Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.

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What President Trump is doing

Mainstream media now reports that the White House staff is piecing together scraps of paper that President Trump has shredded by hand. United States law requires the preservation of these papers, even though the President has acted to destroy them. I hope that the staff has consulted with professionals from the National Archives about these scraps of paper. If they are using transparent tape to reassemble the scraps, the long-term damage to those papers will be far greater than if they just took each set of scraps and stored them in an envelope or file folder.

Mainstream media reports situations like this to try to create and promote the idea that Donald Trump is unworthy to remain President. Like the Democratic party (who, ironically, just telephoned and asked me for one hundred dollars to reverse the course of Trump’s administration while I was typing the previous paragraph), many members of the mainstream media are not willing to accept the decision made by American voters in November 2016. I did not vote for Trump in the primaries or the general election that year, and if he was up for reelection this year I would not vote for him. But he is President—he deserves respect from all citizens, including those who report the news. Trump is, in fact, doing an admirable job of playing to the dark side of the mainstream media. Responding to him, the media sounds shrill, petty, and obsessive. They are helping the President keep the support of those who elected him—Nixon’s silent majority, the Reagan Democrats, the voters who usually tilt “blue” when casting their votes but will swing toward a conservative who seems to understand and relate to common Americans.

Donald Trump’s success is neither as a businessman nor as a politician, but as an entertainer. Years ago he discovered how to build a popular image of himself and keep it in front of the American people. A businessman in the White House would strive to maintain a calm and orderly atmosphere and present it as such to the public. Trump knows that the people really want drama and excitement. He provides it. His legendary ego and bluster are all part of an act that he performs for the American people, and his supporters love him for it.

In 2020, Trump will be able to campaign with the statement that he kept every promise he made the voters in 2016, or that at least he tried. Where promises have not been kept, Trump can blame Congress and the courts, and Trump’s supporters will trumpet his honesty and reliability as a man of his word. On issue after issue—from immigration to tariffs—Trump has held to his word and allowed others to take the blame for derailing his actions. When he is wrong, Trump does not need to admit it. He can blame his opponents for blocking his plans, and then he can turn to another issue.

Dealing with leaders of other nations, Trump has kept his promise to put the United States first. He has taken risks that no other leader would take, and he has prevailed. His strategy of brinksmanship plays well to his political base. While the mainstream media threatens that Armageddon is just around the corner, Donald Trump has continued to chart his own course and achieve his goals.

Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was summarized by this adage: Speak softly and carry a big stick. Donald Trump speaks loudly, but it works for him. It gets him votes. It keeps everyone’s attention. It makes it unlikely that the Democratic party will find a candidate who can defeat Trump when he runs for reelection in 2020. J.

Stream of consciousness

…when your doctor changes all your medications—blood pressure, allergy, and mood control—at the end of November, so that the first week of December you cannot assess which things are shaping your approach to life: the change in medication; dark, gloomy skies; later sunrises and earlier sunsets; an allergy to oak leaves and their dust; pressure of the holiday season; the latest senseless obsession; traffic and bad drivers; tedious tasks at work….

Listen: When I was a teen-aged boy, my mother would bring me to the county fairgrounds on the day when all the 4-H members in the county would bring in their projects to be judged and displayed. In the morning I would help check in the wood-working exhibits—woodworking! (And all these years later, I still can’t complete a decent woodworking project. It’s taken me all fall to finish the task of rebuilding a wooden rail around the front steps. A decent carpenter could do the work in half a day, but I’m doing the same steps three or four times to get it right, and often walking away for days in disgust before I can return to the task.) Anyhow, when all the projects were checked in, I would go over to the Home Economics building, with its 4-H exhibits of cooking, baking, canning, sewing, knitting, crocheting, macramé, ceramics, flower arranging, table setting, and the like. Each category was being measured by a different judge, who would award blue, red, or white ribbons and then select champion projects from the blue ribbon winners, while a person such as my mother would record the judge’s remarks on each exhibit. My job that afternoon was to gather all the sheets of paper containing judges’ remarks and arrange them alphabetically by exhibitor name. Each 4-H exhibitor could then come to the fair and pick up the judges’ remarks for all of his or her exhibits. Little did I know at the time that this annual task would prepare me more for my present career than all the classes I took in college and in graduate school.

For some years ago Mr. X and his secretary arranged all his incoming mail and copies of outgoing mail in folders by the month. Now these papers are being saved for researchers to study Mr. X and his boss. But no one is going to care what letters Mr. X received and sent in February 1985. No, they will want to know if Mr. Y sent a letter to Mr. X or his boss in 1985 or 1986. So I am taking boxes of folders, removing all the letters, and arranging them alphabetically by year, just like those 4-H forms from long ago. My task is not to read and interpret the letters. All I’m here to do is arrange the letters and describe the arrangement in a database so other people can come here and read and interpret them.

Meanwhile, we have a sick cat at home. About three weeks ago he suddenly lost his balance so badly that he could barely walk. We asked ourselves what could afflict a cat so suddenly: a stroke? MS? ALS? Guillen-Barre? The veterinarian suspected an inner ear infection and started the cat on steroids and antibiotics. He (the cat) has gotten better, but we cannot be sure how much is due to clearing the infection and how much is due to his ability to adjust to continuous vertigo and (perhaps) double vision. He can walk and even run a little, but his jumping is limited to beds and couches—this of a cat who regularly patrolled the top of six-foot-tall bookcases, not to mention the china cabinet and the grandfather clock. He seems content with his lot rather than unhappy. But, when walking or sitting, he tilts his head to one side as if that helps him see things better. It’s cute and endearing, but also heartbreaking because he never did that before.

And why do WordPress and Createspace both demand that I review my work one more time before I can publish it? I always write in Microsoft Word and read through the text several times to make corrections before I copy and paste it. Why do these companies assume that I’m handing in a rough draft that needs another look before it can be shared?

And we are gradually unpacking the Christmas decorations which were sent out for cleaning after our fire last May. They are all in good shape, except for an occasional stain here or there, nothing intolerable. But they were not packed by the cleaners in any sort of discernable pattern. So at present we have a manger scene with ceramic figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, camels, and angels—but no baby in a manger yet, and no sheep. And other random items are similarly appearing in the house as we unpack one box at a time. Still, life goes on, and it’s hard to know how to feel….

J.

 

Treasures recovered

I wasn’t looking for them, but I found them all the same: treasures from an earlier time, almost another lifetime, hidden where only I would be likely to find them.

You know how it is. Sometimes when you pack your things to move, you grab a stack of papers and stuff them in a box. The box moves with you, but then it gets set in a quiet, out-of-the-way place. You move again and the box comes with you, but you still never get around to unpacking it. Eventually, you forget what you originally put in that box.

I have five such boxes filled with paper of various kinds—papers I wrote for school (from elementary school through graduate school), short stories and plays and poems I’ve written, scrapbooks from different times in my life, baseball scorecards, photographs and other things I used to tape to my wall when I was in college, and dozens of other memories, some of which I had long forgotten. I saw the Big Red Machine in action in Chicago—Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and the rest, facing Fergie Jenkins in Wrigley Field. I wrote a paper about schizophrenia for my health class in eighth grade. I attended Boys State. Such memories!

I saved odd headlines from the newspaper, but when Jay Leno showed odd headlines on his show, I couldn’t remember what I had done with my collection. Here are three of my favorites:

“Diary of a Semi-Comatose 16-Year-Old, in Living

“Asian Woman Pastor Wheaton Speak”

…and my favorite, about a high school volleyball game: “St. Francis Handles Wheaton Christian Girls”!

I was looking for a certain short story I wrote when I was in high school. I found many short stories, some of which I don’t even remember writing. Here is an example. I know I wrote this story; it’s in my own unmistakable handwriting. I don’t remember when I wrote it or why:

THE BIKE RIDE

It was a dark, cold, and cloudy day when I left my house in town for a bicycle ride into the country. The charming thing about where I live is that both the scenery of the country and the comfort of the city are nearby. A bike ride to see the autumn colors, as I was doing, took only five minutes. I crossed the river, pedaled up the long hill, passed the church and the cemetery, turned right, and rode the smooth country road for about a quarter of a mile. Then I made another right turn, and I was in the middle of a beautifully-colored grove of trees.

I stood and looked at the yellows, the reds, the browns and greens, and I listened to the cheerful chirps of birds gathering in preparation for migration. No passing car disturbed my peace; no loud noise scared the birds into flight. I felt warmth on my back. Looking up, I saw that the sun had broken through the clouds and was lighting up the sky. I unfastened my jacket to let in the warmth.

After my visit with the trees was complete, I turned and rode back into town. First I traveled down the smooth country road, then turned left, rode past the cemetery, past the church, coasted down the long hill and across the river, and stopped in front of my house. Looking up, I saw that it had become cloudy again. It was also cold again. Shivering, I put the bike in the garage and went into the house.

And that’s the way life was, in another time and another place. J.

Ten tons of paper

One day last month I moved ten tons of paper. I didn’t move it all at the same time, of course, or all at once. The paper was in boxes, lots of boxes, averaging forty pounds a box. Some weighed less than forty pounds, but a lot of them weighed more. It took three of us about six hours to finish the project, but I know that during these six hours I moved at least five hundred boxes.

I work at a library. One department of the library is an archive. Individuals, families, businesses, and other organizations donate their papers to the library so other people can study those papers and learn about those people and organizations and their contributions to the history of our city. After the papers have been donated, a team of archivists prepares them for researchers. The archivists go through the papers, removing rusty staples and paper clips, hardened rubber bands, and other harmful items. Next they organize the paper to help the researchers, although they try to maintain the original order whenever possible, since the order of the papers is part of their story. Finally, the archivists write a description, or index, of the papers, which they call a Finding Aid. This description tells researchers what the library has and where they can find these papers.

The library is running short of storage space. To use space more efficiently, the library’s directors bought shelves that move along a track. These movable shelves can contain more boxes than regular shelves, since there is only one aisle for the whole set of shelves, but the shelves can be moved left or right along the track, making every box accessible (but not all of them at the same time). To use these shelves, though, the library’s workers first had to empty the old shelves, dismantle and remove them, install the new shelves, and then put the boxes on the new shelves. That is what I did last month—moved ten tons of paper in boxes onto their new, space-efficient shelves.

Some reader is saying right now, “Hey, J., why doesn’t your library join the twenty-first century? You could save a lot of time and a lot of space if you would just digitize all those papers instead of storing them and organizing them and describing them. You could load the digital copies into the Cloud and send the paper out to be recycled.” Well, I’m sorry, dear reader, but it is not as easy as you think. I can give you three very good reasons why your up-to-the-minute proposal doesn’t work.

First, do you have any idea how many pages are contained in ten tons of paper? Can you imagine how many hours of labor it would take to run each one of those pages through a scanner? And even if the library wanted to spend money to digitize every sheet of paper, what kind of server do you think could handle all those scans and make them available to the public?

Second, even if they did digitize all those pages and publish them online somewhere, how would researchers know what was in those pages? They still need to be organized and described to be useful to anyone. As a book needs a table of contents and an index, so a collection of historic papers—including ledger books, maps, photographs, and all kinds of other stuff—needs a finding aid to make research possible.

Third, digital technology itself can fail. Computers crash, files become corrupted, and technology always changes. If the only copy of some important document is digital, sooner or later it will disappear. How many of us have lost priceless (to ourselves) stories and essays and photographs because we trusted a computer to save it for us? The library’s staff of archivists will digitize the papers and photographs of greatest value to researchers, and they will make them available online; but to be safe, they still will not discard the originals. Most of the tons of paper will not be digitized. It will be cleaned and arranged and described.

The library directors are wise to accept these gifts of paper, to pay archivists to organize and describe these gifts, and to keep these gifts carefully in storage for researchers today and for researchers of generations yet to come. I am glad that I, in one small way last month, was allowed to contribute to the preservation of history.
J.