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Jack of all, master of some

Things—actions, interests, motivations—come to me in phases. I get into a new thing and exhaust it, wear it to death. I think what happens is that I figure whatever I’m doing out and move on to the next challenge. I will become the master of almost nothing. I don’t have what it takes.

I don’t know jack from radios, for instance. That did not stop me from getting into crystal radios. Something like ten years ago, my wife bought me a Rocket Radio, an old timey pocket-sized crystal radio. This brought back a time in my childhood when I thirsted, ached to build and have one. I think I had seen an ad in the center pages of a comic book. A radio that needed no electricity but could make the air around me talk and sing.

This kind of radio could, allegedly, tap into some of the many thousands of radio frequencies flying around me all the time. The ability to make these invisible and intangible signals into sound overwhelmed me. What if I could actually hear the astronauts talking? What it might be like to capture a radio station in a distant country or even just downtown just by assembling a few simple pieces just like the comic book ad promised?

The Rocket Radio worked, sort of. I could get the hint of one station as I pulled and pushed the plunger in the tube in the palm of my hand. I tried hundreds of times to get the radio to work. I held it aloft while I worked the plunger. Long walks took me through the neighborhood and into downtown. I tried to get it to work as I drove the highway. Nothing. After a time, that one station disappeared into the static.

What a disappointment. I found that I had placed my expectations too high. This was a five-dollar toy, nothing like the real crystal radio I had dreamed of in my youth.

With the magic of the internet, I went to work. Scads of DIY kits littered the web. Some people had posted schemes and schemata that I could use to bypass the kits and build it myself. So, I did. I bought the needed pieces and assembled it on my workbench in the basement. I strung a wire from the basement into and across the attic—the only time I have ever been in it.

And when I put the earpiece in, I cried. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever done. The radio filled my free time. During the day, I got just the local AM stations. At night, I caught bits of broadcast from Philadelphia, New York, and a number of stations in smaller towns. I even heard a broadcast from Australia.

There wasn’t much to listen to, of course. Talking heads and reactionaries have taken over the AM dial. But it wasn’t what I was hearing so much as being able to hear the invisible turn tangible.

Then, as suddenly as the obsession to capture radio waves arose, it died. I walked away one night satisfied I had done what I set out to do, and that was it. The radios I built litter the back of the workbench next to the wall. Since crystal radios are always on, I stick in an earphone every now and then and think, yeah, I did that.

I look back on that time and think, for a couple of months, I had something to chase and I chased it. I caught it. Now it was time to move onto the next thing.

I have done this now hundreds of times. For a long while, nearly a half a year, I was into transforming the hill in my backyard into working space. I cut into the hill with a mattock and a shovel. I moved dirt and rock and rock. (The backyard used to be a construction-and-demolition landfill, so there were plenty of old curb pieces, concrete from foundations, and just plain old limestone of the type my neighborhood sits on top of.) I ordered tons and tons of stone from a local business and had it delivered to my driveway. I hauled that pile, piece by piece into my backyard and stacked it against the new terraces. I accomplished my task.

Then what? I walked away from that job and haven’t ever looked back. Except once. In the heavy rains of spring 2015, part of the wall collapsed. I built it back up again and that’s where it stayed. I dread the time I have to go back and rebuild what I worked so hard to create.

In other words, that obsession has passed. I moved on. I won’t look back.

In 2011, pinhole photography got me. Taking pictures had always interested me. I took pictures for the college newspaper and occasionally for the newspaper I worked at in the 1990s. I was never very good at it, but I did get some affirmation and took a few good shots.

An artist friend of mine had moved from painting exclusively to making images with camera obscura. His images were hauntingly beautiful and, I thought, maybe I could to that. I built a camera obscura that would accommodate my pocket camera. The endeavor took me all over the city taking pictures. Parks, buildings and alleys downtown, all around my yard and my neighbors’ yards. I took thousands of shots.

This morphed into using the camera obscura to make negatives on photo paper. At first, I used only packets of paper I bought at a local camera shop (now defunct). Then, I got on the internet and bought a roll of photo paper 100 yards long and 41 inches wide. Every night that spring and summer, I trimmed up pieces of that paper to accommodate the pinhole camera I bought online and others that I built myself. At one time, I worked with six cameras. I could only take one picture with each on an outing. So I loaded my cameras and drove around town capturing buildings and scenes. I took up developing my own negatives and scanning and reversing them on the computer. Who knows how many pictures I took with those cameras, but it numbers in the many hundreds.

I bought a truckload of old camera and developing equipment from a photographer who had gone digital. It was a real bargain. Enlarger, developing trays, meters, lights, all of it.

Then winter came and my workload increased. At the same time, my obsession with taking photos waned. My workbench is filled with old film cameras and all the accoutrement of a darkroom. All of it will sit there with the crystal radios until, well, I decide to throw it away or take it back up again.

It wasn’t just photography, hardscaping, and radio that got me. I have in my basement everything an artist needs to make oil paintings from the time that abstract painting was my passion. I have a set of rock carving tools when sculpture intrigued me. There are computers, paper airplanes, kites, model boats and cars, fly tying equipment and material, and even a treadmill from when exercising while watching old movies took all my time.

If I don’t act, someone, sometime will have to empty the basement. They will find an archaeological site that says what about me? That I was a renaissance man? That I was an eccentric? Maybe they will determine that it wasn’t just one hobbyist but several who lived here.

Whatever the case, I’ve been waiting to see just what my next obsession will be. Maybe I’ll take up crochet.

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