Readers' Comments

From: (11/21/96)

Adults will definitely idenitfy their favorite food as candy - only they call it chocolate. This is more comon among adult women than men, I believe. And is often related to hormone cycles. I passed the clown test (not a clown), despite losing points for taping a soap. However, I usually don't time-shift; I watch it when it's on.

From: (11/23/96)

11/21 reminds me of David Letterman some years ago, having an Asian woman on his show, demonstrating exotic foods: Woman: ....oh, and this is interesting.. have you ever had the hump of a camel? [general audience snickering] David Letterman: No, I've never had the hump of a camel. [pause.] But when I was younger, I was pretty good! Oh, and I think you should post a picture of you as the Halloween octopus. And please, please tell the story that you referred to of when you sat among your students and asked what the professor was like. MWC

Regarding your 12/8 "confession" ("Hairdresser to the Homeless"): You state that "above we have an example of language which has meaning on only the level of syntax." I don't think this is quite accurate, although determining whether or not it is accurate raises difficult questions about the meaning of the word "meaning" and whether the meaning of any artistic expression (such as your fable) resides in the work itself, in the mind of the person who reads it, or in some combination of the two. About a year ago I was offered the opportunity to exercise my programming skills by enhancing the code in our product that supports CD ROMs. I'm a pretty good programmer by some standards, but I have little experience deciphering the meaning of isolated pieces of code extracted from tens of thousands of lines of surrounding context. I studied the existing CD ROM code, and I understood it perfectly at the syntactic level: I knew exactly what the combinations of symbols meant syntactically. I had no idea, however, how the code related to the larger context or how the elegant manipulations of programming symbols translated into user-visible phenomena. The only meaning in the code that I discovered at a level higher than syntax was that I was unqualified to work on this particular project. I doubt this was the meaning the person who wrote the original code intended to convey.

From my point of view, the CD ROM code was indistinguishable from any syntactically correct but otherwise meaningless and arbitrary code. The semantic meaninglessness, from my point of view, was complete. Your fable, however, seems to have more semantic meaning. It has a recognizable shape -- a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And even though the details are odd by most dramatic standards, there appears to be a pattern or principle that guides the sequence of events. The principle is to alter the natural relationships between things and events so that the reader's expectations are continually subverted. By the end of the first paragraph, the reader begins to expect the unexpected, so one aspect of the meaning of your fable is that the sequence of unexpected, paradoxical, or oxymoronic juxtapositions becomes, in its own way, logical and expected.

In one of my high school English classes, the teacher touched on the theater of the absurd, and I spent an hour or two studying "The Bald Soprano." I now have only the vaguest memory of the play. At the time I thought it had no meaning at all. The teacher had the students write an essay on the play. She told us to write anything about the play that we wanted. I thought the only sensible thing to do was not to write anything because the play was meaningless. Since I wanted to pass the class, and I didn't think a one-sentence essay ("This play is meaningless") would earn a passing grade, I wrote an essay asserting that the play had meaning and that it was simply an exaggerated representation of the absurdity of ordinary, real life. Being a pathologically honest student, I ended the essay with a disclaimer stating that I didn't really believe what I had written. The teacher thought the essay was pretty good up to the disclaimer.

27 years later and better informed about the ways of the world (although not necessarily wiser), I think I might have disclaimed a valid point in my essay. Nevertheless, if my memory of the play is accurate, it has little or no obvious meaning. Most of the meaning must be supplied by the audience, and the audience is entitled to divergent opinions. The audience can also legitimately decide that the play is meaningless and warrants no analytic effort.

Your fable has syntactic meaning, and it uses meaningful techniques (consistent reversal of expectations). It may also have one or more encoded semantic meanings. Readers can reverse each of the unexpected twists, replacing them with more natural things and events, thereby producing a plausible and more realistic story. Of course the encoding is not uniquely reversible because there is no deciphering key or rule that governs the transformation of each "unexpected" event into a more natural event. It's also more than likely that you as the author of the fable were not consciously encrypting a specific realistic story to turn it into the intriguingly unrealistic fable. I believe, however, that readers can sense not only the consistency of the technique (the subversion of the expected) but also the logic of the underlying structure to which the technique is applied.

Although the fable has semantic meaning, its real point seems to be the technique of constantly pulling the rug out from under the reader. That is, the content and organization are of secondary importance to the application of one specific technique -- namely the technique of frustrating readers' expectations. This is a reversal of the more common order of means and ends where syntax and technique are the means by which a story is told rather than ends themselves. Your fable uses what seems to be a fairly arbitrary sequence of events as a scaffold to support the premise that repeated frustration of expectation can in itself be interesting.

There are analogies to this technique in music and other arts. There are obvious music examples where listeners' expectations are frustrated -- the loud chords in Haydn's Surprise Symphony for instance. In many cases, these technical tricks are overlayed on material that's rich in other meanings. I haven't listened to Haydn's Surprise Symphony lately, but if I recall correctly, the materials and organization of the symphony are not compromised in the service of the "surprise."

Offhand, I can't think of well-known examples of music written primarily to frustrate listeners' expectations (i.e., music that makes no pretense of having meaningful content, form, or semantics beyond the scaffolding required to support a specific technical trick), although it probably exists. In my first composition class I wrote such a piece. The teacher (the self-made misfit himself) had recently acquired toy wooden flutes made in Taiwan. He assigned the students two projects to compose: a solo piece for Taiwan flute and a duet for two Taiwan flutes. My solo piece was an uninspired attempt to write something in sonata form. My duet was somewhat more successful because I abandoned all hope of producing a composition that was interesting for any reason other than superficial syntactic tricks. (I composed some simple-minded tonal counterpoint with a series of cadences that consistently resolved against expectation.) In retrospect, both of my Taiwan flute compositions appear to be early evidence that I was not born to be a composer, although the syntactically interesting duet at least got a few laughs.

The quote from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass that you append to your fable obviously frustrates readers' expectations in a way that's analogous to your fable, but the effect is different. Instead of presenting a continuous stream of paradoxes, the quotation describes a world that is entirely consistent until the last word. (In contrast, the first word of your fable, "naturally," is disingenuous.) The effect of Carroll's writing might be different when read in the context of the entire book. Standing alone, however, the quotation has a pretty powerful effect; it builds up the reader's trust in the consistency and meaningfulness of the world that it describes, and then, in a single, final word tells the reader that his trust was misplaced.

This structure reminds me of the movie "The Usual Suspects." The movie tells its story from the point of view of a character (a narrator) who clearly has reasons to distort the truth. But it's not until the very end of the movie that the audience finds out he has fabricated the entire story based on random associations to artifacts he sees in the police department office where he is interviewed. Roger Ebert considered this ploy a dramatic cop-out and objected to the entire movie because of its use. I liked the movie, but I admit it's hard to answer questions like "What does the movie mean?" or "What's the moral?"

Which brings me to your request: "If this fable has a significant moral, you should send me your conclusions, which I will be sure to misunderstand." It seems to me that the discovery of a meaning, theme, or moral in literature or drama is not very relevant when the main purpose of the work in question is to draw the reader's attention to technical tricks. I can think of only one moral that applies to your fable, my Taiwan flute duet, "The Bald Soprano," "The Usual Suspects," and other works of art that deal in illusions (Escher comes to mind): Things are not what they seem. This doesn't strike me as a terribly interesting moral, but it doesn't matter. Fiction, drama, music, and art can be worthwhile, perhaps even profound, in ways that do not require a moral. Maybe that's the real moral. Steve Haas

Bravo, Steve.

Indeed, cavemen on parade have been sited in the Southern California city of Claremont during Pomona College's annual fall convocation and spring commencement ceremonies. It is still uclear as to the position of these creatures on the evolutionary ladder or whether there is anything to substantiate them as being anything but pre-historic. This phenomenon was well documented in a cartoon that appeared in "The New Yorker" circa 1973 entitled "Academia On Parade." The cartoon depicts a chain of portly individuals wearing mortarboards and walking on all fours with each scholar's nose to the other's derrière. David B. Goodman, Dec. 12, 1996.

From: George Girton.

There was a little boy, who was extremely very very bad and naughty, who loved Belgian waffles and had made quite a bit, vast quantities, trunks and trunks full. "Why do you have so much Belgian waffles," his friend asked? "Well," the boy explained, "I'm so terribly bad, if I die St. Peter won't let me into Heaven, so I'm going to have a v. prepossessing armload of Belgian waffles with me when I die, and I'll give them to St. Peter and he'll let me in." "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," said his friend, "and an incredibly naughty thing to think of St. Peter," and stalked off in a huff. But it worked! Because as chance would have it, the very next thing that happened was that the little boy died. And he appeared at the Pearly Gates and said to St. Peter, "I'd like to get into Heaven," and St. Peter said "No way. You've been wayyyyy too bad." "Well," said the little boy, "I've got a v. prepossessing armload of Belgian waffles here, and I'd just like to come into Heaven for one hour, and pass the Belgian waffles around to all the children there, so they can try it, and I can see what Heaven's like, so I'll know what I'm missing, and then you can send me to the Other Place." St. Peter says, "That's not a very usual request. Let me check with The Management." And he goes and relays this request to God. God says, "Sure. That's fine, let him in. This is no problem. But make sure you get it in writing that it's for just one hour." And St. Peter does. So, the little boy brings his Belgian waffles into Heaven, takes it around to all the children, they just love the Belgian waffles and everyone is very appreciative and happy. Then St. Peter says, "Little boy, your hour's up, now it's time for you to go." And the little boy says "Won't." St. Peter is completely nonplussed. He says, "you have to, you signed this thing, it's in writing that your visit is only for one hour. You have to go now, and leave Heaven." The little boy says "WON'T!" Well, this is completely beyond St. Peter, so he goes back to God and tells him what happened. God says, "well that's too bad. You will just have to evict him." "How do I do that," St. Peter says? "Well," says God, "You just have to get a lawyer, and evict him." So, St. Peter went back and he looked high and low and near and far, but he just couldn't find a lawyer anywhere.

January 1, 1997.

Some thoughts in response to "What is your favorite color?" (Selfmade Misfit, 1/23/97): Were you really unaware that you had a favorite color until you thought about it? I don't think much about colors, but I have always answered "blue" whenever anyone wanted to know my favorite. My answer is always pretty mechanical though, and not necessarily very meaningful. "Favorite in what context?" I always wonder. I have lots of blue clothes that I like, but I'm not crazy about people with blue hair, and I shy away from blue aperitifs. I think you're right that color preferences could derive from a number of different influences. I suspect one reason for my own preference is that blue is a stereotypical masculine color. (If someone is having a baby, you get a blue gift for a boy, a pink gift for a girl, and a yellow gift if you're not sure what the sex will be.) My 5-year-old goddaughter is nuts about pink, probably for similar reasons. Preferences can be influenced somewhat by personal physical characteristics too. Because of my skin, hair, and eye colors, I think cool-toned, dark clothes look better on me than pastels or warm colors. Transitory deviations in preference can be induced by other people if you're susceptible to their opinions. A woman I once admired told me I looked good wearing black. For a long time after that I often wore a black shirt or black pants, though rarely at the same time. Once when I did wear all black, the family dog didn't recognize me and started barking hysterically, apparently convinced I was a threat to the house and its occupants. The comedian Steven Wright had his own idiosyncratic approach to color: When an acquaintance pointed out to him that his socks didn't match, he responded (in his usual deadpan voice) "Yes they do.... I don't go by color.... I go by thickness." Steve Haas

Updated: January 1, 1997.