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# 325 :: Keyring

December 29, 2004

We scurry on with our materialist lives. We return Christmas presents that were the wrong size, we drift into post-holiday sales and buy things on a whim. We ignore horrors that do not affect us. It’s a peculiarly American behavior. Heads appropriately buried in “our” culture we can ignore the active stupidity of our leaders, the crimes committed in our name, the suffering of millions with shattered lives who live at a safe remove on the other side of the planet.

I needed a new keyring. The old one was thrashed, threatening to pop open and lose the keys to my car, my house, my bike, my computer, my bike racks. This one’s held together with steel cable anchored to a chunk of anodized aluminum. It’s whimsical. It was on sale. Doubtless this would be seen in some quarters of Washington as – in its own small, consumerist way – patriotic.

On the other hand, it’s just a heavy, little object, number 325 in a yearlong series.

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#324 :: Weeping Buddha

December 28, 2004

He weeps for the sins of the world. And the world sins with his tears. We are a manufacturing society, and objects of devotion and symbolism are among the things most easily manufactured and sold. I plucked him from a bucketful of his kind, where they tumbled in silent mass grief in a San Francisco curio shop, surrounded by southeast Asian artifacts mass-produced, mass-shipped, and sold as one-of-a-kind objets. He is the size of a golf ball, and about a third of the weight.

As more children and adults are counted among those who were drowned or crushed in the disaster, his posture seems the only appropriate response.

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#323 :: Glow Sticks

December 27, 2004

A nylon tube filled with one chemical inside which floats a glass tube filled with another chemical. Snap them, and a chemiluminescent reaction takes place – cold light – for a few hours of crisis visibility, emergency lighting or party fun. They look fuzzy here, as they are on the web, which offers up a bewildering array of data – little of it pertaining to their actual origins. Somewhere in California, something like 25 years ago, something something. Half the time, the phrase “glow stick” winds up alongside “rave,” “ecstasy” and “drug threat assessment, as if it the simple device is illicit by association. You can buy glow cubes, you can get necklaces, bracelets and sooner or later someone’s going to go out on the liability limb and start marketing chemically phosphorescent glow fangs that don’t need incandescent charge-ups. In the end, history will cast American Cyanamid, (now the subject of EPA investigations) in the role of Prometheus to the drums-n-bass-n-pacifiers crowd.

All of which is utter trivia compared to what now seem to be 25,000 deaths and untold people uprooted in the weekend’s disaster. A few agencies, such as Doctors Without Borders are stepping up to provide aid. You can donate to them if you want to help. in some meaningful way.

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#322 :: Army Guy

December 26, 2004

The vast majority of us have no sense of war. We have never served. We absorb media – most of it fictitious, some tiny part of it news – that lets us put our acceptance of the real thing in our world view into a neat box: It’s hell. It’s necessary to protect our national interests. It’s the right thing to do. It makes of men pure animals. It kills children. It topples despots. It bankrupts nations and tortures innocents. We cobble together imagery from TV and movies, equal parts Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and Casualties of War, and we note the nightly news’ body count and the empty blather of whatever politician has taken on the White House, and whatever pro-war demagogue is braying for the death to continue. But – save for the words of a few honest soldiers – we know nothing of blood and shit and killing for the leadership of one’s countrymen.

What to make of this little icon? He tumbled out of a dainty, girly pink-and-purple toy that we bought at a second-hand kids’ shop recently for our daughter – a gritty black pearl from a soft, innocent oyster. He not fully formed, but half the thickness he should be, as if someone injection-molded a microminiature study in thermoplastic of the burly stone bas-reliefs of heroes of the revolution that line Tienanmen Square – impersonal gallantry incarnate, a sketch of a warrior that offers no hint of the reality of his job. He’s a toy.

And what to make of the perspective whiplash you suffer when you’re blogging smugly about a plastic toy, and suddenly learn that one-tenth the number of U.S. soldiers have died the in Iraq war to date, as Asians have died in today’s horrific tsunamis? This site seems pretty trivial at the moment. Links here to aid organizations.

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#321 :: Crystal-growing Stocking Stuffer

December 26, 2004


CHOU TALook! Magic Tree (R)
The flower begin to grow from the tree after 1-2 hours and will grow to marvellous flowers in 6 hours.


Color Buds appear in 1-2 hours. The fun is watching its growing. You will have more fun when you grow the flowers by yourself.
INSTRUCTIONS (Please refer to following pictures)

1. Assemble tree.
2. Place tree in middle of the saucer.
3. Cut off corner of plant food envelope and squeeze out entire contents in saucer
4. Look at it, it will start to grow little by little after 1-2 hours when it blooms completely the flowers usually can maintain several months.
5. Be sure to keep the tree away from warmer moisture and wind. which will affect its growth.
6. In case the tree blooms in one side only , please turn it to the other side, the flowers will continue to grow.

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#320 :: Candy Mold

December 24, 2004

Finding the perfect gift for someone quirky. It’s an elusive goal at Christmastime, particularly when you have about two dozen such nebulous missions to add to an agenda of stocking-filling, tree-buying, menu-planning, house-cleaning, wreath-weaving and the otherwise headlong rush of your already insane life. You have secrets for efficiency. The oddball hardware store with everything. The coffee-fueled, lunchtime dead run down the most diverse shopping strip in town. The scientific, ballistic, oddball, geekhead, propeller-beanied sites in the “e-commerce” section of the bookmarks you’ve been collecting for the past 10 years (whatever became of that font of Mexican wrestling gear, LuchaSwag?) And in the end, you’re surrounded by a pile of rubbish, blearily scotchtaping things shut and hoping you haven’t insulted anyone or shortchanged anyone or spent too much money or too little or … Christmas didn’t used to be this stressful when you were a kid, you tell yourself as you try to curl ribbon with scissors without slicing off a finger. And then the day comes, and everybody turns out to be (mostly) tickled with what you got ’em. My talented and industrious brother-in-law likes – among other things – to make candy. Chocolate butts are a favored specialty. This little stamped-tin submarine went into his Xmas bag this year – a 1930s-vintage repro stamped from an old die, by the look of it. I haven’t heard yet, of course, whether it was the perfect thing. Or rubbish.

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#319 :: Stocking Hook Anchor

December 23, 2004

To wait for a thing, to truly be patient and allow it to come at its own pace, is an inhuman act of will. We yearn – for new jobs, hot concerts, latest games, fast cars, slow weekends, a first kiss, a second chance, freedom, food, rest, love. Childhood trains us to await Christmas with palpable, potent longing. The Santa legend, the daily ritual of the advent calendar, the growth of the pile beneath the tree. Our lives seem measured out in the stroboscopic wink and bubble of tiny lights on slaughtered evergreens.

Time was, you pounded nails into your mantelpiece from which to hang your family’s Christmas stockings. Now there are hooks for the purpose. This plated, urethane-coated pot-metal facsimile of a bristlecone pine weighs close to two pounds. It sits on our rounded fireplace shelf, its hook dangling tongue-like through the loops of the children’s two empty Christmas stockings.

It waits. Because it must.

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#318 :: Clic-Clac Tins

December 22, 2004

Yin to the raygun’s yang, the Clic-Clac is useful, modest and crisp – an elegant tribute to simple industrial design. Press the center of the puckered lid and the edge-tabs around the rim flip open. Squeeze the rim, and the puckered lid springs up again with a pop, clamping the tabs firmly into place once more. Press-open. Squeeze-closed. For a while, it seemed these tins were available only in a tiny size, full of silly mints and emblazoned with dot-com logos. But I just found a source for larger, 3.5-inch-diameter models at the amazing Surfas restaurant supply store a couple miles from here. They make a happy sound.

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#317 :: Noisy Raygun Keychain

December 21, 2004

The rock begat the hammer, the hammer begat the axe, the axe begat the spear, and the spear begat the arrow. The wheel evolved into the cart, which became the train and now we sit in vast, paralyzed fleets of wheeled, vinyl-padded coffins with the AC cranked, depleting the ozone at two miles an hour like everyone else jammed around us, on great concrete paths that were supposed to whisk us from A to B at 90. And the lowly transistor – capable in its evolution of regulating crippled hearts, guiding men to the moon and coating the planet with a mesh of seething information that bridges cultures, geography and language – somehow mutated into this nasty little device.

If the toy industry is a human body, this thing is an infected appendix, a worthless piece of junk, irritating and inconsequential, something that should be destroyed and eradicated from the face of the planet before the children of the world become infected, worthless, irritating and inconsequential themselves.

Okay, okay. I’m exaggerating. But I’m a dad, and my nerves thin to a pulpy smear whenever the kids are playing with this thing, because it’s shiny, useless, and does nothing much more than flash and make this horrible noise. I keep trying to “lose” it behind the sofa, at the bottom of the clothes hamper, in the trunk of the car, and it keeps … coming … back.

It is a cool color, though.

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#316 :: Czechoslovakian Chicken

December 20, 2004

A very simple toy: The plaster chicken sits in a cardboard-tube nest. From its bottom hangs a string, through the bottom of the nest, which is a taut paper diaphragm. Pull the string taut, rub it with a resin-coated chunk of cardboard, and the chicken squawks. Men hawking these stand on the street corners of Prague, throttling their chicken-strings through cackling, crowing, clucking arias of artificial noise, a wall of henspeech meant to entice you to buy. They cost very little, and last very long.

Listen: (Quicktime)

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#315 :: Lunch Tickets

December 19, 2004

On this planet, 852 million of your fellow souls cannot afford food. They get sick, they die, and are replaced by more hungry people who are pushed out of the bottom of the human ecosystem by war, poverty, greed and human exploitation beyond my deepest fears. Of the 6.9 billion people on Earth, 1.2 billion earn less than $1 a day. HIV/AIDS is spreading at a catastrophic rate outside the United States:

# The spreading HIV/AIDS epidemic has quickly become a major obstacle in the fight against hunger and poverty in developing countries.

# Because the majority of those falling sick with AIDS are young adults who normally harvest crops, food production has dropped dramatically in countries with high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates.

# In southern Africa, close to 500,000 people died of AIDS in 2001 alone, fueling a serious food crisis in 2002-2003 in which more than 14 million people faced hunger and starvation.

# Infected adults also leave behind children and elderly relatives, who have little means to provide for themselves. In 2001, 2.5 million children were newly orphaned in Southern Africa.

# Since the epidemic began, 25 million people have died from AIDS, which has caused more than 13 million children to lose either their mother or both parents. For its analysis, UNICEF uses a term that illustrates the gravity of the situation; child-headed households, or minors orphaned by HIV/AIDS who are raising their siblings.

# 42 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the world  92.8 percent of them in developing countries. 3 million are children under the age of 15. 2.9 million of those children live in the developing world, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa
(source: Bread for the World Institute)

These little bits of pasteboard cost $1 apiece. Each one guarantees my child a California government-subsidized lunch – perhaps a slice of pizza, some fruit or vegetables and a carton of milk, maybe even a little tub of Jell-O. I can afford to give him five of these a week, home-cooked and restaurant meals, a home, a car to ride around in, new clothes, access to a computer – comforts that right now a child in Darfur is not even aware of because he is starving to death in a refugee camp.

The feeling of powerlessness to help overwhelms me. I can send money for food to Unicef, WorldVision, ReliefWeb and a host of NGOs who will feed that boy, maybe bring him back from starvation. But how do I begin to sway the military of Sudan – or any other nation – to stop killing?

Peace on Earth, goes the message. It’s criminal that not even my own government – nor half of my countrymen, agree.

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#314 :: The Thing

December 18, 2004

Benjamin J. Grimm: World War II veteran. Test pilot. Hard-radiation victim. 500-pound, trans-human mutant rock creature. Of all of Marvel’s 1960s anti-hero creations, the Thing somehow resonated with me the most. He’s a sensitive lug wrapped in the igneous shell of a brute – all pissed off, clobberin’-time rage and hurt. Unlike the Hulk, he’s forced to deal with the world face to face on its own terms, as an articulate blue-collarman trapped in the life of a superhero-freak. I found this lovingly sculpted icon in a closeout bin at KayBee a few years ago – wearing his sad disguise. He has a bio and fans on the web, including some who’ve gone so far as to list the only ones stronger than the Thing.

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#313 :: U.S. Navy Drafting Kit

December 17, 2004

Ca. 1926, drafting kit of Lt. John R. Craig, U.S.S. Grampus. My grandfather. This was sent home with his effects when his submarine went missing, presumed sunk by the Japanese Navy. Here’s a guest entry by his daughter, my mother, who informs me that since Naval Academy mechanical engineering class was called “steam” this was known as a “steam kit:”

The steam kit would not have gone with him on the U.S.S. Grampus, his last command. It was a piece of college gear that an officer would leave behind. It would have been something his mother, Clara Belle Rich Craig had kept when he finished the Academy and handed on to me. Now, TMI, including this from the John R. Craig webpage, put up by men from the ship named after him, with history of the vessel at:
LCDR John R. Craig, USN
Lieutenant Commander John Rich Craig was born in Jacksonville, Florida on September 3, 1906. He attended grade schools in Jacksonville and the Duval High School, then entered the U. S. Naval Academy from Florida in 1926. After graduation and commissioning in 1930, he was assigned to USS SARATOGA and served in her until March 1931, when he was ordered to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. He was detached from duty there in September 1931 and during the next four and one half years served successively in the carrier LEXINGTON, and destroyers NOA, SIMPSON, and LONG and the fleet oiler NECHES. In January 1936 he reported to the Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut for instruction in submarines. After completing that course in May 1936, he joined USS S-34 in Honolulu. In September 1937, he was transferred to USS S-24, serving in her until May 1938, when he returned to the United States …


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#312 :: Time-o-Lite Darkroom Timer

December 16, 2004

Chemicals vaporize slowly from open trays In a dull orange gloom. Liquid sounds, a slow stench and crisp slices of tuned light snapped off one by one to catalyze it all to life. For more than 100 years, the darkroom was the artificial primeval swamp, a fecund, foreign place from which sprang the idiocy of art-school experimentation, the urgent drama of AP news shooters, the brilliant visions of (my favorites) Edward Weston, John Pfahl, Weegee and Margaret Bourke-White. Printing was alchemy. Science and art blended into magic – the breathless seconds when you would stare into the tray, sloshing developer rhythmically across a blank sheet of exposed Agfa Portriga or Kodabrome, waiting for science and art to blend, for your own vision to materialize.

Womb/room. Hour after hour on nights, weekends, through college and on into my 30s, I would spend hours moving paper from safe to enlarger for a brief flood of filtered light, then developer, stop, fixer – and the moment when I could hit the overhead and see whether I had made art or shit or both. I loved printing – black and white, color, cyanotype, sepiatone.

Then everything went digital.

And with the magic vanished the chores: None of the fuss of dodging and burning, of rolling my own film or making a room light-tight or setting up fresh chemicals. Color was the worst, now eradicated by high-res pixelization: No heartbreaking, back-burning eight-hour sessions trying to produce six good color prints. No polluting my developer with an invisible smear of fixer picked up on my fingertips like germs from a toilet – and having to toss everything out, scrub down the entire work area and get fresh chemicals poured and up to temp. No 2:30 a.m. cleanup session with the sponge and the print squeegee and the clothespins. So much easier. Snap, stick the card in the computer, fiddle with Photoshop to color-correct, click “PRINT.”


I’ll probably never run C-prints again – mastering the subtleties of good color is so much simpler with a few filters and actions. But I’ll never get rid of my gear either. I hope to show my kids how to conjure, how to pull off this arcane sorcerer’s trick of conjuring images from raw light.

The Time-o-Lite is a burly old thing, all hammertoned steel and precision clockwork run by a fat metal toggle burdened with what feels like 20 pounds of spring-loaded resistance. It glows, reliable and strong, and spins off the seconds with a whirrrrrr-*click.* God knows what good photo paper will cost 10 years from now – whether it will even be available – but I will print again. Some day.

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#311 :: Reporter’s Handbook on Media Law

December 15, 2004

Newspaper reporters carry a certain moral rectitude in the pit of their stomachs. Brilliant ones carry it in their hearts. Bad ones in their asses, which they seek to cover only because they must – failure to do so means career suicide. But it drives them all – the piss and vinegar of of H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain, the crusading momentum of Jimmy Breslin and Edna Buchanan – this nameless burden of knowing that you’re responsible for covering every angle and distilling them all into a 10-column-inch nugget of what must pass your editor’s test for “truth.” Of course, this grand mission is being carried out by a human being, so the message too often winds up alloyed with personal bias, tainted by the spat you had with your editor that morning, poisoned by the stomach-churning lunch you wolfed in 3½ minutes and otherwise warped by lying sources, looming deadlines, exhaustion and boredom. You carry a code of conduct in your head, rules to report by, dos and don’ts, musts and must-nevers – because a single written law governs the bulk of your work life. It’s extremely short. But because shit happens, you carry a few more as weapons, for the world is complex, people lie and the systems you navigate are shifty and capricious.

I carried this slim volume (or one just like it) for my seven years at the L.A. Times – a volume of near-magic spells meant to fight sealed courtrooms, records, investigations, reports and government meetings. Here’s one of my favorite incantations. I uttered it several times, in that tense split second between the judge declaring a hearing closed and the bailiff kicking me out of the courtroom:

Criminal or Civil Proceedings:
Your honor, my name is ____________ and I represent _______________. I respectfully protest the proposed closure of this proceeding. In recent years the United States Supreme Court has laid down specific and substantive procedural requirements for excluding the public from all or part of any criminal proceeding. I ask that Your Honor ensure that this closure comports with the standards and mandates of Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia 488 U.S.555(Trials); Press-Enterprise vs. Superior Court, 464 U.S. 501 (Jury Selection) and Press-Enterprise v. Superior Court, 106 S. Ct. 2735 (preliminary hearings).

Civil Proceedings
(Supplement the statement above with the following)

Although this proceeding is not criminal in nature, we believe that under the cited authorities the same procedural and substantive rules apply, as held in Publicker Industries v. Cohen, 733 F.2d 1059 (hearing on motion for preliminary injunction).

Stay Request
(where appropriate)

I ask for a brief pause in this proceeding to permit counsel for my employer to appear and be heard in our behalf.”

It never worked. The judge always “took it under consideration” then held the closed hearing anyway. But goddamn it, my stomach felt right as I sat in the hallway outside. And waited.

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#310 :: Glass Heart

December 14, 2004

Function is a mystery. The point of this thing must lie somewhere between symbol and tool, in that most mystical of all bands in the kitsch spectrum occupied by nudie poker decks and Humunga Tongue dog toys.

It may have been cast as a paperweight, a keepsake or just a token of affection.

The week my daughter was born a bit more than 3 years ago, my wife and I found this in the gutter. It cleaned up beautifully, and rests in your hand with a warm, solid weight. You’d have to drop it from a good height onto a cement floor to damage it, but it can be broken. My daughter is a pistol with boundless joy and love, a quick temper, and a small but ferocious sensitive streak. For us, this was a good, true omen.

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#309 :: Kohner VariVue “Color TV”

December 13, 2004

Early 1960s, I’m guessing; A simple doodad made by Kohner Toys to show off VariVue” – the lenticular technology that made static billboards, toys and flickering Jesus postcards come to life. The near-encyclopedic says far more than I ever could:

In the late 1930’s, the first multiple image lenticular image was formed and this was the seed that started the VariVue company. During this time, VariVue coined the name “lenticular”, to describe their linier lenses, “Winkies” to describe our ever popular blinking eyes and “Magic-Motion” to describe any lenticular image containing motion. By the late 1940’s, VariVue had become a ousehold name by producing millions of animated and stereographic lenticular images which were available everywhere. These images included everything from wall hangings, to record album covers, CrackerJack prizes, greeting cards, post cards, political buttons and so much more. By the 1950’s, VariVue’s lenticular images had become a craze and many, if not most famous personalities of the time, wanted to be featured in VariVue advertisements. At the same time, VariVue buttons were used in every political campaign throughout the country and were available everywhere. By the mid-1950’s, VariVue images were available everywhere on earth, including eastern Europe. In the mid 1960’s, VariVue started to license its lenticular imaging technology to key major printing companies around the world. Licenses were granted to companies in Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and elsewhere.

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#308 :: Vegetable Peeler

December 12, 2004

Dirt, roots, husks, peels – all fall away to the sharpened blade-slot of this thing. Raw utility is one of the most alluring qualities of a simple tool, and there is nothing so elegant as a design from antiquity that survives even in modern versions of an ancient tool for the simple reason that the design was – and remains – the most efficient expression of a simple machine. The age of this thing is not known, but it was well-crafted sometime in the middle of the last century, of solidly chromed steel cut, punched and wrapped around a torpedo handle of lustrous, swirled red bakelite.

Glorious stuff, bakelite. I’m drawn like a magpie to singular things made from it, as I’ve pointed out on a few occasions,

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#307 :: Circuit Board Coasters

December 11, 2004

Beached here on your sofa, your eyes go glassy imagining this: A hard-wired planet, paved with printed circuits. The change renders all communication routes – ad slogans, song lyrics, quarrels, rumors, shouts – as green fiberglass boards overlaid with zigzagging copper strips. Humans solidify as nodes in the structure, communication routes between them hardening to electronic channels as signal and noise vanish beneath a carapace of circuits to the level of speeding electrons, invisible and alive. All is green and shiny brown, emitting a fractal, roaring crackle like the sound of a skater’s weight on a just-frozen lake, as the world crystallizes and hardens, made a perfect network of conduits for information. The world made flesh as data-driven hive. True solid state. It throws off a hummm and a hideous heat.

The human race is not yet drowning in circuit boards, but with the 9-month obsolescence cycle of the printed circuit, the ready supply of worthelss computer boards is clogging our landfills and inspiring artists, entrepreneurs and waste-management worriers alike.

A handful of clinical study of ways to dispose of dead circuit boards.

Clever companies like CompuNote capitalized on the boards’ essential worthlessness and rigidity, and came up with remanufacutred itemse like clipboards and purses and money clips.

And more poetic souls have slapped them onto art cars, while the rest of us just sort of heave box after putty-colored box into the dumpster, figuring the city will take care of it.

These drink coasters are yet another idea … or an artifact from a bedazzled fantasy.

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#306 :: Cocktail Shaker

December 10, 2004

Booze drenches and lubricates human endeavor. We like a good drink with friends. We think about drinking. We try not to drink alone – more to avoid stigma than to protect ourselves. We do huge, epically stupid things and memorialize our stupidity. We kill each other. We die. We conduct elaborate rituals around it. And we fetishize it, for what relgion would be complete without tools and talismans of belief?

Mass-produced of thick glass, stamped aluminum and silkscreened red and white paint in the 40s and 50s, this is a codex of devotion to the church of alcohol. Wield it with confidence, strong in your faith that these commandments shall rightly deliver you and your fellow acolytes unto a state of grace. Or whatever it is you’re chasing with drinks.

1 part Bacardi
1 part lemon juice
add one dash grenadine to each serving
1 part Dubonnet
1 part dry gin
Add one dash bitters to each serving
1 part dry gin
1 part creme cocoa
2 part cream
Less cream may be used to suit taste
1 part dry gin
1 part dry vermouth
1 part orange juice
For sweet cocktail substitute Italian vermouth
4 parts dry gin
1 part dry italian vermouth
Add two dashes orange bitters to each serving
1 part rye
1 part Italian vermouth
Two dashes orange
One dash Angostura bitters

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#305 :: 4-Pound Sledge

December 9, 2004

Physics is a bitch. Some things won’t move. Rust, gravity, torque, inertia. Constants and inevitables. A screw’s tension in its threads mean the difference between finding a screwdriver and shredding your fingernails. Loose head bolts will cripple a car’s engine in a cloud of vapor-filled exhaust – water in the oil sump and the bugger just quits. Without the lever and pulley we’d all still be working in single-story mud huts. Wheels power the planet. It’s a human thing, this reliance on tools. The need, this task: that stretch of unwanted concrete, those rocks, this massive stake that needs burying. Your nerves fire and your muscles shift as you pick it up, and something primal switches on in your hindbrain: This is it. This ought to do the job. You raise it a foot or so, take a few test blows: Pure, unfettered transference of kinetic energy, your power magnified through the impact, not a microjoule wasted and the target undeniably shifted. A faint smile creeps into your mouth. Your jaw tightens. You raise it back over your shoulder, behind your ear this time.

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#304 :: Corn Fork

December 8, 2004

Divans. Bobby sox. Fondue dishes. Poodle skirts. Cocktail shakers. Gingham tablecloths. Highball glasses. Swizzle sticks. Meerschaum pipes. Waffle irons. Ice crushers. Condiment squeeze bottles. Tiki mugs. Doo-wop 45s. Tupperware. Demitasses. Poker chips. Bridge mix. Tulips. Ambrosia. Corn forks.

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#303 :: Ulexite – “TV Rock”

December 7, 2004

Science fiction writer Bob Shaw in 1968 imagined “slow glass” – a substance that took a long time to transmit light. Manufacturers would set black, lightless panes of it up somewhere gorgeous for a few years to soak up the view, then sell it to someone who wanted a “scenedow” that showed that view. (Read the haunting Light of Days)

This is nature’s version, a transparent rock – hydrated sodium calcium borate, or ulexite. Its silky crystals line up in perfect parallel, piping light straight through like fiber optics. You can find it in the arid playas of the American Southwest. Or you can pluck it from the bins of any good mineral shop, where it usually lies in dull anonymity beside pyrite, bauxite, copper and other baubles sold to schoolchildren for a dollar. If you’re religious, it is proof of the divine touch. If you’re agnostic, it is proof of the earth’s sense of humor.

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#302 :: Lionel Engine

December 6, 2004

After hours of construction, the track – all trestles and handmade buildings and elaborate switches and sidings – was wired up to a heavy, black transformer the size of a cinderblock. I eased the control lever forward, and the engine lurched, hauling the hodgepodge train of eight cars we’d collected over a handful of Christmases. It churned around with a cogged, grinding whine – throwing sparks where we had failed to connect the sections tightly enough. Hollow, the boxcars resonated as wheels click-clacked across the gaps – never too fast, or the derailment would force you to spend a minute and a half chewing your tongue trying to set all the wheels back in line – and your mind magnified the sound to a bootsole rumble. The burly little beast’s headlight glowed yellow. It stunk of ozone and fresh machine oil. It’s a Lionel.

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#301 :: Beaver Skull

December 5, 2004

Biological engineering made this ornate clot of bone. The curved incisors, the high zygomatic arch, the thick molars. Let fundamentalists and scientists haggle over its niche in God’s grand plan versus whatever mysterious purpose evolution could have for developing a furry submarine that gnawed down trees to dam rivers for easier swimming and fishing. Ignore the reason and admire the bone fact: Sharp front teeth grow constantly. Thick, white pillars anchor bulging jaw muscles that drive the bite diligent enough to fell saplings and rotting old-growth timber. Eyes and nostrils ride high at top and tip, respectively so they can peer above still water while splayed paws churn below, driving the sleek, hollow-haired body forward to its next task. Brutish and coarse, not so fine and sharp as the inside of a raccoon’s head, but elegant, and true and humbling in its beauty.

It’s also affordable. Beaver skulls (as with many others you’ll find in curio shops) tend to come from the fur trade. You can order them (and dozens of equally astonishing bits of bone) from places like Maxilla and Mandible in Greenwich Village, or pick them up for about 30 bucks at Wacko/Soap Plant in Los Angeles.

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