Book it

Who knew. I love books. I read approximately a book a week and count myself deprived if I come up short on access to a book, even for a day. Much of the credit goes to the McCracken Public Library in Paducah, a place that doles out a burbling stream of titles for me to peruse and bring home for free. Well, sort of. Because truth be told they are also on the receiving end of frequent late fees owing to the fact that I never seem to be able to toe the line on the three-week limit. But I’m pleased to pay up since this library service, free of charge to those less time challenged, seems altogether too good to be true. What a world… anyone can walk into this lovely air-conditioned space, sign up for a card, and gain the right to take any book in the building home to read. No charge.

The library is my shrine. Because of the books that are there and because of the abject liberty of their access. But also because its a community place where the congregation gathers around ideas. We can’t do without this resource. It offers sustenance for the culturally deprived brain. For free. Its a place where we borrow and return. It has internet. It has a quiet room. It has air conditioning.

We live in a different time now as someone told me. Yes, I noticed. Snippet time frame. Get it now and keep it short. Tweet or die. Attention deficit disorder as the new social norm. I’ve got to be honest with you.. I’ll take the long form any day. A place where a few choice sentences string together enjoyably enough to make entertaining paragraphs, culminating in well rounded chapters that actually go somewhere. Even quite possibly adding up to a book that actually means something.

And oh, a book! Excuse me Kindle and pardon my Ipad (I’ll certainly be getting around to owning you later…) but to hold a book in your hands and turn the pages. Ah… here is tactile sensuality. The cover art. The weight. Subtle pleasures. As in… gauging the portent of a new book from the way it feels. The inside cover giving you the teaser. The typeface do-or-die; right size, right feel, balanced against potential reward on the content. The first read on the opening paragraph. How does it “read”?

Then there’s the assessment of a book after its finished. I’ve had the experience with certain books of valuing their content so dearly that just holding them after finishing the last page provided me with a sensation that must be similar to what a medieval mystic would feel holding an icon of the faith. I’ve held books that hummed.

But now (as mentioned earlier) we live at a time where books are being called out. The paperless future beckons and the Kindle calls. As printed matter diminishes and electronic type ascends we will soon be at the point (are we there yet?) where the printed artifact becomes truly precious. Then we will revisit the days before mass produced editions. Strangely, this future may be much like days before the Gutenberg press, when hand-copied books were rare and incredibly valuable. In the not too distant future we may have a book in our hands that will be really worth something. If the book is any good, that is.

The Smell of Fresh Donuts

There are two types of people in this world, those who think there are two types of people and those who don’t. Well I think there are two types, except I also think that sometimes we are one and sometimes we are the other.

If you don’t agree with me, you might want to read something by someone who thinks there is only one type of person in this world. Go read an article written by someone who thinks everyone in the world likes french fries. He would argue that those fries elicit a positive response from a set of receptors found in virtually every human subject. They are located in the brain’s “Fried Food” region. That region is mapped to the same spot in every human brain, with a neural connection the size of a T1 cable to both the salivary and the “Get in the car and go” regions.

I’m suddenly having a difficult time concentrating on the point I’m trying to make about there being two types of people. By stating the opposing view using the best possible argument I’m trying to remain true to the Socratic Method. But there’s a problem. My counter argument happens to involve something so distracting, so crisp and irresistible. So yummy!

By now it should be patently obvious that there are two types of people, those who stopped reading this to go to McDonald’s to get some french fries and those who didn’t. But why didn’t you? And why didn’t I stop writing? Well my reason is that I…must…continue…this blog. Those who left to go out for that universally scrumptious fast food did so because they became engaged with the image of “golden fries in that familiar red-box” that leapt off the page at the mere mention, and by now have followed it to its natural conclusion at the local franchise. The expectation of that predictably delicious experience in deep-fried comfort food was just too darn tempting to leave alone as unfulfilled temptation.

Okay, who’s left here? We few, we superior few. We are the ones who have not given in to gratifying the signals from our brain’s fried food region. So we must be looking for something else. And here I’d like to talk about a slightly different area of the brain: the area identified by leading scientists at a major university as “art receptors.” These areas turn on or off within seconds of encountering a new piece of art and result in either “Like it” or “Don’t like so much.” And though its possible to adjust this initial response through familiarity, or by providing background information on the artist’s intent, it remains exceedingly difficult to reverse that first impression. And I would argue that in the current era, this area of the brain has formed a major neural pathway to the fried food region.

This is not a man thinking about donuts. What were you thinking about?
This is not a man thinking about donuts. What were you thinking about?

So the art theory that makes the most sense to me is this: the art that I make should have something about it that is the equivalent of a fresh donut. Something irresistible. Not that the process should involve actually making donuts since that would entail developing a separate business plan. And not that the work should really be in any sense a meal of empty calories. This is about providing a certain initial attractive element, akin to the smell of fresh donuts.

And now the corollary to Dave’s Theory of Art: the smell of fresh donuts must be, in the end, false advertising. Once you’ve got people’s attention, once their noses are fully engaged with the idea that a good thing awaits, something else should be ready to emerge. That irresistible smell of fresh donuts must be the hook that grabs our curiosity. But that “something else” should be a real idea. That idea can start somewhere familiar and inviting… but it should also invite us to go off at some point, somewhere strange and surprising.

So there are certainly at least two types of people. But the real difference comes when you think about those types; there are those who think we are always only one of them, fixed and permanent. And there are those (like me) who think about what it might be like to be both of them.

Glories in the Air

My little garden experiment came crashing down last week. I rigged up an arch over our back steps to support some Morning Glory vines. The vines took readily to it and grew across the arch, vigorous and abundant. I was so proud. The entire materials cost was something like ten bucks. By July we had to duck under them if we meant to exit the house in that particular direction. Then an early fall rain shower brought the whole contraption down. Apparently some flaw in my weight-to-structural-integrity-ratio sort of thing was going on there.

Anyway, I made an attempt to rescue it using a kind of rope as guy-wire approach but soon realized all was lost and tore up the vines and tossed them out back in a pile. The weird thing is that now for the last week they’ve continued to blossom every morning.

Its been a rainy week and that’s probably the real reason that those Morning Glory flowers keep popping open every day, transcendently blue as always and cheerful. But seriously, I ask myself, would other flowers do the same? The pile of zinnias I pulled up at the same time turned brown as expected with nary a trace of further florescence. I can only conclude that these Morning Glories are a phenomenon; miracle flowers with no roots in this earth. Here’s an afterglow of summer marking the sacred point when life moves out of the earth and into the air.

Morning Glories bloom on
Morning Glories bloom on

Drawing the Line

Artists draw a lot of lines. Lines are stories. Lines travel. And if its true what they say that happiness lies not in the destination but in the journey then lines might just be happiness. Lines can connect.

Lines also delineate. They can close in on themselves to suggest shapes. They can form borders. Inside/Outside. This/That. Here/There. But if you leave the line open around a shape then inside gets out, outside comes in. If you turn the border between shapes ninety degrees then the slash becomes the hyphen; This-That (this is that), Here-There (here is there).

Popular song shows us how we use the word to say all kinds of things:
“There’s a thin line between love and hate.” (similarity)
“Send me a postcard. Drop me a line.” (a message)
“The Witchita lineman is still on the line.” (the wait)
“Don’t hand me no lines and keep your hands to yourself.” (the pretty lie)
“Because you’re mine, I walk the line” (fidelity)

Lines can be regimental. Everybody line up. Fall in line. The line shows us the norm. And that’s all you’ve got until you learn to draw your own. If you can draw you’re own line then you are an artist, whether it’s a piece of art you make or a piece of your own life.

Well you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, right? Seems almost arbitrary. Might as well be here, I guess. Like you should have drawn it earlier but now you’ve let it go and you’d better draw it now before things really get out of hand. Like you’ve got no choice but to draw the line. Why can’t you just NOT draw the line?

Not an option I guess. The artist in me just has to draw his own line. The line describes me, leads me, becomes me. I draw it, or it draws itself, depending on my view of the event at any particular moment.

Life has a way of becoming fragmented and diffuse but when that happens it helps to start drawing lines between things. Sometimes those lines need to delineate, make shapes, create borders, add clarity. Sometimes those lines make connections, suggest relationship, show us the unity of the parts.

All in how you draw the line.

Ice Limbo

We are just now emerging form a delicate form of disaster known as an ice storm. More specifically, “The Great Ice Storm of 2009”. The storm lined up horizontally and ran through us sideways, owning this part of Kentucky for almost three days. The snow stayed north and the rain stayed south. We were caught between in a limbo-land of ice. The first wave laid down a delicate coat of the most beautiful crystalline wonder. What came next was the disaster.

My job at the local home improvement warehouse provided many points of reference for the depth of the disaster. The day before the storm hit, my neighbor Kent was in Lowe’s searching for supplies to survive the coming storm. It was my first hint that something nasty was on the way since this long-time Paducah resident was scooping up propane canisters and hardware to make ready his space heater, seeing what was about to happen much clearer than I. On my way out to my car after work the first wave of weather was hitting and the parking lot and cars were being freshly coated. The ice was falling heavily and made a sound like hot spitting grease on the pavement. I jammed my key in the frozen lock but it wouldn’t turn. I then bent it in a fit of stupid urgency, trying to escape the sizzling ice. I was extremely grateful that the back hatch opened for me but the bent key no longer found a way to function in the ignition slot. I must have jacked it up good because even my wife’s proper key didn’t work the next day. The car would eventually sit in the car repair lot encased in a jacket of ice for more than a week during the entire duration of this “event.” My sweet angel coworker Dana gave me a lift home that night.

The next day we still had power although it had gone out for a few hours overnight. I was able to borrow our neighbor’s car to get to work and got there about an hour late. There was a brief pause in the onslaught of ice accumulation during this time and my ride to work opened up a silvery frozen world encased in a half an inch of ice. This middle period of the storm was warmer and more rain fell here in Paducah than accumulated as ice. What was to come was very bad but much worse would have resulted if it was just five or ten degrees colder during this time.

We had only six or seven employees on duty that day and we mostly had bad news for the shoppers who straggled in. The kerosene heaters and generators had already been scooped up by prescient folks like my neighbor Kent. I was able to find about eight more chain saws in top stock and brought them down where they disappeared in about an hour. People were out mainly to find heaters as the power was slowly being knocked in the area and people knew worse was to come. The lawn and garden section of the store was the hot spot that day where the cabinet specialist and I filled in for absent employees. We could only repeat the mantra “No, we sold out of space heaters yesterday… no generators either” to the hopeful faces.

The weather turned colder that evening. All day we watched the radar as the long thin storm drove itself through the heartland. Reports of disaster came in from Arkansas and we knew we were soon in for the same ourselves. That night was the night of breaking trees. I heard many stories later from people in more heavily wooded areas about the night-long series of gunshot sounds as the the trees and utility poles succumbed. By morning our power was out and the world outside was frightening and strangely beautiful. Trees were snapped off or bowed to the ground with ice. Power lines sagged ominously. I drove to work once again in the borrowed car and slipped under the drooping power lines with a prayer for a few moment’s additional reprieve.

At work the sense of crisis was palpable. Requests for generators, heaters, chain saws were routinely denied. Our normal delivery truck arrived somehow but it contained a heartbreaking assortment of patio furniture, bar-b-cues and whatnot, nothing of any use. A crowd assembled back by the delivery bay and the work crew labored to clear out the truck, searching for anything of value to deal with your average winter ice storm disaster. One single generator emerged at the end and our Sales Manager deftly appropriated the proper recipient by saying, rather than “Who was first in line”, “YOU were first in line, weren’t you?.” Fortunately there was no challenge to that assertion.

We had an emergency truck arriving later full of generators and people lingered in the store waiting for it. This was most amazing to me since everyone there knew that they and their loved ones were clinging to the prospect of obtaining this device for their comfort and existence, yet there was very little general ruckus. People just seemed to be commiserating with each other in the crisis. The Store Manager sent everyone out before noon with the news that the truck wouldn’t arrive until at least 4 p.m.. So much needed to be done anyway. The lines at gas stations went on for half a mile. Kerosene for some reason was impossible to find. All the peripheral items necessary for the primary things like heaters, generators and chain saws were already sucked out of the store; kerosene, regulators, hoses, plugs, chain saw oil and replacement blades. In fact, the story of the next few days would be finding the vital components that would complete the device. I learned more about four pronged locking plugs for generators in the next few days than I ever knew. The generator truck would eventually arrive around midnight and Lowe’s stayed open until the last one was sold.

Powerfully sad stories emerged as well. In quiet dignity, a man would ask first for kerosene heaters (“sold out”), propane canisters (“gone two days ago”) or anything to heat a house. Then I’d hear his story, how he’d driven a hundred miles to look after his eighty year old parents and was just trying to find something to keep them warm for a few days. I heard nine or ten stories just like this that day. The worst was a phone call from man at a hospital desperate to find kerosene; “This is awful! How could we not be ready for this. What will we do? Do you know anywhere I can get kerosene??” I didn’t.

The ice storm was passing and a deep cold was settling in. Like a frog in frozen mud, like a carp in winter, we were living in ice limbo. People were disconnected from their normal lives and the world in general seemed to be receding. The sense of disconnect was strongest for me when I eagerly turned to the national news after our power was restored to find no mention of the disaster for three consecutive days (days 4, 5 and 6). Hearing the news directly through people’s individual stories told me that whole counties were out of power with entire rows of utility poles were knocked down in massive scale. On day seven the national anchor mentioned us again noting that there were still half a million without power.

Our power came back on only a day and a half after we lost it. We tried to offer our guest room to the people crowded into the house across the street. She was overwhelmed with members of her extended family who had sought refuge there but declined our offer saying “You don’t want them over there because they stay up all night.” I offered our hot showers and guest room to several people at worked but no one took me up on it. I confessed my guilt about getting power back so quickly to my co-workers and one said “I pay 2,500 bucks a year in property tax, I don’t feel guilty.” Cold but true.

After about a week the temperatures rose and the ice showered out of the shattered trees. The emergency trucks arrived full of heaters, chain saws and generators (still woefully short of vital parts for them however as that four-prong locking plug became the hottest ticket in town). The utility trucks began to arrive from around the country and I began to note the license plates every morning as I drove past dozens of them near Jackson Power; Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina. Good people were in town to help us. I never knew how lovely an electrical utility truck is. Thirty of them lined up with their engines running is absolutely gorgeous. The crisis eased but it would take weeks for some people to get their power back and some still do not have it as I speak (almost three weeks out).

I have a deep affection for trees. They’ve always seemed to represent our greatest aspirations as they reach their limbs toward the sky. Now their role in connecting us to the heavens had taken a beating. As Stefanie and I drove out to a local wildlife area yesterday we saw trees everywhere with their top limbs turned down like shirt collars, or sheared off which exposed a strange pattern of white pith across the woods. The immense quantity of wood on the ground was gradually being formed into piles by the sturdy survivors of this cruel episode of weather. The trees will remain ugly at least until spring softens them a bit with green. We should soon have beautiful sunsets because the piles of wood will be burning into summer.