entity he claims has come “to destroy the world”—out of The Ole Midshipman. His reasoning is simple: he would rather explore his bookshelf, or fill a notebook with essays than walk on that sticky web of, as the poet Ruper Brook might put it, “lies and truths and pain.” I would only add “half truths” to the poet Brook’s list. Brandon M. Schneeberger has not taken away the internet as much as he has given himself his apartment. In withholding hours of internet browsing and e-mail he has given himself his bookshelf, his kitchen, his writing desk, evening ambles and board games with friends. He has sharpened his view out the small living room window facing a viney garden plot and an old oak.

Speaking from a literary perspective, I have no doubt the internet and television, if available to the literary minded of the past, would have prevented some of the masterpieces we read and enjoy today, for, writing a literary masterpiece takes time, loads of time—years of reading, years of imperfect, shoddy writing, years of linguistic drudgery that the modern (including myself) cannot and will not put in. To today’s literary man, the cost is no longer worth the payout. But I do not say this is all his fault. He is hardly given the option, really. By the time we reach an age that would allow us to decide on a literary life, we have already developed habits of self-entertainment and make most of our choices based on the “fun scale.” We become pleasure junkies long before we know the drug exists.

 Imagine Dostoyevsky staring with dead eyes at a laptop in his study, a blank page on his desk and a smart phone in his hand. Yes, he would eventually scratch out fifty or sixty thousand word books between trips to his blogs and his shows. They would probably be great books with philosophical and literary value, but they would not be The Brother’s Karamazov—rather, weaker, diluted, confused versions of his masterpieces. Plugged-in-Dostoyevsky’s books would read like, well, modern books.

And that is my beef with the modern book, not that the author has any less natural talent than those of yore but that he has not developed that talent and cannot, unless he has been raised in some micro house in the wilderness. When a young literary person ninety years ago arrived home after a day of work, his options for evening activities were simple: read, write, walk, idle, sleep, correspond, entertain, or go out. Today, he is deluged in options—drowned in options all flowing to him through two cables: the coax cable (one of the more appropriate names for any technological device, for what has been more maliciously coaxing to young men of our age than the coax?) and the Ethernet cable (also perfectly named; the ether dulls the senses; the ethernet dulls the conscience). Unless that young man has the willpower of the Joseph or the asceticism of a minor prophet, he will give into the siren song of pleasure and will not develop his brain adequately to write brilliant books. Therefore, I believe the age of masterpieces has come to an end and will only return when the age of entertainment options dies away. Our technology has outstripped our wills, and we read the consequences on all the “new releases” bookshelf every day.

As I write this polemic essay I am conscious of my own failures as a student and a writer. I deleted my internet browser, but I cannot remove the memory of hundreds of mornings, afternoons, and evenings wasted on some easier, more pleasurable means of passing the time than reading, writing, or reflecting. At 26, Charles Dickens had published three novels and a 688 page book of London sketches. At 26, I am thirty thousand words into one measly novel.

A few nights ago I went to exercise in an old limestone stadium in my town. For some unknown reason, the field lights had not been turned on, and it was dark. The only lights were far off streetlights and floodlights from campus. I had supposed upon my arrival to find myself alone in the old stadium, but I found to my surprise a whole host of other exercisers moving silently in circles around the field and up the stadium stairs. The dim light gave me the impression they were floating like diligent ghosts on their rounds, for I could only see them by their white clothing. In the hour I spent carefully feeling my way around that field and up those stairs, none of the ghosts around me spoke—only carried on mournfully and silently. I caught the spirit of the moment and solemnly went about my routine. But as I exercised with the faceless around me, I began to feel a mystical connection with them. Because I could not see their faces, I began to imagine I could see their souls, limbering themselves up for the Day of Judgment with ghostly leaps and bounds. For a few magical minutes I had lost the option of seeing my fellow exercisers’ faces and I saw their souls—or at least remembered they had them.

Perhaps I’ll learn to see the soul of my phone with its browser removed. I’m only afraid I’ll find it black as that night in the stadium.

R. Eric Tippin
Gray Gables, the grandest estate in South-Central Kansas
July 5, 21014

Image:
Brandon M. Schneeberger's Desk in the Ole Midshipman
Taken by the Author 

 

Tuesday
Jul012014

Ambler, No. 15 [On States' Rights]

A third cause of common Errors is the Credulity of men, that is, an easie assent, to what is obtruded, or a beleeving at first ear what is delivered by others. -- Sir Thomas Browne

 

Though I do not remember the specific date, and though the specific location may only be guessed at -- a good guess, mind you -- I distinctly remember the confused individual some eight or nine years ago who, in response to something I had said, blurted out, "Kansas? Oh my, I've driven through Kansas. Kansas is so boring!" Never mind that this was stated from an individual who grew up and was presently residing in the state of Iowa, a state not generally advertised for its excitement. Never mind that the author of these mournful Amblers does hail from Kansas and can thus not properly address this topic without some level of bias. But the central issue of the matter hinges on this watery notion of boring. I have by my side a common dictionary which defines bore as "to weary by monotony, dullness, etc." and boredom is the state which corresponds to that description. Now, I do not presently have access to the Oxford English Dictionary, but I will create a fact to support my own argument. For I would not be so surprised if the whole notion of boredom, the very word bore, in this sense, did not come about until after man created that devil of a device we call the T.V. I very well could, and am tempted, to continue a very harsh indictment on how if any of the fifty states which make up our divided union should be described as "monotonous" or "dull" that state would inevitably be Iowa. But seeing as how I do not believe this, I wish to once and for all do away with the silly notion that a thing in and of itself can actually be boring, let alone an entire state.

Now, if one is to be bored, one must necessarily be wearied by monotony or dullness, and we must question whether this weariness is affected by something outside of the individual or if it is affected from within. It should be noted that nearly every object which we mindless moderns label as "dull" or "monotonous" are really the least dull and monotonous things in the world. If anything is "dull" or "monotonous" it is the very nature of the universe. For the planets continue on their course; the sun rises the same every morning; one season follows the preceding; all children are born equally, and every death has already happened. Nothing new occurs under the sun, yet I never hear any one yelling at the sun for being monotonous or at the seasons for being dull. But any time an old man gives a lecture on iambic pentameter, or the landscape appears very flat and very green, we can't seem to find enough words in the thesaurus to describe them as boring. It is, perhaps, our modern insistence on applying judgment at the surface-level: An old man may seem very old and thus very lame, but an old man may have more wisdom and wizardry in him than any ten galaxies floating in the heavens. A landscape may be very monotonous indeed if we are arguing from a negative -- if by seeing what is not there we cast judgment on what is there. But then we forget that a tree is only dull because it is not unique, as if mere frequency of a thing makes it less worthy of wonder.

*****

The western plains of Kansas are said to be boring for a variety of reasons. The least logical is that the plains are boring because they are very plain. Because no oceans or great lakes, no mountains, or great hills, dominate the landscape, they are boring. This person, in a sense, would have the whole of dry land be one mighty mountain. But because no mountains break up the landscape, one concludes the scene to be monotonous. It is thus assumed that "all blades of grass are created equal," and even a tiny break in the action is too small a deliberation to still the madness of monotony. It is further assumed that monotony is necessarily a first fruit of boredom. But we must here agree that if anything in this world appears monotonous it is the sea, and plains are just that -- vast seas of yellow and green which appear to majestically continue forever.

*****

If one happens to be in Western Kansas, they will not discover monotony. In the southwestern nook, near Garden City, the wheat fields shimmer in the sunlight and contrast nicely with the smell of cattle if one is downwind. The green, which leaves very quickly, is often conquered by a brown and tan dusting, and in high winds -- a common occurrence -- the dust is picked up and blown sideways, overtaking everything in its path.

If one travels due north from Garden City, heading toward Scott City, they will encounter more wheat fields -- a sea of enchanting gold whose waves sway with the wind as if the very breath of God inspires their movement. Indeed, because so few trees obscure a man's view of the heavens, he may consider the acts of nature to be divinely inspired. For in Western Kansas, storms move in at a rapid pace, quickly dominating the skies like great black ships conquering the seas. The once peaceful skies soon speak of His majesty and justice, and man has nowhere to run for cover.

But if one mistakenly believes that Western Kansas is nothing but wheat, winds, and storms, he would be in for a surprise if he continued on the road between Scott City and Oakley, Kansas. For between Scott City and Oakley there is a hidden gem of open lands, uncluttered by tree or crop. Hills become cliffs, overlooking valleys which stretch for miles. The terrain here is anything but flat, and the smaller hills only hint at the much larger Rockies to the further west, and one gathers the inhabitants of this land have that fact forever hovering over them as if some medieval monarch overlooks their land. Indeed, each smaller valley only reminds us we are captured within a much larger valley.

Though Western Kansas has its own beauty, I believe the most enjoyable part lay in between Great Bend and Ellsworth. For here both corn and wheat fields exist in harmony. The forests of the east are complimented with breaks of open plains in which one can see again for miles on end before some valley reintroduces a grove of trees. Certainly, if one were inclined to amble about such a seemingly boring state, I believe they would only be bored because they are boring. For boredom is a very subjective state, and he who is bored has found himself in such a state not due to the world being filled with unexciting trifles but due to his own boring nature. A modern may arrive at the Grand Canyon and pull out his ipod; he will look on the vast landscapes like Oscar Wilde and conclude that they point to no greater truths; he will only find meaning and joy and love in his own self-constructed solar system in which anything that does not immediately please has no objective value. A modern looks out his backyard and complains there is no sea or swimming pool; a child turns the family tree into a fortress or forest. It is enough if the landscape have a lone tree or a forest of trees. For the miracle exists not in frequency but in life.

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
Written at my new home, "The 'Ole Midshipman"
Manhattan, KS
June 30, 2014

Painting: Wheat Field
Oil on Canvas
William Page Atkinson Wells, n.d. 

Saturday
Jun282014

Chronicles of Early Times

As an exercise in writing and remembering, I decided to pen a short account (about 800 words) of my earliest memories. I did this while I sat, waiting for my wife and sister to find what they were looking for in some mammoth mall in Denver, Colorado. If you have no interest in the memoir of a nobody from Kansas, leave it and read any other post—say, this one. Anyhow, thirty percent of my readers on this site consist of my brother, so I am not anxious about complaints. If you would like to read a reflection on memory itself, try out this post, but certainly not this post.

My earliest memories are of my home and my church in Hillsboro, Kansas. I know they are my earliest because we moved from that home when I was six years old. I can date any recollection of those scattered moments to some time between 1988 and 1994. Although some have questioned whether my memories of that time are genuine or just mock-ups based on family videos and photographs of the time, I believe most of them are authentic because they are in the first person; when I re-live them I see through my own young eyes. If this were not the case, I would suspect them myself; as it is I have general confidence in their connection to real experience.

Many of these pseudo-infantine snapshots are connected to music and singing. I remember my father standing me on the oak pew in front of us during church worship time and looking past the shoulders of those standing the next pew up to the projector screen (most likely an overhead or real slide show in those days). He held me under my arms and I could hear his strong voice behind me, taking the tenor parts when they were available. I loved to sing and imagined myself skilled at it. I was not yet old enough to have learned any of the songs[1] our worship pastor (I recall he had a black guitar) sang, but I would try to sing the words and notes nanoseconds after my father did and would think to myself, “I’m a fast learner and a good singer.” I convinced myself that because I could line up my notes almost exactly with the notes the worship leader, I really could sing a song almost perfectly without having heard it before. In later years I noticed my parents utilizing the same method when a song leader would introduce some new Hillsong or Sovereign Grace chorus to our church in Newton. I do not know if this similarity shows a child’s primal method for learning songs or if it simply demonstrates that I was already beginning to pick up trends in the elementary chord patterns of late twentieth century contemporary church music.

I know now that I could sing on pitch at an early age. My parents tell me I could warble “My Jesus I Love Thee” spot on before I could talk. My head was by no means small about this either. When I later learned to add talking to my singing I bragged, while looking at our kitchen refrigerator (again, a random but undeniable first person detail) that I could sing “better than Michael W. Smith”—one of our family’s favorite artists at the time. It was not that I disliked Michael W. Smith, I only believed that my voice was sweeter than his. My low opinion did not keep me from listening to his music. In fact, another early memory of mine is standing directly in front of our glass-fronted family stereo and dancing wildly to one of the songs from his “Go West Young Man” cassette tape (or CD). I also remember sitting cross legged in front of the same stereo deck and listening to the Les Miserables—entranced by it—until one day the house censor removed it from circulation, citing inappropriate content and putting it on the shelf in her closet (or so rumor had it). Either way it disappeared, and I promised myself I would find out what was so wrong with it when given a chance.

My first conscious sins have scarred my memory as well, probably because I returned to them so often as a child. One rule in our Hillsboro home I blatantly disregarded on multiple occasions was, “Do not climb on the stair railing.” It was a perfect row of oak posts lining the stairway to the basement with just enough room between each for little feet to stand. I found irrational pleasure in inching out to the end, holding onto the posts and leaning out over the ten feet of open air between myself and the bottom row of steps. This was enough of a fall to break a little boy’s neck, and my mother knew it. When she caught me (as she usually seemed to do) I summarily received my comeuppance in the form of a wooden kitchen spoon. I focus on this sin because in doing it, I remember (for the first time) thinking “This is wrong. I should not do this. Here I go”—three phrases that would haunt me in later more seminal years and still have not left me.

Of course, there are more memories, but I have reached my word count and I see my wife and sister approaching.

R. Eric Tippin
Denver, Colorado
May 21, 2014


[1] The songs I can recall are “Awesome God,” “God Will Make a Way,” “Create in Me A Clean Heart” “He is Exalted” “As the Deer” “Seek Ye First” and “I Love You Lord”