Philosophy with Attitude

Jan A. Nielsen
English 501-05
28 January 1992

First Occasion:
When was the last time you really looked at the sky? I'm talking about complete absorption in that expanse, not merely glancing up to look for rain, or Superman. I'm talking about standing in the middle of a field, or a street, or even a forest, and letting your mind go free, up into its canopy. It doesn't matter what the weather is; on a clear, blue day, staring into the sky is like nothing else: the world is downright big, and the sky is bigger. When rain is threatening, the clouds are magnificent, wide and thundering, and the subtle variations in their shades of grey are like all the colours in the world. And even when there are only a few clouds, whatever kind they may be -- fleecy white interruptions to streaks of grey -- the sky is a palette of sight: it may seem to be of just one hue, but in fact that blue darkens as it moves away from the light of the sun, until near the horizon it becomes almost violet.

Sunset is, of course, a major event for skywatchers; depending on the atmosphere it can be gentle and pastel, or almost violently bright with colours that appear nowhere else. And the more you know about them, the more miraculous it can seem: sunsets this year have been spectacular, owing to the tons of dust thrown into the air by two separate volcanic eruptions. It is this dust that causes the sunlight to scatter and produce those brilliant, vibrant shades -- but even knowing the reason behind them, such sunsets are pure magic.

And after twilight, a whole new arena is opened with the introduction of our theatre of stars, a scene so beautiful as to inspire whole mythologies; even today we know the stars not so much by name as by the heroes and demigods they form, from the power and grace of Orion to the majesty of Cassiopeia to the dainty, enigmatic Pleiades. And if there are clouds -- the mystery is that much greater; lit from below, they create a surreal curtain that gives only a hesitant glimpse of the drama above. Even when no stars can be seen there is the soft light of the Moon, Luna; she is tender in her luminescence. When surrounded by white clouds she seems almost demure as she stares timidly through them. And her splendor is all the more heightened if she decides to come out; her reflected light covers the landscape with sighs. She makes ripples in the clouds as well, a truly awesome sight, as the canopy spreads out beneath her, out into eternity.

And when dawn breaks, that original beauty of Venus is always to be found. It is she who coaxes Helios over the horizon, only to disappear shortly after -- but she is unmistakable while she is seen. Sometimes she is accompanied by Mercury, or a sliver of moon; then even the early hours are worth being awake for. In fact, the sky is a showcase of colour and sight; the next time you go outside, make sure you look up for a while. Twenty-four hours a day, it is an incredible show.

Second Occasion:

I started playing the violin when I was nine, and I haven't stopped since. I was in fifth grade then; I remember the excitement of going to see the instruments demonstrated -- the music department at my school was quite good -- and it was before the recession: there was money available for a large music program. Of course, I didn't know that then; all I knew was that of all those instruments -- strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion -- the one I loved the most was the violin. At nine, one doesn't need to be specific; I was thrilled by the way it sounded. I hadn't heard much "classical" music then, but what I had heard I liked, and perhaps in the back of my mind was the urge to be part of it.

I remember that all the instruments were lined up on the stage, and that we were encouraged to touch them; if we were particularly interested, someone would demonstrate them for us. It was quite an undertaking, I realize now -- then, it was just an excuse to use my curiosity. On that night (it was an evening program, for the benefit of working parents) I was most fascinated by the violin, and told my mother so.

The next day she came into school with me, and I was fitted for the instrument. Even though they tried to talk me into the viola or the cello, I wanted only the violin, and so I was given one, a 3/4ths-size. And you know what? I hated it! Practicing was positively abhorrent to me; I despised being cooped up for half-an-hour each day to squeak away on this piece of wood and metal, and besides, it hurt; I was ready to quit within a week. But then before I went to sleep one night, my father came in and sat down on the bed, and said, "You know, I'm really glad you decided to play an instrument, Jan -- I never did when I was young, and I've regretted it ever since. And it's too late for me now." Of course I protested that -- but I also knew inside that I could never quit if my dad felt like that; what a disappointment it would be to him!

So I kept with it for two years, hating it the whole time -- because it sounded bad, because it hurt, and because I had to do it -- more than a lot of things, I hate being told what to do. In seventh grade, however, I had a breakthrough: I started listening to classical music on the radio, and when I heard things that we were playing in orchestra -- abridged though they were -- I was hooked. Suddenly practicing was something to look forward to instead of being dreaded; if I got really good, someday I could play the things I heard, too!

Now it's been eight years since I started, and I don't think I'd feel complete without it. There's nothing in the world like sitting down with a page of dots and lines, and an inanimate object made of wood and metal -- and then bringing them together to create something... alive, or the feeling of total absorption into the music when one plays with a group, be it a quartet or an entire symphony. The happiest times of my life have been with music, and the violin; I recall the pure intensity of duets with a cellist here at UNH; the entwining, captivating strains of a Mendelssohn quartet at Apple Hill; the power and passion of a Dvorak symphony with the Keene Chamber Orchestra. These are all part of me now, like the music itself; I hope never to escape from its spell.

Third Occasion:

Do you ever wonder what inanimate objects would say if they could be coaxed into talking? I used to, until I found this on my hard drive. I don't know how they managed it, but certain articles in my room have decided to vent their feelings...

DESK: No! Not another notebook! Oh! I can't take much more of this! It's not enough that the human's entire library is sitting on me, in and out of that bookshelf -- she's got to put folders on me, too? And the tapes -- how many does she think she needs? There must be over a hundred, all sitting on that one wing - - no wonder I always have a sideache! Then there's that silly computer, "MacTavish," she calls it -- I'm more important than it and I never got a name. There's a tape player hanging over my middle; I guess it's not so bad, not too heavy, and the music is okay. So why, with all my drawers, can't she even keep my surface neat? What's she got here? Chapstick, extra pens, a Walkman, a little violin ornament, DMC floss, a stuffed cat, LifeSavers, pencils, floppy disks for the dumb computer, more books than I can count, soda-can tabs, a book on handwriting analysis... good grief! Will this never end? Get a life and use a drawer, human! What does she think I am, a pack mule? Gnaqrr!* If only I could move -- then I'd show her! Perhaps I can arrange something with the bookshelves...

*Pronounced "nar"; means "everything" but can be used as a simple expression of annoyance.

BOOKSHELVES: Ha, that silly desk. Thinks it's got the all-important job. Well, without me, it would never see the light of day! She's got more books than it would hold! Let's see... Anne Rice, Robert Heinlein, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Larry Niven, Sophecles, Shakespeare, Poe, Ayn Rand, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Orwell, Roget's Thesaurus, Harvard's Musical Dictionary, Webster's College Dictionary, The Story of English, Cassell's French Dictionary, Romanov's Russian Dictionary, The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, the Heath Handbook... not to mention all those textbooks, and the little toys... this is ludicrous! One would think that with a librarian for a mother, she could alphabetize! Hmph. If only I could get into these books. It's so dull sitting here all day while she goes out and learns... Oh, well. Bookshelves can't be choosers. I do envy that computer, though; it gets all the fun. All day, if she's not playing that wooden thing with the strings, she's typing away on the computer. Lucky thing. What does a bookshelf have to do to get a little attention around here?

COMPUTER: Wow! Another exciting day of stories and essays! Maybe she'll even write a little music -- I like that program. I'm MacTavish, by the way, the brains behind this entire operation; without me, the human would be stuck going to the computer clusters every time she wanted to do a little writing. I wish she'd get a printer -- I could use a few more connections, but this is okay for now. As long as I never crash -- what a frightening thought that is! She may not realize it, but she depends on me; over half of my memory is full of her things -- stories, essays, games, music, and all. Including that one file I've been meaning to get at -- it's a hundred-forty pages long! I wonder if she'll ever finish it? Probably, if those classes she's always running off to don't bog her down too much. At least I'll get plenty of use this semester, what with those essays she's always contemplating. This should be fun. Hmm. The desk and the bookshelf had an idea -- they wanted me to write down everything they're always complaining about. So here it is, just to please them -- I hope my user never finds this. What would she think of me then? Maybe I should add a disclaimer? Here goes... [User ID] Jan Nielsen: if you or anyone else is reading this, please, take it lightly. The desk and the bookshelf just don't have the brains to do anything -- and I'm on your side. I won't let them revolt. Just make sure I'm always plugged in...

ME: That's where it ends; it is rather non-fictional, and I didn't know if use of a manuscript by an inanimate object counted as plagiarism. Perhaps no one will believe me... perhaps they'll think I'm mad, with a paper by some of the things in my room, but this is the truth. No, really, I swear it is! If you don't believe me, just ask my computer...

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