Monday, January 2, 2012

E-Z, but just beyond my grasp

Nostalgia is dreamy: a statement so redundant you need invisible ink to reveal it.  Nostalgia and dreams are close cousins. Maybe too close. The danger is that nostalgia is held aloft by a dream's buoyancy yet it lacks a dream's rigor.  A dream is a riot: anything and everything happens, and what feels predicted in-dream is revealed upon waking as wildly arbitrary; plausibility is useless, scorned, a nagging marm ushered out of the house so that the real party can begin. Nostalgia, too, lacks what I might call narrative credibility. (Did that really happen as I remember?) It's too easy to look back fondly, allow yourself a dreamy caress of the soft frame within which nostalgia floats. The idyll is there inside the frame, so sink into it.  Preciousness that way lies, and indulgence; worse, a kind of forgotten history into which go the dark jagged shapes that threaten to pop that wistful haze, the bad episodes loitering beyond the frame. Best to ignore.

If this all seems a bit heavy about E-Z Tracer, one of my favorite childhood toys, well, the mind goes where it goes. I was reminded of E-Z Tracer recently while reading Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, and I pulled it out of the far past via Google and YouTube.  This was great: as a kid I was a budding drawer, would spend hours penciling and inking baseball and football players, automobiles, and faux album covers for the fake band that my younger brother and were/weren't in (they were called J.P. and the Writers—more on them later)—but I had particular trouble with perspective and  with faces, with the human form in general.  What I really had trouble with, of course, was lack of talent.  What E-Z Tracer promised was mimesis and verisimilitude, words that I wouldn't know for years, but concepts I grasped intuitively that Christmas morning as I assembled the simple device and gave it a whirl.  My dad would regularly bring home from IBM stacks of discarded computer paper, on the broad blank back of which I'd draw for hours; E-Z Tracer now gave me...not confidence, really, more like a safety net, or maybe the self-assurance that I wouldn't screw up, that a shoulder might end up looking like a shoulder, a foot like a foot, a profile like a human profile, not an acid-trip casualty (which I wasn't aiming for, even designing J.P. and the Writers' late-60s album covers).

The toy worked simply and efficiently: two plastic arms were joined at one end; two smaller arms were joined and their open ends affixed to the larger arms: when either long arm was pulled, the other arms would move accordingly and in proper ratio.  The joint of the smaller arms was secured on the table, a pencil or pen was affixed in a hole at the end of the further arm and as you traced using the opposite arm, the writing instrument "magically" copied whatever you were tracing; different configurations resulted in a larger or a small trace.  Here's the commercial running on the afternoons in 1974 that ensnared me:

Albany Times-Union blogger Chuck Miller reminds us that the E-Z Tracer was simply a pantograph updated for the late-20th century suburban set, "the perfect way for you to practice forging mommy’s signature."  I wasn't interested in such illicit purposes; I wanted to draw better (and OK, maybe try and pass off a traced illustration as my own if I was feeling brave at grade school). You don't have to be an artist with E-Z Tracer, the narrator assured me, make your own great picture!  If only I could have used this principle at Saint Andrew's, during recess, amidst incomprehensible but fully-felt classroom politics, tracing my way to all kinds of success!  Not to be.  E-Z Tracer was a solitary endeavor at home after school, downstairs in the rec room as the house hummed with other activity, a buzz I barely registered. Like many toys, this one burned with an intensity that felt talismanic, hinting at door-opening epiphanies, but was soon replaced by the next plastic promise next week, or next month.  A year later, I'd find parts of the E-Z Tracer scattered in the basement.

Vague, nameless disappointment hovered.  Sure, the toy worked well, as promised (as promised!), but the ease with which I could now represent the world—Jim Brown in perfect proportion,; the Beatles on the rooftop in proper persepective—was a hollow victory.  I wasn't drawing, I was copying; I intuited this dilemma from the beginning, but was too young too articulate it and too wowed by the coolness of the toy to care much.  The disappointment would float to the level of consciousness after I'd finish a drawing, and brush away the pencil shaving and smudges: I just imitated something.  OK, I was all for imitating at the time: Rich Little was a favorite; I was imitating popular gestures, popular clothes, popular sayings all day at school, hoping to morph into a personality rendered conventional, likable, a kid with social value.  But this was different: at home at the table, I wanted to create, to flourish, to see where my moving hands would lead me, to draw a world recognizable, yes—I wanted to get those bell-bottoms perfect, that front grill looking like the car in the driveway—but I wanted that world to be mine, not E-Z Tracer's.  It was too easy this way.

I couldn't name this melancholy at the time, but it came back after I watched the commercial on YouTube, once I'd made my way through the comforting, feel-good glow of nostalgia to the place where the mist lifts, where I remembered E-Z Tracer's brief shelf-life for me.  To my siblings, my parents, friends I showed off for, I loved the toy; inside, something was dawning about art and representation, about the shallowness of having my hand held and being told, Look, this is how you do it, it's e-z.  All of this just beyond my moving fingertips, of course, but felt.  I didn't love paint-by-numbers kits much, either.

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