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Just You Wait

January 14th, 2017

I’ll Fix Those Windmills

My Literature Humanities quest continues, and appropriately, I have moved on to Don Quixote.

For those who have a mysterious lack of familiarity with western culture, Don Quixote was a man (if I refer to the protagonist instead of the book, I can avoid typing italic tags) who went nuts and decided he was a knight errant. It’s an absurd premise. No one would invent a patently false identity for himself in middle age and let it lead to his destruction. For example, no famous male athlete who used to appear on Wheaties boxes would decide he was a woman and have himself mutilated by doctors in order to bolster his conviction.

I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that Cervantes (avoiding italics again) is a better writer than I had remembered. Maybe I’m reading a new translation. The first fifteen pages of the book are really dull, but after that, it picks up a bit, and it’s not actually painful. It’s not Catch-22 or King Lear (dang it), but it’s not the never-ending mental toothache we call The Iliad (more italics!).

I did myself a disservice by re-reading Shakespeare (ahhhh) before beaching myself on the dry sand of Cervantes. Shakespeare is simply astounding. He is profound. He is skilled. He is incredibly witty. He is entertaining. I should have read him last. It’s like I slept with Rachel before marrying Leah.

I think Leah was the first person to use the phrase “chopped liver” metaphorically.

I’ll catch it for this, but I’ll say it anyway: Cervantes isn’t funny. He almost draws a chuckle once in a while, and to his credit, I can tell when he’s trying to make me laugh, but it’s just not happening. Am I simply biased because I resent having to read the classics (even when I’m the one who forced me to do it)? Well, I am biased. But I’m right. Rabelais is funny. Voltaire is hilarious. If schoolboy resentment were the whole explanation, I wouldn’t think any of these old coots were funny.

Someone I am too lazy to look up said, “The soul of wit is brevity.” Or, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I guess I just proved I’m lazy. The second one works better. Anyway, one of the keys to humor is to avoid beating jokes to death. Ideally, a joke should have one syllable, or no syllables at all. I’m not sure Cervantes is capable of writing a sentence that doesn’t run to three lines on a page. He lived in a time when people had very little to do (rich people like Cervantes, I mean), so he didn’t spare the ink. That’s a huge mistake for a humorist.

I really look forward to getting deeper into the book (italics win), because it will mean I’m that much closer to closing it.

To make my mind feel better, I looked at a book I actually enjoy, and I saw that my memories of it did not do it justice. I have a copy of Eugene Butkov’s Mathematical Methods of Physics I bought when I was slowly dying in grad school. At the time, I liked it a lot, because I found it easy to understand. Until I looked at it again yesterday, I didn’t remember how much I had liked it.

Wait…I’m going from literature to physics! That’s not right! You’re not supposed to treat physics books like…books! You’re not supposed to enjoy them! Well, if you think that, you’re high. When you’re in the STEM world, you get pummeled with one bad text after another, and some of them are even worse than Homer. They are torture to read. It leaves you with a desperate appreciation for good texts. I actually wrote a textbook author a fan letter once.

Anyway, Butkov has a great virtue: he writes about math the way physicists teach math.

When a mathematician teaches you about a mathematical tool, he will be very rigorous. He will make sure he is absolutely correct about everything, in order to deter pedants who will pick his book apart if he slips. For this reason, mathematicians take a long time to teach methods. Physicists aren’t like that. A physicist will teach you, say, Stokes’ Theorem in fifteen minutes instead of a week. He’ll tell you what you need to know, and he’ll leave out the BS. It’s not a superior way to teach. It’s just the best way to teach people who are interested in physics, not math. If you study math itself, you want to know everything about it. If you study math for physics, you just want to be able to use it.

Butkov leaves out the endless i-dotting and t-crossing that makes other books tedious and hard to understand. Very nice.

Yesterday I went over a bunch of stuff concerning complex variables, and it was neat. In like ten minutes, I went from the beginning of the chapter through Euler and de Moivre. That’s how a physicist is supposed to do it. Let the math guys wallow in details. They get off on that stuff. And on pornographic Japanese cartoons.

I read something depressing in the foreword. He said he was writing with “less gifted” students in mind. Ouch! At least he didn’t use my name!

For the heck of it, I got out a Schaum outline and did a few problems.

This experience got me thinking about my physics days. I think of myself as someone who washed out of grad school, but that’s not really right. I left. I was not expelled. It’s true, I had some problems, due to being pumped full of mind-bending ADD drugs that would have driven a wooden Indian (PC alert) crazy, but when I quit, I was a few weeks into a new semester.

The department had made an accommodation for me; that’s true. They said I could continue to study if I agreed to pursue a master’s instead of a Ph. D. But it’s not like I got a bunch of F’s. I only got one bad grade.

My best guess is that if I had stayed and done okay for the year, they would have lifted the condition they gave me. That would just be common sense. I will never know, however.

I wonder why I’ve gotten so used to thinking of myself as someone who washed out.

What I achieved was not something to be ashamed of. On a certain date, I didn’t really know algebra. A couple of years after that date, I was in class with grad students, including a guy who taught my second semester of physics lab. A year after that, I believe, I was in one of our country’s top grad school programs. That’s not bad. Somehow I feel embarrassed about it, though. All I think about was leaving.

I know people who were thrilled to get into the University of Miami. I don’t tell them, but I’m embarrassed about my UM degrees. There is nothing wrong with UM, but I started my undergrad studies at Columbia University, so UM was a step down. I started my graduate studies at the University of Texas, which was an excellent department. Then I got my only graduate degree at UM, in law, which is a discipline for people of very ordinary gifts. “Smarter than the average bear,” as my Evidence professor Mickey Graham used to put it when he wanted to needle us.

Sometimes I feel like I couldn’t have made it in physics, and of course, that’s wrong. I got some good grades in graduate school, and what I did as an undergrad was just crazy. I suppose that since I left, I have gaslighted myself.

I remember how crazy the ADD drugs made me. I took my first test in Quantum Mechanics at UT, and I froze up. I could not do the problem. Then I returned to the TA office and did it on the blackboard in a few minutes. I just wrote it out. I didn’t have to puzzle and ponder.

Imagine how frustrating that is. Meanwhile, the department’s big fixation was on weeding people out, not helping them. I didn’t know that when I agreed to study there!

I didn’t like UT’s attitude toward students who had problems. Once I understood it from my own experience, I decided not to fail anyone in the class I taught. There was a girl who was in turmoil of some kind, and she deserved an F. I told her she was getting a C, and that should could relax.

Was that a bad thing to do? No. She was pre-med. A C wasn’t going to get her an undeserved position in medical school and allow her to kill people with her incompetence. It was simply going to help her avoid disgrace and dealing with the deans.

Reading Butkov was very nice because even if he wrote it for the sweathogs of physics, it reminded me that I was bright enough to do the work.

I hope I’ll never stop rebuilding my knowledge of math and physics. I hate looking at my old homework papers and being unable to understand them.

It was a mistake for me to get involved in liberal arts stuff. The chairman of the English department sent me a letter asking me to apply to Columbia, and everyone assumed I would write literature, but that was a blind trail. The fact that you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should do it. I should have stayed away from that nonsense and stuck with the technical stuff. I may be less gifted in that area (or I may not) but I could have done it, and it would have prevented me from trying to join a segment of society that would never have welcomed me. I was already conservative when I left college, and I was on my way to becoming a Christian. People like that do not survive in the arts.

Anyway, I had nothing to say. To write novels and plays, you have to have something to say. There has to be something inside you that wants out. I didn’t have that. So regardless of how well I strung words together, I wasn’t actually capable of writing literature.

Other types of writing were closed to me, too. The first newspaper editor I wrote for said I was brilliant, but gradually the local papers became closed off to me. If you’re not a raging socialist, people will eventually figure it out, and then you will find them inching away from you. They control the newspapers. I could never have had a newspaper humor column or a comic strip, even though my work impressed people to whom it was submitted. A few people get through the red blockade, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to follow their example. The odds against people like me are overwhelming.

I would advise any young Christian to avoid the arts. You will not make it there, unless you’re a sellout. Don’t even try. In other areas, like business, medicine, and the STEM world, you have a chance. STEM people generally hate God, but on the other hand, he doesn’t come up that often when you’re designing a bridge or an engine, so unless you make your religion an issue, you should be able to fly under the radar without becoming a complete whore.

By the way, I’ve learned a few things about the Christian music business, and it looks like it’s fairly whored-up, too. I would be hesitant to try to make it in that arena if I were a young musician. I shouldn’t be surprised. Look how whored-up every single large charismatic ministry is. If it’s a big organization, you can generally bet the devil is running it, no matter whose face appears on the label.

This is what I’m thinking about this fine weekend. May your day be free of academics.

One Response to “Just You Wait”

  1. Lee Says:

    I enjoyed Cervantes but felt I was missing a lot of the jokes as I’d not read the King Arthur poems he was parodying.

    I loved the Illiad, couldn’t get through the Odyssey.

    The Ballad of the White Horse, by Chesterton, is astoundingly good if you like epic poems.