Bookshelf Tour – Episode #2

[Second installment of  a series where Calvin inventories the contents of his personal bookshelves as a springboard/excuse for noting some of the important influences on – or relics of – certain life (or at least reading) experiences, choices, beliefs, and values. This series also constitutes a record of The Great Bookshelf Purge of 2014. You can read the previous installment here.]

Bookcase Set 009Books on the middle shelf in this photo that I’ve read:

This is My Beloved: Poems (1967) by Walter Benton. I can’t remember whether I bought this for my then-fiance (and later wife) Peg, or whether she gave it to me. I’ve kept it as a relic of that happy time, but I don’t remember any of it (the poems, not the time). In any case, because of its sentimental value and because of its unusual format (a “diary in verse”), I plan to read it again someday.

The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967) and A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1969) by Peter Berger. I first stumbled upon Berger’s works during a course I took at Columbia University in the summer of 1968, and they, along with Thomas Luckmann’s The Invisible Religion (1967), plus a book Luckmann co-authored with Bergman, The Social Construction of Reality (1966),  struck me as revelations. Their insights dovetailed perfectly with what I had been learning, to my astonishment, in my undergraduate courses in the history of Christianity.  Because Berger (and Luckmann) were such pivotal liberators from my childhood-long indoctrination in the Baptist version of Christianity, I will be keeping their books on my bookshelf. (Meanwhile, a few years ago, I read Berger’s autobiography.)

The Oxford Annotated Bible: Revised Standard Version (1962); The New English Bible: New Testament (1961); Into the Worldwind: A Translation of the Book of Job (1979) by Stephen Mitchell; The Voice Out of the Whirlwind: The Book of Job: Materials for Analysis (1960) by Ralph E. Hone. I purchased all but one of these books while I was an undergraduate minoring in the history of Christianity. Although I must’ve read at least the non-genealogical sections of the Bible ten times over during my aforementioned indoctrination in the Christian religion, I don’t remember consulting any of these tomes since – even the two about Job, whose legend is, I think, one of the most compelling ones included in the Bible. I’ll be keeping only the Oxford, but I’ll also be relocating it to another bookshelf in my house where I keep reference works, freeing up space in the living room bookcase for something more useful.

The Devil’s Dictionary (1906) and Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults (1909) by Ambrose Bierce. These are the two books I own that were written by one of the authors in my personal literary Pantheon. (If I ever locate a copy of Bierce’s complete works, I’ll be buying that to replace these paperbacks.) My well-worn copy of the Dictionary I must’ve bought decades ago (the cover price is 95 cents!). The other Bierce compendium was to be a thank-you gift to a book editor acquaintance of mine who treated me to lunch in New York a few years ago. He had chaired a panel of judges for a GLBTQ literary award, and had recruited me for the panel; I’d finally met him on a subsequent trip to Manhattan. However, I never got around to mailing this hilarious book to that book editor, and the fact that he’s retiring later this year, and will no longer have the need to refer to it, is the perfect pretext for keeping this gem in my library!

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994) by Sven Birkerts is my paperback version of the library copy I read during the infancy of the Internet Age. Birkerts writes beautifully (a collection of his essays on other topics was, incidentally, the single book I managed to read during a vacation trip on an English canal boat a few years ago), so I’m keeping this book to re-read one day to see if Bikerts’ analysis holds up after a few more decades worth of the e-book phenomenon.

Bureaucracy in Modern Society (1956) by Peter M. Blau is one of the few books I’ve ever filled with underlinings (or highlightings) and marginal exclamations. I don’t know how I came to own this paperback, but glancing at a few of the marked passages, I can see why never discarded it: it’s excellently written and incredibly concise (only 130 pages, including notes and list of suggested readings). If I hang onto it even longer, I’ll be able to treat myself to the masochistic experience of re-reading it after completing careers in two humongous bureaucracies (as a functionary in a state-operated mental health treatment and mental health treatment administration system and, later, as a librarian in a large urban public library system). In any case, reading this book (whenever I first read it) must’ve been partly responsible for my long-standing hatred of hierarchies and my equally long-standing practice of turning down repeated opportunities for promotions into management positions (…until I got tired of psychos getting too many of those deliberately eschewed-by-me promotions).

I Didn’t Come Here to Argue (1954) and I Try to Behave Myself: Peg Bracken’s Etiquette Book (1959) by Peg Bracken. I can’t remember when I stumbled across Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book (which I also own, and that I keep in my kitchen along with my other cookbooks), but I certainly enjoyed all of her books (including another I don’t own but remember reading with relish, The I Hate to Housekeep Book). Bracken’s Phyllis Dilleresque approach to domestic bliss would constitute Martha Stewart’s worst nightmare; fortunately f0r Bracken’s readers (and for Martha), there was no Martha Stewart publishing empire in the 1950s.  Hoping that Bracken’s hilarious prose will withstand a re-reading after fifty years have elapsed, I’m going to transfer these two paperbacks to my humor/poetry/nature bookcase at the cabin.

The October Country (1955), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), and The Halloween Tree (1972) by Ray Bradbury. I’ve read several other books by Bradbury (Farenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man) but these are the ones I bought when I was thinking that I might want to collect all of his work. Not only did I not end up collecting Bradbury, but I never got around to reading all his novels, including the more famous ones like The Martian Chronicles. I like Bradbury’s fantasy novels more than his science fiction, despite the fact that for several years when I was a teenager I was a proud and money-spending member of the Science Fiction Book Club.  (During that halcyon era, A.E. van Vogt was my favorite author. I either eventually gave away his and the other SFBC’s books, or they’re somewhere in my attic, waiting for me to donate them somewhere.) For reasons I don’t totally understand, science fiction and fantasy are genres I’ve not read any further examples of during the past forty years – with a single exception: Jack Finney’s riveting Time and Again (1995).  When I read these fantasies by Bradbury, I distinctly remember thinking his prose style was, especially for a science fiction/fantasy writer, poetic and mesmerizing; I’ll be keeping these paperbacks in case I decide some day to see if I still think so…of if I was simply a very imaginative teenager. In any case, I was thrilled, later in my life, to see Bradbury become a vocal, compelling advocate for public libraries (some of his more memorable public statements are included in my other blog’s Bookish Quotations), and to learn recently that a branch library in Los Angeles was named in his honor.

Books on the middle shelf in this photo that I haven’t yet read:

Chips off the Old Benchley (1949) by Robert Benchley. I don’t know when or where I bought this book, but I do know why I must’ve bought it: because so many writers claim that Benchley is the funniest writer they know of. This is a collection of previously uncollected pieces (stories, satirical essays, and play reviews); I’ll be relocating it to my bookshelf at the cabin where I keep most of my poetry and humor (hoping that I’ll make more time there to read those things than I seem to find at home).

Make Way for Lucia: The Complete Lucia (1977) by E.F. Benson. My friend Max Clore, who died suddenly a few years ago, was a Lucia fanatic, and Max’s evangelizing about Benson was how I first learned about Benson myself. I seem to remember listening to a Benson audiobook a while back (or was that a Wodehouse story I’m remembering?), but my hardback copy of Make Way (a library book sale purchase) turned out to be far too unwieldy for me to dip into. So I’m purging it from my library and will relocate to my bookshelf at the aforementioned cabin the paperback version of “Part V” of this compendium, The Worshipful Lucia, which I also somehow came into possession of.

The Handbook of Political Fallacies (1824) by Jeremy Bentham. I must’ve bought this still-unread-by-me paperback during my undergraduate days, when my generation was in the midst of its full-bore disgust with the U.S. politicians of the late 1960s. Although the subject matter is bound to be as infuriating today as it was in Bentham’s time (or in the 1960s), Bentham’s classification of the various logical fallacies so prevalent in political discourse (if it could be dignified with such a term) looks intriguing, and his prose style promises to be felicitous. I’ll keep this in case I can someday steel myself to read it.

The Long-Legged House (1971) and Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006) by Wendell Berry. Because Kentucky-based Berry ranks as The Living Prophet Most Revered by Cal, I intend to one day read all of his wonderfully articulate and radically sensible essays (and to re-read House, which is an early collection). But I’ll be purging Andy Catlett from my library, as I’ll want to first read Berry’s other novels (Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow) before I read this one. (That is, if I end up reading Berry’s novels at all: sometimes, alas, great essayists are not the best novelists – although, in Berry’s case, he also happens to be a pretty good poet.)

You Can’t Win: The Autobiography of Jack Black (1988). Before my brother Michael gave me this book for my birthday in 2012, I’d never heard of Jack Black or his book, but I’ll be keeping this in my library to read one day because Mike doesn’t often recommend books to me, and because he inscribed it as “one of my favorite books of all time…”

The Light Around the Body: Poems (1967) by Robert Bly. Because I want to have all the published output of any poet whose poems I like, I don’t normally buy books of poems by living poets who I don’t know personally, so someone might have given me this as a present. Bly looks so young in the back-cover photo!

The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and I Loved This People (1964) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought (1963) edited by Martin E. Marty. Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German preacher and theologian – and co-conspirator of a plot against Hitler’s life – who the Nazis executed at Himmler’s express order a few days before the Germans surrendered. What I learned as an undergraduate about Bonhoeffer’s life and his theology instantly catapulted him into hero status for me (who was then still a believer). Although my eventual disenchantment with the Christian religion (and with organized religion in general) makes it unlikely that I will ever read these books, it’s impossible for me to purge any book Bonhoeffer wrote from my library (especially the second one, which is mainly a collection of his writings from Gestapo prisons and concentration camps). Bonhoeffer’s intelligence and courage are that inspiring. My mom miraculously remembered my love of Bonhoeffer when the library of the church she once attended was selling some of its discards: that’s where these three came from – a (no doubt message-encoded) gift from her (a devout Baptist) to me (who, much to her dismay, has strayed from the fold).

Healing the Shame the Binds You (1988) by John Bradshaw. I’m not sure I actually read this book, but I can guess that I bought it sometime during the five year period I spent attending weekly sessions of the local GLBTQ chapter of Adult Children of Alcoholics. This was when and where (thanks to the initial invitation to those meetings by my friend Max Clore) I first encountered and then began to better understand the role of codependence in my early upbringing. To my horror, and unbeknownst to me, I had dragged many of those patterns into my adult relationships. From that pivotal (if not entirely successful) period of “recovery” (1986-1991), my admittedly fluctuating consciousness of codependency patterns has been a useful and reliable tool in my attempts at more mindful behavior. I doubt if I’ll keep Bradshaw’s book in my library any longer, but I know dozens of people who would benefit from reading it, or, better, from reading Melanie Beattie’s Codependent No More (1986).

Nonbook objects on this shelf (as pictured left to right):

  • Framed print

Michael Richmond is an artist friend who lives in Charleston, who, along with Michael’s wife Lynn, my Atlanta friend Kris introduced me to. Charleston is one of my favorite cities to visit, and Michael and Lynn have hosted me and Kris, or me and Larry and Kris, several times, and we try to get together with them whenever they visit Atlanta. Michael’s pencil drawings are stunning: they look like photographs, but uncannily they aren’t! I couldn’t afford an original, but I did want a reminder of Michael and his talent, so at one of his Charleston shows I bought this copy of Michael’s 2005 rendering of the top of a Corinthian column holding up a roof of one of the town’s historic buildings. It’s one of the few pieces of non-mass-produced art I own, one of the fewer framed pieces I own, and one of the even fewer pieces whose creators I know personally. It makes me smile whenever I see it, and it’s only in my bookcase because I haven’t yet found the perfect spot on one of my walls to hang it.

  • Ceramic vase

I can’t remember where I bought this piece; my guess is that I got it at The New Gallery on one of my many trips to Asheville sometime during the three years (1986-89) that I was making regular visits to that city while my former partner Larry was a student at UNC-Asheville. I rarely buy pottery (it’s always so expensive!) – but I’ve had this piece for at least twenty years, and still love the way its creator pressed leaves into the clay, causing their imprints to remain after the vase was fired. Was it my love of all things autumnish (or autumn-colored) and/or all objects decorated with leaves or ferns that prompted me to bring this home? Probably, plus I love the chunky heft of it, and its tallish, slim, vertical shape. I couldn’t bear to hide it away in the trunk-like box out on the sunporch where I stash my other plant-holders, so I keep it in my bookcase instead, and I can notice it periodically all year round.

  • Column capital-themed glass vase (?), topped by a malleable puzzle made of wire

I’m a sucker for architecturally themed objects, and an ancient residue of wax at the bottom of this one tells me I once used it as a candle holder. I’m also partial to clever puzzles and just about anything made of wire: this one can be morphed into a sphere, a cylinder, a sort of star-shaped something-or-other, and God knows what else. For a time I keep these puzzles on my coffee table (at the moment you’d find a puzzle made of zillions of tiny magnetic balls), but they eventually make their way onto my bookshelf where mystified or intrigued passers-by can pluck them down and fiddle with them.

  • Miniature cast-iron urn, topped by a painted wooden egg nested in a bit of sparkly netting

I can’t afford full-sized cast-iron urns, so I content myself with buying multiple tiny ones: there’s something about any urn’s shape that remains mysteriously alluring to me. (Perhaps my attaction to urns is merely a matter of their reference to the classical style?) At some point, having run out of space, I plopped into this particular and then-empty urnlette a wad of glitter-embedded cloth that I couldn’t bear to throw out, and later the decorated wooden egg migrated to the top of the urn as well. At one point long ago, I considered the prospect of collecting decorated eggs. After beholding the formidable collection a friend of mine had long ago assembled (and displayed in their own gorgeous glass cabinet), I abruptly gave up the collecting ambition, but I did keep the few decorated wooden, metal, porcelain, and marble eggs I’d already purchased or had been given as presents. This one is one of my faves, probably because it is daubed with a burgundy highlights, and burgundy is one of my two favorite colors (the other favorite being purple).

  • Silver-plated antique pitcher

I don’t remember the year I found – in a now-longer-existing gift store – this lovely object, but I do remember the circumstances. It was on display on top of a couple of antique books, holding a tiny but completely charming posy of fresh violets. After fondling the pitcher for many minutes trying to talk myself into buying it, I reluctantly left it at the store, considering it “too expensive” for my budget. I spent the next two days convincing myself that I “deserved” to spend whatever it happened to cost. Miraculously, when I returned to the store, it was still there. I’ve never been happier with any purchase of such a small object. I’ve since used it to hold violets from my own garden, and it’s migrated from room to room over the years before ending up (?) in the bookcase. To me this small object represents all things Victorian, civilized, and graceful that I can’t afford to own, but love the sight of…and it reminds me that I should probably buy at least some of the things I probably “can’t afford” because of all the sheer pleasure I will get out of having them (and noticing and re-noticing them) if I do go ahead and plunk down the cash.

  • Miniature lamp-shaped artificial candle

A gift years ago from my sister Gayle, and one of many QVC products Gayle has given me over the many years she’s been one of QVC’s favorite customers. This battery-operated, vanilla-scented candle is adorable (the “lampshade” glows from within), but I keep forgetting to turn it on – which is a pity as it’s one of the few candles I can safely illuminate inside the bookcase!

  • Miniature temple facade

Behind the other objects in the photo is another one: a ten-inch tall, very heavy paperweight – or maybe it’s half of a pair of bookends? Anyway, a decorative knick-knack made to resemble a highly stylized version of the front of a Greek temple. There’s still a price tag stuck to the bottom of it, and, given its rather crude design, I’m surprised I forked over $22 for it (apparently, at a thrift store, in April 2004). My aforementioned fondness for All Things Architectural is my only excuse for buying such an ill-made thing. (No wonder it ended up mostly hidden behind other stuff.) Will I get rid of it? Probably not: it looks OK from a distance!

Upshot of Inventory of Shelf #2 (of 28):

  • # Books relocated:  4  [Running total:  4]
  • # Books purged:  7  [Running total: 15]
  • # Titles from this shelf added to the catalog of Cal’s personal library: 15  [Running total: 47]
  • # Nonbook objects relocated from this shelf:  1  [Running total:  1]

A Second Snowfall in Atlanta

2014 Snowfall #2 004

By the time I post these photos, The Great Meltdown will be well underway, but we’ve had a wonderful couple of days here this week. This time around, more snow than ice, compared to last week’s episode.

Fortunately (though unlike 200,000 other households in Georgia) my house didn’t lose power – and, so far, no limbs from the 100-year-old trees surrounding my yard have crashed onto my roof.

Mostly, it’s been wonderfully quiet outside: zero cars, and the only sounds those of neighbors walking past the house on their way to the corner market or to the sleddable slopes of Candler Park.

The freezing temperatures have been a great excuse for Brad’s keeping the fire going in the fireplace and cooking up some great meals, including a vat of chili we began working our way through last night.

Meanwhile, the birds at the bird feeders have been very entertaining.

A few garden-in-winter photos that I plan to revisit sometime in July, when I won’t be able to believe a snowfall, any snowfall, is possible in Atlanta:

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Investing in a Hobby

Pelican pen nib

For over 50 years now, I’ve been fooling around with calligraphy.

I don’t remember how my interest in “the art of beautiful writing” got started. I’d been a alphabet-lover and alphabet-doodler since grade school, but doubtless one of the main reasons for the persistence of this hobby has been my good fortune in the teachers, professional and otherwise, who I’ve been lucky to cross paths with over the years. It was their skill and patience and encouragement that kept alive and nurtured whatever got somehow sparked back there in my callow youth. 

  • My first calligraphy mentor was Blanche Flanders, my art teacher in high school. An amateur calligrapher herself who became a lifetime friend, she and I still enjoy adorning with our respective calligraphy pens and inks some of the envelopes of the letters we regularly exchange.
  • After settling in Atlanta after graduating from college, I took several quarters’ worth of calligraphy classes from Reuben Tuck, through Emory’s community education program.
  • Many decades later, part of my way of coping with the end of a nineteen-year-long domestic partnership was to consider revisiting whatever interests or activities had contributed toward my happiness before I got into that relationship. Along with finding a way to re-connect with my life-long love of dancing and my ancient resolve to learn how to play the piano, I also remembered those gratifying calligraphy classes at Emory. So I looked around to find another (affordable) class, and discovered one being taught only a few miles away, at DeKalb County’s Callenwolde Arts Center. Serendipitously, that course was taught by Carol Gray, who not only was a calligrapher but a fellow attendee of the local Quaker congregation.
  • More recently, I began my second consecutive quarter of weekly calligraphy classes at Fulton County’s Mills Senior Center, taught by professional calligrapher Sharon Ann Smith.

Even though for me calligraphy has been more of a form of private meditation than anything else, and even though I’ve no delusions about becoming a master calligrapher, I would like to get better at it – especially since calligraphy is the only “creative” activity I’ve ever shown the least smidgen of talent for. And given the extra time and energy available since retiring from my full-time job last March, it seems within the realm of possibility that I might be able to hone my calligraphic skills beyond the ability to beautify an envelope.

At my age, substantially improving my calligraphy skill seems plausible, only if I’m willing to invest more time and more money in what has until recently been something I mess around with only a few times a year.

Time-wise, my most recent (i.e., post-retirement) investments so far in this hobby include:

  • Taking a six-session course last fall (taught by Carol Gray) to learn the rudiments of the uncial style of calligraphy.
  • Attending weekly italic calligraphy classes (taught by Sharon Ann Smith) at a local senior center.
  • Attending last month in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a two-day workshop (taught by Sharon Coogle) on uncial calligraphy
  • Renewing my membership in the Atlanta Friends of the Alphabet, the local calligraphers’ guild, and attending more of its monthly meetings (which, alas, happen to  take place on the same night of the week as my square-dancing class).

Spending more money in support of my calligraphy hobby has been more difficult.

True, calligraphy is not as expensive or cumbersome as some hobbies are. For starters, one doesn’t need to buy special clothes to do it in! And even though a studio would be lovely, it’s hardly necessary to set aside an entire room (or rent space elsewhere) for one’s equipment and supplies. On the other hand,

  • the specialized supplies (not to mention certain specialized time- and energy-saving pieces of equipment on the market) aren’t free, and the temptation to spend big bucks on a multitude of ever-so-wonderful exotic supplies or equipment is ever-present.
  • most professionally taught calligraphy classes and workshops are quite pricey – and I’m not talking here about the ocean cruises exclusively designed for calligraphers.

Despite my successful resistance (so far) to any wild shopping sprees and to numerous thousand-dollar workshops on offer, I did recently identify three possibly relevant counter-arguments to my habit of avoiding any substantial financial investments in this particular long-term interest:

  • Shouldn’t I be prepared – nay, be happy – to spend money on a pastime that brings me such great pleasure?
  • Don’t I willingly spend big bucks in the semi-frequent pursuits of my other long-term passions (like gardening and, even more to this particular argument,  overseas travel)?
  • If not now, when?

So I was proud of myself when, earlier this week, I bit ye bullet and purchased a modest batch of calligraphy supplies that I’d long put off buying but that I’ll indisputably be needing if I intend to ramp up my practice and activity in this particular pursuit. Here’s what I got (this time at Sam Flax):

calligraphy supplies

In short, dear reader, I am happy to report that I have finally decided it’s OK to invest a bit o’ cash to support the pursuit of something I obviously love, would like to do more of, and to get better at. So…yay!

Calvin (Finally) Gets a Smartphone

apple-iphoneIncorporating a common gadget into one’s daily round may be a dubious pretext for a blogpost – and an especially dubious pretext for as lengthy a post as this one’s going to be. But as my recent crossing of the threshold between non-iPhone usage and iPhone usage may prove to be as significant for this blogger (and person) as my purchasing (back in the Pleistocene 1980s) a personal computer, I’ve decided to document how this intruiging device came to be incorporated into my daily routine.

As is typical for me, my longstanding reluctance to obtain an iPhone had to do with mainly with how much the thing costs – both the machine itself and the monthly fee resulting from using it.

As we shall see, in my case the budget concerns turned out to be marginal. But there was something else that made me hesitant to try one out so belatedly, after most people I knew had long since capitulated decided to replace their mobile phone with a “smartphone” of some sort.

For me, the iPhone – as it is typically deployed in the United States, anyway – had come to symbolize what I consider the Potential Dark Side of the otherwise impressive (and impressively rapid) evolution of computer-based technology and the Middle Class’s access to that technology. I was – and still am – disappointed appalled at how quickly this amazingly powerful portable and wireless computerized device became such a ubiquitous and  socially fragmenting (vs. community-fostering) feature of public life instead of the totally beneficial tool-consolidating, and communication-facilitating device it might have become.

(Warning: Further ruminations about this Potential Dark Side of the smartphone – or, more accurately, the Almost Universally Tacky Use of A Benign Technology by Thoughtlessly Rude Adults – figure largely in this account of how this tantalizing little gadget entered the Cal-o-sphere.)

Like every other first-worlder (or, apparently, like 85% of all current Earthlings regardless of geographical location or income), I began noticing – probably sometime in 2008 shortly after Apple began expensively peddling its notoriously expensive and cleverly-designed mobile phones – more and more of my fellow-citizens spending more and more time staring at something in the palms of their respective left hands (or in the case of left-handed smartphone users, the staring was presumably at the right-hand palm.)

I can’t remember whether my first puzzled noticings of smartphone-staring-at were in an airport, in a subway station, or in a shopping mall, but I do remember feeling that same indignance that had previously been triggered by the sonic degradation of public civility by subsequent waves of boom-box-toting and cellphone-yelling-into hordes. (Fortunately for me, no one of my personal acquaintance had yet whipped out his/her mobile smartphone to gaze into or talk at while I stood there momentarily and rudely ignored.)

At any rate, as the frequency of such palm-staring sightings grew by the month, the more my curiosity – and my chagrin and, eventually, my consternation – became. I kept wondering what magical distractions any machine could possibly provide would prompt people to ignore multiple years’ worth of childhood indoctrination/socialization in the proper ways of deporting oneself and one’s machines in public places – not to mention acceptable behavior in the midst of personal conversations. (Sure enough, it wasn’t long until Miss Manners felt obliged to make a pronouncement on the proper vs. improper use of the mobile telephone.)

What I didn’t realize, for five long years, was that the iPhone (and its imitating Androids, etc.) wasn’t merely a replacement for the land-line telephone or, eventually, the cellphone itself. Owning a smartphone was a way of carrying around with you everywhere a tiny, light-weight, powerful wireless computer.

I didn’t get that. All I saw, to my astonishment and dismay, was more and more individuals (or, far worse, couples and even entire groups of people) peering into their respective hand-helds while sitting in moving cars, in restaurants, and in all sorts of other public venues previously filled with face-to-face conversations . It was annoying, disconcerting, and depressing.

Interestingly (at least to me), my negative personal reaction to the iPhone and its ilk was quite different from my enthusiastic embracing of the desktop computer’s advent into the lives of the great unwashed (by which I mean the now-much-diminished Middle Class to which I belonged at the time). Although hardly an “early adopter” of the home-based personal computer, after deciding in the late 1980s to embark on a year-long project of co-editing a book, I became an ardent and grateful PC partisan – albeit chiefly of the PC’s superior-to-the-typewriter word-processing features.

Still, during the dawning of the era of the smartphone, I never imagined myself ever feeling a genuine “need” to obtain an Internet-accessing, text-messaging mobile telephone. I didn’t see the appeal of tethering myself – especially so expensively – to the already time- and attention-consuming maw of the Internet, and I was certainly mortified by the prospect of an avalanche of text messages to cope with (on top of the email that long since become difficult for me to manage satisfactorily).

Fast-forward to 2013. On a trip to San Francisco, I spent part of my summer vacation there visiting with my ex-partner Harvey, who – like everyone else I knew, and certainly like every other citizen of California – not only owned an iPhone, but used it routinely as the all-purpose, ever-present device its makers designed it to be. By that time, I had recently (and very reluctantly) tip-toed into cellphone-owning status – although not for the obvious convenience of a portable phone but as a method of reducing my monthly “telecommunications” expenses. Still, on those occasions when I’d remembered to carry it with me when I left the house, I used my mobile (and only semi-smart) cellphone exclusively as a phone, not as an Internet-accessing, text-messaging, photo-taking, directions-providing, and god-know-what-else machine.

However, after a frustrating episode during my visit with Harvey that resulted from his understandable but mistaken assumption that we could arrange a particularly important rendezvous via a texting-based communication, Harvey began evangelizing for my acquiring a smartphone. He did this partly by showing me not only some of the more magical things his iPhone can do, but by showing me some of the practical tasks it can perform. Still worried about a suddenly skyrocketing (vs. just-recently reduced) phone bill, I promised to investigate the financial particulars after returning to Atlanta, doubting whether my buying an iPhone was going to happen any time soon.

Fast-forward again another six months to December 2013. My friend Randall’s employer provides him a new iPhone and Randall generously offers to donate his old machine to poor pitiful iPhone-less Cal. Eventually, despite his continuing reservations about becoming a smartphone user, Cal makes several investigatory calls to his customer-friendly cellphone company (the reasonable rate-providing, contract-eschewing, and otherwise wonderful Oregon-based Consumer Cellular). 

Shortly after those conversations, and after a bit more of Randall’s gentle and patient tutelage in the wonders of the iPhone, the die was cast the final week of January 2014. Having determined that a higher phone bill might be worth the flexibility and features a smartphone offers, I begin the second month of a new year equipped with the Randall’s surplus iPhone, which saved me the considerable expense of buying one.

The recently activated iPhone is still too unfamiliar to me to judge how useful – and/or distracting – it will become. As with most technology – indeed, as with many things and as with many relationships – the iPhone will probably prove to be a Mixed Blessing. Still, I am curious to find out what that mixture will feel like, and I am genuinely intrigued at the prospect of eventually discovering even more of this machine’s convenience-expanding as well as its information-accessing and communication features.

So far, my favorite practical features are the multiple clerical tasks I can accomplish by merely speaking into the machine instead of by poking at the iPhone’s tiny keyboard:

  • No more fumbling around in my truck looking for a pen and paper to scribble down the name of some unfamiliar but wonderful song I’ve just listened to on the radio!
  • No more tedious inputting of information about the folks in my now-portable and voice-editable (!!!) address book!
  • No  more mandatory typing of emails, or the necessity of being at home to send one!
  • No more typing of questions into Google – the iPhone’s spooky Siri feature lets me ask my questions verbally!

The miraculous voice-recognition, reminder-recording, and instant information-gleaning features of the iPhone aside, there are other wonders I’ve been enjoying the past few days, or am looking forward to enjoying at some point in the near future:

  • No more waiting until I am at home to read an expected email containing information I might need to know before I get home from wherever I am!
  • No more getting lost when I’m out driving in unfamiliar territory, or at least no more staying lost for very long!
  • No more schlepping around inside my wallet the world’s tiniest (if bulky and certainly messy) paper address book: the iPhone’s contact list, besides accommodating names and phone numbers, also allows (voice-generated or typed) addresses, email addresses, blog URLS, and notes – and a photo that shows up on the screen whenever one of my (photographed) contacts calls!
  • No more temporarily unsettled disagreements about verifiable factoids, or annoying delays in Finding Out More About X.
  • No more wishing I’d brought along my digital camera when I happen to want to take a photo (including a photo to post to this blog, the first of which I took this afternoon); no more rooting around, later, to find the cable I need to upload a photo from my phone to my computer so I can email it to somebody (or post it to the blog)!

So far, my favorite completely non-essential – but, for me as a newbie, exceedingly cool – “apps” (all free, and all of them apps Randall’s shown me how to find):

  • the app that instantly tells you the current and upcoming phase of the Earth’s moon.
  • the app that, while holding the phone over your head on a clear night, labels the constellations visible from the spot where the iPhone’s GPS knows you are standing.
  • the backyard bird-identification app.

Obviously, I’m still a naïve newcomer to iPhone territory. I haven’t yet ventured into exploring the formidable music-storing and –playing capabilities of the iPhone – or, probably more relevantly to me personally, downloaded an audiobook-storing and –playing app. (The route to and from the mountain cabin that I co-own with friends is served only by radio stations that play music decidedly uncongenial to my tastes. Surely the audiobook-playing feature of the iPhone will make considerably more enjoyable my sometimes solo trips to and from the cabin? Since my ancient vehicle is equipped only with a cassette player, this audiobook-playing capability of the iPhone is, for me anyway, huge.)

One final reflection on this inordinately lengthy meditation on my recent acquisition of an iPhone. In view of the many practical uses of this machine for people who devote a huge chunk of their daily lives to full-time jobs, it’s ironic that I waited until after I retired to start using one! After all, I’m at home with my personal computer a lot more often these days than I ever was while holding down a full-time job. Still, if I can ever train myself to remember to routinely take the dang thing with me when I leave the house, I have a hunch I may come to regard the iPhone as extremely (vs. marginally) useful and, at times, as indispensable.

I do continue to ask of myself, however (and however melodramatic it sounds), that I will forever regard (till my dying breath, etc. etc.) the iPhone as a communication and information-obtaining tool. Well, OK, also as a handy device for surfing the Internet or checking my Facebook account when whiling away the more tedious and/or semi-solitary moments of my life – standing in a long line of strangers, say, or waiting – silently! – in the dentist’s office. However, for me at least – and also for at least the majority of my personal friends and my personal acquaintances – I fervently hope the iPhone doesn’t become an unavoidable, unconsciously deployed feature of our casual – or, god forbid, non-casual – interactions.

Meanwhile, I’d like to publicly thank Harvey for Planting the Seed and thanking Randall for generously giving me his old machine (and teaching me the rudiments of how to use it). I’d also love to learn from anyone reading this blog about the embedded features and downloadable apps that you find particularly useful or diverting. (As you might guess, my situation with the iPhone resembles the situation of someone just encountering the vast expanses of the World Wide Web for the first time: I stand poised at the edge of a Whole New World, dumbfounded at the sheer extent of its as-yet-unknown terrain.)

So, all you longtime smartphone users out there, please tell me – either in person next time we meet, or, better, via clicking on the Comment button below and typing away – what smartphone-based capabilities have made your own daily round more convenient or more amusing!

And please stop your snickering about how long – and why – it’s taken me to join the herd!