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THE COMMONS ROOM

THE APPLE
OF HER EYE

I n the movie il Postino, a timid Italian lover discovers poetry by stumbling over it. With poetry, Mario

Illustration by Janet Darby, who holds copyright. Not for use without permission.
is certain, Beatrice can be won. So at a craggy sea-shore he seeks help from a newfound friend, none other than the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Listening to the master's poem, Mario says he feels like he is rising and falling with the waves--"like a boat tossing upon your words."

"There. You've made a metaphor," Neruda says.

"But it doesn't count," Mario argues. "It just came out by accident."

But in the end, Beatrice can't resist Mario's sweet words, no matter where he found them.

I was reminded of Mario and the power of metaphor in a second-floor room in David Lawrence Hall where 40 ninth- and tenth-graders were having their own encounter with poetry. Sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, a Pitt outreach program, the ninth annual Young Writers Institute attracted 250 third- to 12th-graders. Representing city, suburban, rural, and private schools, they had come together for three weeks last summer to develop their craft. On this morning, a few of the high schoolers were poring over the latest drafts of their stories and poems. Others couldn't be distracted from very thick novels. But the vast majority were captivated by each other's gossip, screeching, "You're kidding me!" and "Oh my God!" as only teenagers can. The one guy in the crowd with a beard and black hat was busy tuning his guitar.

In walked instructor Sheila Carter-Jones, gripping a paper bag under her arm and wearing a dress so orange that "bright" wouldn't even begin to do it justice. The sight of her approaching the front of the room hushed the laughs and whispers. Everyone swung around in their seats, faces front, and settled down in anticipation of yet another of the surprises with which she'd spirited the past three weeks.

"Okay, everyone," she said, after instructing them to assemble in circles of four or five desks. "Take out your notebooks. Let's divide a page into three columns. We'll call them 'sight,' 'smell,' and 'touch.' And two rows--'whole' and 'section.'" The flapping of pages began, the hunt for pens was on.

"All right," she breathed, while uncrumpling her paper grocery bag on the front table. "Let's see what we have here." She dipped her hand inside, circled and searched, but her downcast eyes and her lips, scrunching to one side then the other, teased at disappointment. Then she looked up and smiled. Chairs creaked as the students sitting in them inched forward.

The moment of truth. Out came her hand, holding, of all things, an apple. An apple? Carter-Jones turned it in the air in wonder while a front-row observer asked, "Is that it?" Giggles rippled to the back door. "Mmmm," she admired her find. "Very nice." She set it down as gently as an infant before reaching in the bag once more, removing another, and holding it up in plain view.

When the apples were placed in the center of each circle, the students greeted them with blank stares. One girl in aqua-colored glasses sneered and rolled her eyes. "Begin by writing down whatever images come to mind as you look at these," Carter-Jones instructed. "But don't stop there. What does the smell remind you of? And not just 'red' or 'fruity,' please. Reach out. Come up with something unusual."

"Oh, I can be unusual," the girl in the glasses assured a friend. "But that," she pointed an accusing finger at the culprit, "is not unusual. It's an apple!" This last word she enunciated as if the one in front of her were seeping with venom.

There was a quiet boy to her right forever brushing his bangs away from his eyes. Unlike his neighbor, he had fallen under a certain spell. He studied the apple intensely, as if he was trying to see beneath the surface of the red and waxy skin. Then he picked up the fruit and, to the astonishment of the more resistant members of his circle, held it up to his ear, as if half expecting to hear the ocean.

The next part of the assignment had to do with taste, so Carter-Jones appealed for help to her assistants--graduate students and instructors from the English department who until this moment had been blending in to the point of invisibility. They rose and tried cutting each apple in half, then quarters, then eighths--no small feat considering they were working with plastic knives. This slicing took a good ten minutes and left behind a lot of snapped plasticware.

Though she had rejected it as run-of-the-mill only minutes before, the apple's old foe now jumped to its defense. "Easy. It sounds like you're breaking its bones," the blue-spectacled girl appealed to an instructor wrestling with the fruit. "Dry, snappy bones," the girl continued. "I'm not morbid or anything, but I won't be eating it." As the others in the group nibbled at their piece, their expressions changed. Raised eyebrows spoke for their uncertainty--maybe it wasn't just any ordinary apple. A girl who had been sitting with her feet propped up on her chair and her chin alternating from knee to knee turned to her notebook.

"The stem is drooping over, like the apple can't bear to face a Monday morning," she scratched down with certainty. Around the circle, in another notebook, the apple's mottled skin was "painted as a creek bed speckled with pebbles." From almost every pen, metaphors came trickling.

Outside, the sun was shining. But when class was over, everyone took their time filing out of the building onto Forbes Avenue. And as they rode home, down streets they'd traveled a thousand times, I imagined them admiring the weeds-turned-wildflowers on the side of the road. They'd enjoy the low hum of tires on asphalt. They might even smile and wave at the elderly woman on her porch at the end of the block, now understanding how she could spend a whole summer sitting still.--Alan Friedman


THE
COLLECTOR

Illustration by Janet Darby, who holds copyright. Not for use without permission.

Charles Carpenter discovered abstract expressionism at just about the perfect time, right before America's art experts did. This was back in the mid-1940s when Carpenter was a young man. He was not a painter. He was a collector, or about to become one. But even then he possessed a very good eye. And over the past six decades his aesthetic instincts have proven eclectic, brilliant, ahead-of-the-curve as he acquired a treasure trove of art: paintings of abstract expressionism, Shaker furniture, exotic playing cards, scrimshaw, Andy Warhols.

Last year, Carpenter was here in Pittsburgh as the Carnegie Museum of Art mounted a grand exhibition, titled "The Odyssey of a Collector," of what he has owned and loved over a lifetime.

Carpenter has never collected art as an investment. He does so out of love, out of reverence for magnificent objects born of the human spirit of creativity. Over the years he has gathered together an extraordinary collection of treasures by such artists as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Jean Dubuffet, Ad Rheinhardt, Mark Rothko--many of them leading abstract expressionists, all of them revered by Carpenter.

Now 80 years of age, Carpenter seems alien to the razzle-dazzle art-buyer world. He has lived a straightforward life as a business executive in the chemical industry. He speaks with what can only be described as politeness and humility. A Quaker by religion, he is by nature an unassuming man.

His odyssey, in essence, began here in Pittsburgh in 1941, Carpenter having just earned a master's degree in chemistry from Bucknell. With war in Europe looming, his draft board ordered him into the defense industry. He did so at a U.S. Steel subsidiary in Clairton, Pennsylvania, at that time the largest coke and coal chemical plant in the world. While working full time, Carpenter enrolled at Pitt in quest of a chemistry PhD. Across the street was the Carnegie Museum of Art. Almost compulsively, he was drawn there before and after classes.

During the war, the museum was quieter than usual, and Carpenter traversed the corridors alone: observing, learning, sharpening his sense of judgment. A traveling exhibition of van Gogh paintings arrived.

"I was particularly intrigued by the sunflower paintings," he recalls. "In the reproductions, they were pretty and soft. But the paintings themselves were rough and direct and could not be called pretty.

"I soon knew that I did not want a reproduction of a van Gogh sunflower in my home. In fact, I did not want to own any reproductions of paintings." What he did desire was original, first-rate art.

A few years later, visiting the Art Institute in Chicago, the odyssey entered its next chapter. Among the paintings on exhibit was the spectacular Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. On repeated visits, Carpenter would just sit and gaze at that masterwork of pointillism. But he also made another mind-bending discovery in the Art Institute, something emotionally provocative and powerfully American--abstract expressionism, "which had not yet made its way into the art books."

Abstract expressionism, which came into being during World War II, was not necessarily abstract, nor expressive. But it was new, highly individual, highly improvisational, conveying morally loaded themes (such as patriotism or war) often on a grand scale. Among the leaders of this movement was Jackson Pollock, a painter whose vibrant, kinetic, densely figurative work had proved a revelation to Carpenter in Chicago.

In particular, Carpenter had his eye on Red and Blue (1946). Carpenter offered $100--all he could afford--to an agent at Pollock's gallery in New York. The collection began.

He soon added a watercolor, Boat with Sun, Deer Isle, Maine (1921) by John Marin, then ranked by experts as the country's greatest living artist. Tastes change, but Boat with Sun still holds up beautifully. To purchase it, Carpenter (then a young married executive in the chemical business) paid $750, representing two months' salary. He forfeited an annual vacation, a new suit, and a down payment on a new car. Art came first.

With friends, too, art came first. "It seems all my best friends have been artists," says the modest businessman.

He talks of Charles Shaw, pioneer of the abstract art movement, writer for The New Yorker, all around Manhattan bon vivant, and, most of all, extraordinarily gifted painter.

Says Carpenter, "Even when he was dying and his hands were gnarled with arthritis, he painted on and on. He reminded me of the Japanese artist Hokusai, who, in late life, used a signature that translates, 'Old man, mad about painting.'"

A bachelor, Charles Shaw died in 1974. After the funeral, Shaw's lawyer asked Carpenter to stop by for a talk. "I was aghast when I learned that he had left me his entire life's artwork." Also included were such art treasures as the looking glass owned by Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll's model for Alice).

There is a sort of wonderland quality to the Charles Carpenter collection, or at least the selection of it arranged in the Carnegie exhibition. Andy Warhol was there, represented by a Jackie [Kennedy], a silkscreen of bold flowers, and Brillo Box--"I have never really been able to explain to myself why I like this 'dumb' object so much," says Carpenter. "I am not only fond of it, but also have never had any doubts that it is a work of art."

He is likewise very fond of Sandwich, a brilliantly colored soft sculpture. "People under 30," Carpenter says, "know the work represents a sandwich. People over 30 don't know what it is."

Carpenter earned a good living, but never attained super-rich status. His extraordinary collection was accumulated by sagacity, by seeing--before others--what is genuine, what will last.

As a Quaker, he believes in the need for simplicity, and at times he feels a little guilty about his pleasure in material beauty. But essentially he believes his kind of collecting has little to do with money, everything to do with the great continuum of world art, a legacy of what it means to be human.

And so, the odyssey continues for Charles Carpenter, a serene soul and an American original.--Tommy Ehrbar


THE NEWEST
MONTAGUE


Illustration by Janet Darby, who holds copyright. Not for use without permission.
When The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) held a staff contest to name its new robot, the names submitted were obviously clever: Rosie (robot maid from The Jetsons), UPMC3PO (the requisite Star Wars reference), and the close runner-up, Elvis Presby, a nod to the robot's gyrations as it travels down the halls of Presbyterian University Hospital, delivering medical records and supplies. The winning name was Roameo, submitted by Gary Miller, a lead systems programmer in the information services department.

Doug Kassab, director of clinical support services and the man in charge of Roameo, likes the name--if UPMC decides to acquire another robot, they could name it Juliet. The two would make a cute couple. Hopefully, they wouldn't end as tragically as Shakespeare's original Montague and Capulet.

As it is now, Roameo, who looks like a small white refrigerator on wheels with blinking yellow lights, has already been fixed up with candy machines by mischievous staff members. Unfortunately the relationships haven't worked out. Roameo's 24-hour schedule keeps him from having any naughty vending fun.

During the day, the 600-pound, armless Roameo, thanks to a map of UPMC programmed into his computer, carries X-ray records in his locked interior cabinet between radiology film library departments at Presby and Montefiore hospitals, saving valuable time for staff members. He makes endless trips back and forth across the skywalk between the two buildings where he encounters doctors who like to block his path and challenge his directional skills, curious families, and other onlookers.

In the evening, he delivers supplies to nursing stations in Presby. The nurses make a fuss over him and talk to him as if he were a person. Sadly, Roameo can only answer back with one of 15 pre-programmed phrases. Usually he says, "I have completed my mission. Please press the green button," or, "I am about to move," which he uses to warn bystanders.

Using ultrasonic sensors and infrared vision, Roameo can take two specially programmed elevators and open automatic doors. If he encounters anything in his path, he stops, readjusts his position and continues. Built and distributed by HelpMate Robotics, Roameo can carry up to 200 pounds and travels at two-and-a-half feet per second. But he is not fast enough to escape the jokers. Someone once tied a broom to the poor guy.

Even though Roameo is just a semi-intelligent, moving computer, he has roamed his way into the hearts of everyone at UPMC. While he was parked in front of the nurses' station on the seventh floor at Presby, a little girl walked up to him with a faraway look in her eyes. "Oh, Roameo," she sighed and blinked her eyes. Roameo, fickle as ever, responded, "I am about to move," and went off to complete his next mission.--Elizabeth Starr Miller


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