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#200 :: The Freshman

August 27, 2004

Object 200. Milestone. Millstone. This number means everything, and nothing – a way of quantifying this trivial obsession, or giving it weight it doesn’t deserve. The endless procession of things past the lens since I began now completely clutters my desk. This little fellow seems ready for anything. In honor of having done this 200 nights in a row (sort of) I’m parking him with #148 and #7, and an object still unobjectified. Visitors are invited to name him, and the bestower of the best name gets to keep him. Have fun. I do.

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#199 :: Antique Cellulose Glasses Case

August 26, 2004

The rims would have been steel, perhaps, or brass, and fit uncomfortably at the temples and the nose. The lenses would have been wavy, heavy, thick and, worst of all, scratched, if for no other reason than because the case was made of wood. It was elegant in its time, rimmed in brass and protected by a carapace of cellulose tinted a rather miraculous sea-foam green. He would have put them on, squinted a bit, then taken them off to rub them on his inkstained tunic before putting them on again and beginning his work – a dip to the inkwell, a few strokes to the page, one word at a time in the exact order in which they would have to remain. Paper was expensive, and he was poor, with very much to write, for his master was a man of many words. It is Chinese. It may be more than 100 years old. LIght glows from its thousands of tiny, iridescent pools.

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#198 :: Log

August 25, 2004

A symbolic oxymoron, the log made out of plastic. Blowformed in un-lifelike brown, the mold marks show a careless inattention to proportions – one half’s longer than the other – and to details – the whole thing looks like a knotty Tootsie Roll more than anything that once swayed in the breeze. But it is unapologetically what it is: A log, stout and true. Sing along with me if you can remember the words:

What rolls down stairs
Alone or in pairs…
Rolls over your neighbor’s dog?
What’s great for a snack
And fits on your back?
It’s Log! Log! Log!
It’s Lo-og, it’s Lo-og
It’s big, it’s heavy
It’s wood!
It’s Lo-og, Lo-og
It’s better than bad
It’s good!!!

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#197 :: Hematite

August 24, 2004

Hematite is the perfect heavy little substance. It’s not as heavy, expensive or hard to shape as iridium. Nor is it pure. Just common iron oxide, solid, dark and – when polished right – lustrous as a field of stars. Somewhere in my effects is a little blob of milled hematite, a worry stone the size of my thumb. Until I find it, here is a string of hematite pearls from my wife’s bead box. They are cold, and holding them, I could almost fall asleep.

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#196 :: Copper-covered Notebook

August 23, 2004

Somewhere in life, you developed the habit of taking notes. Not in college, where your first-week-of-the-semester verbatim transcription of your professors’ every little pearl devolved quickly into random doodles and daydreamt screenplay ideas. Not in the frenzied scrawling of deadline reporting that led to squint-eyed panic back at your computer once you realized you had no idea what that guy really said to you. Not in the shopping lists, camping manifests, tech-support phone calls or the dark haze of a bar before a pair of pretty eyes. No, somewhere much longer ago, you decided to keep track. There were loose-leaf binders, spiral-ring cheapos, perfect-bound sketchbooks. And then there were the handful of “important” notebooks, the ones you meant for the stashing of deep and revelatory notions, the recordable moments of ringing clarity. This one, this would be the last notebook you’d ever own: Gilt-edged pages, leatherette-bound between two heavy slabs of burnished copper. You wound up jotting down business plans, fiction-ideas. You used it to host head-clearing brawls, to help thresh nutrition from a skullful of mental chaff. It served as a paperweight for a year or two while you hunkered down on a particularly deep and engaging project. It has an eternal, rock-of-ages feel to it – and picking it up invariably triggers an attack of impostor syndrome. You think about pouring vinegar on the covers, just to see if it will corrode.

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#195 :: “Lucky Fish” earring

August 22, 2004

This is a refugee from my wife’s jewelry box, the surviving member of a sundered pair. Its mate is gone – perhaps escaped back to a sea of black velvet to drift over formations of garnet and hammered brass, hunting for tiny glass shrimp. Hand-snipped tin segments are wired together in a flexible facscimile of swimming scales, the eyes tiny red beads held on by pins.

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#194 :: Strobing Ball

August 21, 2004

A floating police drone, a starship’s afterburner, a planet-crushing thermonuclear device that fits into a pocket, a digital key to the wealth of worlds. A transparent neoprene ball vacuformed around a simple 2-LED blink-repeater circuit and drilled through with a couple dozen very precise holes. It ignites at a single bounce, winking away with the universal red-blue semaphore of fate, the seizure-inducing blinking spasm that every drunk dreads, the visual shriek that puts him a simple breathalyzer test away from lost-license loss of independence, or serves as prelude to a chase. Who knew that if you focused on it and opened your shutter for a few extra seconds, it would take on a lurid, poetic beauty. Five bucks at Disneyland.

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#192 :: Chinese Ink Stone

August 20, 2004

Lampblack and glue, pressed into hard sticks, must be ground against a smooth stone with water to make ink. I think this page was more eloquent than I would ever hope to on the subject:

The inkstone, which was used to grind the ink, was considered the very soul of a scholars library. These stones were selected with the greatest of care and were often decorated with elaborate symbols or literary phrases thought to encourage the scholars production of higher sentiments. While there are many exceptions, most inkstones are rectangular or rounded. Most are in fact made of stone but examples of pottery also exist. The definitive work on this subject is probably Mi Fus Yen shih or Account of Inkstones. This work gives the proper name for all portions of the Inkstone and sets out the various characteristics of Inkstones and their use. Later but also fascinating works on Inkstones include the Yen lin or Forest of Inkstones by Yu Huai, which was written in the 1600s. This was followed by Pao yen tang yen pien or Discussion of Inkstones from the Hall of Treasured Inkstones by Ho Chuan-yao and Tuan his yen shih or Account of Tuan His Stones by Wu Lan-hsui, both of which were published in the 1830s.

Inkstones are an acquired taste like several other facets of Chinese culture. They are generally black or dark in color and do not draw the attention of the eye. Their beauty oftentimes is not so much in how they look but in how they work together with the ink and the paper and brush to achieve a particular color or texture. However, for those fortunate enough to have learned to master the brush, ink, inkstone and paper, the four precious things of the library are a passion. Holding an antique inkstone, it is hard not to feel the power that emanated from the previous painter or scholar who possessed this stone. For this reason, inkstones are avidly collected and treasured by Chinese and some foreigners. Prices vary greatly and are often based on stories as to prior owners, which are difficult if not impossible to verify.

I bought this for a few yuan on our honeymoon in Beijing more than 10 years ago. I experimented with a set of traditional rabbit’s fur brushes for a little while, then stored it until recently. Its grinding surface is marred where some careless shopkeeper stuck an adhesive price tag to it long before it came to my possession, but it in no way detracts from the turbulent whorls of water, the watchful apsect of the little turtle at the edge of the “pond.” I pull it out and heft it in my hand every now and then, for inspiration.

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#191 :: Telescoping Alligator Clip Sputnik Thing

August 19, 2004

Somewhere in Bombay, a cargo container awaits, baking in the sun on a dock smeared with pelican shit. Inside are approximately 10,000 cheaply made, shiny, heavy little objects of a strange design. They were knocked out by sweatshops in Old Delhi or the poorer rural villages in Northern India for a few rupees apiece, sold by the sweatshop operators to exporters for a few hundred rupees more and then stuffed into this container for a long ocean voyage. Soon, they will make their way to Amsterdam, New York, Tokyo, Sydney and the Port of Los Angeles. The exporter will take a wire transfer of a rather large sum of money (for him, a 400 or 500% markup) from an importer here. The importer will then sell to the buyers at Urban Outfitters or some other yuppie-decor chain. And paunchy, galumphing fools like me will stumble in on a late-night window-shopping binge, mutter, “Whoa, cooool” and shell out enough money for each of them to feed a family of four in rural India for a month. Then we’ll take them home, park them on our desks, play with them for a few weeks while procrastinating from work that must be done, and then abandon them to gather dust and shame.

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#190 :: Dental Floss

August 18, 2004

I believe there is a continuation of the three classifications that make up the first query in a game of 20 Questions. Animal, vegetable and mineral are followed by mechanical, chemical, electrical, digital and, ultimately – if it really all is some bottomless vortex of a Darwinian end game and we each will return to dust – spiritual. There’s an unrealized artwork in my head centering around the nexus of these seven factors and the four traditional elements – earth, wind, fire, water – maybe some sort of periodic table for existence, maybe a deck of cards with suits and faces and long, wickedly complex games with too many rules to argue over. Maybe just a bad haiku. And maybe this New Periodic Table’s really about physical compounds: Where do Persian carpets fall on the chart compared with, say, hockey pucks? Schnauzers versus beveled -glass, walnut-paneled doors? Somewhere up among the noble compounds – the ones the world was made of before somebody discovered plastic and ruined it all – lie paper, glass and steel. Some rather large pharmaceutical company packed a little coil of dental floss (a slightly less noble, mid-table compound on the order of, say, cheddar cheese or wallets – into a glass capsule lined with a label and capped with a little cutter lid of stamped tin. They sold millions of ’em. And one made its way to a swap meet because you can’t just waltz into a store and buy ’em any longer.

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#189 :: Industrial bobbin?

August 17, 2004

The technological revolution ain’t what it used to be, no sir. Time was, you didn’t know what a part was and installed it wrong, an industrial machine could macerate your hand, rip out your hair, suck your cravat in right up to your sideburns. You put the wrong part on, why, could lose a nose, an eye, an arm. Yessir, you wouldn’t want to dally ’round gettin’ your fingers greasy without readin’ the manual first, making sure you knew where everything went, and what it did, and what would happen if it broke. Not like nowadays, where it’s all code and passwords and glowing words that hurt your eyes, and it’s guesswork and you can never tell if the people sendin’ ya letters about your house or your apothecary order or the size of your tallywhacker is even men or women. You never have to get your hands dirty, or even move, much. It’s all guesswork and hoodoo and a buncha black magic, I tell ya, and I don’t pretend to understand none of it.

But this here little gizmo, I know this has gotta be for some kinda big sewing machine, right? It’s cast steel, with a v-shaped channel cut into it big enough for thread, and some sort of eyelet whatsis screwed into it. And there’s a sharp end, and a blunt end. Oughta be able to figger it out, oughtn’t I? Right? Say, what’n hell is this doohickey, anyways?

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#188 :: Barbie’s Piggy Bank

August 16, 2004

At some point, toys became all about accessories. Kids shoulder past your knees at KayBee to hunch over demonic action figures – “What weapons does it have?” There are more than a dozen kinds of Batman. Barbie has always been accessorized. You’d think someone who owns a mobile home and a jet plane wouldn’t have to save her pennies, but then, she does work in a convenience store. Perhaps this little porcine keg – and an unswerving sense of thrift – brought her all that wealth. Perhaps she’s just a grown-up little girl whose anatomy is now obsessed over by toy fetishists, and whose original, sweet identity has been co-opted by the planet-wide hive mind of little girls yearning to be sophisticated, successful grown-ups.

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#187 :: Tin Kaleidoscope

August 15, 2004

Your outlook on life governs your reaction to kaleidoscopes: It’s just a kid’s toy, you snort. No, you gush, it’s an entheogenic viewer for cleansing the mind’s eye, an acid-tripper’s kit-bag accessory, an artistic medium. Aaahh, it’s just a waste of materials. I’ve been in a few of those camps, but never in the last of them. Putting a new kaleidoscope to your eye sucks you into a quiet bubble that no one else shares, sending you on a tiny expedition: how many mirrors does it have? What little colored particles and knicknacks are rolling around up in the business end? Does the outside view factor into the inner visual vortex? What happens when I point it at this lamp, that TV, the sun? Kaleidoscopes have been around since 1816. They have inspired digital imitation, prompted navel-gazing obsession, and figured into countless business metaphors. This one is sturdy, made of lithographed tin, carefully rolled and crimped and packed with glass mirrors and colored beads in China. It’s sturdy little piece of work.

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#186 :: Buddha Amulet

August 14, 2004

How curious that we require our gods to be portable. For some, gods can’t be so great that they intimidate, nor so formidable that they can’t be compressed, miniaturized, made chibi and thus toted around as totem or proof of faith. This came from the stall of a far-East trader, whose wares ran from ornate meditation bells and elaborately carved wooden boxes to huge-phallused monkey talismans of bone, and captive Buddhas. The Buddha himself is carved in copper or some baser metal, weathered with what looks like lime or lye, and then encased in a chromed, red-lined glass box, proof against the weather and the world’s wickedness. While I am not Buddhist, he has been riding with me this week in case of the faintest whiff of sudden enlightenment.

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#185 :: LED Flashlight

August 13, 2004

Like French provincial or Aztec modern, brutish industrial design is its own beast, not a blend of given sets of style but a strict, hermetic discipline unto itself. To make something wilfully, truly ugly – and yet appealing – is to create raw beauty, the unabashed individuality of things that are not only oblivious of their appearance, but apathetic about it. This Taiwanese ripoff of a $125 design doesn’t even bother with a crude approximation. It steals the basic core setup and a single styling cue (the useless hexagonal barrel points) and crams them together into the single most graceless, fugly package possible, wrapped in a (badly) anodized aluminum finish closely approximating the color of monkey diarrhea. It’s unbelievably bright (eight LEDs!), and puts the other white LED device on HLO to shame for both heaviness and size-to-power ratio. Ten bucks at my favorite vendor – the Chinese tool merchant at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet. It’s the VW Thing of flashlights, the Pontiac Aztek, the sort of thing Judge Dredd would duct-tape to his truncheon. Even the circular rubber switchbutton on the butt is ugly.

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#184 :: Mystery ornament

August 11, 2004

It’s drop-forged potmetal, about as heavy as six or seven quarters. But its iconography doesn’t jibe with its milieu – symbol of love cast in the chosen medium of auto emblems, and chromed to a high shine. Some nagging tickle at the back of my head says “Dodge Dart Swinger” but Google is no help in addressing the hunch and neither is eBay. Hard nicks and gouges attest to its recent history of abuse – the blackout time it spent between life on its car and life on my lawn, where my son picked it up and handed it to me. “Here,” he said, in that way of his, “This is for you.”

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#183 :: Ronson “Adonis” Lighter

August 10, 2004

This is what the atomic Zippo evolved into: Fast times demand fast tools. Many tools of the 50s and 60s owe their visual speed to Raymond Loewy. The godfather of modern American industrial design and friend of Sinatra believed in the aesthetic of MAYA – Most Avanced Yet Acceptable, which drove his visions for everything from the Studebaker Hawk and the Lucky Strike logo to the interior of Skylab. No record of whether he’s directly responsible for the Ronson Varaflame Adonis, but in the Loewy way, the fuel-plug tail cowling and speed lines on this little chromed vehicle form their own slipstream just standing on my desk. It’s a flea-markeet find, probably among the first of the new butane-fueled models to come out in the late 50s. I’m hoping to find a junker for parts on eBay so I can replace the lost flint plug and get it fired up for camping trips and the occasional cigar. Meantime, here’s a fairly exhaustive history of Ronson lighters.

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#182 :: Ice Block Lamp

August 9, 2004

This double-glass-block icon is meant to remind you of this – an elaborate ice castle lit from within. It glows with a liquid intensity, the frosted bulb cavity diffusing all 25 watts of its little bulb through about two pounds of solid glass. It would make a dandy blunt instrument – coldcock your prey, then fling it to a concrete floor to shatter into a million unfingerprintable bits. Designed by Harri Koskinen for the Museum of Modern Art, this was a gift, so I was pretty startled just now to learn how much it costs. The design concept itself screams “kitsch!” – until you switch it on. Then all hard feelings melt away. Oooh, says some small voice from somewhere south of my adolescence. It’s pretty

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#181 :: Glueless Patch Kit

August 8, 2004

Bicycle tubes and I have never entirely gotten along. When I was ten, I remember filling up the tires on my “English racer” (really a 27-inch “Robin Hood” with 3-speed Sturmey-Archer hub and caliiper brakes, but it felt fast, anyway) at the neighborhood Citgo station. I had no clue about tire pressure, and at least three times one summer, I overfilled the tires in an attempt to get them as rock-hard as the tires on my friends’ 10-speeds. I’d give fill them up, give them a squeeze, and then mount up and ride away – only to wonder for a few seconds why there was this BULGE in the sidewall that grew bigger and bigger until the tube herniated out between the rim and the tire bead and exploded with an embarrasing BANG. And then I’d have to drag the lame bike the eight blocks back home and walk allll the way downtown to the bike store to buy a new tube. Eventually I figured out how to avoid that. But then I began riding farther abroad, where my tires found screws, glass, nails and other pointy things – and I learned how to patch them. Problem was, the volatile cement in patch kits usually dries out once you open the tube – leaving you stranded the next time you spring a leak. This glueless patch kit from Park Tools is one of those indispensable things – like penicillin and the Internet – without which you almost cannot seem to remember living. And such a bargain.

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#180 :: Cloisonne’d Iron Balls

August 7, 2004

Pictures of their exteriors abound. Actual clues to the mysterious musical mechanism inside them cannot be Googled effectively. The closest I’ve come is this:

Baoding Chi Balls – These chrome-plate steel balls, better known as Chinese therapy balls, originated in the Chinese city of Baoding during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). According to traditional Chinese beliefs, the vital organs of the human body are all connected to the fingers. By manipulating these iron balls, it stimulates the circulation of blood and energy throughout the body. Take the challenge of spinning these iron orbs without dropping them. Hollowed balls are outfitted with sounding plates to produce a jingle as they are rotated. Set of two in an embroidered case. 4.9″ length X 2.75″ width X 2.5″ height. Assorted color cases; please allow us to select for you. Imported from China. Usually ships in 1 to 2 business days.

The dragon and phoenix chase each other ’round and tinkling ’round, locked in struggle until your hands get tired. You can believe this about them, or this, or this combined with this. What fascinates me more is the method employed at the cloisonne shop we visited in Beijing on our honeymoon: they weld copper wire, of a certain thickness, to the cmpleted steel mystery sphere, bake in a thick coat of colors – delineated by the wire, and then smoothed to within an inch of its life. The surface of the still-rough ball is sanded smooth so the enamel and etra metal are one glossy planetary surface, and buffed to a crude, high shine like a Roman senator’s floor mosaic.

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#179 :: Tin Harmonica

August 6, 2004

I chose this today not for its purpose but for its look. It’s not so elegant an instrument as even this – its reeds are … reedy … and its tone not quite on pitch. But its case (?) reminds me of every little lithographed, bent-tin toy I’ve ever held, from frog clickers and party ratchets to Crazy Trains and vintage Japanese robots glimpsed through locked glass. Hard, cartoonish strokes of black limn the little animal race. The bear’s popping plewds. But I think the giraffe will win.

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#178 :: Tiara

August 5, 2004

One heavy little object will never appear on this site, for it is likely dead. When I was about nine, an artist friend of my parents came to visit, bringing with him trinkets from his rakish hippie life in Cartagena. Among them was a jeweled bug. Not a cloisonné insect, nor a 14-karat bug brooch with diamonds, pav&eaccute;, but a living beetle onto which some Colombian peasant had epoxied a glittering mosaic of green and yellow paste jewels and an eyelet. Attached to the eyelet was a leash of fine, gold chain. The artist clipped the leash’s other end to my mother’s lapel, and the living jewel wandered all over her collar for half an hour. Occasionally it crapped. Never did it look anything less than stunning and heartbreaking. All I could think – then and now – was, How dare they? It probably had a fine life in the rain forest, blissfully unaware of the date and time of its certain doom in a bird’s beak or a marsupial’s paws. Instead, it now had to survive on scraps of grass and live out its last days within inches of leering, burbling human faces, being dragged incessantly across an ever-changing carpet of rayon, worsted and silk by thick, careless fingers. The vanity of man demands shamelessly shiny things. Some are legendary. Others are gaudy constructions of dozens of cheap ornaments. This plastic tiara came into the house as a gift, and amply stoked the fires beneath my daughter’s burgeoning princess fetish. That’s probably a 50-carat heart-cut “ruby” at the center, there, but the tiara’s true worth – as talisman and art object – cannot be measured.

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#177 :: Doll Leg

August 4, 2004

Nothing makes my stomach churn like the anatomy of thermoplastic dolls. Their hair grows in numbered clumps, through symmetrically drilled holes in their plasticene skulls. Paint-irised eyes fringed with nylon fuzz tilt back on tiny weights – very sanpaku – and only little stop-pins keep you from seeing them roll all the way around to expose the unholy backs of their eyeballs. Hands extend in gestural rigors meant to invite play, frozen in spastic mudras that instead signal dread and mute panic. Hips and shoulder joints pop out of sockets at any 5-year-olds sadistic wrench, leaving that frightening hollow torso that gives you one of two possible reactions: Joking – (What do you call a quadriplegic in a bathtub? Bob) or numb horror: (My God. What if I look like that inside? What if my arms could pop off that easily?) Can’t sleep: Dolls will eat me.

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#176 :: Candy Mold

August 3, 2004

Cast of aluminum, hinged and stamped with cryptic markings, this once turned out chocolate peaches the size of baseballs. You can buy antique candy molds of all shapes and sizes on eBay – but few that can be misappropriated for the manufacture of chocolate body parts. This unique mold is a gift from my mother to my brother in law. He will use it to make a chocolate butt. Possibly several of them. No doubt they will be tasty and amusing. This is what passes for humor in my family, which may or may not explain a few things. This thing is, nonetheless, cold to the touch, but warms quickly in the hands. And it is deliciously heavy.

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#175 :: Ultraman figure

August 2, 2004

Something about the short and the squat endears them to us. They are court dwarves, Munchkins, Ewoks, foul-mouthed comic foils. In Japanese pop culture, the second iteration for any successful superhero is to be made chibi, meaning cute or superdeformed. I think this taut, chubby little insectoid is one of the good guys, perhaps from Ultraman. But repeated Googling hasn’t turned up his identity, so we can only guess his role in the animé pantheon. Bandai made him in the early 90s and wired his little head so that when you push a button on the back of his helmet, a button-cell inside lights up his buggy green eyes.

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