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Autograph Man

Paul Auster was eight years old when an encounter with Willie Mays ended in disappointment so profound it changed his life.

In his essay “Why Write?” Auster explains that he had asked the legendary outfielder for an autograph but was unable to procure something to write with. “‘Sorry, kid,’ Mays said. ‘Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.’”

Then Mays walked out of the ballpark into the night.

On an April evening more than five decades later, Auster read from this essay and then volunteered a postscript to a small audience in the basement of the Kraft Center for Jewish Life on West 115th Street.

A couple of years ago, Auster said, a neighbor of Willie Mays read Auster’s essay to the aging Hall of Famer. Mays listened attentively to how young Paul cried all the way home that night, despondent over his failure, ashamed that he could not stop the tears, but resolved to always carry a pencil in his pocket should anything as worthy as a Willie Mays signature need to be written down.

“If there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it,” Auster wrote.

Upon hearing the unlikely story of how Auster became a writer, Mays grabbed a baseball, signed it, and had it delivered to the Brooklyn-based novelist.

“So now I have Willie Mays’s autograph,” Auster told the audience, “proving that books, or writing, can actually change reality.”

Auster had come to Columbia to take part in a series of conversations with authors sponsored by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life. Other writers have included Jonathan Safran Foer, David Ignatius, Philip Gourevitch, Dalia Sofer, and Uzodinma Iweala.

Mark C. Taylor, the institute’s codirector and chair of the religion department, moderated the talk, though he never really touched on the stated theme of literature and terror. Taylor later said he was hoping to move the meaning of the word “terror” beyond its current use as a synonym for terrorism.

Instead, Taylor asked Auster about the relationship between baseball and writing (Auster: “Sorry, there is none”) and whether solitude is the same as loneliness (“Solitude is voluntary”). Later, Auster decried the writer’s solitude, saying, “It’s a terrible way to live your life and only people who are really crazy enough, and I think even ill — I think it’s a disease — would want to shut themselves in a room and all their lives put words on pieces of paper. There’s so much else to do.”

Over the course of 90 minutes, Auster traced his evolution as a writer, his thoughts on language, on writing as a physical act (“I have this eerie feeling, especially with the fountain pen, that the words are coming out of my body”); and the role chance plays in life and literature. He sat cross-legged in black jeans, and when he wasn’t reading from his works, his black-framed reading glasses straddled his knee.

Auster is unlikely to ever carry a BlackBerry or iPhone. He does not use e-mail and doesn’t even own a computer, though you can fax him. He has written about his typewriter — and the painter Sam Messer has produced scores of portraits of that 1962 Olympia — but he writes longhand and transcribes later.

“It’s not a fetish, it’s just a comfort,” he said. Then, making claws of his hands and hovering them over an imaginary keyboard, he added, “I can’t even think with my hands in this position.”

Auster, who grew up across the Hudson River in South Orange, New Jersey, was 16 when he realized writing was all he wanted to do. By then, he said, he had written scores of terrible poems and a short detective novel that he illustrated in green ink and read in installments to his sixth-grade class.

At 14, having become a bar mitzvah as a matter of course, he began wrestling with what he called “all the big metaphysical questions.” In search of answers, he started meeting weekly with a rabbi. Six months later, he realized he had no interest in being a practicing Jew. Still, he finds inspiration in the Jewish tradition and its notion of justice.

“The Jewish idea of justice is there can’t be justice for only one people or one group,” Auster said. “There has to be justice for everybody or there is no such thing as justice.”

One of Auster’s main themes is chance, but that does not mean he believes that all events are random. Instead, he’s interested in crossroads, places where random occurrences (approaching the Say Hey Kid without a pencil, for instance) foil people’s well-laid plans, forcing them to figure out how to keep going. Faced with a choice, they must “reinvent themselves or fall to pieces,” he said.

When the talk ended, Auster was quickly approached by audience members carrying copies of his poetry, novels, nonfiction, and screenplays. The writer pulled a black pen from his pocket and signed every one.

Jeremy Smerd ’03JRN
 

 
 

Radio Active

When it comes to a race for first, few events are as competitive as the New York City Marathon. Alan Crosswell ’81SEAS, ’85SEAS should know. The associate vice president and chief technologist for Columbia University Information Technology, Crosswell spent last November 2nd helping marathon organizers to deal with logistical issues, report on any needs for supplies at the water and aid stations, and track runners who dropped out of the race so their families and friends could find them. 

But Crosswell didn’t perform this public service with a cell phone or a computer or a BlackBerry. Rather, he made use of a private passion — his ham radio. Yes, ham radio, the hobby that famously occupied Barry Goldwater’s spare time back in the 1960s and 1970s, is still around. Gone, however, are the hulking racks of radio tubes, chromed switches, and Bakelite bezels. Instead, portable equipment as small as walkie-talkies increasingly does the trick. Crosswell was 1 of about 400 hams who worked the big race.

Little more than a century ago, during the infancy of radio technology, wireless pioneers such as Guglielmo Marconi were household names. Science magazines of both the popular and technical variety trumpeted this miraculous new ability to transmit dashes, dots, and even voice at a distance, and storybook serials like The Radio Boys wove strands of adventure and romance around an armature of copper, crystal, and solder. Today, despite the devouring appetite of the Internet, radio aficionados are still among us — including those at the Columbia University Amateur Radio Club (CUARC).

Enthusiasts can be found on quite a few campuses nationally (Columbia has an FCC charter for station W2AEE), and some of them take their hobby very seriously. This year, for instance, the Harvard Wireless Club is preparing to celebrate its centennial for what it claims is the nation’s oldest collegiate amateur radio society — but not without a nervous glance over the shoulder at some other contenders for the title.

While Harvardians had long assumed the veritas of their claim for first-place status, this year MIT’s amateurs at W1MX have surfaced a nearly coincident claim, the validity of which may rely on semantics, or else the faith one puts in various faded logbooks and oral traditions. And as if that weren’t enough to ebb the Crimson tide, the Harvard hams also have discovered another claim, as yet poorly documented, for a possible first at Columbia.

According to Crosswell, who serves as the station manager, CUARC formally asserts only that it was established in 1913 as a station designated by the call sign 2XM. However, a manuscript found at the station in 1994 and attributed to the late Arthur M. Kay, a navy veteran who attended Columbia and was active in W2AEE in the 1950s, indicates that in 1906, three years prior to the establishment of Harvard’s station, someone or something — perhaps the Columbia University Experimental Wireless Station — had set up a very visible cage-type radio antenna, suitable for use with a primitive spark-gap transmitter, between the chimneys of Havemeyer and Schermerhorn Halls. The transmission gear was located (depending on which source you credit) either in the base-ment of Chandler Hall or possibly in Havemeyer.

At the time, New York was the radio capital of the world. Even before the turn of the century, Marconi’s company had established transmitters around the Tri-State area and configured a shipboard transmitter to report on the 1899 America’s Cup. Young David Sarnoff, future head of RCA and NBC, became a rising star within the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. Other metro-area figures included Edison, Tesla, Fessenden, de Forest, and future Columbia engineering professor Edwin Howard Armstrong, who would gain fame for his contribution to the development of FM radio. But, according to Crosswell, the exact nature of the earliest radio work by other students and faculty at Columbia is still a mystery.

Today, a total of about two dozen people, mostly alums, remain affiliated with CUARC, according to Crosswell. “We currently are nearly dormant, with a broken antenna and only one student member — a PhD candidate in applied physics who is about to defend his dissertation and then will likely leave,” he says.

As recently as 1994, Crosswell says, the club was small but active, with about five undergraduates in addition to a number of alums and staff. “I spoke to someone recently who was involved with the club around 1959, and he said that even then it was a precarious proposition.” The problem, says Crosswell, has been that most of the “geeks” attracted to ham radio also are trying to survive engineering school “and maybe even meet some girls” — leaving little time for soldering up new transmitters.

Still, he isn’t ready to dismiss the possibility that Columbians might have upstaged Harvard by a few seasons. “We like to think that the real innovation happened here,” he says, “while the boys at Harvard were just appliance operators.”

Alan R. Earls
 

 
 

Motion Pictures

Edwin Schlossberg ’67CC, ’71GSAS stands straight and motionless before a painting titled You Without Reflection. You can almost see the neurons firing as he studies the work.

“It doesn’t have a preferred viewing position,” Schlossberg says. “It responds to your movement and the light in the room.”

Behind Schlossberg’s imposing, finely tailored physique, visitors move about like background actors, walking the scored wood floors of the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts gallery in SoHo and stopping at aluminum panels to view text and image. Others cluster in the center of the room like animated shrubbery. They’re here this spring evening for the opening of At the Moment, Schlossberg’s 11th solo show.

The 22 aluminum works each measure 36 x 48 inches — approximately the size of an MTA bus window. A standing Smith-Victor photographer’s lamp is placed off to one side of every painting.

“Most paintings look good when you stand dead center,” Schlossberg says. “When you move from side to side, you don’t see anything. I want the viewer to move, not the work.” At one angle, the stenciled word You is conspicuous and shining, and at the next, it’s gone — and there it is again.

Schlossberg, who is the founder of the interactive design firm ESI Design (clients include Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles), says he took his inspiration from highway signs. “While I was driving — I don’t know what part of the world I was driving in — I saw a sign and thought, ‘That’s so cool, the light floats off the surface.’ My idea was to just re-create that surface.”

He covered the aluminum panels with a Scotchlite film, then topped them with Mylar and baked them. “The Scotchlite surface has thousands of glass beads,” Schlossberg says. “It’s like powder. Acrylic paint works because it grabs onto the surface pretty well.” Most of the paintings are achromatic: silver, dark grey, white, black. A handful contain red, blue, green, orange yellow, and hot pink.

“In an ideal world, I would have those photographer’s lights move,” says Schlossberg. “You could stand still and see, in a certain way, a movie on the surface.”

Among the guests is New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein ’67CC, who guides a visitor between his two favorites, You Absolutely Certain and You Get Attached. “It moves a tremendous amount,” Klein says, as he views You Get Attached. The painting has silver lines angling in from the left and right sides, white splashes that resemble dendritic cells, and a few rough beams of black paint spanning the sheet.

Photographers Paul Solberg and Christopher Makos, known as the Hilton Brothers, have pedaled to the gallery on bicycles. They sport knee-length shorts, colored ankle socks, and loud sneakers.

Solberg (blue socks): “I wanted to see the medium, the aluminum, the translucency of the letters.”

Makos (pink socks): “The lighting seems —”

Solberg: “— a second idea of the exhibit.”

Makos: “There’s a wonderful physical inconvenience that reminds the viewer that light is the key. It’s totally an installation.”

It totally is.

“We tested lots of lightbulbs,” Schlossberg says. “We went down to 35 watts, then up to 100, then 75, then 60 worked. A halogen bulb is really nice because it’s really white, which means it has most of the spectrum in the light. A typical incandescent light is much more yellow and drops off the red end and the blue end of the spectrum. We tested about 10 bulbs at the gallery when we were hanging.”

An architect named Stephen Johnson says that the work is “about where you stand and how you understand the words.” He adds that he owns a painting of Schlossberg’s from the early 1980s that was made with heat-sensitive paint. “When you put your hand against it, the letters of a poem appear,” he says. “You can only read the words if you’re interacting with the painting.”

The same holds true for At the Moment, though this exhibition might be even brainier. Scotchlite and acrylic paint turn out to be the artist’s means for interpreting the neural nets and dendrites that he has seen and read about all his life in science journals.

Schlossberg pauses. “The words neuronal moment is like bad poetry,” he says, attempting to attach a phrase to his inspiration. “I don’t even know if neuronal is a word.”

It is.

Elizabeth Manus
 


 
  Il Mio Tesoretto

At an annual reading of Dante’s Inferno

Just a bit more than midway through my life’s journey,
I find myself raising Cain at the Cathedral
Of Saint John the Divine. It is Maundy Thursday—

Or Hallow’s Eve for fans of the Infernal.
When I was just a bit less than a quarter
Way through the same hellish pilgrimage, an aging James Merrill

(Alumnus of my high school) stood like an immortal
Limbo-bent, before a room of sighing adolescents,
And taught them how a man makes himself eternal.

Now, as if to mingle breath with incense,
I mutter with the cantor, Ah, Ser Brunetto,
Are you here? and make tactile his winded spirit’s omnipresence

Through a shade as ethereal as that patrician ghost’s.
One reader finishes. Another adjusts her glasses,
Declaims a Medievalist’s Florentine. At my elbow

Sits my own miglior fabbro, Rachel Hadas,
For whom my alma mater’s James was simply Jimmy;
Under her chair, wrapped in plastic shopping bags,

Lies a tiny, wood-framed portrait of Sr. Alighieri
She tells me belonged to him. When at last that maestro moored
His lithe craft along the verge we make out so dimly,

His companion found it sitting in a drawer
And passed it on to her, who took it home
And, as if gliding back from the same murky shore,

Buried the little treasure in a chest of her own.
At midnight, she, in turn, will pass it on
To me, who will carry it, through this Dis’ divinely comic underground—

By subway, ferry, rail — further down, like the baton
At Verona, where the green cloth waves at the foot of the stair
To flickering stars, and the last man in, panting for Marathon,

Crows like the damned at blank space, through dead air,
To proclaim himself, if not the winner, there.

Keith O’Shaughnessy ’94CC

O’Shaughnessy teaches English
at Camden County College in
southern New Jersey. His latest
book, Carnaval, is forthcoming
from Pudding House Press.

 
 
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