Topic: Narrative

Describing the color white to a blind person

Einstein and white swan

I have been searching online for years for this story that’s been half-submerged in my memory, with no luck; I finally found it in an old journal entry dated June 8, 1985. It was cut out of a newspaper, but I have no idea which one, and I can’t find this exact version of the story anywhere:

One day Einstein was asked by a pesky reporter to describe his theory of relativity in a few simple words. He responded with the following story:

“A man was asked by a blind man to describe the color white. The man said, ‘White is the color of a swan.’ The blind man said, ‘What is a swan?’ The man said, ‘A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.’

“The blind man asked, ‘What is crooked?’ The man was becoming impatient. He grabbed the blind man’s arm, straightened it and said, ‘This is straight.’ Then he bent it and said, ‘And this is crooked.’

“Whereupon the blind man quickly said, ‘Yes, yes, thank you. Now I know what white is.'”

So there’s the first clue why I could never find this story online — I had thought it was one of John Cage’s zen stories, but it’s actually a story told by Einstein. This in itself is a good illustration of the fallibility of memory. Here is another version I found, and this fits the pattern of all the references I found to this story:

Einstein and his blindfriend. This story shows how complex Einstein could be. Not long after his arrival in Princeton he was invited, by the wife of one of the professors of mathematics at Princeton, to be guest of honor at a tea.-Reluctantly, Einstein consented. After the tea had progressed for a time, the excited hostess, thrilled to have such an eminent guest of honor, fluttered out into the center of activity and with raised arms silenced the group. Bubbling out some words expressing her thrill and pleasure, she turned to Einstein and said: “I wonder, Dr. Einstein, if you would be so kind as to explain to my guests in a few words, just what is relativity theory?”

Without any hesitation Einstein rose to his feet and told a story. He said he was reminded of a walk he one day had with his blind friend. The day was hot and he turned to the blind friend and said, “I wish I had a glass of milk.”

“Glass,” replied the blind friend, “I know what that is. But what do you mean by milk?”

“Why, milk is a white fluid,” explained Einstein.

“Now fluid, I know what that is,” said the blind man. “but what is white ?”

“Oh, white is the color of a swan’s feathers.”

“Feathers, now I know what they are, but what is a swan?”

“A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.”

“Neck, I know what that is, but what do you mean by crooked?”

At this point Einstein said he lost his patience. He seized his blind friend’s arm and pulled it straight. “There, now your arm is straight,” he said. Then he bent the blind friend’s arm at the elbow. “Now it is crooked.”

“Ah,” said the blind friend. “Now I know what milk is.”

And Einstein, at the tea, sat down.

Now the plot thickens. Here is a similar version of the milk story, but with Einstein now completely out of the picture, as told by the Hungarian-British writer George Mikes, in one of his books, which I found quoted in a post to the Pakistan Gardening Forum, of all places:

A blind man asks a young girl to describe milk. The young girl is astonished that he doesn’t even know what milk is. “Milk is white,” she tells him. The old man tells her that he is blind and doesn’t know what white means. The young girl tells him that this is very easy to explain and tells him that a swan is white. The old man tells her that a swan may be white, but he has never seen a swan. “It has a curved neck,” she tells him. The blind man says that he has no idea what ‘curved’ is. She lifts her arm, bends her wrists forward like a swan’s neck. “Feel it,” she says, “that’s curved.” The old man feels the girl’s arm, touches the girl’s wrist and exclaims joyfully: “Thank God. Now at last I know what milk is.”

What of this strange connection between the “white” things called “milk” and “swans”? Turns out that goes back to Hinduism and Sanskrit, according to the swan page on Wikipedia:

Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan’s feather does not get wet although it is in water. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and it is the vehicle of many deities like the goddess Saraswati. It is mentioned several times in the Vedic literature, and persons who have attained great spiritual capabilities are sometimes called Paramahamsa (“Great Swan”) on account of their spiritual grace and ability to travel between various spiritual worlds. In the Vedas, swans are said to reside in the summer on Lake Manasarovar and migrate to Indian lakes for the winter. They’re believed to possess some powers such as the ability to eat pearls. They are also believed to be able to drink up the milk and leave the water from a saucer of milk adulterated with water. This is taken as a great quality, as shown by this Sanskrit verse:

Hamsah shwetah, bakah shwetah, kah bhedah hamsa bakayo?
Neeraksheera viveketu, Hamsah hamsah, bakah bakah!

(The swan is white, the duck is white, so how to differentiate between both of them? With the milk-water test, the swan is proven swan, the duck is proven duck!)

I guess the ancients required empirical evidence to distinguish a swan from a duck, a task that many modern humans can perform with relative ease.

Of all the versions of this story that might be floating around the universe, I like the original one I clipped from an unknown newspaper all those years ago, because to me the idea of describing the color white to a blind person is much more abstract and interesting than describing what milk is, since milk, after all, is a substance that can be discerned by other senses. But how can you possibly describe “white” without referencing other things? Such is relativity.

Elmore Leonard, the Dickens of Detroit: 10 Rules for Being A Good Writer

Elmore Leonard of DetroitNPR had a nice feature remembering the life of Elmore Leonard, “The Dickens Of Detroit”, who died yesterday at 87. They ended the piece with a quote from his 10 Rules for Being A Good Writer, Rule 10: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Here is the complete list of Leonard’s rules, culled from his New York Times essay, WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle, from July 16, 2001:

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Being A Good Writer

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

In his intro to the Rules, Leonard says, “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story” (emphasis ours). This is our philosophy at Zinzin as well, which you can read all about in our Naming and Branding Manifesto, specifically, No. 10: Show Me, Don’t Tell Me.

Kurt Schwitters’ Cottage: following the text to see where it leads

Kurt Schwitters - Cottage

Kurt Schwitters, Cottage, 1946. Paper Collage. 10 × 8 3/10 in / 25.5 × 21.2 cm. Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.

Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948) was a German artist who “worked in several genres and media, including Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography and what came to be known as installation art. He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures.”

Schwitters fled Nazi Germany in January, 1937, first to Norway and finally to England, where he remained in exile until his death in 1948. His collage work often included found fragments of commercially printed text, and his move from Germany to England precipitated a corresponding shift to English language found text in his collages, as seen in Cottage, above. Just for the hell of it, I’ve put together a found poem using most of the legible scraps of English in Cottage in rough order of appearance from top to bottom: »»»

A classic love story, Yugodrom style

Yugodrom love stories

Images of a classic love story, from our inspired friends at Yugodrom, a Tumblr blog collecting “graphic aesthetics from ex Yugoslavia.” Feel free to translate the word bubble captions in the Comments below.

Caine’s Arcade and the joy of creative play

Caine’s Arcade from Nirvan Mullick: A 9 year old boy – who built an elaborate cardboard arcade inside his dad’s used auto part store – is about to have the best day of his life.

“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.”
~Albert Einstein

You’ve probably heard by now the story of Caine Monroy, which began with an exuberantly creative 9 year old boy and his chance encounter with a kindred spirit, blossomed into an act of love, and went viral thanks to the 11-minute video above. Andy Isaacson wrote a great story about the Caine’s Arcade phenomenon in this week’s New Yorker, The Perfect Moment Goes Perfectly Viral, which is a must-read. It tells the whole amazing story, which is almost as much about the 37 year old struggling filmmaker playing in his artistic medium as it is about young Caine playing in his.

I find this story very inspiring, and a wonderful tonic to the glut of bad news we hear about every day. And it got me thinking afresh about the role of inspiration, joy, and creative play in our work here at Zinzin and in our everyday lives.

In our Manifesto (#13) we ask the question, When Was The Last Time You Enjoyed Naming?, and go on to say that the naming process, “should be engaging, thought-provoking, cathartic, stimulating, argumentative, enlightening, and just plain fun. You are creating a name that ideally will function as a very concise poem and catch fire out in the wider world. It’s a rush.” This belief is at the core of who we are at Zinzin, and Caine’s Arcade is a perfect example. We believe that what matters most is the capacity and willingness to perceive poetry and art in the words and life all around us. It’s not about “skills,” it’s about sensibility, and sensitivity. If you have it, you know it can’t be turned off. There is no down time, nor would you ever want there to be.

There is so much rich language  all around us–past, present and future–that it’s simply the funnest thing in the world to play with it, mold it, break it down and rejigger it. This is the art of naming. This is the joy of creation and discovery applied to the real world task of creating brands. We strive to live in an inspired state all the time, because inspiration is joyful, and inspiration is addictive. This is what Caine Monroy embodies for me with every fiber of his being, and this is where all great art–and names–comes from. No wonder he almost always has such a big grin on his face–he’s only nine, but he already knows the secret of happiness. Let’s hope he stays “forever young,” for, as Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I think Caine Monroy has a great chance to hold onto that spirit of creative joy, and Mullick’s wonderful little film will always be there to remind him of it.

The Sentence Makes the Writer Makes the Sentence

Jhumpa Lahiri, author of “Unaccustomed Earth,” “The Namesake” and “Interpreter of Maladies,” had a wonderful Opinion piece in Sunday’s New York times, My Life’s Sentences, which got me thinking about the role of sentences in writing, and how this applies to naming. Lahiri begins,

In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page. They were not necessarily the same sentences the professors pointed out, which would turn up for further explication on an exam. I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.

I love this concept of enchantment, of what a magical thing it is for a mere “handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time.” Lahiri continues with a great example of such conjuring:

I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.

The concept of the sentence as a stopper of time and a conjurer of places, people and situations is beautifully put. This is what we strive for in our naming work here at Zinzin, to go beyond mere identification and representation, and to evoke other worlds, imagery, movement, meaning and mood. When it works, it is magic, whether in a name, a sentence, or a poem. Speaking of poetry, the poet Robert Creeley has a rather different take on the idea of a sentence: “Oh yes, the sentence,” Creeley once told the critic Burton Hatlen, “that’s what we call it when we put someone in jail.” One writer’s “conjurer of worlds” is another writer’s jail cell.

From a poet’s perspective, the conjuring takes place on the lips of the speaker and in the mind of the listener/reader, independent of the structural norms of narrative prose, or any “norms” for that matter (see Kurt Schwitters, Die Sonate in Urlauten). For the writer of narrative prose, however, the sentence is a cellular organism–blood of the writer blood of the book–bringing stories to life. I’ve referred before to Don DeLillo’s 1993 Paris Review interview, but this bears repeating here:

…the basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look…. I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence—these are sensuous pleasures.

For DeLillo, the sentence is the existential force that that wills his narratives–and thus himself as a writer–into being. Bill Gray, the reclusive novelist protagonist of DeLillo’s novel “Mao II,” says at one point: “I’m a sentence maker. Like a donut maker, only slower.” Elsewhere, Gray–speaking from a gray zone between character and author–illuminates what appears to be DeLillo’s core concept of the sentence:

Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it’s the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I’ve always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live.

The language of my books has shaped me as a man. For DeLillo, there is no “I: The Writer” who writes sentences; it is only through writing that the writer is born. The sentence begets the writer, and to live, the writer must write the right sentences, which in turn create the writer, until they become interchangeable. Lahari:

As a book or story nears completion, I grow acutely, obsessively conscious of each sentence in the text. They enter into the blood. They seem to replace it, for a while.

Sentences enter the blood, for they are the red blood cells of prose; the author and her works have become one. Lahari goes on to elucidate the special something that great sentences must possess if they are to ignite the reader’s imagination:

The most compelling narrative, expressed in sentences with which I have no chemical reaction, or an adverse one, leaves me cold. In fiction, plenty do the job of conveying information, rousing suspense, painting characters, enabling them to speak. But only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil. The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.

Again, this beautifully describes our approach to naming, to go beyond names that merely “convey information” in favor of names that “breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil.” Replacing Lahari’s first “they” with “names,” and we get right to the core of great naming: [Names] can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.

To paraphrase Don DeLillo: Every [name] has a truth waiting at the end of it and the [namer] learns how to know it when he finally gets there. For sentences, poetic fragments and names alike, there is a unique, individual truth waiting to be uncovered, and uncovering it is the journey.

Naming Rights Part 1: Thirty Days in the Hole

It was the summer of 1980. I decided to take a year off from college and travel west. I ended up in Pasadena, California. After a few odd jobs I found work as a security guard at the Norton Simon Museum (NSM) on Colorado Avenue; you’ve probably seen the museum building in the background of the annual New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade.

Upon being outfitted in the museum-mandated dark brown sport jacket and light tan polyester slacks the day before at the neighborhood value-priced C&R Clothiers, I reported for my first day on the job. After a brief orientation I was given a tour of the five main galleries of the museum. We started in the basement, which featured a collection of European art from the 19th century. Followed by the North East Gallery of Early Renaissance and High Renaissance paintings and tapestries, The North West Gallery containing European art from the 17th and 18th centuries, The South West Gallery featuring art from South Asia and Southeast Asia and finally the South East Gallery which contained a portion of Mr. Simon’s modern art collection.

There among the Moderns, I was handed a one-way radio (guards should be seen and not heard), flesh-colored ear plug (in terms of aesthetics, less Secret Service, more grandpa’s hearing aid), and informed that I would be assigned to guard this gallery for the next week. Apparently there was a pecking order to the security details and Modern was the second lowest only to the Basement Gallery (or as the guards referred to it, “The Hole” or “Dungeon”) in terms of prestige at the museum.

Ogling Mr. Simon’s Prize

A few months later I found myself assigned (confined) to The Hole, doing thirty days of hard time for improper maintenance of a section of inappropriate male facial hair. The Master of the Guards (I will call him “Maxwell” for this story) was an uptight and hunkered-down generation gap holdout and retired Los Angeles law-enforcement officer with a penchant for military style grooming, for which I was ill-prepared, and paramilitary discipline, for which I was a bad example of. In general, I guess at age twenty I was a bad example that needed to be made an example of. I will however remember Maxwell best for his cherry condition red 65′ Ford Mustang convertible with IRS audit-baiting “Income Tax Is Unconstitutional” bumper sticker, his resemblance to a well-kempt Nick Nolte, and his bitter, vindictive and utterly cruel management style. Yes he was a real sweetheart of a commandant, and if I got anything out of the experience it was this: I vowed never to express my personal beliefs on a bumper sticker.

Few visitors frequented the Basement galleries. There were only three possible explanations for being down there: 1) you were interested in ogling Mr. Simon’s prize (read: hideous) collection of bronze dancing Degas girls arranged lyrically around the stairs; 2) you had to use the can; 3) you had been assigned (confined) by the Master of the Guards to guard duty in that God-forsaken place.

Even fewer Basement visitors made it way out past the long gallery exhibiting the entire 82 prints of Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War were I was posted, guarding three saints and an emergency exit.

The Disasters of War is, by the way, an abbreviated version of Goya’s proper title for this series: Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices. Goya’s “scenes of atrocities, starvation, degradation and humiliation have been described as the prodigious flowering of rage as well as the work of a memory that knew no forgiveness.” Note to aspiring art historians: I would suggest leaving the creation and editing of titles to the artist, because although the original might not fit conveniently on an Avery thirty-five millimeter slide label (which I’m told you can still buy in Australia), it is certainly more poetic than the truncated version.

At the end of the gallery, at the end of the line, was my fortress of solitude.
Picture a nicely lit, well decorated Gulag. I learned that when someone is tasked with guarding an extravagantly expensive object, that same someone spends a great deal of their time devising elaborate schemes involving the theft of the very object they are in fact employed to safeguard. My fantasy involved plundering Zurbarán’s “Saint Francis in Prayer,” Goya’s “Saint Jerome in Penitence” and an El Greco “Saint Something Another in Somewhere,” and heading to Tijuana, Mexico. Once there I was certain I could easily make the necessary underworld/international art market connections required to fence these pieces off, ultimately to someone I imagined to be a cross between a Nehru jacketed Dr. (Julius) No and….

Fuel Rods and Jackson Browne

As you can imagine it got pretty darn lonely down in The Hole. Late one afternoon, while making my rounds (140 paces from the emergency exit to the stairwell and back again, trust me I counted it many times), I came upon a patron examining one of the Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices prints. I said hello, He said hello and we got into a sort of cautious chit-chat. I should state the obvious here: CONVERSATION BETWEEN SECURITY PERSONNEL OF THE NORTON SIMON MUSEUM AND PATRONS (BEYOND THE WAY-FINDING VARIETY) ARE STRICTLY FORBIDDEN. Even so, our friendly repartee progressed quickly from art to politics. Environmental politics and then to US nuclear policy, to be precise. I recall the patron was a roughly a 30 year old male, and judging by his corduroy jacket with elbow patches, clearly of the liberal persuasion.

The vaguely professorial patron was of the opinion that nuclear energy was extremely dangerous and should be banned. He made references to radioactive half-life, fuel rods, Jackson Browne and Musicians United for Safer Energy (MUSE). Anyway, he seemed very knowledgeable on the topic, so I proceed to do what any young fellow would do and that was take a contrarian stance. Not that I believed anything that I was saying, mind you, but it sure beat standing there alone among the tortured saints. So we continued our Lincoln-Douglas style debate until a sharply dressed blue-haired matron briskly approached us and, standing among the Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices prints, whispered, “I dare say, the conversation you are having is totally inappropriate for an art museum,” to which I politely responded, “Lady, what is?”

Yours Sincerely, (forged signature here)

At that point both the matron and the patron proceeded to exit my desolate domain. I on the other hand had another hour or two left alone with my heist fantasy. Then at ten to six we ran through our gallery clearing procedures and proceeded unceremoniously to the locker room.

The time clock was inside the The Master of the Guards office at the entrance to the guards’ locker room. When I arrived at the office I noticed a photocopied letter composed on museum stationary conspicuously posted on the door. I examined it to find a typewritten letter of apology along with my forged signature below a “yours sincerely.” Apparently, the matron had dropped-a-dime on me to Commandant Maxwell, and before I knew it all of my privileges (overtime and a desk job monitoring the security cameras on Sundays) were suspended. In addition, I was sentenced to man The Hole indefinitely. I spent the next 47 days there amongst the Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices before returning to the relative comfort of art school back in Detroit. But I am getting way ahead of myself, since I haven’t even finished telling you about my first day at the NSM.

To be continued…