Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Advertisement for Dawn Powell

I am reading Dawn Powell's comic novel from 1942 entitled A Time to Be Born. Her prose is breezy and clever, with asides and digressions that throw light on the feminine world in New York of the 1940s. It is no great fault that these sparkling digressions frequently stop the plot in its tracks for a dozen pages. Here is an example in which the character Vicky coped with the loss of her boyfriend to the lady she shared a business with. (I am hoping that Dawn Powell's estate will take this as an advertisement for her prose rather than an abuse of fair use).

But if she was so smart, and if an education was any good at all, why didn't it teach a jilted lady how to recover her poise, how to win back the will to live, to dance, to love? ... All Vicky could do was to read the women's magazines and discover how other heroines had solved the problem. The favorite solution, according to these experts was to take your little savings out of the bank, buy a bathing-suit, some smart luggage, put on a little lipstick, throw away your ugly glasses and go to Palm Beach or Miami for two weeks. There you lay on the beach doggedly in rain or shine, your glasses hidden in a secret compartment of the hotel cellar, and a not-at-all-dangerous hair tint bringing out the highlights in your new permanent and the smart but inexpensive bathing-suit bringing out other highlights in your figure. On the fourteenth day, if not before, a tall bronzed Texas oil man would appear and be bowled over by your unaffected passion for peppermint sticks, unlike the snobbish society women he knew, and if you turned to page 114 you would find yourself, as heroine, bumbling down the church aisles without your glasses led by the Texas oil king and possibly a Seeing Eye dog.

Vicky was not convinced by this remedy, nor even certain she wanted to live in Texas, or that the sight of her rather thin figure in a smart but inexpensive bathing-suit would knock a millionaire off his feet. In fact she was pretty sure that the bathing-suit would have to be pretty expensive and very carefully cut indeed to "do things for her." Furthermore, the stories of How to Get Over a Broken Heart by Getting Another Man were invariably followed by other stories on what to do after you lost him again, after, say, ten years' marriage. The expert story-tellers appeared to be as certain you would lose him on your tenth wedding anniversary to some girl in a bathing-suit lying on a Miami beach with a lipstick and no glasses. The way you gained him back was to take your savings, put them into a new hair-dye do and permanent, take a Figure-Reducing Course and erase that middle-aged spread which is the only thing that's holding you back, call up an old beau who is always waiting or you at the nearest hotel and who sends you orchids at this faint beckon from you, and by getting a little flushed with champagne (instead of disagreeable over gin) and learning the newer dance steps, your husband is re-fascinated and comes whizzing back for a second honeymoon. Vicky deduced that it was just as well for you to start saving again, however, since there was no permanent way of keeping your man outside of nailing him to the floor. The lesson of all the stories boiled down to saving your money, since all the secret solutions devolved on dipping into this ever-present savings account.

Your appetite for clever writing should now be whetted.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Orange Carrot

Today I ate lunch at the Village Inn family restaurant near the library. As I waited for the waitress to bring my club sandwich and french fries, I flipped through a dessert menu and stopped at the picture of the carrot cake. A little paragraph at the bottom of the page stated that carrots were originally white, yellow, or blue. It further stated that sixteenth-century plant breeders in the Netherlands created an orange variety of carrot in honor of the House of Orange. This account struck me as suspect. I hurried home to investigate.

A quick Google search took me to a UK site called the World Carrot Museum (www.carrotmuseum.com), a treasure trove of information on all things carroty. On their page History of the Carrot Part 5, the connection of the orange carrot to the House of Orange is debunked:

"A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the development and stabilisation of the orange carrot root does appear to date from around that period in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it! Some astute historian managed to install the myth that the work an unexpected mutation was developed especially to thank King William I as a tribute to independence from Spain. Dr T Fernie (Herbal Simples 1875) reported - 'The Dutch Government had no love for the House of Orange: and many a grave burgomaster went so far as to banish from his garden the Orange lily, and Marigold; also the sale of Oranges and Carrots was prohibited in the markets on account of their aristocratic colour.' "

The Village Inn is guilty of propagating a 400-year-old myth. I'll never again believe anything they say about vegetable history.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Anvil

My younger son traveled across town and bought a used anvil two days ago. The seller told my son that the anvil originally came from a farm in Kansas. The anvil, manufactured by Peter Wright & Sons of Dudley, England according to the classic "London Pattern," was made of wrought iron faced on top with Sheffield steel.

The date of manufacture of my son's anvil is no earlier than 1860, when Peter Wright went to a stacked logo:


Sometime after the 1891 McKinley Tariff Act and perhaps as late as 1910 (according to a hasty internet search), Peter Wright began adding the word "England" beneath the logo. With the aid of a flashlight I could make out the stacked logo, although the first letters of Wright were almost completely effaced. My son's anvil lacks the "England" marking on the body; so the anvil is at least a hundred years old. Under the logo are the words "SOLID WROUGHT" stamped in a circle.

The numbers ( 1 0 10) stamped on the body of my son's anvil indicate the anvil's weight under the old hundredweight system. The first number tells how many hundredweights (112 pounds or one-twentieth of the British long ton of 2240 pounds); the second number (inside the SOLID WROUGHT circle) tells how many quarter-hundredweights (28 pounds); and the third number tells how many remaining pounds to add to the total. Therefore, my son's anvil is 112 + 0 + 10 or 122 pounds. It was advertised on eBay as a 120# anvil. Allowing for wear and tear and a bit of rust over the last century, the anvil's hundredweight numbers check out nicely.

The anvil marks another step in my son's preparation for violin making. He is currently learning to repair violins using a core tool set of planes, chisels, gouges, and knives. His set is a miscellany of well-made modern tools and also antique tools manufactured in the early twentieth century, when the quality standards for toolmaking were much more stringent than those currently applied to the cheap junk on the Home Depot racks. He plans to forge additional tools himself. There is precedent for doing so. Antonio Stradivarius used many specialized scrapers. Their shapes ranged from thin scalpels to wide teardrop-shaped blades.

No doubt my son will experiment with all sorts of oddball designs until he is comfortable with how a tool feels in his hand.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Stropping Young Lad

In his continuing quest to return to the Arts and Crafts era before the Great War, my younger son crafted a razor strop today, complete with a steel swivel. The swivel started the day as a plain steel rod, and then found itself heated by a torch and twisted around and around to resemble a vaguely bug-like clothes hanger. Here is my son's strop (top) beside a soulless store-bought strop.

The strop has a cloth side, for removing corrosion and performing light honing.

The strop also has a leather side, for smoothing and shaping the razor's edge.

You may note that my son is not fastidious about matching his socks.

This evening antique straight razors and a shaving brush litter my kitchen table. This is not remarkable for my household, which frequently appears to be caught in a time warp.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More early S.J. Perelman

I was curious about S.J. Perelman's 1930 novel Parlor, Bedlam, and Bath. Through the help of the Interlibrary Loan organization (bless them), a first edition was sent my way from the California State University – Humboldt. The Humboldtians let me borrow it for only a week, as it is a relatively rare book. You can't lay hands on a used copy for under $400.

S. J. Perelman described the novel during a 1978 interview: "Well, my second book, years and years ago was a collaboration with Quentin Reynolds, the famous reporter, and we wrote a prohibition novel back in the early '30s, which was called Parlor, Bedlam, and Bath. This was based upon a famous play many years before called Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath. And we wrote this together and it perished like a dog. That cured me of any ambitions to write a novel."

Despite Perelman's 1978 disclaimer, the book garnered fairly good reviews. Here is an excerpt from the the Saturday Review of Books (July 12, 1930): "The book is good, though it falls occasionally into a bog. Essentially it is like nothing else that we know, in spite of passages and attitudes that remind us of McEvoy, Sullivan, Stewart, Lardner, Benchley, Groucho Marx, and Joe Cook. Anyone to whom this list is a rollcall of the well-beloved will be thoroughly delighted with Perelman. He is never really derivative, though it is plain to see where he went to school. His humor is completely up-to-the-minute: allusive, intelligent, urban—and above all, mad. But that is the way we take it these days, and like it. A generation from now it will be largely indecipherable and thoroughly inane, but here and now it's grand good stuff."

The book is less a novel than a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of wealthy man-about-town Chester Tattersall. Chester's life is a pendulum oscillating between booze and sex. When he satisfies himself with one, he starts hankering for the other. Perelman and Reynolds squeeze what fun that can be had out of this limited comic material, but I struggled to get through the full 240 pages of Chester's drinking and womanizing.

Let's take a look at some of the highlights.

Down at the other end of the bar a melancholy young man named Rolf Weatherbee had been gazing into an empty glass for the last half hour. Rolf was being very dejected. At the end of a year of married life he was beginning to wonder whether marriage wasn't a gamble. Perhaps the little woman standing beside him that morning in front of the minister had not been a Queen of Hearts but a three of clubs. Rolf was full of a great deal of bitterness and a very small amount of rye. He knew that if he only remained where he was long enough, the ratio between the bitterness and the rye would change. When that happened, Rolf intended to go home and apologize for his hasty words.

Here is a description of Chester's dalliance with a young woman named Lila. The narrative takes a surreal turn into a parody of the Merry Widow. Perelman recycled part of this bit for the script he co-wrote for the Marx Brothers 1931 movie Monkey Business. ("It's midsummer madness. The music is in my temples.... The hot blood of youth. Come, Kapellmeister. Let the violas throb. My regiment leaves at dawn.")

"Chester," said Lila, putting out a cigarette and setting her third whiskey sour down for a brief moment, "you have a swell apartment but where is the haunting saxophone, the rhythmic pulsating beat of the drums, the nostalgic call of the violin, the muted dissonance of the trumpet – in short, please turn on the radio." There being no radio, they were compelled to resort to a makeshift; Chester held a bent pin against a phonograph record and they waltzed. They were both excellent disciples of the terpsichorean art, schooled in those graces for which members of the leisured class are renowned. It was a scene of indescribable gayety and one which would draw enthusiasm from even the most jaded bystander. The girl's eyes were bright with tears as she realized what the morrow must bring; for must not Prince Danilo rejoin his regiment ere the cock crew? She alone amongst those heedless dancers knew sadness. But do not think she passed unobserved as her tear tricked down the front of Danilo's tunic. The old Capelmeister, dreaming over his violin, had taken in the situation at a glance, and at a signal from his capable wand, the enchanting bars of Lehar's immortal "Merry Widow Waltz" teased the toes of the frolickers. Thus an old man who had known Love granted a tender reprieve to the blushing Bertha.

"Darling," said Lila one revolution of the hourhand later, "I must say it is surprising to find a bloke kissing me behind my left ear. Perhaps because he is a strange cove he does not know that my lips are located due south from that tip-tilted petal men call my nose." The somewhat foggy but determined amorist rectified his error forthwith.

Perelman's delight in puns and arcane allusions is displayed later in the scene. The allusion here is to Dwight L. Moody, the late 19th-century evangelist, and his hymnist partner Ira Sankey.

"Lila," he said, "I offer you honorable marriage."

"You're crazy," said Lila after deep thought.

"No, just drunk," corrected Chester and he attempted to stand on his head on the day-bed as proof. His elbows buckled under him and he became moody.

"Why are you moody, sweetheart?" asked Lila tenderly.

"I don't know," said Chester, despairingly. "I used to become sankey when I was younger but now I always become moody." This time nobody laughed, for religion is not a thing to be trifled with.

In this scene at a nightclub Chester Tattersall moves in on a beautiful woman who is having an affair with a married judge. (Note: "Gonif" is a Yiddish word meaning a thief or dishonest person or scoundrel.)

Thirty minutes later the Judge tossed off the last of a second bottle of champagne and arose somewhat heavily, first patting his companion's hand possessively.

"Pardon me a minute, kid, I got – er, promised to call – be back in a minute," he said lamely. Chester and the lady waited until he had disappeared into the other room. They looked at each other; she broke into a clear laugh. Chester felt nervous. What was the next step?

"Come over, nice boy, and tell me the story of your life," she invited. Chester arose in nothing flat and settled smoothly into the chair still warm from the impress of the judiciary. He decided to offer the gentlemanly objection.

"Won't your friend mind if he comes back and finds me here?" he asked doubtfully.

"What, mind my speaking to my old college chum? I should say not. Besides, I wanted to know what you were drinking; it looked so pretty." Chester ordered two of the pretty drinks and she opened the Judge's cigarette case for him.

Two minutes later, Chester felt that he was sure enough of his ground to speak somewhat daringly.

"Listen, honey, how about you and I taking a walkout powder before the law comes back?" he asked.

"You've got an awful nerve calling me that, my boy," the lady remarked, "I might be a policewoman for all you know."

"Well," said Chester, "your friend, the Judge, did, and I thought it was your name." He got the smile and the information he wanted.

"No, it's Wendy," she told him. "And what's yours?"

"It should be Peter, I know, but it's only Chester."

When the Judge reappeared he found the two old college chums laughing together like old college chums and putting away a bottle of champagne which Wendy had ordered and charged to his account. He tried to be stern.

"What is this, young man? What are you doing here?"

"Believe it or not, Judge," offered Chester, "I'm a salesman and I'm trying to sell this nice girl a Tattersall."

"Sit down, big boy," Wendy instructed the puzzled Judge. "This is an old friend from the home town. I haven't seen him since we used to play store together." Chester, on the verge of a remark to the effect that he would not be averse to playing house at this date, decided to save it.

""Well," said Judge Rosen, allowing Chester to hold his fat and gemmed set of fingers, "I guess it's o.k. if he's a pal of yours, but what's a Tattersall?"

"A Tattersall," defined Chester, "is a good deal like a gonif except that it has to be fed drinks constantly. No pretty lady should be without one. Stimulates the imagination and loosens the libido. Talks, walks, and looks well on blondes. In fact..." More puzzled than ever the Judge ordered another bottle of champagne, realizing that when you don't understand people the easiest way out is to offer them a drink.

There are some wonderful nuggets scattered throughout the book if you are up to the task of prospecting for them.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Suburban Blacksmith

My younger son decided to make a chef's knife.

He had some narrow eighteen-inch plates of O-1 (oil hardening) tool steel shipped in from New York, bought a torch, and bought some fire bricks. The plan was to construct a little forge with the fire bricks, heat the interior of the forge with a propane torch, and then insert the blade into the hot forge for heat treating. Heat treating meant getting the blade red-hot and then smacking it with a hammer. Lacking a regulation anvil, he planned to use a flat spot on our workbench vise.

The plan seemed a bit sketchy to me, but my son began executing it with characteristic confidence and efficiency.

He cut out a rough blade with tang from the steel plate. Then he constructed the forge by stacking the fire bricks into a little cube and cut a hole in the side of the forge chamber to insert the tip of the torch.

He repeatedly heated the blade to a moderate reddish glow and smacked it with a hammer until it began to cool off. The object was to draw out the blade into a gradual bevel leading down to what would be the cutting edge.

After a great deal of heating and hammering, my son had made only minor progress. The forge just wasn't sufficiently hot to make the steel malleable.

The picture above shows the knife after initial heat treating. My son filed the knife's surface to show low spots of remaining black scale (the origin of the 'black' in blacksmith).

More heat was needed. My son and I reconfigured the forge to close in the interior, leaving only a slit for insertion of the blade.

This new and improved forge did the trick. The blade got plenty hot, allowing my son to complete his hammering.

Now my son prepared to heat the blade to the perfect temperature to establish a fine crystal structure and then quench the blade in oil. The point to quenching is to freeze a fine crystal structure in place and thereby harden the steel. My son was throwing around a lot of metallurgy terms at this point: austenite, martensite, critical temperature, normalization, and so forth into incomprehensibility. He wanted to heat the blade to a temperature where the steel's internal structure would no longer attract a magnet. After some trial and error with touching my refrigerator magnet to the red-hot blade, my son was confident that he could recognize the red-orange color that marked the blade's perfect temperature. He was ready to quench.

We had improvised a quench tank by filling a stock pot full of canola oil. (Kiddies, do not try this at home.) My son plunged the red-hot blade into the oil. The odor of Chinese stir fry filled the garage. After a few minutes my son pulled the blade from the oil. The steel was coated with a lovely brown residue of burned canola oil.

Now it was time for my son to begin the long filing process to finish shaping the blade and to put a nice edge on it. However, my son looked down the line of the blade, squinting and scowling. The blade wasn't quite straight enough. It offended his standards of craftsmanship.

He decided to clamp the blade tightly between two steel plates and cook this assembly in the kitchen oven at 425 degrees for half an hour in hopes of straightening the slight bend at the middle of the blade. Unfortunately, this cooking process didn't work. He tried again, placing some nickels as shims between the blade and the steel plates, clamping everything back down, and cooking it all for another half hour. Still didn't work. Finally, he took the blade back to the garage to coax it into straightness using the vise. The result was heartbreaking.

I'm sure his next knife making attempt will have a happier outcome.