Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What the Dickens is that thing in the dark?

I am reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time. This is only my second Dickens book (first was Great Expectations) and I'm loving it.

Here's one of my favorite elements -- and I saw this in Great Expectations too: Dickens takes the reader through a series of scenes, or sometimes whole chapters, which seem completely unrelated to the action at hand.

For example, our hero is following his father one foggy night, only to find that he and his ne'er-do-well co-conspirators are digging up bodies. He flees in terror! And then we have two or three consecutive chapters of a French nobleman mistreating the locals. Maybe then we'd jump ahead four months, or a year, to a criminal trial where entirely new characters are speaking, worrying, fuming, and so on.

But gradually, for such is the magic of Dickens, the threads tying all these miniature stories together become apparent. Slowly I realize that this person is the same Jacques referred to three chapters earlier; that the dissolute lawyer is actually in love with the young woman we last saw as a small child five chapters before.

At first this seemed distracting and random, but now it's almost a game as I try to piece together the narrative from these various viewpoints, for the story is larger than any one character can tell. (It's also a warning to read everything closely, since you can never tell what will turn out to be significant: a good warning for fast and careless readers like me.)

It reminds me of the story about blind men and an elephant, though I prefer regular people and an elephant in the dark. Why does that sound so strange?

They circle around this great and silent mystery in the dark, one of them touching a trunk and reporting a snake, another brushing against a leg and claiming that it is a tree, etc.

Come on, metaphor, we're almost there, hold together!

The elephant is the story. Each person's perceptions are a part of the larger whole. And it makes me wonder: how much of this could I get away with in my own writing?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Battle of Frame 4

Nothing on a boat is a right angle, except when it is. Some things, like the mast, or centerboard, should pretty much be exactly vertical. Or the seats, which should be mostly horizontal so you don't slide into the water.

Since this is MY boat, though, many of the right angles have slumped into 89 or 91 degrees. No big deal, right? Ah yes, once I thought as you did.

Frame 4 is bisected by the centerboard well, and although I built it as a single frame, I had to cut it in half and trim it a bit so each side could butt up against the centerboard well. This took about seven months.*

In the instructions, John Welsford (designer) states something like, "Using your third arm, attach the frame half to the bottom panel and centerboard well, being sure it is at right angles to each."

Oh John Welsford! You are so funny! I would like to meet you so I can explain in person how funny you are!

Imagine the situation: nothing is a right angle. Every surface is crenellated with notches or little support pieces, so nothing is flat, either. The whole assembly fits together like one of those trick locking wooden boxes. Or rather, doesn't fit together like that.

It's akin to taking something large and squarish, like a coffee table book, and gluing its spine to the cover of another coffee table book. At right angles. Oh yes, in mid-air, with nothing to attach them to or hold them upright. Also, there are spiders skittering everywhere and gnashing their spidery mandible with rage as their egg-sacs are crushed.

And due to some heretofore unknown fluctuations in the very fabric of reality itself, previously solid wood curves and bends. Did you think that was a right angle? Oh boatbuilder! You are so funny! Now it's 3mm off center. Was that level yesterday? Ha ha! Nothing stays the same!

"Oh no you shan't," quoth I, reaching for clamps so fast I no doubt appeared the spitting image of a multi-armed Hindu god to the massing spiders. The buzz of their frustrated, spidery screams was a suitable counterpoint to the constant ripping of my shirt as rage-muscles burst out not unlike those of the Hulk!

"RIGHT ANGLES, OBEY ME!" I roared, scattering spiders with the pure force of my voice. But what was this? Were they climbing atop one another? What gymnastic arachnid devilry was this?

There was no time for that, as the epoxy chose that precise moment to ignite, due to its inconvenient exothermic (heat producing, write that down) properties. I was forced to hurl the smoking plastic container (nee Egg drop soup) into the air, where it described a gentle parabola and landed on our neighbor's prized snapdragons. Ironically, the snapdragons were the color of flame when the flaming pot obliterated them.

I turned to the spiders. They had formed a pyramid, and then an ovalesque shape that spoke. "You will never succeed," it intoned through a thousand spiders. "Bring us flies. Moths are acceptable as well. And stop walking through our webs."

"NOT NOW, YOU IDIOTS," I howled, even more muscles bursting through my rags. In one hand I took both frames and held them in place on either side of the centerboard. Be at right angles, I willed them, remembering not to include my fingers in this command (still paying chiropractor bills from my last blast of willpower).

With the other hand I simultaneously mixed a replacement pot of epoxy, applied the thinned epoxy, added in silica thickener, mixed the glue, applied the glue to the faying surfaces, and applied screws. Everything was working. Even the spiders had gone back to their webs to dream their malevolent dreams.

Until I discovered I had epoxied my hand to the frame! Yet I could not complain, for there, permanently fixed into the epoxy, lay my hand at a precise right angle to the centerboard well.

*Certain sections may be exaggerated for effect.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Unrelated detritus:

1) Horse puppets!!! The fact that a generation ago we had Cookie Monster and now we have war horses is an interesting comment on the evolution "debate," since humans created both puppets.* In any case, this is unbelievable ... precisely because it's SO believable. Did I just blow your mind? Yeah, mine too:

NY Times article
YouTube video
YouTube video

2) Today I heard the following story. During a near-shore sailing race off the coast of France last year, a squall thundered in, strong enough that blowing sand stung like fire and drove people off the beach. At sea, the race continued, as races tend to do. The boats were Dragon class sloops, long, narrow, full-keeled needles that go fast and hard.

One was running downwind when it was overtaken by a breaking wave. The tumbling water knocked the helmsman aside, filled the boat with water, and the momentum of wave plus gale-force wind on the towering sail slewed the boat sideways and over in a fatal maneuver called broaching.

It sank. Fast. Everyone got off except a crewman whose leg was tangled in a long line attached to the sail. Down the boat went. Down he went. His water-activated life vest inflated as he dropped into the darkness, tethered to the plunging boat.

He struggled. Got free. And exploded to the surface "like an Exocet missile," said my storyteller.

This is one reason I always carry a knife when sailing!

3) Why do the professions that provide the least to society pay the highest salaries? And why do those that do the most good pay the least? Okay, there may be exceptions but this seems to be the general rule. People in expensive and flashy clothes arguing and caring and worrying over all the wrong things. Or maybe I'm just imagining things, filled with vexed thoughts as I watch a beautiful day through a window.

*The quotes are the limit of my editorializing on this.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Back to work

Hey, remember Reagan? There was a Saturday Night Live sketch that showed him (played by Phil Hartman) as a kindhearted and slightly off-kilter goofus, absently showing a girl scout around the Oval Office. He waved goodbye, nodding and muttering to himself, and then, as soon as the door shut behind her, he spun on his heel.

"BACK TO WORK!" he shouted at his staff, instantly transforming into a steely and efficient getter-of-things-done. Ha ha!

It's back to work for me too, as I have unsealed the Cheerios box containing -- no, not the Ark of the Covenant, though I'm an absolute nut on the subject -- but Draft 1 of my book. Finally!

Criminy, this thing is long. So far, however, I have found no apocalyptic, clothes-rending errors. In fact, and in saying this I'll probably jinx it, it is largely tolerable. A great leap forward, in other words! Ordinarily my exploratory drafts are as palatable as giraffe saliva, but this one seems to be an exception.

I'm halfway through, which means that any day now I'm going to come across some irreconcilable error and have to turn the whole thing into a fleet of paper airplanes. Hey, gotta stay positive.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Aaaand pictures

I had planned on posting a handful of Cornwall pictures here, but I took too many. Thus, a sampling:

Typical view of the narrow streets of St. Ives, with the harbor peeking through beyond.

Clouds and sea and a surprising burst of sun on the far shore.

Houses of the living cluster around the graveyard. Let us in! Oh, we will, we will....

Big foggy sea; small optimistic surfers.

Monday, July 6, 2009

I have come from Cornwall

After a hiatus from blogging I am back from a tiny town on the Cornish Coast, where a tiny room at a B&B made me want to hold out my hands in a don't-panic gesture and cry, "People of England! Do not fear me! I am not a giant!"

I'm used to the long and marshy beaches of the U.S. east coast, with smooth sand shading to dune grass and curving lines of breakers drawing out the shape of the land into the blue water. But Cornwall is altogether different.

The land is a green quilt of fields fallow and ripe, squares edged with centuries-old stone walls now overgrown with gorse, thick and impenetrable. These arc and swoop into hills and valleys of surprising steepness, coiled with tiny narrow roads ("Do not fear me!") and ancient-looking stone farmhouses.

When we were there the weather was unseasonably good: blue skies and high distant clouds, and the clear seawater shone turquoise in the rare sun. The shore is scalloped into headlands and detached islands, knife-edged ridges dipping down into the vertical as they become cliffs above rock-strewn coves. A few sand beaches stretch out, particularly at low tide, and everywhere there are seagulls crying.

St. Ives is a warren of stone streets and stone buildings clustered like barnacles on one of these sloping hillsides, fronted with a natural harbor which, at low tide, is dotted with fishing boats grounded on the wet sand.

And oh the town must have secrets. Smugglers, pirates, revolutionaries, adulterers, criminals, honest laborers, fishermen, mad artists. I looked at the buildings, many of them painted a blinding white through which the rough-hewn stones stood clear, and imagined basements and secret passageways, sea caves, minnows darting like silver light through long-submerged skulls.

Where people have lived for thousands of years, where their bones fill the ground and the strength of their faith built churches that still stand, green-shouldered with moss, over the town; where gulls call and the high wind bends grass over the edges of cliffs; where sailors and fishermen tend nets and feel the rough waves slide under their patched boats ... there are stories.