Navel-Gazing in August

Someone said “write what you know.” It was definitely Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Nathan Englander, or somebody else.

I’ve mostly seen the quote applied to writing fiction.

Apparently some folks assume that it means authors should only write stories about events they’ve experienced. That may help explain why fantasy and science fiction stories aren’t taken seriously in some circles, entirely too seriously in others, and that’s another topic.

Others, including John Briggs, Diablo Cody/Brook Busey-Maurio and Jason Gots, say it means using the author’s emotional memories when telling stories. They’re professional writers, so I figure they know what they’re talking about.

Graveyard Shifts, Ephesians, and Family

I called that picture Desk Duty. If I wrote a story to go with it, using that title, knowing how night shifts feel would help.

I’ve never worked in a place like the one in Desk Duty. But some of my jobs were graveyard shifts with nothing but equipment for company.

Around the time our first child was born, I kept a manufacturing company’s mainframe company while most folks were sleeping. I had the building to myself, and little to do besides tend the printers, swap out data tapes, and push a few buttons. It was pretty much the opposite of exciting.

But I knew that the company’s operations, and keeping my job, depended on my actions. That helped me stay focused. So did knowing that my wife and newborn depended on my pay for food and shelter.

The keyboard I used was in a clerical area facing the hospital where they were staying. Both buildings were taller than most, so I could see my family’s temporary residence while at work.

Sometimes I’d stop by the hospital on my way home to see if those two were awake. I was a radio disk jockey the following year, on another graveyard shift.

The jobs were satisfactory. Working alone is, for me, pleasantly serene. More important, doing my tasks helped me fulfill my duties as a husband and father. That doesn’t mean I think the Bible says men should earn money by sitting at desks.

When men and women marry, we both have duties to each other and to our children. I’m not more, or less, important than my wife. (Proverbs 31:1031; Ephesians 5:2125; Colossians 3:1821; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1645, 22212231)

Circadian Rhythms and Coal Gas

Our circadian rhythm takes time to settle into its adult pattern, so I had a chance to chat fairly often after that computer operator job.

Oddly enough, the human circadian rhythm may not be 24 hours long. Not when our bodies use internal ‘clocks’ instead of a day/night cycle to keep track of time.

Research I’ve read suggests that our natural rhythm is generally between 25 and 27 hours, with a statistical peak around 25 hours. There’s also a whole lot of individual differences, which doesn’t surprise me.

The NIGMS/National Institutes of Health has a pretty good Circadian Rhythms Factsheet. I think it’s at least as informative, and a great deal less hysterical, than some ‘street lighting and health’ news I’ve seen.

We’re learning that how much and when we sleep affects our health, and vice versa.

I’ve noticed that falling asleep is generally easier in a dark room, and that my blood sugar went down after I lined up my wake-sleep cycle with daylight.

The latter might be a coincidence, since I started walking a bit more around the same time.

But I don’t think humanity is doomed because we started replacing linkboys with street lights around 1800.

We’ve endured glacial periods, the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and Disco.

I don’t think street lamps even slowed us down. (August 4, 2017; August 4, 2017; June 2, 2017; May 26, 2017)

Folks felt safer with well-lit streets, except right after gas explosions. Maybe that helped justify the cost of installing electric lights like the Yablochkov candle.

Lately we’ve been learning that sodium lamps give the most light per power unit. Our eyes work better with ‘white light,’ so we’ll probably switch to LED lighting next.

I was going somewhere with this. Let me think. “Write what you know,” fantasy, family, circadian rhythms — not cicadas — street lighting. Right.

Eclectic Interests

This post started after I’d replied to a comment on Friday-before-last’s ‘Fukushima‘ post.

Someone wondered if I was an engineer. It was a good question, considering what I’d been saying about the Fukushima power plant’s astonishingly poor design.

I’m not an engineer, or a scientist.

By the time I’d finished doing time in academia, I’d picked up undergraduate degrees in history and English. Along the way I did a year of postgraduate library science, plus two years of computer science. General studies requirements and my eclectic interests led me to art history and a grab bag of other topics.

I’m fascinated by science, engineering, architecture, and related fields. But I’m much better at handling language than math, which affected my choices.

My interests are nowhere near narrow enough to encourage a conventional career. I may have glitchy neurochemistry to thank for that, but on the whole it’s been a good ride. I can’t complain. Not reasonably. (March 19, 2017)

Polymaths, folks recognized as experts in several fields, aren’t limited to the Renaissance. We don’t get many Leonardo da Vincis, but polymaths still happen. These days, at least, they seem to focus on one exceptional ability.

John von Neumann worked in many fields, all involving off-the-chart mathematical talents. Rabindranath Tagore used non-mathematical talents.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen Fry are following similarly-varied career paths. They’ve been called polymaths. I figure we’ll have a clearer picture in a century to two.

My assortment of jobs doesn’t make me a polymath. I’m arguably more like an intellectual jack of all trades. And that gets me back to “write what you know,” and my ‘science’ posts.

But first, some of my favorite lines of poetry from Tennyson’s “Ulysses:”

“…To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought….”
(“Ulysses,” Tennyson (1833))

Alaric’s Tomb and Humanity’s Story

I take my family obligations seriously, so I won’t set off on a voyage of discovery.

Happily, I live in an era where a pretty good Internet connection and excellent research skills let me pursue knowledge from my desk.

Those skills, and a knack for writing, are what carried me through the history degree.

I wasn’t particularly good at the rote memorization needed for tests. Term papers and noticing connections were another matter.

I think it helped that I sympathized with instructors who read the things, and tried to make mine mildly entertaining as well as informative.

That’s not being “humble” in the self-depreciating sense. But creative talents and extreme language skills are part of the kit God gave me. Acknowledging that makes sense. My contribution was deciding to do something with them. (July 31, 2016)

I never quite lost my childhood interests in dinosaurs and space travel. I’ve added more over the decades.

A history professor’s History 101 class introduced me to humanity’s unfolding story. One of his talents was showing that history is more than a tiresome catalog of names and dates.

My favorite memory from his class is an account of Alaric’s burial.

He was the first Visigoth king, and led the Sack of Rome in 410.

The Roman capital was in Ravenna at the time, after a stopover in Mediolanum.

Alaric’s successful raid was politically significant for what was left of the Roman Empire, and an important part of Alaric’s plans for Italy. Those plans didn’t work out.

Odoacer ruled Italy and parts of the eastern Adriatic coast until Theodoric killed him. I’ve talked about those two, natural law, Charlemagne, and why I don’t miss the ‘good old days,’ before. (July 30, 2017; July 21, 2017; July 14, 2017; April 28, 2017)

Alaric died while his forces were still in Italy. That much is known. What’s more debatable is where and how he was buried.

His people’s customs required burial with the best of his treasures. Alaric’s forces didn’t want their leader’s tomb looted, obviously. They couldn’t transport his body home, and staying where they were to guard the site wasn’t an option.

The story is that they diverted the Busento river, buried Alaric in the temporarily-dry riverbed, and then returned the river to its normal course.

Documentation is apparently spotty, but whatever they did was very effective. We still don’t know exactly where Alaric’s tomb is.

Completely accurate or not, it is a good story. And that, for me, is what history is: a continuing story spanning millennia, with new chapters still being written. I very strongly suspect that some of the most interesting parts are still ahead.

I like stories as much as anyone else, and enjoy retelling them. That may not be quite what folks mean by “write what you know,” but I think it’s close.

I also enjoy sharing what I’m learning about the puzzles scientists are solving, and those they discover while finding answers to other questions.

A Sense of Wonder

I don’t have a scientist’s understanding of natural phenomena. That takes math skills I never developed.

But I do occasionally experience a sense of wonder at this amazing universe. I try sharing that, and my enthusiasm for our expanding knowledge.

I see faith as a willing and conscious embrace of “the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

We can find truth in the natural world’s order and beauty. Appreciating this world’s wonders is a good idea. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 341, 2500)

I’m certainly not bothered that the universe is much larger and older than some imagined, a few centuries back. If anything that adds emphasis to these verses:

“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place –
“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:46)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
(Wisdom 11:21)

More posts, introspective and otherwise:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Navel-Gazing in August

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Missing article: “If I wrote story to go with it, using that title,”

    Wrong word: “Folks felts safer with well-lit streets, except”

    Missing word: “It was a good question, considering I’d been saying about the”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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