jump to navigation

On Trial in a Parallel Universe September 15, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Human Rights, Saving the World, Social Media, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
add a comment

I imagine it just like a scene out of a movie – a courtroom movie.

Set in a parallel universe.

You’re sitting in the defendant’s box, your lawyer beside you. Gazing out at the room, the judge’s stern face, the weary expressions of the jury members, you try to look relaxed. Confident. Innocent.

After all, you know you’re not guilty. You left the scene long before any shots were fired. There’s nothing to connect you to the crime – no murder weapon, no fingerprints, no motive, nothing. In a few hours you’ll be free, and hopefully they’ll get back to tracking down the guy who really did it. Beside you, your defence lawyer is confident and smiling. This should be an easy case.

The prosecution calls their first witness in, and you blink, surprised. It’s a close friend of yours, a guy you’ve known for years. Why would the prosecution ask him to testify? That’s right, he was there the night the cop was shot – you vaguely remember seeing him before you took off. They must be desperate. Well, he’ll straighten them out soon enough.

Your friend’s being sworn in, and now the lawyer’s ready to ask the first question. He doesn’t waste time. Did he see the shooting?

Yes, your friend answers. He’s oddly nervous, casting twitchy glances around the room. He doesn’t meet your eyes.

And can he identify the murderer?

A pause. Then – “Yes,” your friend answers. Then he points right at you. “It was him. I saw him shoot the officer. He’s guilty.”

For a long moment, you can’t seem to make sense of his words. You must have misunderstood, he must have pointed somewhere else – maybe there’s another suspect on trial that day?

You stare at your friend pleadingly. He doesn’t look back.

The ground seems to lurch and spin beneath you.

And that’s just the start.

The next two hours seem to go by in slow motion as witness after witness comes to the stand. Some are your friends, some you just ran into on the street once or twice, one of them you got in a fight with a few years back. A couple of them you’ve never seen in your life. One of them – a guy who was always looking for trouble – had been there that night, and you’d actually wondered a couple times if he had shot the cop.

But they all agree on one thing as they point to you. “He did it. He shot the officer. Guilty.”

Guilty.

You stare at the judge’s severe, implacable face. You hardly dare to glance at the jury, but when you do you find them watching you coldly. You can tell what they’re thinking – you see it in their eyes. Murderer.

Even your defence lawyer is watching you, brow furrowed. You can practically see the thought written on his face – maybe he did it after all?

You’ve got to be dreaming. Please, let me wake up now. This is insane. This is madness. This can’t be happening. This is a court of justice, for God’s sake.

But as the parade of witnesses continues, and the mountain of evidence continues to grow, even you can’t help but start to wonder if you really are innocent.

*******

I don’t know exactly what it was like to be Troy Davis at his 1991 murder trial. But that’s how I imagine it when I read the evidence now available, from Amnesty International. Of the witnesses that testified against him, all but two later recanted their testimony, citing police coercion as their reason for testifying.

Their affidavits – recanting their testimony – are here, and they make heartbreaking reading. Most said the police wouldn’t stop asking questions, wouldn’t let them go, until they gave the answers they knew the police wanted to hear: that Troy Davis was guilty. Several were given pre-written statements to sign. One of these witnesses, totally illiterate, could not read the witness statement he put his name to.

This is the sort of story I’ve gotten used to hearing about from Iran. A country where torture and arbitrary imprisonment are the norm. A country where your guilt is all too often pre-determined and the security forces won’t stop until they get the answers they want. A country where the innocent are punished and it is the guilty who determine their sentence.

Not the United States of America. I’m not an American citizen but for me, as for so many across the world, the United States has always represented freedom, justice, hope. The world’s first modern democracy, where all are equal before the law. A place where people are always presumed innocent until proven guilty – “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

What has gone wrong? How has the system failed so badly as to let something like this occur?

I’ve contacted both Gov. Nathan Deal (phone (404) 651-1776, fax (404) 657-7332, email here, web contact form here) and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles (phone (404) 656-5651, fax (404) 651-8502) asking them to grant clemency on Monday – Troy Davis’ last hope. I urge every reader of this blog entry to do the same. Yes, every phone call, every fax, every e-mail matters.

IMPORTANT: JUST IN (yes, literally as I write this blog entry!) – Please contact Chatham County (Savannah) District Attorney Larry Chisolm as well. He can support Troy Davis’ request for clemency for seeking to have the current death warrant withdrawn. You can contact DA Chisolm here.

If you’re like me, and making phone calls to people in government totally freaks you out, THAT’S OKAY! YOU CAN STILL HELP! Fax (especially) and e-mail are also effective.

The very real truth is that this is Troy’s last chance. If the Board rules against him on Monday, then – barring a miracle – he’ll be executed the following week. Put to death for a crime that, in all likelihood, he did not commit.

Please, let’s do everything we can to stop this atrocity from occurring.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Advertisements

The Second Coming of The Lorax (Or, the Day after May 21) May 22, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Childhood, Christianity, Environment, Nature, Saving the World, Through the Looking Glass.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

For a while, when I was about five years old, I would wake up each morning around 5 or 6 am. My room had an east-facing window through which I could see the masses of cloud lit with the flame-bright colors of sunrise. It was so beautiful, I thought, that maybe – just maybe – this would be the day that Jesus returned.

I was raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which strongly emphasized the Second Coming. Any moment could be the magical moment when it would happen – and we had to be sure that we were prepared. Of course, the church insisted that nobody could “know the day or hour”, a caution born out of its predecessor’s disastrous fling with Rapture mania in 1844.

At any rate, I was determined to be ready, and I read my children’s Bible with great fascination – particularly Revelation, with its mysterious beasts, angels and fiery cataclysms. If Jesus did return in my lifetime, I was pretty sure it was going to be during such a brilliant sunrise, when the sky was already so majestically illuminated. And so each morning I watched in breathless anticipation…and mixed disappointment and relief as the sunrise faded.

Similarly, I watched yesterday as the world crossed into 6 pm, May 21, 2011. No earthquakes, no crowds rising into the sky, no cars or trains suddenly colliding due to Raptured drivers. Of course, I really hadn’t expected anything to happen. Much less did I want billions of people to die in a fiery Apocalypse. But once again, somewhere inside me was…just a tiny little sliver of disappointment.

Disappointment? Why?

*******

Last week Kristy (a fellow Tweeter) and I were discussing Revelation and the Second Coming. She wasn’t a member of the May 21 movement (she describes herself simply as a “born-again Christian”). But she was adamantly certain that Jesus would return, probably very soon, and when he did, everything wrong with the world would just…vanish. We’d live with one another in perfect harmony, free from any temptation to treat each other badly. Our devastated planet would be replaced by a pristine paradise, untouched by human greed. And Satan himself – the source of all evil – would be destroyed forever.

She spoke about her hopes for a new earth. “Personally, I look forward to a new one. I don’t want to keep this one with what we’ve done to it. It will only get worse as time goes on….I would love to start all over again.”

But, I argued, isn’t this a sort of a cop-out? Like a little kid going to their math teacher and saying “this assignment is too hard – just give me the answers?” And what about the suffering that we’re causing for countless millions (or billions, as things get worse) due to our misuse of the Earth’s resources?

My mind came back to our conversation several times that week. Yes, it’s understandable to want someone to come solve our problems. Clean things up and give our world a fresh start. I think we’ve all had that feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things that are wrong with this world, to the point where we feel like just throwing up our hands: “Someone else can deal with this mess – it’s not my doing.” And yet, even if Jesus did return to fix things for us…wouldn’t this be too easy?

Thinking over the environmental aspect in particular, my mind went to one of my favourite children’s books, The Lorax…the tale of a natural paradise, once perfect, now turned to a wasteland by human greed for profit. A young child listens as the “Once-ler” responsible for the devastation tells his story of the Lorax. The long-vanished Lorax who “lifted himself away” into the sky “without leaving a trace”, and would one day in the future – just maybe – “come back”…

…Wait.

*******

“The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance…
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance…
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he heisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.”

The Lorax: a mysterious figure that appears miraculously to warn the greedy Once-ler about the consequences of his thoughtless actions. But his words are disregarded until “the very last Truffula Tree of them all” is chopped down (a symbolic martyrdom of the one who “speaks for the trees”). Finally The Lorax vanishes into the sky leaving behind only a strange, enigmatic prophecy that someday he will return…the Second Coming of the Lorax.*

Robert L. Short, in his book The Parables of Dr. Seuss, argues that reading The Lorax as a book only about environmental issues misses a major part of the point – and I agree. As we listen to the Once-ler’s tale, it becomes apparent that his rampant destruction of the environment is merely an accidental byproduct of his utterly egocentric worldview. In his quest for riches he is eager to manipulate everyone he can into buying the ridiculous (yet, for advertising purposes, highly “spinnable”) Thneeds. Long after his business empire has collapsed, he still exacts a petty and useless toll from a child – “fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail” – in exchange for the privilege of hearing his story. He utterly disregards the suffering that his actions have caused; he allows himself a cursory moment of “feeling bad” for the starving, child-like Barbaloots, but concludes that “business must grow/regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.” Like those who run so many of the world’s major corporations, the Once-ler is a deeply psychopathic individual who can only see the world and others through the lens of profit.

And, inevitably, his actions lead to an Apocalypse. The water is poisoned, the trees cut down, and the sky darkened with “Smogulous Smoke”. Seemingly abandoned by both the Lorax and his family, the Once-ler goes into denial. Hiding in his Lurkem from the hellish wasteland outside, he endlessly waits for something to change, thinking about the moment when the Lorax left. Might he someday return to fix what went wrong – to make the Truffula Trees regrow, the sky blue, the water clear again? To magically undo the Once-ler’s mistakes, re-creating the paradise that once existed?

“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
“UNLESS.”
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.
That was long, long ago.
But each day since that day
I’ve sat here and worried
and worried away.
Through the years, while my buildings
have fallen apart,
I’ve worried about it
with all of my heart.”

But the prophecy of the Lorax remains hopelessly obscure, no matter how hard the Once-ler tries to decipher its secret code…until a third person enters the picture.

The child listening to the tale.

“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

“SO…
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”

If the Lorax is a Christ figure in this “parable”, and the Once-ler represents the worst in human nature, who is the child? Us. Every one of us alive today who has the potential to change things, to undo the bad that has been done and sow the seeds (Truffula seeds!) of good.

Inspiring, right? Well, yes…when I read it as a child. This time, though, my first impulse was to shout furiously at the Once-ler. “Someone like me?? Why not someone like YOU! I didn’t make this problem. You guys did, now you fix it. It’s all very well and good for you to shout “Catch” and happily toss me and my generation the responsibility. Why should we clean up your mess?”

Indeed, why?

“We didn’t start the fire”, the Billy Joel song insists. We didn’t put the hole in the ozone layer, spark the centuries-old ethnic conflicts that continue today, force young children to work in a sweatshop. Other people did. Why is it our job to fix their mistakes?

Well, on one level it *is* our doing. Merely by living in the society we are born in we find ourselves complicit in its collective actions. We get into the car, or even take public transit, and automatically contribute to climate change. We throw out a plastic bag and add to the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stroll into a clothing store in the mall and buy a  $60 pair of jeans that a young child, halfway around the world, earned a few cents for sewing. We don’t deliberately choose our actions to have these consequences. But often they are an inescapable part of the economic and cultural system we find ourselves in. If we want to eliminate our individual contribution towards an impending planetary Apocalypse, this will have to involve working to change the system as well.

But, on a more pragmatic level…it doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is. Nobody but us is going to fix it.

The Once-ler won’t. He doesn’t have the knowledge, or vision, or optimism. (In many cases, he might not even be alive anymore.)

The Lorax won’t…because unless we learn to solve our problems ourselves, “starting over” would do us no good whatsoever. (Sure, give the Once-ler another “Eden” filled with brand-new Truffula trees – just how long would that last?)

_Nobody_ is going to fix our planet except us…and if we sit waiting for Jesus, or somebody else, to do it, we’ll still be waiting when the world burns, and nobody comes to save us from the very real, literal Hell we’ve created for ourselves.

Jesus is not going to come back and give us a new planet to pollute and consume as we did this one. (Sorry…)

Jesus is not going to come back and magically end all the wars and generations-old conflicts between ethnic and religious groups.

Jesus is not going to come back and stop human beings from exploiting one another for greed and profit.

Jesus is not going to come back and instantly change us all from self-absorbed, anger-prone, judgmental individuals to perfect beings who can live together in peaceful community.

Jesus is not going to come back and fix our problems for us. If He comes back, it will only be after we fix them ourselves – and, in doing so, become the sort of people who are able to live in Heaven for eternity without destroying it…or each other.

*******

In a book by one of my favourite Christian authors, Brian McLaren, the character “Chip” describes how, to him, Christianity had always been mainly about two key questions:

1. If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you’d go to be with God in heaven?

2. If Jesus returned today, would you be ready to meet God?

But now, Chip explains, two different questions have become equally central to him:

1. If you were to live for another fifty years, what kind of person would you like to become – and how will you become that kind of person?

2. If Jesus doesn’t return for ten thousand or ten million years, what kind of world do we want to create?

As I think back to those early childhood days of reading Revelation, my favourite part – despite all the excitement of the middle – was, of course, the ending.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

A beautiful image – who wouldn’t long to live in such a place? But wait…

In my childhood church (and nearly every interpretation of Revelation I’ve ever read) we’d always been told that God would create this perfect paradise for us, and all we’d need to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy it. But the first line doesn’t read “Then God created a new heaven and a new Earth, while humankind watched passively…”

Perhaps we’re meant to play a part in creating this new Earth? Perhaps we’re even required to? Isn’t it likely that UNLESS we take on some responsibility and at least attempt to change this world for the better, God is not just going to do it for us?

But if we do…then it could truly become a Rapturous place to live. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

*Of course, I’m hardly the first one to notice this similarity, as a quick Google search revealed. See Heinz Fenkel and Robert L. Short‘s writings for more on the subject. (I find Short’s argument the most convincing of the two…but Fenkel’s is interesting as well.)

December 4: Hallelujah! December 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Just for Fun, Music, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

Ok, this isn’t at all the carol I’d planned to post today. But when a friend pointed me to this “Hallelujah Chorus Flash Mob” video this morning, I found it far too awesome not to post.

I sang in the Hallelujah Chorus one December with a local volunteer choir (part of the winter concert for my sister’s school) together with my dad and sister. It was a great experience and I’d love to repeat it someday. Hallelujah! 🙂

No more commentary today…the video speaks for itself. Enjoy! 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

More Riddles! November 24, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Poetry, Riddles!, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

Two more riddle poems to challenge and amuse, written just this morning. Enjoy! 🙂

(Note: all riddle-poems posted on my blog are now collected under the page A Treasury of Riddle Poems…with more to be added in the weeks to come!)

1. A trinity of teeth have I
To tear my prey as fast I fly.
Yet since the days of yore are through,
Far oftener I’m chewed, than chew.

Answer: A trident.

2. Traveller, tell me what tomb I must enter
To gaze on the bones of the Tyrant King,
Who ruled a world that never knew winter,
And fell in the year of the sunless spring?

Answer: A dinosaur museum (the “Tyrant King” is Tyrannosaurus Rex, the “tyrant lizard king.”)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

Beethoven’s Phone Number November 5, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Just for Fun, Music, Teaching, Through the Looking Glass.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Another teaching anecdote…this one’s not deep or profound, but it IS hilarious. 😀

Today one of my younger students began working on “Shepherds’ Song” from Piano Adventures Book 1. It’s an arrangement of the theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (which is one of my favorite pieces. If you haven’t ever heard it…please do take a moment and remedy this omission before going on :D)

I played the piece for him and explained it was taken from one of the symphonies of Beethoven, a very famous composer. He nodded sagely as he pointed to the words “Ludwig van Beethoven” written on the right-hand side of the page above the music.

Then he indicated Beethoven’s birth and death dates (1770-1827), printed below the name. “And here’s Beethoven’s phone number,” he proudly announced.

Okay, admit it…could you have stopped yourself from nearly falling over laughing? Didn’t think so. Me neither.

When I got a handle on myself again I explained to him that, regretfully, Beethoven had been dead for quite some time and, that even when he was alive, he was almost entirely deaf…so if telephones had been around in his time he wouldn’t have been able to use them at all.

Still, I had to admit I liked the idea – a telephone directory of Famous Composers of Western Music. Now the question is who would you call first? I’m torn between Bach (my all-time favorite) and some of the Renaissance/Baroque composers, like Josquin du Pres, whose lives we know so little about. If only…

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

Ella Minnow Pea (Or, the Advantages of Missing a Bus) October 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Language, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

…A cross between Survivor, 1984 and your favorite childhood alphabet book…

While doing research for my posts two weeks ago on lipograms and univocalic writing, I ran across a reference to a novel (“progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable”) entitled Ella Minnow Pea. According to Wikipedia,

the plot of the story deals with a small country which begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story, it is (for the most part) no longer used in the text of the novel.

I thought this was a rather neat idea, but promptly closed the computer window and forgot about it.

Fast-forward to Friday, October 1…

I was on a bus headed downtown, from where I needed to transfer to a second bus that would take me to the private school where I teach several afternoons a week. There were only two buses that would get me there on time, and the first was due at the connection point any minute.

Unfortunately, due to construction my nearest stop had been shifted. Then shifted back beyond the cross-street, at which (due to a red light) we had halted. And, even though my transfer point was right on the corner, no amount of pleading on my part would persuade the driver to let me out on the corner while the traffic was stationary instead of transporting me most of a block ahead, from which point I would have to backtrack.

I was in the process of said backtracking when – sure enough – I saw my first bus slide elusively by. Fortunately there was still another one I could catch, so I settled down on the corner to wait. On that particular corner there was a bookstore which often had a table of reduced-price books outside. Of course I went over to look while I waited for my bus, and there on the table was a slightly damaged copy of…

You guessed it. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn.

Of course I ran in and bought it, then read it while I travelled back and forth between students’ houses and waited for my soccer to begin that night. I finished it on the last bus home.

*********

Ella Minnow Pea is set on the (fictional) island of Nollop, named after the (supposed) inventor of the famous pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – words immortalized on the cenotaph Nollop’s citizens have erected in his honor. Yet one day a tile containing the letter Z falls from the cenotaph, a sign interpreted – by the power-hungry High Council – as a sign from Nollop himself from beyond the grave: none of the island’s citizens are ever to speak or write this letter again, on pain of banishment or death. And then another letter falls, and another…

As the book is in the form of letters between the book’s central characters, the banishment of each letter from Nollop ensures its banishment from Mark Dunn’s novel as well. Hence the book seems at first like a clever language game, and on some level it is. But there are distinctly dark, indeed Orwellian, undertones as well. As the tiles continue to inexorably fall from the cenotaph, available vocabulary becomes ever more restricted and the characters’ letters to one other ever shorter and harder to read. It is as though one sees language itself falling away, dissolving, meaning crumbling before one’s eyes, as in Orwell’s Newspeak.

Its content as well as its form is Orwellian. The basic premise is, at first glance, ridiculous, even comic. Yet this very randomness with which the tiles fall, and the arbitrary way in which Ella’s friends and relatives are punished for their accidental slips, give the book at times a nightmarish sense. Such an outlandish series of events could surely never occur in our logical world – Nollop elevated to the status of omniscient god, the Council his all-knowing, all-powerful interpreters and linguistic police – and yet, it is happening and no matter how loud the characters protest or scream or argue, nothing they do will end the insanity. Indeed, in order to win their freedom they must on some level accept the Council’s illogic – only the one who can pen a superior pangram to Nollop’s, containing every letter of the alphabet in 32 total letters or less, is declared worthy to nullify his supposed pronouncements.

If I had one criticism of this novel, it would be the lack of creativity of the protagonists in fighting against their domination by the Council. The few who speak out are immediately jailed, flogged, banished or killed. There is little or no attempt to defeat the Council through sheer force of numbers; at one point a counter-movement forms but little seems to come of it. Given the creativity that the island’s inhabitants use to continue communication with one another, their collective passivity seems a rather “easy out” for the author. (Why doesn’t anyone attempt, say, a general strike? Mass protests? And what happens when the Council’s henchmen themselves use the forbidden letters – as is inevitable?)

All in all, though, a highly recommended work – and one that will significantly stretch any reader’s vocabulary. 😀

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Riddles! (Just for Fun) October 2, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Flights of Fancy, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Riddles!, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

A random Internet search on some unrelated topic – I can’t remember what – brought me to this site by Eric S. Raymond, entitled “Riddle-Poems, and How to Make Them”. It contains a number of riddle poems in both ancient (Anglo-Saxon) and modern style, many of them extremely ingenious and entertaining. Better yet, it tells you how to write your own! Needless to say I thought this was pretty cool.

Do I really need to explain that I went on a sudden spate of frantic riddle-writing…?

Three riddles to amuse, perplex and entertain readers are below – enjoy! Drag your mouse over the blank space below each riddle to see the answer.

1. Dipping, glinting, gliding by,
Rainbow-fretted, wrought of breath.
I live only while I fly –
Earth’s rough kiss my sudden death.

Answer: A soap bubble

2. Dare trespass my threshold? Don’t dream you shall flee;
The strongest, the swiftest, cannot evade me.
I’ll seize you and crush you and wrench you apart,
Though no one may gaze on my singular heart.

Answer: Black hole

3. We two are twins, joined at the hip;
We love to glide and slide and slip;
Not quite alike – that’s really neat,
Or else we would have two left feet.
Best in a pinch, and clinging tight,
We often stay out late at night,
And we’re both done for if I run.
Now, can you solve this riddling pun?

Answer: Pantyhose

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

…and Univocalic Sonnets September 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

(Part 2…for Part 1 and lipograms click here!)

In his Ton Beau de Marot, Hofstadter also mentions a book of univocalic sonnets by the Italian writer Giuseppe Varaldo. Each sonnet uses only one vowel, while summarizing a famous work of literature (e.g. Dante’s Inferno or The Arabian Nights) in 14 lines. Though Hofstadter considers these poems “untranslatable” (i.e. one can’t retain both their content and the vowel constraint in translation) writing another univocalic sonnet on the same theme, like Dante’s Inferno, might (he can “dimly imagine”) be possible. A few years later I ran across Brian Raiter’s webpage in which he took up Hofstadter’s challenge, and produced an excellent (and very humorous) sonnet on Dante’s Inferno, containing only the vowel “i”. *

Well, as a longtime Dante AND linguistics fanatic, how could I refuse this challenge? I began writing a univocalic sonnet on the Inferno (I won’t tell you which vowel it uses, as I still hope to complete it soon). But in the process, I found myself thinking of ideas for a Purgatorio sonnet as well…and then a Paradiso one. So I worked on all three. The Purgatorio one, containing only “e”, was the first to be completed – probably as this is my favorite book of the three 🙂 Enjoy! **

He left Hell’s nether clefts, emerged – he’s freed!
Then Seeker trembles, heeds the next set test:
Steep steps meet seven levels, then the crest;
He reels, yet Helper sees; enters with speed.

Ledges where kneel men’s essences (sex, greed,
Pelf, spleen, these ever tempted; erred, yet ‘fessed)
“Be better! Perfect!” Keen, relentless zest –
Redeemed yet flesh, hence blessed end decreed.

Steeds, elders, wheels he sees creed’s secrets tell,
Scents Eden’s breeze; bereft, deserted, weeps.
Green eyes’ stern strength he meets; repents deeds, meek;
She – tender, sweet – then cedes; refreshed, he sleeps.
Wet Lethe’s creek he enters, gentle spell;
Then, reverent, ten spheres’ endless depths they seek. ***

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* Also enjoyable are his “Short Words to Explain Relativity” and “Notes on Writing a Monovocalic Sonnet“, which gave me some ideas and inspiration. I do wish to state, however – though my respect for Brian’s creation is immense – I did not resort to Perl script-generated lists, though I admit to running some rhyming dictionary searches. 🙂

** One of the thorny parts of writing a univocalic sonnet is: does “y” count as a vowel, or a consonant? The rule tends to be to leave it out when it has a distinct vowel sound (e.g. “party”, “gypsy”) but include it when it acts as a consonant (“yes, yellow”). But what about words, such as “eyes” and “they”, when it’s entirely silent? In the end I decided to include those two – mainly because they were an intrinsic part of my two favorite images in the poem and I couldn’t bear to remove them. Take that, purists :D)

*** For the Dante keeners: Yes, I fudged a little re “ten spheres” and counted the Empyrean 😀

Just for Fun: Lipograms… September 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
3 comments

(This is Part 1…don’t miss Part 2 containing a univocalic sonnet! 🙂 )

A few years back I read Hofstadter‘s book Le Ton Beau de Marot where – among various linguistic games – he explores lipograms (a challenge in which you write  without using particular letters – usually “e”). He mentions the 300-page Le Disparation by Georges Perec and Ernest Vincent Wrights Gadsby – two entire novels that do not contain a single letter “e”! (As if to make up for the omission, Perec later wrote Les Revenents, a novel which uses no vowel except “e”.)  Needless to say I thought this was all pretty cool.

Later I joined an online form and, posting in a thread on e-less lipograms, came up with the following reworking from my favorite Shakespeare play 😀

*********

Puck’s final stanzas: “A Vision from Sixth Month’s Night”

Found our acting irritating?
Think but this, and it’s not grating:
All you did was grab a nap,
This vision just a bunch of crap.
And this sadly boring plot –
Nothing but a passing thought –
Lords, now pardon, do not sigh:
I’ll top this play by and by.
And as I am a truthful Puck,
If I had, unjustly, luck,
So to now avoid your hiss,
I’ll outdo it – I vow this,
You must know that I’m not lying.
So, good night – this hour’s flying!
Applaud us now, amigos, do!
And I’ll fulfill my oath to you.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

On Being a “Modernized” Society August 6, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Nature, Philosophy, Saving the World, Social Media, Through the Looking Glass.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
7 comments

Earlier today some excellent news was announced: the former UN water advisor has condemned Botswana’s government in its denial of water to the Bushmen, just a week after the UN declared clean water and sanitation a basic human right. This is definitely a step in the right direction for the Bushmen and all people on our planet lacking access to water.

On one of the forums where this news was posted, another user and I got into a rather intense debate about the issue. He argued,

The Bushman, I’m afraid, are fighting a futile battle. Sad, but true. The best they can hope for is for some well-meaning benefactor to archive their language, customs, stories, and history. Botswana (and SADC generally) will not halt their aggressive agendas for a tiny minority with no political representation — modern state formations (to include governments and corporations) just don’t work that way….The only way the “Bushmen” as you call them will survive is to modernize like everyone else in the region. This is a sad reality. Very sad indeed. But it is reality.

In rebuttal I discussed various civil rights movements and argued that the Bushmen’s cause, far from “futile”, merely depends on making their access to water a matter of self-interest for the government. (If, say, an effective international boycott of Botswana diamonds was launched, my guess is the borehole would be opened pretty fast.)

Looking back over the debate in retrospect, though, I realize I entirely glossed over one of the most interesting aspects: his use of the word “modernize.”

*******

What is a “modernized” culture? We who live in first world countries certainly like to think of ourselves as “modern”. In fact we take it for granted that we are, and that being modern is a good thing – so good that it’s inevitable, really, that the whole world should “modernize” as well and follow our shining example?

But what does it mean for a culture to be “modern”? If you asked people to pin it down they’d probably (after some hemming and hawing) come up with something like: “A society that makes full use of the most advanced, “cutting-edge” scientific and technological discoveries.” From which we assume, we’re a highly scientific society, and therefore we must be modern…right?

Wrong.

By this definition, there is really no way of life so hopelessly un-modern as our Western lifestyle. We ignore the latest scientific data about climate change, depletion of natural resources, and the carrying capacity of the globe. We reject new energy developments such as solar and hydrogen fuel-cell power in favour of  inefficient and harmful centuries-old fossil fuel technology. We fail to make adequate use of scientific findings regarding urban sprawl and mass public transport in city development, instead trusting the inefficient hundred-year-old automobile to accomplish the task. To run our vastly complex global monetary environment, we trust ourselves blindly to economic practices developed hundreds of years ago using much smaller models with no inherent limits to growth.

Our lifestyle is not modern. It does not reflect the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, data, or worldview. It fails to take into account or make full use of the latest developments in economics, statistics, environmental sciences, and technology. It is not a system that will successfully carry our world through the 21st century without total collapse and ensuing chaos. It is creaky, backward, primitive, unsophisticated, stubbornly regressive, hopelessly obsolete. We, the people of the Western world, are living an outdated lifestyle.

*******

“Well,” you might logically argue, “if we’re not modern, than who is?” Excellent question. What sort of lifestyle would reflect our most up-to-date scientific knowledge about the planet’s limitations? What culture possesses the tools, the necessary know-how, to survive in a world where resources are not unlimited or even plentiful, but scarce? Not us. For all our technology we have not even begun to figure out how to live within the limits laid out by our new scientific worldview. Who has? The Bushmen.

The Bushmen’s lifestyle is compatible with our scientific knowledge. Ours is not. If we continue to lead our current lifestyle without adapting to our new circumstances, we will no longer be a “modern” society. We will not even be a primitive society. We will be gone, and the so-called “primitive” societies that we dismissed as “un-modern” – if we have not “modernized” them out of existence – will continue. Because they are sustainable. They will have the knowledge necessary for survival in a world where resources are no longer unlimited, or even plentiful. Drop an average Westerner in a desert where food and water are scarce, and they will die. Drop one of the San people there, and they will be at home.

That is one alternative – the unpleasant one. The other is that we learn what we can from the truly “modern” societies – those whose lifestyle respects scientific facts about our earth’s limitations – and adapt our own culture as necessary. Before it’s too late and we no longer have the option…to modernize.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

(For more reading on the Bushmen and how their survival techniques may be essential during a global water crisis, check out James G. Workman’s Heart of Dryness.)