Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thing Presence

Zestful Blog Post #234

The typewriter in the accompanying photograph is a 1926 Underwood 4, so called because the keys are arranged in four rows instead of three, which had been more common for typewriters manufactured in earlier decades. My friend Jay Williams, about whom I’ve written in this blog before, sent it to me as a gift last spring. He’s a typewriter buff, and spends some of his time restoring old machines. He restored this one before sending it to me. In spite of that, it certainly does still show its age and experience. He and I have talked about old things being time machines. Environments can be time machines too. When Jay talks about climbing a stone bell tower at his church to participate in change-ringing, he describes the worn, smooth stone steps and the cool roughness of the stone walls and the sound that one’s footsteps make and he feels that that’s the closest he can get to real time travel.

When he sent me this machine, I called to thank him, and we speculated on the machine’s history, and what it might’ve been like to be with this machine in its early days. This Underwood is a heavy-duty business machine, and they were costly, so this one most likely was used in an office, perhaps a newspaper office. Because Jay is blind, we talked about the sounds and smells and feels of when this machine was new: The newspaper office almost certainly would have had more than one machine, and more than one machine going at a time. These typewriters are wonderfully loud and authoritative, entirely mechanical marvels. This one’s frame is cast iron. In that newspaper office there might have been perfume to smell, cigars and cigarettes, their smoke and their butts and their ashes, there would have been the smell of ink and paper, the squeak of chairs moving back and forth, perhaps rolling on casters, the sound of the boss’s voice, the copyboys’ voices, the reporters’ voices, telephones ringing, telephones being answered, the scratch of pencil on paper as a phone number and address and perhaps a name and other things were written down.

It might have been summer, the windows open, the blinds catching a little on the windowframes in the breeze, the sound of engines and rubber tires outside, perhaps the aroma of manure as well, if horses were still pulling wagons. Footsteps, voices. The sidewalks would be possibly concrete, the streets might still be cobbled, the floor in the newsroom would perhaps be of heavy linoleum that was swept every night by the janitor and polished once a week.


Steampunk? You bet.

Having something in the house that is this big and heavy (about 30 pounds) and old, and so well worn—it has its own presence. It’s a much stronger presence than most things we have in our house, frankly. Why is that? Maybe because every part of this machine is authentic. It was designed to do exactly what it was supposed to do, without extraneous styling. The only decoration on it is the manufacturer’s name. In the photograph you can see the sideways-mounted bell. You can also see the new drawband Jay installed on the mainspring. All the pieces still work, all the parts still do their job. There is a tabulation function. There is a lever to select which half of the ribbon you want to use, the upper half or the lower half. (Many typewriter ribbons were made with the top half being black and the bottom half being red or vice versa.) There is a lever to select the stencil function, which disengages the ribbon, while the carriage moves normally. There is a shift key for uppercase letters, and there is a shift lock key. There are margin controls and numbers and special characters besides the alphabet.

There is a gravitas to this machine, is what I’m trying to say, and the other thing I’m trying to say is that many things have a greater presence then we might give them credit for. So much of our world is digital, and so very fast, that spending time with objects on a personal level can be enriching. You know? Something that was designed and made for function and efficiency is to be honored, isn’t it?

I say, surround yourself first with empty space, then add things to it that are well-designed, sincere, and useful or beautiful or both.

I’ll be performing Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” on this machine on October 29, 2017 with the South Shore Symphony Orchestra in Sun City Center, Florida. With luck the performance will go well and I’ll want to share the video. After that's safely over, I'll install the new ribbon Jay sent with the machine and do some writing on it.

What do you have that is somehow more than the sum of its parts? Something that offers genuine experience when you interact with it? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

5 Shocking Things I Learned at This Conference

Zestful Blog Post #233

If you’re a faithful reader, you know me, and you already get that this title is to prove a point. But I will share information I found interesting. Shocking? Maybe.

So OK, I’m a member of an organization called Novelists Inc., which is predominantly made up of independently published authors. The annual conference was last weekend in St. Pete Beach, Florida. I saved money by commuting in every day, but it would have been fun to hang out in the bars with presenters and other writers every night. I attended a bunch of sessions and met up with some serious authors, as well as big shots in the publishing business, notably executives from Amazon and other high-profile companies.

Here are five highlights:
1)     Annual book sales are second only to television—which I guess means subscription television—and higher than games, music, and movies put together. I regret not having copied down the actual figures, but I was too busy absorbing the impact, being legitimately and seriously shocked by how much money there is in book sales, especially as compared with other media.
2)     Marketing isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Well, that’s the impression I got from some of the sessions, but the message really is that authors must do marketing and promo, no matter who they are, or risk oblivion. If your marketing initiatives fail, it’s because your product blows. So learn to write well before learning to market well.
3)     Almost no one these days understands geometry. I run into this all the time, especially with writers, who brag about being mathematically illiterate. In God’s name, it’s not that hard. More than one presenter kept talking about one-dimensional characters or one-dimensional this or that. Does no one remember Descartes? Does no one cherish his memory? He gifted us with the concept of dimensionality. A point in space has zero dimension, a line has one dimension, a plane has two dimensions, and a solid has three dimensions. A solid moving through space represents what we sometimes call the fourth dimension, or time. To call a character, for instance, one-dimensional is to call it linear. This is not what you mean. You are trying to say the character is flat. A flat character is a two-dimensional character. A picture is two-dimensional; it is flat. Something three-dimensional would leap off the page, wouldn’t it? When we wish to say a character or scene or anything else is dull or flat or undeveloped, let us please say it is two-dimensional. Thank you very much for sticking with me through this pet peeve.


[This commanding swan was once a gray, uncoordinated cygnet. But it was always a swan. See #6.]
  
4)     Romance, chick lit, and traditional mystery writers do well keeping profanity and explicit sex out of their material. One of them said she hears from moms who tell her, “I don’t have to turn off the audio of your book in the car when I pick up the kids.” Meanwhile, I was surprised to hear a couple of authors of young adult material tell me they put in plenty of profanity and vulgarisms, and even (well protected) sex, and of course the kids love this. It’s just their parents and teachers who sometimes have a problem with it. Yet the kids are the final audience, and they’re supported by adults who perceive the value of good writing, and writing that speaks to young people with good messages.
5)     Top-earning professional writers get that way by being efficient, tracking their time, meeting deadlines, and spending money when appropriate—that is, gathering collaborators such as cover artists, editors, and publicists, and buying advertising and spending money on promotion while keeping a close eye on return on investment.
6)     Oh, and one last thing. So OK, that’s 6 things; sue me. A catchy blog post title can earn you a click, but if you don’t deliver what the clicker expects, you might be sorry. Bottom line, you have to be yourself, not a cheap huckster. Is this obvious? Of course, but there are so many voices out there yelling “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” that sometimes a quiet, sincere person begins to doubt themselves. Don’t doubt yourself. You have friends right here.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Make the Blunder You Love, Love the Blunder You Make

Zestful Blog Post #232

I’m always fascinated by the idea of deliberate imperfection. Most recently, I was touring Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. This was a few months ago. The tour guide directed our attention to the mosaic tile floor of the rotunda in one of the main buildings. The college was built by Henry Flagler, and industrialist who endowed the school and fostered many building projects, both charitable and otherwise, in St. Augustine. The guide told us that Flagler, a religious man in the Christian tradition, ascribed to the same belief that Islamic artists do: only God is perfect, and it is folly for humans to try to imitate God. Thus, if you build in a mistake or two into your project, you won’t displease God; you’ll be OK.

Thus the photograph below, showing a seeming mistake in the tile work of this elaborate and beautiful rotunda. As an artist, this idea should be comforting, and I find it so. Us writers tend to seek perfection, and worse, expect perfection in our work, and that often holds us back from being productive, and it holds our work back from seeing the light of day. It can even hold our work back from being the best it can be: free-flowing, honest, spirited.


[It's in the checkers.] 

I know I’ve touched on this topic before, but mostly I’ve written about the fact that we should accept imperfection in ourselves and in our work. I hadn’t thought about inserting deliberate imperfection, just to be on the safe side. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea, and the more, as a creative person, I find it freeing.

I do remember receiving some criticism on one of my early books, where the reader or reviewer said it would be better if I didn’t tie up every loose end. Readers are OK with a little ambiguity. It just occurs to me now that ambiguity is part of the human condition. Perfection is not.

This is all a little metaphysical, but I guess I’m in that kind of mood today. It’s so easy for writers and artists to lose touch with that inner core that feels and knows so much. It’s too easy for us to close off that core in order to get business done—in order to handle all the things we have to handle in life. Now here’s something funny and imperfect: I’m dictating this post using a headset microphone and my Dragon software, and I’m sitting next to my office window. The wind is blowing very hard outside; it’s whistling across the window frame and I suppose a little air is whistling right on in. When I pause my voice, Dragon hears the wind and types the word will. Will will will. I’ll leave those mistaken words in. I like the word will, and I like the word yes, and God knows what I’ll write next, but you can bet it will be imperfect.

Thank you for being my friend.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Crying is Beside the Point

Zestful Blog Post #231

Not long ago I watched a video of a young boy in a martial arts class trying to break a board. The instructor was on one knee, holding the piece of wood in his hands, and he was coaching the boy. The rest of the class, all boys around age eight or nine, I guess, were sitting cross-legged in a row, watching. Another instructor stood by.

The boy, as he’d been taught, lunged forward, yelled, and struck the board with his fist. It might be accurate to say he struck at the board. It didn’t break.

You pulled that one, the teachers said. Do it again. The boy did. The board didn’t break. The class was riveted in silence.

You pulled that one too, said the teacher. The boy tried again, and the board didn’t break.

Why are you crying? asked the teacher. The boy could not articulate why. He was, of course, embarrassed, afraid, and frustrated. Why are you crying? the teacher asked again.

At last the boy said, it’s hard.

Yes. The teachers were compassionate in that wonderful simple way some men have, and told the transfixed class that it’s all right to cry. You could see in all the other kids’ faces that they knew they could be the guy up there, the one failing to break the board, the one crying. The teachers didn’t comfort the boy. They didn’t explain anything to the class. It’s all right to cry. If they had told the boy to stop crying, then crying would have become the focus. Crying is beside the point.

To pull a punch is to take away the effort at the last instant. In crooked boxing matches, a fighter throws a punch only to take the force off of it just before it lands, so it looks like he punched this opponent, only he didn’t really hurt him. To metaphorically pull a punch is to hold back from saying something or doing something completely, honestly. It’s related to chickening out.

The instructors encouraged the boy to do it again. Notice they didn’t say try it again. Do it again. This was the most important element of this little video clip, to me.


It dawned on the boy that he was not going to be permitted to sit down until he broke the board. There was no way out except to succeed. He set himself, lunged forward, yelled, and broke the board.

He had committed. He made a literal breakthrough, and I don’t imagine he’ll ever forget the first time he broke a board. He had wanted it to be easier. It was as easy and as difficult as it was.

Commitment, as we see, as we know deep down, takes courage. Wise achievers learn this for themselves, over and over. The moment the boy mustered his courage to commit to breaking the board, he committed, he executed, and he succeeded. There’s belief in there, too, isn’t there? If you doubt the board will break, it won’t.

As it is with our work, every day. Courage. Don’t think you don’t need it. Call upon your supply of it. How do you replenish your supply of courage? What an idea. Let’s think about that, let’s talk about that. It’s all right to cry.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Precision from the Heart

Zestful Blog Post #230

One of my dearest friends had trouble with language. She couldn’t pronounce ‘hierarchy’ properly; the best she could do was ‘hyarchy.’ The word ‘weaponry’ became ‘weapondry.’ There was something about the mid-word ‘r’ sound. She would occasionally use words she’d picked up without being entirely clear on their meanings. She wanted to be thought of as a literate person. And therein lay danger.

One night she invited all of her top friends to a party at her house. I got there in the middle of the evening, grabbed a glass of wine, and went to find my hostess. She was standing with a circle of half a dozen friends, talking. When she saw me come up, she smiled and opened her arms and said—loudly, clearly: “Everybody, this is Elizabeth!” And then, in a very serious, approving tone, “Elizabeth is a pseudo-intellectual!

I stood there silently, as did the crowd. Then I realized that, very possibly, my friend did not understand the term. I murmured, “You just called me a phony.”

“Oh! That’s not what I meant at all!”

“The prefix pseudo means fake.”

“Oh! Everybody, that’s not what I meant! Elizabeth is very smart! She writes for the paper! I’m sorry, hon.”

“That’s all right.” And it was, because I loved my friend, and everybody understood.

However, it does bug me when somebody uses a word in an attempt to be linguistically impressive, especially in print. Not long ago, I read an essay in a magazine about a distinguished, prizewinning novelist. The writer of the piece referred to the author as “prosaic.” Instantly, I knew the writer meant “prolific.” But the writer probably thought about “prose,” and figured, vaguely, yeah, a lot of prose. Prosaic. Yeah, put that in.

This kind of mistake, passed over, I must painfully emphasize, not only by the writer but by the editor of the magazine, and possibly a copy editor and proofreader, in a literary magazine, makes me sigh deeply. It does not make me want to set my hair on fire or throw a hatchet through a window, but it does make me sigh deeply.

Prosaic means commonplace; literally like prose, with the implication that there is no poetry or artistry there. “My wardrobe is pretty prosaic: just jeans and polo shirts.” To be prolific is to be abundantly productive. “He’s prolific, having written ten books in five years.”

Another error I’ve noticed from time to time is the use of ‘ascetic’ for ‘aesthetic.’ They are different words. Ascetic, pronounced ass-HEH-tic, means to practice severe (usually religious) self-denial. Aesthetic, pronounced ass-THET-ic, means having to do with beauty, or the appreciation of it. “The aesthetics of the building will be important, as it will be situated on a promontory for all to see.”


Now you understand. One more for today: the increasing practice of using ‘discomforting’ to mean ‘disconcerting.’ The word that’s mixing them up is ‘discomfiting,’ which they’ve heard somewhere, and they want to use it, but at the last second they bail out to ‘discomforting,’ because they’re not really sure about ‘discomfiting,’ and ‘disconcerting’ is entirely beyond them.

To be discomfited is to feel uneasy or embarrassed.

To be disconcerted is to feel more deeply uneasy; disturbed.

To be discomforted is when somebody steals your pillow.

I am, as always, yours in the love of precision.

What do you think? Any linguistic lapses bugging you today? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [amazing sketch by ES]

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricane Thanklist

Zestful Blog Post #229

Today I’m thankful for:
The National Hurricane Center.
Mike’s Weather Page / spaghettimodels.com.
Tropicaltidbits.com.
Neighbors John and Fred.
Local pals Marj and Mark and Rick and many others.
My 22-year-old Lexus 400LS.
My mechanic.
My sister, whose diamond/platinum/uranium status in a hotel chain’s system secured me a room in a safe place at the eleventh hour. Actually, it was the fourteenth hour.
My brother.
All other family units.
Almonds.
The Manatee County Emergency Alert System.
Waze.
GasBuddy.
McDonald’s.
Two angry rednecks in a patched-together maroon Chevrolet Lumina who were trying to force me off the road but chose not to at the last second perhaps because I smiled incredulously.
Other rednecks who were even nicer.
Hilton Garden Inn, Pensacola.
Publix liquor store, Pensacola.
Dunkin Donuts, Pensacola.
A waiter named Chuck.
24 linemen and their trucks from Oklahoma, en route to the staging area in Lakeland, ma’am.


This particular line-repair convoy, snapped while driving back home, was from Alabama.

New paperback edition of The Sun Also Rises, supplemented with early drafts and deleted chapters.
The Microsoft electronics company.
Florida Power and Light.
The Frito-Lay snack company.
The Samsung electronics company.
Weather satellites and all the shit they do up there.
Google.
Adidas.
L.L.Bean.
Socks in general.
Portable soft-sided cooler technology.
The Florida state highway system.
The U.S. Interstate highway system.
Workers who clean and maintain interstate rest stops.
Katy & Steve.
Ann & Margaret.
Other good friendships too many to count accurately. But my gratitude may be measured by the metric ton.
Spiral-bound notebook technology.
Graphite and those who mine it.
Double-walled paper cup technology.
Costco gas, Tallahassee.
The Florida State Building Code of 1980.
Rachmaninoff.
Poulenc.
Anonymous Four.
The Shaggs.
Marcia.

Do you have a Hurricane Irma Thanklist? What’s on it? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Beautiful Challenge of Detachment

Zestful Blog Post #228

Living in Florida gives you lots of opportunities to learn to live with ambiguity. The storm may come and kill you. If it doesn’t kill you because your shelter was adequate or you got the hell out of the way, it may destroy your dwelling, all of your stuff, your neighbors’ dwellings and stuff, and maybe even the whole town.

Or it may not.

It could veer away in a little gust and leave you with a few palm fronds in your yard to clean up. Such it is with so many things. It could go wrong. It could go right. One must watch, wait, make decisions, and act.


[Graffiti in the bathroom stall at John King Books, Detroit, 2016. I think I used this photo once before. Wouldn't it make a good tattoo?]


Detachment is a powerful ally. We can’t take any of those cool possessions along in the end, anyway. Well, then! What if we detach now? We find ourselves with everything else, which is to say, everything: love, honesty, and freedom. It's a beautiful world.

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