Thursday, March 31, 2011

Captain Nemo

When I was applying for colleges, I had to write an essay about a fictional character who greatly influenced my life. I ended up submitting a very tame essay about Combeferre from Les Miserables, a young revolutionary who fights for what he believes in, but whose real tendencies are scholarly, preferring "illumination rather than conflagration."

That's not who I wanted to write about.

The single fictional character who probably influenced me most, growing up, was Captain Nemo, from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Charles Dickens' characters influenced me as a collective whole and probably tie with Captain Nemo. The Captain represented to me, half humorously and half seriously, the sort of fantasy life that I would live, if my imaginations came true. Captain Nemo was a master at all the things that I was passionate about, then (and still am). He was aloof, elusive, anti-social and anti-society, and lived in his submarine, the Nautilus, out of reach of the world. The Nautilus had a sumptuous library, a pipe organ, and a museum of great works of art, along with the most extensive mollusk collection in the history of the world.

I liked the way that Captain Nemo could be good at things that many people nowadays don't realize can fit together naturally-- such as languages and science. Back then I didn't know of the term renaissance man, but I recognized the type, and it made perfect sense to me, especially when being confronted with the academic "choice" between music and the sciences.

I'm a taciturn book-lover, I've been avidly, though intermittently, collecting mollusks for 11 years, and I'm a pipe organist. Three things inspired me to learn to play the pipe organ. The first was visiting my grandparents' parish, which had a choir loft with a pipe organ. One Sunday after Mass, my grandfather took me up to see the organ, and the organist showed me the stops. I was younger than five, at the time, and I thought it would be much more interesting to be upstairs and fool around with little knobs than to sit still with the rest of the congregation. The second inspiration was the dedication concert of the electronic organ that was installed at my old parish; I was six at the time, and I don't think I sat through more than twenty minutes of the ordeal, but I was immensely impressed at the grandiose noise that the thing made, and the way it could fill up the entire space.

The third inspiration was, of course, Captain Nemo. The emotional climax of the book (and the Disney movie) involves Captain Nemo playing his pipe organ chaotically, expressing the tortured anguish of his soul dissonantly with all the stops pulled out. I knew I wanted to learn how to do that; not long after I saw the movie, I began taking lessons. I have always enjoyed rampaging around on the instrument, but through the marvelous patience of my organ teacher, I finally settled down midway through highschool enough to learn church music and nice peaceful songs, so that I would actually be good for something. Captain Nemo influenced me, not because he was someone I wanted to emulate or become, but because he was an example of how one person could encompass the vast spectrum of interests that I was told was unnatural.

Well, my life has changed since then. I'm not majoring in biology and sacred music anymore. I'm studying English, and I know God doesn't want me to run and hide at the bottom of the ocean (though it continues to be a temptation). The saints are my true heroes, as they've always been. Also, some friends stole my submarine. I still identify with the Captain in many ways, though, and humorously consider him an alter ego of sorts.

Oh-- by the way, I'm not a psychopath.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My Mollusks

I have been collecting marine mollusks since I was about nine. I'd always had a few around, as curiosities and from trips to the beach, but when I was nine, it dawned on me one day that all of them had names. For some reason, this fact kindled within me an insatiable curiosity to know as much as I could about mollusks, and I began collecting them avidly.

When I started out, I would line my shells up inside cardboard boxes and trays, with labels glued beside them. Today, I have the tiny ones stored inside little spice jars, tooth-floss containers, computer cartridge boxes, and film cannisters (remember those things?), and most of the larger ones wrapped in quilt batting and packed away. My smallest is a few millimeters long, and the largest is bigger than my head. Someday I would love to keep the largest ones in a curio cabinet, or the entire lot in a cabinet of drawers, like museums have. I also developed a slightly better labeling system, and a catalogue somewhere on my hard-drive.

Since I prefer finding them to buying them, and don't visit the Atlantic Ocean regularly, I only have about two hundred different species (but probably over a thousand specimens). I have found specimens of a majority of the species native to the coast of North Carolina.

Several years ago when I got a camera, I decided to take pictures of my entire collection. I'm going to have to redo some of them, one of these days, now that I'm more used to how the camera works. Here are a few of the pictures (links to the album at the end of this post). I could talk for hours about my collection, and mollusks in general, so it's going to take a great deal of effort to keep this pleasantly brief.

Cyrtopleura costata (Linnaeus, 1752)
10.2 cm
Anastasia Island, FL (also native to NC)
29 December 2004
The common name of this shell is pretty obvious. These aren't matching valves. They are some of my most fragile shells. I've read that if you dig up a live one, it will clench itself together in fright and shatter. I wonder if that's so.Martesia cuneiformis (Say, 1822)
Wedge-shaped Piddock
Topsail Island, NC
December 1999
This one, in the same family as the angel wing, fascinates me, because I had it for years and never knew it. I had brought home a tiny piece of driftwood from the beach, and one day noticed a bit of something embedded in it. I quickly realized it was the shell of a little clam, and spent several hours carefully excavating it with a pin and a pair of tweezers. For this picture, I slid it back into the cavity so you could see. It's a boring-clam, the same relative shape and size as a pistachio. Hordes of these things can wreak havoc on docks, piers, ships, and anything else wooden that's in the water-- pretty much the maritime equivalent of termites. They chew with their tiny mouth-parts. Isn't that fascinating?Atrina rigida (Lightfoot, 1786)
Stiff Pen Shell
17.2 cm
Southport, NC
27 May 2003
I have both valves of this shell, but here's the inside of just one. Isn't that lovely? The little circles are the leftover bits of barnacles which encrusted it. This is a very brittle shell. It anchors itself to something in its habitat with "roots" known as byssal threads. The threads of some species can be collected and woven into a very fine silky gold cloth. Some suggest that the golden fleece of Greek mythology might have actually been a cloth of byssal threads.Diodora cayennensis (Lamarck, 1822)
Cayenne Keyhole Limpet
Emerald Island, NC
Keyhole limpets suction themselves to hard surfaces and creep about eating algae and detritus. All keyhole limpets have a little hole like that in the top, unlike true limpets which are just cones with no holes (saith the Peterson Field Guide).Oliva sayana Ravenel, 1834
Lettered Olive
4 cm
Fort Macon, NC
27 December 2001
These are fairly common in NC, but this is the only specimen I've ever found on which the markings and coloring are of such high quality. The inside is a delicate lavender color, and the outside is clearly marked with the "letters" that give this shell its common name. Usually, olives are discolored pink, white, or black.Epitonium krebsii (Mörch, 1874)
Krebs' Wentletrap
.3 cm
Anastasia Island, FL
29 December 2004
This is one of my tiniest shells, only three millimeters long. This picture was zoomed in so you could see the delicate details on it. Wentletraps are some of my favorites; the funny name is actually derived from the Dutch word for "staircase," if I understand correctly, on account of its ribbed spiral shape (had to double-check that on Wiki; it's been a while). It reminds me of a donut of some sort; there's another wentletrap native to the Atlantic that really looks like something to eat.Here are links to the albums. Let me know if they don't work.
Gastropod Album I
Gastropod Album II
Bivalve Album I
Bivalve Album II
Oh! I didn't mention, for anyone who didn't guess already, that gastropods are essentially snails ("stomach-foot") and can also be known as univalves, and bivalves are essentially clams ("two parts") and can also be know as pelcyopods ("ax-foot"). I have a list of good field guides and things like that, if anyone is interested, and I love identifying shells, for anyone who's curious about one. It would be amazing to be curator of a museum's mollusk collection.

I have several other collections (including Upper Devonian fossils), but not as extensive as this one-- but that's for another time. ^_^

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Buckram Hat: Restoration, Alteration, and Reconstruction

Several weeks ago when I was at Goodwill looking for something specific, I saw two hats for sale. I bought one, which I'll write about later. The second was pretty battered, so I passed it up. Then I went back and bought it the next day. This is a post about how I fixed it, for less than five dollars. Since it's black and relatively shiny, the pictures are a little washed-out-looking.

Here is the original. The crown and underside of the brim are black velvet, and the top of the brim is black taffeta. It's trimmed with grosgrain ribbon which may have been black once, but was a sort of dulled dark grey. Once upon a time, it must have been very elegant. As you can see, the hat seems to have been crushed; the unevenness of the brim is where it's creased and rumpled.Here's another view.The first thing I did was to clean the velvet. Little puffs of dust arose as I did so. I think this hat must have been stuffed in a box of old clothing for a long time. I used a small scrubbing brush because it was handy, and I got it slightly damp and gently buffed at the velvet. It came clean quite nicely. Here are some before and after pictures. The white in the first one is dust, and afterward is the sunlight getting caught in the clean velvet. I removed the inner band, as it was caked with dust, and the ribbon trim, since it was ugly. The milliner used glue. I'm just beginning, and even I know better than to attach trim with glue. It just makes a mess of everything, can ruin the hat, and if it ever needed readjusting or a makeover... it'd just make a mess.

Here's a picture from before. I won't post one from after, because the clean velvet makes an appearance many times, below.Next, I overzealously decided to iron the hat. I did this even though I knew every hat book says it's almost never a good idea to iron hats, and even though I knew by experience that ironing velvet ruins it. I'm still not sure why I did this. Maybe because I wanted to see what would happen. The hat also started to smell weird. The lumps weren't ironing out. The hat had layers to it, and the framework was what was creased. I needed to steam it heavily, but I was afraid of scorching the fabrics. So, I detached the crown from the brim.

At this point, I discovered that it was actually a covered buckram hat. I've been wanting to learn how to make these. Buckram is a sort of roughly-woven fiber netting stiffened with glue that can be softened and shaped when heat or very slight damp is applied. It looks like a cross between cheesecloth and burlap.

Here's a picture of the three layers. I tried to iron it again, but I couldn't get quite enough steam on it, the glue in the buckram was melting all over the iron, and the fabrics were stretching because of wedging the iron in between them. The only way I would get it to reshape would be by steaming it properly.So, I took the brim the rest of the way apart. First, though, I looked up how to make bias tape online (or rather, confirmed what I knew) so that I could refinish the outer edge. I carefully undid the seam that held the brim to the wire hoop in its outer edge, and then the other stitchings that held the three layers together. I hid the wire hoop behind my bookcase so that no one would be tempted to take it away and play with it.

At this point, I felt like I'd pretty much taken apart a watch. The thing cost less than two dollars, though, so I didn't feel too nervous taking it to pieces. I'd also examined it carefully in each stage of undoing, noting how many seams held it together. It looked straightforward enough, and turned out to be, too. I ironed the taffeta while I was waiting for the pot to boil. Then I ate this.The velvet steamed out quite nicely, of course. That's the only way I know of to fix ruined velvet, and fortunately it wasn't truly ruined, and only in one spot. It took a while, though, and I kneaded it to bring the plush back out. I like the way the swirly steam came out, in this picture.The buckram was a little trickier. I don't have a hatblock, so I didn't have anything to mold it against, but I smoothed at the spots with my fingers, and as the glue melted and the material became malleable again, I flattened it bit by bit under a textbook. I couldn't flatten the whole thing at once, of course, because it's not a flat brim- it's sort of angled. This is what I was trying to smooth out:After I was done steaming the various parts of the hat, it was time to begin reassembling it. I decided that I wanted the entire top to be velvet and to use the taffeta for the underside, especially since the latter looked a bit distressed, and overall suffered the worst from its past. I pinned the taffeta onto the buckram. It took a while, because the taffeta seemed to have stretched just a little, most likely because it had been stretched onto the framework for so many years and was now lax and flabby. I ended up trimming off a little bit of it that hung over the edge. Sewing the velvet on was easier.I retrieved the unharmed wire hoop from behind my bookcase, and whip-stitched the brim back onto it. That was a little bit tricky, and I sewed a few inches on one side and then a few on the other, to make sure that it was going back on evenly. When I first laid it out, and even as I was sewing it, it seemed much wider than the hoop, but somehow it actually fit on there. I used white thread because I was expecting to have to take it apart, and didn't want to undo the basting stitches-- but I got it on there, first try.Reattaching the brim to the crown was a little tricky, and in some places it came out less tidy than I would have liked. The buckram around the inner edge had frayed a little, as had the taffeta, making it very slightly wider than the crown. But somehow, again, it managed to all fit together. I attached some fresh new grosgrain to the inside opening of the crown, to cover up the seam in this picture.I decided to bind the outer edge with white satin, since that was what I planned to trim it with. I cut a strip the proper length on the 45-degree diagonal, ironed it in half, and attached it to the edge. This took quite a while, because even though it was cut on the bias, it still rumpled a little on the underside and made it look frumpy. So I bought a yard of braid trim and sewed that on, too, to even it out and make it lie flat. The exposure on this picture is adjusted slightly to show the trim more clearly.I scribble-sketched several pictures of how I could trim the hat, and decided to capitalise on the somewhat-lumpish look by making it appear intentional, with an elegantly rumpled band and bow. I cut a long, broad band out of satin, and gathered both ends; then I arranged it around the crown, hiding a few dents and the sloppy join. The bow had me baffled for a while, since I'm not sure how to make them aside from tying them, and didn't want to use up that much material. Finally, I had one of my brothers bend an old wire hanger into a figure-eight, flattened the ends, and covered it with gathered satin.

Here's a view from the front.And from the side.
There are a few things I might do to see if I can tidy it up a little in general, but it's pretty much finished. So far, I have been told by one person that it's creepy. Maybe one of these days I'll have someone take a picture of me modeling it.