Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Listening to Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, Part Four: Rebuilding a Melody

As usual, check out parts one through three by clicking their respective links on ye olde sidebar.

What do you do after a catastrophe?

Last time we looked at the wholly remarkable "train wreck" which punctuates (with several exclamation points) the development of the Third Symphony.  It is, in short, a total musical catastrophe.  The development section, up to the train wreck, is a seething mass of competing themes already.  Indeed, even without our catastrophe and the third theme to follow, this development section would have been unusual in Beethoven's time for its length and intensity.  But the train wreck raises the bar.  It plunges the piece into a warlike chaos, destabilizing any sense of harmonic, melody, or even rhythmic balance.

So what do you do after a catastrophe?  Beethoven, in a sense, had written himself into a corner with the train wreck.*  So he responds by doing something completely new and different.  He plays us a melody.

* In a hilarious understatement and/or misunderstanding and/or ironic quip the editor of the Liszt piano transcription notes, in the space between the train wreck and the theme to which we are, by degrees, coming: "Here the genius of Beethoven saw the necessity of a change."  Um, yeah.  Considering the entire piece just fell apart, I don't know that it takes a genius to see that something pretty amazing has to happen.  No, the genius is the one who can put it back together.**

** Scratch that, the genius is the one who is so confident in his ability that he knows he can put it back together, and therefore chooses to break it in the first place.  The "genius of Beethoven" saw this whole thing coming a mile away.  Then again, maybe that's the ironic quip: the necessity of a change is not in this piece, but in composition itself.

Not to say that the previous two themes are not melodies.  They are, in a rudimentary, arpeggiated kind of way.  But this one actually is a melody.  It includes tones that are not the one, three, or five of the tonic chord.  Said another way, it moves stepwise instead of by chord tones.  Said another way, it's something you can actually sing without sounding totally ridiculous.*

*Seriously, try singing the opening theme with this lyric I was cursed enough to hear: "Oh my word, it's Beethoven's Third, again."  It may be a fantastic theme, but I defy you to take it seriously as a melody.

What do we make of this melody?  Well, on its own it's quite pleasant.  It's not harmonically all that complex (just a series of tonic to dominant and back; about as simple as it gets).  It's rhythmically straightforward.  It's, well, a song.  Which is perhaps nothing special in itself, but remember how we got here.

You see, what strikes us as a simple, pleasant, but largely uncomplicated melody on its own is transformed into a kind of symphonic messiah in context.  This third theme literally saves the movement from total chaos, swooping in just after some of the most dissonant, ugly, weird chords that any composer has dared write into a symphony.  It's simplicity is chief virtue: we are rebuilding a melody.  Indeed, we are rebuilding melody itself.

Following the metaphor from the last post, this theme is an attempt to recreate that beautiful life of the Viennese waltz after bombardment has destroyed the city.  It is not melancholy, particularly, even if it has a touch of minor tonality.  Rather it is resignedly determined, complete with a simple-minded view that everything can and will be alright, that the city can and will be rebuilt.

But war - and music - is never that simple.  For where do we go after this theme but once more unto the proverbial breach.

The third theme - as you may have noticed in the first two snippets - doesn't resolve itself.  Instead it launches right back into the opening theme.  That opening theme, far from being a return to "normal," becomes a catalyst for rapid and unpredictable harmonic motion.  We sway from major to minor and back, we change keys, and we end up back at the third theme, only a half step (!) higher.  This time the third theme isn't around for long, either, taking a new melodic turn before leading us into a new statement of the opening theme in which it's not clear where our attention should go.  Are we meant to follow the broiling flutes, or the arpeggios in the bass?

This potential second train wreck is stopped by a harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic reset that is not quite as intense as the one that introduced the third theme, but is jarring nonetheless.  Instead of chaos, we see a kind of sickeningly quiet order, a plucking of pizzicato strings set against the tension of a sustained dominant chord.  And then, of course, the horn comes in (early), and we're back to the opening of the symphony in the form of the recapitulation, where things are very much the way they were when we started.  Except, they're completely different.  All of which will be the subject of part five.

Anyway, the purpose of all that is to give us context for thinking more about this third theme.  As a piece of music, this third theme is hardly amazing.  As a piece of narrative, it is brilliant.  Standing between total destruction and the remainder of the development section, it speaks to a kind of naive optimism that, once beaten down, cannot help but return again (and once against get sent away).  Now, I don't think that Beethoven means to discount this theme, but I also don't think that we can take it at face value.

What would taking it at face value look like?  Well, I think it would be easy to look at the third theme and to say it's a nice maneuverer, a clever ploy to allow Beethoven to go boom boom and get away with it.  It's easy to say it's pretty, and nice, and beautiful.  It's easy to say that it's genius.  It's a lot harder to say why it's all of those things, however, and harder still to say that, maybe, we're not supposed to actually like this theme.

That is, we are supposed to like it, but only because it's so much nicer to listen to than the noise that came before it (or, for that matter, the strangeness that comes after it).  We like it by contrast.  But, as mentioned above, it's not a particularly great piece of music, nor does it really get its chance to play itself out.  No, I believe this theme is a stand in, a joke, a classic example of Beethoven thumbing his nose at his listeners (especially the uptight ones that would have really hated the train wreck).  It's a statement that, no, everything is not alright anymore.  In the face of the kinds of harmonic and melodic atrocities - so-called, anyway - Beethoven commits in the development section, the tradition of music cannot be the same.

While examining the opening theme, I talked about the infamous C#.  It raises questions about heroism, about music and narrative, about harmonic and melodic function.  This third theme, I think, starts to answer those questions, but in a subtle and subversive way.  If music is powerful, I asked, is it also dangerous?  The answer, in this development section, is yes.  Music is dangerous.  Music can change mediocrity into greatness, or vice versa.  Music can tell a story about power and conflict, music can persuade, music can frustrate and anger, music can inspire.  All of that makes music dangerous.

I don't think, to be clear, that it's the train wreck that is dangerous, for all of the chaos that it embodies.  No, it's this third theme that's the dangerous one, precisely because it's so perfect.  The chance for easy redemption, the opportunity to pretend that a revolution isn't really a big deal, these things are a danger.  And music, too, is a danger, if it chooses not to unfurl itself.  Before Beethoven composers rarely, if ever, wrote about themselves, about music, about power.  They wrote, largely, to be pleasing, to make money, and to praise God.  Beethoven does all of those things, but he also drives deeper, and in so doing unearths the flaw of the music of his predecessors (however great much of it was): it can't stand up to true musical force.

We have further to go in this movement, but I want to leave with a glimpse of the entire development section.  In the last two posts I've subdivided the development into two parts: pre-train wreck, and post.  It's worth listening to the whole thing as one unit.  I won't offer any more commentary, since the last two posts have more than enough.  Rather, I'll let the music do the talking.  Here's the entire development section of the Third Symphony. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Brief Thought on Final Exams

The long-awaited Part Four of the Beethoven series is finally in the works, but in the meantime, I wanted to talk a little about final exams.

In many subjects - particularly science and math - the culminating assessment of student learning is a final exam.  Students are meant to demonstrate their understanding of the material by answering a massive collection of multiple choice and free response questions.  In principle, this all seems like a good idea: after all, if the subject is really important enough that students should take the class in the first place, we need to make sure students know the material at the end of the course.

The problem is, there's no reason to believe that final exams (or tests in general) really do assess student knowledge in a meaningful way.  What do I mean?  Well, what is learning?  I would argue that, for learning to really have occurred, students should retain the skills and knowledge from that learning well beyond the end of the course.  What good is it to memorize the various organelles in a cell if two weeks after the test you won't remember them?  Why do we test students on their ability to remember formulas that they will later be able to look up?  Why do we force students to test alone when in their real lives they'll almost always be working with others (collaboration is called "cheating" on a final exam)?

My point, however, is not to raise those questions, but this one.  How many students from your most recent class in which you had a final would pass that final if they took it again today?  Would you pass your high school Chemistry final?  Physics?  Biology?  Could you succeed on an Algebra test?  Geometry?  US History?

What values do we show when we design assessments that test knowledge that is not actually important or useful?  Why do we make students demonstrate their learning by taking tests they will not be able to pass even months - let alone years - later?  What good does that do?

Now consider the alternative: project based assessments, collaborative design challenges, even portfolios.  I know mathematics and science teachers in particular might find those foreign to their subjects, but they meet a criterion that seems important to me.  Students who can succeed at completing a Physics design challenge in high school will likely be able to complete that same challenge with the same level - if not greater - success later on in their lives.  Why is that?  Because that design challenge is testing the stuff we do care about, like collaboration, the ability to find and filter information, and, yes, physics content knowledge, but in a way that actually matters instead of in abstract and meaningless questions.

As I completed my own creative writing course this summer, I reflected on the wonder of teaching skills-based, instead of content-based courses.  Assessment can be about growth, and can be designed in such a way that students could succeed equally well twenty years from now as they did this summer.  But the "content-based" excuse for bad assessment is just that, an excuse.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tag Poems

A final piece of my own writing from my now-defunct creative writing class.  Several members of the class and I wrote a "tag poem" during the final week of the course.  Basically, each person had to write a poem using the last line of the previous poem as either a title or a first line.  The following were my four contributions.  I'm particularly happy with the first and last ones, though I'd like to spend more time with them before I call them finished.


Elemental fire cannot rest
On a pedestal.
Some goddesses are not content
To be worshipped.
She would rather consume,
Turn all to ash.
She would rather give birth,
Her maculate labor.
Flowing, hardening, the hair and fingers,
Pele’s very heart turns
To igneous rock.

Happiness, Anyway

Lately I relate to happiness
And anyway, I’d rather smile and laugh
In paradise, it’s mad to want much less
Than sheer perfection, on the world’s behalf.
I wonder, though, what paradise might be?
Is it a sunny day, a sandy beach?
Or is it mauka showers, greener trees,
And eighty warm degrees each day to each?
No, all those things do not make paradise
All by themselves, for they are in the world,
Experience alone cannot entice
Determined misery to come unfurled.
Yes, lately I relate to happiness
And anyway, it’s better to feel blessed.

For the Sound of Her

A spoken word seems like proof,
Conclusive evidence of her presence.
But today even electrons can talk,
And so the mind can hear voices
Long after it has forgotten a face.

For the sound of her, I listen,
Straining to hear more than a voice,
Needing proof, not content with faith.
For the sound of her, I moan,
Needing to possess, or be possessed.

Distance is the progenitor of doubt.
If I cannot imagine four thousand miles
How could I perceive her in that desert?
How could I, surrounded by trade winds
And coconuts, conceive her in red mud?

For the sound of her, I wait,
Or should, but need to own her
As much as she owns herself.
For the sound of her, I waste
Her love, listening all the while.

Water running in the bathroom,
The creaking bedroom door,
The rustling of bedsheets,
A sigh of contentment,
These demonstrate her existence.

Harmonica Heavy Southern Twang and Banjo

Band go twing twang, the harmony can
Drum up a trance dance, a piercing piece
Of musitchy excellence, Notus’s wind
Instruments blow, and bellow
Boom and boon loom soom jazz.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fuzzy Fundraising Math

This New York Times article is a wonderful example of the old adage about lies, damn lies, and statistics.  Apparently relying upon widespread lack of understanding of mathematics and an inability or unwillingness to think critically about information, Jim Messina - President Obama's campaign manager - presents some shady numbers, and then points to them as evidence of “more grassroots support at this point in the process than any campaign in political history.”  He's not lying, just statistic-ing.

 The numbers are as follows:
- $86 million raised for the DNC and Obama's reelection campaign in the second quarter.
- 552,462 separate donors.
- Average contribution of $69.
- 98% of contributions under $250.

Well let's break out our calculators, shall we?  552,462 donors times an average donation of $69 equals... $38.1 million.  But wait, Obama has raised $86 million!  Huh?  Where did the other $47.9 million come from?

Reading more closely tells you that the average contribution may be $69, but there's no indication as to how many donors have written multiple smaller checks, instead of one big one.  In order for the math to work out, that $86 million required about 1.25 million separate donations, even if there were 552.462 separate donors.  The actual average contribution per donor, meanwhile, is over $150.

That's starting to sound a little less "grassroots," no?  Don't get me wrong, the sheer number of contributors here is impressive, and a great many of those - maybe as many as 98% - are average Joes and Johns contributing $20.  But that's not where the bulk of Obama's funding comes from.

Unfortunately, given the numbers we have to work with here, we can't draw any certain conclusions about the percentage or amount of Obama's current campaign money that comes from corporate sources.  For that matter, the Citizen's United vs. FEC ruling makes it nigh impossible to track that corporate money anyway.  What we can do, however, is hypothesize.  Let's assume that those 98% of donors giving $250 or less per donation are only donating once.  After all, we're still over a year from the election, and I'm guessing Mr. Middle Class Obama Supporter isn't cutting multiple $50 checks to reelect the President right now.

If we assume that 98% of donors, then, are contributing an average of $69 overall (instead of per donation), we get the following:

- 98% of 552,462 donors is 541,412.  An undeniably impressive number of grassroots donors, but far from the full story.
- Those donors have provided, following this hypothesis, about $37.4 million.
- That means the remaining 11,050 donors have contributed, across multiple donations each, $48.6 million.
- The average, then, amount of money donated by each of those 11,050 donors is roughly $4,400 dollars.

Remember that we're still well over a year away from the election.  That's a lot of money from a small number of people for just one fiscal quarter's worth of fundraising.  It's not unreasonable to assume that a small subset of those 10,000 donors - whether they be individuals, oil companies, financial firms, or health insurance providers - will be contributing as much as $50,000 each by the end of the election cycle.  Perhaps the President should be careful whilst pushing for closing loopholes and levying higher taxes on the wealthiest wage earners, lest they lose the ability to contribute so much to his campaign.

For all of the talk about "grassroots" and "yes we can," it's worth remembering that those grassroots contributions, no matter how you slice it, are not the bulk of Obama's campaign money.  And when executive push comes to legislative shove, the golden rule wins out: he who has the gold, makes the rules.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Character Sketch: Samantha Miller

Samantha Miller was not brilliant, nor was she a beauty. Her job was ordinary, her daily routine unremarkable, her love life a vanilla series of dinner-and-a-movie outings that failed to inspire her or her potential beaus. She was, in short, boring. Except for one thing. She asked questions. A lot of questions.

Despite an intelligence that was far from formidable - it took her three tries to get through algebra, two to pass US History, and, now as an adult, at least a month and a team of helpers to get through her taxes - Samantha possessed remarkable self-awareness. She recognized and accepted her weaknesses young, and chose to turn them into strengths. While the result may have been something uninspiring to the world at large - she was, after all, plain in most every way - she was, in fact, an extremely valuable conversant precisely because she was slow to understand and quick to point out her lack of understanding.

“Wait, what do you mean by that?” Was her favorite phrase. Far from shame at her inability to grasp the subtleties of some interlocutor’s blathering, she was proud of her stubbornness, her determination to undermine the pretensions of others. She wielded, then, her so-called stupidity with what can only be described as genius, knowing exactly how to ask a question, when to interrupt a monologue, and what to do when her question was disregarded or misunderstood (that is, ask it again, and more loudly).

As a result of her inquisitiveness, and despite being slow to learn, Samantha had a formidable knowledge base. Or, at least, she understood extremely well the things that she did understand. Her shamelessness, furthermore, allowed her to interject not just with questions, but with vehement disagreement when the topic of conversation happened upon one of her strong points. Though she would never venture more than a sentence or so at a time, even when on the terra firma of acquired knowledge, her questions and interjections became more pointed, more direct, and even sometimes scathing. It was as if she was saying, “If I can understand this, why can’t you?”

That’s not to say Samantha was arrogant. Far from it. Rather, her self-awareness granted her the confidence that comes naturally and rightfully with knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses. That she had turned the latter into the former was a source of pride for Samantha, but also - and not accidentally - a source of humility.

Perhaps, then, Samantha Miller was a tragic figure? Blessed with a gift that she had identified and refined early in her life, she grew up to find a world that found her particular gift far less desirable than physical beauty or pure intellectual strength. Instead she was seen as a nuisance, an idiot, even. That didn’t bother her much, because she was, above all emotionally self-sufficient (and even, as she grew older, distant), but the result was that her extremely useful skill was lost to a society very much in need of it. The tragedy was not hers, but ours.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Prog and the Pickalees

More work from my creative writing class.  We read Jabberwocky and went out to write our own nonsense poems.  Here's mine.

The sun shone brigly all the day
The air was chottled in the quait
Three pickalees with freinted deegs
Came wrasting by the lake.

Suddenly, a prog awoke,
It trumpled and gorded volumly
The pickalees, with shaking deegs
Retranted to the slinty sea.

The prog, with fronden in his eye
Began to sing a clanty tune
Until the pickalees returned
And dronned with it 'til noon.

But then the sun's most brigly rays
Shone on a shloreny sight
The pickalees, with geranee
The prog ate in one bite.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Teaching in Gangsta's Paradise

Today in my creative writing class, students wrote essays about songs they brought in, discussing both the meaning and the writing of the lyrics.  This is my own take on the assignment.

Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise moves me, precisely because I am the person the song is written to.  I am that teacher, that intellectual, that political activist, that, well, white person who once thought it was easy to solve the world's problems.  Education is the answer, right?

"They say I gotta learn, but nobody's here to teach me / If they can't understand it, how can they reach me?"  Coolio's question towards the end of the song is, to me, the crux of his narrative.  Having described life in the gang world – the complex mixture of pride, self-loathing, competition, fear, and brotherhood that comes with the kind of upbringing most eventual gangsters find impossible to escape – Coolio responds to my righteous indignation.  He needs to get an education, I say.  His response: you don't get it.  He's right, I don't.  And, what's more, I'm far from alone.

It's easy to take the next two lines as resignation: "I guess they can't; I guess they won't / I guess they front; that's why I know my life is outta luck, fool!"  I would argue, however, that there's something else going on here.  Indeed, this isn't resignation, but rather frustration and anger at the resignation of those few who are willing to try to teach the otherwise disenfranchised, the gangsters, the "dangerous." The problem is, that effort to teach is usually an effort to conquer, to impose, to "reform."  "They can't" and "They won't" because they're afraid to try to understand a life that asks "I'm twenty-three now, but will I live to see twenty-four?" without irony or sarcasm.

What would it mean to be a teacher in a Gangsta's Paradise?  There are plenty of teachers there, already.  There are the ineffectual schoolteachers, who lament their students' stupidity, disobedience, and laziness, and then there are the brothers and fathers and uncles who teach their kids how to survive on the street, who have a more nuanced view of those students' flaws.  Regardless, there's not much communication across those boundaries.  The innocent outsider, there to solve the problem, is afraid to actually understand and experience the problem he or she wants to solve.  The insider has more important things to worry about that than 19th century European History or Trigonometry.

I don't have solutions, myself.  Even as a former teacher of at-risk and high-risk teens in Hawaii, some of whom were well-versed in the gang lifestyle, if only by proxy, there's no magic bullet to becoming a cultural insider.  Taking away the expectation that teaching is about distributing knowledge is a start.  Eliminating the distinction between teacher and learner is another step.  But even the most radical and progressive pedagogy is no guarantee.  Because, at the end of the day, you can't "front."  You can't bullshit.  And that's really hard for teachers to do.

Gangsta's Paradise is a brilliant, well-written song because it's not afraid to address the complexity, to challenge the assumption that access to knowledge and education makes all the difference.  Beyond that, though, it's reflective, recognizing that the Paradise of the L.A. (or New York, or Honolulu) gang world has its own responsibility: "Tell my why are we, so blind to see / That the ones we hurt, are you and me."  That does not absolve me, or those millions who are afraid to even acknowledge the issue, of responsibility.  Rather, it only further illustrates how important it is not to be a conqueror, not to fight gang culture, or to try to "enlighten" the people caught in it.  The process is subtler than that, and more risky.  I should say, the process is subtler than that on the ground.

Higher up, the problem is starker, and very much analogous to the gang experience: "Power and the money, money and the power / minute after minute, hour after hour / Everybody's runnin, but half of them ain't lookin' / What's going on in the kitchen, but I don't know what's cookin."  This could just as easily be about politicians, corporate leaders, banks, insurance companies as about gangsters themselves.  What better example of the brilliance of the lyric writing could you find than this?  The audience expands; we learn that we're all living in the same Gangsta's Paradise, where the ones we hurt are, far too often, you and me.

Gangsta's Paradise moves me, however, not because I can empathize.  The analogy between the gang world and the commercial and corporate world may be apt, but it doesn't mean the experience is the same.  No, what is moving is the challenge to my perceptions, the self-awareness and fear of the author, and, in spite of it all, the pride.  I don't get it, but I do respect it, and that's a start.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Blog at Two Hundred

I hate and love self-referential, reflective, meta-writing. I hate it because it usually has an audience of one (the writer). On the other hand, I'm a fan of metacognition and reflection and all of that good self-awareness and learning stuff.

So with that in mind, I want to try to accomplish two things in this Nicht Diese Tone at 200 posts post.  The first is to reflect a little about what the blog is, what it's about, and where it's going.  The second is to call forth from the now nearly two years worth of writing I've done here a small set of my very favorite pieces.

What is Nicht Diese Tone?

As I've said before, "Nicht Diese Tone" is the opening to the lyrical section of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, a work of particular importance in my own life as both a scholar and a man.  As a scholar, the 9th was the focal point of my undergraduate thesis.  As a man, the main melody of the 9th adorns my wife's wedding ring.  Now, none of that says why I love the symphony so much, why it is important to me, but rather that it is.

Why is a more complicated question, in which this blog is tied up.  Of course, the joyful celebration of mankind that makes up the core of the symphony is important, as is Beethoven's unrelenting optimism in spite of his own isolation and frustration.  But beyond that, there's the brilliant construction of the symphony, the self-referential and reflective opening of the final movement, in which each previous movement is considered and rejected in turn.  There's the repetition of the initial five minutes of the piece by the vocal part.  There's Beethoven's own words before the Schiller he borrowed for the bulk of the lyric: "Oh friends, not these tones.  Let us sing yet more joyfully."

This blog, I hope, has lived in that spirit: reflective, creative, joyful.  But also critical, inquisitive, and, above all, willing to take a different perspective.  As I depart from Honolulu and return to the bay area, I hope it will continue to be all of those things, and, while I will study in the Learning Sciences at Stanford, I hope the blog will continue to be about many things.  Perhaps my greatest weakness as a writer, as a blogger, and as a person, is that my interests are so disparate, so numerous.  Being an intellectual omnivore means that there's too much to eat, and sometimes you don't necessarily eat well (and sometimes you eat too much).  But I choose to see that as a strength, even if it makes myself or my blog harder to pin down.

My Favorite Pieces

I can't actually say that these are my favorite pieces of my own writing from the last two years.  It's tough to make that kind of determination, after all.  Certainly these aren't my most popular pieces.  My blog statistics tell me that distinction lies with my Comparing Discussion to Brainstorming post from October of last year.  No, these are a few pieces that I particularly like, that I think are accessible, and that represent the blog.  I could pick more, but I'm sticking with these five.

The Peter Quince Sonata - A reading of Wallace Stevens's Peter Quince at the Clavier
Impressions of Walla Walla - A reflection on my visit to Walla Walla, Washington for my brother's graduation.
Winning and Losing with Rafael Nadal - An attempt at actual sportswriting, responding to a Nadal loss.
Sailing to Byzantium - Published on Pitchers and Poets, but one of my favorites.  Reading the famous poem through the lens of baseball.
My Heart is in the Slaughterhouse - A half-silly, half-serious poem written after visiting potential PhD programs.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Character Sketch: Elliot Hilliard

He was every bit as pretentious as his name sounded.  Elliot Hilliard.  Elliot Wordsworth Hilliard.  He spoke with a slight lisp and an affected British accent, even though he was from Boise, Idaho, and had never left the country.

He was a hipster, a “space cowboy,” a plaid-flannel-and-aviator-sunglasses-wearing man of the modern world.  He thought himself cosmopolitan because he could name the Presidents of Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua, as well as the chief opposition to each in their upcoming elections, but did not find it at all ironic that he could not do the same for Canada.  He would have explained that his bachelor’s degree in political philosophy culminated in a thesis on modern Central America, as if that specialized knowledge excused his ignorance regarding the rest of the world.

Moreover, Elliot didn’t speak a word of Spanish.  That is, he knew the basic vocabulary that any resident of the American Southwest picked up just from channel surfing and going to the grocery store, but he had never put any particular effort into understanding the language (a fact which irked his professors very much).  Instead he had taken Latin in high school, and French in college, and while those languages gave him enough working knowledge to translate - badly - the speeches and Mexican news articles that made up his background research for his thesis, they did nothing to teach him the intonation, the conversation, and the music of Spanish ("The Romance languages are called that because of the Romans, not because they are lovely," he would say).

Not that Elliot cared for such things.  His interest in language was more... imperialist.  He was a conqueror of the word, a wielder of its power, not an admirer of its beauty.  He valued persuasion and rhetoric, and his love of poetry had more to do with its effect on other people than its affect on himself.  That’s not to say he was emotionless, unmovable, uninspired.  No, Elliot was simply thickheaded, a man smart and cunning enough to understand the machinations of the political and social world, but far too practical to see either the spiritual value of human interaction or the satisfaction of self-knowledge.

The result was a man very much in the world, with a great many acquaintances, but few friends or enemies.  Most people regarded him as an Italian prince might regard a wealthy merchant carrying a copy of Machiavelli - respectful of his intellect, suspicious of his potential power, and wary of his lack of empathy.  That Elliot himself was totally oblivious to the reaction he elicited in others reinforced and perpetuated that reaction: his lack of self-awareness came across as a meticulous, calculated indifference.

Even so, Elliot believed he had a great many friends.  As he had never known meaningful friendship or true conversation, he took his superficial interactions for profound ones, his philosophical rambling for a heart-to-heart.  Elliot was not, then, unhappy.  Quite the opposite.  Among those who knew him best, his cheerfulness was one of his most troublesome qualities, betraying a disturbing lack of empathy.  No wonder so many of his acquaintances - and even his own family - continuously urged him to go into politics.  No wonder, either, that Elliot would say that he didn’t have the heartlessness and cynicism for it, that he was too much the “common man,” with simple needs and simple desires.