Saturday, June 23, 2018

It's The Small Things...

It’s the small things….

  We live in a complex world these days, one that is moving at a rapid pace and seemingly headed in every direction at once. We have a lot of new technology and objects in our lives today that simultaneously make things more complicated and help us try to manage this world we have just made more complicated. We have computers, digital connections, the cloud, smart phones, apps, Bluetoooth, drones, Skype, and so much more. Yes, many of these technologies and objects are enabling us to do so much more than could have been imagined a few decades ago. And they are filling our lives with more and more objects. We are a profoundly material rich culture, and sometimes that seems to be to our benefit and sometimes to our detriment. We are interacting with so much “new” technology and “new and improved” objects that we can easily overlook and get away from appreciating the more “mundane” and “ordinary’ things-the “basic” or “simple” things that have been around for years. And when we do think about them, we often think they are beneath us and/or not “important.” But as a curious person and an ex-Ancient Civilizations teacher, I love examining the ordinary. Most important developments in a civilization are building on something basic and ordinary, and these ordinary things have affected us and unconsciously influenced us in many ways.. Finding the stories behind these ordinary objects and processes is one of the things I love about history. It is often fascinating, curious and surprising to trace the “how” and the “why’ behind something simple. II always told my students that, “Nothing comes from Nowhere: there is a story behind everything.”  Exploring that story and where it goes almost always leads in surprising directions and to wondrous conclusions.

   What brought this on was another encounter with author, designer, civil engineer and professor Mr. Henty Petroski. I first encountered Mr. Petroski some 19 or 20 years ago when I came across his book, The Pencil. I was fascinated, not only because someone wrote a book about the lowly pencil, but because someone wrote a 400+ page book about the pencil. I just had to read it, and I am so glad it did. Among other things, I learned that what we call the “pencil” can be traced back to ancient Rome; that there were at least two wars in Europe fought over access to stores of “leaded ore” that makes up the writing substance of pencils, and that writing with pencils was a key part of Napoleon’s military success. Napoleon wrote his battle plans on horseback in pencil as the battle progressed: he did not have to dismount and get a table and ink to use a quill pen as did other generals. Therefore, he could change his battle plans quickly as he witnessed from horseback what was actually happening on the battlefield. It was a huge advantage.

     I also learned the some 60% of the members of the American Society of Civil Engineers thinks the #2 pencil with an attached eraser is the best designed product of the last 200 years. I was hooked by all of this, and I quickly read two other books by Petroski. The Evolution of Useful Things looked at certain design features of common objects and how they developed over time and also noted links between culture and design. He traced, for example, how and why forks got their tines and how paper clips and post-its came to be. To Engineer Is Human looked at design and engineering as part and parcel of what it means to be human and how failure and unhappiness, and not necessity, are more often the mothers of design. We as a species seem to need to tinker, explore and re-invent. Both books opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the world around me.

   Recently I picked up his The Toothpick and started another voyage into discovering the extraordinary the lies at the heart of the ordinary. I have just started the book, but I have already learned that the toothpick, be it made of grass, wood, gold, or quill, is one of humanity’s most universal and oldest tools. And that toothpicks became common in American dining establishments because Charles Forester, the father of the US toothpick industry, hired students from Harvard to go into Boston restaurants and relentlessly demand them, thus manufacturing a demand for his product. When we think of the Renaissance we think of art and literature, but it was also a special time for toothpicks as well. Owning a variety of the tool and cleaning one’s teeth with them after a big meal were seen as indications of one’s wealth, class and sophistication. Even European monarchs had toothpicks made from precious materials and displayed them on their clothing. This is just want I have gleaned from reading the prologue and the opening chapters of the book. I can’t wait to find out more.

  So I am happy: I am on the way to new discoveries and new realizations. I never tire of finding out new things, and I especially love the plain and direct way Petroski writes and organizes his books. To me, he is a poet in the sense meant by the anonymous poet who said, “The purpose of poetry is to make the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary’.  That is what he does, and In that there is great joy and great fun.

   Dukes fan Ruth Brown is doing a food drive in conjunction with Philabundance. The donation boxes are in place and the drive will go until June 30th. Locations:

·         South Kensington Community Partners (1301 N 2nd)
·         PlayArts (1241 N Front)
·         Spot's Spot Pet Grooming (123 W Girard)
·         Chestnut Hill Library (8711 Germantown Ave)
Among Philabundance's most-needed items are canned fruits & veggies, canned tuna, meat & soup; cereal; PB & J; rice; cooking oil, non-perishable milk, and whole grain pasta. Please donate

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