22 December 2016

The gift of words

Elektrostal: Lenin Square and the Park Plaza shopping center dressed for the New Year holiday.

I can remember just a few of the Christmas gifts I was given in my childhood -- but nearly all of them were somehow linked with words. Usually -- but not always -- that meant books.

In my early grade school years, I drove teachers to despair with my apparent indifference to the classroom -- I was usually looking out the windows or daydreaming. After educational TV came to our grade school (courtesy of a strange experiment known as the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction -- MPATI), I liked to fantasize that my eyes were educational TV cameras, so it was important to watch the teacher and the blackboard, but not necessarily learn! My teachers were so upset with my inattentiveness that I was sent to counselors, who held anxious consultations with my parents. In turn my parents were so angry about my poor school performance that one year they took away my favorite non-print gift, a huge shiny red toy tow truck.

However, school librarians knew my secret -- I loved to read! I always had the maximum number of books on loan, and would soon be bringing them back for a new load. Christmas always meant that I would get new books -- and those were even better than library books for a special reason. In the blank pages at the front and back, I would draw television-screen shapes into which I could write the "credits" for the books I was reading. My eyes had the special property of turning print into video, and in preparation for each reading session, my viewers would need to know who the director and actors and crew were. Then I could go on to the book itself, whose text would become vivid television, not just for me, but for my fantasy audience who depended on my camera-eyes to see the world.

Christmas with my sister Ellen.
Some of my earliest book memories involved the Happy Hollisters series -- a big happy family who loved solving mysteries. I remember one volume's cast of characters included a woman who did something I'd never heard of before -- she didn't change her last name after her marriage. Thanks to other Christmases' gift books, Robin Hood's forest and King Arthur's Camelot also came to life for me and my invisible audience in those grade school years. King Arthur's and Robin Hood's deaths gave me my first glimpses of human mortality.

The very first gift that I can remember actually asking for was a bulletin board. Yes, a real cork bulletin board, complete with thumbtacks! I can't remember why the idea of owning my own bulletin board took on such urgency, but my parents humored me, and I joyfully hung it up in a corner of our apartment's front room. Letters and postcards from my grandparents in Norway and Germany were among the things on which I bestowed the honor of being pinned up on the board. Later, I pinned up lists of my favorite Top-40 AM radio hits, whose order in the current week and previous week, carefully noted in two columns, were totally based on my choices, not on any statistics or other lists. I stubbornly included Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" on my bulletin board honor roll long after it had disappeared from Billboard.

I guess the bulletin board was somehow a form of publishing and was therefore linked to the next gift I'm reminiscing about this Christmas season, a gift that ranks at the very top for all of my childhood. I think I was ten years old when I had the ecstatic experience of unwrapping the gift I didn't dare hope I would get: a printing press.

It was an utterly simple toy press that used rubber type mounted on a cylinder, pressed against a smaller cylinder wrapped with inky cloth, and then applied to a small piece of paper that slid through the press and came out the back with WORDS ON IT. And the next piece of paper had the SAME WORDS! You could change the cloth for another soaked with a different color of ink and pass the same papers through to print IN TWO COLORS!! You could write to the Superior Marking Equipment Company in Chicago and order different fonts and even rubber clipart and print ILLUSTRATIONS. I don't think I was any more concerned with who would read my output than I was with the audiences for my TV-camera eyes; the important thing was that I was publishing!

And now maybe you know why this blog has been going for twelve years. May the gifts you give and receive this Christmas bring you something like the joy that the Cub printing press gave me.

The wonderful Letterology blog tells more about the Superior Marking Equipment printing presses of my childhood and provides some samples of what the press could do. More background here. Did you by any chance have one of these?

Our Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends is grieving the loss of Arthur O. Roberts, who gave Friends many decades of intellectual and spiritual leadership. He was a pastor, educator, dramatist, poet, philosopher, politician, and mentor to several generations of Quakers now spread throughout the world. I'm so grateful that Nancy Thomas has written a tender appreciation. This bibliography gives an idea of his scope and energy.

Micah Bales says that Christmas is about hitting rock bottom. Are you there yet?
Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”
A story from Kingston, Jamaica: I see you.
When someone calls us by name they remind us who we are, our essential self. By locating us, they help us locate ourselves; the anchoring core of our own existence. Ah! I am here. The real me breaks out like light streaming from window shutters flung wide. I am here!

We children opened our presents on Christmas eve (following our parents' Old-World customs). The ritual went like this: we children were banished to our bedroom, while the Christmas tree was retrieved from the back porch, mounted on its stand and decorated, and the gifts placed underneath. So the whole thing had the quality of a dramatic reveal, but no Santa delivery was involved. Before the gifts were pounced upon and opened, our atheist parents led us in this one Christmas carol:


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the news about Arthur Roberts. One favorite memory -- in the 60's he had invited me out from my teaching at an Ohio college to be a visiting Quaker scholar. I was surprised and honored at the invitation, but was a bit apprehensive how he would take my change in appearance. In line with the times, I had grown a rather modest moustache and goatee -- how would this teacher at an evangelical Quaker institution react? Arthur drove from Newberg to PDX to meet the plane -- he was sporting a full, flowing beard!


Johan Maurer said...

So many examples come to my mind of Arthur Roberts pushing against useless vanities and inhibitions! He once smilingly posed a dialectical challenge to elitism by sticking up for sanctified mediocrity! (I don't think he actually seriously advocated mediocrity, but he was certainly poking a stick at pretentiousness.) If I remember right, he once wrote a book review gently accusing Douglas Steere of name-dropping.

My very first experience of Arthur was as a twenty-something staffer at Friends United Meeting, invited to co-lead a retreat on worship with Arthur Roberts at Quaker Hill Conference Center. He presented sessions on public worship and I focused on personal devotion. I probably overprepared in my nervousness at this public debut, but Arthur was the very embodiment of wise reassurance.

Mindful Searcher said...

I, too, had one of those toy printing presses as a child and loved using it. I had forgotten all about it until I read your post and saw the picture of one just like mine. That led to a job in high school of setting type to print flyers for a little commercial print company that was an adjunct of our town's weekly newspaper. Thanks for rekindling that memory for me! Merry Christmas.

David H. Finke said...

This old (retired) printer resonated with the early joy of efficiently putting reproducible ink on paper. After 40 years with Omega Graphics in Chicago IL and Columbia MO I've finally written "Finis" to that priductive and satisfying chapter of my life, and "R.I.P." to a succession of sturdy old Multilith 1250 and 1250LW presses. (The big guys called them merely "duplicators.") My last one now has a home in Columbia -- free for the careful hauling -- with the nascent "Midwest Graphics Collective.

I'm glad, Dear Johan, that we share a love of words and seek good ways to share them.
Greetings at the season when we celebrate "The Word made flesh," coming to dwell among us: Emanuel! And as Quakers celebrating the ever-Present gift of God's Holy Spirit.

Warmly, In Christ, -DHF

David H. Finke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, David and Mindful.

Let's keep getting the Word out in this uncertain season!