Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why the pencil?

I wrote this around October 8, 2007, and completely forgot about it, apparently.

To write is to put clues about your mind, heart, and soul on paper or similar medium, to share yourself with the present and future through the unique combination of words and handwriting.
 
The act of writing is a sensual experience; the smoothness of the pen or pencil's glide across the page and the appearance of letters that form words that form sentences can be intensely satisfying, while any scratchiness of graphite, point, or nib offends the senses.
 
Writing is a form of magic that connects our brains and hands in a way that typing cannot equal. When we type, at least part of our brain is unconsciously distracted by the mechanics of the action. "Where's the backspace key?" "How do I get an umlaut?" "How do I magnify the page view?" Using the combination of hardware and software disrupts the flow of thoughts in a way that a pencil doesn't. It may need sharpened once in a while, but we can rotate it to obtain the best point without giving it a thought.
 
There is also the question of where to write. You can take a notebook computer almost anywhere if you don't mind carrying the weight, straining to see the screen in the glare of daylight, wondering how long the battery will last, and worrying that it may rain. It's easier—and lighter—to pack a pencil, eraser, sharpener, and small notebook. (You can even find a waterproof version if you don't want to be deterred by the rain.) Whether you find your intellectual and creative inspiration at a library, cafe, park, forest glen, or beach, the pencil is always ready to channel your thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
 
Like the computer with its "Delete" key, the pencil is forgiving. A good pencil writes darkly without smudging, and a good eraser allows you to tweak your words as much as you like without making a mess. When your pencil point no longer suits you, you can sharpen it to your own personal taste.
 
Just as you can choose "skins" for your computer applications to customize their look and feel, you can choose pencils whose appearance appeals to your taste and makes a statement about you. They can be round, hexagonal, or triangular, or flat in the case of carpenter pencils. They can be thin, regular, or large, especially for children. Pencils can come in virtually any color or pattern conceivable, including natural wood. Some are adorned with cartoon characters, while others sport animal patterns—striped like snakes, spotted like leopards, or dotted with the "eyes" of a peacock's tail. Others are painted a signature color, such as Rhodia orange, while some, like the Faber-Castell Grip 2001, are metallic. There is, of course, always yellow, the established standard if you don't want to stand out in the crowd.
 
The wood, eraser, and ferrule offer you other opportunities to show off your preferences and personality. The unusual black wood of the Rhodia and Ticonderoga Noir are sure to attract attention, while the distinctive painted brass ferrule of the Mongol indicates simple elegance. Erasers can sport interesting colors as well. The Rhodia and Ticonderoga Noir feature black erasers, while the Helix Oxford and Musgrave Natural are topped with white. Of course, many art and European pencils dispense with the ferrule and eraser, an option you may prefer for its clean lines and style.
 
The Faber-Castell Grip 2001 comes with its own grip in the form of raised dots along the sides of the triangular barrel. For other pencils, you can go without a grip, or you can choose one that suits your fingers—triangular, round, edged, or ergonomic like the Stetro. Some are hard and solid, while others are a soft gel. Some grips even double as an eraser.
 
Erasers come in a variety of sizes, shapes, materials, and colors. Those designed for children (and the young at heart) tend to be playfully colored and/or patterned, for example, Papermate's Expressions line, while pink and white seem to be the standard for adults. Materials include pumice, vinyl, and plastic, among others. Practical shapes include rectangles, squares, and triangles, but there are novelty erasers that emulate everything from food to sea life. Some are designed to be collected as much as used. Yikes, a line of pencils and erasers designed in the 1990s for schoolchildren, is remembered nostalgically by young adults for their cool appearance that separated them from ordinary pencils and erasers. Some teachers even banned Yikes as a classroom distraction!

For the writer or artist, society's observers of life as it happens, nothing compares to capturing the moment with jotted notes or a quick sketch. Whether for writing or drawing, completing a crossword or sudoku puzzle, or marking up papers or carpenter's wood, the pencil is not only a useful tool, but a statement about who you are and your tastes. If you see someone on the bus working the New York Times crossword with a generic office supply store pencil, you can guess that this is a utilitarian person willing to use what comes to hand. If, however, you spot someone wielding a Palomino, Tombow, or Faber-Castell, then you've seen an individual willing to search for a quality tool of the trade, the low-tech equivalent of the best, fastest computer processor.

Jeep lovers have the "Jeep wave," given to anyone passing by in a Jeep as an acknowledgment of camaraderie and shared interest. Perhaps pencil aficionados need a nonthreatening equivalent when we see someone who takes pencils as seriously as we do. What might that be?

Dream: The pursuit

I was a child, and my parents and I had just moved, although we were now in a place that was so close that it must have been almost next door to the old one. I liked my room, which was very close, cluttered, and dark. But one day I remembered my memories and returned to the old place to find them. I had left many things behind that meant so much to me, but now I could find no way to carry them and no place to put them. I mourned these many small things that were invested only with emotional value, sobbing even as I refused to give up.

I was in an empty box car on a freight train and realized that a man was pursuing me. The only place to hide was in an open alcove. If I were fortunate, he wouldn't look into it. He passed by once without seeing me, but on the return trip he took me captive.

Something happened—I said or did something—and my captor, now a woman, pulled the pin from a hand grenade in response. I was horrified. Just then, the train separated, or she fell off it, because I could see her figure on the tracks as the train I was still on pulled rapidly away. She stood rather stupidly holding the hand grenade, neither throwing it or running away from it. I didn't want to look, but I couldn't understand why she was behaving so strangely and what was happening.

Fall asleep to wind and rain, and wake up to wind and snow

Early spring in Chicago—it makes me want to dance naked and barefoot in the grass.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dream: The abductors

Lately I have not seemed to dream much, or I have woken up remembering only some uninteresting fragment. Mostly, I wake up as though from a void. I don't like this.

This afternoon I fell asleep while reading A Short History of Nearly Everything and napped longer than I wanted to, but I slept more deeply than I do during the night. It was more refreshing than any sleep I've gotten in a while.

And I dreamed that I was visiting my father (but not my actual father), who I thought oversaw the golf course at one of our communities. There was something about him, however, that I didn't trust. He didn't seem to be much of a manager or to know anything about the job. When security employees, who should have been part of his responsibility, came by, he avoided rather than greeted them. This struck me unpleasantly, and I began to wonder who he really was.

He had parked his car in or near grass next to the road and told me we were going to hitchhike our way around the course. Before I could make him explain this strange proceeding or either of us could so much as stick out a thumb, a strange vehicle pulled up. It resembled the mobile billboards that are driven around downtown Chicago, but had a narrow flat panel suspended underneath. I think the seats were all taken by members of the driver's family, but he offered to let me squeeze into the narrow space between the two billboard sides. I refused, so my "father" said he would. I lay on the panel underneath, only too late realizing I could be thrown out of it as the vehicle rounded bends. Indeed, I nearly was at the first turn, and I was so low to the road that I feared being flayed. The driver seemed to be speeding along on what should have been a golf course road meant for leisurely driving.

He drove for such a long time that I began to wonder if I had been abducted. Finally the vehicle stopped, and I discovered that my "father" was gone, and so was the driver's family. We were alone who knows where, and then I was sure I had been set up. It was all very smooth, but I was not so afraid that I didn't think I could defend myself. I did realize that he was a sexual predator, even as I remembered that that thought had come from a video recently posted on The Onion site.

I don't know what happened after that.

I learned of a sure way to have hair removed permanently from the legs, so I had it done. (This is not something that troubles me when I'm awake.) I had been warned that the treatment might leave the fine, less visible hair behind, but it was guaranteed to remove the growing dark ones permanently.

Weeks or months later I looked at the backs of my legs, and the backs of my thighs were covered by thick white hair that was dense enough to be fur. It was very visible. I was both horrified and puzzled, as the back of the thigh typically isn't hairy, so how had a hair removal process caused white fur to grow where there had been little hair in the first place?

The idea was so vivid that when I woke up I expected to see the back of my thighs covered with white fur. I didn't look at or touch them.

The Abduction from the Seraglio

The week began badly when overnight Sunday I felt restless and unwell and woke up Monday unarguably sick. How or why cooked fresh spinach sometimes but not always seems to have that effect is a mystery. I meant to get to work around noon, but as time passed the symptoms did not. i even considered giving up my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Of course, that would have been insane, and I couldn't let JT down, so after an internal pep talk I dragged myself to Trattoria No. 10, where I'd intended to eat only a little sorbet, but was tempted by squash-filled ravioli. Good food. Bad timing.

I thought I felt better after dinner, but as the opera progressed my head started to swim, and pain set in among my various innards. I wanted to outlast it, but by the end of the second act, around 9:30 p.m., I had to leave. My sensitivity to light and the pain had overbalanced the novelty and enjoyment of a night out and the experience.

It's really unfortunate. Last January JT had taken me to my first opera, Doctor Atomic, also at Lyric, and was eager to show me something more traditional but not overwhelming (like Wagner). The Abduction from the Seraglio, with its somewhat campy, comic plot and serious overtones, seemed like a good candidate. And, despite the distraction of my sensitive eyeballs and roiling guts, I did like it—or at least the first two acts.

I had read some reviews that alluded to the political indelicacies of staging Abduction in today's climate. Most people are savvy enough to understand that Mozart wrote in a particular context at a particular time, and that both are part of western cultural history. Isn't it a sign of the success of democratic principles that we don't choose to repress knowledge and expression of the past or its unpleasantnesses? Banning Huckleberry Finn won't eliminate hundreds of years of slavery or their legacy; reading Huckleberry Finn keeps alive the idea of where we have been and how much we have changed. If we don't stage Abduction, we may as well not stage most of the Shakespeare canon, or indeed much of anything before, say, 1960. There is something to offend someone in almost everything.

So I begin near the beginning, perhaps my favorite part of the two acts I saw—a number in which a captive of the harem goes missing, and harem overseer Osmin (Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli) and his eunuchs enthusiastically stuff their pretty young charges into covered baskets as though they were annoying animate objects. It's sexist. It's slapstick. And it's funny. JT and I later agreed that this was one of our favorite scenes. In another that we both liked, the spunky English maid Blonde (soprano Aleksandra Kurzak) preferring the company of the eunuchs to that of the domineering, lust-struck Osmin, tells the would-be master what works for women like her—and it doesn't include threats or bullying demands.

There are only six characters in Abduction: Pasha Selim (David Steiger, who doesn't sing), Osmin, Belmonte (tenor Matthew Polenzani) and his Konstanze (soprano Erin Wall), and Pedrillo (tenor Steve Davislim) and his Blonde. To me, the standout character is Osmin, with Blonde a close second. Perhaps the Belmonte role is too stiff for my taste, but he and Konstanze were not that interesting to me. Part of this may be that the comic bits overshadowed the serious, and I never felt (during the first two acts) a genuine threat to the women. Perhaps that was stronger in the third, as was foreshadowed by the darkening of the set as the second act progressed. The tone throughout swung back and forth between comic cultural disconnects and the more serious theme of cultural, social, and sexual gulfs.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber tacked on two bits that didn't add anything. One is the periodic appearance of the pasha as an old man, watching his scenes as though looking back on a memory. Perhaps it was in the execution, but it was more of a distraction than an enhancement. Perhaps the idea was to make him seem sad or wistful as he looks back on what he has learned or missed. In another scene with Konstanze and Blonde, several women in burqas watch their performance. This seemed to be nothing more than a provocative non sequitur. Abduction would have been better without the additions.

As for the costumes and staging, I'm on the fence. One critic thought the costumes awful (with Osmin and the eunuchs dressed like samurai, according to him), while JT thought they were fabulous. Although perhaps not true to Mozart, I would have liked to have seen less campy, more authentic costumes. The sets weren't anything special, and the second act took place on one that JT described as like a surreal Rene Magritte painting—nearly solid, almost flat colors, with saturated green grass and blue sky. Its simplicity (and the turning of it mid-act) were almost distracting. If the idea were to evoke an artist and style, perhaps I'd have considered emulating Maxfield Parrish—exotic, erotic, and illustrative. To me, it may have suited the setting and the tone better. But perhaps I'm being too literal.

The singing performances were good if not notable (which is possibly a function of the opera). I felt that the orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, overwhelmed the singers in a few places, but JT, who had seen a dress rehearsal a while ago, didn't notice that. As for Mozart's composition, in my condition it was difficult enough to focus on the characters, plot, and translation (especially since I had to close my eyes several times against what to me was painful brightness), but I didn't note his "too many notes" embellishments, although I'm told they were there. Subconsciously, I did keep an ear out for eastern influences, but didn't hear them. JT said there were some but that they were not of the traditional style I may have been expecting. It was a different time.

Am I a convert to opera now? Hard to say. Doctor Atomic, which was modern, arrhythmic and unmelodious, brooding, and laced with dark humor, embraced enormous themes of life, love, and mass destruction, while The Abduction from the Seraglio seemed almost frivolous in contrast. I need to see more, I suppose.

If I do go again—no spinach, please.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2003. 608 pages.

As the Founding Father who spent most of the American Revolution in France, Benjamin Franklin often seems more caricature than patriot in today's American imagination. In children's cartoons, he's portrayed as an eccentric old man flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Adults think of him as a lusty old man charming the ladies of Paris. In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson attempts to flesh out a man who defies description—a printer turned writer turned postmaster turned inventor turned Enlightenment scientist turned patriot turned diplomat. Franklin, a man of the "middling class," did as much to establish the American dream as to define American democracy.

If Thomas Jefferson bequeathed us with lofty philosophical prose, Franklin left us with his streamlined homilies and plans for personal improvement. Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey would have felt at home with the practical and prudent Franklin, who, naturally did not always live up to his own standards. At times Franklin's business practices seemed questionable, his friendship with men many but shallow, and his marriage breezily detached. Strangest of all was his relationship with his son, William, who was firmly ensconced on the British side of the conflict. Each time William reached out to his father, the normally conciliatory Franklin rebuffed him, his loyalty to colonies and cause stronger than bonds of blood. Conscious of his place in history and eager to shape the future's opinion of him, Franklin intentionally distanced himself from William—yet positioned his autobiography as a letter to his son.

For the most part, the discoveries and inventions that established Franklin among his Enlightenment peers came in the prime of middle age, after his retirement from business. His accomplishments raised him in society, especially in France, above his middle-class roots. Compared to his fellow Founders, Franklin was well traveled and well connected. With his extroverted personality, pragmatic approach, and cachet as a scientist, Franklin was the natural choice to represent the rebellious colonies and to woo allies to their cause.

Franklin spent most of the war in France and did not have much face-to-face interaction with his fellow rebel leaders except those sent to Paris to assist him or to keep an eye on him. Isaacson cites numerous passages from his correspondence, describes his rocky relationship with the somewhat dubious John Paul Jones, and recounts highlights from his friendships with luminaries such as David Hume, Joseph Banks, Beaumarchais, Voltaire, and the duc de la Rouchefoucauld, yet Franklin and Franklin, both man and biography, seem distant from the action. As Isaacson notes, however, he was "instrumental in shaping the three great documents of the war: the Declaration of Independence, the alliance with France, and the treaty with England." Indeed, one of Franklin's small edits to the Declaration altered its tone; Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be sacred" became Franklin's "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

Benjamin Franklin illuminates much of what is fascinating about the birth of American-style democracy; a unique combination of personalities, backgrounds, beliefs, and temperaments came together to define and strive for freedom, with no consensus on what that meant. Washington brought natural leadership; Jefferson, an understanding of and appreciation for Enlightenment philosophy; Sam and John Adams, passion and fire; and Franklin the practical sensibilities of the middle class blended with worldly knowledge. They did not always get along (John Adams: "That I have no friendship for Franklin I avow. That I am incapable of having any with a man of his moral sentiments I avow.") Contrary to current popular belief, they did not agree on democracy. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts declared, "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy," while Roger Sherman of Connecticut said the people "should have as little to do as may be possible about government." Franklin, according to Isaacson, "favored direct elections, trusted the average citizen, and resisted anything resembling elitism." His constitution for Pennsylvania "was the most democratic of the new states'." Years after Franklin's death, John Adams "even cast Franklin's lack of religious commitment, which he had once derided as verging on atheism, in a more favorable light: 'All sects considered him, and I believe justly, a friend to unlimited toleration.'"

Franklin, the middle-class espouser of middle-class virtues like prudence, frugality, and temperance, used his gifts to rise above his station, but didn't lose sight of it. When today's pundits talk about the intentions of the Founding Fathers (as though they were agreed on anything) and try to force an uncomfortable marriage between capitalist greed and religion, they might consider the real Benjamin Franklin, not the caricature: A self-made man who moved with ease among the ranks of the noble and the wealthy but never joined them and who believed in every man's right to practice his own religion in his own way.

Sunday, 15 March 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Diane L. Schirf.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

March miscellany

For the past few weeks, I've been too busy, too tired, or too lazy to keep up. It's true that time is relative, and the less you have remaining the faster it passes. To me, time seems to be approaching the speed of light—or, more precisely, free time.

I spent several hours writing a review of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson, then realized that I didn't like my approach or what I had written. This weekend I went back to the drawing (or writing) board and started a new version.

I've read about two-thirds of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and about half of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Both make me wish I had more time for reading. It's turning into a stolen pleasure.

The past weekend J. and I attended the annual Puppet Bike party. Friday's crowd, drawn by one of the bands, was a bit rowdy, but Saturday attracted more typical puppet people. Unfortunately, we had to leave at 11 o'clock because the life of a developer revolves around deployments, which invariably are timed inconveniently. If you want to enjoy life: (1) don't become a developer or (2) rise through the ranks like wildfire so you can schedule deployments at odd hours for other people while you take your ease elsewhere. It's unfortunate because neither of us has seen much of the puppets since they took their show to Andersonville. I did note on the map at the Peter Jones Gallery that the puppets would be welcomed in Hyde Park, at least by me.

Worn out and broke, this weekend we ate at Bonjour and watched competing entertainment—The Weakest Link on TV and Hodge in person trying to outsmart the Panic Mouse (see video). The poor economy has returned many of us to a life of simple pleasures—which is what mine has mostly been anyway.

Not long after I had returned from my Sunday morning trip to Bonjour, I noticed emergency accumulating at the Shoreland, followed by an evacuation of the resident students. At about the same time, a thick fog rolled in, so I could see little but a few of the brighter lights flashing. The Chicago Breaking News site was worthless, and, as I told S., the whole thing made me unaccountably nervous and tense. No one was hurt, however, and I was able to get q quick nap in only after I learned 50 minutes later, just as the vehicles started to leave and, coincidentally, the fog to break up, that there had been raised levels of carbon monoxide in the basement. I didn't make it back to Bonjour, and I didn't finish the Benjamin Franklin review. Increasingly, I let my nerves get the better of me—a trait I may have picked up from my mother. And there is much to be nervous about these days.

For months I've been saying to myself that I need to back up my e-mail to my older computer, a 2001 Titanium PowerBook G4. On Sunday night I finally got around to it. I plugged the TiBook in and turned it on—and nothing happened. I played with a different power cord and with having the battery in and out—same results. The next evening at the Apple Store my Genius had no better luck and apologized for being full of bad news: (1) she couldn't find a spare battery to test, (2) she couldn't diagnose the problem, and (3) even if she could, they no longer carry the parts with which to fix a hardware problem on such an old computer (at my age, my body is in a similar predicament—beyond repair). She offered to wipe the hard drive or, alternatively, I could take it out ("It's really easy"), put it in a case, and connect it to a computer via USB cable as a second or backup hard drive. I could also follow the excellent recommendations from my fellow McEditors and have it looked at by a repair place that carries older parts. I may go that route, if I ever get the energy.

The news on Monday was not all bad, depending on my perspective. At noon I took my paperwork to H&R Block ("I got people") and, after an hour or so, learned that I have more than $2,000 in refunds coming. While it's good to have a chunk of change returned to me, on the flip side the reason for it is the loss on my investments. I'd rather have all that money back, if out of reach, and owe a bit. If wishes were horses, however, we'd all have a ride.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dream: Smelly clothes and walking bus

I found myself in a large dormitory room for three and suspected that at least one of the other two beds was HB's, my former roommate. The third may have been her sister's. It was a warm, inviting room, but there were no desks. I became nostalgic for our desks, institutional as they were, and the arrangements for them that we came up with.

While unpacking my suitcase, I was distraught to find that the only clothes I had were the ones I was wearing and a nightshirt. I had brought bric-a-brac, but nothing to wear. At first I hoped no one would notice as it came to me that I was there for only three days, but in the end I announced my problem and apologized for the way I would look and smell after a day or so. Strangely, I don't seem to have seen or spoken with anyone, as though I knew all of this was only in my head.

I started to arrange the things I had brought, but became confused because there were already a lot of knickknacks around, and I lost track of which were mine and which had been sitting out already. One piece that caught my eye that I thought and hoped was mine was a very thin slice of highly polished or treated wood, the cross section of a tiny tree trunk or a branch. It was an amazing, magical piece.

I was on a bus that came to a river. To my horror, the bus kept going as though the driver meant to ford it. I calmed down, thinking that perhaps the river was extremely shallow, and I worried more about being swept away than sinking. The wheels did start sinking into the water, and I was sure I had come to my end. Suddenly and rapidly the bus unfolded stilt-like legs and walked across, its belly above the water. I was stunned.

Poem: Frozen in time

Have you noticed
that her face never moves?
Were she 2,000,
she would be a statue.
Were she 500,
she would be a painting.
Were she 50,
she would be a photo.
Were she alive,
she'd be dead.