Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Z" is for Zenobia

Zenobia was the legendary Queen of the East.

I know this because a few days ago, my 8-year-old daughter brought me her well-worn copy of Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz's The Daring Book for Girls, which I had originally bought for her twelve-year-old sister's eighth birthday, for us to read together. Out of all the crafts, activities, history and biographies of great women, she decided we'd read the story of Zenobia, the 3rd century B.C. warrior Queen of Palmyra, in modern-day Syria.  She was a beneficent ruler, whose kingdom at one time stretched across the entire Levant, until she rebelled against Rome and was overthrown.

My Daring Girls
Fast-forward a couple of millenia. When I found out our first child would be a girl, I was thrilled.  When I found out our second and most likely last, was a girl, I let out a slow breath and then proceeded to be equally happy.  And I decided from the very beginning that I would do everything I could to raise them strong and independent and believing in their limitless potential.  No, I would not try to make them into the boys I'd never have.  Why would I want to do that?  I was glad to have girls, and other than feats of sheer strength and certain functions for which testosterone and hard-wired aggression uniquely fit men, girls can do anything.  (If God had rested after making the first man, I'd have judged humanity to be a bit of a shoddy piece of workmanship, but happily, He wasn't finished yet.)  Whatever vestiges of male chauvinism still clung to me as a young man were pretty much knocked off by my beautiful, precious daughters.

The Daring Book and a companion
Anyhow, In an age when what's considered de rigueur for girls and women is dispensed by a society that belittles motherhood and seems hell-bent on robbing girls of their childhood as quickly as possible for maximum profit, The Daring Book for Girls is a refreshing step backwards.  In 106 delightful articles, girls can learn everything from How to Whistle with Two Fingers to How to Negotiate a Salary, to Books That Will Change Your Life.  Had The Daring Book come out long enough ago, Annie Oakley, Jo March and Idgie Threadgoode would have had it.  My tomboy wife would have had it. Grandpa might have bought it for my mom, and Atticus Finch might have bought it for for Scout.

The Daring Book for Girls is a perfect gift for daughters and granddaughters, as would be your time spent reading it and doing its activities with them.

Oh, and Zenobia?  Accounts differ on what became of her after she was captured and taken to Rome.  But in a book like this, it's fitting that the ending is left up to the girl's imagination.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Y" is for Yonder (the Wild Blue)


Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.
If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay.
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.

Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru.
In llama-land, there's a one-man band, and he'll toot his flute for you.
Come fly with me, let's take off in the blue.

Once I get you up there where the air is rarefied
We’ll just fly, starry-eyed
Once I get you up there, I’ll be holding you so near,
You may hear, angels cheer, ‘cause we’re together

Weather-wise, it’s such a lovely day,
You just say the word and we’ll beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay
It’s perfect for a flying honeymoon they say,
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly
Pack up, let’s fly away…

© Cahn Music Company; Maraville Music Corporation

Are any of you old enough to remember when train travel was common and air travel was a big deal?  When a trip on an airplane was exotic and exciting?  When Frank Sinatra sang "Come Fly With Me" and you wished you could take him up on it?

Do any of you remember this scene?

Your dad wore his best brown suit and hat (well, back then he always wore a suit, although at the beach he'd at least roll up his pant legs and leave his coat and tie in the Buick) and your mom wore her new floral-print summer dress and lacy white hat. Airport security consisted of a middle-aged guy with a nightstick and revolver and clip-on tie who looked like he'd eaten more than his share of donuts and rocked back and forth on his heels as he gave you a wink and a nod.  You strode out from the terminal building across the tarmac toward a gleaming, streamlined airplane with either a blue or orange stripe or two red ones, depending on whether you were flying Pan Am, American or TWA.  You ascended a set of air stairs that coveralled mechanics had wheeled up to the plane and were greeted at the top by a beaming stewardess (as female flight attendants were called in that less enlightened age), impeccably attired in a neat blue suit adorned with silver wings and a smart, military-style cap.

The cabin wasn't cavernous, but only because wide-body jets weren’t yet invented, not because you were being stuffed into it like so much sausage by a bean counter corps trying to stave off bankruptcy proceedings.  Maybe your dad brought you up to the cockpit where the pilot (who almost certainly flew during the War) pointed out what the various levers and switches did and handed you a set of Junior Aviator wings that weren't made in China. The biggest challenge for the flight attendants was your little brother wanting to zoom through the cabin with his toy F-86 Sabre jet, not business travelers refusing to turn off cell phones or surly men glancing furtively about.

Jet air travel was in its infancy.  You could get on a 707 or DC-8 for a trans-oceanic flight or major domestic route, but just flying was excitement enough and you felt a thrill, tempered with a bit of healthy apprehension as you looked out the window of your DC-6 or Super Constellation and saw the mechanic standing below the streamlined engine nacelle, fire extinguisher at the ready, and each propeller slowly turn before its massive Double Wasp or Turbo Compound radial engine caught and fired in a thunderous coughing fit and cloud of white smoke.  The booming cacophony calmed to a loafing, lopey idle until the pilot deftly eased the four throttles forward together with a practiced touch, unleashing ten thousand stamping, impatient horses to urge you free of the ground.  And then, leveling out at cruise speed and altitude, the engines settled down to a reassuring, steady drone.

It was still only 15 years since those same engines powered the Thunderbolts and Corsairs and Superfortresses that helped your dad and uncles whip the bad guys in the big war.  And even though they couldn't go down and have a big time in Havana anymore since that Castro clown took over, and even though the Russkies were rattling their sabers and sending stuff into space and you had to do duck and cover drills at school and your dad looked over brochures for backyard bomb shelters as he smoked his pipe, you still liked Ike and it was still an idyllic and exciting time, full of ideas and pregnant with possibility.  And on a day like today, bobbing on invisible currents of air between puffs of blinding white cloud in the achingly, impossibly blue heavens, even the Reds couldn't spoil it.

* * *

High Flight by John G. Magee, Jr.

Oh!  I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor eagle flew-
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"X" is for X Planes

The "X Planes" (X for experimental) are the series of research aircraft flown mostly by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and its predecessor NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, sometimes in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force.  They've served various purposes over the decades, but the flights that most captured the public's imagination are the ones that set speed and altitude records.  The first and most famous of the X planes was the Bell X-1 in which the great Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, reaching the pinnacle of the test pilot hierarchy and becoming an american hero and legend.  The literal summit of the X Plane flights came courtesy of the North American X-15, the first spaceplane, in which, between 1961 and 1968, pilots like Neil Armstrong reached the edges of outer space and helped blaze the trail to the moon.

However, like so many of my blog posts about "things," this one isn't so much about the thing itself, but what the thing represents.  The X planes represent many things; the can-do attitude exemplified by President Kennedy's speech challenging America to reach the moon by the close of the 1960s, explosive innovation and exploration, and a time when almost all of the countries of the world looked at America with admiration for our audacity and technical leadership.  They also are part of an all but bygone era predating modern computer-aided design, when advancements in flight required men with the "right stuff" to strap on rockets, stare death in the face and laugh, and go blasting off into the stratosphere.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"W" is for Watching the Wheels

This one is for me.

"W" is for my favorite solo John Lennon song.

I still remember the days when John and Yoko's album Double Fantasy was released in 1980.  The reviews were mixed, but there were some great songs that got plenty of airplay, and of course, critics gave it a second look after Lennon's death.  My favorite track was Watching the Wheels; I thoroughly loved it and everything about it.  The relaxed but driving tempo, John Lennon's piano playing, his beautiful, conversational singing and phrasing, the staccato saxophones, the way it captured the feel of the end of the seventies; it was a musical gem. It's also always been a melancholy song for me, because we know that after recording it, he had precious little time left on earth to enjoy the peace, contentment, and freedom from the expectations of fans and the music industry that it expresses.  That knowledge also colors listenings of Woman, (Just Like) Starting Over, and Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).

In the car, I'm a real radio channel surfer, but there are some songs that are guaranteed stop me in my tracks and keep my finger away from the preset buttons; What'd I Say, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, American Pie, Margaritaville, Under the Bridge... and most of all, Watching the Wheels.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"V" is for Vinyl

Please note: this post is about vinyl records.  If you're looking for pleather,  just keep moving.  This isn't that kind of blog.

Having been born in 1969 not only means my knees ache and I need glasses and I'm squarely in the target demographic for some of the tackier pharmaceutical ads on late night television, but also that my contemporaries and I remember some pretty rad stuff, like G.I. Joe with the Kung-Fu Grip, The New Zoo Revue, crocheted beer can hats, and... the vinyl record.

Most of us children of the '70s had portable phonographs with our very own 45s and LPs, and as teenagers of the '80s, we caught the tail end of an era when going over to a high school friend's house meant studying album covers and reading lyrics from sleeves while listening to their record collection, just as it did for our Boomer parents.  We were living the swan song of the vinyl record; we just didn't know it, and probably wouldn't have understood it if we had.
In my childhood bedroom... and at Chris and Greg's house after school

Digital music is an advance over the vinyl record... in some ways.  It's compact and portable, it's not affected by a host of physical problems that plague record playback, it's not worn out by normal use, and a rack of CDs is much less likely than your roommate's musty stack of cardboard-sleeved records to take on the lovely bouquet of spilled beer and cat pee.  The vinyl record is also pretty much a home-bound affair.  1950s car-mounted record players gave it the old college try but pretty much went the way of the Edsel (I wonder how many discs were scratched going over railroad tracks).  If you've got to roller-boogie in sweatbands and short-shorts to Alicia Bridges, your boom box is going to need a cassette player.  And what level of hell would recitals, family gatherings and car trips be for sullen adolescents without mp3 players and ear buds?

Remember this?
But as with many other objects of nostalgia, the vinyl record has qualities that have never been bettered.  Much has been said about the realism, immediacy and warmth of vinyl, and I'm convinced that when an analog signal is converted into discreet zeroes and ones, just as when an image is expressed in pixels, something is necessarily lost.

Then there is something that the quibbler or the uninitiated may complain about, but is an essential part of the experience for many of us.  We vividly remember laying down on the floor of our living room in front of the gigantic Magnavox console stereo, or flopping down in a beanbag with headphones (real ones, that covered the ears) plugged into the hi-fi.   When we lowered the tone arm onto the record's lead-in groove, that little bit of audible crackle was a Pavlovian signal to our young temporal lobes that something cracklin' good was about to happen.  In particular, I remember that anticipation just before the London Symphony Orchestra sounded the first crashing strains of the Star Wars Fanfare on our two-disc soundtrack album.

But the biggest loss with the demise of the LP has to be the album cover.  It's not just that the larger format provided a more generous canvas for groundbreaking artwork than the CD; in the '60s and '70s, especially with double albums, they blossomed into interactive mixed-media experiences, with front, inside and back covers linked conceptually, playing a joke, giving a visual pun or surprise, or telling a story.  A jewel case insert or the digital thumbnail picture next to the .mp3 listing on iTunes has no provision for the listener to punch out die-cut marching band memorabilia, open tenement windows, undo zippers or peel bananas.

Often, "new and improved" really means cheaper to manufacture, distribute and retail.  Whether it means real improvement for the consumer isn't always clear, especially in the rear view mirror.  Call me a throwback, but I'm sad that the vinyl record is mostly a museum piece.

What's your favorite album and album cover from the vinyl era, and why?  

Update: Five bonus points for the first person to give the name and artist of all the above album covers.  Two points if you know which picture is of the back cover and why, and one point if you can identify the doohickey above.  Points not redeemable outside Bakersfield, CA, terms and conditions apply, see store for details.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"U" is for Unremarkable

Underwear?  Boxer briefs.

Ultimate Fighting Championship? Uninterested.

Uranus: Still a planet, right?

Ural:  Utilitarian Russian motorcycle.

Unholy Hunger:  Gritty detective-noir psychological thriller debut novel by Heather James.

Unmolested:  Better than overrestored.

Utilities and Infrastructure?  Yes, that was one topic idea, but I don't hate my readers.

Uninvited?  Cool song.  I liked it better when it was called Kashmir and performed by Zeppelin.

Unlamented:  That was an idea for a super-short story for today, but it went nowhere.

Ulysses?  Yes, it's on my Kindle; no, I haven't read it.

Unfortunately, for the second time in this here A to Z Challenge I am completely uninspired, unenergetic and unable to make more than a feeble stab at the letter of the day.  I apologize if you take umbrage, but on the bright side, I'm leaving more of your time unconsumed and unwasted.
Until tomorrow...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"T" is for Things I Learned from my Parents

Things Dad told: Don't do a halfway job. Look people in the eye and use a firm handshake. Do an honest day's work. Be respectful to adults, even if you don't feel like it. Treat your mother with respect. Return the car keys to me, not to an undisclosed location.  Use the right tool for the job. When I'm under the car and ask for a tool, put it in my hand.  Valvoline is better than Pennzoil.  A midnight curfew means you're home at midnight.

Things Dad showed:  Men's hair should be combed, as should their sons.' Hit the nail straight. Do not lie, cheat or steal. Have a good work ethic. Be dependable. Be the best at what you do and make yourself indispensable to your employer. Do what you say you'll do.  Punctuality is respect for others. If your nation calls, answer. Good grooming is a given. Take care of your mother-in-law. Be true to yourself. Pulling weeds develops sons' character so start using Roundup only after your live-in gardeners have moved out.

Things Mom told: Go Dodgers! Your little brother only copies you because he loves you. Nobody didn't love your grandfather. Your grandmother was a good athlete, an excellent cook and giving to a fault. You don't need to reveal every single detail of our lives to strangers. No, you may not wear your new cowboy hat in El Torito. Be a help, not a hindrance, to your teachers.  God has a plan and purpose for your life.

Things Mom showed: Treasure your elders, love your family.  Be sensitive to other people's feelings. Never be intentionally hurtful to other people. Be dependable. Small things that link us to our grandparents are worth preserving. History is fascinating, learning is fun, reading is priceless.  Your work is good enough for the Louvre, but let's put it on the fridge. It's okay to be quiet, but there are times you must speak up. Be true to yourself. Children are precious. Your potential is limitless and it's my mission to nurture it.  

Things Mom and Dad told: All we ask of you is that you do your best. 

Things Mom and Dad showed: Skin color doesn't matter, character does. Work hard for your family.  Don't be afraid to make a move to benefit your family's future. Make sure your children spend as much precious time as possible with their grandparents. Life is about experiences, not money.  Love the Lord your God and train up your children in the way they should go.  We love you and are here for you for as long as we live.

Monday, April 22, 2013

"S" is for Shaving

Warning:  This is a Super-Manly Post. Approach with caution.

It's also super-long and I do apologize. I know it smacks of self-indulgence and self-importance in a community of presssed-for-time A to Z bloggers, it's just that I did a lousy job of paring it down, and it's hard to constrain Super-Manliness, which tends to expand to fit whatever container it finds itself in. I appreciate your indulgence.

So, what are those strange artifacts in the picture below?

If you haven't the faintest idea, I was going to tell you to go play with your X-Box and get off my lawn, I have socks older than you. But on second thought, pull up a chair, you might learn something, and who knows, could even end up carrying the banner for an ancient rite of manliness yourself.

If you guessed double-edge safety razor, badger hair shaving brush and shaving soap, you're right, and if you guessed it’s the Merkur razor, Rooney brush and Col. Conk's Bay Rum shaving soap that I use when I'm not sporting my Super-Manly beard, you’re even righter, and are clearly a person of class and intelligence.  I actually enjoy shaving with these; so much so that when I have my beard, even though I look better with it, I'm constantly tempted to shave it so I can indulge in the daily pleasure of a traditional wet shave.

The one manly corner of the bathroom
Yes, I shave the way my grandfathers did. I could shave the way my great-great-grandfathers did and barbers and some stalwarts still do, with a straight razor. It's undeniably manlier than anything this side of a dry shave with a sharp rock, but any tool gives me pause when the possible results of mishandling include death and dismemberment.  A safety razor is only really potentially dangerous when disassembled, a margin of safety I'm comfortable with, especially with children in the house. Plus, a straight razor requires regular honing by a practiced owner or a professional, which just isn't my bag, man.

I believe the version of the safety razor introduced by King C. Gilette in 1903 was a significant and genuine improvement in the state of the art, but I don't believe the same for the cartridge razors introduced in the 1970s.

Multiple blades? The efficacy of two blades is debatable; three, four and five (!) blades are artifice, snake oil and flim-flam, respectively.* Pivoting heads? The compactness of the traditional safety razor obviates the need, and remember, we homo sapiens are blessed not only with opposable thumbs, but pivoting wrists and fine motor skills.  If one lacks the dexterity to follow the countours of one's face without an articulated razor head, one might be happier with an electric shaver or a beard.  Fewer nicks and cuts?  I've suffered no cuts and only a few tiny nicks with this razor, fewer than with multiple blade disposables, and none requiring so much as a dab with the syptic pencil.

I don't do this purely, or even mostly, for the sake of nostalgia.  The "old-fashioned" safety razor and brush have real advantages over the multi-blade, lubri-stripped wonders.

The German-made Merkur 33C razor pictured above costs $32, and refill blades cost between $2 and $10 for a 10-pack, whereas the latest five-blade razors are $10 and up, and cartridges cost between $20 and $40 per ten (although there are cheaper multi-blade alternatives). The typical safety razor is made of three pieces of steel plus the blade.  It's not going to break.  Hard to imagine that being true of a plastic Mach 5000 Terminator or electric shaver. Manufacturers of modern razors like to refer to them as "shaving systems."  I think there's a lot to be said for a shaving "system" that contains no plastic and could easily outlive my grandchildren.

There is more room between the blade and the bar or comb of a safety razor for soap and stubble to exit through than between blades of a multi-blade cartridge, so it clogs less easily, rinses more easily, and because it has two sides, requires half the rinsing.  Also, shaving cream is thick and gooey, not because that's better, but it's how an instant "lather" is achieved without a brush.  But all that's needed is lubrication, and shaving soap is every bit as good in that regard, if not better.  The thinner lather of shaving soap loads up the razor less, further reducing the amount of rinsing needed.  I only need to rinse a safety razor three times during a shave; about ten with a cartridge razor.

But the best advantage of the safety razor and brush is the most subjective, that is, the experience.
The best things a man can feel on his face are the caress of a loved one, the winds of freedom, a hot towel at the barber shop and shaving soap applied with badger hair shaving brush.  The razor has a satisfying heft to it, the weight alone providing sufficient pressure for cutting the beard.  It's a stylish and elegant accessory worthy of a gentleman, not an amorphous plastic contrivance that looks like it would be more at home in ET's interstellar toiletries kit.

What many will see as the one undeniable disadvantage of all this is the time required, and it does take longer.  From the time I first wet my face to the time I slap on the after shave balm (my one concession to modernity; traditional aftershaves are mostly alcohol and can dry the skin) is a full ten minutes in "luxury mode," where I take my time and enjoy it; a couple less if I'm more purposeful about it.  Electric shavers are the undisputed speed champions (though that is somewhat mitigated by the fact that I have to wait for my face to dry thoroughly in order to use them comfortably), and they do offer a close shave.  If one's idea of shaving is a pedestrian chore, the goal of which is to get it over with as quickly as possible, then go with the electric.

But for me, speed isn't the issue. In taking the time for a traditional wet shave, I'm reclaiming a few minutes from my morning to enjoy an time-honored ritual of manhood.  When I look in the mirror, it's like Cary Grant is looking back at me (that is, if I squint and hold my head at a certain angle). It sets the tone for the day; less hurried, less harried.  My dad taught me to value good grooming, and after a traditional shave I feel well-groomed, manly, and confident, ready to take on the world.  Even if the world is only the inside of a cubicle. 

For further reading:



* From Wikipedia:
The marketing of increasing numbers of blades in a cartridge has been parodied since the 1970s. The debut episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975 included a parody advertisement for the Triple Trac Razor, shortly after the first two-blade cartridge for men's razors was advertised. In the early 1990s, the (Australian) Late Show skitted a (insert name of popular razor brand) "3000" with 16 blades and 75 lubricating strips as arrived at with the help of NASA scientists - "The first blade distracts the hair...". In 2004, a satirical article in The Onion entitled "F--- Everything, We're Doing Five Blades" predicted the release of five-blade cartridges, two years before their commercial introduction.
[A battery-powered vibrating action], as advertised by Gillette, was intended to raise hair up and away from the skin prior to being cut. These claims were ruled in an American court as "unsubstantiated and inaccurate."

Saturday, April 20, 2013

"R" is for Redhead

Julia shook her head at Cal.  "I’m married to an adolescent."
"That's because you married an adolescent," Cal replied. "Not too smart, if you ask me, Professor."

"I don't ask you.  I admit it wasn't my most MENSA moment, but I needed someone who could work on a Volkswagen and open jars."

"Uh-huh... Son," Cal said, glancing sideways at Jay, "I’d never tell you
not to marry a redhead, but I’d definitely advise you to go in with both eyes open," whereupon Julia gave him a good whack upside the head.


It was 1987 and I was standing outside my senior English classroom at North High School with my girlfriend Robin before the bell rang, when my teacher, Mrs. Gaede (who, incidentally, is tied for First Place in my personal Teacher Hall of Fame) walked up to the door.  She suddenly stopped and looked us over, shook her head in bemused wonder and said "My, your family certainly has a predilection for redheads."

Let's turn back the clock another twenty three years.  My Dad, with whom I share a first name, was a North High graduate.  Not only did Mrs. Gaede teach at North High when he attended, he also did yardwork and odd jobs for her, and she remembered his redhead girlfriend from then. (Fortunately, hers was an interim position, and Dad married my redhead Mom, whom he met at Bakersfield College.  They just celebrated their forty-fifth anniversary.)  So yeah, Mrs. Gaede definitely had a point.

Our song?  Lady in Red, of course.
I met my own redhead girlfriend my sophomore and her freshman year at a Tuesday night band practice, but honestly, it didn't register very strongly with me at the time.  She seemed kind of goofy, but that's about it.  It wasn't until the next year that I fell for her, hard, at a County Honor Band practice.  There she was, under the lights on the other end of the stage, and BAM, I was smitten with the proverbial ton of bricks, yea, verily.  It took three months of concerted effort to convince her that I was The Guy.

Now I didn't mention it before, but at that first inconsequential meeting, the night air was damp and chilly, and Robin was wearing this ridiculous nylon windbreaker with the hood cinched tight around her face.  Note that there was no electricity when her red hair was covered, but when it was lit up by the stage lights I was zapped like Ben Franklin's kite.  Coincidence?  The gentle reader may dismiss it as such, but I'm not willing to.  Of course, there were other things, like her beauty, her vivacity, her faith, her inner glow, her nuttiness and her independent streak.  But never discount the redness.

Whatever it was, it was something.  We've been married for nigh on twenty-three years now, and my redhead and I have been through ups and downs, thin and flush, laughter and sorrow.  It's common for redheads to lose their red as time goes by, and she's no exception, now being more of a reddish, brownish blonde.  She hates it.  Nothing against blondes, I don't think, she's just always liked being a redhead, in a proud, defiant way.  Most redhead women know they're special.  Now she just requires a little help from magical hair guy David (two hours north in Fresno!) to maintain it.

But I don't care.  While it's true I have a thing for red hair, I'll always have a thing for one particular redhead, even when her hair is white.

Friday, April 19, 2013

"Q" is for Quick

Before it was the trade name of check-balancing software and a loan company, "quicken" was a real word, though one rarely seen.

My first and only encounter with it was in the context of formal, corporate prayers said in church services. "Quicken our hearts, we pray" was a common phrase, one I liked, but it seemed a bit odd. Make our hearts beat faster?

No, make our hearts alive, as in Ezekiel 36:26.  I later learned that before it was another way to say fast, quick meant living.

The Quick and the Dead isn't just a clever title for a western flick.  The phrase originates in three passages in the King James version of the New Testament and is well known from the Apostles Creed.  In all those instances it refers to Jesus judging the living and the dead.  In the movie title then, we, and undoubtedly the film's creators, recognize the double meaning, but the two meanings amount to the same thing; quick means alive - especially for a gunfighter.

Other words begin to make sense when we know the archaic meaning of quick.  The quick is the living tissue under the fingernail, and where we get the phrase "cut to the quick."  Yeah, it hurts. Quicksand seems to trap its victim with purpose, like a living predator.  And to anyone who has ever rolled mercury around in their hand (back before such a reckless act would have the hazmat squad whisking you into quarantine and stretching yellow caution ribbon around your house), it's easy to understand why quicksilver isn't just the name of a totally awesome Kevin Bacon movie.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"P" is for Properties of People and Materials

Yeah, that's a mouthful, so how about we call this one Engineering for Writers?

How many times have you read a story and seen a character described as strong, or tough, or unstable?  That's a little like asking how many times you've seen conjunctions or the definite article.  These are properties that can describe not only people but inanimate objects and materials, and engineers use those words even more than writers.  I thought it might be of some interest for the writer to see what engineers mean when they use those words and to see how well the materials science definition lines up with their usage.  Who knows, it may even provide some insights into your writing.  Or not.  But it won't do any harm.

(For our first two words, it might be useful to define a couple of terms first.  Think of a hacksaw blade clamped vertically by the bottom end in a bench vise.  If you push on the top end a half inch or so, it will bend, but rebound to its original position like a spring when we let go.  We call that elastic deformation.  Push on it more than a few inches and it will yield and stay in its bent position.  That's plastic deformation.)

Rigidity.  With people and with materials science, rigid means unbending.  In engineering, whether this is desirable depends on the application, but with people it's usually seen as a negative, i.e., "overly rigid."  

Strength.  We usually seem to think of human physical strength as power, or the ability to apply force, in an active sense.  On the other hand, we tend to see mental or emotional strength as resistance to yielding under stress, in a passive sense, and the latter is how engineers define it.  In materials, strength is resistance to yielding plastically, i.e., permanently.

We like people who are strong and unyielding, but not rigid, completely unbending.  We don't want our heroes to compromise on core beliefs under duress, but we value their ability to examine their beliefs and modify them if it proves to be the right thing to do.

Toughness.  Strong and tough are often used interchangeably, but they are different.  Toughness in a person is the ability to absorb punishment without breaking.  Similarly, in materials science, it's how much energy a material will absorb before failure (breakage or yielding).  Remember the fight scene in Cool Hand Luke?  Lucas wasn't as strong as Dragline, but he was tough; no matter how many times he got knocked down, he kept getting back up.  He lost the fight, but won the respect of Dragline and their fellow inmates.  But what really comes to mind when I think of toughness are little green plastic army men.  Those suckers could take any punishment my six-year-old mind could conjure up, short of fire. You could bend them, but you couldn't tear them with your bare hands.  The polyethylene they're made of is tough stuff.

Brittleness.  In engineering terms, brittleness is the tendency of a material to break suddenly rather than gradually.  Think of a glass rod.  Brittleness in a person can be physical, as in an older person's bones, but is usually used as an emotional quality.  An emotionally brittle person is weak and may "lose it" without warning.

Hardness.  Can be conflated with strength and toughness (Those Marines on Guadalcanal were hard bastards!), but is also used to denote a lack of emotion, or an impenetrable shell.  Not exactly the same in engineering terms, where hardness is resistance to abrasion; the hardness of diamonds makes them ideally suited for cutting and grinding.

Ductility and Malleability.  Ductility is the ability to deform without breaking under tensile stress, often expressed as the ability to be drawn into wire.  Malleability refers to deformation under compressive stress and is usually thought of as the ability to be hammered into thin sheets.  (They don't necessarily go together; gold is ductile and malleable, while lead is only malleable).  With people, the words could be used interchangeably, but I don't recall ever seeing an easily-yielding person called ductile.  I have, however, often seen malleable used to describe people who are easily shaped and influenced by others, and I think it's a great, descriptive word.  Ductile?  You might want to run it by a trusted editor.

If you've made it through this long-winded post, dear reader, you can now use these dual-purpose words with precision and confidence.  No need to thank me, it's just one of the many services I offer!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"O" is for Old

Did I mention I like old stuff?

Yeah, I do, and I have as long as I can remember, probably starting with a fascination with my grandparents' things. Fast-forward to 1985 and my first car was a 1964 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova SS (quite a mouthful, yes?) and I drove it for the next twenty years. It was a big enough part of my life for a blog post all its own, and it still saddens me that I had to sell it.

I don't know if I could catalog all the things I like about owning and using old stuff. An important one is that if you're driving a car made the year your parents graduated high school, you'll probably be the only one on your block. The Nova attracted a lot of attention. Granted, 20 to 65-year-old males wasn't the demographic I was aiming for, but it was still cool. Obviously it fed into my nostalgic side. The Nova was like a time machine, and I had a great time cruising with the girlfriend who would become my wife. I even had a collection of '60s nickels and quarters in the ashtray. Is that weird?

In 2006, age 42.  No trouble picking it out in a parking lot.

When it comes to actually using old things, I categorize them in three ways. The first are things that have been made truly obsolete by newer things. These would be mostly utilitarian things. Most people don't wash their clothes in a tub with washboard and wringer or watch television on a old DuMont set, and to do so would probably make them glad they're living in 2013.

Some old things are quite useable and may have some advantages over new things, but involve some definite compromises in using them. My Nova was a good example. It was functional and was actually one of the faster cars on the road in the mid-80s. But it always ran hot and didn't have air-conditioning, which is a problem in Bakersfield seven months of the year. It also had low-backed seats and lap belts only, so while I did worry about whiplash and breaking my face on the steering wheel, it was a calculated risk I was willing to take. That I often had to work on it was offset by the fact that I could work on it without a degree from a technical school.  And the $46 annual registration fee was bragging material.

Finally, there are those things in which the old version, if not superior to the new, at least has some demonstrable advantages. For me, these include shaving with old-style safety razor, shaving soap and brush, and vinyl records; more on those in the coming days.

I think I've mentioned this before, and I'll repeat it - where "new  and improved" actually means "new for no good reason but improved marketing potential," I'll take a good, hard look at the old.  Your results may vary.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"N" is for nothing

"Nothing" because I couldn't come up with a word for "whine," "gripe," or "kvetch" that begins with "N."  At the halfway point, this here A to Z Blogging Challenge is turning out to be, well, a challenge, and I have to admit, I'm struggling here.  I'm getting started on my posts later and later each day and staying up later and later to finish them.  The mainspring is starting to wind down, and the writing that came so freely and easily at the beginning of the month is starting to feel decidedly chore-like.  Which is just something that must be worked through, one foot in front of the other.  But not tonight.  I had alternately considered writing on New and Improved, Nostalgia, Dodger great Don "Newk" Newcombe and even Nickel Plating, of all things, but after a twelve-hour work day, I'm fried and can't muster the energy to do any one of them.

So I hit the pillow and salute all my fellow A-to-Z bloggers who aren't copping out and phoning it in today and hope to rejoin them tomorrow.