A Laundry Love Story

When the wind was cold and the days were short, the sock and the glove, surrounded by their mitten and toe-sock children, told the stories of their lives, and the story their children loved the most, the one they begged to hear again and again, was the story of how they fell in love and escaped the lives forced upon them.

They met before the last brittle leaves fell from the trees. He was there every week – sometimes twice – tumbling with the t-shirts, the underwear, the jeans. She was new and beautiful. Her bright stripes flashed past and caught him unaware, piercing through his dull, white façade. Instinctively he reached for her and to his surprise she grabbed hold, happy to find someone to cling to in this frightening new place.

He liked to think of himself as a left sock, though in truth they were all the same – an anonymous collective. The other socks disapproved of his individuality, but he endured their censure as he endured his dark days of toil.

Three weeks passed before he saw her again. That was the way of gloves. They held themselves aloof. But not her. She found him and told him about all of the wonderful things she did. He listened raptly as she described the smooth texture of an apple, or the lazy warmth of a cup of coffee. In turn he told her of the miles he had travelled, the sound leaves made as they crackled underfoot, and how the resonant tapping of a shoe on wood always made him smile. They fell in love.

They saw each other infrequently, and as fall hardened into winter and they understood that each meeting brought them closer to the long separation of spring and summer. One January afternoon they made their plans. Damn the consequences, they would escape.

Nearly a month later, on a Sunday evening, they found their chance. The fluorescent light in the laundry room was flickering uncertainly, casting strange shadows. When everyone was being pulled out of the dryer, they hid, huddling together in the darkest spot they could find. Several of the socks saw them and muttered their disapprobation, but one old sock, frayed and losing his elastic, whispered his good wishes.

They curled up together for hours, waiting for deepest part of the night. Silently they made their way up the old wooden stairs, across the linoleum with the flower pattern, and out the cat door to freedom. They made a home under an oak tree and though in time her bright colors faded and his crisp white turned dull gray, they always saw each other as they had been the first time they met.





A Secret History of…

the mechanical soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. 

The wars of Revolutionary France and Napoleon swept across the European continent and the world at the turn of the 19th century. Accounts of the battles and politicking of the era can be found in histories, in novels, in films, and on stage, but few, if any sources, mention the one man whose mad dream almost changed the course of history.

Wolfgang von Kempelen - Self Portrait

Wolfgang von Kempelen was born in the town of Pressberg in the mid 18th century. The von Kempelen family was of the minor nobility under the rule of the Habsburg Emperors, but they had seen their fortunes decline in recent generations. The young Wolfgang von Kempelen felt the sting of contempt and condescension when he accompanied his father to court dressed in worn and out of date fashions.  With the memory of whispers and sneers to goad him, Wolfgang became determined to reverse his family’s decline.

von Kempelen excelled at languages and mathematics and when he attended university he pursued philosophy and law as was expected of a gentleman of his station. His true passion and genius, however, lay with the new mechanical wonders of the age and he spent every spare moment studying physics and sketching new designs. The ambitious and hard working Wolfgang invented steam turbines for mills, water pumps for mines, and even a typewriter for the blind.

Still a young man, von Kempelen’s skill as an engineer drew the attention and patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II. In the service of the Emperor, Wolfgang produced designs for machines, devices, bridges, and buildings, all the while gaining esteem and influence in the courts.

Wolfgang’s inventions were innovative and useful, but he was not satisfied with pushing the boundaries of science and technology in incremental steps. Since his university days in Rome, Wolfgang experimented with designs that would far exceed anything yet seen. As unrest gripped Europe in the late 18th century, he saw a chance to present his plans to the Emperor.

In March of 1789 von Kempelen unveiled the designs of his ambitious new machines. He called them der mechanisch soldat. von Kempelen proposed to create an army of autonomous, mechanical soldiers that would defend the Empire against all enemies. The Emperor was unconvinced. Automata were relatively common in the late 18th century, and although they could be entertaining and create the illusion of autonomous behavior, the machines were limited to strict mechanical paths.

An Engraving of The Turk

In anticipation of the Emperor’s skepticism, von Kempelen had created a prototype to prove his concept. He called it The Turk. von Kempelen’s turbaned, mechanical Ottoman held a pipe in a jeweled hand and lounged on cushions before an ornate chessboard. Pistons and gears powered by tanks of compressed air animated the Turk’s limbs, and though the smooth movements of his joints were marvels of engineering, the true genius lay nestled within the mechanisms of gross mechanical movements. A delicate clockwork of springs, levers, and cogwheels powered The Turk’s mind.

von Kempelen had invented a complex and sophisticated computer based not on electronics, but on mechanical pathways. The Turk, using a bewildering array of nested if/then commands, defeated even the most acclaimed master chess player in the Empire. von Kempelen hoped the success of his demonstration would win him the support of the Emperor in his plan to build an army of such machines.

Many of the Emperor’s advisors, particularly his generals, opposed what came to be known as the von Kempelen plan. Some were merely reactionaries who rejected any new idea. Some saw the plan as a threat to their own power and prestige. A few had genuine military concerns. von Kempelen might have been able to convince the latter group, but those whose only concern was to protect their power and prestige proved to be an insurmountable obstacle – at least for the moment. The Turk was a marvel, but the Emperor declined to back the von Kempelen plan.

Affairs in France threatened the stability of Eurpoe as unrest became revolution. In 1794, the Emperor’s great-aunt, Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was executed along with her husband. The Holy Roman Empire went to war. In 1796 Napoleon took command of the French forces in Italy, drove the Empire out of the peninsula, and forced the Emperor to sign a treaty. Both sides understood that peace was only temporary.

With the failure of the Imperial armies in Italy fresh in the Emperor’s mind, von Kempelen took the opportunity to once again propose his daring plan. Although the Emperor was still reluctant to fully commit to the project, he agreed to let von Kempelen begin production on a limited scale. When war broke out again in 1799, von Kempelen sent 500 of his new soldiers, nicknamed the Brass Battalion, into battle.

To be continued…

Still Life with Robot #1

I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw – how to channel the magic that turns a few lines into an object with life and personality – but I’ve always been intimidated. I know that I shouldn’t, but I can’t help comparing the doodles I scratch in notebooks and on post-its to the finished work of people who have been training for years. Of course those artists are good now, but in all likelihood they started out with the same kinds of doodles that creep around the margins of my pages. Everyone starts somewhere.

The other obstacle that I have placed in my way is the excuse that I don’t have any framework to guide me. I never took art classes in school and the adult classes I’ve looked at around New York are just too expensive. Where do I start? Sure, I could pick up a pencil and draw, but I don’t know what I’m doing, and more importantly, I don’t know how to correct what I’m doing wrong.

Those excuses – the intimidation and the lack of structure – could probably keep me from drawing forever, but I’m not going to let them. I enjoy art and I like being creative. That’s enough. I’m going to learn how to draw, and, luck you, I’m going to share my progress on this blog.

I bought a copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. The book was recommended to me by a few people and the reviews on Amazon seem pretty positive, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The first exercise is to draw a self portrait and a couple of other things as a benchmark, something to refer back to at the end of the course. I won’t post that here. I’ll save it for my MOMA retrospective.

Igor Stravinsky, by PicassoThe next exercise is to take a Picasso drawing. Specifically the portrait of Igor Stravinsky pictured on the left and draw it upside down. The idea is that by drawing it upside down we are able to forget about what the shapes and lines represent – and so let go of what things are “supposed” to look like – and instead focus on the lines themselves.

I found this to be a pretty fun exercise and for the most part, I think it went pretty well. I tried hard not to think about what I was drawing and I concentrated on angles and relative position. The hardest part was trying not to see the hands as I drew them. That’s where I ended up erasing the most. As you can see the first 7/8 went fairly well. No Picasso, but not horribly unrecognizable either.

I was feeling pretty good about myself. Maybe, I thought, maybe I have a talent for this after all. And then this happened!

What the…his head. Oh God, he’s hideous. He looks like he’s been sitting next to that guy from Beetlejuice. The Picasso drawing is pretty stylized and so you can get away with a few scaling problems, but nothing is going to give enough wiggle room to disguise how tiny his head is.

Oh well, even the longest journey begins with a small head…or something like that. And hey, nobody can say my drawing doesn’t have personality.

See you guys next time.

Dear Imaginary Readers,

Welcome to my brand new blog. None of you exist yet, but I’m hoping that some day you’ll be out there anxiously waiting for new content – maybe even cursing me roundly if I go silent for a day or two. For now I have yet to create the things that will bring you here, curses and all. But I have the faintest glimmerings of the beginning of an idea of what this place will be like eventually, which is always a good place to start.

I’m not an artist or a writer. I’m not a social commentator or a political analyst. I’m just a person who lives in a room with his fiancée in New York City. As she would tell you, I have a lot of ideas and plans. What I don’t have is a lot of finished products. That’s where this blog comes in.

This is a place where I can direct my creative energies and share the often strange and sometimes interesting things that run through my mind. If you’re looking for a strict, consistent theme, then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. I am giving you – a soon-to-be non-imaginary person – fair warning to expect randomness. After all I think we’re too bound by the expectation of consistency. Why can’t we be storytellers one day, illustrators the next, and deep thinkers the day after that? What terrible fate would befall us?

I hope you’ll join me as I indulge in the serious and the silly. I don’t propose to change the world with Imaginary Robot, just provide a small break from it.

For those of you who like anticipation, here are a few of the regular and semi-regular features to which you can look forward:

The Regulars:

The Lost Art of Letters – written to people real and imagined, but never sent.

Secret Histories – in which I bring you mysterious, forgotten, and rarely true historical accounts every Wednesday.

Weekend Matinee – a Friday movie review so you don’t end up wasting money without knowing you’re going to do so beforehand.

The Semi-Regulars:

Opinionated – essays about issues I find worth opining over.

Flashed – super short stories

Unpeeled – a peek into what I’m doing in my everyday life off of the internet

The World of Tomorrow Today – in which I use my amazing powers to peer into the future

Still Life with Robot – Updates on my ongoing project of learning to draw

I hope this whets your appetite because like it or not, more is coming. See you back here soon.