"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Life News
When I was in high school, my old-fashioned English teacher made the class memorize Shakespeare’s sonnet No. 116, the one that begins, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” Mr. Messer went around the room and each of us had to recite in turn. When he got to me, heart pounding, hands shaking, I blurted out, “Let us not to the marriage of two minds admit impediment.”
“Two minds?” Messer interrupted. Then he laughed, because old-fashioned teachers have no problem with laughing at students, and he said, “I love it when Miss Goodman makes a mistake.”
My mistake was to prove prophetic. For my own marriage is undeniably a union of two minds. It is an intermarriage, but not in the religious sense. It is a yoking of opposites. For my husband is nocturnal and I am diurnal; he is usually late and I am always early; he is a floor spreader, and I a table piler; he is a pacer and I a sitter; he dithers, while I make snap decisions; he is a natural dancer, and I can barely follow his lead; he loves every movie he sees and I tolerate few; he reads our children “The Phantom Tollbooth” and I read them “Little House in the Big Woods”; he has an unerring sense of direction while my grasp of geography is shaky. We are all of these disparate things, and our differences go deeper. For I am a word person, a fiction writer, and my husband is a numbers person. When I say I am a fiction writer, you know what I mean. When I say that David is a numbers person, well, actually, I don’t know exactly what I mean. “He is a theoretical computer scientist,” I say when asked. “It’s a kind of math, um, you know — theory of computation. His specialties are design of algorithms, graph theory, optimization, network flow …” I trail off.
When pressed, I rise to the occasion, trying, despite my lifelong math phobia, to help you grasp my husband’s work. “He’s making graphs flow more smoothly,” I say hopefully. “He’s making everything faster.”
If you ask David what he does, he’ll give you a metaphor to describe some famous problem of theoretical computer science. “Imagine that you have some grocery bags and you have to put a certain number of items into them …” Or, “Suppose you have packages you have to drop off at all these points along a route …”
The problem is that none of his listeners get beyond the details of these word riddles to grasp what David does. I have an editor who always asks, “How’s David and his grocery bags?” I have relatives who think my husband must work for UPS.
Ask my husband what he’s working on and he’ll get a distant look in his eyes as he mentally backs up, trying to translate and simplify. In the end he’ll begin, “Well, as you recall from linear algebra …” If you’re like me and don’t recall any linear algebra, your eyes will glaze over right there.
There are couples who have conversations about their work. Couples who give each other advice, or even collaborate. At times I’ve been slightly envious of them. They enjoy an intellectual dimension in their relationship that David and I will never have. They speak the same language. That is certainly not the case with us. When David gets together with his friends he talks about “shaving logs.” I remember hearing about logs — or logarithms — in some math class from my distant past, but this talk of log shaving always sounds to me like precision work at a lumber mill. There are conversations about new results and new techniques. I feel David’s enthusiasm, but for me, the references remain obscure. “Hey, who was it who thought of that neat trick of flipping over the integral?” David will ask our dinner guests, his colleagues. “Yeah, that was really cute,” someone will respond appreciatively.
There’s no way around it: When it comes to our work, I speak English and David speaks math. When he is working hard, even his musings are in math, so that instead of humming to himself or muttering, “Where did I put that thingamabob, oh there it is …” he’ll walk around saying, “Say you have two edges and you cut them there …” In his sleep, in the throes of some problem, he’ll murmur, “Where did I put that edge, oh there if you cut it there …” On occasion he’ll wake up and announce that he’s got it — an answer, a miraculous revelation. Other days he’ll spend walking around and around the living room, then suddenly the solution will “pop out.” In that glowing moment, I am ecstatic that he has found his answer, but I have no idea how he arrived at it. To David I can be of no help along the way. I can only leave him to his long chicken-scratched equations on scraps of paper and the backs of bills. The most I can do is will him luck: “Have a great day sweetie and go for that epiphany!”
How annoying that in our marriage the woman is the literary one and the man the math whiz. How stereotypical. Even in college our roles were clear. When we were 18 and freshmen at Harvard, we had to pass something called the QRR, or quantitative reasoning requirement, which consisted of writing a computer program in BASIC for one of the little machines in the basement of the Science Center. David and I both failed the QRR the first time: He because he’d written his program in C and didn’t follow directions and I for more mundane reasons. So on a snowy, winter night I had to go back to the Science Center basement for a second attempt. I was sweating it out, typing my BASIC program, when my machine started talking back to me. I would type PUT 1 or something, and the computer would respond WHY? After struggling with this for several minutes, I looked up and saw David at the other end of the computer room laughing at me. He’d broken into and sabotaged my test. Oooh, that David Karger! It was the late 20th century version of the pigtail in the inkwell. Norman Rockwell could have painted the scene had he lived to see high-tech.
Early on I told David of my math phobia. It was hard to miss. I had all the classic symptoms of anxiety when confronted with numbers, logic problems, graphs, charts: blinking eyes and vague dizziness, followed by acute boredom, leading to a serious inability to process digits. I was careful to point out that this had nothing to do with my gender. My mother and sister were both excellent at math. I was an anomaly among the women in our family. David looked at me sympathetically. For him it must have been like meeting someone who was colorblind. Naturally he pitied me for not perceiving those luscious, numbered hues he saw everywhere he looked. He assumed I must have had poor instruction or been traumatized by the math teachers of my youth to become so fearful and confused about numbers. So David decided to teach me math the right way, from first principles. We would prove everything as we went. These lessons were lovely and philosophical and indeed quite healing. I remember telling my parents on the phone that I had a new friend who was teaching me all about sets.
“He’s teaching you about WHAT?” they hollered long distance.
“He’s teaching you about SEX?”
“About SETS,” I protested. “You know, sets of numbers, the null set …”
I did not progress much beyond these initial math lessons with David, although I’d like to claim otherwise. When we first dated in college I read him poetry, and he looked over my shoulder at the cash machine, did calculations on the back of his program at the theater, and figured out my computer password. Yet, from the beginning, although our minds were so far removed, our personalities meshed. We were both creative spirits, flaky and excitable. We were both eager to spin new ideas into the world and make our names by crafting something beautiful. I was eager to become a literary artist and, as mathematical as David was, he aspired to be an artist too. To him proofs were aesthetic objects. The black hole that math had become for me after years of painful classes and textbooks was to him bright with patterns and shining constellations, numbers infinite as stars.
But accepting mathematical ideals of beauty is not the same as understanding them, and accepting the culture that comes with David’s vocation is another challenge entirely. As I discovered soon after we got married, that culture is nocturnal. According to computer science lore, at the dawn of the computer age programmers and computer scientists had to work at night so they would have the computer time and bandwidth necessary for their projects. This is no longer called for because computers can now handle heavy traffic at all times of day. Still, the tradition remains. Great ideas in computer science, brilliant programming and brainstorming sessions are supposed to happen in the wee hours of the morning. This schedule is less than ideal for a spouse with diurnal rhythms. When it comes to raising children, it’s downright impractical, except when there’s a screaming newborn in the house at 3 a.m. Then David really shines. In terms of adjusting his schedule to fit that of our growing children, he manages to get to bed by 1 a.m. most nights, but he’s still a nocturnal creature. Getting the kids to school is just not something he can manage — except with heroic effort when I’m out of town.
Studying literature and writing fiction, I have dedicated myself to valuing and examining what it is to be human. I am interested in tone and texture and moral ambiguity — qualities that David doesn’t seem to look for in books. True, he can read my work — which is more than I can do for his. But his comments are those of an outsider looking in: “That was a fun chapter,” or “That story went really fast.” Or “Something about the tone of those pages — I don’t know — seemed kind of grumpy.”
David’s culture is about technology rather than humanity; it is futurist rather than contemplative. My novels are about character and community and the way we live now. I know that in his heart, David thinks “now” is old hat, as obsolete as the computers currently on the market. David enjoys prototypes, predictions and the prophecies of science-fiction books — of which he has a massive, dog-eared collection. As a writer of lovingly published hardback fiction, I find my husband’s library of over 1,000 mass-market sci-fi paperbacks just a little distressing. But science fiction is ingrained in David’s scientific life. David cannot part with his collection any more than he can stop watching “Babylon 5.” I’ve tried to keep the books out of sight. Call me a literary snob, I just can’t allow my Keats to share a shelf with David’s Arthur C. Clarke. When we were in graduate school, I lined the big closet under our stairs with bookcases and David kept his science fiction there, double-shelved. When friends came over they had to push the coats to one side to get in and see David’s books. I have to admit, while I hated the books, the hidden library had its appeal. We called it Narnia.
We’ll have our ninth anniversary this summer, this numbers person and I. My math phobia has persevered unabated and I continue to turn up my nose at space odysseys. I will never understand my husband’s research or get inside his mathematical mind. Still, this marriage of two minds has its advantages.
David and I will never compete with each other. We will never come home from the office and talk about the same people. Indeed our diverse fields allow us diverse friends. We cannot be completely parochial about our individual views of the world and in this we enrich each other.
I’ve learned from David. I’ve watched him pace for hours around the living room trying to solve a problem and I’ve tried to emulate his tenacity. I’ve seen his love of reasoning and the way he looks in the most unexpected corners for the answers that he seeks. I admire his creative spirit. I’ve learned about myself in the way that married people always do. I’ve come to see myself more clearly in the contrast, the juxtaposition, of my mind and my husband’s. At night my narrative imagination and his mathematical mind dream together, the voices of my fictional characters murmur along with his conjectures.
When it comes to our life’s work, David and I will never be insiders for each other, but we can be fans. And there is something particularly sweet about enjoying an effort entirely foreign to your own. It takes a longer leap of the imagination, a greater attempt at empathy, to appreciate the differences. Therein lies true romance.
Allegra Goodman is the author of two novels, "Kaaterskill Falls" and "The Family Markowitz," and the story collection "Total Immersion."More Allegra Goodman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)