August 15, 2013

Electrical engineering man doesn't get the poem his English major girlfriend gave him in parchment-and-calligraphy form...

... and — what the hell kind of electrical engineering guy writes to an advice columnist? — the advice columnist he writes to doesn't even know enough to tell him to watch "Hannah and Her Sisters." He's all:
It's by e.e. cummings... Sarah told me it's her favorite poem of all time. I didn't even understand the title, so I kept my mouth shut. Then she said she feels that the last line, which goes "Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands," is the most beautiful sentence written by an American in the past 100 years. 
Aw, come on. There's an entire sequence in "Hannah and Her Sisters" — watch the 4-minute clip here —  that begins with a big white-on-black intertitle inviting laughter over the line "Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands." This man — if he really is an electrical engineer (e.e. = electrical engineer) — instead of finding a way to laugh with this girl confesses to the advice columnist that he has "no idea what that sentence means."
I read the poem (which I had to do in front of her, which was scary) and I definitely get that it's a love poem, but if you asked me to explain a single line in it with a gun to my head, I'd be a goner.
Such violent ideation. If you're smart enough to be an electrical engineer — which, as noted above, I doubt — you should figure out how to say something like: To me, everything you say is the most beautiful sentence by an American in the past 100 years. Paraphrase it for me. I want to know why it's the most beautiful sentence to you. I want to know how you would say it.

Maybe she'll bust out laughing and say: I was just playing with you. I was thinking what would be the most ridiculous present to give to my electrical engineering guy who doesn't understand the point of being an English major. And I thought: a completely bad poem with a ridiculous line that everyone has been laughing at for years.  I'd present it to you in the most bullshit form, in calligraphy on parchment, act like it was a great present, and deadpan that that stupid line was the most beautiful line ever written in English. Oh, man, you should have seen your face.

But, no, his face was the face of a lost little boy. She realizes that her funny setup only revealed his lack of interpersonal skill and humor. If she finds out he wrote to an advice columnist — a female advice columnist — asking her — asking mommy — for help understanding the poem, she'll never be able to have sex with this man.

Back to the letter:
The thing is this was clearly a hugely meaningful gesture for Sarah to give me this poem. It means so much to her. I just didn't have the heart to tell her that it went over my head. I mumbled something about how beautiful it was and that seemed to make her happy, but I felt really bad later.
He worries that this incident ruined everything. I think it did — not because he couldn't understand the poem, but because he didn't turn the occasion of failure to understand into an interesting interaction between the two of them. She tried to make something happen, and he was too big of a coward to find out what it was. And then he went to some other lady — an authority figure — for an explanation. 

Only after writing that am I reading the advice columnist's answer — although I did do a search to see if she knew "Hannah and Her Sisters." The columnist's answer is kind of like mine, but it's more about gentleness, with the man inviting the woman to explain the poem. She was trying "to bring you into her world a bit... a loving gesture. Don't be put off by it, and trust her enough to respond with gentle honesty."

I suspect this particular man is more capable of the timid gentleness routine than of the more vigorous interplay I'd pictured, but I'm not an advice columnist.

(Link via Maggie's Farm.)

54 comments:

Jim said...

I dunno. This post seems like it falls prey, ironically enough, to "Althouse's Law"- always describe what women do positively and what men do negatively.

Yes, honestly asking her what it meant would probably have been the right way to go, but you are assuming a lot about the woman's intentions and attitudes.

Hagar said...

And the djinn said: "So, how many lanes did you want on that bridge?"

Carol said...

okay, this is kind of like my husband not knowing Spinal Tap was a spoof...it's not fatal. Lots of guys just don't concern themselves with this sort of fluff. I think she went a little too arcane and self-referential.

Ann Althouse said...

"This post seems like it falls prey, ironically enough, to "Althouse's Law"- always describe what women do positively and what men do negatively."

That's a good observation, but I think what I'm doing is recommending that the person in the predicament assume the other person is a worthy mate and act like that is true. If the interaction proceeds in the positive direction I'm predicting, then that's great for everyone. If it's not, and if she turns out to be lame and limited, then he's gotten some useful information. So it's a good bet.

Note that I'm not assuming he's lame and limited, which is, I think the advice columnist's assumption: here's a little man and his little woman, so let me help them move forward with baby steps.

She's probably right, talking to real people.

I'm more trying to write a novel that I would be amused to read.

Edgehopper said...

The girl I dated in college was an engineer who wrote (and published!) poetry like this. I'm an engineer-turned-lawyer who prefers poetry that has rhyme, meter, and understandable meaning. It didn't work out--too different a world view.

EDH said...

"Big hands, I know you're the one."

Blister in the Sun

Body and beats, I stain my sheets -- I don't even know why
My girlfriend, she's at the end -- she is starting to cry
Let me go on... like I blister in the sun
Let me go on... big hands, I know you're the one

EDH said...

"Make a wish..."

"Didn't come true."

Man Hands

Almost Ali said...

Engineers often have a difficult time figuring out people. But in this case it's the woman who appears to be essentially clueless. She has what "she" believes to be a Stradivarius, but what she really has is a ukulele looking for a piano tuner.

Mark O said...

These are the new boys at Yale writing to the new Ann Landers.

Bob Boyd said...

I bet the sorry SOB wears shorts too.

David-2 said...

I was a math major, and my girlfriend an English literature major.

For a birthday she gave me As I Lay Dying, as Faulkner was (then) her favorite American writer.

I stuck it out for a while but didn't really understand what was going on, until:

"My mother is a fish."

That did it for me. I told her I wasn't reading anymore, and why.

We got married a couple of years later, we're still married, and that was over 30 years ago.

robinintn said...

It's obvious she thinks he has a small dick.

bearing said...

If he wants to get into e.e. cummings, he should start with "she being Brand/ -new."

Link here.. Much easier for your average engineer to parse, if he is only beginning to appreciate poetry.

Gabriel Hanna said...

I liked the commenter who replied that the EE should give his girl a Fluke meter and explain all the functions and how terribly impressive they all are as well as important to what he does. Wish Penelope had responded to that.

Besides physics I have always enjoyed clever aphorisms and bon mots from historical figures. They all require historical context to appreciate. I have long since learned that almost no one else cares to hear about that--or physics for that matter.

Like Spinal Tap, e e cummings appeal is quite selective.

Peter said...

I'm reminded of a very, very old story by R.A. Heinlein.

It starts with two men sitting at a bar. One asks the other what he does for a living, and he responds 'I'm an unwed mother." (Yes, it's that old from way back when being an unwed mother was shameful.)

He then explains that he writes for a magazine that prints such stories.

The point? That one must suspend a good deal of disbelief in order to believe that none of the stories printed by advice columnists were not actually written ... by the advice columnist.

mrs. e said...

Awareness is the first step toward recovery.

I'm sure calling him a coward will make him more receptive to your advise.

traditionalguy said...

Electricity is chemistry. Love is chemistry. This guy is so close to being a Love Engineer. All he needs is Althouse Instruction on seduction lines and emotional language.

My brother was an EE from Georgia Tech. And he was helpless around smart women, like a rambling wreck.

MathMom said...

She realizes that her funny setup only revealed his lack of interpersonal skill and humor.

Why do people insist that engineers lack interpersonal skills? This guy displayed excellent interpersonal skills - he didn't tell her he had no idea what she was on about...and went to an expert, trying to find a way to fill this gaping hole. He's trying to keep the babe!

If he had no interpersonal skills, he would have offered to prove the aspect ratio of the smallest hands are actually larger than the aspect ratio of rain.

Chuck said...

Ann, this is my gift to you:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg

Russ said...

I'm more worried about the guy who didn't realize "This is Spinal Tap" was a spoof.

Sabinal said...

thank you so much for bringing back the comments :D Your website is one of the more balanced out there.

mccullough said...

I'm reminded of the scene in Bull Durham where Susan Sarandon reads Walt Whitman to Tim Robbins in bed.

n.n said...

An engineer would think before he acts. He would not follow nor request a prescription. He is capable of creative intelligence.

That said, this test should be part of an application for employment. The response, or lack thereof, could be part of a competency assessment.

Tom said...

I work with a number of EE's. When you say, "if he's smart enough to be an electrical engineer..." Just stop there. If he's an EE, he's smart. But not the same kinda smart you are or even the kinda smart that questions things like poetry or underlying assumptions. You want electrons to go from one place to another, he's your guy. You want deep, meaningful conversation, he's going to do what he does best when he can't solve a problem.. hire a contractor!

RonF said...

the advice columnist he writes to doesn't even know enough to tell him to watch "Hannah and Her Sisters."

On what basis do you think it's reasonable to expect that an advice columnist would have seen the movie "Hannah and her Sisters"?

Hagar said...

What is this "Spinal Tap"?

Ann Althouse said...

"On what basis do you think it's reasonable to expect that an advice columnist would have seen the movie "Hannah and her Sisters"?"

I would expect familiarity with American culture, including what are widely regarded as the best movies of the last 40 years, especially the ones that are about relationships that might resemble actual problems people have.

I can't believe that an American woman who is at least 35 and is interested in the dynamics of personal relationships would not have watched "Hannah and Her Sisters."

Ann Althouse said...

You're writing about relationships and the context is a specific poem. Why wouldn't you at least do a little Googling to find out what people have thought about that poem.

chuckR said...

In return, the EE should gift her with a short booklet of his favorite xkcd comics.

(Mechanical engineer married to an English major - just celebrated our 40th anniversary less than a week ago)

Ann Althouse said...

"Ann, this is my gift to you..."

Thanks. Yeah, I'd seen that.

mariner said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg


Instead of telling men they should understand that women just want them to listen, why aren't we telling women that if they don't want men to fix stuff quit whining about it not working?

Gabriel Hanna said...

@Ann:I can't believe that an American woman who is at least 35 and is interested in the dynamics of personal relationships would not have watched "Hannah and Her Sisters."

Ann, we love you, so we you know we don't mean it ugly when we point out that you're old.

A 35-year-old might have seen "The Breakfast Club" or "Heathers". A 45-year-old would have seen "Hannah and her Sisters".

JackOfVA said...

As an EE and later telecommunications lawyer, my reaction is that the obvious response would have been a return gift of of one of James Clerk Maxwell's poems, link below.

My suggestion would be the first poem in the anthology "James Clerk Maxwell's Poems," titled "A Problem in Dynamics," the first stanza of which reads:

An inextensible heavy chain
Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,
An impulsive force is applied at A,
Required the initial motion of K


The rest of anthology consists of more conventional poetry, however.

For those not of the EE or physics persuasion, Maxwell was the father of electromagnetic theory, and every EE studies the four equations he developed in the 1860's governing electric and magnetic fields. These are simply known as "Maxwell's Equations" these days.

To be more pedantic, the four equations currently taught are recast vector forms of Maxwell's original expressions in 20 quaternion equations. For more information see "On the Notation of MAXWELL’s Field Equations" at
http://www.rexresearch.com/maxwell1/20equations.pdf.

Maxwell's poetry can be found at:
http://strangebeautiful.com/other-texts/maxwell-poems.pdf

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Dear Prof. Althouse,

I can't believe that an American woman who is at least 35 and is interested in the dynamics of personal relationships would not have watched "Hannah and Her Sisters."

Believe it. Some of us don't think that being "interested in the dynamics of personal relationships" necessarily entails seeing how an incredibly thin fraction of the American public (I mean, as a demographic slice, not as to BMI) chooses to depict them.

I have not seen Hannah and Her Sisters. I have not seen most of the movies that are evidently so important to understanding the "dynamics of personal relationships." I tend to understand the "dynamics of personal relationships" by actually relating to actual people; but, failing that, I'd take books over movies. Silly me.

paul a'barge said...

Of utmost concern to all involved should be the man's Beta Male nature. This is a relationship destined eventually to explode in his face.

David-2 said...

JackOfVA -

Thanks for the link to Maxwell's poems! I would never have thought of looking for something like that.

(The "remarks submitted to the lecturer by the student", page 20, seem especially relevant to this post.)

James Clerk Maxwell - poems

eddie willers said...

I had a similar problem but in reverse.

I gave my girlfriend a copy of my favorite poem: The Second Coming by W.B. Yates.

She said, "That's not pretty at all."

The centre did not hold.

Thomas said...

Classic beta behavior from the EE.

Gabriel Hanna said...

@paul abarge: the man's Beta Male nature.

I'd like to clarify something for those that might be have the wrong impression.

Lots of people think "beta" is an insult, synonymous with "sissy" (or another word that ends in "ssy"). It is not, it is purely descriptive.

A beta is not weak, effeminate, passive, etc. A beta is not playing a game rigged against him.

A beta is playing by the wrong set of rules. He's playing by the rules that he has been told, but those are not the real rules of the game. And so the game works to his disadvantage. A beta is not a mark or a sucker, necessarily.

A beta is a man who earnestly tries to do what he has always been told was the right thing, and is baffled to see that things never work out the way they are supposed to. Often he gets taken advantage of.

Michael The Magnificent said...

paul a'barge said... Of utmost concern to all involved should be the man's Beta Male nature. This is a relationship destined eventually to explode in his face.

Indeed. She'd given him what is known as a "shit test" and he failed.

Having read the poem, I can say it's nonsense on a cracker. Trying to understand it, to understand what it means to her, and thus what it means that she took such great care to hand-write it and give it to him is a failure on his part.

Read it, thank her for it, and then change the subject.

Carl said...

His actual underlying question is Should I continue on with a girl who doesn't get me and exhibits narcissistic tendencies in her gift-giving? That's why he hedges it around with lots of but of course she's so wonderful plausible deniability bullshit.

And he's right to wonder. I mean, when I get a present for a woman, I don't get her something that helps her understand so very important me, or is my favorite this or that, so I can educate her out of her benighted poor tastes.

I get her something I know she's going to love. Hey, sugar booger, here's a Blu-ray of "Hannah And Her Sisters." I think it's a load of dated navel-gazing crap, but I realize you think it's a source of Eternal Truth like no other, so...pop this baby in the player and I'll pour you a glass of your favorite white zinfandel (blech) and take care of getting the kids into jammies and bed.

This guy understands relationships just fine. He's realizing he's got a high-maintenance woman who will need to be told every day until she's 82 what wonderful gifts she gives, and how they have done so much to make him realize how impoverished his life was without her, a dull gray field of soulless equations and op-amp circuits...

...and he's kind of wondering whether, hot as she is, this is worthwhile. Engineers like efficiency, and a lifetime soap opera usually strikes them as a stupidly inefficient way to propagate the DNA and avoid STDs.

So I agree with Althouse. Better advice to him would be to move on. I just disagree about the reasons: a senior in EE at UCLA -- we're talking six $figures before age 25 -- can do a lot better. He should give hypergamy a chance to work. Maybe try making eyes at the untenured English professors.

Smilin' Jack said...

...if you asked me to explain a single line in it with a gun to my head, I'd be a goner.

No doubt he'd have the same reaction to a Jackson Pollack painting. Engineers should stick to limericks and paintings of Elvis on black velvet.

David said...

spinal tap was a spoof
so surprising

well i too am a goof and my
fumbling
small hands
will never losen your sodden brassiere
e e also means electrical engineer
doncha know
and lightening may strike
twice maybe because its raining
and break our circuit
and if i put my fried fuse in your box

to fix things

after that
nothing
will
happen

Mark Trade said...

Yikes. Ann seems quick to use the word "coward" here, so I wonder if perhaps it was more ready in her mind after reading a paper linked from Instapundit last night questioning the existence of "manly courage" and whether cowardice is a crime of which only men can be guilty. As a professor of equal protection law, I'm sure Ann brings plenty of expertise to males and their cowardice.

Would she say that men have a "special burden" to register for the draft that women do not? Is there a basic nature to men, that they are born with more courage than women, that explains why the law has skewed in this direction? Would Ann's feelings about this engineering major's cowardice be different if he was drafted and compelled by law to defend Ann and her property? Would his girlfriend be more likely to have sex with him?

I raise these questions because that paper was in my mind as I read Ann's post. "Coward" seems to me an exclusively male epithet, like "bitch" once was, before it was applied to men about has equally as women. Maybe "coward" is more equivalent to another c-word that is used for women.

Don't think the unlikely possibility of a draft will get you out of this one! The law could exist just to "nudge" men into volunteering, and expose men who do not volunteer as unmanly in some other way else, if not cowardly.

Carl said...

Ann seems quick to use the word "coward" here.

Drat. Now I would have said, plugging the relative fraction of her indefinite articles into the Black-Scholes equation and multiplying by the square root of green, that she took an unusually long time to select that particular word.

That'll teach me to double check my math!

Birches said...

Ann, we love you, so we you know we don't mean it ugly when we point out that you're old.

A 35-year-old might have seen "The Breakfast Club" or "Heathers". A 45-year-old would have seen "Hannah and her Sisters".


Thank you. I had to google it. I asked my husband if he'd ever heard of Hannah and Her Sisters. He said no. Then I said, "oh, Woody Allen." And he said, "Oh wow. Huge generation gap."

And Carl's right. Run away while you still have the chance.

From Inwood said...

There once was a Doctor of E
Girl gave him a poem by EE
He understood it not
And said “it’s just rot”
And she replied: “fiddle dee dee”

From Inwood said...

The time I lost in wooing,
This girl I was pursuing
Gave me poetry by cummings
His words just unbecomings
She was not even worth parlez vous ing

From Inwood said...

I once met a BA Eng Lit
Whom I quickly surmised quite fit
Gave me something by cummings
Best described as mind numbings
So I knew she was full of s**t

Tim said...

Hannah and her sisters- Woody Allen = never gonna see it. As my dear departed father used to say, I haven't been to the movies since "Rear Window". Not exactly true but close. I much prefer a decent attempt at storytelling and the movies are mostly crap. I DO search out 30's- 50's movies once in awhile. The EE needs to move on and find a not needy gal. They ARE out ther.

stlcdr said...

Ann, I think this post points out that you don't know as much as you think you do. But that's OK, because learning is a part of life.

Self-emotive movies and 'poetry' isn't as poetic as it claims to be; indeed, Vogon culture springs to mind.

Carl said...

Ann, I think this post points out that you don't know as much as you think you do.

You sure? What if you don't know as much about what she thinks she knows as you think you do?

Mark said...

Ann, thank you for restoring comments! Inwood's third poem (8/15/13 10:22) is a great example of the creative, funny, and/or thoughtful comments that have made visiting your blog a delight!

rcommal said...

LMAO.

Who would ever buy into the automatic engineer-as-dysfunctional-nerd stereotype, other than a silly never-really-knew-an-engineer type or a failed and/or fake engineer?