Etch-a-sketch appeared in sixth grade, the two knobs twirled by the hands of classmates wearing Ben Casey/Dr. Kildare shirts, carrying purses made to look like doctor bags. We were all dancing to the Twist as we perfected our Etch-a-sketch skills. I can even remember walking around on the playground during recess with that wondrous rectangle, in complete control of the wiggly-line drawing taking shape on the screen. Such finesse. I loved it.
Even more, I loved the devices that produced round designs, or as I know now, radially-symmetric patterns. The Spirograph, now that was good for hours and hours of pleasure with shapes and lines and color and repetitive rhythms. Soothing. Relaxing. Colorful. Each circular design unique, nuanced within a larger sameness of radial patterns.
Some people get good at cutting paper snowflakes, each different, but all part of a larger, lacey blanket of imaginary snow. I got really good at coloring my Spiragraph designs, making them brighter and brighter and more and more intricate, blanketing my room with quite a collection. They went beyond the Hex sign designs hanging on the Pennsylvania Dutch barns we used to see in the Lancaster area.
My most favorite designs were produced by kaleidoscopes. I loved holding the magic tube up to the light, watching the glass pieces fall into place and bloom into rich radial patterns deeply saturated with color. I’m not sure I ever perfected my kaleidoscope-turning-technique. Not enough control in the wrist to get and keep the pattern I liked best. Oh, but wait. I like this one even better… No, make it that one. Or that one The kaleidoscope always had another spectacular pattern for me.
I remember how hard I worked to be careful, set the kaleidoscope down after I had seen an especially dazzling design I wanted to draw. I would begin, use my crayons to record as much of it as I could remember. But every time I would return to the kaleidoscope to get another look, a different design would appear.
“Try again,” I would tell myself. “Try harder. Be more careful. Don’t even breathe. Don’t let it move.” It never worked and I was ever the little Sisyphus, I had to learn to trust my own sense of design, make my own kaleidoscope-inspired pattern.
There is something so delightfully vibrant about kaleidoscope patterns. They involve science, they make art. They are endless, a stream of color and pattern, yet so fleeting, each one a brilliant flicker and then gone. Fascinating and frustrating both as they refuse capture. The randomness of the little glass bits cannot be predicted or controlled, yet we can count on it to deliver something spectacular again and again. Eye candy for an aching soul.
We all need a kaleidoscope now. And we can all smile at the little memories of the glass bits falling into place flooding us with a burst of delight.