*** January 21 ***
Christmas has come and gone, and I’ve settled into the New Year quite comfortably. Now it’s time to talk about ... the Cutty Sark!
I’m building the Cutty Sark and I couldn’t be happier. I feel like a kid again. When I was a boy I used to love making model kits. But I didn’t really do it with any skill. My main idea was to have a cheap toy that I could then set on fire or blow up in some cool way. So generally I’d spring 5 or 10 bucks for some World War II airplane or tank or ship, build it, put on the decals ... and then stuff the thing full of firecrackers and watch it go sky high. Or sometimes I’d set them on fire, since they were polystyrene and burned with a satisfying flame and dramatic black smoke. “Mayday, mayday ... I’m hit ... she’s breaking up ... can’t hold her...”
The best place for this kind of fun was up at Sauble Beach, because it was summer (so there was no school to worry about), there were plenty of lonely sand dunes to play in (so you didn’t have to worry about blowing out a neighbor’s window), and I could get both cheap fireworks and cheap model kits at my uncle’s tourist gift shop. Talk about heaven. I’d often spend whole days working on and playing with my models. In fact, now that I’m talking about this again, I remember that there’s still a box of them sitting under my bed up at the cottage. That’s how I took care of them - in a box. They weren’t showpieces. They were toys.
But even as I was sending some ship or tank into fiery oblivion I always knew there was another side to modeling. When I was a kid our family used to make day trips each Thanksgiving and Christmas to see various uncles and aunts, some nearby, some far. Living just 20 or so miles away in Guelph, Ontario, were my cousins Margaret McLeod (nee Scott) and her husband Mike. (You can see a picture of Margaret as a teenager on this website if you click here.)
Margaret’s husband Mike liked to make models. Airplanes, to be specific - World War II fighters, jets, maybe a few others - I don’t remember his collection too specifically anymore because it’s been decades since I’ve seen it. But I *do* remember that it was awesome. You went through the front of their house into the back rec room and there they were ... all these amazing little planes arrayed in rank after rank on special shelves. There must have been twenty or thirty of them, each lovingly crafted and painted. Wings sometimes folded, sometimes straight. Propellers with safety stripes on them. Little details like radio wires strung from tail to cockpit. Those planes dazzled me. That room became one of my favorite rooms in the whole world when I was a kid. I was always happy when the holidays rolled around and I found out that this year we were going to the McLeods’s.
Then there was the other modelmaker in my young life: Cliff Dale (“Mister Dale” to me then, of course), father of the family who lived next door to us in Galt, Ontario. Mr. Dale was married to a happy woman named Anne, and together they had three children, two boys - Todd and Terry - and a girl, Lisa. Mr. Dale was a printer by trade - a stocky, bluff, good-hearted, friendly man, handy with his hands, who always liked to be doing some project around the house on the weekend. And one of the things Mr. Dale liked to do was build models.
Sometimes, when we weren’t in the mood to play hockey, or army, Todd or Terry and I would go down into their basement rec room and loaf around, watching TV. And it was there that you saw the models. Unlike Mike McLeod, Mr. Dale hadn’t built dozens of them. There were just two. They were both ships. But they caught my eye every time I entered that room. I thought they were beautiful.
One was a model of a Japanese World War II battleship called the Yamato - in real life, the biggest battleship ever built. The model was beautiful: it had a deep blue-grey superstructure and hull, red below the waterline. There were radio masts and AA guns, and of course, the ship’s gigantic main guns. There was even a small biplane loaded on a launch rail amidships. The whole thing exuded power and was vaguely sinister, bristling with armament. More important, at nearly two feet long it was simply too tempting for a young boy to resist. So sometimes (when we were feeling especially brave, and of course after checking to make sure that Mr. Dale wasn’t home) we’d take the Yamato down off the shelf and handle it. Sometimes (though rarely) we’d even play with it ... a little. It was a fantastic object to hold in my young hands, part museum piece and part ultimate toy. It seemed that just by staring at it I could begin to imagine guys running around on the deck, torpedo planes attacking, smoke boiling from the stack, guns blazing. It was like a time machine of some kind. A fantastic time machine of the mind.
But there was another model in the same room, and this one never came down from the shelf because the idea of touching it was simply unthinkable. For one thing, it was too big. It was a giant, detailed, utterly beautiful model of the old clipper ship Cutty Sark. I remember it was up over the TV set on a wooden shelf, and it was shrouded in clear plastic (to keep the dust away, I imagine). But this only made it even more dream-like, because of course you couldn’t see it clearly. All those ropes and winches, rigging and wooden planks, all that crazy riot of complexity on the deck of old sailing ships, was all on the other side of a crinkly looking glass. I would stare at it fascinated, and again, after a moment, if you squinted a little, it was easy to see men running up the ratlines, manning the wheel, hauling on a rope to hoist a massive sail.
I was a little disappointed to learn that the Cutty Sark had no guns. She was a clipper ship, not a warship. For a time I spurned her in favor of the Yamato. But eventually the Cutty Sark won me back. She was just so darn beautiful, with her white lines and copper bottom, the gold filigree on her prow, the snow white masts, the jet black hull. If you went a bit closer you could see that on Mr. Dale’s model the anchors had real chains, and the ratlines were held in place with real little wooden deadeyes. I was amazed by this level of detail. Turns out that Mr. Dale, the guy next door, with a grin on his face and a beer in his hand, was an artist! Real chains? You had to have the heart of a poet to go that far.
Cliff Dale’s Cutty Sark stuck with me for years. And finally one day in 1998 I decided I was going to build one just like it.
Actually, let me back up. One day in the late nineties ... I no longer remember exactly when ... I was moping around the house after breaking up with my long-term girlfriend and looking for a way out of what seemed like an endless funk. After days of inertia and misery, I suddenly felt a light bulb switch on. What I needed, I realized, was to shake free of old familiar stuff and try something new. Something free of past associations. What could it be? Reading a book? Nah, too tame. I wanted something more drastic. Take up skydiving? Well, yes, that would be drastic. But it would also too short. I needed something I could do every single day. Something that I could do right at home: get passionate about, feel excited by, and get lost in.
I needed... what?
Various ideas came and went, but within a few days I had settled on two that made me tingle.
First, I always loved to write music, but I hadn’t for quite some time. That’s because my old way of recording music had involved a lot of equipment, which I had pawned years earlier. But for several years now I had been hearing that you could write pretty good sounding music with nothing more than a PC and a cheap keyboard. Was it true? I decided that now was the time to find out. (If you’re curious, the results can be heard on my music page.)
The second thing I decided was that I was going to try, for the first time in my life, to make models in a serious way. No more kid stuff; no more whacking a kit together in a day so I could have a new object to blow up. This time I was going to build myself a ship (for some reason I knew right away it was going to be a ship) that was as beautiful and detailed as anything I had ever seen. I was going to see if I could join the august company of Mike McLeod and Cliff Dale.
I located a hobby shop on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles and began prowling the aisles. Ever been to a hobby shop? They’re pretty amazing places. You walk up and down, and all around you on the shelves are these amazing fantasies that you can joing into if you like. Fly a plane! Drive a tank! Soup up a car! You can’t own a World War II U-Boat, but you can build one if you like. It’s hard not to become a kid again in a hobby shop, because it’s a world full of enthusiasms. The glint of clear wrap on the boxes, the sound of plastic parts when they shake, the happy chatter of voices. It’s a place full of wonder.
I was thoroughly enjoying my new hobby, and I hadn’t even started yet!
I took it slow, savoring. Rather than buy the first kit I saw, I visited my chosen shop on a regular basis for the next week or two, eyeing the paint, examining the tools, deciding what kit I might want to work on and what I probably would need to complete it. Genres of models are very different, and often take entirely different skills. That’s why modelmakers tend to specialize: ships, planes, automobiles or military vehicles; and the broader categories of display models or radio-controlled.
To me, display models are most appealing, because they’re the most artistic. Display models are where a modeler takes the time to apply detail that, on a radio-controlled plane likely to crash any moment, would be pointless. It’s impressive the range of skills a display modeler has to have. To build airplanes like Mike McLeod, for instance, takes a gift for painting, since airplane wings are broad smooth surfaces that reveal bad brush strokes readily. The maker of an old-time sailing ship, on the other hand, needs a gift for precision assembly, since there are countless details on these models that all have to be there, and be right, for the overall effect to work.
Back in Los Angeles I kept wondering, what do I start with? What should be my first ‘real’ model?
I finally settled on a classic. I paid $50 for a kit of the Titanic, plus another $100 or so for various things I felt the project would need: paint and glue, of course, and thread, and brushes ... and also, furniture-wise, a decent lamp and a couple of card tables for my work area. I chose the Titanic because the subject interested me, and also because, as far as model ships go, she wasn’t killingly complicated. The superstructure is fairly straightforward, and the deck details, though important, aren’t so numerous as to send you running for the hills. All in all I felt the Titanic was as good a place to start as any. And I’m a sucker for the legend, so it would be fun too.
I set up my work area at home near a window so I could have natural light. I laid out my tools and paints, and then I opened the box.
There was the hull, and portions of the deck. There were the funnels, in halves. Then there were countless other little detailed parts, all attached to sprue trees. A model can be a little intimidating when you first open it, but it’s also comforting in a strange way. You know it all goes together somehow. You just need to have faith and patience.
I spread out the instructions and began to read them. As I did, I would seek out this or that part and examine it, handle it. I’ve found over the years that this is an important phase in making a model: getting to know the kit. You start looking at where things are and, without knowing it, you start making mental notes to yourself. Guess I’ll need to file that thing, it looks a bit rough ... That’ll look good flat brown ... Does this go together with this, or with that? It’s probably similar to the visualization that an athlete goes through on game day. You picture how the struggle ahead is going to proceed, and then it becomes easy to do for real.
I built the Titanic in about three months’ time. I enjoyed myself, but I also made plenty of mistakes, some of which I couldn’t fix. So I knew I could do better next time. On the other hand, I was happy to see my technique improve over the course of the project: by the end I knew a heck of a lot more about paint than when I’d started. And I even blundered onto a few little tricks that I knew would come in handy again (like using art markers from an art supply store instead of brushes for detail work).
My second kit was Tamiya’s version of the World War II German battleship Bismarck. This was a bit trickier, because now I had to deal with deck guns and antennae with rigging. To get this all looking right I went on the Internet to find whatever photos I could locate, and learned quite a bit about how the Bismarck looked at different points in her career (for instance, in the box cover shown above the Bismarck has black & white camouflage stripes on her hull - but these were removed before she went on her first and only live mission). I decided, too, to age the Bismarck, make it look a little bit worn, even though it was a comparatively new ship when it sank. This led to all sorts of fun with paint and brushes, trying to create rust-like effects on the hull. In the end I discovered that if you turn the hull upside-down and then brush downwards (i.e. from the bottom of the hull towards the overturned deck) with a nearly dry brush, you get an effect that looks exactly like sea weathering on metal. Wonderful!
The third ship I tried was the Cutty Sark.
The Cutty Sark, in case you don’t know, was once one of the fastest merchant ships in the world. She was launched in Scotland in 1869, with greyhound lines and massive sails, her sole purpose in life being to outrun everything else afloat - including many ships with famous names, like the legendary Thermopylae - to win the annual spring race from China to London with the season’s first crop of fresh tea. This was more than a race of honor; the winner could make a fortune on their fresh-tea monopoly, which lasted until the next ships from China arrived up the Thames - often weeks later. In the tea-crazed London of the late 1800s, a vessel like the Cutty Sark could, therefore, be a very lucrative business asset indeed.
(The name Cutty Sark, in fact, derives from an old poem by Robert Burns in which speed plays a large part. The poem is too long to repeat here, but at the climax a young man - Tam O’Shanter - is chased by a witch who he has foolishly called out to because she is wearing a ‘cutty sark’ - old Scots for short chemise. As the young man jumps on his horse and gallops away, the witch leaps after him, and though she misses her mark she comes away clutching a handful of his horse’s tail. The Cutty Sark’s figurehead, then, was the carving of a witch with one arm outstretched, her hand clutching a fistful of horsehair.)
The Cutty Sark might have had a long and glorious career if it weren’t for unfortunate timing. Shortly after she was put into service the Suez canal opened, and suddenly steamships could go from England to China and back again in times just as short as those of the clipper ships. Since steam was more reliable than sail, the days of canvas were numbered nearly overnight. By 1895 the Cutty Sark was an unprofitable anachronism and was sold to the first of a series of owners who tried, without much success, to find her a second career. It’s only by a miracle that she didn’t wind up in the scrapyard; but instead, in 1922 she was bought by a clipper ship enthusiast, one Captain Wilfred Dowman, who restored her to her former appearance. Dowman preserved the Cutty Sark through the decades until the world awoke one day to discover that all of the old wooden clipper ships from the golden age of sail were gone - but one. And so the Cutty Sark was purchased by the British government and drydocked in Greenwich, England, in 1954. She remains there to this day.
In 1959 the model kit manufacturer Revell came out with a commemorative kit of the Cutty Sark in fairly large scale (nearly 3 feet long when assembled). I never asked, but I’m sure this is the kit that Mr. Dale used for the ship that stood in his rec room, although he’d modified it considerably (often on excursions with Todd or Terry into their basement I’d see him at his workbench, fashioning tiny barrels, say, or cleats). In the late nineties, when I bought this kit for myself at last, it had therefore been around for nearly forty years, with only minor modifications along the way. Clearly it was a classic. The day I bought it, the box was huge. It was also heavy, and made a thrilling, slightly intimidating noise when shaken. I took it home with (I’m not kidding) a racing heart. I couldn’t wait to look inside.
When I did, I had to pause. If I’d thought the Bismarck was a step up from the Titanic, then it was immediately obvious that the Cutty Sark was a big leap up from both. The hull was there, in two halves, and sections of deck planking could be recognized; but everything else was a bewildering forest of spars and trim and blocks and cranks and mysterious deck paraphenalia. It was a little daunting. But it was also thrilling. As usual, I took my time and paged through the plans and examined the parts, getting to know the kit. I kept telling myself that all I had to do was take it slow and careful. Don’t rush it. The result, with a little luck, could be magnificent.
Well, I won’t drag this out.
I worked on the Cutty Sark in 1998-99 for nearly five months, but I never finished it. The reason is a combination of life events and a few critical modelmaking errors that, when I caught them, stopped me in my tracks.
Let me take the second first.
I got the hull together just fine and had fun building the deck and the deck houses. I got the masts up wonderfully, and the ship was starting to look pretty cool. Then came time for the rigging, and this is where I ran into trouble. If it takes 4-5 months to assemble a model like the Cutty Sark, it can easily take another 4-5 months to do the rigging and sails. That is, if you want to do it right. And I did. It’s an incredibly complex job that takes the patience of Job. But it’s more than complex; it also has significant perils, and I walked straight into one without even suspecting it was there. While I was working slowly & steadily on attaching thread I failed to notice (until it was too late) that my masts had become ‘sprung’ (i.e. bent). Looking back now the danger should have been obvious: if you want your rigging to look right, it has to be tight. That means pressure. But the masts are only long, thin pieces of plastic. So, at a certain point, if you don’t watch out, they will begin to curve in a most unship-like way. You can always lessen the pressure by loosening the rigging, of course. But then your ship has droopy ropes. And that looks like crap too.
It had taken me weeks to get all that rigging in place and suddenly here the masts were, bent! And then, on top of that, there were also the deadeyes.
On a sailing ship, these are deadeyes:
They’re a classic part of any vintage ship model. Model kit makers, however, rarely provide you with detailed-looking deadeyes like this. Most often they simply cast them as one solid object made of plastic, which you are supposed to glue into place and then attach to the rigging. But plastic deadeyes like that look dreadful. They’re all wrong; much thicker and heavier-looking than the real thing. In my humble opinion, they’re an immediate giveaway as to whether a modelmaker is serious or not. If a modelmaker doesn’t really care, or doesn’t feel like making his model look its best, then he’ll use the plastic. But if you do care, then there’s no alternative. You have to make these deadeyes, one at a time, by hand-threading them.
Well ... I didn’t know all this back then. Instead I followed the Cutty Sark kit instructions and glued the plastic deadeyes in place. Dozens of them. As I did, I was aware that they didn’t look too good. But I kept thinking there must be some modeler’s trick that I hadn’t heard of yet to make them look better. Only slowly did it dawn on me that there wasn’t any such trick at all. Real modelers simply didn’t use plastic deadeyes. By the time this sunk in, it was too late.
So there I was, now, sitting in my room with this Cutty Sark model that suddenly had bent masts and bad deadeyes. In a matter of weeks I had ruined all the previous several months’ work. It could be fixed, of course. But what I’d have to do now is cut all the rigging off the masts, pry off the plastic deadeyes, and then start the whole process over again. I slumped with ennui. I just couldn’t bring myself to start tearing all that work I had done apart. So the Cutty Sark sat untouched on my workbench for the next couple of months.
But I would often look at the ship, and each time it would depress me more and more. It eventually got to the point where the project started to feel like an emotional burden, not a source of pleasure. When was I going to fix it? When? I had to start, but I didn’t want to start. I was stuck in a loop and wasn’t saved until an outside event intervened.
By this time I had packed the ship away, unable to keep looking at it every day. I was vaguely thinking maybe I’d move on to some other model, and then come back to the Cutty Sark when I felt refreshed. But then one day in the mail came a notice informing me that the building I was living in had been sold, and that the new owners wanted to repurpose it as a residence for their educational center. So all the tenants were to be ‘bought out’ and had to leave. I began packing, and one day while I was doing this I came once again upon that unfinished model of the Cutty Sark.
I picked it up, calmly walked to the back of the building, and tossed it into a dumpster. I immediately felt better. The pressure was off. I said to myself, I’m not done with this ship, not by a long shot. I’ll come back someday and do it right. But I can’t do it now. In fact, my life had become too demanding in many ways at that point. There wasn’t any room in it for model ships. Not for the forseeable future.
* * *
Which brings us to now at last.
I’ve finally returned to the Cutty Sark. After seven or eight years I feel ready to tackle it again.
The idea hit me out of the blue. If you’ve been following this weblog you know I’ve recently moved from Los Angeles to Minnesota and put my acting career on hold. For the moment, I’m living a rather quietish life. That is to say, it’s very busy at work; but when I get home I don’t have much of a life. And that of course spells trouble. I can’t stand sitting around munching popcorn and watching TV. I mean, I can, but not for weeks on end. I get too restless. I’ve gotta do something.
So the other night it came to me: models! This is the perfect time to get back to modelmaking again. And with no more than a breath I was on the internet tracking down a local hobby shop, and then jumping in the car to go visit them in person.
And as soon as I did I was in for a shock. The Revell model kit of the Cutty Sark that I once worked on - the classic, debuted in 1959, manufactured for over forty years - is no longer in production! They stopped making it, the bastards! It has disappeared from the shelves. I went home and jumped on the internet, determined to find it anyway, and was dismayed by the chilling lack of response to my Google search. Nothing. Zip. Nada. The wind, pardon my pun, went completely out of my sails. There are other model kits of the Cutty Sark out there, but they are either insanely expensive or else they pale by comparison with the Revell classic kit. In the ‘expensive’ category, for instance, there’s the Billings Boats version of the model, which is all wood and retails for two hundred dollars. I almost bought this kit, actually, but I was stopped by the fact that I’ve never worked in wood before, so I’d be sure to screw it up. On the other hand, there’s a newer plastic Revell Cutty Sark kit that I could easily obtain, but it’s smaller in scale than the old one, and that means less detail. Phooey on that. I love detail. Detail is the point. When a model reaches that point where the details accumulate into a trick of the eye, that’s magic. If you can’t get that then there’s just no point making a model at all.
I stayed on the internet and hunted more persistently. I looked in unlikely places, expanding my search. And finally one day, my heart jumped! I landed on the page of an obscure dealer who had a copy of the kit I wanted. I ordered it. It came. I’m in heaven.
Like before, I’ve had to spend more than a little money setting up my apartment to work on this model. I had a few odds and ends left over from my last attack on the Cutty Sark years ago - tools and paint brushes mostly, which I’ve retrieved from a tattered storage box and greeted like old friends. But I had no basics - no table space, no lights, and no paint. I’ve spent probably $300 getting all this stuff together, creating myself a work area at home. I took some pictures of it the other day so you could see.
(You can click on any image to see it bigger.)
I have a big living room, so it was no sacrifice to devote one end of it to my new modelmaking department. To start with I pushed three card tables together, and then attached clip lights on arms to them, to give enough light. I should probably have thrown a cloth over the tables or something at this point, to keep them from getting paint-stained, but honestly I was too eager to make a start to bother with that sort of thing. If you spend all your time making a perfect workplace you never get any actual work done. To heck with that.
Here’s a closer view. I’ve been working on the Cutty Sark for about three weeks now. The hull was the first challenge. Legend has it that the Cutty Sark has a copper bottom (you’ll find a lot of websites that repeat this as fact). So modelers tend to make the ship with a shiny gold-like color below the waterline. Actually, though, I’ve learned that the Cutty Sark’s bottom was never copper at all, but a cheaper tin-copper composite known as Muntz metal (pure copper would have been prohibitively expensive for what was, after all, a cargo ship). Muntz metal has a different color than pure copper; it’s pinkish, but also silvery (the tin component). So I began to experiment with paint to see if I could come up with something like it (based on photos from the internet, which I’ve printed out & stuck up on the wall).
I took some standard copper paint and then added blue, red, and black, until it dulled-down into something that satisfyingly matches the original ship. The Revell kit has a clear wood pattern above the waterline and a nice texture of metal plates below. I painted the wood with semi-gloss black, and the copper plates with my special concoction. After a few coats it‘s begun to look quite nice.
Then it came time to paint the rub rails, which on the Cutty Sark are white and give the ship a beautiful hull line. At first I stupidly tried to do these by hand, but it’s just not possible. Paint on plastic, even primed plastic, wants to ‘jump’ into cracks and angles, making it impossible to do a straight line without help. So I got out the masking tape like the pros do, and spent a whole day masking carefully, then painting nice straight white lines. I’m so glad I did it that way! The result is beautiful. This is one thing I didn’t do back in 1998, and I feel it’s a real improvement this time around. So I’m happy. The ship is already on its way to being better than the one I never completed.
Here’s two views of the Cutty Sark paint department as it stands at the moment, though it’ll soon grow again. I’ve just placed an internet order for some art markers - that is, expensive magic markers of the type that artists use. These are tremendously helpful when you’re working on a model because they allow you to apply color in really tight corners where a brush simply doesn’t want to go without spilling. Also, markers come in colors that don’t have any equivalent in the palettes of the paint makers, so you have more options. And sometimes the paint and the markers actually work together to make really lovely effects. One of my favorite tricks for wood, for instance, is to paint something flat brown and then apply broad-edged Prismacolor Sepia over the surface. The Sepia goes on slightly streaky and looks just like woodgrain!
All told I will probably have spent $200 on paint and coloring stuff before the project is over. If not more. I’m really not keeping track. Whatever it takes.
For the moment, I’ve got the hull painted, and I’ve given a first coat of paint to some sections of the deck. Ultimately the deck has to be in place before (in my humble opinion) you can make it really look right, because, as you can see, it’s all in sections. These sections have to be fitted together and the seams be made to vanish. That’s partly going to be a sanding job, and partly it’ll be paint. Once they all fit tight I can paint on weathering effects that will make it look like one continuous structure of wood. In fact, I intend to age the whole model in this way. I don’t plant to make a pristine-looking ship. Most of the other Cutty Sarks I see out there on the internet are so clean and pretty that they look fake for that very reason. I’m not after that. I plan to wear and weather mine; a little rust here, a little dirt there. Honestly, I think that makes it more beautiful, not less.
Here’s a last picture for now, a section of the instructions that come with the ship. (I should have taken a picture of the rigging diagram just so you could see how insanely complex it is ... but I’ll do that later when I come to it.) Just wanted you to see what I’m dealing with. There’s a kind of Zen to building a model like this. You have to let go of time concerns and just work at your own pace, making each thing right before you move on to the next. Honestly, I like that. It’s the antithesis of the business world, where time is money. Here, time is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is quality.
Okay, enough blabbing for now. More anon.
*** Sunday, January 29 ***
We’ve been tremendously busy at work this past week or so. We’re teaching a class and preparing for another one at the same time. The second class, though, is all to be held via website - so that means the website has to be built. That’s what’s taking so much time.
But it’s fun too. I’ve really gotten into the groove of teaching here in Saint Paul. I quite enjoy being at the front of the room running off at the mouth (no surprise to those who know me). But I also (I hope) like to break things up in ways that keep things interesting. We’ll see. The students are fun, too. It’s always engaging to be part of their learning process.
I just took a couple of new photos of my Cutty Sark project. I’m attaching the deck today, but after getting the fore and aft sections installed I decided the whole model was too light. I mean physical weight; with all those tall masts and sails that are coming, I think the hull needs a bit more ballast. So what to do? What’s heavy and small around this apartment? I finally settled on some old D-cell batteries that I have in abundance (leftovers from my LA apartment’s earthquake kit). They’re perfect, but of course they’re also batteries, which means they might leak chemicals as the years pass. So I wrapped them in plastic, then wrapped them again in plastic, and then finally sheathed the whole thing in duct tape. It makes a nice, hefty little parcel, which also looks vaguely sinister being so small & heavy, like a home-made bomb or something.
The ballast can’t move because in the course of finishing the model I’ll certainly have to hold it at weird angles. So I needed some way to fix it in place. I’ve slathered the bottom with Gorilla Glue and for the moment I’m letting it cure. After a few hours I’ll pack the sides with paper, and then apply more duct tape to keep it firm. When I put the final piece of deck on I’ll put a little more paper there, to pack it in place. Hopefully it’ll never move after that.
Besides the hull and decks, I’ve also begun work on the masts. I immediately hit a crisis. The masts on the real Cutty Sark aren’t one long continuous pole of wood; they’re ‘stepped.’ You have a bottom section, a middle section, and a top, all joined by massive wood-and-iron blocks and clamps. In the model version, the bottom section, which is the thickest, is two halves that have to be glued together. Well, when I got to the parts on the sprue tree I saw to my horror that one of the halves of the foremast was near-completely useless! The casting process at the factory had gone badly awry, and what was left was not a semi-mast but a gunky piece of plastic. What to do? I was pretty depressed about this, and went back and forth for quite a few days trying to think of a solution. Of course, in the normal modelmaking world you could just write to the model company (Revell) for a spare part. But they don’t make this kit anymore. I felt stuck.
Then I had a brainwave. Wait a minute - the mast is a cylinder, right? Of plastic. And what do we all have in our homes, lying around everywhere, that is a plastic cylinder? Pens, of course! Duh. I just had to find a smooth round pen that was about the same diameter as the mast, then cut it to fit, cut out the bad part of the kit mast, glue everything together, and after a few coats of paint, ta-dah! You can see the result at right (click to see it bigger). It’s kind of washed out by the work lights, but I still think you get the idea. On the right is the lower section of the mizzenmast, which needed no repair. On the left is the lower section of the foremast, which is mostly pen! Pretty cool!
(Fortunately for me the Cutty Sark’s foremast is a relatively simple timber structure; it doesn’t have the extra rail that you can see here on the mizzenmast. Thank goodness! Otherwise I would have had a much tougher time faking it.)
Of course, this still all begs the question of whether or not I’m even going to stick with the plastic kit masts for this model of the Cutty Sark. As I learned to my rue seven years ago, plastic masts bend if you put too much stress on them. And yet the rigging has to be tight to look right. So I think what I may end up doing is making custom masts. That is, I’ll use these bottom sections because they’ll fit into the deck holes right; but then for the rest I’ll use wood or metal, custom-worked, so they won’t bend.
Hmph. We’ll see. Pretty tall words. It remains to be seen, of course, if I have the skill to back ‘em up.
*** Saturday, Feb 4 ***
Cutty Sarking continues at a slow pace. The problem at the moment is the deck. Did I mention that the casting of the kit I’m using is extremely poor? Well, it is. This particular model of the Cutty Sark by Revell was originally released in 1959, and I’m assuming it remained in production for at least forty odd years because I had no trouble buying one in the late ‘90s. But this last time (as I recounted in last month’s weblog) it was hard to find, and when I checked the Revell site I found it was discontinued.
Sad, because it’s really such a beauty. But I suppose people get more excited about warships.
Anyway, again, it’s only a hunch, but my feeling is that as the Cutty Sark model became less popular down through the years, Revell passed the production of the kit off to second-rate factories, or even cheap subcontractors. Because, unlike the kit I attempted in the ‘90s, this time around I’m finding all sorts of little things wrong with it. One of the masts was cast badly and completely useless. And currently I’m stalled because of the deck.
The deck in this kit comes in three parts, which you have to fit onto the hull rather carefully or else there are largish gaps between the sections, which of course there weren’t on the real ship, so it looks terrible. Well, I fitted my deck sections as best I could, but they still wouldn’t go in right. Why? Because the underpins, which are set into the hull to hold the deck in place, were cast inaccurately; and also because the deck sections themselves were warped. I shaved down the pins, but I couldn’t do much to get the deck pieces flat. As a result, I had to shave a little off the deck-piece ends to get them to go in. And that left, darn it, a gap.
I’ve been working on that gap ever since, for nearly a week and a half now. I had two, actually, one forward and one aft. The forward one has nearly vanished, so I’m quite satisfied there. But that damn aft one is still persisting, and it just looks crappy as hell. I keep trying different things, hoping something will work. I tried white glue, but it doesn’t set hard enough. I tried layer after layer of paint, but it creates a blob that can’t be sanded. My latest effort is glue - not superglue, which is almost too hard to sand, but plain old model cement glue. Against all the rules, I’ve actually put a big blob of glue right over this deck join and I’m letting it harden. Then I’ll sand it down, because I know this kind of glue can be sanded decently. Hopefully after that and a coat of paint my deck-gap woes will be a thing of the past. Hopefully.
But here’s another development. I grew so disgusted with this kit that about a week ago I went on eBay and shopped around to see if anyone else had one. And by God ... wouldn’t you know it ... somebody was actually offering for sale a vintage 1959 version! That is, the original kit, still sitting in the box from 45 years ago! I thought it was almost too good to be true, but I bid on it anyway. And I just found out today that I won!
So in about a week’s time, or so, I’m going to be receiving this kit in the mail.
What will I do then? Well, we’ll see. I’m not a model-kit-historian type. I believe models were meant to be made, not to sit in boxes as collectibles. So I’m going to use this historic kit, that’s certain. But how? Do I scrap the ship I’ve got so far and start over on this vintage one? That sounds tempting, but the thing is, I’ve really done a great job on the hull so far, and it’s only the deck that’s giving me problems at the moment. And I may actually lick those problems. Then ... do I keep the hull and deck I’ve got now, but the proceed with the vintage everything else? I just don’t know. The obvious idea, of course, would be to merge the two kits, using whatever parts are better in the one or the other. That’s probably the way I’ll go. But really, I’ll just have to wait and see first. When the vintage kit arrives I’ll look it over, and then I’ll know what to do.
*** Wednesday, March 8 ***
Been a while since I’ve updated this site. Part of that has been because of my eyes. About three weeks ago I woke one day to find my eyes all hot and scratchy and irritated. They just got worse as time passed, and finally after a few days I went to the emergency room at a nearby hospital to have a doctor take a look. It turned out after tests that my eyes were definitely irritated, but it wasn’t from an infection of any kind. The doctor said I had non-infectious pinkeye.
So now it’s some weeks later and I’ve been taking eye drops regularly, and my eyes have been improving slowly, a little each day. But meantime, as the scratchiness has receded, I’ve noticed that the vision is distinctly blurry. There have been times, in fact, when I’ve reached for my glasses because things looked so out of focus ... only to find with a start that I already have them on.
So ... the mystery continues. I’m going for a follow-up visit to my doctor this Friday. We’ll see then what the story is.
I think I may have mentioned last time that the Cutty Sark kit that I’m working on is the 1/85 scale Revell kit introduced in 1959 (subsequently discontinued in the ‘90s). When I first sought it it wasn’t in any stores, but I managed to track down a copy on a reseller’s website. The hallelujahs were temporary, however. When I started building the kit I noticed a lot of problems with the parts - they were ill-fitting, or badly cast. I sadly put this down to lazy manufacturing - in the latter years as the kit became less popular, Revell clearly stopped caring. But what was I to do? After some thinking I marched off to eBay to see if I could track down an older, more vintage copy of the kit. Sure enough, I found one and bought it. So now I’m making one ship with two kits, drawing on each for the best-shaped and best-fitting parts. It’s quite a treat.
The photos in my January blog are all of the first version of the ship, which I took as far as painting the hull and installing the deck. But then, as I say, so many other parts were in bad shape that I stopped the project while waiting for the eBay kit to arrive. When it did I started over from scratch.
New version as of March 4.
New version as of March 4.
In that vein, I may have taken even longer on the hull than back in January. It’s surprising how time-consuming the simplest things can be. Those white lines running along the hull, for instance: they took about four days to complete. This is because, of course, you don’t just paint them on the ship freehand; they’d be irregular and look terrible. Instead, you mark off your lines carefully with masking tape, and then apply thin coats of white paint one after another until gradually it builds to a nice smooth consistency. Often, during this phase, my entire day’s work would consist of adding a coat of paint, going off and doing something else, then returning in a few hours and adding another coat of paint. In the end, though, you peel off the tape and the effect is like magic - smooth, even, sharp white lines. Except, of course, a certain amount of paint has leaked under the tape, causing splotches, so now you have to fix those.
All in all, making a model is an exercise in patience. If you’re content to take your time and do it right, the reward is magic.
While working on my hull I’ve also kept searching the web for more and more photos of the Cutty Sark. And I hit a few treasure troves, including one web site by a guy who was taking photos specifically to help model makers with the ship. Marvelous! So now I have all these great pictures of deck details that no normal tourist would notice or bother to photograph. It’s very exciting. I think these pictures are going to help the model immensely.
I also noticed, in another photo, that there are black staves on the outside of the Cutty Sark’s hull. That is, thin strips of wood, painted black, running the length of the ship. There are two of these, one at the waterline and one a foot or two below it. I have no idea what the function of these little rails are, but now that I’ve noticed them I can’t get them out of my head. So I’ve decided I’m going to install them. Of course, that means finding something suitable to use for them, but as it turns out my local hobby shop has quite a bit of shelf space devoted to custom plastic and wooden parts for models, and among these are rectangular strips of plastic of various lengths and weights. Sure enough, I’ve found there some strips which are nearly perfect in size for my ship. So I bought them, and at the moment I’m giving them coats of black paint. When they’re ready, I’ll glue them on.
The best thing about this past weekend, however, is that I finally got to move into fresh territory again. Although it’s been fun, I’ve essentially spent the last two months working on the ship’s hull and deck. By Saturday I was definitely ready to move on.
Consulting the kit instructions, I saw that the next step was installing the ship’s pin rails.
Besides the pin rails and winches, however, there’s also something else I added to the model that I’m quite proud of. I’m referring to the thin white struts which are mounted all along the ship’s bulwarks.
It may be geeky for me to say this, but these little struts are actually a major customization that I’ve added to this project, and they represent considerable time and effort. Here’s what I mean: on the real Cutty Sark you can see these struts in almost any photo of the deck (like the one at right). But when Revell was designing their model they decided to modify them. They probably had perfectly good reasons for doing so, as I can personally attest that installing all of these little struts was a very finicky and frustrating job (they always wanted to stick to the tweezers or fall over just as the glue was starting to cure) ... and therefore a major test of patience. But I never really liked Revell’s alternative, which was to replace the struts with triangular wedges (see photo below).
This is a picture of my January hull and deck, where I left the wedges in place. As you can see they look substantially different from the struts employed on the real ship. In fact, they make it look like the Cutty Sark’s bulwarks are held up with big slabs of wood, giving the deck a walled-in appearance which in reality it doesn’t have. Of course, any plastic model kit is going to contain some compromises, so I can’t really fault Revell for this. But all the same, on my first go-round in January these darn wedges kept nagging at me. And when I finally decided to start the Cutty Sark over from scratch, one of the first decisions I made was that the wedges would have to go.
Consulting the plans, I see that the next phase of work is going to be up at the bow. It’s time to install the bowsprit (the long pointy mast sticking out of the front of the ship) and the forecastle (the raised deck at the bow). I can’t wait. The Cutty Sark’s finally going to start looking like a real ship at last!
*** Monday, March 20 ***
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the last two weeks have been quite busy at work, so I haven’t gotten as much done on the ship as I’d like. But I still managed to make a little progress.
I continued working on the deck. It was time to put in the forecastle deck, but this couldn’t be done until the base of the bowsprit was in place, so that came first. Right away things were a pain: the darn thing just didn’t want to fit into place. First it was too tight, and then, after I did a lot of sanding and filing, it fit but wanted to veer off to starboard in a most unship-shape way. As I kept messing with it what I thought was going to be a relatively simple operation turned into a real head-scratcher lasting more than two hours. Ultimately there was no magic solution: I simply kept sanding and fitting, sanding and fitting, until the bowsprit finally sat right.
Next came the raised forecastle deck. Again, this was more time-consuming than I expected, both because the fit was tight and because the structure rests on wooden beams which themselves have to fit snugly or the whole thing gets out of alignment. Sure enough, after wrestling with the parts for a time I realized that the beams were out of whack: when they fit, the deck didn’t, and vice-versa. I trimmed them to fit, but even so the deck refused to mate perfectly with the hull. So now I had a forecastle deck that rested firmly (at last) but had a gap all the way round it between itself and the bulwarks. Argh. I finally decided on a solution that, I hope, does honor to the Cutty Sark’s finest traditions. Rather than just stuff the visible gap with putty, I jammed thread into it and then painted over it. Presto: sort-of authentic period caulking!
With the forecastle deck settled I next turned to all of the hardware that goes up there. First I put in various iron deck rings (which will be used later to anchor ropes and cables). Then I added the ship’s capstan, an air vent, and a couple of large deck bitts. Finally came a curious sort of teeter-totter looking contraption, which is actually a hand-operated two-man jack that turns a heavy-duty winch gear that can be seen below it, peeping out from the forepeak. Attached to the jack’s support box is a black metal fitting which extends towards the stern and holds the Cutty Sark’s ship’s bell.
The bell doesn’t show up well in these photographs, but it really came out nice. I used a gold art marker to color it, and amazingly for such a tiny object it has a smooth gold finish that looks a lot like the real thing.
At the edge of the forecastle are two short stairways leading down to the main deck. Beside these are two little sheds which are called ‘sail lockers,’ although the ship’s big sails would actually have been far to big to fit in either one. The sail lockers were like shipboard toolsheds, holding all sorts of things such as extra rope, blocks, pins and tools. The locker on the starboard side of the ship has a rack attached to the side of it, in which rest eight or nine long wooden poles. These poles are actually handles which fit into the capstan up on the forecastle deck.
(Which reminds me, I must find out sometime whether the crew of the Cutty Sark used the capstan or the jack-and-winch to raise and lower the anchors. On most ships it would be the capstan - but if so, then what was the winch used for?)
The paint scheme on all these things, by the way, is taken from photos of the real Cutty Sark. That’s why the capstan has white stripes, and the winch structure is painted white and black in a curious way that I wouldn’t have invented in a hundred years. For the most part I’m going to try to follow authentic colors when painting the model, with the caveat that it can be tough sometimes to know what the ’authentic’ colors really are. The Cutty Sark’s contemporary paint scheme - which can easily be found in hundreds of photographs on the web - is different in many details from the many vintage photos that are also out there. And even these vintage photos vary. Sometimes the ship can be seen with one white stripe running along her hull, while at other times she has three. In some photos the deck houses are painted a solid color, while again, in others they have white trim. Clearly there’s some ambiguity here, and I’m probably safe in saying there’s no single right way to paint the Cutty Sark.
So I’ll just do my best. Since the Cutty Sark was a cargo ship, I’m going to probably paint her a bit more prosaically than she appears today (all gussied-up for tourists) at her berth in Greenwich, England. For me, I think there’ll probably be a bit less posh varnished wood, and a bit more working-class paint.
(Although I have to admit I’m partial to those white hull stripes. I’ve given my ship three, and I think she looks just beautiful!)
Before I go, here’s a second look at the forecastle deck as it stands right now. Remember, there’s still a lot to come. Eventually there will be safety railings on the bulwarks - white posts with white rope between them, which will look very nice. Then there are the catheads, which hold the anchors, and the anchors themselves. There’s more gold trim, and some woodwork on the outer sides of the hull. And anchor chain. And of course, rope. Oh Lordy, lots and lots of rope. I’m going to be tying rope on this thing until the next asteroid hits. Those deck rings aren’t there just to look pretty; and there’s another pin rail coming up too, right up by where the bowsprit passes under the forecastle deck. Pin rails mean more rope.
But all this rope is also, you know, very cool. It’s amazing, when you think of it, that a cargo ship like this could circumnavigate the world without a single electric wire or steam pipe on board. Rope, canvas, wood, plus a few metal bits here and there, all cleverly put together - that and a skillful crew is all that made the Cutty Sark go. It may be part of why I find this project so interesting; I feel like I’m learning a lot about the workings of a lost art. Today, sailing ships the size of the Cutty Sark are either pleasure boats or training craft, and rare sights at that. But there once was a time when beauties like these plied the waters of the world everywhere, and a casual glance from shore out to sea would almost always reveal a white-clad mast towering over the water, miles away, filled with wind, edging the horizon, and then slipping across - without a belch of black smoke but in clean, majestic silence.
*** Saturday, March 25 ***
Sitting at home having a breather after a very busy work week. One more to go after this, and the March peak season will thankfully be over. I can’t wait. I know it’s good for the company, and I know it’s a chance to make money. But frankly, it’s just a little too much stress and bother for me. People have different tolerances for different things, I suppose. Some people thrive on stress. Not me. At least, not for this kind.
This weblog has become so much about the Cutty Sark lately I almost feel like I have to report in on the ship each time I write. But it is, after all, what I do with myself much of the time these days. This week all I’ve done is tie string onto my pin rails. Why? Well, I’ve been thinking ahead a few steps and it hit me: now that the forecastle deck is finished the next thing in the plans would be for me to move aftward along the deck, installing deck hardware and structures as I go. But then my eye fell on my pin rails and I thought, hey, once all this deck stuff is in place it’s going to be awfully hard tying rigging onto those pins. Especially if I want to use authentic-looking period knots and coils of rope, instead of just simple one-loop knots.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I want to start attaching full rigging ropes right now either, because if I do that then I’m going to have string dangling all over the place while I continue working on the rest of the ship, and that’s no good. So what to do? I finally decided on a bit of trickery. What I’m going to do is simply create the knots on the pins right now, and then later, when I’m rigging the ship (which means that the masts and all the deck stuff will be in place, so reaching the pins will be much harder) I’ll just attach the rigging ropes to these pre-made knots with a simple slip-loop and some glue. That way my rigging will have nice knots on the pins and yet I won’t have gone insane trying to tie them.
And boy oh boy am I glad I made this decision. Because once I started tying those darn rope knots I realized it was an incredibly tricky task. Each knot takes two tweezers, a pair of scissors, a clamp, and a lot of patience. I simply can’t imagine doing it with deckhouses and pumps and winches in the way. I’d probably go crazy if I tried. I’d throw the ship out a window, and then throw myself out after it!
(Man Found Impaled on Cutty Sark. No, Not the Whisky. Police, Navy Baffled.)
No pin rail pictures for now. I’ll take some later.
I’m going to Chicago this Sunday. They’re sending me there for work. I’ve never been there before, and of course I’m getting all kinds of different recommendations from different people about what to see and do. It’ll be fun. I’m going to be downtown, very close to the Chicago River, with a large city park nearby. I’ll probably walk in the park, visit the lake, and maybe find a nice restaurant or two. I’m going to be working graveyard shift hours again, so alas, I’ll be sleeping all day. But who knows. I may wake up early once or twice and be able to squeeze in a bit of exploring.
I’m only going for a week, though, so I’m not going to expect too much. I’ll consider this my taste-of-Chicago introduction. Hopefully I’ll be back another time, and then I’ll get to make more than a passing acquaintance with the town.
Lots of travel coming up. I’m also going to go back to Cambridge to visit my Mom at Easter, and then at the end of April I’m hoping to fly to Los Angeles for the wedding of two good friends, Adam Gascoine and Laura Niemi. That will be a bit expensive, but I’m hoping for it all the same because I really miss my LA friends and I know a lot of them will be there. So I’ll cross my fingers for now. We’ll see what happens. Maybe a tax refund will cover it? You never know.
* Saturday, April 22 *
Went home to Cambridge on Easter weekend to see Mom. She looks great, but I was sorry to find she’s in a lot of pain these days. It’s her back. It pretty much hurts from the time she wakes up until the time she goes to bed again. And that means she doesn’t walk as much as she used to, which she says she hates. Poor Mom! I feel bad for her. I wish I knew something I could do to help.
We drove around Cambridge and saw the sights. I haven’t been home in, I think, maybe seven or eight years. So there’s been plenty new to see. (Wish I’d taken my camera - I was really annoyed when I saw I’d forgotten it.) It’s the same old story with Cambridge as with any number of once-small cities, I suppose. They become bigger cities, and lose a lot of charm in the bargain. Cambridge’s transformation might be more dramatic than most, because shortly after I moved away in 1981 a new Toyota plant was built there. So the small-medium city of 45,000 that I remember has now been replaced by a sprawling medium-big city of about 175,000. Entire ranges of farmland and wilderness that I remember as a kid have disappeared under brand-new tracts of homes. We drove around some of these. They’re nice, but they also still have that new-subdivision look. They lack the hoary trees and sidewalk cracks and crabgrass and rust around the edges that gives a neighborhood that nice, lived-in patina.
We drove past my old public school, Stewart Avenue, which looked eerily unchanged - until we reached the driveway, when a gigantic new addition came into view. It looked strange, like a beached whale had lumbered up and bitten onto the building and wouldn’t let go. My high school looked unchanged. And so did Lincoln Park, except that the swings I used to sit on as a kid (and teenager too) have been replaced by a relatively modern-looking jungle gym in bright colors. (I say these things are ‘new’ but they could have been there fifteen years as far as I know.) We drove downtown, and circled past G.C.I. and the Delta beyond. On another drive, on Saturday, we drove up to Kitchener and, coming back, took Blair Road on the far side of the river. That was my favorite trip, because I remember the land there as wild and undeveloped and it’s still pretty much the same today. Brown early-spring forest, wild farmers’ fields as yet untilled, thick underbrush, a creek pushing its way through dense reeds and grasses. I mentioned to Mom several times that the scenery was very similar to Minnesota, and maybe that’s part of why I’m enjoying my time here. I’ve always loved that sort of wild forest you see in the American and Canadian East and Midwest. It’s the kind of environment I hope to build a house in someday. A little stone-and-wood home in the woods. That’s the life for me.
Mom and I spent a certain amount of time doing household chores that needed doing. These were pleasant enough. We also talked a lot about World War II and, since we’re both big book and history buffs, we also shared titles we’d recently enjoyed and things we’d recently learned. In the past few weeks I’d bought her some books on Amazon.com, among them “The Forgotten Soldier,” a World War II classic by Guy Sajer. She’s quite enjoying it, although it’s fairly grim. Ha! That always seems to be the case with us. Me and my little-old-lady mother always wind up talking about mass slaughter in Stalingrad or some such thing. What a pair we are.
Now I’m back in Saint Paul and enjoying life as spring continues. It’s a beautiful Saturday and in an hour or so I’ll be heading out into the sunshine to run some errands. I’m going to get a passport photo taken, and drop off my laundry. When I get home I’ve promised myself that I’m going to shop online for some exercise equipment. A cardio machine of some kind like an elliptical or a stationary bike, plus a set of adjustable dumbbells. I’ve gone down this road before, but this time I feel inspired. When I was home with Mom I was looking at some old photographs and I found quite a few I’d completely forgotten about. In them I was quite thin and healthy, and I was surprised by this. Somewhere along the line I’ve gotten the impression that I was a fat, or at least chubby, kid. Maybe it’s just that I had a tendency (like many teenagers) to have chubby phases. Whatever the case, I hated it. I remember when I played Little League the guys nicknamed me ‘Fats.’ I loathed them for it.
As an adult, though, I’ve definitely had a tendency to put on weight. If I don’t watch out it happens pretty quickly. And somehow along the line I’ve gotten used to the idea that this is natural for me. Some people, after all, tend to be thin; others tend to be stocky. It’s just the way things are. But when I see these pictures, I realize that in fact I had a very well-balanced body as a kid. I’m quite trim and toned, and frankly, I think I look about a million times better that way. And somehow this has affected my mental state. For some reason I’ve started thinking “If you slim down and get in shape you won’t be fighting your natural body type. You’ll be returning to it.” And somehow that’s significant for me.
Okay, nothing’s more dull than somebody talking about their bunions or their weight, so I’ll stop now. But expect more anon. This has been a real challenge for me. And just like when I quit smoking, nine-tenths of this is mental. So I need to verbalize it to a certain degree before I can make it real.
Haven’t done anything on the Cutty Sark for about two weeks. Last weekend, of course, I was in Canada; and the week before that I was recovering from our peak season. So I’m going to get at it this weekend. With any luck I’ll have the rope-knots tied on all the pins soon, and then I can get on with installing the deckhouses, winches, etc. That’s good. As I’ve been tying these little knots on the pins the ship hasn’t looked dramatically different from day to day. So I feel like I’m making no progress on it. I’m mentally ready for doing something new and dramatic. So I can feel like I’m back in gear again.
Oh - a last bit of very happy news. Eureka! Wahoo! I’ve finally managed, after many tries on eBay (and more than a few hundred bucks) to purchase a wonderful cassette deck that’s capable of playing back my old master mixed tapes from all that music I wrote and recorded back in the eighties and early nineties. This is something I haven’t been able to do for years and years, and I’m just delighted with the results so far.
Just to explain: if you’ve roamed around this site a little you know that I write music. These days I do it on the computer, but back in the eighties and early nineties I did it on a Teac 244 Portastudio (later replaced with a Teac 644 Midistudio), a simply amazing invention for its day. It was the first product that let you record music sort of like the pros, without having to actually book studio time. Wow! I eulogize the Portastudio more on my Music page, but let me just say this here: I really bonded with that machine - I worked on it like a slave for hours and days and weeks on end. And in that time I think I came to know it pretty well. It got to the point where I could record tracks and add effects pretty much without thinking. And the music that is the result is something I’m still very proud of. It’s amazingly good for 4-track recordings. There are times when, I swear, it sounds like professional studio work.
But there’s just one problem. For about fifteen years now I haven’t been able to let people hear just how good these old recordings are, because I haven’t been able to play back my old mixed masters. Or, to be more accurate, I haven’t been able to play them on a proper machine; I’ve had to use hybrid setups where the quality suffered. This is frustrating as hell. Even on this website, if you go to my Music page right now and play some of the songs there (everything from 1984 to 1991), you’re not hearing them at their best. You’re hearing the songs, but they’re not in perfect stereo, and the tone is sometimes tinny. This is because, to make these dupes, I used a borrowed tape deck that had imperfect heads and couldn’t handle the metal tapes which I used for song mastering back in the day. But it’s the best I could do. They still sound okay. But the originals! The original were so much better!
What is a mixed master, anyway? When you record on a 4-track home studio (or, for that matter, in a professional recording studio) you can’t just finish the song and then walk out the door and hand the session tapes over to your friends for them to listen to, because these tapes are in a multi-track format that they can’t play. And even if you could just do that, you wouldn’t want to, because these tapes are in a raw state: they haven’t been properly mixed for home listening. Mixing, in fact, comes last in the recording process. When you’re in the studio (or home studio) making a song, you don’t care at the time about the niceties of the playback. That would waste too much time. Instead, while adding tracks you usually just use a rough ‘reference’ playback to play along with. It’s only later, at a separate mix session (often on another day) that you go slow, and apply all the spit and polish (and tweaking and reverb) that makes the recording - by this time possibly ten or twenty tracks of instruments and voices - sound like one unified thing.
Mix sessions are very important, then. And they can have a dramatic effect on whether or not a song works. You have a lot of choices. Do you add reverb or echo to a part, or not? Does a particular instrument sound better on the left, the right, or in the middle? What about the voices? Should they be louder or softer? Oops - there’s a bad note. What do we do about it? What about that guitar part you labored over so much? Now, the next day, it sounds like crap. Do we leave it out? Or record it again? Mixing sessions are so important, in fact, that I often used to work my way up to them slowly. I might finish a song on a Friday, then make a very rough mix of it. I’d listen to this for the next few days, or even week - a process of distancing myself, in a way, from being a musician, trying to think more like a producer. After listening to the rough mix for a time a day would come when I knew what I wanted the final mix to sound like. I’d have a list in my head: voice louder, guitar softer, that sort of thing. Then I’d return to the home studio. Sometimes it worked first try. Sometimes - thankfully, not often - I’d re-mix and re-mix a song, over and over, for days, even weeks, before finally getting it right.
In those days, at my apartment with Linda on East Third Street in Manhattan, making a mix of a song meant playing back the 4-track master while simultaneously recording onto another deck. This was a Teac 3-head cassette deck, in which I used metal tapes with DBX noise reduction. Everything about that deck was critical: three heads so you could monitor the mixed tape in real time, as you were recording it, which was crucial for making decisions about tone and balance; metal tapes because they sounded best and because I wanted to ‘saturate’ them, i.e., push the levels way into the red to keep hiss to a minimum; and DBX because it was state of the art noise reduction. Unlike Dolby B, DBX wouldn’t just mask hiss; during a recording it would compress the audible input, allowing a wider dynamic range than normal to be captured on tape. Later, during playback, the compressed recording would be expanded again. Hiss became nearly invisible when you used DBX. And as a side benefit, DBX worked great with the high recording volumes I was using, never distorting them.
So what’s not to like? Well, just this: over the years DBX hasn’t survived well in the home stereo market. About fifteen years ago, after moving to LA, I went through a sudden contraction in my home recording facilities. Which is a fancy way of saying, I became very poor and so I was forced to pawn all my equipment. About the only thing I kept, after the Midistudio and the keyboards and guitars were all gone, was my 3-head Teac, so I could play back my mixed masters. But within a year, as if succumbing to its own musical slump, the deck died, and since I didn’t have the money to fix it I eventually threw it away. I wasn’t worried. I figured I could always buy another one. Wrong.
By the time I was ready, a few years ago, to replace the old Teac with some new hot tape deck capable of playing back my mixed masters, I was shocked to discover that almost nothing on the market uses DBX anymore. It’s all Dolby B and C and 5.1 now. Even though, to my ears, DBX is still fantastic. This kind of led to a crisis. Shortly after building this website I was desperate to get my music on it somehow. But how? When I couldn’t play back my mixes?
The result was a stopgap solution. Some of Teac’s modern 4-track recorders - descendants of the mighty Portastudio, but looking poor and shriveled in this day of everything-on-your-computer recording - can play normal cassette tapes, and these decks come with DBX. So I bought one, and used it to make the dupes which you currently can hear on my Music page. This might sound like I had solved the problem, but not really. Teac’s new 4-tracks don’t handle metal tapes well - and you’ll remember that I used very high recording volumes on these tapes to keep down hiss. Sometimes this high volume would fry the little 4-track, making the sound distorted. Also, I had a devil of a time getting the tapes to play back with a warm sound. For some reason the 4-track sounded tinny to me. And lastly, the stereo separation wasn’t the best. Left and right tracks were bleeding together, making some recordings sound very different from the originals.
It was the best I had at the time. So I decided to live with it.
But now, things are suddenly all different! Yahoo! I’ve finally managed, as I said, to locate (on good ol’ eBay) a cassette deck in excellent condition that has three heads, handles metal tapes, and has DBX. It arrived about a week ago, and since then I’ve been making new dupes of all my old mixed masters. And all I can say is: OH MY GOD! These old tapes sound, not just a little better than I remember them, but fantastically better. I haven’t realized how much my ears had adjusted to the temporary dupes I did a few years ago with the 4-track. But it’s all I’ve had. For fifteen years I haven’t been able to hear the clear, warm sound that I originally achieved on these masters. Now, suddenly, here it is. And I’m just bowled over by it! I just can’t tell you how exciting this is. It’s as if I’m a painter with cataracts who’s just had them removed. Orin this case, maybe, a musician with a ton of earwax who’s just had it all scraped out. Eureka! I can hear again!
There are dozens of little subtleties to these tapes that I had entirely forgotten existed. Things that help build a song, like the addition of a tambourine on the second verse, or a distant guitar part echoing the vocal harmony. I’ve tended to think of these tapes lately as raw, but in fact they’re not raw at all. They’re very accomplished. I know, I know, I realize I’m gushing about my own accomplishments, and that might be a little tiresome to you. But to hell with it! Rejoice with me! I’m excited as hell about this! These old mixes of mine, which I thought were all but lost, are now suddenly restored. And to my amazement, they sound better than I ever remember them sounding. Hooray! Hurrah!
I can’t wait to get them all dubbed and cleaned up. Then I’ll make new MP3s of everything and replace the ones that are currently here. And then you’ll be able to hear for yourself!
** Saturday, May 13 **
The last couple of weeks of April were quite busy at work, and then I spent the first two weeks of May in Chicago (also for work), so this is my first chance to update in a while.
It was fun being back in Chicago. I'd never been there before March, and then I was sent there for one week to help out with one of our quarterly peak seasons. So I didn't really get much of a chance to explore. This time, with two weeks, I did a little better. Chicago is a pretty cool city - very pretty, a wonderful mix of old and new, urban and park-like, culture and nature. Chicagoans have every right to be proud of where they live.
Besides going for walks and checking out the Navy Pier, on the weekend of May 6-7 I went down to the Museum of Science and Industry to see the U-505. It's a Type IX-C German U-boat from World War II, and has the distinction (I think) of being the only U-Boat to be captured during that conflict. Type IX U-Boats are much bigger than the Type VII-C boats which were the mainstay of the German U-Boat fleet - U-505 is 250-odd feet long, nearly a football field. Type IX's were conceived as a way for Germany to spread the U-boat war around the world. Type IX’s could carry more fuel and torpedoes than Type VII’s, making them perfect for long-range patrols in the Mediterranean (threatening English strongholds and making resupply of Montgomery in Africa more dangerous), the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean (putting a choke hold on the Raj), and, starting in 1942, in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean in operations against the United States. The U-505 was captured while returning home at the end of a South Atlantic patrol, off the coast of northern Africa on June 4, 1944.
Reading about World War II, and U-boats in particular, it’s easy to get lulled into the sense that you know them rather well. It's a bit of a shock, then, to actually walk through one. The clunk of your feet on metal flooring, the smell of diesel fuel (even after all these years) - right away you know you’re in a very real, very different world from the one you imagined. I constantly found U-505 less thrilling, but more fascinating, than what had been in my head. There are pipes and valves and guages simply everywhere. What on earth did they all do? Then the torpedoes, which are simply enormous - easily twelve feet long. Much more sinister than in the movies, where the scale of them never seems to register. In real life these things are self-propelled bombs that, at about a ton each, could really do a hell of a lot of damage. I stood there and pictured eight or ten men grappling with these monsters, winching them up, directing them into the tubes. The humidity, the sweat, the cursing, the cigarette smoke. The banged thumbs and bruised elbows. I looked around, trying to imagine other crewmen trying to sleep. Or playing cards. Or eating. All this going on for days and weeks and months on a mission. And I sighed. You can’t really imagine such things. The human brain can only do so much. Even surrounded by the U-boat, I felt like her story was not registering on me properly. I’d probably have to go back a hundred times for that to happen.
Maybe the signal was also partially getting lost in static. For my generation (a late baby boomer), stories of World War II told by my mom & dad and their friends have always been huge and mythic. But perhaps, here, they were a bit too mythic. Walking through U-505, I had to remind myself that this was not a movie set or some Disney ride but a real, bona fide war machine that once upon a time was manned by a highly-skilled crew intent on killing people in the name of Nazi Germany. It wasn’t easy. The sober voice of history was also drowned out from time to time by the little kid in me, who kept thinking that all the pipes and gadgets inside U-505 were just plain cool.
While I was taking the tour I mentioned to the guide that I'm an actor and that, once upon a time, I appeared in a film set on an American World War II submarine (see "The Red Herring" in my Acting Timeline; also click here to see the website of the boat we were graciously allowed to use, the USS Ling in Hackensack, New Jersey). During that two-week shoot back in 1986 I would wander around the Ling whenever I wasn’t needed for a scene, checking out the torpedo rooms, the bunks, the bilge, the command center, and all the other incredibly cool stuff. Now, 20 years later, I was surprised to find that I still remembered the Ling enough to notice differences on U-505. The most immediately noticeable thing (to me) was that the captain's quarters on the Ling (and, I assume, all American boats of the Balao class) was completely walled off, so that the captain could draw his curtain (no door) and have near-complete privacy. Also, in the Ling, when you lay in the captain's bunk you could see immediately overhead two gauges showing course & depth. On U-505 the captain's bunk has no such luxury; and two sides of his quarters were open to the rest of the boat.
It also seems to me that the Ling was roomier than U-505, but I can't seem to find a website with precise dimensions for either, so I can't really say.
But besides these impressions, the ships were, in my opinion, more similar than different - at least to my untrained eye. I'm sure connoisseurs of sub technology of that era could cite all sorts of differences between them, and I'd love to walk through either U-505 or the Ling with a vet sometime and really learn about what I was seeing. Until then, U-505 (like the Ling) was a baffling forest of pipes and gauges and valves and other whatnot. You kind of gawp at all this stuff and think, "How in hell could anybody ever pilot this thing through the water?" It looks like it would take 500 crewmen to run it, not 59.
We weren't allowed to take photos inside U-505. Apparently this is because others, in the past, have done so and then tried to sell their pictures commercially on the web. (That's what the guard said, anyway.) I know that's a shame, but I really don't think that's any reason to prohibit the vast majority of the public from taking snapshots. Catch the bad guys, don't punish the good guys. If I can find any other photos of U-505 I'll post a few here, so you can see what I saw.
* * *
Being away from home for two weeks is fun in some ways, but it's also a pain, especially if you're a homebody computer geek like me. I miss having my email, and my music, and my games, and other stuff. It got so bad in fact that I've decided I *have* to get a laptop computer, so that's become my next #1 priority. Once it arrives I'm going to set up an Ethernet hub at home so I can have the laptop and my desktop share my printer, net access, etc. But I also think I'll move some functions wholesale from the desktop to the laptop. Email, for instance. I have so many email accounts that, when I go on the road, it's a chore to remember them all and check in with each server individually - whereas I've set up Eudora at home to check 'em all at once, which it does in the blink of an eye.
Getting a laptop, too, is a precursor to another project I want to get started on this year. Once the laptop is set up & shipshape I'm going to start converting my desktop PC into a home recording studio. I've been giving this a lot of thought for the past number of months, and I've decided that that's the creative project I really want to push next. The way my thinking runs now, I'm going to get a copy of Pro Tools software and some kind of input-output board, and some decent microphones. That will do it for the recording part. For instruments, I have a MIDI keyboard and a brand-new acoustic guitar; I'll add to that an electric guitar (probably a Strat), a bass, and some effects (phase, flange, echo, reverb, distortion, wah-wah). Then I'll get down to making some new music AT LAST!!!!!!! YEEEEEEHAAAA!
Of course I don't have an unlimited budget, so I can't spring for $2,000 microphones. But I've been cruising around the web for several weeks now and it's surprising how much really good stuff there is out there for a relatively cheap price. If I shop smart, I think I can have the whole studio set up for around $2,000. That's peanuts.
So that's what I'm going to do. Laptop first, which I'll probably get very soon. Then home studio, which I hope to have running smoothly by September or October. I can't wait! It's going to be so cool being able to write and record again.
Probably a lot of the reason I'm so music-stirred right now is because of those old 4-track recordings that I've been re-duping onto my PC lately. (See my weblog here for more.) It's been a long time since my last 4-track recordings - the "Walking by the Water" sessions were done in Los Angeles in 1991, and shortly after that I pawned all my equipment. In the intervening years I've written music on my PC, but that was all MIDI ... no live instruments or singing involved. It’s nice music, but it also feels out of balance. There's something that’s simply more human and alive (and fun) about turning on a microphone and adding live tracks to a song. Everything ... well, comes to life.
And here’s another reason why I'm so excited. Back in the 4-track days I had no way to edit a song. Once the recording was done that was that - I was stuck with the number of bars, verses, choruses, etc., that I'd laid down. But the thing is, I was often writing these tunes at the same time I was recording them - so even on the best days I might have a stupid lyric, or too many bars of intro, or I might repeat a chorus too many times (or not enough). On tape, with a home system, there really wasn't any way to fix this, so I'd just sigh and leave the song alone.
But when you record on a PC it's all different. Nothing could be easier than editing parts out of (or, for that matter, into) a song. While making all that theatre and other music on my PC over the years, I've frequently chopped bars out, or put bars in, when I realized a tune needed it. When I originally played the "Opening of Act II" music from Cherry Orchard for director Jack Stehlin, for instance, he said he liked it but it was about a minute too long. I went home and shortened the piece in less than half an hour. No problem.
So I'm quite excited because I've never been able to do that with vocal pop/rock songs before. In fact, I’ve never been able to have the best of both worlds in my music before. Everything I've recorded so far in my life falls into two halves. Either it’s live tracks on tape with vocals and live instruments, but no editing; or it’s digital perfection and editing, but no live tracks. Now at last I might be able to combine the two. Who wouldn't be excited!
(Also, it'll be nice to finally be able to post some new music on Radio Free Paul. Wahoo!)
As I say, it's a few months from happening. I'll keep you posted.
* * *
Projects, projects, projects. Sometimes it must seem like that's all I talk about here. I'm a critter of projects.
The Cutty Sark has been on hold for a number of weeks now, not precisely through my own desire. Work keeps intervening, and when we get busy at work I get too tired to contemplate thinking about working on the ship in the evenings or on weekends. Making a ship model is very focused, delicate work that takes a lot of attention. So instead I just flop by the PC and play Empire Earth. My lack of motivation also isn't helped by the fact that we keep switching shifts at work. We trainers are always reacting to this 'urgent' thing or that 'urgent' thing, and the result is we often wind up sleeping one set of hours one week, another set next.
So the poor Cutty has been sitting there, moored, waiting for me to continue. Last time I wrote about her I was tying knots on the starboard bulwark belaying pins and attaching these little black rails to the outer portside hull. Well, that's done, and now I'm working in reverse. Or rather, not working. I've made a start of both knots and rails, but that's when I ground to a halt. We'll see in the next week or two. Maybe (God forbid) now that the 2nd quarter peak is done for 2006 we'll actually have a quiet month in the training department, so I can settle into an enjoyable home routine.
Not likely. But one can hope.
* * *
When you have a website like this one it sits there on the internet like a kind of lighthouse, attracting people. Some of these, of course, will be old friends you haven't heard from in a while, and it's always a surprise to see what messages will turn up in my email each day. Lately I've heard from Elliott Shulman and Graham Major and Brad Davidson, all old pals from way back when I was a very young teenager, and also from Phil Ashby, a wonderful actor who I appeared with in several plays during my New York days (see my Acting Timeline for "Curse of the Starving Class" and "The Play's The Thing"). I love it when this stuff happens! This is where I love the internet. It used to be nearly impossible to find an old friend, and now it's become a relatively simple matter of a few minutes' work at Google. Very cool.
Some people still elude my electronic sleuthing, though. I've tried to find Jane Pilkey a few times over the years, but no dice. (I think I've found mention of her at a high school in Western Canada, but I can't be sure.) I think I've managed to locate Joel Kaiser, but when I sent him an email a year ago I got no answer, so I'm not sure. A little while ago I had an email chat with one of the sisters of Andy Canto, who I'd love to near news from sometime. But no word. Oh, well. I understand. There are many good reasons why you're not always ready to email an old friend.
I also get emails from time to time from people who remember the Sauble Beach Pavilion. I really have to get back to that project sometime soon. I started writing about it here, oh, maybe two years ago, in a burst of enthusiasm, and I was sure I’d soon have a book-length collection of anecdotes and memories. Instead, I forged the first page and then came to a screeching halt. I've added nothing since. Oh well. It can be like that sometimes. I've noticed that, with creative projects, sometimes I dive right in but sometimes I need to take my time and circle the idea for a longish period before finally committing.
Maybe I'll get inspired by some new photos. During my last trip to Cambridge in April to see Mom I nabbed a few photo albums, which I plan to scan this summer. There are a lot of Pavilion photos in there. Maybe when I see these I'll get a jolt and start scribbling again.
*** Sunday, May 21 ***
The da Vinci Code movie opens in theatres everywhere this weekend and from what I see on the CNN website there are hundreds of protests in the offing. I guess Christian leaders are upset that Dan Brown has played fast and loose with the Bible. Even the Vatican has weighed in, opining that it’s okay to make a movie but the ‘danger’ is that many people won’t be able to tell truth from fiction.
Far as I can see, the only danger here is that some people might believe Dan Brown’s unofficial fiction, instead of the church’s official one.
(By the way, I’ve never read The Da Vinci Code. My sense that a lot of the Bible and organized Christianity is hokum comes from my own experience, not Dan Brown’s.)
I’ve created a new page on this website called The Shipyard. It’s devoted to my Cutty Sark-building project, and to any future models I decide to build as well.
I decided to do this because my Cutty Sark news was beginning to take up a heck of a lot of space in this weblog, and while that’s fun for me, it may be a little more than some of my reader-friends need. So from now on I’ll be shivering my timbers over yonder. Though I’ll probably always put a little note here when I make a new entry there.
Spring has sprung here in Minnesota and it’s gloriously beautiful. The other day I got up and, unlike most days, I omitted to turn on my fan (I like to have air blowing around me pretty much all the time). Instead, I opened my balcony door and pulled back the shades, and then let the sounds and balmy breezes of nature waft indoors. After an hour I realized that it was one of the better ideas I’ve had in a long time, and so I went around the apartment opening every window I could find. Since I’m on the third floor, and surrounded by trees which are now in full glorious leaf, it made it seem like I was in a big treehouse. What more could you ask for on a lovely summer’s day?
*** Saturday, August 12, 2006 ***
It’s been a dog’s age since I’ve done any writing here in my weblog - nearly three months. I have been adding things to this site since May, but mostly on my Cutty Sark page.
Things have been busy at work, that’s one thing. High-velocity projects have been popping up with zero advance notice, requiring the training team to react by putting in long hours on shifting schedules. That sort of thing leaves you tired right out. I just finished teaching a class of new employees in the evening, then mentoring a subset of them through peak season on the graveyard shift. Now, on Monday morning, I go back to the day shift. Is it any wonder I’m too pooped to write?
It’s been a nice summer here in Saint Paul so far, as I enter my second year in Minnesota (the anniversary was on July 15). Like everybody else in North America we had a scorching heat wave here for a few weeks, but now it’s mostly around 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit, which is quite nice.
In a week I’ll have a nice little adventure: I’m going on a road trip to Ontario to see my mom at our cottage in Sauble Beach. I’ll be leaving here on the morning of Saturday the 19th. I plan to drive all day, pass Chicago sometime in the late afternoon, and spend the night at some roadside motel in Michigan. On Sunday I’ll reach the border and hopefully arrive at Sauble by mid-afternoon. The trip is 900 miles according to Rand-McNally.com. Besides Mom I’ll see Hadley and Ann too, as they’ll be there for a few days. Then Mom & I will be together for the week. And on the following Friday, the 25th, which is my birthday, Mary’s coming up from Toronto to help celebrate! I can hardly wait, this is going to be a marvelous trip. I’ll take my camera and get lots of pictures. It’ll be just like old times!
On Saturday the 26th I shall rise and drive down to Galt and stop by our family house. Since I have a car on this trip, Mom and I’ve decided to take the opportunity to clear out some old stuff that she no longer wants and that I’ve been meaning to take off her hands for aeons. One such item is a milk crate full of old LPs that has been sitting in the basement probably since Linda and I moved to New York in 1982. A milk crate of records is heavy, being all plastic, so I’ve never been able to take it away with me before as I’ve always been traveling by plane. Now I can. At first Mom was hesitant about the idea of me driving all the way home & back on this trip, but now that she’s gotten used to the idea she’s getting quite into the swing of things. Last time we spoke on the phone she said she also wanted me to take an old floor-standing wood-cabinet radio that must date back to the nineteen-thirties or -forties and which, I think, once belonged to grandma Robbie (dad’s mother). And she also wants me to take a lamp and an end table that are cluttering up the basement. I’m starting to feel like a haulage service!
My secret purpose in going to Galt, too, is so I can also go through the closets and hunt for more old photo albums to take away with me. I’ve been on a kick these past few years of trying to find, and then bring home and scan, as many of our old family photos as I can find. These things have been lying around the house in shoeboxes on closet shelves for years, and I keep thinking how easy it would be for them to be damaged or lost. So part of my urge is as a preservationist. But of course, a side benefit, too, is that the project is fun. These photos often remind me of things I had completely forgotten about - like, for instance, one set I scanned recently of a family trip we took to Peterborough, Ontario, in 1966 or 1967. There we are in black & white splashing in the pool at the Sundial Motor Inn, or later, looking at a monument to some early explorer or other. Once reminded, this trip all comes back to me - but otherwise I’d completely forgotten about it. I wonder what other memories are squirreled away at home, forgotten but awaiting my rediscovery?
I’m also hoping to do something else in Galt that I’ve been planning to do for years and years: nab all of our family’s old home movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s - about a dozen little blue reels sitting in boxes on a high shelf in an upstairs closet - and spirit them away so I can have them professionally transferred to DVD. I really want to do this because these are old 8mm home movies that have been projected innumerable times over the years, fading a little more with each running. As I well know from having old tapes eaten by old machinery, one of these days the family projector is going to consume one of those old movie reels, and then it’ll be lost forever. So I’m determined to capture them digitally before it’s too late. But there’s just one problem: Mom doesn’t like the idea of these films leaving the house. I guess she feels (quite rightly) that they’re irreplaceable, and the idea of them going away is simply too nerve-wracking for her. So this may be a project that I’m going to have to undertake on the sly. Although I hate to do that. Sigh. We’ll see when the time comes. Maybe I can talk her into letting me do it at last.
I’ve just made coffee from my press and I think, why don’t I ever write about stuff like that? I never seem to think to. It’s Saturday night at 10:45pm and I’ve just woken up. Remember, I’m changing schedules this weekend: all this month I’ve been waking at 6pm, working 10pm to 6am, then falling asleep around 10am. Now, as of Monday, I have to completely reverse that: wake up at 6am, work 8 to 4, then go to sleep around 10pm. Pshew. Tonight is a complete bust. I tried to sleep but couldn’t, and now here I am, wide awake. So my plan is to stay awake all night and as much of tomorrow as I can, then conk out, and try to make it to work Monday at something resembling a reasonable hour. Maybe having chores will help me stay awake during the day. I need to vacuum. Also, with the road trip coming up, I have to make sure to have the car serviced. It needs an oil change, etc. What I also need to do is make a list of all the things I want to take to Canada with me. I think I’m covered in the media department: I’ve networked my laptop (bought one a few months ago, did I ever mention that?) here at home and I’ve been dumping photos and movies and music onto it. There are some photos I’ve recently scanned that I’d like to print for her. I’m also going to make her a music CD. Anything else?
I’ll do my list in a little while.
If today were a perfect day I’d wake up, make coffee, then settle down to read the news on CNN.com. Once that’s done and I’ve checked my email, I’d open up Silent Hunter III and resume my virtual career as Lieutenant P Von Robertson, World War II German U-Boat captain. Silent Hunter III is a marvelous PC game - which, really, is so realistic it’s more like a simulation than a game. Of course, it helps if you have a love of submarines and World War II, which I do, so all the little details and permutations the game offers are simply delightful. You begin as a lowly under-lieutenant in the World War II German navy (Kriegsmarine) and have to attend the Naval Academy, where you learn the basics of commanding your U-Boat. Then you commence an active career, picking the flotilla to which you are assigned and the year and month of your first mission. After that, it’s you against the elements and the Allies. Using a map of the Atlantic, you navigate to assigned patrol areas, sink ships, attack convoys, and (hopefully) dodge enemy destroyers and airplanes. At first this is easy, because the Americans are neutral and the British don’t have good sonar or radar. (This is historically accurate: U-Boat crews referred to this period as the “happy time.”) But it doesn’t last. By the end of the War, operating a U-boat has become a nearly-suicidal job. Merely coming to the surface would immediately alert radar operators in scores of patrolling ships and planes, who would swing to converge on you at high speed with guns blazing and depth charges at the ready. The result as often as not was fatal for the U-boat crew: in the real world, out of 40,000 German U-boat crew members, only 10,000 survived the war.
The game is relatively blood- and suffering-free, however, and that’s probably a relief. You get to revisit military history without having to revisit all the horrors that go with it. When you sink a ship, there are no little men from Bristol and Liverpool and Southampton who dive overboard into the freezing waters and will never see their families again. When you fire the deck gun, you don’t blow some hapless sailor to bits. The whole thing happens in a World-War-II-esque fantasy realm which is frequently quite beautiful to look at. These screen shots were all taken during my career so far. From top to bottom they are: cruising the Atlantic at Sunset; crippling a freighter at dawn; blowing up a destroyer at night; and navigating through the channels at St. Nazaire, France, at twilight. I suppose they wouldn’t look as innocently lovely if while taking them I stank of diesel fuel, was eating bad food, had a six-week beard, was slightly nauseous from seasickness, and knew that back home the RAF was blowing my house and family to bits.
Sometimes I put on Silent Hunter III and then let it run in real time while I go do other things around here. Because real-world submarine missions took weeks, somtmes months, to accomplish, the game has a time-compression feature allowing you to speed things up. That way, transiting from France to the mid-Atlantic can take fifteen minutes, not six days. After you arrive in the war zone, you just set time back to normal and begin your patrol. It’s interesting to think, though, that if I wanted to I could run an entire mission in real time. I sometimes wonder what that’d be like? Could I stand playing a six-week mission that actually took six weeks? In game-world, if I cruise around for a week and then find a ship and sink it, that seems like nothing. But in the real world surely that must have been incredibly monotonous? A whole week for a single ship? I’m reading a book right now about a real U-Boat crew, and the narrator actually mentions this. He talks about how the ship is on the outbound leg of their mission and it’s the same thing, water passing, engines running, day after day after day. I’d always heard this before, but for some reason I’m just coming to appreciate it now. I always thought U-boats were ships of romance and adventure. And they are. But in my head the picture was too simple.
Of course, running the game in real-time would only be realistic in one way, not in others. I imagine what helped the time pass on real U-boats was the society of the ship itself, where the men would play cards, talk, run drills, perform maintenance chores, have duty stations from time to time, and have other activities to keep them occupied. Writing letters home, for instance, would be utterly pointless in a PC game. But in the real world that might be the most important part of your day.
All this aside, as I say, sometimes I let the game run because it’s pleasant to hear the sounds as I go about other activites here at home: I like listening to the wind and water, the steady thrum of the ship’s diesel engines, the cry of seagulls (if we’re near land). Sometimes I let this play while I’m working on the Cutty Sark, and then my imagination truly runs away to sea.
I sometimes wonder if I should have been a sailor. I think if I had my life to live over again I’d give it a try for a spell. (And what the hell ... I may give it a try yet!) Learning about ships, radios, navigation ... that all seems fascinating to me. The fact that you’re moving a big vessel through the waters of the world, far from land. The travel. The clean sea, the sky, the weather. It all seems very lovely, a very beautiful way to spend one’s life. I know there would be hot days on smelly decks or in congested, noisy dockyards; I know there are periods of hard work and long days. But so what? In a week you’re back at sea again. In life we’re always trading the things we don’t like for the things we do. I never thought being a ship’s captain would be a perfect life. But all in all, I think it would be a very nice one.
*** Wednesday, August 16, 2006 ***
I had a brainwave the other day while driving to work.
I had recently been reading an article in the New Yorker about Wikipedia, the open-source internet encyclopedia - and particulary, how sometimes with contentious issues (like the Middle East or global warming) people start heatedly rewriting each other's entries, often hour by hour, sometimes escalating into full-blown wars until at last the site’s operators have to step in and arbitrate.
And this got me thinking: Why do some people get so angry about global warming? Recently Jon Stewart on the Daily Show asked Al Gore this very same question - and Gore could only shrug and say, “I don’t know.” Why is this one of those spit-hate issues for some people? Why, when the majority of reputable scientists clearly agree that global warming is happening and that it is caused by human activity, do some folks still start foaming at the mouth and pounding the table and saying it's all just a cooked-up liberal conspiracy relying on a narrow interpretation of shaky, untested science?
I think there’s a chance here to understand the radical Conservative mind a little. (Not the moderate Conservative mind - moderate Conservatives all pretty much agree that global warming is real and man-made. That’s why there’s another name for moderate Conservatives: reasonable people.) I’ve tried to do this before, with middling success. But the other day I really felt a light bulb go off. I was driving along down Minnehaha Boulevard having a conversation with myself in my head. (Does anyone else ever do this?) Voice #1 said: They see it as a wedge issue. They think liberals want to use global warming to frighten people so they can regain political power, and then proceed to meddle with the U.S. economy.
Voice #2 said, Yes, but so what? Why is that something to get so angry about?
Because, Voice #1 went, they're genuinely concerned that the economy can be wrecked permanently, to the lasting damage of the country. And to many conservatives this is hateful, because 'liberals' are an essentially dishonest class of effete, elitist know-it-alls who pretend to be patriots but really want to socially re-engineer America in the liberal hippie-dippy image. There's nothing wrong with the USA, they think, including global warming, that a free market can't respond to quicker than any bunch of government know-it-alls - but liberals won't admit this. They want to roll out the regulations, which will end up wrecking the economy.
By God, when I thought this I knew I was on to something. If that were really what mainstream liberals were like, who wouldn't be upset? I’d want to boot them out of town myself ... and tar & feather ‘em into the bargain. A minority of know-it-alls socially re-engineering America is patently offensive. It’s Robespierre all over again. And it makes no difference if it’s liberals or conservatives doing the string-pulling. Either way it stinks.
So I can well imagine, then, why some conservatives hate the issue of global warming. Because global warming won’t cure itself in the free marketplace. Because global warming will take government regulation - and plenty of it - to fix. Because a small group of elite citizens - in this case scientists - is more right than the uneducated majority. Here’s one single issue that points out a dozen different weaknesses in the hard-line conservative mindset. If liberals were fostering a conspiracy, they couldn’t have done it better.
But the real message here is simply: wake up, people, and quit bickering. This ain’t your daddy’s America anymore. We’ve got new times and new problems to go with them. Your brain had better bend a little. If it doesn’t, it’ll break.
*** Sunday, October 1 ***
My friend Stephanie Zimbalist has been in town for the past 2 1/2 weeks performing a one-woman show at the Ordway, a bio-play about Katharine Hepburn entitled Tea at Five. It’s been so fantastically nice to see her again! With typical bustle she’s been doing the show and meeting the press and seeing all sorts of friends, but we’ve still managed to get together 3-4 times, twice for dinners alone. It’s been so delightful to talk things over with my old actor pal!
But Steph may also have wanted bucking up because this show was a bit of a trial for her. Not because of the script, but because the damn production company has been such a pain. This show, you see, was originally created several years ago with Kate Mulgrew in the starring role. Kate performed it for years. Then at some point the production company decided to get more ambitious with the booking schedule, and began adding a lot of shows to Kate’s schedule, making a fairly brisk (and burdensome) all-across-America tour. Kate balked, saying she’d never agreed to such a thing. The production company balked, saying she did. They reached and impasse and so Kate left the show. And that’s where Stephanie came in.
Except that what Stephanie walked into was simply more of the same dysfunctional stupidity on behalf of the production company. Rather than learn their lesson, they repeated themselves like a broken record. Steph agreed to a two-week run in Saint Paul, only to find that the production company now wanted - indeed, assumed - that she would go on the very same whistle-stop tour that Kate had turned down. But Steph isn’t any more of an idiot than Kate, and she demurred. She said she’d be happy to do Saint Paul, but that was all. So in return, the production company canceled their arrangement to fly in the director for Steph’s rehearsals. She got to New York in August and had no director for the show. It was left to her and the stage manager to work out all the blocking, movement, business, etc., etc. Insane! Outrageous! A show like this without a director? That’s crazy.
So maybe Steph also wanted to meet and talk so I could reassure her she was doing a good job. She was. Act I is young Kate Hepburn, Act II is old. She did both very, very well. Her voice was marvelous and her stage business, once she settled into it (I saw the show both early and late in the run) was wholly natural and a lot of fun. Honestly, I think Steph was a real trouper here. She was handed one hell of a sow’s ear and turned it into one amazing little silk purse. I’m very proud of her.
Steph’s birthday is coming up and so I must remember to send her a present. She’s leaving for home on Tuesday, but our schedules are such that we probably won’t meet again before she goes. She has family here now, including her dad Efrem who flew in from Solvang all by himself (the man is now over 90). She called this morning and left a message saying, “I’m swamped!” So I don’t think we’ll get to hook up. Too bad! It would be lovely to see her one more time.
* * *
The last two months have been sweet and nice but not especially full of what you might necessarily call excitement, so I haven’t really felt like I had much of interest to write about here. However, I know that I have friends who regularly check in with this blog just to see what I’m up to lately. If that’s you, then I’m awfully sorry. To tell the truth, I just haven’t felt like writing about my less-than-deep thoughts and not-quite-astounding life lately.
But today I seem to be in the mood, so let’s catch up.
The summer was great. August is one of our peak-season months at work, so for the first few weeks it was quite busy. Then, on August 19th I did something I’ve been thinking about for a while - I got in the car and took off on a road trip to Ontario to see the family. It was delightful - you know how I love road trips in a car. I got on the 94 freeway and barreled off Eastward for an entire day, putting me in lower Michigan by nightfall. On day two I reached Ontario via Port Huron/Sarnia, then made my way up the Bruce Peninsula to our cottage at Sauble Beach.
When I arrived almost the whole family was there - Mom, Mary, Ann and Hadley. Only Jeff was missing. Poor guy, he had to stay back in New York and work because he’s moved to a new architecture firm and has no vacation time accrued. But we thought of him a lot. I really like Jeff. He’s a brother-in-law who feels, really, like a brother.
On Sunday night Mary drove off back to Toronto for work. She would be returning the following Friday to help celebrate my birthday. In the meantime, here’s Hadley and Ann in the back yard of the cottage having lunch on Monday. Hadley and I spent time that day in the lake splashing around in the waves. We then went down to Main Street and played mini-golf, and then made a trip to the Crowd Inn and got their famous french fries with vinegar. Holy COW! I haven’t had those in ages. I’d forgotten how darn good they are.
Here’s Mom the same day, also having lunch. Mom looked great and it was really a lot of fun visiting with her. We played scrabble, or watched TV together, or just talked. We laugh a lot, which is always nice, and we share a real passion for World War II, so there’s always some history thing she wants to tell me about, or some book I want to mention to her. While I was there she gave me Flyboys, an absolutely marvelous book by James Bradley. Bradley is a new author, but I don’t think I’ve ever read such a cogent, vivid and memorable description of the background to the Pacific war, and the rise of Japan’s brutal, anti-human militarist culture. I highly, highly recommend it. It’s really brilliant.
My only sadness visiting Mom is that she has chronic back pain nowadays so it’s hard for her to do her favorite activity, go for a walk. She really hates being confined, and I feel for her, poor kid. But she still gamely headed down to the beach every night, and together we’d walk as far as she could bear to. We’d go maybe 200 or 300 feet before she had to turn back, breathing hard.
(I think this fall she’s going to be visiting a clinic for laser treatment that may alleviate the pain somewhat. I sure hope it works. Mom loves to travel and when she travels she loves to get out on foot and see what’s what. It would be a real shame if she can’t do that anymore.)
I took my digital camera with me on this trip but the damn thing ran out of battery power on the very first day, and I didn’t have a recharger, so phooey on that. I ended up buying a succession of disposables instead, which worked out fine. The nice thing about a disposable is you don’t have to coddle it; you just put it in your pocket, toss it in the car, whatever. So in a way I perhaps ended up taking more photos than I would have with my own camera.
Occasionally I would point the lens at subjects other than the family. Here’s a view of the “Sunshine,” a playhouse that was built for Ann back in the sixties and now does double duty as a storage shed. Isn’t it pretty? Our back yard looks positively rustic in this photo. I think this has instantly become one of my all-time favorites.
On Tuesday Ann and Hadley returned to New York, so it was just Mom and I alone together until Friday. We had a few plans, but the pace for the next few days was fairly leisurely. One day we drove into Southampton and did a little shopping. Mom had her hair done too, and then we saw a few sights. Here she is down by Southampton’s lovely beach. Later on we drove down by the river, and then North for a short ways along the coast until we came to a stretch of land that, mom informed me, Mary had bought a few years ago. I was quite delighted to see it, it’s a very nice little spot. I wonder if she’ll end up building a cottage of her own there someday?
When we got back to Sauble mom and I had dinner at the Driftwood Restaurant, which is located right on the beach a few hundred yards south of Main Street. Service was pretty slow but the food was excellent (for some reason I ordered liver & onions, which I haven’t had in years - delicious). Then we strolled down to the water and Mom took a picture of me standing in front of the sunset. This was certainly a trip for pretty and memorable photos. I think this is another of my favorites!
On Wednesday, Mom and I got into my car and drove all the way down to Galt. Our objective was to take advantage of the fact that I had my car with me by loading it up with all sorts of junk that Mom no longer wanted and/or personal stuff that I’d had parked in the basement for years. The trip took about two hours, and Mom drove about half the time. It was very nice, chatting and rolling along through Southern Ontario.
The house in Galt looked pretty much the same as always. Honestly, we didn’t spend a lot of time looking it over as we wanted to get back to the beach. So I began hauling stuff out to the car. First, I grabbed two plastic milk crates full of records and books and other whatnot. These belong to me and as I recall, they were placed in the basement back in 1982 when Linda and I moved to New York. I’d never retrieved them since! These boxes turned out to be a gem, because lo and behold, all of Linda and my wedding photos were in them! I thought they’d burned up in her apartment in New York! So by God, I’ll be able to post them here sometime. Just a few, don’t worry.
Next I grabbed a large wooden radio that once belonged to grandma “Robbie” Robertson and that mom now wanted to be rid of. This is a full-sized, wood-cabinet radio that stands on the floor and weighs about thirty pounds, a real antique beauty. It’s in fairly good shape too, with just a few scratches here and there. I lugged this thing up the stairs and laid it down in the back of my station wagon, then Mom and I covered it with blankets. (Here’s a picture of it where it ended up a week later, in the bedroom of my apartment here in Saint Paul.)
After the milk crates and the radio it became a kind of open season, with Mom suggesting all sorts of nutty things for me to take along. I ended up inheriting a couple of paintings (one of a sailing ship that used to be on my bedroom wall when I was young) and various other odds and ends. The back of the car smelled a bit like mildew when we pulled out for Sauble around 4pm. But it wasn’t too bad. We were back at the beach by 7 or so.
Besides swimming, I think Mom and I paid a visit to the dump at some point, and I also ended up on a ladder painting part of the wooden trim of the house over the carport. Oh, and we drove into the nearby town of Wiarton to buy some fish for my birthday dinner, which was on Friday the 25th. Also, I’d brought my laptop along on this trip, so I showed Mom some photos of the Cutty Sark, plus other things. And we had a game of Scrabble that she ended up winning by a single point, blast her! I’m clearly going to have to bone up before going back again. This winning streak of hers has to end.
(Mom likes to keep a sort of Scrabble-score diary at the beach. She writes down the date, time, players, and then a few other little notes such as “Nice day, cool and sunny” or “Went to Southampton, quite hot.” At one point she pulled out the score for a game that we had played together back in 1992. I was suitably amazed.)
Mary has a storage shed out by Sauble, so the same day we paid a visit to that and I inherited yet more stuff. Actually, she gave me a great little Ikea table which must have weighed a hundred friggin’ pounds but was so cool I took it anyway. And a stool, and a few chairs. By the time I left on Saturday morning my car was stuffed to the gills. I was sorry to go, though. A week didn’t really seem like enough. Maybe next year I’ll do it again and go for two.
I drove back to Saint Paul taking a different route. I went north to Tobermory, then took the ferry across to Manitoulin Island. From there I drove northeast to the Trans-Canada Highway, then northwest to Sault Ste. Marie. Here I crossed into upper Michigan, and I took US highway 2 back. This has to be one of the prettiest highways I’ve ever driven on, as it frequently passes right beside the vast beauty of Lake Michigan itself, while at other times you’re lost in the immense green of pine forest. It really was quite breathtaking.
* * *
And that was my trip in a nutshell. I was back here and back at work the following Wednesday (I took a few extra days off work to recover from the trip itself), and since then my life has been a fairly quiet routine. Stephanie’s visit certainly perked things up. Otherwise I’ve been enjoying working on my model of the Cutty Sark, which is definitely reaching a very beautiful stage. Regarding the latter, it occurred to me the other day that I can actually see the end of the project coming in the next few months, and I’ll kind of miss the ship once she’s done. Of course the model isn’t going anywhere, but what I mean is that working on her has become a kind of nice little mantra which my soul has grown accustomed to chanting evenings and weekends. I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
But I’ll be replacing it with a new project. That’s the U-Boat I plan to build, which is a kit I’m purchasing from OTW Designs in England. This is an ambitious project, no two ways about it. The kit costs 750 English pounds, which is about $1,450 in US dollars. But I don’t give a hoot. You have to follow your passions it is often said; and I would add it’s also not a bad idea to follow your excitements as well. The idea of working on such a large, detailed model positively makes me want to jump up and down like a kid! That’s got to count for something in life.
The kit is 1/32 scale, making the hull about 6 feet long. How cool is that! A model this big is not just museum quality; it’s movie quality. You could film the thing and then blow it up onto a big screen in a movie theatre and it would still look real. See the picture at left (which I took from their website)? If you digitally replaced the background you’d have a photo which is completely indistinguishable from the real thing. That’s exciting to me. I guess it’s the actor in me coming out in a sort of sublimated form. While working on the Cutty Sark, my only regret has been that sometimes it’s been hard to create small deck objects with a level of detail that really fools the eye completely. The model looks lovely under the macro lens of my camera, but it also doesn’t look precisely like the real thing. As an artist, I can’t help wishing I could make the illusion a better one. And in the world of models, that usually means working on a bigger scale.
How big? It depends how real you want to get. In James Cameron’s film Titanic, for example, everyone raved about the CGI graphic rendering of the ship, and also the giant set that Cameron had built in Baja, Mexico. What few realize though is that several good-old-fashioned models also appeared on the screen. Of the latter, the biggest (pictured here) was approximately fifty feet long - a scale of approximately 1/16. By comparison, my OTW sub will be 1/32 scale, which is roughly in the same ballpark. While if you went out and bought a typical plastic model kit of a U-Boat for $20 designed for intermediate hobbyists, you’d get something on the order of 1/100, 1/200 or even 1/400 scale. These models are anywhere from 8 to 14 inches long. That doesn’t interest me at all.
So we’ll see how it goes. In the next few months I’ll be bidding farewell to work on the Cutty Sark and saying hello to a whole new - even slightly scary - challenge. The OTW kit isn’t made of nice little plastic parts like I’m used to. The hull is fiberglass, the superstructure brass and steel. I’ve never worked with such materials before - can I pull this off, or am I just going to make a very expensive wreck of things? Oh well, what the hell. All the really good things in life are a little scary too. That’s just part of being alive.
*** Saturday October 14, 2006 ***
Today was a red-letter kind of day. Early this morning, I got on the phone with Bob Dimmack of OTW Designs in England and formally placed the order for his company’s magnificent model kit of the Type VIIC U-boat ... the one that I’ve been raving about (ad nauseam, I’m sure, to some of you) lately. Final price, including shipping? Over a thousand bucks.
And part of me wonders, am I completely nuts? Answer: Hell no! This is the coolest thing I’ve done in a long, long time. I’m completely enraptured! I can’t wait for the package to arrive!
What is life for if you’re not excited by what you’re doing?
What a lucky fellow I am.
*** Saturday, November 11, 2006 ***
I'm in a darn good mood these days, after the election on the 7th.
You know, I had pretty much resigned myself to the so-called rightward-slide of America. The one we've all been hearing about these past ten or so years. Now I'm delighted to see that obituaries for the left may be a tad premature. It certainly seems so when the Democrats have a 20+ seat majority in the House. That's no slim-whiskered win, folks, that's a walloping victory. It makes me feel so much better about America, my adopted home. Turns out this isn't a nation of ignorant neocon mastur-Bibleators after all. It's a nation, as we’ve always known, with a broad majority who live in the political middle, and who can swing right or left at any time depending on the issues at hand. That's a good thing. Having a strong middle is the right way to be.
But for now, Democrats control the Senate, the House, and have a majority of Governorships. Sigh. Maybe now some of those talk-radio Nazis will shut up. Or at least eat a little humble pie. Maybe now Fox News will have to report the real world for a change. I don’t expect it. But one can hope.
In the meantime, you know what I'm also very proud of? I'm proud of how classy the Democrats have been about victory so far. Nancy Pelosi says that the Dems are going to "work with" the Administration, that they're not going to "get back" at Republicans. Compare this rhetoric, if you will, to the my-way-or-the-highway tone of congressional Repubs these past ten years. (Example: remember the whole "nuclear option" debate not so long ago in the Senate? Where the Republicans came that close to removing forever the minority party's right to filibuster judicial nominees? I'll bet they're glad they didn't pass that measure now.) Neocons have been insufferable for far too long about their self-styled 'mandate' in Washington. But I’ve got news for them: 52% of the popular vote isn’t and never was a mandate. You want to see a mandate? Look at the House right now. A 20+ seat majority by the Dems. That’s a mandate.
And yet, the Democratic leadership is offering Republicans olive branches. Isn’t that cool? How proud I am of the Democrats at this time! What a wonderful party.
* * *
We’re in another quarterly peak season at work, but it’s not one of those ones where I’m working all night and putting in tons of overtime, so I’m reasonably happy.
Away from the office, my Cutty Sark project is on temporary hold while I search around trying to find suitable material for the sails. Years and years ago I had bought a couple of yards of raw silk, thinking the lightness of the cloth would be just the right thing. But now I see it’s all wrong. It doesn’t hang properly, and it’s the wrong color, and when I paint it the right color it looks just terrible. And it’s translucent, so I have to paint it or do something to make it opaque. Enough already. Back to the drawing board. This weekend I’ll be spending some time in craft and fabric stores in the local area, searching for just the right thing. Then I’ll get back to work.
In the meantime, also on the ship-modelling front, my super-sized U-Boat kit has arrived from OTW Designs in England, and I’m simply stupefied by the size and detail of the thing. The hull is seven feet long and lovingly covered in scale-sized deck plates and rivets ... simply amazing! I’ve written more about the kit it in my U-Boat Building Weblog. But just let me say that I feel like a five year old kid right now. All I want to do is jump up and down.
In the real world, fall is clinging on here in Saint Paul with thin little fingers, but all it really lacks right now is snow to say that winter has arrived. It’s cold out and the leaves are all gone from the trees. It’s the kind of stark-yet-lovely landscape that makes you want to grab a camera and go for a walk in the woods, which, come to think of it, I might just do later on today. On the other hand, I might also go shooting again. A few weeks ago I went to a local place, Bill’s Gun Shop & Range, and blasted away with my Glock at paper targets. It’s a nice primal pleasure I haven’t had in a long time, and ever since I’ve been thinking about going back. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. It’s a longish drive to their range (it’s north of Minneapolis), but it sure is fun.
Turns out I’m a decent shot, too. Of a ten-round magazine I can plant eight or so within an area the size of a palm print at about 20 yards. That’s not too bad. Nowhere near the freakish accuracy of a gifted or well-practiced shooter, but good enough not to hit my foot when I’m aiming at a tin can. The thing about going shooting, though, is that it’s expensive. It’s $15 or $20 to get on the range, and then you have to buy bullets, which come at $7.50 per box of 50. If you want, say, four boxes, and you buy three targets at $2 each, you end up spending more than $50 for the day.
Hmmm. Maybe, when I put it like that, I’ll go thread and sail-cloth shopping instead. It’ll certainly be a lot cheaper.
*** Sunday, November 26, 2006 ***
Got a monster cold that I can’t shake right now, so I’m hawking and hacking like crazy. I even cough so much that at times I start to gag! I’ve stayed home from work and tried to sleep and sleep, because in the past that’s always been the cure for me. So far it hasn’t worked much this time. Wish it would. I’m sick of it.
It remains mild and snowless here in Minnesota, despite the fact that we’re almost at the end of November. Global warming in practice, I surmise. Like I’ve said before, it makes a pretty landscape - in an odd, witchy kind of way. If you drive around here you see rolling farmland and forests, but the forests are now all leafless, so they look very stark. Beautiful, but also, if you let your imagination run a little, a bit creepy.
Ha! Not much else to report. I’m so out of it with this cold. I’ll have to try again later.
*** Thursday December 7, 2006 ***
If you watch “The Sopranos” for more than five or ten minutes - and have any sort of brain at all - you’re hooked. If you watch an entire episode, you’re smitten. If, like me, you’ve watched every single episode two or three times, you shake your head and marvel.
What I marvel at is not just the extremely high level of acting - although it’s among the best I’ve ever seen. Nor is it the directing - even though the directing is almost uniform in its beauty and excellence. Nor is it the writing, exactly - although I don’t think, in all the dozens of hours of watching and listening to this show, I’ve ever heard a line, even a word, that was out of place. What you marvel at, or what I marvel at, is all these things being in the same place at the same time, week after week after week. I don’t know what gods of television there are in the firmament, but whatever they are, they smile hugely on “The Sopranos.” It’s hard to think of another show being so blessed episode after episode with the kind of performances, writing, directing ... and camerawork and costuming and music and everything else ... that “The Sopranos” has. It’s like an endless classic Hollywood movie; a 65-part “Godfather.” “The Sopranos” is no joke. It’s a phenomenon.
When “The Sopranos” went on vacation earlier this year, after the end of season six, I sighed. There simply isn’t anything as good on television. Nothing to do but wait for next year, I thought. In the meantime, I would have to make do with my previous favorite show, “CSI” - although after “The Sopranos” that looks positively Hollywood-glitzy. (I still watch it, though.)
But by God, to my amazement, I seem to have been wrong. Recently I’ve discovered another show that has the same effect on me as “The Sopranos” - if not more, because I don’t remember watching “The Sopranos” and blinking back tears, or being haunted by a line, a gesture, a moment, for days afterward. Both shows have good laughs, sometimes monumental ones; I’ve had to hit the pause button in both to let an absolute tidal wave of laughter rise and crest and crash and then, finally, ebb and let go. And both shows, God help me, are magnificent in their view of the world. Watching “The Sopranos” I actually feel ennobled; like I’m watching genius art while simultaneously not watching art at all but seeing my fellow man, and being privileged to learn from what I see. Well I swear to heaven, with this other show I feel exactly the same way. I feel both exalted and fascinated; like some incredibly lucky fly on the wall, privileged to watch an incredibly beautiful, funny, silly, touching life story unfold. It’s simply a stupendous piece of luck. As a fan of great theatre I’m smitten; and as an actor myself, I’m awed.
The show is, against all probability, “The Comeback” on HBO with Lisa Kudrow. Why “against all probability?” Because I simply loathed “Friends” and everything about it. I think that show was the epitome of bad television: stupid, shallow, self-conscious, badly acted. I’d normally avoid “Friends”-related projects like the plague. So what the heck is going on here?
“The Comeback” is quite simply a cat of a different stripe. The conceit? It’s a show that pretends to be made of raw footage from a “reality show” about a thirtysomething actress named Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) who’s trying to stage a comeback as ‘Aunt Sassy’ on a very twentysomething-centric sit-com. But here’s what it really is: it’s a deft, witty, funny, sad, haunting, ultimately beautiful look at human aspirations and human dignity. Or in this case, indignity; for Cherish is a woman who wants to believe she’s on the path to her dream but winds up being constantly (metaphorically) rained on and spit at. She doesn’t help matters by being a bag of contradictions herself: insecure yet outgoing, control-freakish but affectionate, principled yet hapless. After only half of the first episode I found myself spellbound by this person, who is ineffably sweet but provokes almost as much as she suffers, and who has a genius for awkwardness that would rival Annie Hall. Watching Valerie Cherish head for a casting call is like watching a runaway fuel truck headed for a roaring train. You’re not sure whether you’re about to see the narrowest escape, or the biggest wreck, of your entire life.
Even now, after two viewings of the complete series, I can’t tell if ”The Comeback” wants to be a comedy that’s sad or a drama that’s funny. I’ve decided to just give up fretting about definitions. It’s quite simply the best comedy-drama ensemble writing and acting I can think of outside Anton Chekhov. There. Enough said. I’m grateful.
Please, go buy it. The show was canceled by HBO so 13 episodes is all there is. The DVD is cheap, just $35 or so. Please, please, go buy it. Watch it. And if you’re an actor like me, marvel marvel marvel. This is one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen. Words pale. So I’ll stop. All I can add is, wow.
* * *
It’s Christmas time again, and with it comes my list of the best Christmas stuff. It’s an ongoing work in progress, and I don’t claim it’s the most original list. It’s just mine.
Also, here is my annual link to one of my favorite amateur Christmas videos. This is a real home light display put together by a fellow named Carson Williams who, a few years ago, bought and fell in love with the Light-O-Rama professional lighting system. Mr. Williams, whoever he is, has a sense of fun and creative showmanship that this world could use a lot more of. Click and enjoy.
(The film has sound, so make sure yours is on. Also it’s kind of big - 5MB - for dialup; so if you don’t have broadband be warned. On the other hand, if you prefer, you can right-click on either the link or the picture at right and then choose “Save Target As” if you’d like to copy the file to your own computer. Then you can play it over and over to your heart’s content!)
My copy of this video comes from Snopes.com, and here’s their explanation of it:
“This display was the work of Carson Williams of Mason, Ohio, who spent about three hours sequencing the 88 Light-O-Rama channels that control the 16,000 Christmas lights in his 2004 holiday lighting spectacular. The musical accompaniment is broadcast over a low-power radio station so that it is only audible to visitors tuned in to the correct frequency and doesn't disturb the neighbors.
“Wizard in Winter” is a track by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, taken from their album The Lost Christmas Eve. I have to admit I was never a big fan of TSO; their stuff is a little too pop-ish for me. But watching the lights on this house I forget all reservations completely. Have fun! It’s a blast!
* * *
Today is Pearl Harbor day, and I just read an article online about how veterans are holding the 65th, and possibly last, reunion in Hawaii. They’re all getting up there, now, those 18-year-old kids of 1941. They’re in their eighties and nineties; they use walkers and canes, not jeeps anymore. And they’re dying; dying so fast, in fact, that the halfway point was passed years ago. More World War II vets are dead, now, than alive. So those that remain are haunted by ghosts at every turn. And they know their own time is coming; it’s a simple case of doing the math. Ten years from now World War II vets will be as scarce as an intact tin of K-rations. The last ones will be lingering in hospitals and homes. Waiting ... many probably hoping ... to join their pals sometime soon.
Old vets. You have to wonder, how long can they last? The last undisputed living veteran of the American Civil War (1861-1865) was a Union soldier by the name of Albert Woolson, who died on August 2, 1956. He was 109 years old, and passed away nearly ninety-one years after the end of the war that gave him his unique distinction. It’s peculiar to think of what Woolson’s latter years must have been like. Here was a man who could remember a living Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, now living in a world of cars with tail fins, television sets, Dwight Eisenhower, and the early space program. Was Albert Woolson pleased by this? Confused? Or did he feel like my mother does about the march of time: slightly bemused, but otherwise determined not to waste much time thinking about it, with so many interesting things in life yet to do.
I think of Albert Woolson as some incredibly exotic trick of history; a modern-world Civil War veteran, for heaven’s sake. That’s like meeting a man who’s stepped out of a time machine. And yet - gulp - if Albert Woolson had lived just three more years - and other fates had intervened - he could have held my infant self in his arms. I was born in 1959. What does this make me? A semi-fossil myself? But I still feel like a relatively young man. I still have my hair and a goodish amount of vigor. I still enjoy life and laughter. How, then, can I be old enough to nearly have shared the sun with a Civil War vet?
I’m telling you, this whole business of aging, the passage of years, is far more interesting and subtle and multi-facted than I ever thought it was going to be when I was young. When I was in my twenties I thought I just knew what getting older would be like. I really liked older men and women, my parents and their friends; I had sympathy for them; I listened to their stories and remembered them; I envied their maturity; I liked their humor. For all this, I thought I really understood them. And now I can see, I only had a tenth, or even less, of the picture.
It’s become more poignant now as I read more and more stories like the one about the Pearl Harbor reunion. In my childhood there may not have been any Civil War vets around, but World War II alumnae were everywhere. They weren’t old men either; they were all in their forties or fifties, the vigorous prime of life. Everywhere you looked, in fact, the men and women who had conquered Hitler were now running the world. They were chairmen and CEOs, small business owners and senior tradesmen, leaders of countries and pillars of society. Their bodies were still sound, their wits sharp, their eyes clear. Being young and still learning about the world, I took this to be a fact of life that would simply never change. The World War II generation became a fixed star in my mental firmament, parked up there with all the other unchangeable facts of life like Santa Claus, Jesus, Lyndon Johnson, Sauble Beach and the Beatles.
In our family, both Mom and Dad clearly remembered World War II. Dad didn’t serve, though; a case of tuberculosis in the late 1930s had not entirely cleared up by 1939, the year Canada entered the war - so dad had to sit it out. But all his friends went overseas, many of them dying there. And dad’s brother, my uncle Clark, went. In fact Clark ended up (as best I recall) becoming part of a tank platoon that ran across Europe after D-Day and ultimately liberated several concentration camps in Germany. By the time I came along with my boyish curiosity about all this, however, he was reticent to talk about it. He would never discuss those camps. And the only other thing I recall him saying about Army life is that he hated Brussels sprouts after having to eat them nearly every day for four years.
There were old-man vets around back then, but they were World War I vets. Men of my grandfathers’ generation, all in their seventies or eighties by the time I came along. I didn’t think too much about World War I vets in those days. In my boy’s view they weren’t cool because they had fought in a funny-looking war - the one with grainy silent movies and biplanes and weird flat helmets. Each year on Remembrance Day (Canada’s Memorial Day) these funky old men with their medals would come out and walk in the parade, half of them with canes. They looked about as dangerous as a bunch of old sweaters. I stared, indifferent. Not comprehending at all.
Not like the World War II guys. These were men who still looked like they could kill you; fit and trim, with many still-boyish faces. In that same Remembrance Day parade these men would come walking along at a brisk pace, their uniforms clean, their bodies erect, still exuding a tangible military snap. The weapons they displayed were not all that far out of date from contemporary early-sixties hardware; and their uniforms had not yet become threadbare. To me ... a boy whose idea of heaven was to play army as long as possible on a slow summer’s day ... the absorption of World War II became as powerful as it was unconscious. I read Sgt. Rock and The Haunted Tank, saw movies like Patton and The Battle of Britain. I poured World War II into my psyche like fast-drying cement, where it hardened into faith like religion. We had fought the good fight, won the biggest war ever. It was too late for me to go, but I could still dream. I built models of B-17s and Stukas and Mustangs; I daydreamed of wearing a helmet, throwing grenades, firing machine guns, and, if I had to die, going down gloriously in a hail of Kraut bullets. All this was apparently indelible; my blood still quickens to World War II themes, and my current idea of heaven is the large-scale model of a World War II German U-Boat I’m about to start building. And if it wasn’t that it’d be something else, because World War II is clearly part of me forever. It was the biggest war in world history. And the coolest.
So how can those men suddenly be dying now? How can it be that the barrel-chested warriors of yesterday have suddenly become the old grandpa veterans of today? When did they stop being steel and start being fuzzy old sweaters themselves? I find this vaguely weird, and also ineffably sad and poignant. The heroes of yesterday are slowly but surely moving away from me down the conveyor belt of time, getting smaller and smaller in the distance. One day there will be none at all. I will wander among headstones and grass, museums and books, looking in vain for their smiles, listening for their voices.
And sometimes I have the urge to fight this. I want to preserve somehow the dissolving memories of these men and women - and my own memories of their memories. I take a look around and I see my niece Hadley. 12 years old. She’ll always think of World War II vets as a bunch of grandpas. Is there anything I can tell her to make her see otherwise? To explain how young and wonderful these people once were? And how valuable, how rare, they now are, as their generation melts away before our eyes?
Or the younger people where I work. Can I tell them? I’ve tried sometimes, and it’s not easy. Not that they don’t want to know; but it’s hard for them to understand. What do tales of World War II have to do with the price of an iPod? Heck, they think I’m an old man half the time. I’ll tell one of them that I’m 47 and I can see their eyes immediately glass over, brain circuits failing. They try, but they simply can’t imagine that life was real - or mattered - all those years before they were born.
Hadley won’t understand until she’s in her forties herself. And then it probably won’t even be war veterans, but something else that sets her thinking about the poignance of time passing, the fragility of life, the strange beauty of being young and then not so young.
And - sigh - I suppose that’s okay. Maybe it’s even for the best. What, after all, does a young pre-teen girl need with these insights right now? She has other problems. She can learn about time later, when she’s spent a little more on this Earth. Maybe I don’t need to worry if the twentysomethings at work read CNN articles about dying vets and think, Oh yeah, same old same old. Why is this news? Despite what I think I could tell them, it doesn’t matter. They’re allowed to be young. Now is when their first views of the world are being formed. They’ll have plenty of time, I suppose, to look back on them later. And know better. They’ll have their own lessons, I suppose, in the years ahead about the preciousness of time and the uniqueness of each generation. Now’s not the time for them to live this. Now’s the time for me.
*** Sunday December 24, 2007 ***
Here we are, in the midst of a Christmas season that in some ways is much like any other. And in some ways not.
In the not column: we were completely without snow here in Minnesota until just a few days ago - and there was serious talk that we might even have a green Xmas. The occasional green Xmas was perfectly okay back in my home town of Galt, Ontario, when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies. It was seen as normal that you’d get one now and then. But here in Minnesota, hundreds of miles to the North, it appears to be well nigh unheard-of. At one point earlier this week somebody at work said to me, “Gee, I think we’re approaching the record for the latest date in the year without an inch of snow on the ground.”
Ah, global warming. Our new silent friend - felt once again.
In the same as ever column, I’ve been reading in the news this year about yet more controversy over whether or not Christmas decorations are inherently offensive to people who are not of the Christian faith (or cultural tradition). Do Christmas trees at the airport insult all the Muslims and Jews who pass through?
But what is kindness on the personal level all too quickly becomes intolerance and xenophobia on the public one, and that is why, when the day is done and all things are considered, I have to say that I come down on the side of restraint, for now. Which means a period of awkwardness for the foreseeable future is practically unavoidable.
So for the foreseeable future, city councils, school boards, public trustees ... they’re all going to goof up, make mistakes, overdo it, etc., etc. Silly situations will still arise, and they will be dealt with in a ham-handed way. This will go on for as long as it takes until the skills become comfortable and practiced. It may be painful now and then, but the prize we gain is a big one: a new, more tolerant, more happy society. One that has set aside the old Christian hegemony that for decades has made many feel excluded from the American dream. One that has entered a new world of true freedom, where “Merry Christmas,” like any other seasonal greeting, insults nobody - because it claims no power, asserts no social right - but instead is given, and received, as the simple wish of goodwill it was always meant to be.
I had fun buying Xmas presents for my family this year, because I did virtually everything at Amazon.com. And vice-versa. I told everyone that I had created an Amazon wish list, and to please just go pick something from that. To my delight that’s just what they did. So I have the pleasure of seeing a pile of Amazon boxes under the tree, knowing it’s all stuff that I want, and that it didn’t cost my poor family hours of trudging through the slush to get any of it. A benefit, of course, which I appreciated as well in reverse. It took me all of 2 hours on a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago to do my shopping, and I was in my slippers the whole time. Now that’s how it’s done.
I bought myself a present too, though not at Amazon. Hey, I’ve been relatively un-naughty this year, so I figure I deserve it. I bought a Nikon D200 camera on eBay. I would have been happy to buy it at a local camera store so I could support local business and have it in my hands right now, but the store price was a *huge* markup from what you can find online, so forget it. At National Camera here in Saint Paul the D200 - body, battery, and basic lens - is $1,999. On eBay the same package was $1,290. That’s a difference of $709. Insert end of regrets over decline of brick-and-mortar retail right here.
I love cameras. And I have learned over the years that they are, like home movie and video cameras, their own form of time machine. Way back in the eighties when Linda and I were married we bought a good camera - a Canon A-1 - so that we could record for posterity our various theatre (and other) adventures. It turned out to be one of the best purchases we ever made. Many of the photos on this website were taken with that A-1. We toted it with us virtually everywhere - on holidays, into theatre productions, out to parties. I had that thing slung around my neck all the time, and the record Linda and I created of those years (she eventually learned to use it too) is one of the most precious things I have today. If you can grow to love a piece of machinery, I certainly did with that Canon.
The camera itself is a classic, beautiful to look at, beautifully engineered. In many ways I still think it’s got to be one of the best non-professional SLR 35mm film cameras ever made. (It’s baby brother, the Canon AE-1, is one of the best-selling cameras of all time.) You could change virtually any setting on that thing you liked, and yet the buttons (in this pre-digital era) were all logically placed and easy to use. Bumping through smoky crowded parties at the New York Estonian House, tiptoeing backstage at some theatre or other, in familiar surroundings and in completely novel ones, that camera served us well and eventually became like an extension of my hand. It got to the point where I could reload it without even looking at it (if it was a bright sunny day I’d change film with my hands inside the camera bag, or under a coat, so as not to expose the film). And I could tweak exposure settings without even looking at what my hands were doing. I haven’t held an A-1 in my hands for years, but I just did a web search for the image that you see here (above) ... and eerily, just looking at it, I can still remember what each of the buttons do. Now that’s a camera you’ve bonded with.
Canon is probably the only company in the world that seriously rivals Nikon in the professional camera market - but ‘rivals’ is a relative term. Nikon truly owns the professional (and high-end amateur) market the way Lays owns potato chips. Virtually every professional photographer in the world owns at least one Nikon camera, and most use them exclusively. It’s because Nikons have a reputation for both excellence and durability going back to the nineteen-sixties, when SLR (single-lens reflex) 35mm cameras first began to appear on the market in large numbers. Prior to this time, most of the small hand-held cameras (like the ones used by war correspondents in World War II and Korea) were mostly ‘rangefinders.’ Any serious photographer either used a Leica rangefinder or, in less stressful circumstances, a large format ‘view’ camera like a Hassleblad.
But ‘view’ cameras were bulky and not well suited for action. Meanwhile, rangefinders (like the Nikon S3 camera pictured at right) had serious technical limitations. In a rangefinder, the lens is mounted on the body in front of a shutter which covers the film. The viewfinder (as you can see) is a separate piece of glass which independently views the scene in front of the camera. When a photographer takes a picture with a rangefinder, then, the photographer has to make a guess about what the lens is capturing, since he or she is not seeing through the lens itself. This is a serious handicap. If the focus is wrong, or if there’s a hair on the glass, the photographer won’t know it until they get back to the darkroom. And as if this weren’t bad enough, at short range the distance between the viewfinder and the lens can sometimes lead to parallax - meaning that what you see isn’t always what you get. For all of these reasons, rangefinders have over time been relegated to the ranks of amateur snapshot cameras. Since the late nineteen-sixties, the SLR has been the camera of choice for professionals.
SLR cameras are an alternate camera design that’s been around since the early 20th Century with the idea of avoiding the rangefinder’s pitfalls. In an SLR camera the photographer is able to see right through the lens, a trick that is accomplished by having a mirror just behind the lens and in front of the shutter. This mirror reflects incoming light upwards, where, in older SLRs, more mirrors were then used to direct the image into the viewfinder. When the photographer took a look, (s)he was able to see exactly what the lens saw. Once the composition looked right, with a press of the shutter button the bottom mirror would flip up, the shutter would rapidly open and close, and then the bottom mirror would flip back down again - producing a distinctive ‘ka-chuck’ sound.
The first small, hand-held SLRs made their appearance during World War II but they were finicky and hard to repair and so front-line photographers generally stuck with rangefinders (like Bob Capa’s venerable Leica). Serious SLR development didn’t take place until the 1950s. The first major improvement over older designs was to get rid of the extra mirrors in the viewfinder and replace them with a simple glass-prism-and-mirror system. This saved considerable space, and it is a design that is still used today. The second main innovation came in the early 1960s with through-the-lens (TTL) metering. For the first time a photographer could look through the lens and see, not only if the picture looked right and was in focus, but also if the exposure was correct. This was a tremendous improvement over hand-held light meters for non-studio situations that demanded speed.
By the late 1960s the SLR of choice among professional photographers was the legendary Nikon F. This is the camera which took virtually every important photograph of the Vietnam war and the swinging sixties. Small and ingeniously built, the F was also reliable, simple, rugged, and gifted with features that perhaps only a lonely correspondent in the middle of the jungle could truly appreciate. For instance, the F had a battery-powered shutter which also powered the onboard light meter, as did many other cameras of the time; but if the F’s battery died the camera could still take pictures - reverting to a default spring-tensioned shutter speed of 1/60th of a second (I think ... it’s been a few years since I held one). This meant that if you were several days from base camp up the Mekong river and your batteries just got soaked in the mud - or shot to pieces in a firefight - you could still take pictures, as long as you had a reasonable talent for estimating F-stops by looking at the world around you. And of course, any respectable photographer in those days did.
In the early 1980s I had a job in the used-camera department of Toronto Camera, a mega-store which was then located on Yonge Street (I don’t know if it’s there anymore). We had several old Nikon F bodies in our shelves and sometimes, on a slow afternoon, I would take one out and pop in a roll of film and play with it. Damn those were nice cameras. Even though this was 1981 and they were ten years out of date (I think the Nikon F-2S had just come out), you could still tell why these old Fs had been revolutionary. They were slightly heavier than most of the competition from the same time period, being built extra-tough. Oddly, the exposure meter (for some of them, anyway) was located on top of the camera body, not in the viewfinder. But the Nikon and Nikkormat lenses that fit the body were second to none in durability (and second only to Zeiss in quality); and the camera had all sorts of other cool features - like the fact that you could remove the entire back of the thing and replace it with a high-volume film magazine that allowed you to take hundreds of photos without reloading; you could remove the entire mirror housing from the top and replace it with others (for special-situation or precision photography); and you could attach a motor drive that would go an astonishing 5 frames per second. No wonder anybody who was anybody in the late sixties and early seventies wanted a Nikon F. It was the camera to own.
(I’ve often thought, over the years, that it’d still be fun to buy one of these cameras and see what it’s like to use it. Maybe someday.)
It’s also a legendary camera because it came along, and became popular, right at the time when the modern legend of the photojournalist was born. In the late-sixties film Blow-Up by Michael Antonioni there’s a famous scene of a photographer shooting the model Verushka with a high-speed camera. It’s a Nikon F with motor drive. In the film Apocalypse Now take a look at the string of cameras around Dennis Hopper’s neck. Almost every one is an F. The Nikon F was the Fender Stratocaster, the Les Paul Custom, of a moment in American history when photojournalists first transformed from news-flacks into rock stars themselves. Diane Arbus owned an F. So did Annie Leibowitz. And Linda McCartney. Most of the first ten years of Rolling Stone was shot with the Nikon F. As were most album covers of the time. And, less flashily, most of the images to be seen in magazines like Life, Time and Newsweek.
By the eighties, when I first encountered it, the venerable F had long since been replaced. First by the Nikon F-1 (which introduced metering entirely within the viewfinder), and then the classic F-2, which is still perhaps the finest pre-digital 35mm SLR that the world has ever seen. We had a steady stream of F-1’s and F-2’s in the used camera department at Toronto Camera, and I would also play with them when I had spare time. They were both great cameras, beautifully built. But for me, none of them had the magical aura of the Nikon F. I suppose I’m a sucker for a legend!
Especially one that’s also a classic beauty!
* * *
Wow ... I didn’t mean to go off on a whole disquisition about cameras here. Pardon me if I just bored you to tears.
I guess you can tell I’m a bit of a camera buff. But you know, not to the Nth degree. I have a passion for cameras and photography, true, but I don’t make a fetish of equipment like some people do. The only reason to buy a good camera, in my humble opinion, is if you want to make good-looking photographs that a normal snap-camera simply won’t do. That’s the consideration that finally tipped me over the edge into buying the Nikon D200. It’s not that I’m an equipment groupie; in fact, a lot of the time my favorite camera to use is nothing more than a cheap $6.99 disposable. That’s because, in most social situations, it’s the most freeing camera to have at hand: you don’t have to worry about the darn thing getting lost or damaged or stolen (at $6.99 who cares?). And you can capture most family moments with them just fine and with a minimum of fuss (pick up, aim, snap, put down).
But there have been times in the years since owning that Canon A-1 (it was pawned in 1994 - *wistful sigh*) where I’ve regretted not having a good SLR at hand. For instance, back in 2001 I was acting in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. During a quiet moment in the dress rehearsal I was sitting on stage in full makeup and costume when my friend Tori came along and offered to take pictures of me. I was delighted! It was a chance to capture a character that I was especially proud of. Since everyone else in the cast was gone for dinner we even persuaded Christina Burck, our stage manager, to briefly turn on the stage lights so I could be photographed under them. This was a real boon because the lighting, costume and set design of that show were all quite beautiful. However, the trouble with theater photographs - as every photographer knows who’s tried to take them - is that most cameras handle them rather badly. You have a brightly-lit actor surrounded by a darkened stage, and the result is that the camera’s exposure meter doesn’t know what to do. Typically it will split the difference or attempt an “average” exposure level, which is useless. The solution is to take a spot-meter reading of the actor’s face and make that your exposure. With my trusty Canon that would have been child’s play. But all Tori and I had at that moment was a disposable. We took the photos anyway ... hoping for the best. And sure enough, when we saw the prints later they were grainy and poorly exposed. It’s nobody’s fault but my own. Owning a good camera and keeping it nearby for moments such as this should be a basic part of every working actor’s toolkit. Will the opportunity to take these photos ever come along again? Of course not. That play, that character, that marvelous production, are all unique ... and gone forever.
So I’m very, very happy to finally have a Nikon D200. Merry Christmas, Paul! And here’s to all the other wonderful shows, the beautiful sets and costumes, that won’t get lost in the future.