Tuesday, May 24, 2016

About art

Here are some thoughts I had on art in the spring of 1988 when, a sophomore, nineteen years old and disillusioned (bored?  procrastinating?) by further adventures in algorithm development in yet another programming language (Cobol, I think it was), I switched my major to Communications (read: Undeclared) and spent a semester chasing all manner of unimportant important things like music, poetry, drawing, social... social something (I got a well-deserved D- in the class).*

Here's what I wrote about drawing, verbatim**:

Open the sketch-book and pull out a sheet.
Cut off the fringe, and line it up neat.
Put up some tape to make it stay down.
While it sits blank, I sit with a frown.

Piles in the corner wait to be art,
I'm willing to try but unable to start.
Can I make this vision something real?
Can I fill the page, can I get the feel?

"The art of drawing, the art of art,
Is more than talent, it's more than heart.
Perspective and feeling, they're all in the game.
You must first tell your story, then sign you name."

Why be lazy?  Excitement is expected.
Stab the parchment; lines are injected.
The paper cringes and takes on new shapes.
In come new lines, new lines I erase.

I jump up dancing and spin all around
Caught in a groove now, I won't slow down!
It goes on for hours, fingers and chalk,
Creating and killing- escape is a walk.

It doesn't say "Stop!", it doesn't say "When!"
My hands just say, "Don't touch it again."
So I take a step back and look at my work,
Inside I see tales, my defiant hand quirks.

I haven't looked at this poem for at least a decade.  I could have recited it word for word all the way up to the last two lines, which surprise and please me. 

I remember the walk it was referring to.  I could show you the drawing that inspired the poem.  Over here, room 211 in Virginia W. Kettering hall, is where I drew it, 2:00 in the morning, re-runs of My Favorite Martian in the background, my suite-mates asleep.  Me, a month and eight hundred miles or so from meeting Cheryl, my wife.  Trying to figure things out.

Looking back with the experience of experience, I can see how much that semester affected my life and career skills.  I like to write, even if it's merely to get the right message across to a customer or to make some observations about life and professionalism, or simply having some fun with words.  There's pride and dignity in well-written communications.  I can see now that I had found what I was searching for but didn't trust it.  But no matter; tomorrow is another day with other things to ponder, tweak, fix, and solve.  And write.

* Four! Four parenthetical asides in one sentence! A new record!
** I'd have done some things with the punctuation.  Such as remove  a bunch of it.  Extraneous.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Word Power

In my Toadrolling youth, I attended a fine secondary school- all male, catholic, jacket and tie.*

One educational tradition applied to all students at all grade levels: Monday through Thursday, in our English classes, we would add another page - five words- from Mark Hart's Word Power.**  Friday was the quiz.  After some four years of this we young men were released to the world armed with amazing vocabularies.

Or so you would think. 

I remember my bubble bursting the moment I charged into the pointy end of the vocab section in my SAT tests.  "Alright!  Let's do this!"  Holy cow, there were words I couldn't even make an educated (for that's what I believed myself to be) guess at.  No romance language roots for me; my French was worth moins que rien.  It figures that I scored much better in the math side of the SAT's. 

There's a great scene in the romantic comedy Say Anything where John Cusack's innocent, simple-but-noble character, Lloyd Dobler (who wouldn't like Lloyd Dobler?) is talking with his romantic interest, the beautiful, over-achieving class valedictorian Diane Court in her bedroom.  As Lloyd flips through a dictionary found there, Diane admits, a bit shy and embarrassed, that she used to look up and mark any word she didn't know.  The camera cuts and zooms to page after page being flipped, a good 70% of the words therein marked in pencil.

Like Lloyd, we're kind of humbled and dumbstruck.  Sure, you should look things up that you don't know.  But nobody actually does that, do they? 

There are two sides to that:

First, having the discipline to pause what we're reading and make the effort to look something up.  The second is to be reading material written by authors knowledgeable of and willing to use the right word for the moment. Is what we're reading challenging enough to make us work for it?

Thankfully, the internet and technological devices, where most of do our reading anyway, reduce the effort of research to a simple click or a tap.  Not just for words, but for any phrase.  Someone mentions fully grown tea trees*** in the jungles of the Yunnan region of China, and moments later Google Earth is winging you there, to look at them from an eagle's and a terrestrial's point of view.  The mention of an historical event in a novel has you reading about it and putting two and four together from something else you learned at some other time.  Kindles will even show you what other readers highlighted. You have permission to write in your books.  If you can't bring yourself to do that, write on a post-it and stick that into the book.  But you should write in your books.  They don't belong to the library or the school.  They're paper.  They're not worth anything.  Write in them while the thought is fresh.

How do you learn?  You seek and apply effort.  A mentor will be there should you occasionally need them. 

* Slacks, jacket, belt and tie.  But they knew we were young males, and gave us artistic freedom to wear the ugliest, grungiest, wrong-sizedest things we could find in our parents closets or at a yard sale.  This was the 80s, and the flamboyantly styled 70s were a recent memory and embrassment.  Naturally, we loved velour and paisley.  Preferably velour paisley. 
** Get it here: http://amzn.com/B00KVRJ814 
*** Darjeeling tea.  David Warren.  Here's someone whose daily writings and musings help me recover Catholicism and faith in the world (for what it is: a place, a bunch of people, mistakes and good intentions and ignorance swirling about each other and colliding more often than truly necessary; not Heaven).  Highly recommended: http://www.davidwarrenonline.com/2015/07/18/darjeeling-tea/ 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Meanwhile, with the Thousand Dollar Car...

It occurs to me that perhaps I shouldn't call her the Thousand Dollar Car because of her fully depreciated street value, but rather because that's about what she costs me per year in parts and maintenance.

When we last saw her during the arrival of the Car of the Decade, she was resting safely in the garage awaiting some healing in my back and hips.  Once I was off my operating table, I could get her on it.  Autozone was nice enough to replace her dead battery under warranty, but I was pretty sure the alternator had murdered the battery in the first place.  Eighteen years, 255k miles, and no small amount of seeping engine fluids accumulated into her guts.  Not bad.  I've known Mazdas (all of them) whose alternators lasted five or six years.  Of course, that's pretty much the only damned thing that goes wrong with Mazdas.

I had young Toadroller (Tadpole-roller?) Henry help slide the battery into its planting station in the rear wheel well, which is no simple feat.  The battery weighs an easy thirty-five pounds and has to be slotted into place vertically.  The big challenge is that the cables themselves are short and stiff and you can't really get them out of the way.  With enough ceremonial cursing of German engineers and some clever use of screwdrivers as levers, we managed to get it in.  I polished up the inside of the cable clamps for a clean contact surface and tightened them down. 

It was time to test the bad-alternator theory.  You just start the car and let it run on the good battery, testing the voltage at the battery.  If it's in the 13+ volt range, good alternator.  Less than 12.5 volts, bad alternator.  Probably.  Don't over-analyze these things. 

Of course, with the car backed into the garage, I wasn't about to sit there testing things while inhaling exhaust fumes.  A twist of the key and she sort of stumbled into life.  Huh.  I pulled her into gear and nosed her haltingly into the driveway and swung around to the far side and down to the parking corner.  She stalled along the way.  She'd covered about twenty feet.  Huh.

I had Mrs. Toadroller come out to start her again while I watched my voltmeter from the trunk.  Except Mrs. T couldn't get Ms. TDC to start.  Nor could I.  Huh.  I wouldn't expect a bad alternator to overpower a good battery.  Crap.  I hoped it wasn't something deeper, because then it would be a significant diagnostic challenge.  Who wants to start working through wiring harnesses on a fancy German sedan?  Hand-wiring my own fuel-pump relay from toggle switches on my first car, an 83 GTI, was challenging enough,* I didn't want my masters thesis in ignition wiring.  No, it's not lost on me that I didn't learn my lesson with the first car.

Time to call it a night.  I unhooked the battery to prevent unwanted drainage and locked her up.  I needed to think.  And I sure as heck didn't want to have to push or pull a two ton beast halfway across a driveway to get it back into the garage in a service position.  Shit.

"You know," I said to Mrs. Toadroller on Monday, "that thing acted like it didn't have any gas.  Which is crazy because it has half a tank in it"**

"Mmm hmm..." came the non-committal reply.  She probably heard me and processed what I was saying, but then again, the same response would apply to most of my rambling, verbalized problem-solving.  Let's just assume she both heard, understood, and knew a lack of gas to be the cause of my problem, but chose to let me find that out on my own and feel proud and clever about it.  She is wise, that Mrs. Toadroller.

Twenty-four hours later found me in need of a mental break from work. 

"You know," I said to Mrs. Toadroller on Tuesday, "that thing was at a heck of an angle getting onto that flatbed.  And then again, getting back off.  That fuel pump hates it when that happens."

"Mmm hmm..."

So out to the beauty again*** carrying my five-gallon tanks and a funnel.  With this car, you have to prime the fuel pump by filling the downspout of the tank.  It takes more than a quart.  I erred on the side of too much and added an easy eight gallons to its presumed eleven or so at half tank.  If that wasn't enough to rule out the fuel pump, then nothing would be.

I hooked up the battery again and went round to the driver's side. Crankety, crank.  Crankety, crank. Crankety, crankety, crankety, crankety, stumble, crank, stumble, stumble, varrrroooooooooom!  And there she was, running again albeit with a solid battery light.  As a car with a good battery and a bad alternator should.  I fetched the voltmeter.  12.1 volts running, 12.6 sitting.  That alternator was not only dead, it was taking others down with it.  

I backed her up the driveway and parked in an out of the way spot from which I could coast into the garage if necessary.  I'll fish out the alternator at some point in the next few days.  Just a small matter of loosening the accessory belt snaking around the engine.  Which may or may not require taking the entire front end off the car.  Again.  There's a place around here that will refurbish an alternator, which would be an interesting experiment.  Otherwise they can be found for $139 to $289 at all the car places. 

All part of the price we pay for a thousand dollar car.  Annually.

* That's a story for another time.  Suffice it to say that leaky Rabbit windshields drain into the main fusebox/relay panel under the dashboard.  Oh, you can dry a wiper relay out using the GTI's heater fans while driving 65 mph north, through the rain, on Route 3 near Chelmsford, MA.  Thank goodness Rain-X works pretty well.

** Didn't I run out of gas just this past February a mere six miles from home?  I did, didn't I!

*** She's nineteen, and a really good looking dame, that 1997 Audi A8.  Seeing her parked there all week I had many opportunities to admire her curves and lines.  A dem-fine girl, sir, dem-fine.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Early Childhood Education

"This fall, Kyrie* will be attending the University of Southern Maine focusing on Early Childhood Education."

Of course she will. 

Young Kerry,** seventeen, has likely known teachers more and better than her own parents (and vice versa).  She's spent more waking hours getting ready for, traveling to, attending, and doing homework for school than everything else in her young life combined. 

Schools have very quietly and successfully replaced churches as the central focus of our local societies.  We're so distracted by our focus on having the "best schools," ensuring our special children are in the "advanced" groups,*** doing fund raising for the Spanish Club's cultural exposure trip to On the Border (the best they could do.  It's a shame, really), with our kids attending anti-bullying rallies, endeavoring to succeed at sports, and carting them to dance, music, and math-club, that we never have enough free time to stop and consider...

That darling Kyrie**** has never had a moment of her early childhood that wasn't developed, planned or measured against a trajectory toward college.  What has she lived?  Early Childhood Education.  What does she know?  Early Childhood Education.  What will she study in college?  When pressured by society (or Aunt Joanne) for an answer, the adherents to the faith of The Church of Early Childhood Education know what to do: deliver the correct answer, pronto; rote and without thinking.  According to her catechism, that correct and immediate answer is...

Early Childhood Education.

Annie's***** life is in front of her, but her path is set.  What is life but school?  What is school but life?  She will get her degree, cum laude (whatever that means.  I think it's Italian), and promptly enter indentured servitude to her federal loan programs for twenty years.  Along the way she'll get married, lease her cars, pay her bills, laugh a little too loudly at her sitcoms, vote for the collectivist candidate, and have her own little Sidneys and Emmas to continue the cycle. 

Unless, perchance, she makes a break for it between the queso dip and her enchiladas while she's On the Border.

Es una pena, de verdad.

* Or was it Katie? Christie? 
** Kimmy?
*** Or, that not being mathematically possible for all our special children, taking perverse pride in reciting the litany of acronymic diagnoses, syndromes, and prescriptions that prevent young Cassidy from excelling like she should, "I just know it," if only she weren't "developmentally challenged by the unfairness of it all."
**** Patty?
***** Carly?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Car of the Decade

Over the last few years, as my beloved Audi A8 has had her fits and starts (stops?) and required more attention, I've taken to window-shopping for her eventual replacement, with many a vehicle passing through my curious inclination as the "Car of the Week."

Oh, I've ranged near and far, considering everything from a newer A8 to a Cadillac CTS Wagon, from an older TT Convertible (just for the sheer impractical fun of it) to a Mercedes R-wagon, from an A5 to a Toyota Venza.

You get the picture.  Weird and wonderful, that's what I like.

A recent business trip had me returning late of a rainy evening on my commute from Boston Logan International Airport, swimming north through the moat of New Hampshire which borders and protects these wooded lands of Maine, when what to my wandering eyes should appear but a new light flickering on my Christmas tree of a dashboard. 

Oh, Saint Nicholas, it's the battery!

Not good.  I've been through this before, when I ended up stranded six miles from home.  At that time, a tow to a local shop and a morning visit showed the car simply to have desired the night off, as she fired right up.  I drove her home and went on with life.  It was as if the previous night's little tiff had never happened.  We both agreed to bury the past and not bring it up again. 

Until last week.

Different conditions, same result.  Despite my shutting down all unnecessary systems like the radio, the heater, the fog lights, etc., she decided to give up half a mile from the exit I'd targeted for its convenient Marriott Residence Inn and a place to spend the night.  Two and a half hours later, I'd been towed that final mile and crawled into bed.  While waiting for the tow operator to get me, I had time and phone battery enough to go car shopping through the south Portland dealerships' respective web-sites. 

Years of Car of the Week dreaming (and a fair amount of saving) translated into decisive action as I phoned up one dealer who happened to have the most recent contenders in stock and at a reasonable price.  I asked if he could bring it on by my temporary abode for a test drive. Three hours and a bit of negotiation later, I'd checked out of the hotel, had the A8 on yet another flatbed, and pointed the long nose of my new Car of the Decade toward home.

Here she is, a 2011 Mercedes E350 4matic "Sport."  Palladium Silver with black leather, as a German car should be. 

I call her the Car of the Decade because, given my history with the A8, a decade is a reasonable assumption of ownership for me.  But who knows?  I had the A8's predecessors for about 2 years each.  One relationship ended due to mistrust; the other due to miscommunication in an intersection.

The A8?  She's in the driveway with a fresh battery in her, though in need of attention to either the battery cables or, more likely, the alternator.  The battery was officially dead-dead, but replaced by Autozone under warranty.  That hasn't solved all problems, giving me more projects to tackle once my back permits me to do some labor.  The Quintissential Quattro Thousand Dollar Car (QQ-TDC for short) will live to drive another day, and will likely continue to be my airport car most of the time, keeping the miles on the 'Merc reasonably low.  That and the eldest Toadrollerette has her driving permit.  What safer car than an over-engineered and entirely depreciated Audi for her to hone her driving skills in?