Tag Archives: nostalgia

Glass lust

Please pardon the length of today’s entry. Compared to any other object I have coveted and written about, this one is vastly more difficult. I have written about items I have wanted to grab or to gobble, but I don’t think that I have ever written before of having “given up hope” of getting one, to loose “my mind’s grip” on it, to “wrestle with the decision” not to buy it, as with this. Since beginning this blog, I have struggled several times to write about this item and failed to even begin to set down a few words. Hence the length of time since my last substantial post on this blog. I’ve been fighting the urge to acquire this item.


The Olympus XZ-2

This item is the excellent Olympus XZ-2 camera, which is most notable to me for a lens with a bright, light-eating maximum aperture of f/2.0-2.5, which is practically unheard-of for a point and shoot canera.

Decades ago, when a poor graduate student, I somehow managed to scrape together a month’s pay and bought an Olympus OM-4 with a portrait lens. The OM-4 was one of the last legendary film SLR cameras before the age of autofocus, which was just then coming in. It can even be used without a battery. The esteem in which it is held by its owners can be seen on eBay, where fond sellers tend to set bottom bids at least three times higher than buyers are willing to pay more pragmatic sellers.


The Olympus OM-4

The OM-4 has all sorts of useful abilities, particularly spot exposure, and it could use what was then phenomenal (and no longer produced) ISO 3200 film for low-light conditions.

The Olympus Zuiko 85 mm f/2.0 lens was an affordable marvel. Portrait lenses for digital SLRs of that length and brilliant aperture are now essentially unaffordable to all but pros, costing in the thousands today. (Portrait lenses are so called because an 80-105 mm length is ideal for taking portraits, although actually they can be used for anything.)

Glass lust is hard to explain to non-photographers, but when you have a really good lens on a good camera body, you know it, because it makes taking pictures effortless; you have no awareness of limitations. With a bright and high quality lens, even under dim conditions, the light comes through clear and easy, not shadowed, cramped, and darkened by a small aperture. A blurred background becomes possible, which is particularly good for portraits, as it draws the eye to the subject, instead of the face being one blob among an equally sharp background. With just a little care in framing and choosing an exposure, pictures can look professional.

Glass lust is so powerful that when a young amateur photographer who did good political photographs made a plea for donations for a better lens while he followed our favorite presidential candidate around the country, I sent him $200 without question, because I knew the ache of glass lust in him had to be real for such an unusual and specific plea.

I had a wonderful time teaching myself photography with the OM-4 and that lens. Most notable was a portrait I took of a roommate who then asked for an 8″ x 10″ version to give his mom — “This is the best picture of me that anyone has ever taken,” he declared. Other successes included some remarkable shots of candlelit church services that came back from the processor with fingerprints all over them because they had been handed around the lab. I took a fine shot of a string of 25 Sun Gold tomatoes in my garden. And once, I startled my mother when I showed a picture of her I had casually taken. Used to wide-angle snapshots filled with glare and grinning people, she stammered, “That looks…” she hesitated, “real.”

And then, gradually, over the years and particularly as my finances failed along with my marriage and my business, I stopped taking pictures. There was not much to see in those days that gave me pleasure; there was no money for film and processing; and an abusively controlling spouse meant that I had very little freedom to find any good subjects, particularly people to take portraits of.

When I emerged from that long personal nightmare, the digital camera had dawned, and professional photographers were debating whether to go digital or stay with film. I had no money then, and was much too occupied with survival to use my trusty OM-4. And I had become a recluse to avoid my obsessive husband. However, after I handled demos of cameras that could fit in an Altoids tin, and weighed in my hand the plastic bodies of larger cameras, my OM-4 began to seem less like a prospective pleasure to take up again and more like a steel-framed two-pound albatross around my neck.

I wasn’t satisfied with having a small camera, though, and even the big pro DSLRs could not match the technical capabilities of the OM-4. I wanted something small and capable, not a big DSLR but a smart compact.

And then about a year ago, I noticed that the Olympus XZ-2 was close to the capabilities of the OM-4. I watched the price come down as later models superseded it but did not match its abilities. Now would be a very good time to buy one. If you are dissatisfied with a point-and-shoot, or the picture quality of your phone, or dissuaded by the cost of a DSLR, you should take a look at the XZ-2. I think it is a much better camera than its successors in that line.

However, I cannot see myself getting back into photography. Photography simply no longer appeals to me. Sure, it would be useful to take pictures of things for eBay to thin out some of the muck I have in my little room, but I don’t need a $400 camera with $200 of wonderful accessories for that. Better to use a hundred-dollar tourist toy for that. The XZ-2 is certainly worth its cost, considered objectively, but not as a part of my life. I never did emerge from reclusiveness even after my husband died, and although I have friends, I do not have enough people I want to take pictures of, or to show pictures to, to justify such a purchase.

At this point when in person I discuss things I do not want to buy, my interlocutors channel the cheerful, materialist voices of “positive thinking.” I know the tropes well enough to imagine when alone what such people would say about the XZ-2. “You should get it, because it would renew your interest in this hobby and provide a new way to enjoy the world!” or “You can easily amortize the cost with the things you will sell on eBay.” “You could start a small side business as a classic portraitist, you’re good enough.” “Don’t you want to learn what digital photography and image processing are all about?” And, most appealing to me as a hoarder, “You can buy it and keep it for the day when you are ready to start again.” But I’m simply, plainly not interested in any of that. If I ever have a change of heart, technology and software will have progressed to the point of making the XZ-2 obsolete.

My pride and a dream to regain my youth push forward, encouraging my desires to own this new camera, but it would be a waste. My month-old $30 Dustbuster has given me far more pleasure than the prospect of this camera offers. And so, with tremendous regret, I turn away from this fine Olympus XZ-2.

This hurts.

Eight bells

320px-Dock_StreetI once spent a happy few years of my youth in a harborside town. Like a child with its mother, without being aware of it, I learned the moods of the water and weather in different seasons and at different stages of the tide– the haunting touch of the velvet fog or the gentle caress of the lightest drizzle, the salty wet kiss of the summer’s sun or the violent tongue-lashing of a half-hour thunderstorm, or the night so breathlessly still and the tide so high that it looked like one could just step off the dock right onto the glassy surface of the water. To this day when crossing a bridge over the major river in my present city, I cannot help noting whether the tide is going in or running out.

The town rang ship’s bells around the clock, a sweetly piercing sound. Before I lived there, I had read of nautical time and thought it sounded complicated. Noon is eight bells, 12:30 one, 1:00 two, and so on up to eight bells again at 4:00 p.m., and then the cycle repeats around the clock.

But because the bells are struck in pairs, nautical time is far simpler and more intuitive than it seems on first reading. The pairs mean you never really have to count to more than four. And you are never caught, as with landlubber clocks, wondering if you heard nine, ten, eleven, or twelve strikes. If you have a basic orientation to what part of the day or night it is, you will know what time it is when the bells are rung.

If it’s dark outside and seven bells ring “ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding, ding,” then you know it is 7:30 p.m., 11:30 p.m., or 3:30 a.m. – just beginning a nice evening out with your friends, or it’s getting a bit late, or you are pulling an all-nighter and you don’t have too many hours to finish that paper you have to turn in that day.

Chelsea 20501_Ships_Bell_Hinge_bezelI am a city girl, so “nature” is for me mostly the entity that throws snow in your way and makes you late to work, or rains on you and makes a tired commute home even more tiring. But in those young years by the water, by dint of tides and a wide variety of weather, all metered out by the everpresent nautical time, I was never closer to nature as it really is in all its moods. Ship’s bells thus remind me of one of the most satisfying times of my life.

So it is with great regret that I cannot have a ship’s bell clock.

I and my neighbors are packed together so intimately that if I am walking down the hall toward our shared bath and a half, I can hear random burps and farts and telephone conversations. And so I cannot reasonably have anything that makes noise all the time. Even though these clocks have switches to turn off the sound at night, and even if the guy across the hall plays disco every Saturday afternoon, ringing bells every half hour are a bit much to ask my neighbors to put up with day after day.

Weems and Plath OrionBut if I could, I would have a ship’s bell clock from Chelsea Clock or Weems and Plath. The sound is actually far sweeter than the recording on the Chelsea website. If you have a good clock shop in your town, go and see if they have a ship’s bell clock, hear for yourself the rhythm of a life by the ocean, and contemplate whether you would like to bring one home.

Pancakes and politics


financial journalist Louis Rukeyser

financial journalist Louis Rukeyser

I grew up dorky, or at least my classmates thought my family was. My family always watched the news shows like “60 Minutes” and adored figures who cared about economics and politics such as Louis Rukeyser and Mark Russell. In that B.C. (before cable) era of ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS, my parents were mutants because they were news hounds and also taught their offspring to be so.

My family was secular in the particular span of time when I was growing up, and one of my happiest childhood memories is Sunday mornings. When I was in college, I immediately recognized the worldly emotional flavor of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning” even though we had no pets and my mother never went about in a nightgown:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

So on Sundays, instead of learning religion, I learned to be patriotic and political.

There was the huge Sunday edition of the paper that we would split up and trade. I would sit on the Persian rug while the sun would shine in at an angle, brilliantly. The smell of my parents’ coffee would permeate the air as they argued about politics and commented on the various editorials and op-eds they were reading.

BisquickPancakesThen my father would make Bisquick pancakes. When I got to fourth grade or so, I took over, carefully keeping the buttered griddle (yes, real butter) from being too greasy and the pancakes from being too dry. (Well, actually, I liked the crisp edges of the pancakes that were poured just after I put more butter on the grill.)

Then the Sunday “talking heads” political shows would come on TV. In an era when politicians were not known for discussing “what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” when they were idealized as responsible men, we knew what such an honorable leader would do: He (and it was always a he) would meet the press and face the nation.

My parents and I would sit at the table and watch raptly as we ate the pancakes drenched in Log Cabin syrup. I learned then to be concerned not about a meal consisting almost entirely of fat, starch, and sugar, but about the doings of our country and the politicians who, we naively trusted, represented us.

But I also remember the annoyance of having to wash the manual egg beater with which I had made the batter, cleaning every little twist and turn and crevice.

dough whisk web

And thus it is with admiration, nostalgia and an incongruously overwhelming feeling of love for country that I want a dough whisk. Designed not to entrap dry balls of starch and to be easily washable, it is perfect for making pancake batter. I don’t want one to use, or even to make me fantasize about having a kitchen; I want one to make me smile. For the five minutes before, of course, it goes into a box of clutter and ends up in storage. So, well, I shouldn’t get one.

I don’t know if the King Arthur Flour dough whisk is made in the United States, and I want one so badly I don’t actually care. But if you don’t go to church and want to teach your children patriotism, I would suggest that you get one and make Sunday morning pancakes while watching the full Ginsberg so that they will always connect sweetness with political awareness.

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