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#72 :: Navajo Silver Lizard

April 18, 2004

A Navajo silversmith cast this in sterling silver. The Dine (DIN-eh) as they prefer to call themselves, make a living doing business with each other, ranching, running stores and schools and businesses – and with tourists crossing tribal lands, by selling crafts like this from roadside stands in and around Monument Valley and the Four Corners area. From the tourist’s side of the equation, it’s a tiny glint of cunning grace in the dusty, ragged glory of a southwest road trip. From the artisan’s viewpoint, one I can only guess that it’s a symbol of considerable significance, crafted with industry and art, in a form that’s easy to duplicate and sure to sell for a good price.

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#71 :: B9 “Robot”

April 17, 2004

There was no archetype before this one. Not Rossum’s Usuform Robots, not Die Valse Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, nor Robby nor Gort. Brave, smart, wary, endowed with brittle humor and tinged with sarcasm, he rolled on treads, but off-camera could apparently climb the steps to the Jupiter 2 though it was never explained how. He is all of 3-½ inches high, endowed with a little clockwork motor to make him glide. But in reality, he has a cult.

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#70 :: Pulls

April 16, 2004

Too meek for bones through my septum, too square for even tattoos at that point, I was a square, square newspaperman, covering murder trials, city council meetings, disasters and defense contractor fraud for the L.A. Times. Magpie hunter-gatherer at the core, though. My inner automobile was probably a clapped-out maroon Checker cab cruising SoHo on plush air shocks, five dozen little charms, figurines and baubles dangling all jerky-sparkly from the headliner, the shift lever, air conditioning controls and mirrors. Straight-backed courtroom benches and drab city rooms forced my gray Volvo exterior, so I could merely dream a mobile cocoon of avocado naugahyde and faux cheetah, woofers bumping techno and deep dub. These little bits were all that showed, beads from an import shop wired to the zippers controlling the crisp black leather Filofax that controlled my conscientious, deadline-tight career. Today’s research/multimedia environment has me balanced more easily somewhere between the two, wearing an earring, living out of an abused cellphone/pda full of phone numbers, lists and e-books, and ghost-piloting a mental TR6.

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#69 :: Monocular

April 15, 2004

The aesthetic of brushed aluminum and blackout metal is as distinct a flavor of modern physical culture as gingham and daisies, bakelite and chintz, mahogany and stained leather. A wave ripples through me as I write this, and I flash on alternate molecular realities – strawberry roan gelding motorcycles; rocket gantries of hardwood and stucco, carpeted with bokharas and kilims; tricycles of flesh, bone and hair, and sneakers of diamondplate steel. Quick – an earthquake renders the earth around your house into Jell-O – literally. Liquefaction soil becomes dessert, a sticky-sweet confection into which the foundation of your 30-ton house begins to sink like the spoon in a playful child’s bowl. What do you grab before you bolt – the album of family photos rendered in colored sand? The satchel made of baseball mitts? Your 3.2-megapixel digital-zoom canteen? Your herbed salt-pork laptop containing your life’s work and your exhaustive research records on the mysterious transmogrification of all matter? Maybe you grab the last real thing you can see – a hard, cold, efficient little pocket telescope – so that you can bolt to higher ground and watch from safety as the house sinks beneath the shimmering green surface with a wet, sucking roar.

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#68 :: Vinyl Frog

April 14, 2004

Somebody in a factory somewhere peeled two cast-vinyl frog halves out of a still-hot mold. The air reeked of curing toxins, raw polymers. She glued them together with adhesive or heat, and took up a spraycan or an airbrush to dust the top of the thing (along with all of its brothers, maybe laid out on a tray) with lurid, poisonous red. She let them dry a bit, maybe while pouring the next batch of vinyl, and then returned; she considered the red trayful of red frogs, the red under her nails, the smell of it in her nose, for only a second or two – likely, her boss was counting her output – and then grabbed a brushful of black: quick socks for the feet, and a couple dozen spots down its back. On to drying and packaging they went, and back to the cycle went she – mixing the vinyl again.

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#67 :: Rubber bullets

April 13, 2004

Back in college one night, we saw a wall of smoke coming around the corner on Halloween. Being a wannabe photojournalist at the time, and thinking, “fire” I grabbed my camera and ran – straight into a cloud of tear gas. Needles in the eyes, claws in the lungs, I doubled over, immediately capacitated along with about a dozen other people who had fallen victim to someone’s asshole idea of a prank. I spent the next half hour coughing and weeping the shit out of my system, sucking down Cokes at the pizzeria. Cops have some pretty impressive nonlethal weapons at their disposal. Here’s another one: Fired from shells that fit standard-issue riot guns, these don’t incapacitate, but they definitely sting and deter. I’ve never experienced them first-hand – these were fired at a press-and-public show-and-tell day for the Ventura County Sheriff’s station in Thousand Oaks a few years ago, along with bean-bag projectiles, which are shot from fat 37-mm shells from the police equivalent of grenade launchers They had teargas shells, too. Fortunately, they chose not to demonstrate those.

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#66 :: Balloon Anchor

April 12, 2004

Half a dozen of these lined a throw-rug dance floor at our 2-year-old neighbor’s birthday party last weekend. Three balloons were tethered to each, at just-above-head level, so that when you moved among them you had the sensation of being a blimp coming to berth among its brothers in an open-air hangar. It was festive, fun, and testament to the crisp, playful design sense of our neighbor’s mom, the architect. The balloon anchor is purely purpose-built – heavy and cheerful, and better than tying balloon strings to chairs or toddlers’ arms. But of all the artifacts from our throwaway culture, this has to be one of the least-biodegradable: A sheet of mylar wrapped around a sheet of plastic with a cardboard buffer disc and a hard-plastic tie-off strap – all wrapped around a 12-ounce chunk of cement. C – E – M – E – N – T. It’s a permanent thing designed to protect a temporary thing – something that could last hundreds of years in a landfill, for the benefit of preserving a toy with a one-day life span. What must the factory floor in Mexico or China look like, as they roll off the line – glittery and stolid? What must its employees think of their handiwork’s target users’ lifestyles and wealth? And when the party’s ended, and the last lungful of helium has been sucked from the last balloon for yet one more hysterically high-voiced rendition of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” how many are just thrown in the trash?

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#65 :: Sea glass

April 11, 2004

The kharmic simplicity of sea glass is staggering, if you think about it for too long in a stoned-sort-of “… Whoa … ” manner. Made from – essentially – melted sand, glass is poured, blown, molded and fused into bottles that we use to carry beers to the beach which, when enough of them are drunk around the fire, are flung back into the ocean to shatter on the rocks, where the sea and the sand slowly massage and corrode them into pearlescent little artifacts that – left uncollected, eventually dissolve back into sand. No chemicals enter the process, but for the trace residue of beer or schnapps or milk of magnesia (seablasted cobalt blue glass was the rarest and most glorious of finds when we were young) that is washed away by the sea. It is a process of wilful, combative manufacture, first by man, then by the ocean. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. I can’t recall where I found this piece. As sea glass goes, it’s nothing remarkable, probably an old-fashioned green Coke bottle. But I’ve had it forever.

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#64 :: Fangs

April 10, 2004

Maybe it’s teething memory, or the id-transforming monster-fantasy value, or maybe it’s just having played hockey with a clear rubber mouthpiece in place against the blows for a couple of adolescent years, but I connect with something very deep when I put in a set of these. They were plain white (but secretly day-glo) polyvinyl plastic when I was a kid. Now they come in neons, but they still bestow power, scare value, whenever you slip them in. It’s hard to be grumpy wearing these.

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#63 :: Wedding Ring

April 9, 2004

Words and a picture won’t do this justice. So, bare facts: On April 9, 1994, an extraordinary woman said yes to me and put this on my finger.
(more…)

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#62 :: Folding Loupe

April 8, 2004

The Akihabara, in Tokyo, teems with geeks. More electronics shops, game boutiques, appliance megamalls and circuitboard salvage yards are crammed into a few square kilometres there that probably anywhere on the planet. You can build a mainframe from components, buy top-of-the-line synthesizers costing millions of yen, feed your fetish for porno video games or indulge your love of heavy little objects to the Nth degree. Shoppers flow through stalls and alleys, pausing to squint at spec sheets and microchips, to fondle controllers and machine interfaces, giving it the air of a hive into which someone has pumped a calming smoke. It’s the place William Gibson probably visited while dreaming up the Sprawl in the seminal Neuromancer. Two shopkeepers there took such an interest in my bulky Pentax 6×7 camera that I felt guilty about walking out empty handed, and scored this little metal loupe – a folding magnifier for viewing slides and negatives – something I actually needed at the time. I’ve had it for 12 years now, and the folding mechanism is still tight, the glass still clear.

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#61 :: 3-D Glasses

April 7, 2004

I’m a stereophotography junkie. I’ve shot nighttime 3-D Kodachromes painted with filtered flash, and manufactured my own stereopticon slides with a Stereo Realist camera ever since seeing a transcendent show of stereo photos at Rhode Island School of Design when I was 20. I’ve used these headache-inducing anaglyph glasses (and others like them) to decode monster mashes like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and countless comicbooks ranging from the stupid and juvenile from the naughty and juvenile, as well as the wonderful publications of the Stereoscopic Society of America. If you haven’t squinted at the miracle of 3-D in movies like “SpaceHunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone” or “Parasite” then you’ve been denying yourself a heady visit to the gimmicky world of sensationalist cinema auteurs such as William Castle. The fun part after a long spell of wearing these is taking them off and noticing how the whole world is tinted blue for the left eye and red for the right, your rods and cones rebelling against the insult.

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#60 :: Daguerrotype – Mother and Child

April 6, 2004

She might have been a stern widow, a pinched matron, a god-fearing churchgoer who distrusted photographers and was sitting only because her husband demanded a keepsake of her and his young son. More likely, she froze her face to meet the demands of modern daguerrotyping, which required subjects to sit still for a minute or two at a time. The baby, more animated, makes a happy blur of noncompliance. Daguerrotyping deposited silver directly onto a sheet of glass, making it permanent, lustrous and extremely difficult to re-photograph without getting a lot of reflections. A rainbow halo of heavy metals tinges the image, which rests in a velvet-lined, gilt-edged frame case, its mock-leather exterior of lacquered cardboard embossed with Gilded-Age curlicues.

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#59 :: Torpedo level

April 5, 2004

Most torpedo levels are crafted from wood or plastic – I have a fluorescent orange plastic one in my toolbox – but this one is an odd variant on the classic carpenter’s conscience. Crafted from a forged block of aluminum, a steel plate, a pair of screws and a oil-filled capsule, it seems stolen from a prop house on the set of a machine-age science fiction melodrama. Though apparently quite old – research on its label has proved fruitless – it hints at the future that never came true, when utopian cities of curved, computer-designed crystal might have made something like it completely obsolete.

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#58 :: Tree Pod

April 4, 2004

These trees grow all up and down the block – similar in leaf to the pepper tree, though I’m not sure of their family or type. Every spring, they shed green seedpods about 10 inches long, each one filled with 15 or 20 coffee-brown seeds. The birds usually get to them before the kids do. My son handed me this one day on our weekly walk to buy the Sunday paper. Emptied of seeds, and browned and split by the weather, it still looks useful and vital, an object-lesson in symmetry and unitary design.

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#57 :: Thumb Piano

April 3, 2004

Fashioned from a gourd, a hardwood plank and some scraps of metal, this elegant little instrument is called mbira in central, western and eastern Africa, where it originated. It was a Christmas gift from my parents many years ago, I’ve played it with my kids on my lap when they were just a few months old, then a year, and more, until their thumbs were long enough to reach the keys. Intimate, resonant and beautifully tactile, it invites play and defies mastery because of the counter-intuitive left/right shattering of your expectations of how the scale should run. But you can make chords with a single thumb, and a little chorus with both. For a kludgy, digitized sense of what it sounds like, try this Flash-based thumb piano. For the real thing, go to any good music store and ask.

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#56 :: Prescription sunglasses

April 2, 2004

The world is full of mediocre, overpriced, cheap knockoff sunglasses that break the second a 2-year-old grabs them or they fall 5 feet to the floor. Since I’m sadly addicted to UV-blocking lenses, I have burned through two or three pairs of sunglasses a year for most of the past 20 years. I resolved a few years ago to get a permanent solution that handles the fact that I’m almost bat-blind – minus the sonar hearing – as well as hopelessly clumsy. For a while, I wore these hideous rose-tinted Lennon tea shades with spring temples – the only thing available at the Simi Valley optometrist across from my office at the time. I kicked the hell out of them, my eyes eventually got worse, and it was time for a change. I picked up these $350 Oakley frames for $60 at a factory sale (it pays to have friends whose ex-wives toil for groundbreaking industrial-grade fashion factories) and for about $20 bucks more than a standard prescription, I had Oakley grind the lenses for them – largely because no standard lens shop would touch ’em. The optics are hyper-real, focusing light not just from in front, but from the peripheral range of vision. Made of some miracle metal, the frames are heavy, but perfectly molded to my fat head. Sometimes when I drop them, the frame clips pop off and spit out the lenses in a horrific clatter. I put the whole thing back together again, and move on. I haven’t been able to damage them permanently yet, but I’m working on it.

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#55 :: Boot charm

April 1, 2004

The cult of miniatures has been with us for millennia, since someone first pinched clay to form the head of an animal. We carry small objects on our keychains – tools, keepsakes, souvenirs, symbols, tangible avatars that project the same insouciance we believe is innate to us, or that emulate the spirit or attitude of the people we wish to become. Someone had this boot on her keychain once, and lost it in traffic. The iridescent green mock-leather was chewed magnificently by some unseen force – maybe the crunch of a single tire or a semi’s worth. But the laces and stitching have held in place, as tight as the day some worker in a craft shop in China or Macao or India first sewed them up. It is no more than an inch high.

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#54 :: Road hazard

March 31, 2004

The guys at the tire store were amazed. They pulled this out of my wife’s radial one day when she came in with a flat. It is solid brass, about 5 inches long and 3/8ths of an inch thick, nicked and chiseled from being rolled, crushed and battered by countless passing cars until it found a way to bite into her tire and escape. It must have held fast, working its way through the steel belts to release the pungent cargo of rubber-tainted air in a fast rush punctuated by staccato clicking as its exposed end struck the pavement and pounded it home as surely as a carpenter’s hammer. Its once precise, now ragged splines say it must once have been part of a finely turned piece of machinery.

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#53 :: Tooth cap

March 30, 2004

I spent the morning in the dental chair, paying for a lifetime of chewing hard candy with my incisors instead of my molars. (Two or three packs of Pep-o-Mint Life Savers a day during about a year and a half’s worth of court trials while at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Los Angeles Times accounted for the bulk of the abuse). The nervous nibbling had basically whittled my lower, misaligned middle incisor down to about 2/3 of its height, which left the ones on either side jutting up at horrible angles like ruined skyscrapers in a bad postapocalyptic sci-fi drama (click on picture to see the see grainy “before”, inset). Thus snaggletoothed, I looked older than my years and considerably rougher than my breeding (I had the air of being ready for a fight that a shortage of street savvy would doom me to lose). It was time to get it all fixed. The able Dr. John Treinen (DDS, Sherman Oaks, CA) shot me full of novocain – scoring an excruciating direct hit on my mandibular nerve on the way in with the needle – and we were off. I’ll spare you the rest of the gory, grinding, plaster-casting details, but I’m so pleased I shook the doctor’s hand. This one’s a temporary, made of some sort of sickly, yellowish wonder-plastic. The real ceramic one’s being cast at the lab.

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#52 :: Coil spring fasteners

March 29, 2004

When I was a kid, I’d build countless cars from plastic model kits, working from exploded-diagram instruction sheets printed in stark black ink. As I grew older and began to work on my own engines and brakes, I would buy parts from the Volvo and Toyota dealerships, confirming that I had the right item by squinting at the cars trapped mid-detonation, a cloud of parts hovering in the blue void of the microfiche. In time, I began to visualize cars as nothing more than diagrams in reverse – solid objects now imploded from their component parts to extreme density and mass, the air that once separated them squeezed to nothingness by the bolts, springs, gaskets and screws designed to hold everything together. These coiled o-rings are about two inches in diameter and quite flexible. They likely held the CV boots in place on the front end of my old Saab – I make it a habit to keep all old parts after car repairs, as I did with these bearings – which needed new front-wheel bearings after 140,000 miles.

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#51 :: Flight helmet

March 28, 2004

Something about society needs to republish its artifacts of war in miniature, 3-D facsimile format. Not content with model planes, we make model pilots for our children to play with, and model pilots require tiny helmets with teensy glare shields and ittybitty microphones. The constant surf of children’s toys into our house washes up objects like this – weapons, gear and accoutrements of characters whose “real-ness” and play value are validated by the amount of stuff strapped to their blowmolded bodies. We often visit the Pasadena Swap Meet and look quickly for the dollar-a-toy vendors to give the kids something “new” and durable to fidget with while in abject fascination while we look at pricier, more fragile merchandise that we can be trusted not to break. My 2½-year-old daughter is going through a very girly doll phase, and something possessed her to grab a six-inch-high pilot in a flight suit, complete with this helmet. We can’t find the pilot at the moment, but this object verifies his service in the name of eternal toy vigilance.

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#50 :: Pencil sharpener

March 27, 2004

Feisty. Steadfast. Small. Kitschy. Voracious. Cast in brown-toned potmetal, a dimestore pencil sharpener embedded in his belly, this triceratops is one of those elegantly simple tools that delights in efficiency and feel. Shove a pencil in his mouth, spin it, pull it out – it’s sharper. He continues his silent roar whether I leave him on the desk or stick him back in his drawer. Craftsman wrenches have a cold efficiency – they don’t try to be fun. They’re just tools. This is a mass-produced wonder, which – had it been crafted 200 years ago as a one-of-a-kind demonstration of a toolmaker’s creativity and craft – might have been presented to royalty.

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#49 :: Medal for the Elizabethan Club

March 26, 2004

Joe Reed crafted this, to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Yale University‘s Elizabethan Club. It began life as a series of sketches, likely done in heavy graphite pencil, then inked for clarity of line. He then fashioned plaster-of-paris maquettes about 10 inches in diameter, carving them with Exacto blades and surplus dentist’s tools. The maquettes were then translated into molds, and the medal was cast in solid bronze. It’s different from the usual crisp, oversized-penny-styled medals usually bestowed at memorable occasions. Rough, almost brutish in its deeply gouged bas-relief features (QE I on the front, a phoenix rising on the reverse), it has a deeply rugged beauty. It is astonishingly heavy for its size (almost a pound at less than four inches in diameter), the sort of thing that, wrapped in a sock, could prove equally handy for dispatching a burglar or crushing ice. The artist takes commissions, and can be reached here.

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#48 :: Pon-tiki

March 25, 2004

If I may be allowed a generalization, every serious collector is slightly mentally ill. People stuff their entire apartments with Beanie Babies, their warehouses with exotic $1-million sportscars, their desktops with frogs of every shape, size, material and expression. The collector is someone who is compelled to gather like objects together, to prove their collective worth is far and away greater than their individual value in – if nothing else – happiness. The serious collector seeks out pieces to fill in the gaps, variations on themes to make the whole collection richer, the happiness more complete – at least for the time it takes to carry out the transaction. The casual collector looks at objects almost at random and says, “Whoa, cool. How much is it?” at the moment some nerve is triggered deep in the lizard brain. Pon-tiki is one of those things. I found it at Giant Robot on Sawtelle, stared and sweated at the three varieties for something like 15 minutes, and then happily shelled out six bucks for what is basically the bastard son of the Memphis design school and Mr. Potatohead. It’s a capsule 1½ inches long filled with about 10 or a dozen little shapes on white stalks. You plug the stalks into the holes and make … whatever. It sits on your desk. I’m thinking of getting another so this one can have someone to talk to, so I can swap parts, or add more parts, making this one more meaningful. Whatever.

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