Monday, December 07, 2015

The Truth Hurts

Oh Francis Bacon.  You know it.

Doth any man doubt that, if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things full of melancholy and indisposition, unpleasing to themselves?

Friday, November 27, 2015

In the City

A fine, wet night
I'm in Montreal tonight, on my own.  I came to town with the Infanta but she jettisoned me ASAP in favor of one of her friends here.  Really, I don't mind.  It takes me back, being here on my own as I was so often in college and law school days.

I bought a ticket to The Martian and watched it in one of Montreal's best movie theaters.  I liked the film a lot - for the story, the acting, the production values and also because it was born of a book originally self-published by Andy Weir.  Let us never forget the great lesson taught by Peter Gabriel: "all of the buildings, all of the cars, were once just a dream in somebody's head."

Andy Weir had an idea, realized it, next thing you know Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig are learning their lines and I'm leaning back in a comfy seat half way up.  It's almost as miraculous as the story of The Martian itself.

The film ended just before 10 PM and in the two and a half hours that I was in the theater the temperature had dropped about twenty degrees. The odd-for-November warm wind that buffeted the car on the way into town had changed. It was appropriately cold and the rain had turned to fat snow snow flakes.  I walked home to Whusband's apartment in the McGill Ghetto through the dark McGill campus. I had an umbrella as a shield from the wind and wet snow, which was helpful as I was wrongly dressed. I didn't mind that either, however.  It was just the right amount of wind and cold: bracing without being freezing.  I don't have to go anywhere tonight and as Adam Gopnik once told me, Montreal is most itself in the cold.  The picture above is one that I snapped of St. Catherine Street just after I exited the drugstore across the street from the theater: Montreal looking fine with rain slicked pavements and Christmas decor.

This isn't a real snowstorm, but it has me thinking of the ones I lived through here all those years ago. In student days I could get where ever I had to go on foot.  I didn't have to worry much about snow.  A hush would come over the city on those snowstorm nights - only taxis still out and about in the small hours. I loved to watch the snow pile up on those nights, falling fast passed the yellow streetlights...

I have been, unaccountably, in a bad mood for the last few days.  Thanksgiving was OK but I was irritated, mostly with myself but with others too. This night and this cold wind seem to have blown that feeling away.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Yoo Hoo! Still Upright, Breathing, and Occasionally Writing

Write to Win! (Or Not...)
I've been away.  You may not have noticed but I'll forgive you.  You're here now and that's what matters. How about a nice cup of tea and a sit down?

As Bob Dylan taught us all long ago, you gotta serve somebody and the somebodies I serve (for a salary and health insurance and all that) are now paying for more of my time. Not much is left for this kind of thing these days.

I'm back at the keyboard this Sunday afternoon - as you will have noticed- having gathered a little strength, thanks to my weekend schedule, the aforementioned tea, and sushi takeout for dinner.

The one bit of writing I've done for fun in the last month (well, for fun and dreamed-of glory) was in response to a contest by The Guardian. I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the Guardian book people.  They have started  offering writing classes to the world's hopefuls.  To promote these courses they threw out a writing prompt.  It caught my eye and my imagination and so I entered.

With what result?

The usual one I'm afraid.  I have been staggeringly consistent in not winning contests. I was pretty good at musical chairs once but since then...

Anyway, having put forth the effort, I'm reproducing my entry here for your consideration.  The task was to write a story of between 500 and 750 words beginning with the sentence:

He spent his last £30 on a plate of oysters and a glass of champagne. 

Here's my entry.  Below that is a link to the winning entries.  Thanks for stopping in.  I'll be back, one day soon I hope.

“He spent his last £30 on a plate of oysters and a glass of champagne.” Inspector Digget looked up from his battered notebook and met the eyes of his reluctant hostess. “Or so we believe.”
 “And why is that Inspector?” Ms. Fields-Hall said.
 “Well, the waiter - the one who called 999 last night - reported that the bill for…” Digget held the notebook at arms-length and read, “ ‘one glass of Duval-Leroy Brut and one small plate of mixed oysters with spicy boar sausage’ came to £31, before VAT.”
“So, with the VAT it would have been, what, £37.20?”
Digget was impressed by the speed of the calculation. “Right. However, when the bill was presented, your brother had only,” he read again, “‘A twenty pound note, a five pound note, four pound coins and some change.’  He told the waiter it was all he had.’”
 “So he ordered his last meal knowing he couldn’t pay for it. No one could say he wasn’t consistent.”
 Digget was pleased that Constable Jonas, who had been sent along to shadow him on this delicate interview, remained silent. Digget was to do the talking.
 “The waiter was going to call the manager,” he continued, “but your brother said: “‘it was these trainers, Mate. Do you know how much these things cost? Seventy Eight pounds.’” Digget read this with no intonation. He thought he sounded like Michael Caine, which embarrassed and pleased him a little.
“He wouldn’t know what things cost, would he?”
Ms. Fields-Hall’s posture in the wingchair – one of a pair whose cushions might once have cradled the buttocks of George the Third - was not one of ease, like some Bond villain. Still, it conveyed entitlement - along with authority and dignity.  As she spoke she turned her gaze to the Staffordshire spaniels by the fireplace. Her chin puckered then and Digget’s heart went out to her, despite it all.
“But… what was he doing wearing trainers?” There was a spark of hope in the question. “In his twenties his bill for Lobbs would have supported a third-world village. I don’t think he would have agreed to be cremated in a pair of trainers.”
 “Yes,” Digget said, surprised at the clumsy cremation reference, “Well, the waiter had noticed that they weren’t in keeping with the rest of his, uhm, presentation.”
“Quite a noticing sort of waiter, wasn’t he? A veritable Sherlock.”
“I suppose, yes.” Was she thinking that it would have been better, easier perhaps, if her brother had bubbled under unnoticed? “And, your brother replied, ‘I need shoes that will waterlog quickly and be impossible to slip off underwater.’
 “The waiter told him to hold on – went to get his manager, but when they got back, your brother had gone.”
The silence deepened. It was too much for Jonas.
“We’re quite sure it was him, Ma’am, if that’s what you’re wondering. Of course you’ll have to come and ID the body, but he had his wallet on ‘im when they fished ‘im out.” Digget winced. “Only thing in it was his driver’s license.” Jonas handed this from the sofa where she and Digget perched to the wing chair. “And he still had on the basketball shoes,” Jonas said. She felt Digget’s little nudge and trailed off, “brand new.”
Ms. Fields-Hall regarded the license, with its postage-stamp sized photo of “Oliver F. Hall, 13 Acorralado Way, Unit 17B, Las Vegas.” A big horn sheep gamboled above Oliver’s right ear. “Nevada” was printed in type meant to suggest tree branches. 
“Yes,” Ms. Fields-Hall said flatly. “That’s him.”

Digget had grown up seven miles from where they all sat now, in the beeswax-smelling drawing room of Boald Park. He remembered his mother saying once that the Halls of Boald had “blood so blue a spoon would stand up in it.” He’d wondered at the time if that were literally true.  All the locals knew that Oliver had got to daggers-drawn with the rest of the family years ago and left the place. People had stopped asking about him, it had been that long.
 “You didn’t know he’d come back to England then?” Digget was all softness.
“No, Inspector. He didn’t contact me.” Ms. Fields-Hall smoothed her dungarees – she’d been gardening when they arrived. “He wouldn’t have, though.” She turned back to the spaniels. “He’d left a long time ago and the distance he’d gone was too far for returning.” She paused, “oysters and champagne as a last meal notwithstanding.”

And so that is how not to win a masterclass from the Guardian.  The winning entry and runners up (and don't try to tell me that the winner's real name is "Geoff Lavendar") can be read here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

C'est Moi, La Flaneuse

I went walking yesterday after Jeopardy ended. That means not only that I am incipient old fart but also that it was 7:30 pm before I got out the door. This time of year here in Vermont that means the light is going fast.

I almost didn't go because darkness was falling and because I'm lazy. As usual, however, my minimal exertion was richly repaid.  It was such a fine experience I thought about it again today, while I was out on another walk which was also nice but not so crowded with unexpected pleasures.  I thought I should go home and write about my nice walk last night for the record.

It's not much really so feel free to leave now if you are easily bored.

More on this is a minute...

Still here? Here's how it went.

I walked down my driveway to the dirt road on which we live and from there onto the paved road which is only three houses away. The paved road is not heavily traveled so it is pleasant for walking.

The houses in our neighborhood are all different, having been added piecemeal over about the last 150 years. A derelict apple orchard was repurposed as building lots for several of them and the apple trees are still here, though not tended.  I grabbed a small sour apple as I passed the first house on the paved road and took two bites.  It was good but I didn't want to risk bowel trouble so I stopped there.  I then remembered a pledge I made to myself earlier this summer to pick some wild flowers and August tis the season for wildflowers. I wanted to pick them because this summer I bought (for one dollar at Goodwill) a little flower press.

Wildflowers, of course, grow in profusion on the roadside. I grabbed a few as a I passed, aiming for varied colors and shapes. I don't know the names of the things I picked.  There were some little daisy-like things, a purplish number that I believe might be a cornflower, buttercups (I think, they were smaller than the buttercups I remember from childhood), and those orange bell-shaped flowers that grow on something like a small bush...  People of New England, you know what I mean.

I carried these as I walked toward the red barn that was my turn-around point.  When I got to the barn (actually just short of there as night was getting more serious), I turned and faced the mountains - well, significant hills - that make a wall at the end of this particular road, about two miles distant.

It had rained during the day and as dusk gathered there were pools and tatters of mist in half a dozen places on the dark green hillsides. Mists also swirled around the hilltops.  I hadn't noticed the mists til just that moment.  They were very beautiful and a lovely surprise.

The Japanese have a word for this - my kids give me grief about the fact that I say this, "The Japanese have a word..." every time I see such mists.  I can't remember their word. I will look it up later.

I listen to music while I walk.  I can't remember what was on, Squeeze, I think, when a jogger and her giant white dog came up behind me. I was picking another apple at that moment, thinking fine thoughts of our misty hills and trying to remember the Japanese word, when the dog woofed. Having been caught picking an apple (they are wild, but still) I started. I took a bite and, finding it corrupted, threw it out and had no courage to pick another with a witness.

The jogger was a fellow fattie, though much younger than me. She gave me a kind, rather embarrassed smile as she wobbled by.  The dog - who hadn't scared me a bit really, he was clearly a gentle giant - was on a leash. As they passed, the dog kept looking back at me, slowing his owner.

After the jogger had gotten about twenty yards ahead of me, the dog just sat down in the middle of the road as if to say. "I've had enough of this f---ery. Why aren't we on the couch where we belong? I want to stay with that apple picking broad."  The jogger, embarrassed, patted the dog's head. She then gave him a stiff pull on the leash and started jogging again. He was defeated and trotted along behind her like a furry ball and chain.

To her credit, the runner kept at it til she was out of sight. It was uphill so I was impressed.  No doubt she waited to go jogging until the road was likely clear of observers and, then, damn, there I was.

I walked past the old barn that comes up just before our dirt road. It is weathered and brown but has a shiny new tin roof.  It is a barn for a Vermont Life photo shoot.  I felt I cut a romantic figure, walking past it with my bunch of wild flowers in my hand.

I put the flowers in the press as soon as I got back into our dining room. I felt sort of bad about pressing them - something so 'pit and the pendulum' about tightening the screws.  I'll take a picture when they're done in two weeks. I will want to remember this.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Francis Bacon is Calling Me Out

The Original Baconator

Portrait of Francis Bacon, by Frans Pourbus(1617)

"Doth any man doubt that, if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things full of melancholy and indisposition, unpleasing to themselves?"

- Francis Bacon in his essay, "Of Truth."

I came across this tidbit in a New Yorker article recently and stopped to copy it out. 

Francis, how did you get so smart? ouch. Is that my mind shrinking?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Ron Howard, Paul Giamatti, and My Dad

What do they have in common?

Well, Ron Howard was one of the producers of National Geographic's "Breakthroughs," coming to the National Geographic channel in November.  Paul G. is one of the directors.  Bret Ratner is directing the episode featuring my Dad, John Schenck, (who, it must also be noted, is the dad of my brother and sister as well) will be featured in one of the six episodes for his work as a pioneering scientist in MRI.

We've always been proud of Dad, of course. But now he's going to be on a fancy TV show and, well, let me tell you, let's talk about reflected glory. Kidding (sort of).  Actually, he's a got a great life story of dairy farm boy to the heights of science (not sure if they're telling any of that) and his work has probably made a difference in your life. You'll find out all about it this fall.

Here's the trailer.  There are just a couple of pictures in it of my dad (one shot of a silent guy in tie, another of a guy looking at a big brain) but if tune in this fall you'll see a lot more. I daresay the other scientists featured might also be kind of good at what they do.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Stanchion Workstation: Coming Soon?

Designers Tout Benefits of Employee “Stanchions”

Employers Agree

Space saving, production enhancing
Office workers may soon find a piece of equipment standard in dairy barns adapted for human use and incorporated into their own workspaces.

The designers responsible for the widely-used “open office environment,” which features low-walled cubicles arranged in “pods,” have designed an even more space-saving and employee-production-enhancing office model.

“Square footage comes at a premium in today’s office buildings,” said Gerhard Voldemort of Germany’s VolksBüroWerks. “Phones and computers are much smaller now. It’s time for the desktop to be re imagined. It should be much more compact.  A surface no wider than the average person’s width, calculated with arms akimbo, is more than adequate. Also, these new workstations can be arranged in simple, straight lines. We estimate that this new configuration will quadruple the number of employees that can be accommodated with no addition of floor space.”

Distraction Reduction Measures

The new workstations also include soundproofed side panels and a heads-up computer display that will occupy the entire field of vision of the user.  “Many of us older people remember with fondness the phone booths of yesteryear,” Voldemort said, “an island of privacy in a minimum of space.  That’s what we’re going for with this design: cozy, friendly, and ergonomically correct. It goes without saying, of course, that all our stations will be designed for standing as we now know that sitting equals death.”

One controversial aspect of the VolksBüroWerks design are the optional “focus enhancement” features.  These include foot straps and a “focus halo.” 

“Recent psychological studies have found that gentle pressure about the head increases eye-time on computer screens by as much as 78 percent,” Voldemort said.  He added that the foot straps are not designed, as one critic suggested, ‘to trap employees in these upright caskets’ but to prevent harmful “shifting.” “Shifting weight from foot to foot has a negative impact on focus and proper ergonomics,” Voldemort said, adding that the focus features are “a perfectly natural, non-chemical approach to enhancing employee productivity.”

VolksBüroWerks also recently announced that a nose-operated food pellet and water delivery system will be available as an upgrade on the stanchion units by early in the new year.