Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Religious naturalism 2


Yesterday's post is an excerpt from a book-length, multipart poem called The Leaf and the Cloud. I meant it to be a teaser for what I will mention today.

But first--

Mary Oliver celebrates the beauty and goodness of the rose bud and the heron's white feather. In this she is very much in the religious naturalist tradition. But, as Paul suggests, nature includes more then the rose bud and feather. It also includes the parasitic mite in the heron's plume and the bacteria in its gut, the hummingbird and the Ebola virus, the rosy sunset and the tsunami, the raindrop and the supernova. Naturalism embraces it all. All are equal objects of scientific knowing.

Beauty and goodness are human constructs. They do not designate things, but the effect of things on human consciousness. They are sustaining and consoling products of millions of years of human evolution. When the poet celebrates the beauty and goodness of the bud and the feather, she is giving voice to the "religious" part of religious naturalism.

Why celebrate the white heron and not the Ebola virus? That is where it "gets difficult". No one said that responding to the ineffable and perhaps unknowable mystery of the world would be easy. We embrace it all as potentially knowable, and out of that web of knowledge shape an evolving nest of the beautiful and the good.

Which brings me to the Religious Naturalist Association, a new community founded by the microbiologist Ursula Goodenough and her like-minded friends. You will have met Ursula many times on this blog, principally as the author of The Sacred Depths of Nature. I'm not much of a joiner, but this is a group of people I am pleased to be a part of: science as a way of knowing, poetry as a way of living.

(Thanks to bromegrass for the image above.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Religious naturalism


And certainly and easily I can see
how God might be one red rose,
one white feather in the heron's enormous, slowly opening wing.

It's after that
it gets difficult.

                                          --Mary Oliver


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Beauty bare


During the academic year 1968-69, I lived with my growing family in paradise. To be more precise, in a flat in Prince's Gate Mews, off Exhibition Road in London. Backing up against our flat was the Victoria and Albert Museum. Across the road were the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Geology Museum. Who could ask for a more endlessly enriching dwelling place. For the kids, of course, but for papa too, who probably learned more in the museums that year than in all the rest of his education put together.

Many an hour I spent on the top floor of the Geology Museum browsing the cabinets of minerals from around the world, of every color of the rainbow and of dazzling crystalline forms. As I recall, that was also the year I first read mathematical-physicist Hermann Weyl's delightful little book Symmetry, which explores the relationship between symmetry and beauty, in art and science.

Weyl begins with a 4th-century B.C. bilaterally-symmetric Greek sculpture of a praying boy, but soon enough moves on to crystals, such as those in the Geology Museum that piqued my esthetic and scientific sense. A crystal is mathematically symmetric through and through. A piece of glass can be cut in the shape of a diamond, but the imposed external shape has nothing to do with the amorphous internal structure of the glass. A cut diamond's external facets reflect an inner beauty (as too, by the way, does the external beauty of the human model of the praying boy).

Which brings me to Tom's latest offering, the photograph at the top of this post (click to enlarge). These crystals look like those one finds inside a geode, but look at the human figure at lower-right; this is a "geode" the size of a football stadium, the Cave of the Crystals in Mexico. Why hadn't I heard of this before? Thanks, Tom.

In his book Symmetry, Hermann Weyl chases symmetrical beauty to its mathematical roots. The lucky visitor to the Cave of the Crystals -- or the top floor of the Geology Museum -- learns the lesson that we also heard from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Constant palette


As the Rosetta comet mission drifts silently out of the news, Tom reminds me of when I took him, as a little kid, to see the Rosetta Stone in London's British Museum. He claims "vivid memories", which is more than I can muster. And now he sends me the above images of the Narmer Palette, another inscribed Egyptian stone that strikes his fancy (click to enlarge).

If I ever saw a photograph of the Narmer Palette before, I don't recall it. I can see why Tom is fascinated; this is a remarkable object in the delicacy and complexity of its imagery.

Palette? Stones such as this were used for grinding pigments for cosmetics or painting, although his one, two-feet tall, would have been large and heavy for that purpose. Possibly it was a votive offering for a temple. It is about 5000 years old, and in nearly perfect condition. One scholar has called it "the first historical document in the world." The inscriptions are thought to commemorate a victory of King Narmer of Upper Egypt over his enemies.

As I said, I have no memory of the Palette, but the image of Narmer about to bash in the head of a kneeling prisoner rings a bell. Could it be from those wonderful old National Geographic paintings of "Everyday Life in Ancient Times", from issues of the 1940s. A little hustle around the college library and -- Yes! And, as a matter of fact, I've written about this before. Funny how some things linger in memory and others do not.

As I study the Narmer Palette, my eye keeps coming back to the ten decapitated corpses, bound about the chest, severed heads between their feet. Clearly the recent decapitations by ISIS are on my mind. Religion, superstition, tyrants, bloodlust, war: Some things have remained constant for 5000 years.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The natural transcendent


Tom sends this composite image from the Rosetta spacecraft, as it flies alongside Comet 67P, 300 million miles from Earth. It shows the comet lander Philae drifting above the surface of the comet as it approaches landing and the footprint on the dusty surface where the lander bounced on touchdown. Interpretation here.

This is the sort of thing that gives Tom chills. Me too. Touchdown! Catching up with a two-mile-wide chunk of rock and ice after a 10-year journey around the solar system. Thrills. Chills. A breathtaking technological achievement.

But more than that. It is also a dazzling endorsement of the scientific way of knowing.
Many long years ago when our oldest three kids were young (Tom not yet born), we visited the museum in Bayeux, France, housing the famous tapestry. I pointed out to the kids the comet in the sky on the eve of the Battle of Hastings, which was taken to portend William of Normandy's victory over King Harold of England. The latin text reads "People marvel at the star." (Tom, BTW, saw the tapestry on a later occasion.)

Humanity was then in another time, a time of miracles. Knowledge came through divine revelation, holy books, authority and tradition. Nothing happened except by the will of God. The scientific way of knowing, invented essentially by the Alexandrian Greeks, was strangled in the cradle by more ancient ways of knowing, not least the rise of Christianity, not to be revived until centuries after Hastings. Even today, a millennium later, much of the world, including a sizable proportion of Americans, hold to the old ways of miraculous knowing and disdain science.

But can any of those older ways of knowing put a lander on a cometary nucleus 300 million miles away, a rocky snowball the size of Central Park?

The comet that appeared at the time of the Battle of Hastings was (we now know) Halley's Comet, which appears in Earth's skies every 75-76 years. I observed its most recent passage from Ayer's Rock in Australia, courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine, as scribe for their expedition. Not a sign or an omen, not a communication of God's favor or disfavor, but a subtle natural, law-abiding wonder that -- in that marvelous dark-sky context -- sent a -- dare I say it -- transcendent shiver up my spine.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Words


As I write, the Philae probe is attempting to land on Comet 67P, a two-mile-wide chunk of ice and rock that is presently 300 million miles away from Earth. Tom sends the picture above, of a etched nickel disk carried by the probe, an archive of human languages that you can read about here. It is not the only such disk. There are many copies -- "Rosetta stones" -- to be distributed as widely as possible in space and time as messages to the future that hold keys to the past.

As I write, I am sitting in my usual chair in the college library, surrounded by books and journals, mostly in English, but a substantial number of other languages too. And even as I write, this paper trove is slowly being replaced by the digital cloud. The paper periodical section of the library has been vastly reduced; no longer, for instance, can I browse, as was my wont, the crisp, colorful pages of Architectural Record; I'm now directed to the web. I hardly ever see students cruising the lonely stacks; they are huddled over their laptops. It is not hard to imagine a library without books; some college and university libraries have already gone that way.

The Rosetta disks, like the one carried by Philae, will be more permanent than paper, more enduring than the digital cloud. What documents of our time will we want creatures of future millennia to read? I have just finished reading Richard Flanagan's Booker-prize-winning novel The Narrow Road To the Deep North, a book that plunges one into deep despair about man's inhumanity to man, then lifts one's spirit with the embrace of love, courage and redemption. Yes, let it be that -- the awfulness and the glory.

I think of a stanza from William Carlos Williams' "A Sort of Song":
Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
sleepless.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Where next?

Dear denizens of the porch, Tom and I are exploring where to go next. We'll be back soon. Anne will surely join us. Hang on. Chet

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The end


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 22

My father’s father was a handyman. So was Dad. I’m fairly handy myself, and I have a son who is handier than all of us. Nature or nurture? Who knows? Maybe a bit of both. But surely not any longer an exclusively male preserve. My oldest daughter recently remodeled her kitchen. She taught me how to use a sledge-activated nail gun to lay a hardwood floor. What is the difference between a craftsperson and a handyman? The craftsperson does it for a living. The handyman does it for a life.

I wouldn’t say that what my father was doing on his deathbed was a barrel of monkeys, but he was clearly enjoying what he was doing. His engineering-style drawings have a kind of whimsy about them, a spontaneous parody that would make Thomas Ewing French and Rube Goldberg smile. Surely, one of the infelicities of our age is that we take our machines too seriously. We let them squash our sense of fun, turn us into mere appurtenances of their own inscrutable workings. I couldn’t repress a smile when I saw my daughter wrestling that massive nail gun into position, whacking it with the hammer, grinning like a demented fool. Handygals have fun.

When I was about twelve years old, my father gave me a hand-held electric jigsaw for my birthday. It was a clever tool. You held it like a pistol. The blade was like the straight side of a stretched-out letter D. A little 110-volt electromagnet pulled the blade down and the springlike upper side of the D pulled it up. Bzzzzzzzz. My first power tool. I made a few little toys out of bits of balsa, but for all of its cleverness the jigsaw was not very useful. It labored through anything thicker than an eighth of an inch. The flimsy blades kept breaking. I’ll give this to Dad. He picked up pretty quick on the unsatisfactory nature of the tool. On my next birthday I was rewarded with a proper jigsaw, a real tabletop power tool, driven with a powerful one-quarter horsepower motor, the same motor that with a flip of a belt drove his drill press. Together, we had entered the age of the power shop.

In all of this he was a distant angel, keenly interested in my jigsaw projects, but unlikely to reveal much of what was going on in his own life. Not much happened to us kids that he didn’t proudly record on film, but a surprising number of his own professional accomplishments were unknown to me until I read his curriculum vitae after his death. He never stopped tooting our horns, but he was reluctant to toot his own.

My biggest jigsaw project was a chess set, thirty-two pieces enameled black and white, hollowed out and weighted with solder, the bottoms then covered with green felt. To display this grand production I made a coffee table with a tiled chessboard built into the top. It was the first thing I had made without hints or help from Dad, and I was inordinately proud. Too proud, in fact, for my Catholic guilt. I was then in the throes of a bout of religious fervor. We are called—so I believed—to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is not in this world but the next. Kneeling in the darkened nave of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church I resolved to chasten my pride by destroying one of the chess pieces, the white king. I laid the poor fellow on the cement basement floor. I raised the hammer. Then, in a change of heart, I substituted a more easily replaceable pawn for the king. Smash! As you can see, I was neither a very good sinner nor a very good penitent.

The pawn was quickly replaced, the Deadly Sin forgotten. The coffee table and chess set ended up gracing my first apartment as a married graduate student. It’s long gone now, I don’t know where, but it lasted longer than my Catholic scrupulosity. That cringe of guilt was not something I picked up at home. Dad took pride in my handyman projects, and hoped I would take pride in them too. Pride is an essential ingredient of the handyman’s craft. Somewhere among his many reels of 8 mm home movies there’s a sequence of me crouching by my chess-setted coffee table grinning with practiced self-satisfaction. Pride is the motive and the polish of the handyman.

He loved us. His love was vouched by his pride in our accomplishments. How did I show my love for him? By trying to live up to his expectations, by being as handy as he was and his father before him. Love is in the genes, of course, a biological imperative to cherish one’s offspring and revere one’s parents. Like the handyman talent, love is funded by nature and nurture. It was there in those backyard swings and seesaws my handyman grandfather made for his kids in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, and in the Buster Brown suits and frilly dresses stitched up by my grandmother. Dad was nurturing love when he stood waiting with his Cine-Kodak at the bottom of Ninth Street hill as my soapbox racer with the unaerodynamic axles sped towards the finish line. I know now that the jigsaws were tokens of his love. A handyman takes pride in his work, and if the design of a soapbox racer or a repaired toaster can be a token of love so much the better.

Remember the model Spanish galleon my father built just before his marriage, the one my mother relegated to the basement? There was another sailing ship, a tiny one, that he made for my mother while they were courting. Its hull was a walnut half-shell, bowsprit and all, to which he had glued a cardboard deck. Above he fashioned three-masted rigging with billowing paper sails. For as long as I can remember, that little ship resided in a corner of the china cabinet in the dining room. In a funny way, it was as inspirational to me as the infinitely more accomplished Spanish galleon. One evening at dinner, when I was about eight or nine, for a reason I cannot recall, my father took the little walnut ship out of the china cabinet, pried off the cardboard deck with a dinner knife, and there written on the underside in his neat engineer’s hand was the message “I love you,” hidden all those years. The message struck me as terribly romantic, but I have a recollection of something unsettling in the air at table that evening, an ironic tilt to the atmosphere. I was too young to pick up on the subtler complexities of matrimony, but wise enough to have remembered the token of romance and forgotten the cause of those flickering sparks of discontent.

At the end, in his hospital journals, he seems a little baffled that she is still there, at his side in the hospital room, attending his whims, after thirty-eight years of sometimes uneasy marriage. He also seems a bit surprised by his own happiness when she is in the room. He writes: Mom (God bless her) got dressed and went after an ice cream for me! So glad she is going to stay with me tonight. It is not the afterlife that looms large in those last pages of his deathbed journals, but this life—this infinitely mysterious life with its ineluctable entanglements of love, parents, spouse, children, grandchildren, this life that was ebbing away. He wanted desperately to fix it, to repair whatever was broken, to mend all of the frayed bonds of love. He thought the journals contained something valuable, something that should be shared. And perhaps they did. What was it he always used to say, the mantra of the handyman? With a little ingenuity, anything is possible.

(THE END. Many thanks to Anne for her lovely illuminations. They are an affectionate record of Dad’s final days. And thanks to Tom for photographic illustrations. Without Tom this website would not exist. To all of you who stayed aboard for Mr. Fix-it, your presence of on the porch has been warmly welcomed and we are grateful for it. Stay tuned.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In our dreams


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 21

I have now lived fourteen years longer than my father, and well past the age when his own father died. A century ago, the average male lifetime in the United States was 45 years. Today it’s in the late-70s—and rising. Never before in history have so many of us had the expectation of a ripe old age. The average lifetime won’t rise forever, of course, at least not without some genetic jiggering. There are biological clocks ticking in every cell of our bodies. Our cells are fated one-by-one to die, each at its appointed time, until finally the entire colony expires.

For multicelled creatures like ourselves, death is not the opposite of life; death is part of life. Single-celled organisms are potentially immortal. With an appropriate environment and nutrients, bacteria can live forever. Genetically-programmed, inevitable death appeared rather late in the history of life, just 600 million years ago, at about the same time as sex and multicellularity. In recent decades scientists have begun to understand that if you want to have creatures with eyes and ears, brains and backbones, gonads and gods, then you must have death, too. Death is the driving engine of evolution.

An individual cell in a multicellular organism can do one of three things—divide, specialize, or commit suicide. It has been estimated that if division and specialization occurred without cell suicide, an 80-year-old person would have two tons of bone marrow and a gut ten miles long. The whole business of building and maintaining a multicelled organism is a genetically orchestrated dance of cell division and cell death. For example, as a human embryo develops, the extremities of the limbs first look like stumpy ping-pong paddles. Then cells start to selectively die in a way that turns the paddles into hands and feet with digits. We have fingers and toes because certain cells are programmed for suicide. The Grim Reaper has an alternate role as a Michelangelo who releases the statue’s form from within the block of marble.

Sooner or later, however, in multicelled creatures such as ourselves, the reaping runs ahead of the shaping and we experience senescence, the physical decline of old age. Scientists are not sure how or why senescence evolved, but humans are the only creatures for which it makes much difference. For other animals and plants (and including humans until recently), death by accident or violence or disease was a more likely fate than doddering old age. If evolution never selected against senescence, it may be because it never had much opportunity to do so.

My father’s mind was sharp until the last few days of his life, when disease cut short his “three score years and ten,” the carefully orchestrated balance of cell division and death having gone wildly astray. His experience was typical of most humans throughout history; my two grandfathers died in their forties, one of a tragic accident, the other of pneumonia. We live today in a civilization that has invented antibiotics and childproof caps, vaccinations and seat belts, sterile parturition and the ABM Treaty. It is possible that I will collect my Social Security check for another 10 or 20 years. This is a huge new thing in the history of life: Not nature red in tooth and claw, but Centrum Silver and senior aerobics. For most of the history of our race, death came as a bolt from the blue—a snake bite, an impacted tooth, a bash on the head by the warrior next door, starvation. Now, with the benefit of medical science and the orderly assistance of civilized society, many of us live long enough to see that mortality is a necessary part of the plan, a corollary of life that is built into every cell of our bodies. Death is life’s necessary partner, the ultimate tinkerer, endlessly creative.

Of my father’s death I have five volumes of his handwritten notes. I know his every thought for ten terrible weeks, every blast of radiation, every pill. What is strangely absent is any recognition that death is inevitable. The slightest uptick from his well of pain is invariably recorded as a harbinger of recovery. Where are the Big Questions, the ones that are supposed to occupy a dying man? Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What does it all mean? My father seems to have been more interested in the Little Questions. How many inches is my head from the top of the bed? How many minutes since the last Percodan pill? Will the next cobalt treatment correct the double vision in my right eye? These questions were not as trivial to him as they might seem to us. It was by the accumulation and analysis of apparently trivial data that engineers and scientists have answered other no-so-little Little Questions. How are atoms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen forged in the cores of stars? How do enzymes in every cell of our bodies build proteins, carbohydrates and lipids? How does a hummingbird hover? How does one increase the average span of life from 40 years to 80 years? What my father was doing may seem trivial and fruitless in his dire circumstances, but he was celebrating at the end what he celebrated all his life—things that can be told and named. The army of rampaging cells that escaped from his prostate at age 64 and infiltrated his entire body were part of what is, just as the moving mechanical belt that grasped his father’s glove and ripped off his arm was part of what is. He fought the spreading cancerous cells in his body with the instruments of is. He was an engineer, a handyman, to the very end, but no match for the explosive power of life run sadly amok.

In the final days, his journals descend into a bit of chaos as his faculties become muddled. The doctors and priests come and go. Family and friends attend. And still the current of optimism flows through the pages, the handyman’s faith that with a little ingenuity anything can be fixed. The doses and times. The ups and downs of the energy cycle. Nausea. Morphine. Mylanta. Milk. Bleeding. Oxygen. IV. Antibiotics. A hodgepodge of hopeful notes, as if he were rooting around in the junk drawers of the big black cabinet in the basement, looking for just the right gizmo to set the mechanism aright. At last, other hands take over the journal, recording what he no longer has the strength or clarity of mind to record himself. His last words: 6:45 “Let the light come in.” 7:00 “Purple people eaters.” 7:10 “I hear a bell.” And then, a joke, as he is given an injection to control his spasms. 7:12 “Shot was hot. Hot shot!”

In the year he died, senior students at Notre Dame High School dedicated their yearbook to him. They reproduced his photograph from the yearbook of 1928, with the description that had accompanied the photo then: “The sterling qualities of honor and integrity are possessed in an unusual degree by Chester Raymo. His ability to plan and to execute has caused him to be chosen leader in almost every school activity which calls for a cool head and quick brain. Beneath his rather serious exterior there runs a thread of humor and fun which rises to the surface on frequent occasions.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

As if


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 20

He taught me to use a drawknife, and a brace and bit. He taught me how to include a spring suspension in a soapbox racer, and how to take it out again. He taught me how to cut and splice celluloid film. He had a headful of handy skills and was happy to share them. He was, in fact, a born teacher, and found the time in the margins of his full-time employment as a quality control engineer to teach night courses at the local technical schools on everything from welding to blueprint reading, from metallurgy to foremanship. It was probably inevitable that when he retired from the American Lava Corporation at age sixty he would look for a teaching position. And he found it, at his old high school, Notre Dame Academy in Chattanooga, now moved to a bright new campus in a rather smarter part of town. He taught mathematics and physics, and served as plant manager and assistant principal. His favorite course was geometry, and he had in mind writing a high school geometry text. Even in the final weeks of his life, confined to his hospital bed, he wrote in his journal: “I should also use this time at a table of some sort and begin my long overdue geometry book.” He got no further than the first sentence: “Begin with a point.” His cancer had a point to make, and it was final.

As John Updike points out in a poem, death exists nowhere in nature except in our forebodings. As far as we know, no other creature, animal or plant, has an awareness of its own mortality. Only in human consciousness is death anticipated, as a dark foreboding or promise of release. And so much else is carried along in that baggage of anticipation. Courage. Fear. Virtue. Guilt. All of this comes out in my father’s journals—the ambivalent foreboding rising now and then to the surface through that carefully contrived overlay of data and analysis. “Begin with a point.” The imagined geometry book was another instrument for holding death at bay, not so much a practical project as a palliative, a placebo.

In the Roman Catholic theology of my youth only humans had immortal souls. In the heaven of our imaginations there were no animals or plants, no victory gardens or picket fences or starry nights. No dawns or dusks. No seasons. I suppose I pictured heaven as rather like the hospital my father died in, all stainless steel and white paint and pale green gowns and angels with pushcarts and mops going around swabbing up the invisible microbes that had managed to slip in on our resurrected feet, and some little device down the hall going ping-ping-ping counting off the seconds of eternity. Not a terribly attractive prospect, but I have never come up with anything more plausible. I search my father’s journals for his anticipation of the afterlife. His attention is on the present. In the noontime of his handyman days he had used to say, “With a little ingenuity, anything can be fixed.” Until the moment when he is no longer able to scrawl his notes he is searching for an escape clause, the triumph of conscious will over the out-of-whack cells that were rampaging his body. He records a dream of “waking up in a formless container—a cocoon!”

Occasionally in the journals I find a puzzled “Why me?” He has so much left to do, courses to teach, a geometry book to write. Where is the justice? But nature is arbitrary and violent, and cares not a whit for human conceptions of what is fair and not fair. Massive black holes at the centers of galaxies gobble up gas and stars. In the arms of galaxies suns explode with a force that shatters surrounding worlds. Comets and asteroids smash into the Earth causing mass extinctions. In the midst of such arbitrary violence, what is the importance of an individual human life? As Loren Eiseley wrote: “Instability lies at the heart of he world.” Order and disorder, life and death, cooperation and competition are the paired principles of nature’s creative force.

There is a line by the Irish poet Pat Boran: “The spirit loves the flesh, as the hand the glove.” That fit, of spirit to flesh, comes across in the journals, in all those drawings of his body splayed on the bed, the angles, the dimensions. The material world of nuts and bolts, ceramic widgets, flesh and bones was his bailiwick, his heaven on earth. The spirit is flesh, yes, but more than flesh. This I learned from my father, as long ago as those starry nights on the badminton court when he taught me the names of the constellations, or those hours in the garage with drawknife and plane: The spirit is flesh in interaction with a universe of infinite complexity. The windows of the flesh are thrown open to the world. The spirit is a wind of awareness, a pool stirred by angels. And, yes, some part of the spirit will linger when the flesh is gone, as memories in other flesh, as words and stories—a fleshless hand that retains the shape of the glove. He was not a philosopher or a saint. His very ordinariness was his crown. He was a handyman, a teacher. And this is what he taught: Let us love the world, this world, the world outside the windows of the flesh, for in truth there is no other world, no other world for us except the world we inhale like a deep, deep breath and seal into the soul.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 19

And he was there with his movie camera, as I plummeted down Ninth Street, in my Soapbox racer, helmeted head tucked low, as he was always there for any of his children’s special occasions. Any handyman in the 1930s and 40s with an artsy-techno streak would inevitably be drawn to home movies. Kodak introduced black-and-white 8mm film in 1932, and Kodachrome film came along in 1936. I don’t recall my father ever being particularly interested in still photography—he left that to his mother and sister—but he took to home movies like a duck to water.

The first films in his oeuvre were black-and-white. I recall footage of a big steam shovel (yes, real steam!) working on Ninth Street outside my mother’s and father’s family homes (yes, the same street that at the other end hosted the Soapbox Derby), and my sister Anne’s first birthday party in 1939. Surely, I saw these later on, probably several times, for I would have been too young to remember firsthand Dad’s earliest dabbles in the Hollywood art. These were the standard four-minute Kodak flicks on metal reels; when the war started the reels became plastic.

Reliable memories kick in from about the time the war began. His camera was a keywound Cine-Kodak. He was seldom without it. Reel by reel his collection grew—each yellow box returned from Kodak processing neatly labeled—eventually filling a cabinet in the upstairs hall. It seems I spent my entire childhood either self-consciously acting for the camera or sitting on the living room floor with my sibs—Mom enthroned in her wing-back chair—as Dad projected his films onto a roll-up screen with his Keystone projector. Shooting movies indoors required floodlights, with big tin reflectors, mounted on tripods. We ripped into our Christmas presents or licked birthday-cake frosting off our fingers in blazing illumination. I wonder if always being “on set” turned us into little prima donnas, showoffs for life. Conspicuously under-represented in Dad’s movies was my mother, who was adverse to the marrow of her bones to show-offery of any sort. She generally absented herself from the “set,” retiring to some other corner of the house, leaving the wannabe Hollywood director and his pint-sized actors to their glitzy business.

On at least one occasion, Dad’s home-movie making veered towards the professional. He made a promotional film for the American Lava Corporation which must have been one of the first such enterprises. I remember how it began. First the title, spelled out on a black background with the white plastic alphabets you could buy for such purposes. Then, a cascade of the company’s ceramic insulators spilled out over the title. I thought it was as good as anything I had seen in a Hollywood movie. Making his longer films required splicing, and his splicing equipment was a handyman’s dream: two reels mounted at opposite ends of a wood board, a magnifying viewer, and a wonderful stainless-steel precision cutter and clamp with pins to hold the film’s sprocket holes exactly in place. He taught me the art of cutting and splicing, which subsumed the greater art of editing. It was a skill I would later put to advantage in my writing.

Home movies in the 1940s and 50s were the cutting edge of the creative handyman’s gee-whizery, the place where art and technology met. The Cine-Kodak camera with its big flat wind-up key, the clickety-clack Keystone projector, the blazing hot floodlights, the stink of splicing fluid. The arty gimmicks—titles, zooms, segues—and the little actors performing their tricks on cue. These days anyone with a mobile phone can make a movie, and watch it wherever you want, even send it across the world through e-mail. For me, the idea of personal filmmaking will always be associated with that magic moment when the family gathered in the living room, Dad threaded the Keystone, the room lights were turned off, and—clickety, clickety, clickety—the powerful tungsten bulb in its cooling-finned housing projected images of the silent Shirley Temple wannabes onto the silver screen.