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Yes. Yes indeed.

toothpaste for dinner

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Mom was tidying up papers on the dining room table when I wandered in with a patch of ductape still stuck to one foot and windblown salt-stiff hair, respective relics of blister repair on a spontaneous hike and the drive back down the mountain, all windows open.

“I never knew mountain laurel had a smell,” I said. Mom stopped and looked up, a little surprised. “Oh yes!” She gave a half quizzical grin in my direction: “Didn’t know you’d never smelled it before. It’s beautiful.” This is my mother who introduced me to the hills when I was two weeks old, describing in detail every butterfly and flower we passed hiking up to Craggy Gardens. I guess I wasn’t hiking so much as riding, probably sleeping for half of it. “He’s never gonna remember that,” my grandfather had grumbled. And he was probably right. But I believe something of the essence stuck.

But no, I’d never smelled mountain laurel before. Which made the hike alone on Sunday all the more special, because, for all the time I’ve spent in the mountains, they still surprise me. In some ways hiking the Appalachian Trail only counts as a marathon tour. It’s like being at a family reunion. I’ve met all the people, but I still don’t know the individuals. And even the mountains in your back yard, like your own family, you still don’t know them that well.

The smell of mountain laurel – it’s not a heavy scent. It’s easily missed. Because I’ve known lots of blooming mountain laurel, and I’ve even paused and sniffed, waited patiently and then breathed in softly, but never with effect. Part of me wonders if my efforts were too profane. Because I wasn’t trying this last time. I was just walking, coming around a curve suddenly to find myself covered by a tunnel of the blossoms, spikes of flowering galax rising around my feet and that ineffably delicate, long-haired grass that only grows on high ridges bordering the path. And in that moment there was the scent.

Not like hyacinth. Similar – otherwise I wouldn’t have thought of the smell – but no, not that bold, nor buxom. Not so old as lilac, not so green as jonquils. Sweet the way skin sometimes smells sweet, with the same earthy edge. Delicate and slender as a towhead girl in thin cotton.

You can’t stop walking at a moment like that. There is something in the combination of movement and stillness which is crucial to what you are experiencing, and to try to hold it for more than those few seconds would be fatal. Not fatal to you. You’d keep living your fat, happy life just fine. But the connection with the laurel and the trail and the moment would be broken. It’s like dancing. When you find yourself caught in the moment, those instances when everything flows perfectly, you can’t stop. That would destroy precisely what you’re trying to hold on to. Because you can’t hold it. You have to breathe, and walk, and live the instant, and in every breath let it go.

The tunnel of laurels opened out onto a rocky projection where you could see the thunder clouds massing above Craggy, and the broken sunbeams shifting over the valleys, and the hazy blue mist which isn’t smog shrouding all. When we were young my mother used to point out the mist and say “Look, you can see the mountains breathing.” I stood there and breathed with them, and knew I needed to go, but unwillingly, and turned to smell the laurels one last time before beginning the walk back home.

Love, friendship, and a befringed old lady on a Rascal™ as deus ex machina.

“You want an extra $1500 in grant money this summer?” This would be the voice of my research advisor speaking.

Well, duh. Part of the brain initially wonders what the work involved will be, but I suppress that question and give the only reasonable response.

“Yes! Totally!”

Never show hesitation in the face of grant money. After you’ve laid on a good dollop of enthusiasm, then (and only then) ask what they want you to do. In this case, I needed to apply for an entrepreneurial internship position funded by the university, working in PR and marketing for the Wake Forest-based mathematics journal Involve. I wrote up a great two page, single-spaced statement of my interests in PR, marketing and the publication industry (actually not unfounded), and handed that in along with a “scope of work,” description of proposed job title and responsibilities. The entrepreneurship office thought everything looked very positive, but wanted to see a bit more in the way of market analysis and reading. Fair enough. The woman recommended anything from the Guerrilla Marketing series, so, after plundering the library, I kicked back to enjoy Guerrilla Marketing Attack.

I present to you now a few of the hitherto unknown subtleties of bulk mail – more commonly known as junk.

Have you ever wondered why promotional letters almost invariably have a PS? Apparently, going by the statistics, people who go so far as opening a junk mail letter usually only read two parts – the introduction, and the PS. To bulk mailers, failure to include a PS is viewed as marketing suicide.

The most effective color for a junk mail envelope is (surprisingly) white, but preferably with a non-bulk mail stamp. Better yet, a commemorative. Even better: eight or so stamps of smaller denominations. These approaches truly take effort, because you have to lick or peel the stamps yourself, and can’t do it by machine. Dedication, people, dedication.

And the hilarious part is that I now involuntarily evaluate the junk mail coming through my house. Looking at the variety of letters passing across my dining room table from day to day, it’s enough to make me sigh and give a tsk tsk. So many obvious missteps. So many ways a given piece could be tightened up. And it lends even more credibility to offer I just got from Rock and Ice. Because they got me to open the envelope, consider their offer of a free carabiner with subscription, and think hard enough about the special discount rate that I didn’t actually throw the thing away. I probably will. But, like a good pick-up line, it deserves credit. Maybe not a date, but credit.

Those would be the words of my friend CJ, referring to Christopher Nolan’s screenplay Memento. And I couldn’t agree more.

Ashton and CJ were back in town last night, so, post pizza at Mellow Mushroom and hanging out with more BSU people, we acquired a six pack of Mike’s, some gummy bears, sour patch kids and popcorn. And Memento. But (and I should have remembered this) it’s a film that doesn’t really encourage snacking. I made it through the popcorn and a bottle of Mike’s, but attempts at candy were half-hearted. It just didn’t feel right. As Ashton noted, short-term memory loss is only sweet or funny in an Adam Sandler movie.

A random bit of IMDB and Wikipedia-fueled trivia: Christopher Nolan’s full name is Christopher Jonathan James Nolan. “John or James” are the possible names of the suspect in Lenny’s manhunt. There are a couple different ways you can spin this from here (Lenny’s looking for who did this to him, and that would be Chris Nolan; the possibility of writer as protagonist with the antagonist of self; &c. &c.), but mostly it’s just fun finding the Easter egg.

And now I feel minorly creepy for having spent that much time looking for info on Christopher Nolan…

 

 

Skimming through a copy of Physics Today over lunch, I happened upon an article entitled “The evolution of a dedicated synchrotron light source.” Actually, that’s a lie. I went back and found the name of the article after noticing something entirely different: a photograph of a handwritten page with some variation of the phrase “please leave the door open, or the pipes may freeze” in twenty-three languages. The caption follows below.

“Please leave the door open, or the pipes may freeze. The humble purpose of this message, translated into various languages, was to alert users about a problem in the Tantalus washroom. But Ed Rowe submitted it to NSF as evidence of the facility’s growing international stature.”

Oh, I thought, that’s very cool. Yeah, they must have had a huge number of different countries represented in their body of researchers. And then I noticed a line of text in the photograph, about half way down the page, appropriately printed in all caps and unpunctuated:

“NOLI JANUAM CLAUDERE NE TUBAE OBSTRUANTUR GELU”

I call bullshit. If someone had to write it in Latin, you know exactly what kind of verbal one-upsmanship was going on on that page. Yes, I’m sure there were people from a multitude of linguistic backgrounds working at Tantalus. And I’m sure half of them had never stepped foot outside the US except to attend conferences.

And I am absolutely positive that Ed Rowe used precisely the phrase “growing international stature” in his request for an extension of the project’s grant from the NSF.

It’s a 1926 flat-top cabinet unit with a winding crank on the right side. The case is mahogany veneer with four spindle legs and two lower record compartments. The horn is mounted between them beneath the turntable, hidden behind a cloth grill. You replace the steel needle after playing a record once, adjusting volume by choosing a light or heavy needle. There are no electronics involved in the sound reproduction, only a nickel-plated brass horn, a mica diaphragm, and a 78 RPM one-sided shellac disc holding about three minutes of music. The original purchase price was $150. That’s roughly $1,830.17 in 2008 dollars.

Flipping through the platters that Dad found with this machine when he helped move my great aunt’s effects, I began to understand why people used to talk about “playing records” as an activity. Winding a turntable and swapping out discs is user-intensive. Deciding what to play next when no track simply follows takes some thinking. Even when I was spinning LPs down in the basement of App’s Outdoor Programs, cleaning and sorting gear to the sound of old U2 or Dire Straits, this wasn’t the case; each side of an album was good for thirty minutes of effort-free play. And back at home my parents lack iPods, but have owned a cd changer for years under the premise “What could be better than plugging in your music, hitting shuffle and then forgeting about it for the next five hours?”

Well, really listening to your music, for one thing. The recordings of Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, and Enrico Caruso I found in that cabinet are some of the lowest fidelity, noisiest records I’ve ever heard. And I listened to them more closely than I’ve listened to anything since I studied Oistrakh’s recording of the Kabalevsky Violin Concerto a year and a half ago. Because the Victrola demands so much effort to play even one track, you listen to that track for all its worth. And thus you find more musicality and passion in that one quavery, scratchy record than you previously noticed in a multitude of new recordings which were forgettably superior, ignorably perfect. And when you rewind the spring and put on a foxtrot instead, the urgency of the music is irresistible. You have three minutes to grab your girl (or guy) and dance, and then it’s over. Three minutes to make something happen before you have to pick up the needle, rewind the spring, find another disc and decide on another tune.

Why does this seem more romantic? I really don’t know. Maybe because you two, the dancers, have to trust one another. There’s no time to be bashful or worry about whether you’ll step on each other’s toes. You can’t question whether the timing is right. You have to grasp and live the moment without hesitation. And I’ll ask you this: would ice cream be better if it didn’t melt?

I’m not saying all music should be limited to three minute glosses. As a result of the time constraint, Dvorak’s Humoresque is the only significant piece of repertoire included in the recordings I found in the cabinet. Most concerto movements would be too long, and any sizable symphony would take stack of single-sided 78s a foot high. But I’m grateful for the Victrola’s reminder of how to listen to a record, grateful for the reminder of how marvelous the whole recorded-sound thing is. And wistful for a time when people couldn’t wait for “just one more song” to get up and ask that pretty girl to dance.

Good things come from Asheville. This is an accepted fact amongst my family and friends, a clan and a collection respectively self-assured of their ability recognize greatness. Thus I should not be surprised that the encouragement to blog again came from a trip back to the mountains.

The writing in this blog will be of varying quality, but what is indubitably good is the fact that I am writing again. What is good is the act of trying to tell a story once more, and of stepping out of my math-infused brain to toss words up in the air and watch them spin down like maple seeds. Whirligigs, we called them when we would collect shirtfrontfulls and throw them from the arched brick veranda above St. Lawrence’s back stairs. You could never predict how they would fall. You just had to let them go and watch.