Pens and Pics ~ A Cautionary Tale

The six words came first, like a little roadmap found crinkled under the seat of a car, or the sight of a curious, six-legged creature fleeing over the horizon.   Even the right word takes effort, I thought, the words so clear, so absolute and certain I looked around to see who might have spoken.  Seeing no one, yet possessed by a sudden, compulsive urge  to hold the words captive, to prevent their escape into the thicket of a mind overgrown with phrases like “don’t forget the milk” and “be sure to mail that check”, I looked around for tools to help me construct a cage.

The tools needed, of course, were paper and pencil, or pen.  Ubiquitous in human homes and offices, they can be hard to come by on isolated docks where language means the chatter and chirr of gulls.  Digging around beneath the birds’ inquisitive stares, I finally found a pen under the spare tire in my car’s trunk, laughing that I’d found one at all.  The pen, a white ballpoint imprinted with the LaQuinta logo, looked as though it had knocked around the car for some time, but it worked. Paper was less of a problem.   Junk mail envelopes in the car’s trash were abundant, as were the backs of  business cards , but there on the dock was all the paper I needed.   Pieces of used sandpaper five inches  square and smooth on the back were just big enough for those six words and the title which eventually presented itself: The Task at Hand.  Over the course of several days, words and phrases were added and removed, arranged and stacked and rearranged until at last I brought my little pile of sandpaper home and transcribed the words which gave this blog an identity and purpose.

The fact that I’d written my first poem on sandpaper didn’t seem in the least odd until I began attending a local writers’ group. A few members appeared at meetings with spiral-bound notebooks  and ball point pens straight off the drugstore shelf.   Far more had lovely, leather-bound journals or exquisite notebooks with covers of hand-made paper.   Filled with thick, creamy pages that absorbed ink in an instant or leaves of tissue so delicate they made the very act of writing seem an assault, they were perfect companions for pens far more elegant than my lowly trunk-dweller.  I hadn’t used a real pen in years, but here they were in abundance, their gold nibs, tiny enameled bodies, silver and gold engravings and perfect proportions luscious and appealing.

Before and after the meetings, there was as much talk of pens and paper as about words.  Writers talked about their trips to the stationers like explorers eagerly cataloguing acquisitions of rare butterflies.  Papyrus, vellum, marbeled or mulberry, the papers were rumored to imbue the most pedestrian words with weight and substance.  As for the pens,  it seemed one never was enough.  One writer used only a gold Cross pen for prose,  a Monteverde with purple ink for poetry and a nice rollerball for editing.  Montblanc was a favoite, Conklin esteemed, Montegrappa coveted.  My LaQuinta freebie hid in my purse, embarassed and chagrined.

Certainly there is legitimate pleasure to be taken in artfully produced journals, a paper smooth and heavy to the touch and the flow of ink, a sensuous pleasure that only increases when combined with good coffee, a little time for thought, a window from which to gaze.   When that pleasure slides toward obsession, as it can, it suggests something more – an unspoken conviction that if only one could find the right paper, the perfect pen, the perfectly bound notebook, writing itself would become easier, more fluid, more richly textured and memorable. 

The longing of some writers for these perfect tools is very much akin to the hunger for a perfect setting in which to write.   “I can’t write at home,” says one. “I see the chores needing to be done and become distracted.”    Another fusses, “I only can write in complete solitude.” Some can’t write at night, or in the morning, or in public or facing south.  Some need windows, or beaches or mountain cabins. Others prefer a cafe setting, or a certain, comfortable couch.  I once heard a fellow say, “When I retire, I’m going to have a teak desk, with a beautiful sheen, and a room in muted colors with natural fabrics, and no telephone.  Then, I’ll be able to write.”

I hope he can.  And yet, I remember Annie Dillard’s words on the subject in her marvelous On Writing.  She says, “Appealing work places are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.  When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window…  Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder block cell over  a parking lot. It overlooked a tar and gravel roof.  This pine shed under trees is not quite so good as the cinder block study was, but it will do.”

While Ms. Dillard’s thoughts might be taken as the strange rantings of a mystical poet, William Zinsser is all prose, and his opinion hardly differs. In his introduction to the 2006 edition of the classic On Writing Well, Zinsser mentions a photograph of E.B. White which hung in his office.  Taken by Jill Krementz, it’s described by Zinsser in this way: 

 “A white-haired man is sitting on a plain wooden bench at a plain wooden table – three boards nailed to four legs – in a small boathouse. The window is open to a view across the water.  White is typing on a manual typewriter, and the only other objects are an ashtray and a nail keg.  The keg, I don’t have to be told, is his wastebasket.”   Zinsser goes on to add, “White has everything he needs: a writing implement, a piece of paper, and a receptacle for all the sentences that didn’t come out the way he wanted them to.” 

The willingness to imbue simple tools with mysterious powers and to confuse the process of creating art with the ability of its product to intrique, inspire and initiate dialogue is not limited to the writers among us.  A delightful parable of technology, vision, and imagination  comes from painter and photographer Michael Maurer Smith, who tells the story of Snapper’s Disappointment in his blog, Dissent Decree.  As Michael tells it,

Snapper figured if he bought the best he’d be the best. So he made the call and ordered himself one of the finest digital single lens reflex cameras money could buy. This puppy came with 24.5 megapixel full-frame capability, a magnesium body shell, a carbon fiber composite shutter, a 922,000 pixel LCD monitor, and it could shoot 7 frames per second.

Snapper took some time to familiarize himself with his new treasure, with all of its menus and buttons, but found himself increasingly anxious as he realized he hadn’t a clue where to begin taking actual photographs, or why he might choose one subject over another.  Eventually, Michael tells us, as Snapper searched for answers he stumbled upon Henri Cartier-Bresson and the amazements of a different sort of photography.

“Bresson had made his pictures using a completely manual camera—something called a Leica. It had no auto focus, auto exposure or zoom lens. The label also said Bresson rarely used flash. Snapper was dumbfounded. ‘How could Bresson make such stunning photographs using such simple technology?’…

…Snapper was disappointed. The advertising had promised him that the technology built into his new camera would assure great photographs with every click of the shutter. But after seeing Bresson’s work it sure seemed like there was a lot more to photography than just the camera.”

Indeed.  And in his own delightful way, Michael Maurer Smith not only shows us how Snapper resolves his issues, he uses the tale to drive home a point I’ve suspected all along.  The writer searching for a magic pen, the photographer waiting for the perfect technology, the painter constrained by the quality of light ~ all have forgotten a basic truth of the creative process.  It is grounded not in technology and technique, but in what Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech called “the agony and sweat of the human spirit.”  It is pursued “not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

As the logician would say, the tools of any art are necessary but not sufficient for beauty and meaning to emerge.  And however well we succeed, no matter how far short of our goal we may fall, the words of this slightly amended proverb hold true: it is a poor artist who blames the tools. 

You just have to live, and then life will give you photographs.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson


Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.
And Many Thanks to oh! of WordPress and Sandiquiz of WeatherUnderground and Flickr, both of whom used the proverb “It is a poor workman who blames his tools” within a week of each other and thus started me down this road.  Welcome to Team Muse, and many thanks for your posts and comments!

20 thoughts on “Pens and Pics ~ A Cautionary Tale

  1. I loved this piece, and I’m truly honored that you chose to weave in references to my work. Thank you.

    I confess I’ve been known to obsess over pens, notebooks and sketchbooks. However, it is rarely over quality or cost. It has more to do with issues of portability, whether they lay flat, the tooth of the page and how it accepts ink, relative whiteness and so on. We artists a picky and peculiar bunch.

    Here’s a link to a piece the noted designer Michael Beirut did on his use of notebooks, I think you and your readers will find it amusing.

    Perhaps the economic and social upheaval the nation is now experiencing will provide some corrective to the confusion of stuff with substance and meaning.

    As to work spaces, I am reminded of the late British painter, Francis Bacon. He had an old studio he never cleaned. It was so cramped he sized his paintings such that he could get them out the door and down the narrow stair well. Once he was rich enough he decided to have a modern, large, well-lit and proper studio built. When it was done couldn’t bring himself to work in it. He went back to the old mess he loved. After he died it is said the dust and debris was several inches deep on the floor, from years of accumulation. Yet out of that mess had come some of the world’s greatest paintings. Here’s a link to more about Bacon’s studio,


    You raise an interesting point. Concern for pens and sketchbooks is completely understandable for a visual artist. After all, the quality of paper, ink or paints does affect the final outcome. On the other hand, the notebook or pen may give a writer enjoyment, but it doesn’t affect the final product. For a writer, an analogy might be dictionaries and style manuals. I’ll write on sandpaper, but much prefer the Oxford English to the Modern Dictionary.

    The Beirut piece made me almost want to start hand-writing drafts in notebooks. Not enough to actually do it, mind you, but it was an enjoyable peek into someone else’s process. I’m amazingly unsentimental about the process, and sometimes wonder if it wasn’t the computer that freed me to write. It doesn’t seem at all a chore, because I can keep up with my thoughts, and I like not having piles of paper hanging around.

    And best of all, you’ve just done wonders for everyone who comes along and reads about Bacon’s studio. I feel better myself. I can see my dustcloth lying over in the kitchen, but I haven’t felt much compulsion to use it!

    Thanks as always for the wonderful comment, and the new little pathways to wander down.


  2. Hi!
    Thank you for this; it is wonderful and important. The sandpaper (priceless!), the writing group, the poem, the unfortunate “Snapper”–all of it. I laughed, I sighed and, as you insist with every essay that each of your readers do, I thought. Will continue to think, as a matter of fact. Yes, it is a poor workman who blames his tools, but it is an even poorer one who fails to recognize them (somehow, I believe that is the real moral of this story).

    I visited Mr. Maurer Smith to thank him for Snapper, too.

    A good weekend to you.


    What a wonderful insight – that sometimes we fail even to recognize our tools. And for a writer, how easy that can be. We forget (or prefer to ignore) that, just as a sculptor needs to tend to the chisel, to keep it sharp and true, we need to hone insight, imagination, the ability to synthesize and dissect human behaviors, in order to keep our writing fresh and true. After all, it’s much easier to purchase a lovely notebook and an exquisite pen than to think, re-write and re-think, over and over again.

    For some reason your comment makes me think of one of the most wonderful photographs in the world, taken by the same woman who provided the photograph of the derelict boat for my post Derelict Boats, Derelict Hearts. I can’t find it in her public galleries just now, but I’ll email her and see if I can link to it. It shows an older boatyard worker on his break, sitting on a table or wooden spool wearing a plaid shirt, concentrating mightily on his paper and pencil. Is he educated? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Is he doing calculations related to the boat he’s working on? Perhaps, or perhaps he’s writing a poem. It makes no difference. It’s the writer’s task, reduced to its essence – pure, and simple, and absolutely to be sought.


  3. Linda,
    It amazes me how a simple phrase can set you off on journey where prose and poetry intertwine and appear to be so effortlessly produced. I am honoured to be “the starting pistol” for this wonderful entry.

    I read your work and realised I am the poor workman who is blaming his lack of the right tools for the dearth of written work produced. I have a folder full of scraps of paper: backs of envelopes, table napkins, scruffy notebooks or till receipts with a smattering of ideas, titles, first paragraphs or colourful characters. Some are almost 40 years old. I kept saying – when I retire – and then digital photography was introduced and I became sidetracked!

    I made an estimate of the photos I have taken since the beginning of the year. The number is nearing a thousand. How many find their way into flickr or WU or into my own digital photo frame? Probably less than 1%. I am ultra critical and ruthless when selecting the few available for viewing. I think the time has come to adopt the same criteria to the written words I have accumulated, stop making excuses, and just get down to it!!

    Thank you for the theoretical “kick in the pants”!


    The power of an image or phrase to begin the process of writing a new entry amazes me as much as it does you. I have one I’m thinking about now which began not with a phrase, but a photograph. In this instance, it was the title that came first, and question – “What the heck is going on here?”
    And away we go.

    One thing I do which is a terrific help is use the wordpress files to my advantage. The “posts” file contains both published posts and drafts. At this point, I’ve published 82 blogs and have 85 drafts in my file! Now, a “draft” may be only a title or a few words or phrases, but now and again I’ll think about it, or find something that seems relevant, and add it. Eventually, a kind of critical mass is reached. I have a sense of what the entry is going to be about, and begin writing. Now and then, I realize something isn’t related, so I cut it out and it begins life as a new draft. It helps to have everything in one spot. About once a week I pull up the drafts and just read through them, to remind myself of what’s bubbling along in that pot on the back burner.

    I still end up with notes on sandpaper, bank deposit slips, cash register receipts and the back covers of books, but when they pop up, I put them on the computer. I do have a little notebook I bought to make such notes in, but I haven’t a clue where it might be….

    I remember you telling me once about some children’s stories. Well, when I was in grade school, we used the acronym “CYK” in our autograph books. It stood for “consider yourself kissed”. I suppose we could modify it just a touch – so, “consider yourself kicked”!


  4. What fun it was, to picture you sitting on the dock, bent over and scribbling on your sandpaper. I am happy to know, too, how the birth of these delightful postings came about.

    I have a picture of Anne Rice (whose books I have not read, but who I know is wildly successful) tacked above my work spot at home. She is sitting at her desk, computer screen in front of her, writing away with a secret little smile on her face. It is a far different scene from E.B. White – but it says the same thing: all you have to do is apply butt to chair!

    I must admit that the amount of work I accomplish is definitely related to how many times I am interrupted to take dogs for walks – it is much easier to ignore them if I am at the cafe. A triple cappuccino goes down without a problem, too.

    I plan to print your first poem, and hang it next to Anne Rice. A little inspiration doesn’t hurt the process, either.


    I love my sandpaper. I could get with the program just a bit, I suppose ~ you know, 220 grit for poety and 80 grit for prose.

    I so enjoyed your description of Anne Rice’s photo, and the quite practical advice: butt to chair. There’s a Texas columnist named Leon Hale who once wrote an utterly hilarious column on the ways in which he can avoid writing: dog feeding, dish washing, grocery buying and so on. Paul Graham, author of Hackers and Painters and essayist extraordinaire, has written a wonderful piece called “Disconnecting Distraction” in which he advises two computers, one of which should be disconnected from the internet so the writer isn’t tempted toward web-surfing, blog-reading and so on. Even the best have their trials and tribulations.

    I’m honored to think of you copying my poem. I’m just about to my one-year mark with The Task at Hand, and believe me – of all the things I didn’t expect, writing poetry pretty much tops the list. I’m so glad you enjoy it.


  5. this is lovely.
    actually, i’m thinking it would be the perfect introduction to a book. perhaps i work backwards in terms of a book, but this would be a great introduction or preface or, first chapter!!! when i write the book, i will ask to buy this from you. it will be about writing. that’s all i know. and who knows…maybe a bunch of us will work on a book together.
    and your timing is exquisite. to read this entry this morning (and also to find that i am now a member of Team Muse), well, it’s inspiring. it’s just right.

    Morning, oh,

    You might be too late – I already have a title knocking around in my head ;-) But as you say ~ who knows? Collaboration is a wonderful thing. Shucks – I might even be willing to sell you my title!!

    Quite apart from the essay itself, your comment raises even more sharply some issues that presented themselves when I signed my first release.
    Not to put too fine a point on it, it was rather like selling the firstborn. It was a very, VERY interesting exercise to sit down and read through my year’s worth of essays, asking only one question: would I be willing to sell this? A few I would let go without thought, while one or two I might never release. In any event, it was clear that the pieces I consider my best are also the ones I’d be most reluctant to turn loose of. Now, there’s a literary rock and a hard place if I’ve ever seen one.

    I always swore I didn’t want to be published. Now, I’ve edged close enough to the subject to see there are two very different approaches. Some say, “I’d do anything to be published.” Others ask, “What would it require to be published?” When I don’t have anything else to think about, I might think about all that.

    In any event – you arrived here before I got to your place to tell you that you’ve joined Team Muse. I’ve got the links finished now, and will bring over your tee shirt a bit later. Now that I’ve read your post about Bear, I’m even happier that this all happened today. Life goes on.


  6. Very nice piece. This is one I may have to copy and post by my computer. Since I’ve started working nights and quite often spend eleven and a half of the twelve hours with only the company of large, very loud machines, I’ve taken to spending the nights telling myself stories. Sometimes I’m so entertained the night passes too quickly and I can’t wait for the next shift to see how the story ends.

    The problem is as I drive home in the morning they fade like dreams as the sun comes up. There are still some images and titles like, “The Adventures of Roxie Hollywood and the Pugnacious Pixies” or “The Peacock Revolution”, but the words have gone somewhere else. As if the stories exposed to sunlight and pen become self-concious and develop a stutter. Then again, maybe on my nights off I need to sit in the shed wearing cumbersome ppe with a good loud ventilation fan, start the lawn mower, sit on a bucket and start writing. Or, just start writing.


    You used to write, no? Don’t I remember that you had a writers group that met around your kitchen table? I’ll bet that was in the pre-night-shift days.

    Believe it or not, I have a practical suggestion. One of my customers pointed out to me the value of wireless recording devices. Get yourself a voice recorder and you can wend your way through and around those machines all night long, telling yourself your stories out loud. Then, when the sun comes up and they try to flee, you’ve got ’em! They can’t get away! Add in a little voice to text software, and you don’t even have to go through the pain of transcription. (Although that’s not so terribly bad – I spent a year doing medical transcription and it’s amazing how easy it became.)

    Soon enough, you’ll have your own computer filled with drafts of stories. Then, you can get them edited, submit them for publication, earn a pile of money and the adulation of your fans (not the ventilation kind) and buy as many piles of flowers and veggies for your garden as you want. See? Easy!


  7. I can see you sitting there, trying to capture the perfect word before it plans its escape.

    I often become trance-like when writing. My husband has actually entered the room, rummaged around looking for something, and left the room without me ever noticing. It can be a bit of an obsession.

    I must confess that I sit at a window that offers a view of the garden. When the squash and tomatoes start growing, I take a peek occasionally.

    Mike is right. I believe the current economic environment may take some of us back to basics, and that may not be a bad thing.


    I have my own view, which I love – down the main fairway of a large marina. With the boats in their slips on one side and palms edging the walk on the other, I see mostly water and the north sky, perfect for watching storms bubble up. It’s the very best in warm weather, when I can have all the windows open at night and listen to the fish jumping and the night herons fussing around. In the end, though, I think it’s the familiarity that makes it my preferred spot for writing, rather than the water or the view. Windows are nice, too. While I appreciate Annie Dillard’s larger point, that cinderblock wall sounds pretty dismal. I suppose if I had as much going on in my mind as she does in hers, it wouldn’t matter.

    As for “back to the basics” – economics surely will affect our consumption habits. And there are other “basics” I think about. It’s a strange world where the internet, email and websites have become the basics. The more I see of what’s going on with twitter and texting, for example, the more bemused I become. I know this – War and Peace used to be consider “long”. In today’s 140 character world, this blog entry is equivalent to War and Peace. And along Galveston’s seawall this weekend, with the birds wheeling and the sea frothy and beautiful, the crowd was filled with people walking along, staring at their little technological marvels, texting. They weren’t looking at a thing except their screens. It amazed me.

    In any event, we still read and write. Welcome to the pleistocene era! Always a delight to have you stop by.


  8. Considering Frank Gehry began many of his works by squiggling on paper napkins, I think you should save all your used sand papers marked with notes and writing. I have seen Gehry’s squiggled napkins on display, revealing the creative process of the gifted architect. Who knows, one day I might behold pictures of used sand papers in a published volume, revealing the creative process of The Sisyphean Poet.

    Keep on rolling, Linda!


    You are so funny! I’m afraid no one’s going to have any sandpaper to immortalize unless I keel over on a dock in the midst of starting a new poem. When it comes to drafts, notes and all that, I’m a “thrower”, not a “keeper”. I’ve even been known to dispose of entire libraries once I realized I hadn’t opened a single book in the collection for years. (Don’t worry, book-lovers. They were donated to students, not just thrown out.)

    The one thing I do enjoy is the Team Muse concept, because it’s a way of recording the starting points for some of these pieces. Listening to an interview with John Mellencamp this weekend, I suddenly understood why the process works as it does, and I think it’s interesting that it is a songwriter whose process is so similar to my own. But we’ll explore that in another post!

    There have been a few speed bumps recently, but we’re only slowed a bit, not stopped ;-) Thanks so much for stopping by and reminding me of Gehry – for me, your post on his sketches and his process was one of your best!


  9. Bravo! I confess, I have a penchant for wonderful pens in bright colors that roll smoothly on the page, whether for artwork or writing. And to see a journal with rich, crisp, thick pages is something I can seldom resist.

    But I don’t use either all that much for writing! It’s a sensual, textural thing, a passion for the tactile. Long ago, I used to think if I had the best art supplies, my art would be better.

    It wasn’t. It took doing things over, trial and error, learning new techniques, unlearning old ones, saving the ideas that came to me in the car, on the pillow, as I walked. Working with them till I either got them right or decided they weren’t that right to begin with — maybe for someone; not for me.

    When I read Mike’s piece sometime ago (and he is one of my photography heroes and I am privileged to own his work and have seen even more!), I commented to him that my best photography work wasn’t with the best camera or tripod; it was in part, with good fortune — perfect light, a serendipitous encounter; knowing how to see and when to shoot. The same goes with the writing — more and more of it done on the computer after simmering in my brain! I still love that creamy paper. I’ll use it for an art journal or to write thank you notes with, or just to touch. But it won’t make me a better artist or writer. (But maybe a happier one!)


    Some years ago I bought four hand-made-paper notecards at the Kerrville, TX arts and crafts fair. They were intricate and layered and beautifully done, and I never could have brought myself to write a note on one. I framed them, and finally gave them as gifts. Now, the artist has disappeared and so has her paper – but if I ever see her again, I’ll get myself a bit more. Which is to say, I understand that “sensual, textural thing”, and even could see putting my poetry into such a journal once it’s written. But you’re right. High quality tools don’t necessarily guarantee high quality results.

    I’ve been turning something over in my mind. Sometimes I come across writing that is just so overdone – almost impenetrable, filled with “fancy” words and complex construction. I wonder if that might be the writer’s equivalent of “better supplies”. It’s easy to believe that “better words” should make “better writing”, but some of the most memorable stories in the world have been the simplest. I try and remind myself of that on a daily basis!


  10. Speaking of roadmaps, I don’t know if this is what you referred to about aerial views as quilt inspiration, I don’t think so, but her work is also quite interesting:


    These are quite different from those the fellow made. His were extraordinarily interesting, but Ms. Evans’ are beautiful and arresting. I love them all, but “alluvial fields” is one I’d like to wrap around me on a cold night. They just beg to be touched – thank you so much for passing on this wonderful artist.

    Summer is edging up on us down here. For the first time since last September, it was too hot to stand barefooted on a boat deck today. It’s a sure sign that no matter what comes along in terms of cold or foul weather, it’s temporary. Soon, quilts will be just for decoration!


  11. Ah, I didn’t notice the quiltmaker was a “he”!


    There are more than I ever imagined! I happen to know one who quilts in his office on the umpteeth floor of some building down by the Twin Towers site in Manhattan. He says he finds it relaxes him while he ponders market movements.


  12. Linda –

    What lovely writing. I always read your writing with a bit of jealousy…because it is something I just can’t duplicate. The way you wrap words around other words, actually bringing them to life…just astounds me. I realize that we can’t all be good writers, and that’s fine, but every once in a while I wish I had the knack. Do I spend time trying? No…..that would probably help. Finding free time to do that would be tough…but it’s all a matter of priorities.

    I think I’m just always so wrapped up in planning lessons, spending time with the family, being outdoors, that spending more time in front of the computer just doesn’t appeal to me. Forget writing in a notebook, my handwriting, since computers, has gone down the tubes. Like you (I think) I like typing because I can keep up with my thoughts. I guess I’ll just feel lucky to be able to have access to your thanks so much for sharing.

    P.S. I just did something and I thought to myself, Linda could find a metaphor in this somewhere! I let both the dogs out into the backyard. One is a 12 pound Chihuahua, the other a 55 pound border collie mix. I left the door just slightly ajar because I know Missy’d scratch it open enough to come in, possibly opening it enough to allow the 55 pound border collie to come in too. But NO. Suddenly Missy appears, but where is Sadie? I walk back to the door, and there she is sitting patiently outside with the door somewhat ajar, but not enough for her to get in. She waited until I opened the door for her. What’s with that?

  13. I note that the title of your blog is The Task at Hand not The Pen in Hand.

    The foible you highlight is not limited to the arts. Sometimes an amateur astronomer can become so focused on assembling just the right equipment that they lose sight of what they are using it for.

    (All puns intentional.)


    I’d never thought of it, but of course there are any number of pursuits where the quest for the newest and best in equipment overshadows the need for effort, discipline, imagination, etc. I was just listening to some commentary this morning about the Masters’ Golf tournament, and quite a discussion arose about the “edge” that might or might not be achieved by titanium this or that.

    The same thing is true in sailing. I have a favorite (true) story about the fellow who interfaced his new GPS, autopilot, chartplotter, etc, and then headed to the entrance of the Clear Creek Channel from the Houston ship channel. He literally ran over and destroyed the main, #2 marker because he had failed to maintain a watch. Details, details….


  14. I like this post. I write with many pens, but not with pencil. At the moment, I write on the word processor, with pen on the farmhouse table and in the pickup. Place is important to me.

    1. Jack,

      Our preferences are mysterious, aren’t they? I always use a pen, too – although if nothing but a pencil’s around, I’ll not be fussy.

      When I first began writing this blog, I thought I ought to go to the meetings of the local writers’ guild. For about four months they looked at me like I was a Neanderthal – I never had a pen with me to take notes or sign my name on the sheets they’d pass around. “What kind of writer doesn’t have a pen?” they’d ask.

      Eventually, I started showing up with a pen, but I quit the group shortly after. I guess I started being more interested in writing and less interested in talking about writing. ;-)


  15. Two examples of it’s the message and not the medium:

    Jorn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, submitted his hand drawn sketches on flimsy paper, which were initially rejected by the competition judges until the tardy Eero Saarinen reviewed the discards and rescued Utzon’s entry. The rest is history.

    I recall starting a university project on a roll of toilet paper, it being the only medium at hand at the time of inspiration, and continued with it to submission, which, by the way, received an A.

    1. Rick,

      I know the Sydney Opera House, of course, but didn’t know Utzon, or the history behind the project. I enjoyed seeing some of his other work, too, and especially liked the interior of the Bagsværd Church. And I’m glad he got some formal recognition in the end, despite all the problems.

      Sounds like you did pretty well with your project, too!

      Just out of curiosity, what do you think of Frank Gehry’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario? I first saw photos a couple of years ago, and was entranced, especially by the spiral staircase and the nave-like feel. I watched a clip of a PBS special on him, and remember them saying that he, like so many architects, apparently, “loved to sketch”.


      1. I reserve judgement on AGO until making a visit. Generally I’m not a fan of Gehry’s work; to me it is too whimsical and arbitrary. I can admire the craftsmanship of the serpentine stair, but may not enjoy the experience of climbing or descending it (cannot judge from the pictures).
        One has to remember that this particular work is an addition to a building from circa 1900 which had subsequently undergone several renovations and additions.

        1. I first was made aware of Gehry’s work through a Canadian book blogger. I’ve done a little more reading and looking since posting my question – “whimsical” certainly is a good word for some of his work, which doesn’t appeal (to me) at all.

          On the other hand, I find Philip Johnson’s Houston landmark whimsical and appealing, while others find it taking up space somewhere between stupid and ugly. Eye of the beholder, and all that, I suppose – although training the eye a bit’s never a bad idea.


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