Out & About: Gold diggers

Bling bling may be on the way out. At least that was one of the opinions voiced at “Seven-Up on Gold,” Sept. 29 at Kelly Writers House. The event, the first in a series that will invite seven speakers to talk, sing or generally hold forth on a particular topic for about seven minutes, was being held in conjunction with “Color Project,” the current exhibit at the Esther Klein Gallery.

The evening’s host, Creative Writing Lecturer and Writers House Program Coordinator Tom Devaney, welcomed audience members to the cozy bay-fronted living room with the proud claim that “community and collaboration are our gold standard” at the Writer’s House. The notion of community, he said, was embodied by the night’s speakers, which included a geology professor, two students, an archaeologist, the director of the Writer’s House and Hannah Filreis, daughter of Kelly Professor of English and Faculty Director of the Writers House Al Filreis, who, noted Devaney, “is 10 years old, soon to be 11, and wonderful.” Devaney’s own golden reverie explored the symbolism of the gold doubloon in “Moby Dick.”

Next up, and living proof that the Writers House aims to reach beyond the obvious, was Herman Pfefferkorn, professor of earth and environmental science. Pfefferkorn talked—sometimes in German, sometimes in English, always with enigmatic precision—about the mid-20th-century visits of a German geologist to the gold fields of Africa.

Dem golden sneakers

Writers House director Jennifer Snead danced her way up to the podium to the catchy tune of “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” the unofficial theme song of the Philadelphia Mummers. Snead’s exposition of the history of the Mummers was fascinating, though not until the end did she reveal its significance, gold-wise. It seems the Mummers have a tradition of spray-painting their sneakers and construction boots with gold paint. And that, said Snead, is why every January you see the outlines of shoes etched in gold on the streets of South Philadelphia.

Penn archaeologist William Brad Hafford took the opportunity to “dress as close to gold as I could,” with a beige suite, ecru shirt and tan tie. The power of gold, he argued, goes deeper than allure and rarity. It embodies the very concept of value, and in fact forms the foundation of many modern currencies. As an archaeologist though, said Hafford, finding gold on a dig is a mixed blessing since even the rumor of its discovery means that security “has to be doubled or trebled.”

For most archaeologists, said Hafford, the real treasures are not gold. “Despite the allure,” he said, “it often holds less information” than the artifacts of more humble people.

Eternal dollar sign

“I don’t think I really like gold,” said Talia Stinson C’05, at the outset of her rambling, discursive riff on the topic. “Society has made this being a tad too corrupt.” Stinson’s objection, it turns out, is to the metal’s status as “the eternal dollar sign.”

Nor, it seems, would Jenny Suen C’06, editor of the Asian-American literary magazine Propaganda Silk. Her engaging monologue, which drew the most laughs of the night, sang the praises of pink—“the blatant chic of a generation obsessed with sex”—reviling gold for its “ostentatious color” and the way it “shines too brightly.”

Al Filreis treated the audience to a brief analysis of the chapter titled “Gold” in Primo Levi’s book, “The Periodic Table.” In prison in Italy during WWII, Levy meets a wandering man, a gypsy, who pans the Dora River for the tiny pieces of gold that are carried along in its silt. Levi, explained Filreis, thinks how free this man is, pursuing his “inexhaustible trickle of gold,” and how far he, Levi, a chemist, has drifted from the fundamental chemistry of separating metals.

The evening was stolen, though, by Filreis’s daughter, Hannah, 10, who eschewed gold bashing or heavy analysis to give a fresh, from-the-heart response to this most precious metal in the form of an acrostic poem with three stanzas. Here’s the first:

G is for the glamorous options in life
O is for the obvious reasons to want gold
L is for the way it looks when it slides down your skinny ring finger
D is for your desire

Originally published on October 7, 2004