Tom Hanks, Olympia, and Me

I had the pleasure of seeing a photo of mine get the Ken Burns treatment on CBS Sunday Morning’s story this weekend about Tom Hanks, his new book, and his love of typewriters:

One of my colleagues got an advance copy of Hanks’ book at a library conference back in June specifically because she knew I’d love it—and I did, enough to write my first typecast review. For the accompanying image I thought pairing the book’s beautiful blue cover with my Olympia SM7 (acquired at the splendid Retro-Revolution in Madison, WI) of almost the same shade made sense and looked great:

uncommon-type-olympia

Since I posted it far enough ahead of the book’s publication date, the photo (along with the images of my typewritten review) had time to climb up the ranks of Google Images under searches for “Uncommon Type”, which no doubt is how the CBS producer found it.

I knew Hanks’ book would give typewriters A Moment; I didn’t realize I’d be part of it! But I am happy to be. The book is out Tuesday: go get it and then get a typewriter of your own.

The People’s Machine: On ‘California Typewriter’

As was the case with Tom Hanks’s new typewriter-inspired short story collection, I was the easiest mark in the world for the new Doug Nichol documentary California Typewriter, which profiles the titular typewriter repair shop in Berkeley and the wider place of the typewriter in modern culture.

Though I’ve been anticipating the film for a while, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be partially an adaptation of Richard Polt’s seminal The Typewriter Revolution and partially a meditation by figures famous and otherwise on the machine’s enduring value in the midst of its obsolescence. All together a collection of vignettes revolving around their common theme, the film works as a primer for the uninitiated as well as an adoring homage for the converted.

There are three main stories weaving throughout the film: the collector Martin Howard on a pilgrimage to snag an original 19th-century Sholes and Glidden, the California Typewriter shop struggling to survive in a defunct industry, and the artist Jeremy Mayer reusing parts from decommissioned typers to create some pretty incredible sculptures:

Together they neatly represent the past, present, and future of typewriters, but the shop narrative is the lynchpin. Owned by an African-American family for over 35 years, it’s now the most prominent representative of a dying breed. Even with the recent resurgence of interest, the decades of experience repairman Ken Alexander and his cohort have is a finite supply. And without high-quality typewriters being manufactured, that supply will only dwindle from here.

Still, notable typists have their reasons for sticking with typewriters. Tom Hanks has over 200 of them, many of which he gives away. (He names his favorites, two of which I own and share his opinion on.) David McCullough has been using the same hulking Royal Standard for over 50 years now in his drool-worthy writing cabin. (Against the conventional wisdom of modern gadgets, he says, “I don’t want to faster. I want to go slower.”) John Mayer got one in a bid for more permanence with his work and started writing lyrics with it. The late great Sam Shepard waxes eloquent about his Hermes 3000 and speaks to the benefits of its rituals, like how rolling in a new page is akin to saddling a horse for a job or journey.

The film is beautifully shot and edited by Nichol, whose eye as a commercial and music video cinematographer finds lots of lovingly framed images and scenes. A junkyard pile of cars that mirror the piles of discarded typers in Mayer’s studio. A reading of the Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto contrasted with footage of Apple fanatics lining up for the latest iDevice. But Nichol’s best decision was picking a subject that is already damn photogenic.

One collector mentions the typewriter subculture is almost exclusively men. Though technically inaccurate (for starters, typewriter poet-for-hire Silvi Alcivar is featured in the film, and there are the good people of Poems While You Wait) the film does insinuate a majority male enterprise given the people represented. This is a shame because many women are involved in the online community and at type-ins; and more broadly, the beautiful thing about the Revolution is that it’s a fully inclusive movement.

Typewriters are for everyone. Anyone can take up typing and for so many purposes, free from abstruse Terms & Conditions and free from the surveillance and proprietary influence that are built into digital technology. It’s a machine that is subservient to human will and not the other way around, whose sole function is to imprint letters on paper at the creative direction of the user.

In that way the typewriter truly is the People’s Machine. It’s your birthright, and it’s waiting for you. All you need is paper and ink—both of which are cheap and abundant—and desire to get started.

Our National Anthem?

As national anthems go, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is strange. It’s hard to sing, it uses antiquated language, and it doesn’t have its nation’s name in it. Though there are several good alternatives (my pick would be “America the Beautiful” sung by the Schuyler Sisters in perpetuity), the Banner is still here, so we must contend with it.

It’s worth reading the lyrics because when you sing a song over and over, the words lose meaning and the ritual becomes rote. Let’s look at the last four lines:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Two points can be made out of this. The first is that not only did the flag survive the bombardment, but its survival was made evident by the bombardment itself. Such a metaphor is especially relevant in present times, and it gives me hope that our nation so conceived and so dedicated can endure its great testing. (And I’m not talkin’ about Colin Kaepernick.)

The second is that it ends with a question. In my one year of high school choir, the director pointed out before we began rehearsing the anthem for a performance that this feature is unique among national anthems, and that’s what makes it so important. That it ends with a question doesn’t come through in the musical rendition, which finishes on a triumphantly resolute note. That question symbolizes America: a nation as an unresolved ideal rather than a declarative statement. A nation with the gall to conclude its musical theme song on an ambivalent note.

Because of this, I fully support those who wish to kneel during the anthem. Kneeling is the perfect symbolic gesture given the intent of Kaepernick’s original protest, which was to draw attention to police brutality. It’s peaceful but effective, participatory but not derogatory. Being halfway down could symbolize the historic and ongoing subjugation of African Americans, whether through mass incarceration or disproportionate police brutality. Or, as Kaepernick’s fellow kneeler Eric Reid wrote, “like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Since NFL teams weren’t even on the field for the anthem until 2009, when the Department of Defense and National Guard began paying the NFL (with taxpayer money) to have ostentatious flag ceremonies before games (!!!), I’m not going to get worked up about coercing displays of patriotism at sporting events, and the traditional “Don’t Tread On Me” crowd should understand why.

Refer Madness: Making Converts

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

One of the best things about having a digital media lab in my library is introducing eager patrons to what it provides. Since ours opened two years ago, the most popular feature by far is the converting software that transfers analog media to digital, like cassette tapes, photo slides, LPs, and VHS tapes.

One couple came to the desk and said they’d heard we could digitize their VHS home videos. I brought them to the room, got them set up with the software, and popped in their tape to test it.

“Oh my God!” the mother said as the video played on screen. She explained it was footage of their son’s first birthday party from the late 1980s. “We haven’t seen this since that day! He is going to medical school now!” They didn’t know what was on the tapes, so the look of surprised delight on their faces was their genuine reaction to being suddenly sent back in time.

Much of the equipment library staff have to deal with every day lose their luster quickly. (Just ask a librarian about 3D printers.) But because, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it’s good to be reminded sometimes that technology can be damn near magical if we’re able to see it with fresh eyes.

Music of the Moment, ctd

It’s been almost 10 years since I last did a “music of the moment” post (then called “soundtrack of the moment”), so I figured it was time for another. There’s no use trying to summarize a whole decade of musical discoveries and interests, so I’ll just try for the last few weeks.

“Hole in Your Soul” by ABBA, ABBA: The Album
Last weekend I was going through our LP collection initially just to clean the vinyls, but I realized there were several albums I hadn’t listened to in a while or at all. It’s so easy to jump to what I have on my phone when I want to hear something, but if I’m gonna have LPs around then I ought to use them, right? So I decided I’d listen to at least one a week, if only to weed out the ones that weren’t worth taking up our limited space. This mission paid off immediately when I pulled out ABBA’s self-titled album, which has some classics like “Take a Chance on Me” and “Thank You for the Music” but also this new-to-me gem:

What an electrifying mix of arena rock and typical ABBA-esque quirkiness. I’d love to play drums on that one. After hearing that I of course set off on an ABBA kick, which led me to “Bang-A-Boomerang”, off of ABBA. (Get more creative album titles, Swedes!) These tracks are why I try to seek out full studio albums, especially from artists I’m just getting into. I still end up with many Greatest Hits albums, but it’s easy to miss these great deep cuts when just sticking with compilations.

“Bye Bye Love” by Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
A bookstore by my place was going out of business 😢 and everything was $1 😁. I didn’t end up getting books but I did spot this album on vinyl in their small collection. I’d never heard of it, but its price, striking cover, and renowned reputation made it an easy buy. Just listen to the cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” that kicks off the album:

“You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me” by John Mayer, The Search for Everything
Perhaps because I knew someone with a strong John Mayer aversion, I’ve always felt the need to apologize for liking him. No more: the dude’s been an incredible songwriter going all the way back to his debut album. I find I prefer when he leans toward melancholic pop or country rather than blues. His latest album isn’t my favorite of his, but its final track shows off Mayer’s talent for delicate melodies and apt arrangements:

“I Just Want to Celebrate” by Rare Earth, One World
Once I found out Rare Earth was the first all-white Motown band, curiosity compelled me to check them out. It’s a scattershot discography, but I love this this groovy sunny-day song and its fist-pounding chorus hook. Sounds very 1971.

“You’re a Special Part of Me” by Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye, Diana & Marvin
Speaking of Motown, this was one of a few discoveries from reading Adam White’s Motown: The Sound of Young America. Obviously I knew of Gaye and Ross, but not of their duet album recorded at the peak of their musical prowess:

“Sugar Dumpling” by Sam Cooke, Twistin’ the Night Away
I had The Best of Sam Cooke for a little while before I realized, Oh right, Sam Cooke is incredible. Maybe I should get more of his music. Having done so, I’m thinking he might be the best singer ever?

“Honey and Smoke” by case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs
One of the few modern albums I have on vinyl because of how much I love it. “Honey and Smoke” precisely describes the sound of this Neko Case, K.D. Lang, and Laura Veirs supergroup together trading tracks: a smooth, sexy, smoky blend of alt-rock and pop and lounge music. I don’t listen to any of them individually, but with their musical powers combined I am hooked:

“Big Iron” by Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
Though I’d heard Robbins before (most notably “El Paso” in the Breaking Bad series finale), it wasn’t until seeing this album on someone’s favorite music list a few years ago that I pursued his oeuvre. Perfect for road trips and daydreaming about the Wild West:

The Diary of a Young Girl

In my ongoing quest to catch up with the “high school reading list” books I missed the first time around, I listened to the audiobook of Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl and, holy crap, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised due to its reputation, but it’s kinda amazing. Not sure how much the translation from Dutch affected the language, but Anne comes across as incredibly intelligent, self-aware, funny, honest—oh is she honest—and even noble in her struggle to become a better person even in confinement.

Knowing the ending of the story while I read it, I felt an immense sadness as I neared the end. I seemed to go through all the stages of grief: I’m sure they’ll make it through the war, then Why do they have to be discovered? then Couldn’t they just make it a few more months? then Screw Hitler and the war. This whip-smart teen who wanted to be a journalist (she would have killed it on Twitter and as a blogger), who was a self-admitted chatterbox, who struggled through boy troubles, who resented her family but tried to love them… she didn’t get the chance to see the fruit of her laboring, and the world is worse for it.

Selma Blair reads the audiobook and perfectly captures the voice of a teen girl. It’s a classic mix of sarcasm, angst, gossip, philosophizing, high-minded ideals and aspirations, and *ahem* frank discussions of sexuality.

Another high school reading list classic I recently caught up with and loved was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Like Diary, Douglass’s memoir is a hyper-articulate and honest account of oppression that writes beyond its setting and subject, much to the benefit of future readers. I highly recommend both.

So even though The Fault In Our Stars nearly ruined the Anne Frank museum for me, I’d love to visit it one day to pay my respects to an incredible young woman:

“We’re all alive, but we don’t know why or what for; we’re all searching for happiness; we’re all leading lives that are different and yet the same. We three have been raised in good families, we have the opportunity to get an education and make something of ourselves. We have many reasons to hope for great happiness, but… we have to earn it.”

In the Mood for a Melody

The other day I came upon Brian Eno’s article about singing with other people:

There are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.

The next evening, as if to accidentally confirm this thesis, I went with my sister to see Billy Joel perform at Wrigley Field. And boy was there group singing, 40,000 strong. Not only that, but several times Billy gave the crowd a “fielder’s choice”: he’d name two of his songs and played whichever one got more cheers and applause.

One song he had no choice but to play was “Piano Man”. Because everyone knows it so well, he let the crowd take one chorus a cappella:

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright

Civilizational benefits indeed. That cliche about gathering around a fire to sing “Kumbaya” came from somewhere.

Recent Views, ctd

Just for fun I’ve started turning videos I take into GIFs using Giphy’s super easy GIF maker.

This one was on a flight descending into Raleigh, North Carolina. The rain was streaking on the window like that for only about 10 seconds, so I’m glad I had my phone ready:

rain

The breeze and sunlight was dancing nicely with the makeshift curtain in our bedroom window:

breeze

On a recent morning run to the lakeshore the water was really choppy, more so than I think I’ve ever seen it. The waves were crashing against the boulders that buttress the shore and splashing onto the sidewalk. Since I couldn’t predict when and where and how high the waves would crash, I planted myself at a pleasingly symmetrical position and hit record. This is about 10 seconds out of a 40-second clip. As usual the camera fails to capture the stunning color and spectacle of what my eyes saw:

splash

And one photo, from a family reunion/memorial in West Virginia:

Elkins-reunion.jpg