Saturday, May 14, 2016

Guilty Pleasure: The Casual Extermination of Mankind

I was, of course, an odd child, the kind that would be more likely to bring a book to a swimming pool in the summer than actual swimwear. (True story from when I happily sat under a tree devouring Robinson Crusoe while my siblings splashed and sunburned.) So maybe I was marked from the start to love H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds. I've owned a couple of copies over the years, and read them until the literally fell to pieces -- one of them had particularly haunting line-illustrations of the infamous Martian war-tripods lighting a terrorized crowd aflame.

Good times.

I still have one copy, a cherished anthology given to me around age 11 or 12, a hardback edition bound in green leatherette with gilt-edged pages, collecting some of Wells' more famous stories, all of which were poor seconds to my favorite of the bunch. I read and re-read that story, which held the honor of coming very last in the volume. I'd make myself try to get through the other tales first, like suffering through over cooked broccoli to make the eventual dessert all the more sweet.

I don't know what it is about the story that triggered such admiration. (And here be spoilers, if it's possible to spoil a century-old tale.) Wells wasn't afraid to be lurid in his descriptions or brutal in his apocalyptic vision for the fate of mankind, and he certainly showed a wry understanding of the power of a twist ending long before The Twilight Zone made it fashionable. Wells was the master of the Gotcha ending before it became cool. I'm sure, as a boy, I enjoyed the visions of the wild marauding tripods ravaging over field and village, unleashing destruction at ever turn. Humans are merely fodder and food, obstacles to be eliminated, and its not through any heroism or brave deeds that mankind ultimately survives. It's not a story of bravery, or cleverness, or heroism coming to save the day. It's more a study of man at his worst, and how much luck is part of his survival. At least I hope it is.

Because honestly, I haven't picked up the story in ages. I still have that green-bound volume in place of honor on our "classics" bookshelf, wedged in among Alice and Frodo. The gilt edges are lost from the pages, and the bottoms are slightly waterlogged from being propped up on my stomach: poolside, of course. I'm a little afraid that it won't hold up. Another beloved childhood book did not, upon a recent re-read. Jules Verne's Mysterious Island also hit a sweet spot in my consciousness at the same time, and I read and re-read it many times. I remember being genuinely excited when both it and The Hobbit were handed to us as texts for a class. Both were favorites, but unlike Tolkien, Verne did not stand the test of time. I've since found Island to be rather fawning, aggravating, and generally dull. It's the opposite of War, as Clever Men solve Interesting Problems in a Clever Fashion. Rereading it as an adult was not time well-spent.

So, I'm hesitant. I'm nearing the end of my every-now-and-then re-read of The Lord of the Rings (yes, even the Appendices, because envy.) And there on the shelf, in the gap sits Mr. Wells. And for my birthday, I did treat myself to the Jeff Wayne musical version of War, which has all the earnestness, schmaltz, and disco guitars one should expect from a late 1970's concept album. I've been listening to it a lot, lately. Quite a lot. Enough that my co-workersare surely dreading the opening string-section chords, right before the wocka-chicka disco bassline kicks in. (And the chords are good. Made them my ringtone. I'm still an odd child at heart.) The bones of the story are present in the musical, and as an adult, I can see a lot of themes that either Wells or Wayne are throwing in there: colonialism, fear of the machine age, the mechanization and dehumanization of war. Descriptions of Londoners fleeing the invasion especially feels poignant as we see Syrian refugees fleeing their own horrors (and it is all side that are dropping the "cylinders.") It may have been a gripping and exciting poolside read as a child. Under the guitar solos and the Big Pop Song Number of the Wayne musical, it's still a dark and frightening story.

So there's my confession for tonight. Strange, pasty child with an overlarge book on his lap, both cheering and fearing the Martians, and wondering as a strange, pasty adult if they will still hold the same thrill. I listened to the musical yet again this morning as I worked my required co-op hours. At the pool.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Pen Review: Lamy 2000

As I mentioned in my previous post, I treated myself recently to a new pen, which I pretended I needed long enough to start researching obsessively, as I do. And in under a week, I'd actually made a decision -- a new record for me! Presto, the Lamy 2000 in artistic hipster square-o-vision.

Classy! #Lamy2000

The last two times I did this, I agonized for months over the decision, finally getting -- and being extremely happy with -- a Pelikan m205 in bright red, and later, a Pilot/Namiki vanishing point in blue and chrome. There's aspects of each of those two that I like and maybe having other examples of "real" pens around made the decision easier. Or maybe I just was impatient. So in the timeless tradition of the chronically indecisive, I made pro/con lists:

Pelikan m205 positives:

+ ink management: massive capacity, visible levels, easy refill via piston system
+ upgradeable: swap nibs by unscrewing
+ fit and finish: Pelikan knows how to make them

…but…

- plastic: model is the low-end of the Pel line (but +light in the pocket)
- smallish: I've got big hands, and unposted, the pen is a shade short
- unsubtle: when subtlety is called for, a bright red pen is not it (but I love it)
- two-handed: I don't post, so the cap has to go somewhere (other hand, usually)

And the vanishing point is almost a perfect complement.

Pilot Vanishing Point positives:

+ brass and metal: a hefty pen, it feels real in your hand
+ a good size, too, for me
+ classy styling, and deploys with a click: an ideal meeting pen
+ excellent build, and love watching the nib deploy and retreat

…but… 

- ink levels are a mystery: even using a converter instead of a cartridge
- so refilling = disassembly, as with most cheap pens, and this is not a cheap pen
- nib updates means buying the whole inner assembly again
- heavy in the pocket, comically so in a breast pocket unless clipped securely

They are both in rotation at work, swapped in as the mood strikes. I have a couple of recurring meetings each week and always take notes, and the Pelikan has never let me down by running low on ink, ever. The VP is ready literally at the press of a button, but I have to make sure to perform the take-apart/refill/wipe ritual before I leave my desk, or pack a second pen for backup.

So, enter the Lamy 2000. What does it offer?

* classic Bauhaus design (says the literature, anyway)
* piston fill for largely clean hands
* magical durable material -- fiberglass and plastic paired with stainless steel, very chic
* a brand/warranty behind it

Here's my impressions after the first few days, in mixed pro/con form:

+ ink handling: it's piston-fill like the Pelikan, so most of the interior is devoted to ink storage, thus I'm still operating on the first fill-up

 - ink levels: warnings about the comically-small ink window are true, so we'll see if I can tell when the well is about to run dry

+ fit and finish: excellent, and the barrel material is prepared in such a way that it looks seamless, even at the end where the piston button seats

+ size and heft: it's comfortable and large enough even in my hand, but not super-heavy either -- right between its two drawer-mates

+ style: the 2000 is so subtle it might as well be a magic marker, and is easily mistaken for one with the cap on. "Pregnant Paper Mate Flair Pen" would be how I'd describe its looks, but in a good way, if that makes any sense

- upgradeable: not so much. A new nib means pen surgery, which is doable, but doesn't appear to be Lamy's intention. Buy a Safari instead if you want to swap nibs easily, or a second pen... :-)

- two-handed: the cap has metal tabs inside to secure it, and it looks like these will quickly scrape up the barrel when posting. So no, the cap goes in the non-writing hand with this pen for certain

 Criticisms that I heard but haven't experienced:

 "Oh, those horrible little metal ears!"

The cap has to snap on to something, and on this otherwise blemish-free pen, there's two spring-tensioned metal tabs or "ears" sticking out on opposite sides of the section. They happen to be at or near where one grips the pen. This evidently aggravates some owners to the point of distraction, a la the Princess-and-the-Pea.

I don't see it.

Oh, they're there all right, and my fingers rest against one of them, but I've not found them distracting, and have been using them even to get the pen aligned properly to writing. Plus, I own and use a vanishing point, which is the ultimate in the having-something-by-your-fingers lifestyle. Not an issue for me.

Bad nib/dry nib/nib takes time to "warm up"

These reports look intermittent, but are vocal -- "I expected better from Lamy, had to send two of them back, etc." Maybe it was a bad batch, or a particular owner with different expectations… who knows. I did flush out the inside of my pen with plain water a few times first (see below) and some of the complaints about dry or skipping nibs noted that it resolved on the second fill. As we know from typewriters, a good gentle cleaning rarely hurts anything.

Stiff piston (hur hur hur) 

Inner twelve-year-old aside, there's observations that the refill mechanism is difficult to work. Is it? It's got to be air- and ink-tight, and I don't think it's worse than my Pelikan's piston. Again, I flushed with water first a few times, to chase away any residual oils and inks leftover from manufacture and quality control testing (some blue ink showed up, so I know the nib wrote at least once.)

Interestingly, using the Lamy has given me another point of comparison, this one for the Pelikan and any pen that refills with a threaded cap:

- inky threads

I don't know how I did it, but there's dried ink inside the cap threads on the Pelikan, probably from brushing up against the lip of a bottle while I was refilling. There's no such issue on the Lamy, as it's smoothness all the way down.

I've heard it's possible to get a fine amount into the grooved texture that's polished into the barrel, but it seems like it cleans up better. It's something I never noticed before now, since I'm usually messing with converters and a partially-disassembled pen or syringes and empty cartridges.

So, is there a clear winner? Not yet for me. I like all three, for different reasons, and for different uses. The Pelikan and Lamy overlap the most in terms of function and usage, and it may be that one goes home to use for marathon writing sessions, and the other stays at work for marathon meetings. It never hurts to be prepared!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Square

20160427_pencast

Classy! #Lamy2000

Like many social media spots, I'm hanging out as @mpclemens on Instagram if you long to see random abstract blown-out tilt-shift carefully staged snaps of my breakfast cereal, or whatever one is supposed to Instragramify.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Slice and Dice

A couple of observations on rewriting, in order to satisfy today's Daily Rhino o' Writing:

Hiding Rhino
The prod of doom

Temporarily misplacing my original typescript while rewriting this recent draft may have been both the worst and best thing I could have done. Worst, since I didn't have it to refer to, and had to try and pull the story together largely from memory. Also best, for the same reasons -- the story points that stood out most vividly in my memory are the ones that made it into the digital copy, and the forgettable and regrettable asides largely did not.

That's not to say that there isn't some inflation. Approximate wordcount at the end of NaNo was 70,000 words, but after digitizing it's closer to 98,000 words.

Hmm. My digital draft is the poster child for opposite of edit syndrome.

So I've fired up Scrivener and spent a couple of quality days trying to break the whole mess into scenes -- or firebreaks, if you're picturing an out-of-control plot wildfire as I am. To say it's kind of daunting is like saying the ocean is a bit moist, but I'm hoping that I can keep dividing and subdividing and get the whole thing into a manageable size. Daily writing and a four-line AlphaSmart screen got me this far. I hope that narrowing the focus, slicing and dicing, and fiddling with the details will keep the momentum going.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Ascent

I made it! Somewhat!


View from the top


After many false starts, I decided to buckle down last July and no-kidding-this-time get a digitized rewrite of my very weird and convoluted modern-day road trip/ode to the 1980s/thinly veiled updating of a Greek myth that emerged from my NaNo typewriter in November 2011. It's been a very long time coming, and has been through a number of major tonal shifts and a few challenging technical ones -- like setting it in first person, present tense. I'd love to say it was an edit, but it really was more of a rewrite, with only cursory glances back at the original typescript. Many new things happened. Many strange paths were taken. Many more words got added. But I made it.

Now comes a sit-down and a look through the landscape that I've just traversed, trying to stitch up all the save-files that were dropped like breadcrumbs along the way. Try to find coherent scenes and themes and events and start shaping readable prose around them, from the raw materials I've put down. The typescript showed me the direction, this draft got me to the summit, but I don't think the trail is safe for anyone else yet to traverse. Too many pitfalls, too many dead ends. So there's a lot of work ahead, still.

But today, in a mental fug because of the switch into Daylight Savings and the lack of sleep that goes with it, I can at least look back and say: hey, look, I actually finished something I set out to do.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Frog It

For reasons largely chemical -- having my pupils dilated for an eye exam -- I'm unable to tackle my nightly writing assignment, since I'm unable to handle any sort of related reading. So far, I have managed to be a nuisance around the house by badly loading the dishwasher and not being trusted to cook dinner for the kids, since I can't actually read the controls on the oven, and thus I've been banished to the far reaches of the house where I can sit in semi-darkness and not harm myself or others or pose a fire hazard to anyone.

So I'm going to ramble here, and talk about knitting.

I learned around fifteen years ago or so, when my then-only child was in preschool: I vaguely remember one of my very first projects was a slightly lumpen and uneven toy bear for one of his classmates who was about to become a big brother. My wife taught me to knit, and I love her dearly, but she and I are of very different mindsets to life, and knitting is one of those things that, if you must be taught by someone, should be taught by someone who thinks like you do, or who you have the proper amount of respect/fear for (a dear old grandmother is perfect.) My wife's lessons, no matter how often she repeated them, did not take, leaving me to my own devices in the pre YouTube days to puzzle it through from diagrams and books, and to finally wind up getting it right in the "Continental" style. Did you know there's more than one style? I didn't, but I learned it the opposite way that I was taught. She knits "English," which basically means that she uses one hand to manage the loose yarn and I use the opposite hand. Luckily, we're both right-handed, or chances are I'd still be learning. Continental is, from personal experience, unusual among the few knitters I've met in my area, and a male knitting is even rarer still, though I did strike up a very pleasant conversation with a gentleman about how he and his siblings had all learned as children, and were put to work by their mother making socks for themselves during the winter months. Having children of my own who tend to come undone during winter, I see this as exceptionally good parenting. Anyhow, those first few attempts at making anything other than odd lumpen animals, or slightly crooked socks (I tried) or overlarge hats were not wild successes. And although it's not really any more difficult than tying a shoe -- it's practically the same motion, in fact -- you're still doing it with a pair of sharp pointy tools and about a million times in a row.

There's three aspects of knitting that make it pleasant, though, and more pleasant than tying endless shoes. First is setting the expectations appropriately. I have little desire to make myself a nice complicated anything, and certainly less desire to impose such a project on another person. Sweaters are involved. Even proper socks are a hassle -- turning the heel, ugh ugh ugh -- but scarves are super easy, and baby blankets are just scarves without boundaries. I do a pretty brisk business in churning out baby shower gifts for my coworkers thanks to the innate simplicity of the rectangular form.

Second, it's very soothing. Once you get past the agony of actually learning the motions and the silly mnemonic rhymes to do them in the right order ("through the fence, catch the sheep, back we go, off you leap") and you learn your knits from your purls, it's possible to become a veritable fibre-slinging machine. When I had a longer commute, I'd work on the train, and provided that someone in my office is expecting, I can be seen hauling a black bag (manly) of fuzzy pink yarn (less manly) to my kids' soccer games, or pulling it out in front of our nightly murder-mystery TV, or whenever. It's easy, almost enough that you don't need to look at your work after a while. You can feel it -- you learn to know when you've placed the needle wrong and can fix it nearly automatically. I doubt I would have believed this all those years ago when my wife was patiently and fruitlessly trying to teach me how to Catch The Sheep. It's meditative, clicking the needles and handling the yarn and feeling the piece grow beneath your fingers. I've heard it releases serotonin even, one of the brain's built in "happy chemicals." I can believe it. The temptation to stay up late to knit just One More Row... well, it's kind of a buzz, actually. A socially-acceptable grandmotherly buzz, but a buzz nonetheless.

Third and finally, though, is overcoming one's fear of frogs. Or of "frogging" one's work by ripping it out when it's beyond repair or just not working. Frogging a piece can be traumatic, especially if you're really invested in it -- like a sweater or some infernally complex sock, and you may be tempted to just forge on ahead, or bargain with yourself to rip back just a little bit, just a few rows. Since I'm in the realm of rectangles, ripping out is not such a big deal. When you take as much pleasure in the pulling-apart of bad piece as you do in the putting-together of a good one -- well, that's supposedly when you've Leveled Up at knitting. That you can embrace the creation and destruction as integral parts of the piece... or something. It can be an infernal pain (pro tip: never attempt to rip out boucle) but it is a literal unwinding and remaking, too. A fresh start, with lessons learned from the last attempt. Taking a new approach to the summit. Insert your own metaphor here -- it's a do-over, and with the added benefit of wallowing in more happybrain chemistry.

So I'm in the middle of a piece now, a pen wrap for myself, and I just ripped it out for the fifth time in a row. I'm working without a pattern, without a plan, just a picture in my head of what the end product should look like and feel like, and I'm far too lazy to make a small sample swatch and do all the math and figure out how it should count out. I'm leaping in, something sharp and poky in both hands. It's taking shape again, and I think it might be right this time. And like the other creative endeavors I've worked on over the last fifteen plus years, it's teaching me more about making mistakes, and trusting instincts, and being brutal about editing (and starting over) and working through process along the way to a finished product.

I'm a computer programmer by hobby originally and by trade later, and there's very much an immediacy and a correctness to that sort of creation -- errors are reported quickly, and results are true/false without a lot of unpleasant nebulousness in the middle. Knitting -- and writing, and typing, and music, and carpentry -- is not like that, thank goodness, and although I'm not sure I'm good at it, I'm not terrible, either. And when I am, I'm happy to haul it off to the frog pond and rip it, rip it, rip it.