Saturday, July 28, 2007

Details, details

My mother was a fine arts major before she was my mother. One of the consequences of that was that us kids got dragged to art lessons (which they had stopped teaching very regularly in schools) and museums (often in the company of scout troops). My mother invariably stopped to admire things longer than either of us wanted to.

We did once stop at an art museum I enjoyed. The collection included mostly paintings, mostly older, and while it was undoubtedly good work, it was mainly nobody too famous. It may still be there, tucked in among shops in Sacramento's old downtown, within view of the capitol building. What stood out in my mind about this museum was not the work, but the signs. Alongside each painting, the curators had placed a sign stating (as usual) the title, artist, medium, year, and so on. For their permanent collections, at least, they had also dug up and recorded some interesting tidbit about each piece, whether the context in which it was painted; the symbolism used by the artist, which might have been understood better in the century and culture where the painting originated; or simply the story behind the painting. This one was a palimpsest, one that survived through a fire and been repainted over; look at the crack in the middle. That one has 13 spikes (who knows to count these things?) representing thus-and-such. It gave those of us who didn't know more about art something to understand and appreciate about each work, something to explore, something to be fascinated about.

More lately, I explored the Getty Center in the company of two other engineers. None of us knew art and we certainly took the engineers' pace through the place. As engineers tend to do, though, we were instant "experts" on the (completely unfamiliar) subject at hand, and we nitpicked and commented our way around. I'm sure our comments lacked any sort of expertise or refinement. They ranged, if I recall, from "I don't think I want to meet the guy in that portrait. He seems very full of himself" to "Does the perspective in this one seem off to you, too?" Still, it was fun to see such a place on our own terms.

This post isn't about art museums, though. It's about context changing the perception of an experience, so I have one apparently unrelated story to add. Once upon a time, touring with my marching band, we were driving back from a show late at night to our temporary quarters in a gymnasium somewhere. The mood had relaxed because most of us were tired, and most people were sleeping, reading, or playing cards quietly. One little glitch: the interior lights in the bus kept blinking out. As it happened again, and then again, the teenage crowd* started getting restless. What's more, it started to look like the bus driver himself was the cause! The lights flashed, a chorus of grumbles rose up in the bus, and the driver, who seldom spoke much, explained what it was. Evidently, the interior lights were wired to the headlights, a factor beyond his control. He was, in turn, flashing the headlights as a courtesy to truckers. Drivers of larger vehicles flash their lights to signal that it is safe to pull back over when passing and in reply as a thank-you and acknowledgment. Armed with this new tidbit of information for context, the flashing lights became not only tolerable but cool: those lights were now flashing because our driver knew his stuff.

*There was one bus driver who sought out our band and drove our tours for many years. Puzzled that he would want to ferry around a bunch of rowdy teens, I asked him why one time and he replied cheerfully, "It's a whole lot more interesting than driving a bunch of sleeping old people."

Friday, July 13, 2007


The following is a favorite quote of mine, from Robert Heinlein (Time Enough for Love):
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Here is that same quote as it circulates in Spanish:
Un ser humano debería ser capaz de cambiar un pañal, planear una invasión, despiezar un cerdo, ensamblar una barca, diseñar un edificio, escribir un soneto, hacer un balance, levantar una pared, expresarse en otro idioma, remendar un hueso roto, confortar a un moribundo, obedecer órdenes, dar órdenes, cooperar, actuar en solitario, resolver ecuaciones, analizar un nuevo problema, esparcir estiercol, manejar un ordenador, cocinar una comida sabrosa, sufrir con entereza, luchar eficientemente. La especialización es para los insectos.

This latter version is quite consistent. If you find this quote in Spanish, this is the version you will find, and people faithfully copy it and pass it along, just like this. The interesting thing is that it is not an exact translation. The last two items are reversed: suffer (strongly/with fortitude), fight efficiently. Also, the translator either started with a different version of the English or put some words into the author's mouth: expresarse en otro idioma (express oneself in a different language) is absent from the English version in circulation.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A curious turn of phrase

Why do we speak of a "meteoric rise"? Meteors, if they do anything, fall and burn up in the atmosphere.