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.Scholar 1 Rembrandt

 

by Richard Nilsen

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Many years ago, when I was a teacher, I told my students on the first day of class that I considered it my goal to make them unemployable. I was quite serious about it. I wasn’t trying to ruin their lives; I was trying to enrich them.

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There is an almost universal canard these days that education is supposed to prepare you for a job. That a university education should, in effect, be vocational training. This is an idea which horrifies me. 

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Nobody should ever be condemned to a job. A career? Yes. A vocation? Yes. A calling? Especially yes. But a job? Never. 

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If there is a “job” we are put on the earth for, it is to become as fully human as possible, to learn all we are capable of, to discover our full selves. A process that Carl Jung would have called “individuation.” Certainly, we need to put food on the table and we need to face the quotidian demands on our time. But underneath all that, there is a self that needs to grow and develop, if for no other reason than to better fulfill the demands made on us by other people — both those with power over us and those we love. 

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An education is one of the ways we do this. And no better education serves this function than what has been called a “liberal education.” It was the purpose of Aristotle’s peripatetic lectures, the purpose of the trivium and quadrivium, the purpose of a college core curriculum. One should be exposed to a wide variety of thought and disciplines. Avoiding ignorance and self-satisfaction and instead questioning everything. 

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I remember a conversation with an editor looking to hire another reporter for the paper. “I don’t want a J-school grad,” he said. J-school is journalism school, where you learn all the ins and outs of interviewing, Associated Press style, and work flow. “I don’t want a J-school grad,” he said. “I want someone with wide experience and a general education. We can teach him (or her) everything else needed in a couple of weeks on the job.” To be trained to any single discipline is to be too easily left ignorant of everything else. 

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It is much more important to have some sense of the world and how the news you are reporting fits into the bigger picture. What journalists call “context.” 

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Our primary job in life is to become ourselves. This is a life-long process; we are always “becoming.” A formal education should put us on a path in which we become competent to build our selves. If all it does is train us to be a cog in a business, it has stifled us and preempted the growth process. 

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A large portion of the political thought on education these days centers on jobs and job training. “Jobs” is a buzzword, meant to influence elections. Especially among Republicans, life is seen to be economic life. Oddly, this is something they share with Communists — the Marxian view of life is one of workers and production. There is little concern for family, love, empathy, spiritual concerns, hobbies, altruism or simply wondering at the night sky. 

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But what turns out to be important — and this becomes clearer and clearer the older one gets, and the closer to the final curtain — are these very issues. No one, as they say, faces death wishing they had spent more time at the office. More often, they will have wished to have told more people that they loved them and told them more often. 

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And so, my lessons in class were meant to tempt my students to think differently, to see what had been invisible to them before, to recognize the infinite complexity of their lives and the universe they inhabit. 

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I taught photography and taught it as an art. That is, to use the camera as a method of self discovery. One regular assignment was to photograph something so that I could not tell what it was. I did not mean to make a badly focused photo, or a bad print, but to see something in a way it had not usually been seen. Often that meant extreme close-ups and lack of context, to bring out patterns rather than nameable objects. That way, you could actually see the details — the patterns — an not just a subject you could name (a “house,” or a “car”).

.Growing trees

Another assignment, even harder, was when I asked them to make a bad photograph. Again, I did not mean one badly processed, out of focus or chemically incompetent (this was in the days before digital), but one that was poorly designed or composed, or poorly thought through. You know, as when someone photographs a child with a tree growing out of their head, because the did not notice the tree in the viewfinder. 

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The problem was that if the student was trying to make something poorly thought through, they had to think carefully about it. And so, if they were intelligent or talented, the mere fact of paying attention to what they were doing made it nearly impossible to make their photograph bad. You could break all the so-called “rules” of art and design, but if you did it on purpose, it would work. 

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For them, I defined design itself as “your awareness of what is in the frame.” Awareness is what counts. If you are aware of what you are doing, there are no false steps. 

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If I had been teaching them to become professional photographers, I would have given them the “rule of thirds,” or the use of long-focus lenses for portraits. But I was not doing that; I was trying to make them deeper, more aware human beings. And hence, “unemployable.” 

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They would be more interesting people, more aware of others and the variety of ideas, beliefs and customs. More comfortable in the world, less likely to judge immediately and indiscriminately. 

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This is what my college education provided for me. Certainly I came into it with a raging curiosity, but taking a full range of courses, both scientific and humanistic — history, literature, philosophy — cracked me open. For that I am forever grateful. I did not learn any job skills, but I did discover a great deal about myself. I found both that the world was much bigger and more varied than I had known, and that I was, too.

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
 

Teacher 3

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by Richard Nilsen

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I want to write about teachers and teaching. It is something I often think about; it has been an essential part of my life, on both sides of the equation. Many years ago, I was a teacher. My wife was a teacher for over 30 years. And more to the point, I am the product of an army of teachers, most of whom I can still name, from my first grade teacher, Miss Winters to my second grade teacher Mrs. Semindinger, and beyond through high school and college. Most of them gave me something of value. A few were clunkers, and a few were outstanding, but they all gave something.
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There are at least three levels of teaching. The first, and simplest, is the transference of knowledge from the greater vessel to the lesser — teacher to student. In the earliest grades, this is learning your A-B-Cs and your times-tables, but even at the highest level, such as a musician’s master class, you have a seasoned professional passing on the tradition of performance practice and enlarging the student’s understanding of the music and its possibilities. There is much to be handed from generation to generation.
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Teach 5 Miss Frances Horwich
At some point, though, information isn’t enough. Especially in our age of Google and Wikipedia, if I need a fact, I can look it up, or read a book.
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So, the second level of teaching is to model behavior, and most importantly, to model enthusiasm for learning, to embody curiosity. The best teachers I had were those who were themselves students, who read books and cared about a wide variety of subjects.
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No teacher rehearsing lessons by rote ever sparked their charges to a love of learning.
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Teacher 2
But it is the third level of teaching that most interests me, because it has had the greatest influence on my own life. And that is to be seen as a person by your teacher, to be recognized as an individual and nurtured for that very reason. For teaching is something personal between the students and their teacher. In some ways, just as personal as between the child and parent.
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Teach 1
Before I became a writer, I taught at a two-year college for six years, and one of the surprising things I discovered was that on the first day of class, any teacher can look out on that sea of faces and assign final grades. The look in their eyes — the level of brightness and attentiveness — was immediate. You knew who were going to be your “A” students, who were getting a “C” or more likely a C-minus, and which would not last out the semester. Before anyone even opened their mouths. It’s an uncanny sense and surprisingly accurate.
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Of course, you couldn’t actually give out final grades like that, because there was always someone who would surprise you — the dull looking student who caught fire, or the hot shot so full of himself he wouldn’t do the work required. So you had to spend the term trying to get the students to prove you wrong.
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It’s as if they were transparent bottles and you can see how full or empty they are. A good teacher “reads” students.
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And with that comes the unnerving recognition that I was once that transparent bottle, and I was being read from my first day in class by teachers who could see what I was capable of, even if I wasn’t producing it.
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But that sense of seeing potential in their eyes informed my sense of myself as a student in the past. My teachers, from grade school up, could look in my eyes and know what I couldn’t have known myself.
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Being a good teacher is being able to see potential where there is no solid evidence. In elementary school, I was a good student and got excellent grades, but by the time I hit high school, I became bored and lackluster. My grades were all over the place: the more interesting the subject matter, the better my grade. Simple classes bored me; hard classes engaged me.
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Teach 10
But there had always been teachers who saw the potential, even when I was a self-involved teen-age twerp. And that is what makes a great teacher: the ability to look at that unformed bit of cow-licked clay and imagine a bone-china tureen. And it takes a lot of deep looking to find the inner worth of someone so callow and aimless.
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I had two high-school English teachers who did their best to keep me on the right path by encouraging my potential and discouraging my worst instincts. One, Eugene Best, told me my writing in high school was “too literary,” which it most certainly was. I was trying to be James Joyce at the age of 15. I needed to relax my language and let my prose flow more naturally. Another, Phil Jannerone, recognized in me as a high-school sophomore that I might have some talent as a writer. At the time I had no direction at all and knew not what path my life and career might take. I gave it no thought at all. But Mr. Jannerone could see in the papers I wrote for class that I could organize thoughts and find a turn of phrase. He encouraged me to join the student newspaper, where I won a couple of state-wide student journalism awards. Who knew? Mr. Jannerone, apparently.
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Both these teachers have long passed on to their reward — or, having been teachers, their lack of any reward — but I want to recognize them here for recognizing me back than. I was “seen” by them.
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Teach 4 Rita
(All through my life and career, I have had hidden mentors who guided and protected me and saw something in me I didn’t. I still cannot say what they saw, but they helped me every step of the way. Some were teachers, others were editors. I had unbelievable luck in having the string of editors I worked with. And only in retrospect did I find out the behind-the-scene things they did to advance my career and protect me from my own worst gaffes.)
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Each of us most likely had one or two teachers that did the equivalent. Most teachers and most schooling we just survive. They don’t do any real harm, but they don’t inspire, either. We are lucky to have had one teacher in our lives who pulled us through, or maybe two.
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Prof 5
For me, that teacher came in college. I took seven classes with him, beginning with English Romantic Poetry. The first great thing he did for me was give me a “D” for a paper I wrote. I had always been able to figure out what a teacher wanted and give it to him or her. But Rudy Behar didn’t want me to give him what he wanted. He wanted me to engage with the subject and find something there for myself. Yes, he could tell me what a line in a poem meant, but it only stuck if I figured it out for myself. He made me stick my nose in the poetry. I made a final “A” in the class, but couldn’t have if he hadn’t been so brutal on my first paper.
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He modeled something else for me. He was brilliant and knew it. This rubbed many students the wrong way: He could be brutal with more of them than just me. If a student disagreed with him in class, he could tear the student apart, bit by bit. But if — and this happened more than once — if the student could defend his position with reason and examples, Rudy would change his mind. “You are right; I was wrong.” A smart person who admits he isn’t always right? This was a miracle and an object lesson for me in the rest of my years.
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Teach 7
From him, I learned to read musical scores in a comparative arts class. I took apart the mythological welter of William Blake in a seminar. He got me to read Milton and learn to love his poetry. The learning didn’t stop at graduation. We remained friends until the end of his life, five years ago.
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I hope I took what I learned from him as a teacher into my own years in front of class. I don’t think I was ever as brutal as Rudy, but everything else worked for me: Engage with the material. It is my mantra to this day.
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Students 4
Teachers make these differences in life, although they don’t always find out the good they did. Sometimes, however. As I said, my wife was a teacher. She taught art, mostly at the elementary school level. One day, we were in a grocery store when a young man, about 25, came up to us. “Mrs. Steele?” he asked. “Yes.” “Hello, my name is” and he said the name, although I don’t remember it. But Carole did. “You were my art teacher in third grade,” he said. “And because of you, I became an art teacher, too.”
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Sometimes there are rewards.

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons

.1 Pattern recognition
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by Richard Nilsen
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One … Two … Four … Eight … What do we appreciate? Sixteen …  Thirty-Two … Sixty-Four … Hike! Pattern recognition, Yay!
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It is the signature character of human intelligence. Patterns make the world understandable. We find patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist.
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2 Big Dipper and child
Take the Big Dipper, seven stars in an asterism that is recognizable even to children. It is as if the sky had arranged them, even though they are really only seven stars in a larger constellation of hundreds (really thousands) of stars in that section of the night sky.
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3 Big Dipper in night sky
We pick out the parts that seem meaningful to us and give them a name. The same stars in Ireland are known as “the Plough.” The larger grouping of them form the constellation of Ursa Major — the large bear. In many Indo-European derived languages, the stars are also the Bear. In Greek myth, the “Bear” in the sky is seen as Callisto, the nymph changed into a she-bear by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus.
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4 Plow and bear
But elsewhere in the world, the stars are a wagon, a butcher’s cleaver, a saucepan, a fishing net, a canoe, a shrimp. In Vietnam, it is the Big Rudder and the Little Dipper is the Little Rudder. Among the Inuit of the Arctic, they are the Caribou.
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And the night sky is filled with — officially — 88 constellations, a number settled on in 1922 by the International Astronomical Union, and each constellation, to someone at some time in history, looked like a scorpion, a giraffe, a ram, centaur, a crane, a bull — even an air pump and a toucan.
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5 Toucan pair
(The Toucan, in the Southern hemisphere, was not part of the original set of Greek constellations and was only devised around AD 1600, and apparently meant to be a hornbill rather than a toucan, but the toucan name stuck. In other countries, it was also first called an Indian magpie, a Brasilian Pye, and an American goose. In China, it was first named just “bird beak.” The smallish constellation is surrounded by others named Phoenix, Grus [Crane] and Pavo [Peacock] and are known collectively as the “Southern Birds.”)
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But the night sky is only a single exemplar of the human compulsion to find order in a chaos of experience. Even so estimable a mathematician as Bertrand Russell thought that mathematics itself might be a trick the mind plays on itself to find pattern in randomness. Given an infinite number of variables, and there will be patterns to be found. Hence Avogadro’s number and the Fibonacci Sequence.
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As Russell put it, “Mathematics may be defined as the the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, not whether what we are saying is true.”
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6 Continental Drift
Patterns are everywhere to be found. It is what gave Darwin and Wallace the clue to evolution. Showed Wegener the way to what became known as plate tectonics. What makes a sonnet a sonnet. How a series of ones and zeroes can become the internet.
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The patterns in rocks give us geology. The patterns in human interactions give us politics; the U.S. Constitution is really just codified pattern. The patterns of landscape show us where to put our roads. The patterns of sounds give us language and the patterns of ink squiggles give us printed words.
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7 Lots of T
We have patterns for family organization, patterns for which side of the road to drive on, patterns for theology and myth. And the perpetual question is whether these patterns exist primarily in the real world, or emanate from the structure of our brains and are cast out on the world to make sense of it.
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For, let’s admit it, the world is way too complex to be understood by any simple formula. It is chaotic and for all intents and purposes, it is infinite, with an infinite number of interconnections and possible entities. Our little sphere of experience hardly counts in the expanse of things.
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8 Framing the landscape
These simplifications are not usually noticed or commented upon. A picture frame excises a bit of a larger context, like a cookie cutter punched into reality. Outside is a whole world from Beijing to Kalamazoo. The tiny bit we are bidden to pay attention to is comprehensible. The whole is not.
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A play or movie has a beginning, middle and end (or as filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard put it, “A film must have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.”) But that also limits and contains. We are trained never to take a story, whether in film or in a novel, beyond the end or outside what is shown us. What did Gatsby have for breakfast? It is not shown to us. And even in a comedy, which ends happily in a marriage, would, if extrapolated, eventually end in the death first of the wife or husband.
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9 Cookie cutter 2
It is the sin of the ideologue that his plan for the world and its political order posits a “final position,” whether it is Marxian or Republican, that will finally make everything “right.” But that is not how history works. We tend to understand history as if it were a story, and therefore has a beginning, middle and end, but history is not a story.
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When we look at history as a story, the Revolutionary War was always going to end at Yorktown, Hitler was always going to be defeated, Napoleon was always going to meet his Waterloo, but to those doing the fighting, the moment was always one continuous moment with unknown outcome. The story only comes later when we throw a frame around the flow of time.
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At any moment, what might be is an abstraction, a perpetual possibility.
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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus had a different view “Panta rhei,” he thought — “Everything flows.” It is all continuous, never ending and always changing, a single long singing line with no final cadence.
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There is no frame, there is no end, there is no resolution.
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We start a new year on January 1, but do we? The year used to begin on March 1. It is an arbitrary beginning to something which is continuing. Where does a circle begin? But even the circle is a simplification: The earth rotates around its axis and revolves around the sun, which is careening through space and circling the Milky Way at 448,000 miles per hour, meaning that circular orbit is really a spiral, like a spring coil, expanding into the void.
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10 Earth spiral orbit
Language itself is a frame. There are fewer words to describe things, motions and actions than there are things, motions and actions in the world. Language limits experience and helps us make sense of the incomprehensible. There is a word for a corner, where two walls meet, but English doesn’t have a word for where the wall meets the ceiling, yet that joint exists. We have a word for the center, but not a word for two-thirds of the way from the center, yet that place exists.
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Whether it is place, a time, an emotion, thought or life, it is both infinite and continuous. To understand, we must simplify, make stories, graphs and charts, formulae, in other words, distort.
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This is all obvious enough, but the problem arises when we fail to recognize the fact and assert simplifications as final truths. This of concern when we hear the political left with its solutions, or the right with its stifling certainties. Anyone awake to the reality knows that each solution causes the next problem.
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11 Hudson River
Even when we think of one life — our own, which seems like one with beginning, middle and prospective end, sooner or later — we must recognize that the same life was born of a life that was born of a life in a chain of continuous umbilicus back to before time was measured, like one seed becoming a sprout, becoming a plant, flowering, fruiting and becoming a seed once again, endlessly. Forwards and backwards in continuous current.
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Pattern recognition is an essential part of human intelligence, but it can also seduce us into thinking the pattern is the reality, and sometimes it is better not to think or reason, but just to experience.
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Panta rheiπάντα ῥεῖ  — The beginning is myth, the middle is our daily experience, the future is a horizon beyond which we cannot see. No moment stands alone. No story tells the truth.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

Writer 5
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by Richard Nilsen
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I think I always wanted to be a writer, but until I was in my mid-30s, nothing I wrote was any good. Oh, it tried to be; my ambition was aimed quite high — I was going to be the next (your pick of name here).
But, no matter how fancy my prose was, it was always hollow. It rang like an empty pot hit with a spoon. And that was because there was nothing in it. It was an imitation of what I admired, but turned inside out.
The problem was not only quite simple, but easy to have predicted: I was too young to have had anything to say. And so, I imitated the thoughts of those I copied and thought myself profound.
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Writer 2
I was hardly the only one. In fact, it’s hard for anyone to produce anything valuable before they’ve lived long enough to have anything meaningful or original to say. We spend the first portion of our lives absorbing and we have to reach some sort of saturation point before it all comes seeping back out.
George Eliot was 40 before she published her first novel. Sherwood Anderson was 43 before he published Winesburg, Ohio. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula when he was 50. Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her 60s before publishing Little House on the Prairie. Other late starters: Raymond Chandler, James Michener, Toni Morrison, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs. Mark Twain was 41; Marcel Proust was 43; J.R.R. Tolkien was 45; Annie Proulx was 57; Frank McCourt was 66.
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Henry Miller 1
Henry Miller is a perfect example. He also knew he wanted to be a writer when he was young, but everything he wrote before the age of 44 was trash — all just practice making him able to write Tropic of Cancer, one of the most original books of the 20th century. Those earlier manuscripts have since been published, only because of his name on them. They really are bad. Really bad. I reread Tropic of Cancer last month, for maybe the fifth time, and it still astonished me for its brilliance. What a change the years make.
James Joyce published his first book Dubliners when he was 32. Faulkner began writing his first significant book, The Sound and the Fury, when he was 31. John Steinbeck’s first critical and popular success came with Tortilla Flat, when he was 32. I could go on.
Certainly, there are counter-examples. But they tend to fall into two categories: Wunderkind exudations, often more technically brilliant than wise (I’m thinking of Arthur Rimbaud); and writing by younger authors who have been through some life-forging experience — Hemingway wrote his brilliant short stories, In Our Time, after surviving the trauma of World War I. It is the experience, not merely the years that make the difference. But few of us have actually been shot at.
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Writer 8
I wrote a great deal when I was young; mostly letters. It was all practice, not meant for wider perusal. I was 38 when I began writing for The Arizona Republic. That’s where I became a true writer. In the 25 years I worked there, I piled up three-and-a-half million words. Since retiring, I’ve added another 1.5 million in my blog and the essays I’ve written for The Spirit of the Senses.
I’ve come to believe there is such a thing as the “creative economy.” And I don’t mean the kind that can get you subpoenaed. No, I mean how creative output depends on input. It’s like a bank: If you don’t deposit, you can’t withdraw.
Novels, painting, music, even TikTok videos don’t come from nowhere. They are a mirror reflection back at the world that formed the maker. Writer Jenny Bhatt put it this way: “Writing is about a response to the world and can only be done by periodically engaging fully with it.”
Whether you are a writer, or a painter or a dancer, you must draw on life experience for your work to have any lasting value. And to continue to produce worthy work, you must continually recharge the well you draw from. That is the creative economy. Add new before extracting the existing, or the well will dry up.
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Writer 1
For me, there have been four primary sources for recharging the well.
First, there is reading. No one becomes a writer without being a reader first. When you are absorbed in a book, you are taken away from yourself and immersed in a different world, where you see, feel and hear new things. Later, when you write, you seek to rediscover this place. You have proof it exists, and you put words out as feelers to find it again.
Also, in books is where you first discover the power of words, the effect of arranging them in an order that works better or more poorly. How choosing the right one can make the difference between a snooze and a rocket burst. How telling a story isn’t just relating events one after the other, but including context while avoiding the superfluous.
Reading is where you learn about ideas smarter people have had, and about which you didn’t previously understand were important. If you feel you have to respond, you become a writer (or artist, or dancer, or musician).
Any good book is a seed, and even ordinary books may sprout in another’s mind.
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Writer 6
Second, and allied with the first, are all the other arts and media. The art you see, the concerts you hear, the dance you watch. Also, the television, the nightly news, the documentaries, the interviews you see and the newspapers you read. Taking in the world through words, images and sounds. They all help fill the well.
You take what you ingest and you re-form it. As film director Jean-Luc Godard said, “The way to criticize a film is to make another film.”
Debussy’s music was, in part, a reaction to the music of Richard Wagner. Pelléas et Mélisande couldn’t exist without Tristan und Isolde.
For me, the third important renewal comes through travel. You see the world as both smaller than you thought, and more diverse. The first time I drove across the United States, I was daily astonished at the new landscape I saw. Seeing them in photographs or paintings isn’t enough. You cannot comprehend the size of the country (or the world) without moving across it physically.
Traveling to Europe and Africa taught me other ways of seeing the world, other cultural norms, other histories. Race, for instance, in South Africa was a very different problem from race in Alabama. You couldn’t transfer what you knew about one to the other. Knowing both enlarges you: You take in more, and therefore, can express more.
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Writer 7
Opening up to new ways of understanding also opens up new ways of writing. There is so very much that you don’t already know.
Finally, there are people. As with travel, each new acquaintance is an entire new world to discover. That is true for those you meet casually, and for those you spend your life with, albeit in different degrees.
Those who know me or have heard me speak to Spirit of the Senses salons, know that my late wife, Carole, was central to everything I said or wrote. She was the smartest person I ever knew, although all her thoughts tended to move sideways. She couldn’t be linear if she tried. She didn’t think outside the box; she was unaware the box even existed. She forced me to understandings I couldn’t have discovered on my own. We were together for more than 35 years and whenever I stubbornly applied logic, she showed me where logic made no sense.
Many others helped, too. Teachers, family, colleagues, editors, artists, even the person you sit next to on the train traveling cross-country.
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Writer 9
It is easy to become locked inside oneself, but the self is a prison. Sympathy, empathy and love are the escape. And only other people can provide that.
And so, you learn to enlarge your world through what you read, what you see, and who you know and love. And by expanding yourself, you build up that “inner pressure” that escapes through your creative work. That is the economics of creativity. You can bank on it.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
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by Richard Nilsen
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Sheldon Cooper says that geology “isn’t a real science,” but if you unfold any standard geological map — one that outlines the underlying bedrock of any state or county — you will see something so mindbogglingly complex and incomprehensible, that it couldn’t be anything but science.
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A geologist is someone who can tell the difference between diorite and andesite, and can measure the schistosity of mica, and explain how seashell fossils came to be found on the tops of Alpine peaks. Geologists find petroleum and metals under the earth, and tell us the Earth is 4.6 billion years old. And a good deal of what is written in the field is — much as with  quantum physics — well beyond the ken and vocabulary of mere mortals.
 
They write things such as: “Mass transport deposits (MTDs) occur as intercalations within turbiditic sequences above the ophiolites. They represent syncontractional submarine slides that occurred on frontal accretionary prism slopes during the Late Cretaceous–Paleocene closure of the LPOB.” That, by the way is “Ligurian-Piedmont Ocean Basin,” in case you were confused.
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3 Yosemite Falls
So, yes, they are scientists. But geology is also for poets, artists and cooks. And it is the humanistic aspects of geology that have fascinated me since first studying geology in college. I read a good deal about geology, including the five books written by John McPhee in the 1980s — although they are about geologists as much as about the rocks they study.
 
Geology is just everywhere and affects all of our lives not only daily, but even hourly. Think of your car. Every bit of it, save only the rubber in its tires and the fabric or leather of its upholstery, came originally out of the ground. Whether it is the steel of its engine, the platinum in its catalytic converter, the glass in its windshield or the plastic of its dashboard — all dug out of the ground before being polished up and installed on your Hyundai.
 
And even your tires, these days, are only partially rubber. The rest of it was dug up, too.
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4 Knives from Ikea
The skillet in your kitchen is just a rock that has been processed. The knives, too, and the potato peeler. All just carefully refined stones. In many ways, we still live in the Stone Age; we’re just more sophisticated about it than those guys banging rocks together in the Paleolithic caves.
 
Our human prehistory has been divided into the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. I suggest we now live in the Metalithic Age. (Everything now seems to be “meta.”) We do amazing things with the ore we dredge out of the ground and the petroleum we pump, but the foundation of our civilization is still geology.
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Cities are the index of civilization and most of the world’s great cities are built on harbors or rivers. The Indus, the Euphrates, the Nile, the Huang Ho. That’s geology. The cities are built with steel and concrete. Geology. Their streets are paved with either concrete or tar and gravel. More geology.
 
Our food grows in dirt, or grazes on the grasses that sprout from the soil — a soil derived from the bedrock underneath. What are vitamins and minerals but the residue of those same rocks?
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6 Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone, Wyo
Geology drives history, too. For instance, because Norway and Greece are so rocky and ungenerous for agriculture, their peoples took to the sea and the Greeks colonized everywhere from Spain to the Black Sea, and the Vikings from Constantinople and Sicily to England and Iceland. Geology kept the Old World and the New from interacting significantly until 1492. It blocked the westward expansion of the British colonies in North America for a century. It is the reason that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.” Plate tectonics — “continental drift” — and the formation of Eurasia as a single landmass has been hypothesized as the cause for European and Asian historical dominance.
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And geology, in the form of coal mining and petroleum extraction, is the cause of catastrophic climate change and global warming.
 
Geologist Donald Beaumont wrote, “Geology will, unfortunately, remain an under-recognized, ‘phantom,’ science in that its role in explaining the foundations for human society may never be fully appreciated.”
 
I’m not making the case that geology explains everything, nor that it is the only thing that made us what we are, but I am saying that it helps explain it, and that you can see the same forces acting out elsewhere in the world.
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8 Alaska Yukon border 2
It isn’t only physical, it is psychological also. Geology creates emotions. And so artists and poets have used geology to elicit in their audiences certain emotional states — rocky metaphors.
 
It is to seek this power that great landscape artists — whether painters or photographers — make their pictures. It is not to make a postcard of a pretty piece of scenery, but to find in the land a metaphor for thought, emotion or state of mind — or even a political philosophy.
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9 Mt. Whitney, Sierra Nevada Cal
 
That mythic force is why we feel the rise in our throats when we sing of “amber waves of grain,” and “purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.” Rocks and terrain serve as metaphors for internal states.
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10 Mona Lisa Detail
Consider the Mona Lisa. Yes, it is a portrait, but behind the smiling lady is a rocky landscape. It is not like anything actually found in Italy, but rather it is a metaphorical landscape — a mountainous desert. Renaissance artists often used such stony views as a reminder that life on earth is a kind of spiritual desert (and the afterlife is where true fulfillment is to be found). As Geoffrey Chaucer wrote: “Here nis noon hoom, here is but wildernesse.”
 
St. Jerome lived in a cave, and painters used the story to show the geology of spiritual isolation. Here are only three Renaissance paintings of the saint, by Andrea Mantegna, Lorenzo Lotto, and Joachim Patenier, all from the early 1500s.
11 Mantegna Lotto Patenier St. Jerome trio
Romantic painters in the 19th century used the vast Alps as a reminder that the cosmos is infinitely larger and more impersonal than we like to believe. Geology becomes an image of The Sublime.
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12 manfred-on-the-jungfrau-john-martin-1837
Chinese landscape painting features some amazing mountains. I used to believe these scenes were pure fantasy, but no, these mountains actually exist. On porcelain, by Huang Huanwu, a traditional painting — and a photograph, to prove they’re real.
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13 Chinese landscape foursome
Prehistoric peoples used the rocks for their art, too.
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Even the pigments that artists use comes from the ground. In the past, it was actually rocks that were ground up and processed. Now, there are pigments also made from petroleum.
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Different rocks, with their colors and textures, evoke different emotions. Think of a brilliant diamond or ruby; think of a cinder. Different emotions.
 
We use geology in our language, although often the words carry opposite import.
 
“You must have been stoned when you thought that up.” “No, I was stone cold sober.” “Well, the theory is either a bit rocky or it is rock-solid.” He answered with a stony silence.
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16 Palisades, Hudson River, NJ
All this was the drive behind my own fascination with rock. Some of my earliest photographs were of geology, such as the basalt of the New Jersey Palisades on the Hudson River. I’ve made hundreds of photographs of rocks, finding abstract images in them, but images that carry emotional weight. The colors, textures and the grain all impart meaning.
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I began seriously using the art elements of geology after seeing a splendid drawing of gneiss by English artist and critic John Ruskin. He made it over several days while visiting Scotland in 1853. The drawing had everything I respond to: texture, detail, close observation and an attention to the world as it is, that is as close to love as is possible to hold for the inanimate world. Ruskin was an astonishing draftsman.
 
I have since found many rocks, with their esthetic pleasures.
 
There is bright color
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There is gnarly texture
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19 Rocks Blue Ridge Parkway NC
From the coast of Maine:
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to the glacier edges of Alaska:
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or the Blue Ridge Mountains of the American South:
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North of Seattle is a formation known as Chuckanut:
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23 Pleasant Cove, Chuckanut, Wash 2
I lived for 25 years in Arizona, which is a showcase for geology.
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24 Canyon de Chelly duo
All of them give me subject to make what almost seem like abstract paintings. Even a Jackson Pollock from Utah.
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25 Outside Zion NP Utah detail
Or flying over the continent and looking down at erosion
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Art is an interaction with the world, a response to it and a singling out of bits for our attention, and the best art provides a way of accessing our emotions. One small aspect of my own art making involves noticing geology.
 
Click on any image to enlarge
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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There are pleasures to be had in this world. And for a small group of particular people, one of the great pleasures is the used book store. Days can be spent wandering the aisles, like negotiating an English hedge maze. 

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I confess am one of those people. An afternoon in a used bookstore is heaven. When traveling, my late wife and I would always stop for any used bookstore we came across, and even in the Midwest, where towns may be 20 miles apart, there was usually at least a little shop off Main Street filled with paperbacks. Others might seek out theme parks or historical monuments; we sought out-of-the-way and forgotten emporia of discarded books. 

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But the days of the best used bookstores is gone, I’m afraid.

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There are still lots of used bookstores, but their character has changed. Many are just storefronts in minimalls, stuffed with paperback mysteries and romance novels. Or, more recently, a spate of former grocery stores or automobile dealershops taken over by stores selling used books, records, CDs, DVDs and T-shirts with store logos on them.

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Bookmans in Phoenix and Mesa, Ariz., is one of them. I loved going there when I lived in Arizona. But it is in a shopping mall with acres of parking and the store itself is a refurbished supermarket. It is well organized and they make it easy to find what you want. But it is less fun to be lost in.

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I am old enough that I remember Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue, known in the 1950s and ’60s as Book Row, where there were, at one time, 48 used bookstores, many specializing in one type of book: cookbooks, or science books. In its heyday, Book Row spanned the stretch of Fourth Avenue between Union Square and Astor Place. They are all gone now, lost to exploding rents and the retirements and/or deaths of the stores’ original owners. The only vestige of Book Row is the Strand Bookstore, which isn’t even on Fourth Avenue anymore. In 1957, it moved to Broadway and East 12th Street.

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In many of those old dinosaurs, the books piled high on swayback shelves, with rolling ladders to get to the high-up books. There was must in the air, and any book you picked up tended to have a patina of dust along the top, which you blew off, like foam from a glass of beer. 

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In such bookstores, you didn’t usually enter looking for a specific book, but rather, you were treasure hunting, seeking some wonderful volume you didn’t even know existed. Old books, from the 19th century, or the 1920s, with silver or gold titles on dark blue cloth binding. Their texts were letterpress, and each wonderful letter was embossed into the paper, leaving a texture on the surface. 

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In one such bookstore in Virginia Beach, Va., — now long gone — the proprietor had a word for the die-hard book lover. She called them “bibliopaths,” and she recognized us as soon as we entered the shop. A bibliopath is more than a book lover, but rather someone with an addiction that cannot be satisfied without a constant fix of more and more pages.

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In such stores, the books are not always well organized. They stuff the shelves, and rest in stacks on the floors. .When I was in college in the 1960s in North Carolina, the Book Exchange in Durham was one of these troves. It finally closed in 2009 after 75 years in business, but back then, it had multiple stories of books, piled high and deep. I miss it like I miss my grandparents, long gone.

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One old customer remembered, “The Book Ex was enormous. It seemed to go on forever, up, down and sideways. It was a warren, a maze of narrow aisles between towering bookshelves and precarious piles. There were ladders propped everywhere, for reaching the shelves extending high overhead. As you wandered around, attempting to decode the organizational system and snuffling up the scents of old paper, new ink and dusty floorboards, you felt like an explorer about to make a life-changing discovery, and you felt right at home.”.It was never a “clean well-lighted place.” 

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Another recalled, “When I walked in to this place, I noticed a sign up from the fire marshal, granting them some sort of exemption for having … gosh, I wish I could remember the exact phrase … something like ‘high stacks of flammable material.’ Anyway, that mental image might give you some idea of the inside of The Book Exchange — shelves and shelves of books going up the walls, everywhere you turn.”

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Most current used bookstores of any size have cleaned up, added bright signage and clever display racks. Stores like McKay’s Books in Greensboro. It has a coffee bar attached and modern hanging lighting, making the interior bright and cheery. There is still a great deal of treasure to be found, but the store has a more corporate feel to it. 

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Some of the old stores, like Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., have kept up with the times. The first time I went there, it felt a bit like the Book Exchange. The store covers an entire city block and had multiple floors of books. The staff was astonishing. You could ask for some obscure title and — this was before computer cataloguing — the clerk would take you three aisles over, up to a shelf seven-feet in the air and pull out the book, as if he had just left it there earlier this morning. 

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Powell’s is still the largest used bookstore in the world, but it has modernized and made itself user-friendly. Good lighting, modern display racks — and a coffee bar. 

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In Ellsworth, Maine, (actually a few miles out of town), there is the Big Chicken Barn, which still has the old feel, with creaking wooden floors and sagging shelves. It is an antique shop on the bottom floor, but upstairs is all books and magazines (you can find pretty much any Life magazine or Saturday Evening Post you might want, all racked up). The old wood shingled building is as long as a football field. Perfect for getting lost in the books and finding something you didn’t know you belonged to have. 

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The owners and proprietors of many a shop is as eccentric as their catalog system. Often, they have spent their whole lives with books, and are more comfortable with them than with the people who come looking for them. 

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We went once to a now-defunct used bookstore in Tucson, Ariz., called The Mad Hatter. We found out why. There was a sign that said, “No Talking,” and the man behind the cash register sat reading, bearded and scruffy. We asked about a particular book we wanted and he flew into a rage. “No talking!” he yelled. When we tried to apologize, he told us we were scum, and said, “Get out, now! Leave or I’m calling the police.” I don’t think he really wanted to let go of any of his stock, but sat on it like a dragon on its hoard. 

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There is a place just south of Asheville, where I now live, called Morrison’s Paperback Palace Guns & Ammo. One side of the store is a welcoming warren of shelves, by and large unsorted, covered with books so diverse they must have been bought by the dumptruck. The other side of the store was racks of rifles, shotguns and pistols, with display cases of cartridges and hunting gear. Most of his customers barely looked at the books; they were there for the ordnance. The man behind the counter tolerated our presence on the bookish side of the shop. 

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In contrast the quiet and aged owner of Alcuin Books in Scottsdale would rather have a long discussion about early Christianity, or the Latin language than take your money. Richard Murian often helped me find something I needed, even if it took a week, and he’d phone me telling me he had gotten it. He is a gem of a human being. 

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Or Sylvia Whitman, who currently runs Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. Famous for its original owner, Sylvia Beach, who kept the bookstore as a haven for expats in the 1920s, the store maintains its bohemian culture and will let writers down on their luck sleep there. And often, when someone could not afford a book, it was given or “lent” to them. 

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It is on the Left Bank, near the rows of outdoor booksellers and their kiosks, where old books can be pored over and treasures found. 

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So too was the owner of a fly-by-night used bookstore that operated out of an attic in Greensboro in the late ’60s. I can no longer remember the name of the store, or of the generous owner of it, who also loved to talk with his customers, offering them coffee from a hotplate pot. He saw, one time, that I was especially interested in a photography book by Edward Weston. He wouldn’t sell it to me; he gave it to me, saying he knew I was the right owner for it. 

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I still have California and The West by Weston and Charis Wilson. I treasure it, as my benefactor knew I would. We bibliopaths recognize each other. 

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That book is now worth something on the collectors’ market, which is a plague on those of us who love the books. We buy them to read, and a cheap price is essential. But books that used to be shelf fodder are now priced beyond our means. The old Modern Library volumes used to stuff the shelves and were priced at a buck fifty or two bucks and gave us a chance to load up on classics. Now, an old Modern Library book can go for $20 or more to someone who isn’t interested in what’s inside, but whether it has its original dust jacket. 

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Luckily, whatever old, musty used-book stores still remain can harbor the old books — naked without jacket — and the price pencilled onto the flyleaf when it arrived at the store, maybe 20 years ago.

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It is the treasure we bibliopaths hunt. 

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
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by Richard Nilsen
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When I was a boy, maybe eight or nine, I could wake up early on a winter morning and know instantly that there would be no school that day — it was quiet. Overnight snow had left the landscape eerily silent and I could hear that silence even before I looked out the window. It was a palpable silence. A silence that filled up the air. 
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Later in the morning, there would be the scrape of the snowplow on the street pavement, the glee-screaming of kids on their sleds and, if a sunny day, perhaps the sound of dripping meltwater from the eaves. But for that first moment, a signal from the natural world that the day was different. 
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We may think of silence as an absence of sound, but when paid attention to, silence is a presence. As “there” as the sunlight or the children. 
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Silence is something we largely miss in the busy world. When I wake up now, normally I hear distant traffic noise or the sound of an industrious neighbor on her mower shaving her lawn. This morning I opened the front door to hear the rattle of a woodpecker and a crow’s caw-caw. The world is noisy. And that’s not even counting the TV that fills the air with its constant carnival barker reminding us of the world’s clattering presence. 
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Silence lets us hear our own thoughts. It is the reason Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, and Moses and Elijah both sought solitude on Mt. Horeb, the Buddha spent five years alone in the forest, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra shunned human contact in his cave. In several Native American cultures, a part of growing up was to leave the community and spend time quiet and alone until you had your vision. 
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Silence is the midwife of spiritual or intellectual awakening. It needn’t be the desert or woods; it might be a library, that other source of quiet. 
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The quietest I ever remember was a press tour to the Karchner Caverns in Arizona when they were first opened to the public. A group of a dozen or so journalists, both print and TV, were taken into the cave and shown the wonders. And at one point our guide asked us all to stand several feet apart and be quiet. She had all the lights turned off and we were a hundred feet underground with no light and no sound. 
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Even in the nighttime, there is light from the moon and the stars. City lights, no matter how distant are reflected back off the clouds and make nighttime at least a dull glow. If I wake up at night, my eyes adjust to the darkness and I can still make out the shadowy shapes in the room. 
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But in the cave, there was no light at all. Utter and complete blackness, so that you had to trust your vestibular system and proprioception just to remain standing upright. And in that blankness, no sound intruded. The black nothingness was the visual equivalent of the utter silence.  It was as if you could have a memory of your own death — or your existence before you were conceived.
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The Buddha said the only response to the “14 unanswerable questions” is a “Noble Silence.” 
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Twentieth Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said (breaking his own admonition): “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
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And the Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi, said, “The only language able to express the whole truth is silence.”
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John Cage wrote in his book, Silence, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time.” It is the thought behind his most famous or infamous composition, 4’33”, in which the pianist sits in front of a piano and doesn’t play anything for the designated amount of time.  
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For the unthinking, this is a stunt, and further, proof that modern art is a fraud perpetrated on its audience by slick snake-oil salesmen. But for those who understand what is being offered — like the lotus the Buddha gives his student — it is an offer to hear the genuine music of the world — a direct connection with the now. No concert hall is completely silent, but we ignore the extraneous sounds while the piano is playing. If the piano remains tacet, we can — if we are open to it — hear all the buzz of reality that is actually filling our ears. 
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“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” he wrote in Silence. “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.”
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(Cage was not alone. Several serious composers have written silent music, including Georgy Ligeti and Irwin Schulhoff, although most of these were written at least a bit with tongue against the cheek. And in popular music, Wikipedia list more than 70 songs made of empty air, including by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but also Wilco, Soundgarden, Brian Eno and John Denver. There have been whole albums, too, including the 10-track Sleepify by Wulfpeck and a 1980 “spoken word” album called The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan — Side 1 is “The Wit” and Side 2 is “The Wisdom;” both sides completely blank. But none of this has the serious and meaningful intent of Cage’s 4’33”.)
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When we think of silence, it is usually of the soundless variety. But there is also a very noisy silence, made up of an unconsidered attempt to fill emptiness with meaninglessness. When I listen to most TV news, I hear very little news and a great deal of jabber about the news, a chewing of the cud, so to speak — this is noise to fill space and time and is, in essence, another manifestation of silence, or at least a filling of time and space with nothingness. Silence seeing itself in the mirror. 
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I make a distinction between a silence of avoidance and a silence of engagement. Distracting noise — much of modern culture — is really an avoidance technique so we don’t have to deal with the often uncomfortable realities around us. But the silence of the monks and zen masters is a silence that engages directly with the most meaningful portions of existence. It is a silence to be sought after. 
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Such silences are not identical. There is the silence of paying attention rather than speaking; the silence of the pause in the business of living; the silence of spiritual seeking; and silence of finding the center of one’s self. The idea comes up often enough: There’s the silence of God; the Silence of the Lambs; Omertà, or the silence of the mafioso; there’s the Blue Wall of Silence as its mirror image; the Silent Majority; the Sound of Silence; a deafening silence; an embarrassing silence; a moment of silence; the right to silence; radio silence; the silence of the grave. 
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In some forms of meditation, the purpose is to quiet the mind so one isn’t thinking of anything: silence of thought. Our minds tend to idle at 2000 rpms, with ideas, images, tunes or emotions running random through the braincase, like so many maenads dancing in the woods. It can be hard to get them all to shut up. But the silence achieved is revelatory. 
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It is also as necessary to us for our psyches as air for our lungs, and its lack in our current lives is a form of intellectual and emotional asphyxia. 
 
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
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by Richard Nilsen
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When I was a wee bairn, back in the wilds of New Jersey, I remember a certain consternation when listening to — and being forced to sing — various Christmas carols. What, I wondered, does “Fa-la-la” mean? Couldn’t the song writer think of any real words? I tended to sing the Walt Kelly version: “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla-Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo.”
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But those nonsense syllables continued to bother me. And fascinate me.
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And in school, we sometimes had to sing songs with such nonsense words in them, like “Tra-la-la” and “Hey, nonny-nonny.” When I got a little older, and learned to read and write, I wondered if these had actually been just corruptions of real words, as a kind of mondegreen. Like “round John Virgin in Silent Night.
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Then, as a school kid watching Warner Brothers cartoons on television, I learned of certain popular tunes from the 1940s — which to me in the 1950s seemed as far away as the Middle Ages — like “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey/ A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?” Such songs would show up in Loony Tunes. Another was “Hut set rawlson on a rillerah, and a so-and-so and so forth.” from the 1942 cartoon  Horton Hatches an Egg. I was sure I must be mis-hearing the lyrics. Only later did I find out that no, I wasn’t, but “Mairzy doats” was, in fact a mondegreen for “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” Which is still pretty much nonsense.
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Oh, but then. Then, I became a teenager in the ’60s. Little Richard (I then thought of myself as “Big Richard”) sang “Wop bop-a-loo-bop a-wop bam boom.” And “Tootie-Frootie, Ah Rooty.” And then in 1958 came: “Ooh-eee Ooh-ah-ah, Ting-Tang Walla-walla Bing Bang.” And the next year with “Shimmy-shimmy ko-ko-bop.” We were off to the nonsense syllable la-la-land. “Rama Lama Ding Dong.”
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“Well, be-bop-a-Lula she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-Lula I don’t mean maybe”
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Gene Vincent’s phrase “Be-Bop-a-Lula” is similar to “Be-Baba-Leba”, the title of a 1945  Helen Humes song, remade by Lionel Hampton as “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.” This phrase, possibly being ultimately derived from the shout of “Arriba! Arriba!” used by Latin American bandleaders to encourage band members. Things work the rounds.
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I have since learned that these sounds are officially known as “non-lexical vocables.” There are learned papers written on the subject, some of which can be downloaded in PDF form (“Non-lexical Vocables in Scottish Traditional Music” by Christine Knox Chambers, 1980, 340 pages).
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Later, in college, as a music minor, I had to learn solfège, in which the syllables “do,” “re,” and “mi” stood for the notes “C” “D” and “E.” Originally, it was “ut,” “re” and “mi.” If you’ve ever wondered where this all came from, as you are singing “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” blame the Middle Ages. As a mnemonic to remember a tune, each pitch was assigned a syllable (this was before standard musical notation) from the beginning syllable of the prayer: “Ut queant laxis/ resonare fibris/ Mira gestorum/ famuli tuorum/ Solve polluti/ labil reatum, Sancte Iohannes.” (The last note combines the S and I from “Sancte Iohannes”)
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Translated: “So that your servants may,/ with loosened voices,/ Resound the wonders/ of your deeds,/ Clean the guilt/ from our stained lips,/ Saint John.”
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In the 1600s, because “Ut” was harder to sing, it was changed to “Do.” And “Si” is sometimes changed to “Ti.” Giving us “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti and back to Do,” which, is Homer Simpson’s favorite word.
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Ah, but  before all this pedantry, I meant to be writing about silly lyrics. “Doo wah diddy diddy dum diddy doo.” “Poppa Oom Mow Mow.” “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.” Or the name song: “Katie, Katie, bo-batie,/Bonana-fanna fo-fatie/ Fee fi mo-matie/ Katie!”
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There really is a long tradition. I opened up my Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 559 pages) and found “Fiddle-de-dee, fiddle-de-dee, The wasp has married the humble bee,” and “Diddlety, diddlety, dumpty, The cat ran up the plum tree.” “Hickory-Dickery Dock, the mouse ran up the clock.” “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo.” “Hey Diddle-diddle, the cat and the fiddle.”
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This sort of thing is all through the tome:
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Open up Child’s Ballads, or English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Cambridge University Press, 1904, 723 pages), you find refrains such as
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Shakespeare from As You Like It:
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Elizabethan songs are often called “Hey Nonny Nonnies.”
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As in Ophelias “mad song” from Hamlet:
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Opera has its share of nonsense, and some of that is in the libretto. Hector Berlioz wrote a chorus for the demons in The Damnation of Faust that goes on quite a while with stuff like this:
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And Wagner liked to invent gibberish almost as much as he loved himself. The famous Ride of the Valkyries actually has words. And what are they? “Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heia ha-haeia!” Over and over.
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And his Rhine Maidens, gurgling underwater, sing the praises of the Rhine gold: “Heiajaheia! Heiajaheia! Wallalalalala leiajahei!
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There’s at least a section of gibberish in each of his operas. The sailors in The Flying Dutchman all sing a Wagnerian version of “Yo-ho-ho” — “Ho-ho! Je holla ho!” And when they make merry: “Ho! He! Je! Ha! Klipp’ und Sturm’, He! Sind vorbei, he! Hussahe! Hallohe!” This kind of gibberish is of a different order from the gibberish that passes as Wagner’s philosophy.
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But is any of this different from “Fododo-de-yacka saki Want some sea food, Mama.” Or Frank Sinatra’s “Doo-be doo-be doo.”
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This stuff is all over the place, from Sly and the Family Stone: “Boom Shaka-laka, boom shaka-laka,” to the hit song from 1918 (yes, it’s that old): Jada, jada, jada-jada-jing-jing-jing.”
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Going back further, there’s Stephen Foster’s “Camptown ladies sing dis song, Doo-dah, doo-dah,” and Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay was a vaudeville and music hall song made famous in 1892 by British performer Lottie Collins. But its provenance goes back further, at least to the 1880s, when it was sung by a black singer, Mama Lou in a well-known St. Louis brothel run by “Babe” Connors.
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Then, in 1901, Yale graduate Allan Hirsh wrote the fight song, Boola-Boola.  “We do not know what it means,” Hirsh wrote, “except that it was euphonious and easy to sing and to our young ears sounded good.”
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As far as “boola,” it was rumored to be a Hawaiian word for “good,” but linguists point out, there is no “B” sound in the Hawaiian language.
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“Sometimes, with these college fight songs,” said Kalena Silva, director of the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii  at Hilo, “they just made up words.”
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After the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, which featured a popular Hawaiian pavilion — which sported floor-to-ceiling flowers, pineapple give-aways, a back-lit aquarium and the Royal Hawaiian Quartet playing music, with a steel guitar — a craze for Hawaiian-themed songs took over Tin Pan Alley.
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The year 1916 gave us Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula, which begins: “Down Hawaii way, where I chanced to stray/ On an evening I heard a Hula maiden play Yaaka hula hickey dula, Yaaka hula hickey dula.”
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It should be stated that “Yaaka hula hickey dula” is not Hawaiian — or any other language. Also from 1916 was They’re Wearing’Em Higher in Hawaii, and Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.
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Later came more exoticism: “Bingo Bango Bongo, I Don’t Wanna Leave the Congo.”
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Of course, African-American culture gave us scat singing, which features improvised nonsense syllables. There are great examples from Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.
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But perhaps the most popular for the scat was Cab Calloway, whose Minnie the Moocher gave us “Hey-dee-hi-de-ho.” But also, “Skeedle-a-booka-diki biki skeedly beeka gookity woop!” And, “Scoodley-woo-scoodley-woo scoodley-woodley-woodley-woo Zit-dit-dit-dit-dittle but-dut-duttleoo-skit-dit-skittle-but-dit-zoy.
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Calloway made an appearance in the 1932 Fleischer Brothers animated cartoon, Minnie the Moocher, with Betty Boop, whose catch phrase, “Boop-Boop-a-Doop,” was originally a scat phrase.
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The phrase was heard by some blue-stockings as a euphemism for something rude and a backlash developed, leading to a 1932 cartoon, Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away,” where Betty sang a little song:
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The following year, Jimmy Durante gave us Inka-Dinka-Doo, which sang:
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Getting into the 1940s, Disney has given us a share, from “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee Ay, My, oh my, what a wonderful day” to “Sala-gadoola-menchicka-boo-la bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.”
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The tradition continues, as even Lady Gaga has Bad Romance:
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I’ve already mentioned the non-lexical vocalisms from Little Richard and Gene Vincent. Now we move on to Iron Butterfly and their notorious 17-minute 1968 extravaganza, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
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I mentioned mondegreens earlier. Apparently, the lyrics to the song were supposed to be “In the Garden of Eden,” but when song-writer Doug Ingle played the song for his bandmate, Ron Bushy misheard the words, sung in a drunken slur by Ingle after drinking a gallon of cheap red wine, as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and wrote it down that way. I suppose it could have been corrected the next sober morning, but it wasn’t, and has gone down as legend.
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The Beatles had a history of using nonsense words in their songs, from Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da to the “na-na-na” chorus of Hey Jude. Sometimes they used nonsense to fill out a song, usually with a plan to add better words later.
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Ryan Miller of the alternative rock band Guster said that many songwriters use sounds a placeholders — the way movies are made with “working titles” before the real one gets put in place.
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“Ninety-eight percent of the time you replace them with words but sometimes those sounds fit the spirit of the song or even become the spirit of the song,” said Miller. “And sometimes I don’t want there to be words — there can be a Rorschach version this way where you have your own experience with the music.”
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When Paul McCartney was writing Yesterday, he had the tune, but not the words, so in the demo tape, he used placeholders and sang:
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“Scrambled eggs” and “yesterday” scan the same. But he did the right thing and switched up the words.
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Other Beatles songs, though, feel as though the placeholders were just left in. “Well you can syndicate any boat you row,” or “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup.”
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The all-time champ must be I Am the Walrus.
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John Lennon said he was tired of listeners trying to “analyze” Beatles lyrics, and wanted to write something to confuse them — the “Rohrschach effect” that Ryan Miller mentioned.
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And so:
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by Richard Nilsen
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For the centuries between the conversion of Constantine and the advent of the Enlightenment, the world and the cosmos was held to maintain a strict hierarchical order, which Alexander Pope once called “the vast chain of being.” In Latin, it was the “scala naturae,” or “ladder of nature.”
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It was a way of organizing all of Creation into a unified Providential design and everything and everybody had a proper place in the schema.
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In his 1936 book, The Great Chain of Being, Arthur Lovejoy considered the idea to be “one of the half-dozen most potent and persistent presuppositions in Western thought … the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things, of the constitutive pattern of the universe.”
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Shakespearean scholar E.M.W. Tillyard wrote, “This metaphor served to express the unimaginable plenitude of God’s creation, its unfaltering order, and its ultimate unity.”
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At the top sat the Deity and all things below him hung pendant in creation. And along this chain, each link had something above it and something below it. It made for a neat organization: plants were higher than stones, but lower than animals. Human beings were above animals, but below angels.
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Sir John Fortescue, the fifteenth-century jurist, wrote, “God created as many different kinds of things as he did creatures so that there is no creature which does not differ in some respect from all other creatures and by which it is in some respect superior or inferior to all the rest. So that from the highest angel down to the lowest of his kind, there is absolutely not found an angel that has not a superior and inferior; nor from man down to the meanest worm is there any creature which is not in some respect superior to one creature and inferior to another, So that there is nothing which the bond of order does not embrace.”
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This order was believed to be continuous, with no breaks. “Natura non saltum facit” — Nature does not make a jump. And so the lowest of one order touches the highest of the next one down. As 14th century monk Ranulf Higden wrote in his Polychronicon, “as for instance oysters, which occupying as it were the lowest position in the class of animals, scarcely rise above the life of plants, because they cling to the earth without motion and possess the sense of touch alone.” When people still talk about a “missing link,” it is this contiguity they are referencing.
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The plan had its origin in Ancient Greece, with Aristotle and Plato, but it was codified and Christianized in the early Middle Ages, and for so ancient an idea, it still affects the way we think today. Culture is astonishingly conservative, and some ideas hang on for millennia. Even the way scientists name animals and plants derives from this Great Chain. Carl von Linne, when creating the rules of taxonomy in the 18th century, divided matter into three great categories: animal, vegetable and mineral. They are the categories of the Medieval thinkers and we still think of the three “kingdoms,” whether consciously or not, as ranks from low to high.
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It was a surprisingly durable schema. We still hold on to bits of it. Whenever you hear someone talk about something being higher on the evolutionary ladder, he is grasping a vestige of the great chain of being. In evolution nothing is “higher” or “lower.” That is the old vocabulary used for the new science. There are no higher life forms, only more complex forms adapted to more complex environments.
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Yet, it seems we cannot ever completely give up our sense of hierarchy, even despite our lip service to democracy in America. It was the vestige of the scala naturae that justified slavery, and that now functions behind white supremacy: the idea that some categories are higher and some lower.
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While the Great Chain of Being was assumed to be perfectly coherent and consistent, it never really was. The anomalies were largely ignored or smoothed over, but the ultimate truth of the whole was never doubted. For instance, the highest rank of human being was the king. Or was it the Pope? They never worked that one out.
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Of course, such a micromanaged structure could not possibly avoid ironies and disconnects. The biggest was between church and state. Each had its hierarchy: king, prince, duke, earl on one hand; pope, cardinal, bishop on the other. But the problem of whether a cardinal outranked a prince, or a king outranked the pontiff was never satisfactorily worked out. Wars were fought; people were killed.
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The chain could be divided and subdivided, very like a fractal, and always there was something above and below. So, among humans, a king was above a duke, who was above a yeoman. Below the yeoman was above a serf. Each category had its primate: The king in political order, the lion was “king of the beasts” (except there were some that gave the title to the elephant), the oak was at the head of trees, the rose among flowers, the eagle among birds, and incorruptible gold among minerals. The whale was the king of fishes (and yes, back then, a whale was a fish.)
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Above humans were angels, and they had their own hierarchy: nine ranks from lowest to highest as set down by (Pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite — angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. It was all rather like the army, with first and second lieutenants, majors and colonels.
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This hierarchy governed much of the Medieval and Renaissance world in Europe, and gave a sense of divine order to the social happenstance.
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And oh, they loved arguing. Arguing whether moss was higher than fungus, or whether an earl or a marquis had priority — different nations shuffled the suits of cards into different patterns, so a French marquis might outrank an English baron. Or vice versa.
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And so, a silver fox outranks a red fox. Or a wine merchant with a royal contract outranks one without such a seal. Lawsuits might teeter on such issues.
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The whole of the cosmos depended, they thought, on the maintenance of this hierarchy. As Ulysses says in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “Take but degree away, untune that string,/ And, hark, what discord follows!”
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Indeed, most of the Bard’s plays can be summed up as a single plot: the natural order of society is set out of joint (usually by the wrong personage taking the crown), and tragedy follows, until the order is reasserted. After all, God Himself has ordained this order and put the rightful king on the throne.
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This order sift down to the domestic, too. It was assumed that the primate of the home was the man, with his wife his subordinate and the children — first boys, then girls — under her watchful dominion. The oldest boy was superior to the oldest girl, even if she were older than he. As for the children, well, they could boss the dog around. (The Great Chain was immovably patriarchal in substance.)
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We may like to think we have left the Medieval world behind, but really, so much remains in our assumptions of the world, not only the common belief that humans are “higher on the evolutionary scale,” but also our inveterate habit of naming “The Ten Best Movies of 1998,” or ranking the “Sexiest Men in America” or the “100 Best Places to Retire.” Men still strive to be the “Alpha Male.” And no one wants to be “low man on the totem pole.”
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The hierarchical chain still dangles in our culture, and with it the vestiges of pre-Enlightenment thinking.
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We talk of “high culture” and “low culture” in the same way, assigning more merit to the one than the other. And maybe there is, but let’s face it, there’s a lot of high culture that is mere bombast and frippery, and there is some low culture that hits notes of universality. Perhaps we should call them “art culture” and “entertainment culture” instead, and let go the hierarchy.
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The same with highbrow and lowbrow (and that phlegm-inducing catarrh called middlebrow), and with upper class and lower class. It’s really all a wipe.
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The point is, that culture changes very slowly. We are still tribal in many ways, still Roman, still Greek, still Medieval. It’s all still in there, bubbling away and informing even our modern life of iPads and Twitter feeds. We should probably be aware of it, or we’ll get caught thinking in ways unhelpful and misleading.
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And also, we should be a bit humble about our own, current, understanding about how the universe is ordered.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
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by Richard Nilsen
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“You’re making me learn too much,” said the third grade boy to his teacher. “My mama says you can only fit so much in your brain or it will explode.”
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I know the feeling. I had that when taking math courses. I was an English major. Oil and water. I have avoided using arithmetic in life as much as is possible. You can imagine my embarrassment when my twin granddaughters, then in third grade, asked me about their math homework. “Don’t you have some vocabulary lessons I can help with?”
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Although our brains might not actually explode, there is a limit to how much one can absorb. And so, it tends to boil down complex ideas into simpler stories. This is true of all complex things, whether politics, religion, psychology or physics. We can remember the stories even if we don’t have a clue about the intricacies behind them.
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Take the Big Bang. Most scientists will tell you the common understanding of the Big Bang is wrong. But the real version is too immeasurably complex to be explained except by pages and pages of math and so, our understanding of black holes is not really scientific. It is a story we believe. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but that we civilians cannot comprehend it without making it an image or a story.
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This story functions exactly as myth. We comprehend incomprehensible thing by making stories of them. It isn’t that these stories, or myths, are untrue, only that they are turned from math to prose.
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As I look at the August calendar for the Spirit of the Senses, I wonder what holds all the lecture topics together? Is there a common thread? And, yes, there is: mythology.
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We are too often led astray by a belief that “mythology” is a story told by the ancient peoples to explain what they couldn’t understand, and that now, we modern people have a more secure grip on things, making the old mythologies irrelevant, and more to the point, lies.
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That is clearly a misunderstanding of what myth is and how it functions.
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This first hit me with the initial lecture of the month: Supermassive Black Holes. For an astrophysicist, such as Dr. Doeleman, giving the lecture, black holes are a serious subject of study, and he no doubt has a grasp on them, and the math needed to understand them, in a way we lay people in the audience can never achieve. And so, what we understand instead is the story.
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But it is a persuasive story. There is a “wow” factor that makes black holes a headline grabber whenever some new idea floats up into a newspaper story. Wow — a photograph of a black hole. Who knew? An entity so dense that its overpowering gravity will not let even light escape from it. This is a subject for awe. Science is the facts, myth is the emotional resonance they trail.
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I am not making the case that what we learn from science is untrustworthy, or that it is the one-to-one equivalent of believing in Zeus and Athena. But that unless we are deep in the weeds, where we actually study astrophysics, what we have is a story that explains the vast, unknowable universe. A two-dimensional snapshot instead of the real thing.
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Radar Lane and Danielle Segura will be talking about the night sky seen from the Grand Canyon. This is something I can speak of by experience. I spent time 60 miles from the nearest paved road, at the North Rim of the Canyon and had what can only be described as an epiphany. I wrote about it before, for the Spirit of the Senses. In part, I wrote:
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“So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I hadn’t seen so many stars since I was a child. I sensed stars numbered in Carl Sagan’s ‘billions and billions.’
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“The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius.
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“For two-and-a-half hours I sat there, looking heavenward, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look.
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“What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. Then, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars.
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“I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent. The vision-experience may simply be a radical change in perspective.
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“At 3:30 in the morning, awakened by coyotes and owls, I got out of my tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled.”
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But for me, there is the reality of a night sky that city lights blot away, leaving us only with the snapshots. The spinning Milky Way traversing the inner dome of heaven and the spatter of stars, so far away they cannot be measured in any sense meaningful to our lives on this planet, are the very ground of reality.
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Yet, although quite real, it provides for us an image of the infinite. That is myth’s job. It aligns human life with the universal, and we see ourselves in the cosmos.
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Myth is many things, and I am only talking here about one aspect of it. Myth can also be our collective unconscious, the genetically evolved patterns we put stories into (such as the supposed “hero’s journey”); It can be the hierarchy of deities, as in Greek religion, or Christian mythology, with God at the top and ranks of angels beneath; or myth can be the ritual that serves as metaphor for the experience of living in a natural world, the way christenings, marriages, funerals mark the inevitable stages of life.
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Myth can also be the stories of past cultures written down or remembered. But here, I’m only talking about that aspect of myth that helps us make sense of a cosmos so incomprehensible that only a story can subsume it.
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Toward the end of the month, Sarah Bolmarcich will be talking about ruler-cults in the Ancient Mediterranean, in lecture titled “Rituals and Power.” No doubt listeners will come away with a sense that the myths these ancient kings used to perpetuate their power sound frighteningly contemporary.
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The next night, marine biologist Edith Widder will discuss bioluminescence in the benthic seas, below where sunlight penetrates, and we will see glowing creatures that look like the kind of interstellar aliens dreamt up by Steven Spielberg.
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The light in the darkness is a primal myth, and our fascination with these mesopelagic prove metaphors of intelligence in the darkness of unknowing, or the divine in the welter of time and space. Or nightmare monstrosities in the dark of midnight.
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When New Yorker writer Louis Menand talks about the Cold War, remember that little is as mythopoeic as the division of the world into opposites — oppositions that don’t really describe the world, which is much more diverse and complex, but function as a way to understand the world. In other words, myth as I have been defining it. It used to be the Free World against Communism; then it was Democracy against Islamic Fundamentalism; and it is Red States against Blue States.
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When architect Katherine Dudzik Smith talks about homes, remember that “home” is a place in the mind as much as a ranch house in Sunnyslope. The best architects design to accommodate the inner and outer worlds and make them synchronous. And so, architecture has its mythic elements also. At least good architecture does. Poor design makes life anxious and alienated.
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Kathryn Sorensen will talk about water. Water is life, as anyone in the Salt River Valley understands better than most Americans. Public policy on water issues may seem a very wonky issue, but underneath it is the awareness of Noah, Utnapishtim, Beowulf, the kraken, Jonah and the Great Fish, Captain Nemo and Moby Dick. “I am a river to my people.” The river of life.
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Reporter Ron Hansen will discuss Arizona politics, and this is a prime example. We like to think of politics as being driven by thought and reason, whether we are liberal or conservative. But in reality, what politicians serve up is pure myth. And we buy it, on either side. Gobble it up. Any political world view depends on each of us having a distinct umwelt, or in-built model of the world and how it functions. Or should function. Our sense of the world is an outward projection of our inner selves, in other words: myth.
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The month ends with Nigel Spivey will show “How Art Made the World.” If you have not already seen his 5-part BBC television series, I highly recommend it. “The essential premise of the show,” according to Spivey, “is that of all the defining characteristics of humanity as a species, none is more basic than the inclination to make art. … We humans are alone in developing the capacity for symbolic imagery.”
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That imagery is not only visual, but narrative, too. The stories we tell to explain the world, whether as religious text, novels, poetry, Wall Street Journal editorials, or the bedtime tales we tell our children to get them to sleep, they are all versions of myth.
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One last lecture should be mentioned: Dr. Nathan Pace, a retired anesthesiologist, will talk about the history of his profession. If you have ever undergone surgery, you will recognize the experience of being under anesthesia. Unlike sleep, being under for surgery is dreamless, timeless and blank. When you wake up, you will not know if you were out for 10 minutes or six hours. The time is lost forever, as if it never happened. You have temporarily been taken out of the world of myth, and that is the same as death: non-consciousness. Without myth, there is no human life. To be human is to live brightly in a world defined by myth.
 
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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