Simple objects still have a place in high tech world

Assuming the personal essay is still alive and well in Cleveland, I'd like to discuss a couple of my favorite old and ordinary objects that can still be impressive in our current age of high technology.

First, consider the clipboard, about as simple as any device man has invented. Yet, if you walk down a city street holding one with determination and wearing a grim facial expression, it can be as intimidating as an uncased shotgun. People usually step aside with trepidation, or they fear you more subtly as Liza Doolittle feared Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," or if you go into a store you might be escorted out as a detested comparison shopper.

But far more likely, if used imaginatively, the clipboard can become a universal passport admitting you to myriads of fascinating places previously thought impossible to enter: construction sites, executive suites or even lingerie design studios.

The secret of the clipboard's authority is the attitude of the person using it. A convincing theatrical performance must be engendered by glancing neither right nor left as you proceed. Remove doubt from your expression, and utter only succinct phrases devoid of explanations. Most receptionists will likely accept "consultant," "analyst" or "inspector." The single word "expert" might go, since one definition of expert is "any ordinary guy more than fifty miles from home."

You may add to the efficacy of the above behavior with two incidental pieces of equipment. My last driver's license was issued in a clear plastic envelope just fitting it, and I assume yours was, too. Remove your license, punch a hole in the upper corner of the little envelope and pass a soft cord through it and place it around your neck. Replace your license so it hangs at an angle across your chest. Put on a pair of clear protective glasses and you're ready for adventure.

Please understand I'm not presenting a Machiavellian handbook for the commission of mischief. Responsible citizens wouldn't do that anyway. I wish only to enable the enjoyment of new adventures and enhance one's capacity to inspire a sense of wonder in others.

The second item is a slide rule. This instrument has long been supplanted by the pocket calculator which is far more accurate, giving a dozen or more significant numbers compared with a slide rule's three. It also has lightning speed and provides a perfect digital readout. Some calculators have graphing capabilities to rival those of a laboratory oscilloscope. But the calculator has a boring gestalt, and its operation is a rather ho-hum business. You hold it in your left palm and punch little keys with your right index finger. You might as well be using a cell phone, a television remote, an electric shaver, the control of a Lazyboy recliner, or even a garage door opener.

But, hey, reach inside the breast pocket of your sport jacket and whip out a 10-inch slide rule—especially if it has the log-log vector complexity of the old Dietzgen I used in my college physics labs, or when I was doing technical writing for a couple of engineers back in the 1950s and 60s—and eyes will pop. Guaranteed. I'm not sure why the slide rule has this magic, but it does.

As with the clipboard, the slide rule requires deft handling to effect maximum psychobiometric impact. You don't just move a slide rule and read a number. You run the cursor up, then the slide, then the cursor fully downscale again. You squint. You frown. You look not at it, but into it. Deeply. You appear to look through it, in a state of transcendental meditation, imperceptible to typical mortals. This will create a mystery not unlike that produced by a dark tunnel in the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.

I begin my day of adventure with my clipboard at my side and ballpoint pen in hand. I wear plastic eye protection and make sure my driver's license hangs rakishly across my chest—the more casual, the seemingly more official. I ensure that the white corner tip of my slide rule peeks between my sport coat's lapel, bobbing and winking as I walk. And I'm off.

You may well argue this will be a tame entertainment, but you won't find anything much cheaper. Finally, though, a word of caution: Once you have learned the power of the clipboard, have mercy on your fellow Clevelanders. Don't stand in front of the BP building with clipboard at shoulder height and stare at the top of the building. A near riot may ensue.

Carl Christman lives in Bay Village.

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Volume 2, Issue 18, Posted 9:54 AM, 08.21.2010