Essay-a-Week 2014, #8: Secrets and Mysteries?

I always have trouble with these essays. The ones that ask me to reveal something hitherto unknown. Because I don’t really feel like I really have any secrets. Certainly none of any great interest. Maye I’m just at ease with who I am. Maybe my life just isn’t sordid enough.

For the most part, I think people just get me. Sure, I might have some odd hobbies that go over the heads of the average joe, but I don’t need to be understood in every detail to be happy. People have better things to do than think about little ol’ me.

So, in lieu of one of my own secrets (for I’m not entirely sure I have any to give), I’ll simply ask you to go out and learn something today. There are countless secrets out there in nature, waiting to be discovered, and if you should happen to take some of these treasures for yourself, I’ll be content.

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Essay-a-Week 2014, #7: A Point in Time and Space

If you give me a time machine, I know exactly where I’m headed: Newport, Rhode Island, July 7, 1956. All I need is 15 minutes, though I certainly won’t complain if you give me a couple of hours.

If you know me at all, you know I’m a Duke Ellington junkie. It seems like every time I shuffle my iTunes, I’m discovering a new gem that I hadn’t noticed before. From the first time I popped Live at the Bluenote into my CD player, I’ve been getting to know the colourful characters that populated his orchestra. Each of his musicians had an unmistakable sound, from the mournful wail of Johnny Hodges’s alto sax, to the irrepressible cheerfulness of Clark Terry’s trumpet. And then there was Paul Gonsalves.

First time I heard Paul Gonsalves step up to the mic, my mind was blown. I was still learning the ropes on the tenor sax, and this guy just kicked in the door and showed me just how much farther I had to go still. Hell, over a decade later I’ve still got a long way to go.

So what does this have to do with July 7, 1956? Well, that was the date of the Newport Jazz Festival, and one of the greatest musical comebacks of all time. The 50s hadn’t been kind to the Ellington Orchestra. The Big Band Era had been steadily fading away, steadily replaced by the smaller bebop groups. Hell, Charlie Parker, the founding father of bop, was dead and buried in 1955. The band was actually operating at a loss at this point, and Duke only managed to pay his musicians through the royalties of his older compositions.

So things weren’t looking good when Newport ’56 rolled around. Hell, the morning of their performance, several of the band members where nowhere to be found, and they had to play their first set shorthanded. Not exactly unheard of with the Ellington band, but not a particularly auspicious start either. Making matters worse, Ellington’s latest composition, the Newport Suite, intended to be a real showstopper, got only a lukewarm reception.

A few other Ellington classics came and went, to polite applause. And that’s when Duke broke out Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue. Duke had experimented with a number of interludes between the Diminuendo and the Crescendo before settling on a tenor sax solo. The story goes that on this particular occasion, he innocuously told Paul to blow for as long as he liked this time.

That suggestion may have been the greatest career move the Duke ever made. When Paul’s solo came around this time, he pulled a 27-chorus tour de force that has gone down in history as one of the greatest performances in the history of jazz.

At this point, I want you to track down a recording of the Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue, off the album Ellington at Newport. Don’t give me that look! I’m sure you kids with your internet magic can find it no problem.

Let me break down what’s happening as you listen. Around the four minute mark, Paul stands up to take his solo. He starts off fairly reserved. Lots of space between the riffs at first. Over the course of the next few choruses, he slowly builds up his momentum, until by chorus number five, you can hear Duke and the rest of the band shouting encouragement. Then chorus 8 rolls around (around six minutes in), and suddenly the crowd starts cheering. At this point, a platinum blonde in a black evening dress jumped up and started dancing.

From there, the cheering only gets bigger and louder as Paul pulls out all the stops. One minute he’s going full tilt in a flurry of notes, only to pull out into the next phrase on a long, keening wail. Just as your ear gets used to his current idea, he’s moved on to something else, so you can’t just tune it out into the background. Gonsalves commands your attention the whole way, before collapsing back into his chair with the Crescendo closing to absolute pandemonium. Seriously. The next track is literally entitled “Pandemonium”, and consists of Duke shouting to be heard over the audience’s uproar. In fact, the crowd is so enthralled that several tunes later when Duke announces it’s time to go the crowd nearly riots, and the Band is forced to play several more encores, dipping into the ballad songbook to try and calm things down.

I’ve listened to Diminuendo & Crescendo over and over and it never ceases to get me all fired up. I can only imagine what it would have been like to actually be there, feeding off the rest of the crowd’s energy, and seeing history in the making as Ellington’s career took flight once more, with a reinvigorated fame that would last well beyond his death.

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Essay-a-Week 2014, #6: A Favourite Memory

Back in high school I was part of the Improv Team, and it was one of the greatest overall experiences of my life. Now, this might be a serious case of “You had to be there”, especially because a lot of the great one-liners have faded from my memory or were in-jokes that completely lost sight of their original origin. That said, I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Now, if you’ve ever seen me at a party you know I’m a pretty staunch introvert. Once I get in a group of more than three or four, I start having trouble going with the flow socially. But I also love performing. That sounds weird, but for me a bigger audience is better. I can’t really conceptualize dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people looking at me. It all kind of resolves itself into one large, faceless entity.

It’s even easier if you’re performing with other people. Over time, you bond with the other people in your group, whether it be a jazz trio or a theatre troupe. When the performance rolls around, you wind up so focused on what your collaborators are doing that the audience just fades into the background.

So it was with the improv team. We spent four years getting tuned in to each other, developing a common sense of humour. After a while, you develop an acute sense of where a scene is going, how to give it a little boost when you feel it flagging, and, most importantly, how your teammates’ various quirks give your team its unique style.

You start to develop a bunch of stock personalities, not characters in their own right, but a basic outline that can be sketched should a scene call for it. One of our teams’ specialties for the style event was the ’50s instructional video. I spent a lot of time developing my best Troy McClure impression, while one of my pals was little Billy, who needed to learn just how to brush his teeth or toast bread in a safe and productive manner.

Beyond the characters, there are also the roles on the team. You know who to go to if you need unflappable snark, or a shot of particularly dark humour, or the ever popular wild card who will knows exactly how to do what you least expect. But there’s also the prop guy, who for some reason is just really funny at playing whatever inanimate object you need. There’s the troubleshooter, who will jump in and find a way to save you if a scene starts to founder. I generally though of myself as an idea guy. I’d hang back and flesh out important ideas we’d need later in the scene, while other people did the initial scene setup. These weren’t exactly explicit titles you handed out. You just developed an instinct of who was the best fit for the job at hand.

That said, you did it all. If the leading lady needed a new character or a prop to move the scene forward, you had half a second to look around, see what everyone else was doing, and step in to fill the necessary role. If you happened to be the first one with an idea of what to do, guess what? You’re up!

That probably makes it sound very high-pressure, but it wasn’t. Sure, as with anything there’s the worry that you’ll screw up. You’ll stumble over your own words, or struggle to come up with a witty comeback, or give your character the same name as the character you just introduced at the improv league finals in what is characteristically one of your best events. I might be guilty of that last one.

But that’s what teammates are for, and if you find yourself struggling, someone’s going to jump in and find a way to get you back on track. Because at the end of the day, you’re just a few guys trying to make people laugh and tell some silly stories. That makes it especially easy to laugh off your own mistakes and move on. And that’s a skill you can take with you the rest of your life.


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Essay-a-Week 2014, #5: Changing the World

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

That’s a dangerous question, dear reader. “Careful what you wish for” and all that. Sure, I could wish for something like world peace, or an end to hunger, but for all I know the magic genie of the lamp will determine that the only way to solve that problem is through the mass extinction of humanity, or perhaps our population will explode, leading to overcrowding and exacerbating the strain on our already limited resources.

So, instead, I’m going to keep it simple. I’m going to wish for something small enough that the next time a wish like this rolls around, that person may have wisdom enough to use it wisely. If I could change one thing about the world, I would give humans the desire and capacity to plan beyond our current lifespan.

Now, admittedly, some of us do make such plans, but it is far from a universal trait to our species, and the nature of democracy only exacerbates the problem. Anyone who wants to get elected must appeal to the current population of voters, not those twenty, fifty or one-hundred years from now, and must deliver on their promises within four years if they hope to be reelected the following term.

I’m not advocating for dictatorship, but rather for a populace that is more concerned for the well-being of future generations than for personal wealth and comfort. We’re pretty smart animals, but we didn’t evolve to think on global scales. No creature on earth has ever had the kind of raw power to influence our entire planet until homo sapiens came along and started meddling in things beyond their comprehension.

Besides, making humanity smarter strikes me as a sounder strategy than solving this or that problem. You can save humanity from extinction and they’ll survive for a day. Teach humanity to save itself, and you won’t need to call in a second miracle.

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Essay-a-Week 2014, #4: Something Important

I am a logician by trade. Or I will be in two or three more years, when I get my PhD. And seeing as I chose to devote another four years of my life to studying the subject before actually going out into the world to earn my living like a normal human being, you can surmise it’s a subject of import to me. Why is that?

I think it stems from a lifelong desire to learn. I don’t have many vivid childhood memories, but most of them revolve around dinosaurs and the solar system. For a long time, I vacillated between “astronaut” and “paleontologist” for career choices. Bill Nye was my idol. In later years, attending a Christian high school, I took to philosophy to figure out where I stood in relation to my peers regarding the origin of the universe. Philosophy led to mathematics, since my all the philosophers revered it as the most incontrovertible of intellectual exploits. And mathematics led to logic, without which mathematics would be impossible.

But it wasn’t just about finding the highest office in the ivory tower. I found that as I continued to study logic and mathematics, I developed a new sort of perception in my other pursuits, both academic and mundane. My writing improved, as I began to see the more general sentence structures employed by my favourite authors. My music improved, as I started to see broader patterns in the chord progressions of my favourite songs. In general, I found it much easier to wrap my head around abstract concepts, and apply them to the situation at hand.

For me, logic was a revelation. It sounds strange. I mean, everyone knows what logic is right? And yet, after watching over half my undergraduate class mess up a basic contrapositive question, I have no illusion that humans are rational animals. As a species, we pride ourselves in the power of the intellect, and yet, untrained, we have great difficulty in drawing correct conclusions from the data at hand.

In spite of this difficulty, I cannot envision any subject I would rather add to the earliest stages of education. Every science carries the tacit assumption that the scientist can reason correctly. Every essay, every speech is an effort to compel one’s audience into agreement, and few things are as compelling as reason. And when empty rhetoric is employed, hoping to deceive the lazy reader, few things bolster you against trickery like the bulwark of logic.Logic is hard. I understand that. But, so is arithmetic. We spend a solid eight years or more teaching children the basics of addition and multiplication. If we taught logic for even half as long as we taught basic arithmetic, we could assume an understanding of logic in every other subject, just as we assume an understanding of arithmetic in every other field of science. I would contend that we do make precisely that assumption, but I would also contend that, at present, such an assumption is unfounded.

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Essay-a-Week 2014, #3: Shit you need to know

All right internet. It’s time for another talk about science.

I know what you’re thinking: “But science is haaaaaard!” And that’s precisely why we need to talk about it. Because you think science is hard.

Admittedly there are parts of science that are hard. If it was easy, we’d have a Unified Field Theory and hover cars and robot butlers. But it’s not all hard, and we need to stop thinking that science is only for a handful of people who are especially smart.

Yeah, I get it. You didn’t do well in physics or chemistry or calculus. Hell, you probably didn’t even take calculus (unless you’re part of the overwhelming ArtSci majority reading this blog). But we in the scientific community aren’t going to look at your report card before we’ll talk to you.

Because we need you to listen.

We don’t need you to know specific facts. We don’t need you to do a sheet of homework every week. We just want you to know what we’re up to.

And it’s cool stuff, too! Like putting a car on mars, or designing a telescope that can look at the beginning of the universe, or discovering shrimp that produce sperm ten times longer than their bodies.

But while you’re learning about those giant sperm, you’ll also learn about things that are actually kinda relevant to humanity. Like how medical research works, or what the scientific opinion about global warming is, or how difficult it can be to accurately report science in mainstream media.

This is shit you need to know. Because you vote on things like these. And if you’re voting on bad science, then you’re doing a serious disservice to the entire human race.

And it really is as easy as finding a scientific personality you like, and following them through your social media of choice. Yeah, time is precious. But you can spare 30 minutes. For science.

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Essay-a-Week 2014, #2: Something I’ve been wanting to say…

I’m not the easiest guy to keep in touch with. There are only two friend from high-school with whom I regularly correspond. While every now and then I’ll get in touch with one of my undergrad comrades, that usually occurs only once or twice a month. I’ve never quite gotten the knack of keeping people in the loop after a geographical separation, but I wish it were otherwise.

I suppose part of it is that I don’t really keep my social media up to date. I don’t like to flood people’s feeds with my personal projects, and there’s only so many transfinite induction jokes you can make, even aimed a mathematicians. But that’s what I do: I write comics and study mathematics. So if neither of those catches your interest, you’re not going to find my life terribly exciting.

But friendship is more than common interests and life updates, and I’ve had a lot of good friends over the years. So, if you’re reading this, no matter how many years it’s been since we last spoke, no matter how awkward it might be to drop be a line, without really knowing what to say, I just want you to know I’m always willing to catch up.

Because I’ve been there. There have been times I’ve wanted to drop someone a line, catch up, and couldn’t get over the awkwardness of just contacting someone out of the blue for no other reason than to chat. And because of it, I just find myself falling out of touch.I don’t know how to fix that, I don’t know how to get over it. But if you’ve ever found yourself in the same place, I just want you to know that I won’t find it at all uncomfortable if one day you decide it’s just time for us to catch up. Consider this you’re open invitation, however many decades it’s been since last we spoke.

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