on benjamin franklin and his most excellent autobiography, the intentionality of desert areas, and assorted other topicksramble

June 20, 2007

So, some closing thoughts on Ben Franklin's Autobiography. (That's a link to the Project Gutenberg etext. It makes me wish print books were more searchable! But, the ASCII text drops the italics.)

I had no idea about Ben Franklin, Swimming Instructor:
On one of these days, I was, to my surprise, sent for by a great man I knew only by name, a Sir William Wyndham, and I waited upon him. He had heard by some means or other of my swimming from Chelsea to Blackfriar's, and of my teaching Wygate and another young man to swim in a few hours. He had two sons, about to set out on their travels; he wish'd to have them first taught swimming, and proposed to gratify me handsomely if I would teach them. They were not yet come to town, and my stay was uncertain, so I could not undertake it; but, from this incident, I thought it likely that, if I were to remain in England and open a swimming-school, I might get a good deal of money; and it struck me so strongly, that, had the overture been sooner made me, probably I should not so soon have returned to America.
It makes me want to posit some crazy alternate history where Ben Franklin stayed and became a swim instructor, and somehow that caused monumental changes in the landscape of international relations with the Revolutionary War being replaced by some kind of swim-off. Ben Franklin-led squads of English Aristocratic swimmers vs a George Washington-coached ragtag squad of Americans... the minutemen, who could swim 5 boat-lengths in that time, or some such, with the fate of colonial independence at stake. (More on the history of swimming strokes, includes a reference to Thévenot, whom Franklin namedrops.)

A recurring theme was about how to conduct oneself during a debate:
I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering, I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this charge in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.
Now, that's my default way of arguing... except I think my reasons are less valid. I'm deathly afraid of being wrong, so I'll weasel my way into an ultimately unassailable position, hiding behind the final refuge of only describing my subjective observation. (I was also truck by the use of the word "positive", meaning "assured" as opposed to "good"... this usage predates, and preemptively argues against, the philosophy of "positivism" that would emerge later.)

That said, I think I am willing to admit when the thrust of my argument has been thwarted. And sometimes I learn something. This weekend working in Rockport the song "Missing" came on, with its lyric "And I miss you / Like the deserts miss the rain". It's a lovely lyric, but I always wondered if it was reasonable to think of deserts as "missing" the rain. I mean, aren't they in their own way viable ecosystems? EvilB countered with a description of the amazing and awe-provoking flowering that occurs in desert areas when a rain does come, even in regions that have gone for years and years without water. That was an excellent point, but then made me wonder if it's fair to use "the deserts" when you mean "the biomass of the deserts"... he countered with, well yeah, but "and I miss you / like the biomass contained with desert regions miss the rain" just doesn't scan. That got me wondering about what is the intentionality of desert regions? If they have one, than I'd say their longing is to grow, to devour more former woodland and pastures with sand and aridity... in which case they wouldn't miss the rain at all. (They might miss the wind, though, if it wasn't around, to help blow the sand and extend the borders.)

Silly argument, but a fun bit of deconstruction to go along with stripping paint off of deconstructed window moldings, and making it that much more agreeable. (Later he reacted negatively to my saying that he "brought up some good points" as debat-team-ish damning with faint praise, but I was being absolutely sincere.)

Finally, back to Ben and forming an early fire fighting company:
Our articles of agreement oblig'd every member to keep always in good order, and fit for use, a certain number of leather buckets, with strong bags and baskets (for packing and transporting of goods), which were to be brought to every fire;
I guess that speaks of the improvements of fire fighting technology over the years, that you'd see situations where there'd be a fire at a neighbors, and the safest thing to do is to bug out with your stuff, but you need something to pack it in. (Though as he noted: "since these institutions, the city has never lost by fire more than one or two houses at a time, and the flames have often been extinguished before the house in which they began has been half consumed" - that's actually quite a record!) It also reflects how consumer goods have become much cheaper in the meanwhile, and, I think, buildings more expensive.

(Heh, even when I write this, I have to remove many instances of "I think" and "I guess". I shouldn't hedge my bet quite so often when I write, but it's my nature to do so.)

Now Reading: Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

PS After the video I posted the other day, EvilB wanted me to assure his wife that those balloons, having had a happy time celebrating their daughter's first birthday, were old, sick, and tired, and despite the growling and goofiness, it was actually euthanasia... see, balloons don't want solemnity and dignity when it's time for them to move on, it's just not in their nature.