A Cry for Coherence

bikerideTwo Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. have been vandalized over the past week: one in University City, Missouri (just west of St. Louis), and one in Philadelphia. Donations for repairs have been pouring in; much more needs to be done.

I don’t need to explain why people across cultures bury, honor, and remember the dead–and what this means in Jewish history and faith. I imagine that the criminals know some of this already; that may be why they toppled the headstones. They may have thought that they could hurt the dignity of the living and the dead at once.

If so, they are wrong. They caused damage and anguish, but the dignity they hurt was their own.

Yet I doubt that they fully understand what they did. They may not have considered the grief they were causing, and the depth of that grief–how many families of the deceased have relatives who died in mass graves or were burned alive. They may not have known what it means to have a burial and a stone with a name–a sacred place–and what this has meant over the centuries. If they did know, then they must have broken with those they were hurting; they may have thought, “This has nothing to do with me” or “These people deserve no better.” They probably did not know that when you break a grave, you break yourself, not only the self of the moment, with its immediate wants and needs, but the self that goes back in time, that is not only self but also ancestors, neighbors, strangers met in passing.

That doesn’t make the situation better or more comprehensible. The hate crimes over the past few months–against people of a range of backgrounds–have been far-flung and confusing. Some of these acts seem to be provoked and incited by Trump; some may have been long in the planning. Some may come from individuals, some from organizations. Some may have sources and motives that we don’t yet know. The responses, too, have been scattered–many responses have come over Twitter and have consisted of broken expressions.

Coherent speech resists the fragmentation. Sometimes the words don’t come; sometimes they come slowly or don’t come out quite right. (I started this post last night but had trouble putting words together, so I waited until morning.)  Sometimes words are not even needed or appropriate. But a full sentence is not to be taken for granted; it can be built up and broken down.

Many people are responding with donations, volunteer work, and more. The mayor of Philadelphia has said that authorities are doing all they can to find the perpetrators. There will be more information on specific actions that people can take. But the response is internal, too; there is nothing trivial in the gathering of thoughts, feelings, and words.

My thoughts are with those who those who lie buried in these cemeteries, those who have loved ones there, and everyone in pain over what has happened. I will speak up as I can, as well as I can, and will watch for more ways to help.

Image credit: I took the photo when biking along the Hudson the other day.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

The Cardinal Book Prop

Yesterday, to my joy and amazement, I received a comment here from a grandson of my great-granduncle Charles Fischer. I have written a few pieces about Charles Fischer’s inventions; I had no idea who the readers would be. I was moved to hear from someone who remembered him and admired his work—a relative, no less. That was a great day in this blog’s life and my own.

Speaking of the inventions, the other day I received a Cardinal Book Prop with the original box! I found it on Ebay. I already have two book props made by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., but the box is extremely rare, and this third book prop is in glistening condition.

The pictures on the front of box illustrate just how handy this book prop is. But the description on the back is at least as enticing (and suggests that someone was having fun):

Read With Your Hands Free

The Cardinal Book Prop leaves both hands free while you read. It holds your book open, supports its weight and keeps your place. It can be used in any position anywhere. The flexible knee clamp enables you to recline in an easy chair with your book held in position, and your hands free to smoke, eat, write or rest.

For Reading in Bed

The Cardinal Book Prop relieves your hands of the tiring weight when reading in bed. Also enables you to keep your arms and shoulders covered. A necessity in times of illness.

For Sketching

The Cardinal Book Prop is ideal for both indoor and outdoor sketching. It holds the sheet firmly and may be adjusted to any angle. It is transformed to a perfect tracing outfit by merely placing a light in back of it.

On the Table

The Cardinal Book Prop will hold your book or newspaper on the table at any angle. It also holds your place leaving your hands free to work. It is indispensable for holding cook books and reference books.

Outdoors

The Cardinal Book Prop makes outdoor reading more comfortable. It holds your book open and prevents the pages from blowing over. A necessity for through comfort at country, seashore or on steamer deck.

Will Hold Any Size Book, Magazine or Sheet Music

The Cardinal Book Prop is fully adjustable and will hold any normal size book, in both vertical and horizontal position and by extending its auxiliary arms it holds large magazines and sheet music on the piano. It is adjustable to any height or angle, thus enabling you to sit perfectly erect while reading, sketching or playing.

Carry It With You

The Cardinal Book Prop is made of lightweight metal, has no sharp edges and is exceptionally compact. It folds into small space and is easily carried along.

Made in Colors

The Cardinal Book Prop is finished in a number of pleasing colors and will match your furniture and surroundings.

Your choice of BLACK – GREEN – MAHOGANY

Patented and M’f’d by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., Brooklyn, N.Y.

cardinal-book-prop-side-viewIndeed, the book prop can be used for all these things. It is adjustable (thanks to the springs and other parts) and has two different ways of holding the pages open (a holder at the base and the auxiliary arms). I have used it with books large and small, thick and thin. I haven’t yet used it on a steamer deck but hope to do so if the occasion arises.

What I really enjoy is the sense of practical possibility. If you have a versatile device, why not find ways to use it on land and sea, indoors and outdoors, with music, sketching, reading, and cooking? Then the people who purchase these props can start thinking of even more uses. For instance, it can be handy if you are learning your lines for a play (you can make hand gestures as you learn, since you aren’t holding the script), if you are solving a math problem from a book (you can prop the book right in front of your notebook, for easy glancing back and forth between the two), or if you wish to read something in an unfamiliar language (you can prop it up on your knee and then take the dictionary in your hands).

That’s what I enjoy about inventions, especially these. They don’t just solve a problem; they get you to think about your daily life and materials in new and different ways.

Update: Please see the wonderful comment from Robert Charles Fischer, Charles Fischer’s grandson.

In Praise of Lingering

fort-tryon-6Our culture extols “moving on”–that is, putting the past behind you, dropping all negative influences from your life, and steamrolling your way into satisfaction. Yet neither lingering nor “moving on” is inherently good or bad; both can participate in virtue, and both can be taken to extremes. Of course it isn’t helpful to hold on to an old grudge or wait for someone who has willfully left your life. But there is a place for memory and waiting; maybe it’s just a little place–a rock out in the woods–but still a place, and worth a pause.

In a stunning interview with Joe Fassler (in The Atlantic), George Saunders, whose novel Lincoln in the Bardo came out this week, speaks about the unsettlement of fiction–with particular attention to Anton Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” Saunders understood Chekhov for the first time when hearing Tobias Wolff read three of his stories aloud:

I was a first-year grad student at Syracuse when I went to see Tobias Wolff, who was our teacher, do a reading at the Syracuse Stage. He was feeling under the weather that night, so instead of reading from his work he said he was going to read Chekhov. He read three Chekhov short stories known as the “About Love” trilogy, and “Gooseberries” is the middle component. It was a huge day for me because I’d never really understood Chekhov at all. I’d certainly never understood him to be funny. But when Toby was reading him, he captured this beautiful range of feelings: beautiful, lyrical sections and laugh-out-loud-funny things.

It reminds me a little of what I heard yesterday in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (I went to an open rehearsal at the New York Philharmonic). It is described as parody–and indeed there’s a great deal of that–but there’s also something soulful, something that doesn’t let you put it aside. Here’s a video of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing it. You might end up listening to it again and again.

Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” seems to be saying one thing about happiness–and then, as Saunders points out, it takes a turn, but not just one. Even the digressions, even the passing details, have something to do with happiness. One tone turns into another. The story within a story lets us think, for a while, that we know what the story is, only to find out later that we do not.

In a very different (and ferocious) way, this happens in Saunders’s story “Winky,” which he does not bring up in the interview. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it–but it starts out with a cult approach to happiness, in which, to attain “Inner Peace,” the willing must identify the human obstacles in their life, erect protective barriers against them, and confront them with this new state of things:

“First, we’ll identify your personal Gene. Second, we’ll help you mentally install a metaphorical Screen over your symbolic oatmeal. Finally, we’ll show you how to Confront your personal Gene and make it clear to him or her that your oatmeal is henceforth off-limits.”

This is so ridiculous (yet recognizable) that we know it will break down somehow. But what makes this story stand out (not only among stories, but in my life) is the poetry of the breakdown. I am left with a little ache; instead of feeling vindicated, of being reassured that this stuff is as stupid as it sounds, I am brought into something more important, where I am not entirely justified or right. I can’t just walk away; I have to stop for a little bit.

Near the end of the interview, Saunders says, “Fiction can allow us a really brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think.” He adds that it’s impossible to dwell there forever–but even a few minutes can do tremendous good.

To boot, insistent, dogmatic “moving on” can do great harm. If we not only march forward in brazen confidence, but also look down on those who linger and question, then we stigmatize conscience itself. I have seen this happen a lot, not only on the political front, but in everyday contexts: people say, “move on, move on,” implying that those who pause, even briefly, are doing something wrong or, worse, standing in the way of progress.

Lingering is not inherently good either; all depends on its form and meaning. But just a little bit, a hint of “maybe I was wrong,” could offset some of the cruelty in the world and open up the imagination.

 
Photo credit: I took this picture a few days ago in beloved Fort Tryon Park.

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Cura te ipsum

self-portrait-with-the-idol-jpglargeWe hear the sayings “Physician, heal thyself” (from Luke 4:23) or “Physician, Physician, Heal thine own limp!” from Genesis Rabbah 23:4. Self-help is not an industry; it’s part of life. No matter what our age (beyond, say, age 3), profession, or situation, we not only solve many of our own problems, but figure out some of the solutions. In doing so, we may draw on all sorts of advice or wisdom from the near or distant past, but we decide how to apply it.

The self-help industry, then, is misnamed. It isn’t about self-help at all; at its worst, it is about selling you a product that supposedly will help you. To sell it, the creator or marketer tries to convince you that it’s better than anything else out there and that it addresses the problem in a novel way. This involves ignoring or dismissing (or simply not knowing) past wisdom.

Let me backtrack: I see two kinds of books that aim to help you find your way through life. One kind is a book of knowledge or wisdom; it draws on what has been known and said and does not promise you any big or swift answers. It leaves you to arrive at your own conclusions. The other kind excludes previous wisdom for the sake of appearing new or original. Here the point is not to give you perspective but rather to put forth a particular idea, program, product, or plan.

This explains, in part, why some self-help literature, and the journalism surrounding it, pays little or no attention to philosophy, literature, or even classic psychology. Oblivion blows a blizzard over what has been said before. In her New York Magazine article “Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State,” Cari Romm writes,

Forgiveness, clearly, is a highly personal choice, speeding healing for some and precluding healing for others. But what does it even mean to forgive, anyway?

It’s something we haven’t been asking ourselves for very long — it wasn’t until 1989 that psychologists even started to really study forgiveness — but psychologist Harriet Lerner believes we’ve been too hasty to rush into an answer. In her new book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Lerner argues that we’re flying blind: Academic research and conventional wisdom alike emphasize the positive effects of forgiveness without having reached any clear consensus as to what the act of forgiving really looks like.

Wait a second–who says we haven’t been asking ourselves about the nature of forgiveness for very long? Just look up “forgiveness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you will see a long and detailed entry, with reference to works through the centuries. But there’s much more, even in the psychological literature. Jung wrote extensively on confession (and the accompanying forgiveness); other scholars around the turn of the twentieth century began examining the psychology of religion, which included concepts of forgiveness. (See, for instance, Edwin J. Starbuck, “Contributions to  the Psychology of Religion,”The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 9, No. 1 [Oct., 1897], pp. 70-124.) It is true that psychologists have been studying forgiveness more intensively than before, but the topic is by no means new.

I have not yet read Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize? in full, but it seems to dispense too readily with forgiveness. On p. 54, she writes: “Some cultural groups place a high premium on apologies and forgiveness. Others do not.” In other words, she seems to suggest that its value is relative. In an interview with Forbes, she says, “We do need to find ways to protect ourselves from the burden of carrying anger and resentment that isn’t serving us, and to grab some peace of mind. We can achieve this with or without forgiveness.” This ignores one of the main virtues of forgiveness: it helps reestablish some form of relationship, even a silent one, between the two people (and even between them and others). Sure, we can “grab some peace of mind” elsewhere. But isn’t there more at stake?

Her book (which I will read) is not the point here, though. I take issue more directly with Romm’s article and with the widespread practice, especially in so-called self-help literature, of exaggerating the newness of an idea. When it comes to books of wisdom, I trust and respect those that acknowledge what has come before, even if they proceed to question, criticize, or overturn it.

Romm’s larger argument in the article (and Lerner’s, which she cites) is that people mistakenly see forgiveness as binary: Either you forgive someone entirely, or you’re caught up in bitterness. But this simply isn’t true; there have been subtle discussions of forgiveness over the centuries.

Forgiveness involves coming to see another person, an injury, and one’s own anger in a much larger perspective–and, from there, restoring some kind of relationship, even an unspoken one. (I think of Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing.”) Such forgiveness is not always possible or desirable, but there are reasons why people long for it and seek it out. This is no pathological inclination, unless human connection is now deemed a disease. In that case, empty the libraries and close down the theatres. Declare language defunct.

Image credit: Paul Gaughin, Self-Portrait with the Idol (1893), courtesy of WikiArt.

Note: I made some minor edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

On Clasps and Goggles

fischer

People often associate creativity with big ideas, but it is often found in centimeter-sized details. In an earlier post I discussed how creativity involves tinkering with subject matter; here I will look at how it thrives on the small scale, in the realm of hinges, clasps, and other parts.

The above picture (which I took at home) shows three objects–two book stands and a pair of AN-6530 goggles–manufactured by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., founded by my great-granduncle Charles Fischer. He was about fourteen when he came with his parents and seven younger siblings to New York City from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). In 1906, after working as a toolmaker and spring-maker, he founded his company in Brooklyn and employed a few of his brothers. My great-grandfather worked for him as a bookkeeper, I believe.

The two book stands clasp onto the knee, so that your hands are free when you read; the AN-6530 goggles were produced during World War II for Army and Navy flight crews. After one year of use (in 1943), they were superseded by rubber-framed, plastic-framed goggles (since mass production of plastic had become possible in the interim, and plastic lenses were much safer).

Many of Charles Fischer’s inventions pertained to goggles; he had several patents for goggles themselves, and others for goggles’ hinges, clasps, bridges, and seals. His goggle clasp (Patent No. 2,126,379), filed in 1937 and patented in 1938, improves upon existing clasps in ways that he carefully lays out.

claspHere’s a photo of the AN-6530 clasp (at least on my own pair). I have looked at pictures of others; the clasps are similar in form. You can see that they require twisting a piece of wire. As we know from experience with hangers (for instance), if you twist the wire too much, it breaks.

That is exactly the problem that Charles Fischer sought to address. (Note that the AN-6530 goggles came well after his invention but stuck with the earlier clasp.) In his patent specifications, he explains:

Heretofore, the head band has carried a thin light open ring which was passed through the ears of the frame and then twisted by pliers. The twisting of the ring strains it and crystallizes it. Thereafter, the stresses to which the ring was sub­jected imposed further strain and led to break­age at the point of twisting.

Here’s how he resolves the problem:

The possibility of the head band clasp breaking or working loose from the goggle and the result­ing inconvenience and perhaps danger to the user, is avoided by the clasp shown in Figs. 2, 3 and 4, in which a strap 23 is provided, slotted at 24 to receive one end of a head band 25. The strap has a forwardly extending pocket 26, the strap and pocket being stamped from one piece of metal. Passing through the sides of the pocket is a pivot pin 27, and a strong hook 28 is pivoted on this pin. As illustrated, pivot pin 27 is arranged off-center, i.e. below the central horizontal plane of the pocket and below the line of force acting on hook 28. This arrangement results in the hook being securely locked to the frame when in closed position. In addition, the upper sides of pocket 26 are pinched at 29 to provide a pair of spring jaws. When the hook is open, as shown in full lines in Fig. 2, the jaws act to hold the hook up and in a position which facilitates the passing of the free end of the hook through the perforated noses of the frame. When the hook is closed, the jaws give way to allow the hook to pass and then spring back behind the hook. Also, as shown, the extended lip 30 of pocket 25 is adapted to be engaged by and serve as a stop for the free end of hook 28.

That may seem a little confusing until you match it, number by number, with the diagram:
goggle-clasp-imageNow it’s evident that this new clasp resolves the problems of the previous one. There’s no twisting of wire, no loose ends, no strain on the materials. What’s more, it involves a kind of spring: “In addition, the upper sides of pocket 26 are pinched at 29 to provide a pair of spring jaws.”

I don’t know why this clasp wasn’t incorporated in the AN-6530 model. His patent was issued a year before the outbreak of World War II. Maybe his inventions didn’t get enough attention; maybe they were considered too expensive.

My point is that our discussions of creativity tend to miss the mark. There’s creativity in the spring jaw and pivot pin of a goggle clasp–yet when people speak of creativity, they disregard those beautiful little parts.

Charles Fischer died almost two decades before I was born, so I had no way of meeting him. Only one of his siblings, Emanuel, survived into my lifetime; he died when I was about four, and I knew nothing of his existence. My great-grandfather Max died four years before my birth. I wish time could be compressed so that I could ask them questions. I sense enjoyment in Charles Fischer’s descriptions; I imagine that he loved explaining them to people who showed interest.

There may be far more creativity in the world than people imagine. It may be found in the particulars, in the subtle reworking of words, sounds, and springs. The current focus on big ideas detracts from creativity itself. Or to put it bluntly: creativity means nothing in the abstract. It has meaning only in relation to specific form and matter.

Image credits: I took the two photos. The patent image can be found on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website.

Note: I made some edits to this piece–and added two sentences to the end–after posting it. Also, I changed the title twice.

Days of Joy

intheheightsset.jpg

senechal-ad

I thank Columbia Secondary School for a joyous weekend of the musical In the Heights. My friends Deb and Eric came down from Peabody, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to see it with me. We went on Friday and Saturday nights; I was planning to go again today, but since all three shows were sold out in advance, I decided to release my tickets so that someone else could see it. The students put soul, wit, work, and talent into the show–and brought out the heartbeats of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself. I felt at times as though the musical were opening up the music of my everyday life and the lives of the people around me.

The above letter went into the program (as a little ad); when I wrote it, I didn’t know whether my friends would be able to come down, but sure enough, they did. Besides attending the shows, we walked in Fort Tryon Park, rode the train downtown to Katz’s Delicatessen, feasted, talked, and laughed.

After last night’s show, on our way back to the subway station, we saw some men working on a new storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue. The sparks mixed with the memories of the musical.

construction

One of the chapters in my new book is about joy: how people often associate it with outward cheer, but how it often accompanies difficulty. I thought about how this applied even to such an enjoyable weekend. In the Heights has difficulty and sadness: death, loss, failures, disappointments, stress. But the rapturous music and the characters’ spirited goodwill all lift the story into beauty. I realized just now that the musical doesn’t have a single villain. Yet at the same time it’s anything but pat and rosy; it shows people in subtle conflicts, internal and external, short and long.

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” has been in my mind for years, day after day, but it seems especially appropriate now.

… satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
nnnnn This is mortality,
nnnnn this is eternity.