29 January 2013


I've been amusing myself by writing with a dip pen lately. I was in the art supplies shop yesterday, and picked up a new pen holder for the nibs my friend gave me to go with my walnut ink. So I wrote her a letter, on paper, with pen and ink, and quite enjoyed myself doing it. The walnut ink is perfect for that; I can get almost four lines of writing out of one dip. If I use the Pelikan fountain pen ink, I have to dip for every other word, and it drips and splatters like crazy. Fountain pen ink is much more watery, so that it won't clog the mechanism of the pen. The walnut stuff is more like India ink; it has an almost lacquer-like quality to it and leaves a raised line when it's dry. Best keep that one out of my grandfather's fountain pen!

But writing that letter had me thinking again - about handwriting, this time. In the age of the telephone (i.e. last century), people were bemoaning the loss of letter-writing skills. Now, we're picking up those skills again in profusion, by writing emails or sending texts rather than phoning (I wonder if a generation down the line, grandmothers are going to bemoan the loss of telephoning skills?).

Charles Dodgson, Lewis Carroll, apparently wrote enormous numbers of letters, on the order of a couple thousand a year ("One third of my life seems to go in receiving letters, the other two-thirds in answering them", Cohen quotes him as having said). Well, I just checked my email program, and my "sent mail" folder has quite a few messages in it, too - maybe not quite on Carroll's magnitude, but it might well be approaching a kilo over the last year. I've been known to spend all morning on email, and that not terribly infrequently, either. I write lots of letters, and receive lots of them back, but they're written with QWERTY, not the quill. In the days of pen-and-paper mail, I usually had no need to look at the "sender" section of an envelope - all I had to do was to look at the address, and I knew it was from my mother, my aunt, my friend - I knew them by their handwriting, just as quickly as (if not more quickly than) I recognized their voices on the telephone.

Handwriting is extremely distinctive, very recognizable. And we're losing it. I've made quite a few new friends over the last fifteen years, since we got our first internet connection and I discovered the wonders of email. I write far more letters now than I ever did with pen and paper, and communicate with my friends more often than I did via the telephone. With those of my friends whom I met in person before we began email or social media correspondence, I at least know their voice - but with many of them, I have never seen their handwriting, nor they mine. And that's too bad.

Handwriting carries so much of the person in it. It's a form of body language, really, the personality in miniature on a sheet of paper. Handwriting analysis is a serious branch of psychology (granted, it's also a silly branch of quackery in some cases, but not always). It's akin to the handshake: a limp-rag-handshaker will also, likely, have a wimpy pen stroke, whereas the bone-crusher is probably also a paper-puncturer whose writing is engraved on the next four sheets of the writing pad. Or like the gesture: the overly-friendly person who leans forward to get in your face might have a slant to their handwriting that tips so far to the right it almost falls over, while the writing of a reticent, reserved individual might lean away from you to the left margin of the page. Some folks have writing that sprawls clear across the page, whereas scientists, I've noticed, tend to write in tiny script or print. Alas, I probably will not be able to follow up that line of research with more observations. Nobody writes by hand any more.

I did hear somewhere that the American military is working on a keystroke recognition program which can tell who's typing just by how they hit the letters on the keyboard (in my case, that would include overuse of the backspace key - "ah, this person backspaced to correct a typo a dozen times in the last sentence, it must be her"). Perhaps, when they perfect that program, someone can integrate it with a personalised font system, so that my computer knows it's me doing the typing, and automatically puts the font on screen in my own handwriting (which I've scanned and fed into the computer previously, of course). Wouldn't that be cool?

But I'm not holding my breath on it. Meanwhile, I'll go on qwertying the bulk of my letters, and then writing the occasional letter in old-fashioned pen and ink. Dip pen, and walnut ink, no less. Sometimes. And just so you can't say you've never seen my writing, I've attached a picture of it. Now you know.

Life, the Universe, and Writing by Hand. Try it sometime, so you don't forget.

18 January 2013

A Sun and a Beam

I was packing my son's school lunch this morning. He really likes fruit; in fact, I call him the Fruit Ninja: he comes into the kitchen, he leaves the kitchen, and mysteriously, fruit has disappeared from the fruit bowl. So, of course, I was putting fruit into his lunch, two lovely, big pieces of it, one - but wait. I'll tell you what they were in a minute. You see, those two pieces of fruit reminded me of a story a teacher of mine told us one day.

It was the end of the war, 1945, in Germany. My teacher was, he said, about three years old at the time, and living with his mother in a small Northern Bavarian town. The war was over, the area occupied by American forces. One day the little boy was standing outside their house by the garden fence, when suddenly there appeared in front of him a man - an American in uniform, a tall man, a black man! Wide-eyed, the little boy looked up at the dark face - he had never seen someone like that before in his life! And this stranger held out two objects to the boy, two things the boy had never seen before either, and, I presume, the man smiled a wide white smile in the black face. The little boy took the two things (perhaps he was too shy to say "Danke") and ran into the house. "Mama, Mama," he called, "Mama, I got a sun and a beam!"
My teacher said that to this day, the smell of an orange peel brings back the image of that black face, of the kindness of a soldier who gave a small German boy his first orange and banana.

Life, the Universe, a Sun and a Beam. I hope the Fruit Ninja enjoys his today.

15 January 2013


I don't usually re-blog other people's postings, but this one, which came to me via Jim from Up-From-the-Mud, is worth sharing. It's an extremely thought-provoking little video about a young man, Jesse Hunter, who gets all his food for free - from garbage bins. Not because he has to (he isn't homeless or anything), but because he can, because there's so much food thrown away all the time.

Now, I know this is going to give some of you the willies, big-time - what about hygiene? This is disgusting, what's he putting into his body? Eeewww! But, think about it - people smoke, they suck tar into their bodies... people get plastic surgery, they have silicone injected into them... and people consume artificially-coloured-flavoured-and-textured substances, they ingest chemicals that were never meant for human consumption... what's a few human germs compared to all that? (And, no, I don't go for smoking or plastic surgery, but the plastic-and-tar foods - well, guilty as charged...)

I particularly like the conclusion to this piece - Jesse doesn't suggest that we all start scavenging in university food courts. (Well, if we did, there wouldn't be anything left for him, would there?) Instead, he turns it all around - start thinking about your food, he says. Don't throw away perfectly good food. Learn about where food comes from, so you get to appreciating it. And finally - grow a carrot.

So here it is: "Food".

Life, the Universe, and Something Controversial For a Change. I hope it is for a change.

08 January 2013

Gold Rings

So I had great good intentions over the holidays. I was going to write these ongoing blog posts about the Twelve Days of Christmas, Pipers piping and Maids a-milking and all; I even had a whole post planned out about the value of Gold Rings and what-not. And I was going to wrap up with a grand finale on Twelfth Night itself, perhaps inserting a few witty references to Shakespeare's play (the storyline of which has nothing whatsoever to do with the holiday, but was probably written to be performed at a Twelfth-Night party) and waxing eloquent about my favourite version with Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Ben Kingsley. But then time, as it is wont to do, whizzed away from me. Zzzzip.

And here we are, a whole week into the new year, a couple of days into the new semester; textbooks staring me in the face, and the demands of ordinary life just as demanding as ever. My good intentions are once again chipped away, and nothing came of them.

But, wait! Maybe I can insert something in here about gold rings. You see, on the fifth day of Christmas (aka December 29th) my true love is supposed to have given me five gold rings. And then another five every day thereafter, until you have a stash of forty of the things on January 5th, Twelfth Night.

Well, for some reason my man tends to be somewhat remiss on his seasonal ring-gifting duties. I have all of three gold rings to my name, after twenty-three years of marriage. Two of those were from him, 'tis true enough. With the third gold ring I have I'm not even sure it's the real thing - it's got no stamp in it telling its carat weight, and the "pearl" that is set in it turned out to be a fake - the sheen is flaking off, exposing the plastic underneath. It belonged to my aunt, who wore it almost always, and when she passed away I asked for the ring to remember her by. So I don't care how much actual gold is in that ring; to me, it's my aunt's ring, and that's worth more than 24-carat realness. Her love was as genuine as they come.

But my other two rings, they're real gold alright, 14k, or 585, the stamp says. (I think 585 is the parts per thousand of gold to other metals - i.e. 58.5% gold, which means the same as 14 carat.). And then there's the diamonds. Ten of them, 0.1 carat each - that means I'm wearing a full carat of diamond on my finger, no? Well, uh - no, it doesn't. Apparently decimal math doesn't apply to jewels. Ten tiny diamonds are just ten tiny diamonds, and even together they're worth a lot less than one great big one ten times their size. And then, to boot, one of them is chipped. You see that in the picture? The first one from the left, it's got a little notch chipped out of it on the top right corner. I'm not sure how long that flaw has been there - years, at any rate. I have no idea how it happened, either.

And I don't care. You see, just like my aunt's fake pearl ring, what matters with my gold rings is not the perfection of the jewels, or of the setting, or even the purity of the gold. A Turkish friend of mine used to sneer at any gold that was less than 18 carat - all Turkish gold is at least 18 carat, she said. And brides get literally loaded with it on their wedding day, in the form of bracelets and necklaces and rings; it's their widow's portion. But I'm not Turkish, and my rings are not my retirement fund. The chips and scratches and impurities, they don't matter - they just go with who I am.

Just like me, my gold rings have flaws in them, aren't perfect. There's only two (or maybe three) of them, not forty like the song calls for (or even five, if you want to go for the conservative reading of the lyrics instead of the cumulative one). And that's plenty for me, thank you. Large numbers, and perfection, are, I think, quite overrated. My ring is chipped and flawed, and so am I. I can't even write a series of blog posts during my holidays even though I've decided to do so. And maybe that's okay, you know?

Life, the Universe, and Three Gold Rings. Even though they're flawed, they still are real.