Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive

I came late to the party (Paul Harding's TINKERS won the Pulitzer in 2010), but that's the way bookstore serendipity goes:

You're skimming the shelving carts -- at Moe's Books in Berkeley, for example -- and a skinny little white-spined book catches your eye, who knows how or why. You pick it up, and it has one of those gold "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" seals on the simple white cover. A tiny figure stands alone in a snowscape printed in blues and greys across the bottom quarter of the paperback. Marilynne Robinson contributed a front-cover blurb pullout and a back-cover blurb.  (You deduce from the back-cover bio that Robinson first taught and then taught alongside the author at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.) The first sentence of the novel hooks you, and the second sentence sets the hook, then the rest of the paragraph that fills the first page reels you in with its clean, spare specificity:
George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster. The panes in the windows, once snugly pointed and glazed, stood loose in their sashes. The next stiff breeze would topple them all and they would flop onto the heads of his family, who sat on the couch and the love seat and the kitchen chairs his wife had brought in to accommodate everyone. The torrent of panes would drive everyone from the room, his grandchildren in from Kansas and Atlanta and Seattle, his sister in from Florida, and he would be marooned on his bed in a moat of shattered glass. Pollen and sparrows, rain and the intrepid squirrels he had spent half of his life keeping out of the bird feeders would breach the house.

I bought the novel in June, and read it twice through in five weeks.

TINKERS is about a man, a dying old man, whose last days are spent inhabiting, as in a fantastically vivid dream, the life and mind of his odd, eccentric, impoverished, epileptic father, whose life forked away from his own when George Washington Crosby was an eleven year old boy, or perhaps just twelve.

It's also about how clocks work, because fixing old clocks is what George did for the last thirty years of his life, after retiring from a teaching job. It's about building bird nests, in imitation of birds' techniques, with false beaks cut from tinkers' tin tied onto one's fingertips. It's about winters in New England. It's about George's father Howard selling bits and pieces of manufactured goods out of a cart fitted with wooden drawers with a brass pull-ring on each, a cart pulled by a mule named Prince Edward down "dirt tracks that ran into the deep woods to hidden clearing where a log cabin sat among sawdust and tree stumps..." It's about what epilepsy feels like from inside.

Why did this short, quiet novel, its author's first, shoulder its way to the front of my reading queue? And demand a second read so soon after the first?

I was wide open to it, I know that now, having read it: my own father passed in late November of last year. His brother, the last of his siblings, died in June. I've been anticipating the wedding of a dear cousin, granddaughter of my father's late sister, who was married this past weekend. A relative whose precise connection -- through my paternal grandfather -- isn't fully clear yet had recently been in touch from Barcelona, where she was traveling, all afire with the dim inference we share that some five centuries ago our family was shown the Spanish border after working for generations prior to the expulsion of 1492 as farm foremen (an occupation called "Masover" in Catalan, pronounced maj-o-vay, or something close to that).

All of which is to say: I've had family, generations, and the occasions of families' lives, on my mind.

So a novel treating a son seeking his long-lost father -- known only through dim memories, old diaries, the deductions made from what a son finds in his own body, heart, and mind, deeply structural artifacts that can only have lodged in him as bequeathed character -- well, a story like that had no choice but to lure me in. How do we know our fathers? Through what narrow slices of their lives do we learn of them? What do we discover about our fathers when we come around to understanding ourselves?

TINKERS is one of those novels that is less about plot and more about revelation of character through incident. Intricately interweaving glimpses of his father's life that may be imagined or inferred or drawn from the deepest well of himself, and memories of his own life, both the years lived with his father and over the many decades of their separation, Harding's George Washington Crosby opens a view, vertiginously deep, of what it means to find, and have, and lose a seemingly-autonomous identity (but, in Harding's vision, only seemingly).

It's a Pulitzer Prize winner that's well worth reading, however belatedly. It's worth reading twice. Thanks, Moe, gone but certainly not forgotten;  and thanks to every other intrepid, independent bookstore owner ... for keeping bookstore serendipity alive.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Ursula Le Guin visits UC Berkeley
The lives of books

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for the photo of The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, taken during our recent visit.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Consider the ratchet spring of a retractable ballpoint pen

It started in high school, this incredulous wonder I feel every time the ink runs dry in one of my retractable ball point pens.

How often is that, you ask, in this Age of the Touchscreen? Often enough, I answer. I still keep a journal: sometimes for journalish scribbling, oftentimes for brainstorming my way into whatever bit of fiction on which I happen to be focused. I write in my journal with retractable ball point pens.

I favor the Zebra F-402 these days, and have for several years. Black ink. 0.7 mm fine point.

For a while I had a fetish for a pen I got as a gift from family friends in Japan. Boy, was that a problem. Not the pen. I loved the pen. I didn't want to write anything in any way significant with any other instrument. But. I couldn't find refills to save my life. I had to ration my use of the thing. Naturally, therefore, when my late father and his wife traveled to Tokyo I gave them the relevant info and begged them to search for refills there. Family legend, of the How I Spent My Overseas Vacation variety, was born:  repeated tellings of how a different, bewildered family friend drove the two of them across town in Tokyo traffic to some Costco-sized office supply store, in order to buy a half-dozen pen refills for yours truly.

I weaned myself from that fetish-pen with the Zebra F-402, which is considerably easier to refurbish, replicate, and replace. Local stores here in Berkeley carry them. You can buy the Zebra F-402 by the dozen on Amazon. Refills too.

But that's not what I meant to write about. What I mean to write about was ratchet springs. There are ratchet springs in a Zebra F-402, in that Japanese pen for which my father and his wife played refill courier, and in pretty much any other retractable ball point.

What's a ratchet spring, you ask? From eHow's How a Retractable Ballpoint Pen Works, by Thomas McNish:
On the inside of the pen, there are a couple springs that allow the pen to retract. The first spring (ratchet spring) is located inside the bottom half of the barrel (where the tip comes out). The reservoir is put through this spring before it's put through the open end of the barrel. On the other side of the reservoir, there's a spring that's located inside the upper half of the barrel. This spring (the button spring) is connected to a screw and a clip, which are then connected to the button at the end of the pen. When you press this button, it presses down on the button spring, which then forces the reservoir out through the pen. A locking mechanism consisting of tiny pits and teeth interlock with each other to keep the reservoir out of the pen when it's needed for writing, and when it's retracted back into the barrel, they unlock and the reservoir is sprung back inside by the ratchet spring.
A ratchet spring, then, is the spring that comes speared onto the business end of just about every retractable ballpoint pen refill for sale in the United States of 'Merica. When the ink reservoir goes dry, you need only replace it with a refill, discarding the empty innards of the pen. Including the ratchet spring.

This ritual filled and fills me with incredulous wonder and no little dismay each time I perform it (as I did last week, matter of fact, when my Zebra F-402 ran dry in mid-journal-entry). What in this ritual, particularly, filled and fills me with incredulous wonder? Why, the marvel of engineering that is the spiral of springy steel known as a ratchet spring, natch ... a marvel I am, as a compliant consumer of consumer products in these United States of 'Merica, meant to pack off to the local landfill without a second thought.

To landfill?

That's wrong. That is gravely wrong. And I have known in my heart of hearts that it is wrong for the better part of four decades, since I was a wee lad: hormonal, yes, but morally certain. Hence the collection (partial) of ratchet springs pictured above, springs I've harvested over the years from empty ink reservoirs of retractable ballpoint pens.

I can't bear to throw the things away, see. Not that I have any clear idea how to reuse these wiry marvels of engineering. I'm not a hoarder. Really, I'm not. But ...

Imagine yourself living in the forest, wearing animal skins you scraped clean with a flint blade, rubbing sticks together when you need to start a fire. If, in such a state, you were to discover an urgent need for a well-tempered, evenly wound, durably flexible steel spring ... how the heck would you go about making one?

Answer: fughedaboutit.

Q.E.D. How could anyone carelessly throw away such an elegant artifact of advanced technology? To that question, I have no answer.

When I first described to my partner the reluctance I feel at the prospect of discarding ratchet springs when I reload a retractable ballpoint pen, he stared at me like I was crazy.

"People throw them away?" he asked.

Not in China, from whence Matthew hails. No siree Bob. In China, I now understand, at least in the China of the 1980s when Matthew was growing up there, one saved the ratchet spring from a retractable ballpoint pen and reused it when inserting a new retractable ballpoint pen refill. New retractable ballpoint pen refills did NOT come with a new spring. You had no choice, really. In China, you saved and reused the ratchet spring, or your retractable ballpoint pen would no longer retract.

Come to think of it, those refills my father and his wife brought back, triumphantly, from the Far East sometime before the turn of this century -- to augment the few Pentel XBXS7-A refills our friends supplied with their original gift, which are now available, like every other purchasable thing, from Japan via Amazon -- they didn't come with springs either. See photos, above and at left.

There are, according to the CIA World Factbook, 1,476,838,913 people who live in China and Japan (combined population, July 2013 estimate). That's almost one and a half billion people who, if they use retractable ballpoint pens, and refill them when they go dry, save and reuse ratchet springs. A billion and a half individuals who reuse 'em ... or lose 'em.

Knowing that, I'll never again feel alone when I refill a Zebra F-402 and carefully, nay, lovingly warehouse its marvelous wiry spiral of a ratchet spring in a box I keep in the drawer of my desk.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Should technology shape art?
Elegy for a manual transmission
Rock, Paper, Digital Preservation
It’s new, but is it improved?

Three of the four photos included in this post are the first three photos I captured with my brand new iPad Mini. That proves I'm not a Luddite, right?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Eshelman Hall demolition: all but history

Several months ago, as crews on the UC Berkeley campus prepared to demolish Eshelman Hall, I wrote about anti-apartheid organizing headquartered there in suite 613 during the mid-1980s, when I was an activist-alum on the campus.

As I wrote in March, when Nelson Mandela toured the U.S. in 1990 after being released from the prison on Robben Island, he gave a nod to the group with which I organized, the Campaign Against Apartheid, calling us out by name to the assembled crowd at the Oakland Coliseum. I was marked deeply by the great man's acknowledgement: you never know when or where history's going to reach out and touch your life. You never know how history will gestate, then unfold.

President Obama on the topic, on the occasion of his visit this past weekend to Robben Island with his wife and daughters, from the NY Times:
Sea birds squawked as Mr. Obama talked to his daughters about the history of the prison island, and of the role it played in the political movement of nonviolence started by Gandhi.

"One thing you guys might not be aware of is that the idea of political nonviolence first took root here in South Africa because Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer here in South Africa," the president told them. "When he went back to India the principles ultimately led to Indian independence, and what Gandhi did inspired Martin Luther King."
It makes my stomach churn to pass the ever-diminishing Eshelman Hall in these recent weeks, as the former South African President fights for his life in a hospital in Pretoria. The correspondence is trite, but I can't help but be conscious of a parallel. Time, life, history, entropy.

Here's a video of the state of demolition on 3 June, as the crew's endlessly fascinating, dragon-like grapple excavator takes bites out of suite 613, on the northwest corner of the seven-story building:

Here's another from 8 June, by which time suite 613 was history, but the building is still mostly-standing:

This weekend I walked by the building and took some still photos of little corner of Eshelman still left:

It won't be long now.

Correction (15 Jan 2014): In this post I mis-stated (because I misremembered) that Nelson Mandela referred to the UC Berkeley student organization Campaign Against Apartheid specifically, by name. Mandela spoke of the divestment movement on the campus, but did not name CAA. For a full transcript of Mandela's speech in Oakland, see What Nelson Mandela actually said in Oakland on 30 June 1990.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nelson Mandela and the death of UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall
Remembering Richie Havens: down to earth
The desire to destroy is also a creative desire
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for the June 3rd video of Eshelman Hall's demolition.