Irregardless Magazine

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Defining ‘Stupidity’

Stupidity is not characterized by a lack of knowledge or wisdom, nor is it defined by ignorance, limited mental capabilities or learning differences.

Stupidity is a lack curiosity. It’s coming across the unknown and turning the other way—an active ignorance of the new or different. It’s ignoring truth for the sake of simplicity.

Stupidity isn’t being wrong. It’s not trying to be right.

It’s About Class (a poem)

Contrarian, true, defiance is a virtue,
but your opinion would matter more if you cared to elaborate.
You always seem to stop just before thinking becomes necessary,
because that would be work and you are above that.
Dreamer, in undisturbed slumber, cooed by monotone lullabies
and multisyllabic piffle-palaver, dream for me a land
without walls, frames, right angles, or man-structured order,
a land where the wise poplars profess truth in fields of colloquy
and rivers run with unrefined rant and reason.
Learner—love of my life—politely listening to lecture and
companions’ conjecture, leacher of knowledge, do not be discouraged
by the crabs’ jeers and jealousy:
Doing the work is not overachieving, it’s achieving.
Through battle, turmoil and strife we may achieve,
but with focus, open-mindedness and resolve you can succeed.

A Guide to Writing College Essays

Writing is tough. Thinking is tough. And by the transitive property, thinking about what to write is also tough. But I’m going let you in on a little secret: Just write about something crazy.

Professors don’t want you to follow their little guidelines and assignment sheets too closely. Because if you do, you’ll just be regurgitating something they already know. They’ll get Bored, and you know what bored begins with?

That’s right, C+.

Professors want you to take risks and surprise them. They want you to push the boundaries of their assignments and create something fresh.

Check this out: my senior research paper in high school was about chocolate milk, and my college application essay was a fanciful history of cheese. I’ve written essays on dryer sheets, Burt Reynolds, water balloon fights, and people I’ve made up.

Don’t ever think a topic is too juvenile, too geeky, too un-academic, or too anything. Too is a good thing. It means you care about what you’re writing, and it means you will be presenting new and interesting information to the reader. Getting your paper to stand out from the pile is the easiest way to bump your grade up. A professor would much rather read an essay on Twizzlers over the gripping debate on school uniforms, any day.

Etymology of ‘Pumpernickel’ and ‘Santa Claus’

It’s a common myth that pumpernickel bread is named after one of Napoleon’s horses, but while Pumpernickel is a great name for a horse, this is simply untrue. For one, pumpernickel bread is much older than Napoleon, but there’s also the fact that pumpernickel is a German word with an etymology much more colorful than ‘pain pour Nicol‘:

The first part of the word, pumpern-, was a Middle High German word meaning ‘to fart’. It was, in fact, an onomatopoeia. Go ahead, say pumpern. Kind of sounds like someone trying to hold in a fart, doesn’t it? Now picture some mediæval German lords and ladies saying it. Fun, huh? Pumpern survives into modern German as ‘to pound or thump‘.

The second part of the word, -nickel, is a German nickname for the Devil or devilish little creatures. This is actually how we get our English word nickel too:

“Nickel picked up its name at a time when men thought it was sent by the Devil and not by Heaven. In the early part of the eighteenth century fresh loads of ore were laid open in Saxony where from times immemorable silver and copper mines had been worked. This new ore was so glittering and full of promise as to cause the greatest excitement, but after innumerable trials and endless labor all that could be obtained from the ore was a worthless metal. In disgust the superstitious miners named the ore kupfer-nickel (copper-nickel) after ‘Old Nick’ and his mischievous gnomes who were charged with plaguing the miners and bewitching the ore.” (William H. Baldwin from his article “The story of Nickel. I. How ‘Old Nick’s’ gnomes were outwitted“, 1931)

The name Old Nick does not refer to Santa Claus as some might assume, but instead refers to an English seafarer’s name for the Devil. It comes from the nickar water-demons of German folklore who represent the Norse god Odin’s destructive spirit. The Christian St Nicholas actually became patron saint of sailors after confusion between ‘Old Nick’ and ‘St Nick’.

This is not the only connection between Odin and Santa Claus though. Santa Claus is an American corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas, their nickname for Saint Nicholas. English speaking Americans began the myth of Santa Claus after mingling with the Dutch settlers of New York. In Holland, Sinterklaas carries a staff, rides a huge white horse and has mischievous helpers who spy on children. “These features all also link him to the legend of Odin“.

So if pumpern- means ‘fart’ and -nickel means ‘devil’ then pumpernickel can literally be thought of as ‘devil’s fart‘. Why would anyone call a bread ‘devil’s fart’? Well, like other dark rye breads (which are particularly mild breads for anyone who may be averse to gluten), pumpernickel is high in fiber and can cause some particularly…uh…malodorous pelvic discomfort.

The Value of Fiction

Recently one of my intelligent (yet imaginatively-challenged) friends asked me something to the effect of, “What’s the point of reading made-up stories? Nonfiction has value because it teaches you something factual, but what is the value of fiction?”

For me, fiction is like a sandbox for building theories and philosophies without worrying about them collapsing on top of anyone.

Just as the speculative fiction of Philip K Dick helps us to develop ideas on the boundaries of humanity and consciousness—or how many children’s stories explore morality and maturity—fiction offers a practice arena for ideas.

It’s like role-playing in a therapy session: we get to pretend to be someone else in a unique situation, and we learn by testing out how our ideas hold up in the new environment.

Which is why I have such a problem with art that is too didactic or too obvious. It forgets the artist’s lever—a balance of entertainment and rhetoric—and just crams its message down your throat. It ceases to be a playground for ideas and turns into a lecture. And I’m not interested in being lectured.

It’s Not the World’s Fault You Wanted to Be an Artist

One day while surfing the Internet, I stumbled upon a neat little story relayed by Elizabeth Gilbert. One of her indie filmmaker friends once wrote to his hero, director Werner Herzog, complaining about the struggles of getting audiences into his work. Herzog responded something like:

It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams.

Every time I get frustrated with the world, I try to remind myself that being a writer was not a destiny preordained for me. I write—not because I have to—but because I enjoy it, and it is no one’s obligation to “pay for my dreams”, as Herzog puts it. At any moment, I could go back to chopping onions and doing dishes at a restaurant instead of making up stories to entertain people.

Being an artist is a luxury. My parents worked hard doing unglamorous work so that I could get an education and give back to society. So if audiences aren’t interested in my work, then I need to change, not them.

As I’ve said before, all art is rhetoric. Being a skilled artist means knowing how to balance what your audiences want to hear and what you want to tell them.

A Word Is Worth a Thousand Words

The great and terribly frustrating thing about words is that each and every one of them has a thousand meanings, and you can’t choose which one you want people to think you mean, so you have to mean them all.

All Art Is Rhetoric

In college, my art history professor Glenn Lavertu’s motto for the course was “all art is propaganda.” Sometimes this was more obvious—like in David’s “Death of Marat”, Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” or Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath”—and sometimes less so. But ultimately he showed us that no art is created in a vacuum and all of it is reactionary to some extent. This struck me as a really interesting tenet of artistic creation, but subsequently I’ve come to think that rhetoric is better word. All art is rhetoric.

The Cocktail Party

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party (not unlike Kenneth Burke’s apocryphal soirée), and you and a few other guests are mingling on the balcony discussing the merits of pie over cake. Most people are making some pretty interesting arguments, but the woman next to you in the polka-dot dress keeps cracking jokes and throwing out some sarcastic comment. She’s entertaining and she makes everyone chuckle, but she doesn’t contribute anything intelligent to the conversation. She doesn’t move the conversation forward.

Among your group is a man with a bow tie, and he just said something witty, but his annoying friend feels the need to repeat everything he says. “I know, right?” the friend adds. Later the friend says, “Yeah, but you can’t stack pies the way you stack cakes”, which is basically the same argument you just made five minutes ago. His comments are useless and uninteresting, because he doesn’t move the conversation forward.

If you wander into the house at this hypothetical party, you’ll find a socially awkward woman standing next to a ficus talking to herself and wishing that people understood what a genius she is, and in the kitchen you’ll see a group of old school chums sharing inside jokes that no one else understands. There’s also an overzealous preacher who the other guests keep moving away from—not because he doesn’t have anything to say—but simply because there’s no artistry to his conversation and he doesn’t leave any room for people to rebut.

This is how I see landscape of artistic expression.

An Artist’s Guide to Rhetoric

The CliffsNotes version of rhetoric is: the art of conveying an idea to an audience. Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it (if you’re interested you can always check out Lloyd Bitzer’s “Rhetorical Situation”, the foundation piece of modern rhetorical studies or you can read Richard Vatz’s equally interesting rebuttal). Rhetoric is a conversation that leads to action.

Rhetoric is often associated with politicians and lawyers, propaganda and manipulation, but at its meaty core, rhetoric is simply a relationship between an idea and an audience. Now, that idea can be as simple as an emotion or as complex as “the human condition” (whatever that means). It can be straightforward and didactic or layered and abstract. It can preach a specific cause, or it can simply open up a dialogue. And that idea can be conveyed in infinite ways to suit an artist’s unique voice and creative mind.

Bringing Art and Rhetoric Together

If art is a dialogue then a good artist must move the conversation forward.

But if all art is rhetoric, then what separates art from a thesis paper? Well, art relies on a balance between rhetoric and entertainment or creativity. I like to think of it like this: at one end of the spectrum you have thesis, and at the other end there is decoration. Or if you think of it as a lever, an artist can shift that fulcrum between thesis and decoration to either side, but you still need to maintain a balance.

Words I Often Confuse

eulogy – a speech or writing in praise of a person or thing, especially a set oration in honor of a deceased person

effigy – something you burn in place of somebody

epithet – any word or phrase applied to a person or thing to describe an actual or attributed quality, eg. Richard the Lion-Hearted

epigram – any witty, ingenious, or pointed saying tersely expressed, syn: quip

epigraph – an apposite quotation at the beginning of a book, chapter, etc.

epitaph – a commemorative inscription on a tomb or mortuary monument about the person buried at that site

Irresistibly Concise

“I remember when I was a script editor at the BBC, and people would send all sorts of story ideas. And people would write incredibly long screens and you would never have time to read, you’d never understand them, and you’d even need a magnifying glass because they’d typed it so closely.

“So I used to write back saying, ‘I haven’t got time to read your story idea. If you want to make it irresistibly concise to me, then I’ll be able to read and respond.’

“Irresistibly concise. Now that’s good from the point of view of the reader, but it’s also very good from the point of view of the writer.”

~ Douglas Adams from the 2005 documentary Life, the Universe and Douglas Adams