Sunday, July 12, 2009

Memory of

Draft of a memory:

My father decided, probably well before my birth, I was going to become an engineer—not just any engineer but in particular an electrical engineer. When I applied for college, I made one application, one only. That was an application to an engineering school. He assumed only one major, though he mentioned once that either mechanical or civil engineering would be (barely) acceptable alternative majors.

I recall never having any interest in electrical engineering. The subject always seemed impenetrable to me. It seemed overly abstract. The nearest I came to the subject was changing tubes in my amplifier.

I was the only child I knew who owned an amplifier and collection of classical records from the time I was about 12 or 13-years-old, but I had no idea how the system worked. The tubes burned out and I wanted to hear music. That was as far as intrigue developed. The tubes were a means to an end. The end was enjoying listening to music, though not understanding music.

I do not recall showing much interest in designing mechanical things, though I did like the notion of road racing. I recall reading books about it and, in particular, a biography or autobiography of the Indy racer Wilbur Shaw.

My father required that I tear down an automobile engine and put it back together before I got a driver’s license. That was the engine of a 1948 Chevrolet. Knowing how the car worked did delight me.

At one time in my youth, I even owned the frame, drive train, V-8 engine, hydromantic transmission, tires, and seat for a 1949 Pontiac automobile. I did not have a speedometer but I estimated that I drove the contrapation at least 80-miles-an-hour on a test track—an old back road. My father gave me that contraption. I would not have imagined obtaining it on my own. But I did enjoy, once I began driving, imitating how I thought road racers executed their routes—that caused me to end turned about in a ditch. That happened on the night of a prom, for which I had not bothered to have a date.

From the time I was seven, the world of space travel dominated my fantasy life. That world just dominated the structure of my fantasies. I also read books about mountain climbing and road racing. I liked books about exploration and sea travel. The film documentaries Kon Tiki and some years later The Silent World caught my fancy. I recall reading the book Kon Tiki many years after I saw the documentary movie. The odd thing about both those books and films was that I had (and still have) an absolute terror of the ocean. I enjoyed reading accounts of mountain climbing expeditions. Maurice Herzog’s account of the conquest of Annapurna particularly intrigued me. I read that not long after Norgan and Hillary climbed Everest.

The famous Nordhoff and Hall trilogy of novels about the Bounty mutiny intrigued me. I read them with great pleasure. I think that I probably thought that they were almost non-fictional accounts. I recall reading books by Melville about the southern oceans. I also enjoyed reading accounts of Greek history culled from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. For whatever reason, I recall liking Alcibiades more than most of the other players. I very much liked two books for young people, A Day in Old Athens and A Day in Old Rome, the later set in the time of the Emperor Hadrian, who seemed to be someone after my own heart.

One of the first three adult books I set out to read was The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, a book I read just before my first camping trip as a Boy Scout. At the same time, I tried to read Descartes Meditations. It seemed to have something to do with candles. The edition was part of a Mentor series in pocket paperback. The third book was an account of famous train wrecks. Bees intrigued me, in part, because my father kept them.

I grasped that Descartes was talking about how something endures even as it changes. There is something behind change but I still just thought that the change itself was that something, not something outside the change that remained real. It was all quite confusing to me. I did not have the mentality to ask what I needed to ask as I read. That did not frustrate me all that much—it just fermented in the back of my awareness. I am not certain that I ever really developed beyond the concrete stage of thinking. Abstractions are still merely that. I seem to need images or analogies of some sort .

I do not know how old I was when I discovered Rachel Carson. I do recall with great fondness Under the Sea Wind. Her books were paper pocket books with lovely illustrations. They were the most beautiful writing I encountered in my youth outside The Wind in the Willows.

Several subjects interested me when I was young. I spent a great deal of time working on my science fiction fantasy world—that went on from age seven to around fourteen. Another subject involves simply looking at life—taking it all in. Part of that was looking at animals. We lived in a suburb, but for many years, a large field was one house away from my parents’ home. Farm animals like mules were a few houses away in either direction. A stream flowed near enough for me to spend hours exploring it. What I took to be swamps were near as was a lake.

I enjoyed the spiders in my father’s vineyard and grubs in the grassy yard. I enjoyed the bumble bees that nested in the wooden frame of our goat shed. The notion of the life of a naturalist never seems to have entered my imagination. The notion of animal behaviorist did. I was quite interested in the delivery of puppies, kittens, and kids (goats). I enjoyed being with my cat or our dog when they had babies. I recall looking at the naked body of a girl I liked. I thought about how her body would conceive babies and bring them into being, just as my own body was designed to enable her to do just that. I could never make love without thinking that is how we all come to be.

I read popular accounts of science for children from about the fourth or fifth grade (I think). I thought that I understood nuclear physics because the little science news magazine to which I subscribed offered me that illusion.

Through the influence of my father, I read science fiction. Amazing Stories influenced me. I liked Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Arthur C. Clark wrote some of my favorite science fiction works. What he wrote seemed doable.

I particularly liked Jules Verne, in part, because his books reminded me of novels by the elder Alexander Dumas. The editions of the Dumas novels I read were from Scribner and featured splendid illustrations by N. C. Wyeth that I liked as much as or even more than the novels themselves. Dumas apparently had a staff of assistant writers who composed description of places. I think those were what I most liked about the narratives. I recall a splendid description of a country inn in one of the novels.

The most influential (to me) science fiction work before I began reading Ray Bradbury was Clifford Simak’s City, which I seem to have read it around 1953 or 1954. The book haunted me throughout my seven years or so of science fiction fantasy. It matched my elegiac temperament.

My siblings fascinated me. I loved watching how they developed, both as physical beings and, more notably, as human persons.

What never seems to have entered my mind was much curiosity about musical theory, abstract thinking, or mathematics. I certainly had no flare for these topics. Music was an immense mystery. I wondered why, when I tried to play the piano, the sound I heard was not the sound I heard in my head. The notion that I had to do something beyond hitting keys was beyond my limited keen.

On the other hand, mechanics did intrigue me. The notion that a seemingly motionless structure was, in fact, dynamic did fascinate me. I used to play with calculations for structures. I also had some sort of spatial sense. I spent hours playing with spatial models in my mind. I loved creating structures and fantasy building in my imagination. I liked the notion of drawing and painting but I had no ability to do either, much to my regret.

When I studied geometry, the notion of proofs also intrigued me. I used to dream the solutions to geometrical theorems. When I read about non-Euclidean geometry, I grew excited. I also like analytical geometry. I do not know why. I liked typology and number theory. However, I did not think like a scientist or mathematician. All that came second hand.

Thus, it was with annoyance and lack of ability that I entered college.

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In this my personal Christian blog, I hope to be discursive and now and then critical. What I write here is tentative and tensive. I post thoughts, feelings, and observations somewhat randomly and often in immediate response to current events and posts on other blogs.

"Serendipitous Creativity" from Gordon Kaufman

"I suggested that what we today should regard as God is the ongoing creativity in the universe - the bringing (or coming) into being of what is genuinely new, something transformative; …

"In some respects and some degrees this creativity is apparently happening continuously, in and through the processes or activities or events around us and within us(…) is a profound mystery to us humans(…) But on the whole, as we look back on the long and often painful developments that slowly brought human life and our complex human worlds into being, we cannot but regard this creativity as serendipitous …

"I want to stress that this serendipitous creativity - God! - to which we should be responsive is not the private possession of any of the many particular religious faiths or systems …

"This profound mystery of creativity is manifest in and through the overall human bio-historical evolution and development everywhere on the planet; and it continues to show itself throughout the entire human project, no matter what may be the particular religious and or cultural beliefs."

Gordon Kaufman, Mennonite Life, December 2005 vol. 60 no. 4

Melville is a rational man who

"Melville is a rational man who wants God to exist. He wants Him to exist for the same reasons we all do: to be our rescuer and appreciator, to act as a confidant in our moments of crisis and to give us reassurance that, over the horizon of our deaths, we will survive." (John Updike)

And that is a problem for me.

Fragmented Notions

Fragmented Notions
Copyright © 2007 Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University

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