An acquaintance of mine was a teacher at the University. One Friday afternoon he asked a couple of us if we were really curious to see something.
I said, “Yeah.”
“You be at this address tomorrow at eleven in the morning.”
I woke up that morning and said to myself, “Oh well, what the heck,” I got in my battered old Ford, and drove over to the address. It turned out to be a garage. A plain, ordinary, crummy-looking garage. Nothing except a couple of swinging doors and a couple of shade-covered windows.
Outside, the teacher was waiting with three other students, and he said, “Okay, you really want to see something? I want to prepare you for this.”
We didn’t know what to expect. He said, “First of all, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.” He played it very well, theatrically. He said, “Alright, are you ready?” He took his key and opened the lock on these big garage doors and he swung them open and the four of us walked into the gloom of this garage on a gray Saturday morning in Cincinnati.
I’ll never forget the day that I had the great awakening regarding an art form. Even today, in this country, there are very few people who recognize this as an art form.
I suspect that quite possibly in maybe five-hundred years they may look back on our country, and there will be preserved examples of this great form which we created. I suspect also that we have created a form which is now rapidly in decline. Around the early quarter of the twentieth century a new form was created and it existed briefly for about ten or twelve years in its really flowering way, and then it began to decline as all art forms do.
Up to the point when I’d discovered this form, I’d been a walking-around-ignorant. And in large part I still am today. I was going to the University of Cincinnati and I had a job and I was doing other things and I was just beginning to see that there was more to the world than Flash Gordon and more to drawing than Prince Valiant. I was beginning to suspect things. We go through this period when we begin to see things that we never really realized. That the world is a giant iceberg and in these first years of our life we only see a little bit of it sticking up on the top. We begin to see how fantastically varied and infinitely complex it is. I suppose that’s called “maturation.”
NETSUKE HARE WITH AMBER EYES
I recently encountered a book that refers to netsuke ownership, only this one concentrates on the rich Jewish family that had 264 fine netsuke, bought together by their forebears as a collection. When they were persecuted by the Nazis, the pieces were hidden by their maid and, after World War II, were returned by her to the family. I got the book from the library and found that the biographer, a member of the family, is a highly regarded English ceramicist who decided to use their netsuke collection, which he now owns, as symbolic of his family history and their love of the arts. Up front, I must admit that, though I consider the Holocaust to have been the most horrific tragedy in human history, and I’m in sympathy with this family’s art-filled and tragic story, my focus regarding this book is its relationship to netsuke and how the author elegantly and metaphorically shaped his story by using those netsuke.
Among the multitude of important reviews: “A winning hybrid, a rueful family memoir, a shining meditation on loss and the reverberating significance of cherished objects….” —The Atlantic
Throughout the book de Waal describes his family and netsuke collecting. He comments that netsuke represent all aspects of traditional Japanese culture and life—and his netsukes will come to represent aspects of his family’s life. Each time he writes of netsuke and picks one up to hold, fondle, and examine, he connects the art to his family history, always metaphorically:
They are always asymmetric, I think with pleasure. As with my favorite Japanese tea-bowls, you cannot understand the whole from a part.
When I am back in London I put one of these netsuke in my pocket for a day and carry it around. Carry is not the right word for having a netsuke in a pocket. It sounds too purposeful. A netsuke is so light and so small that it migrates and almost disappears amongst your keys and change.
I realize how much I care about how this hard-and-soft, losable object has survived. I need to find a way of unravelling its story. Owning this netsuke—inheriting them all—means I have been handed a responsibility to them and to the people who have owned them. I am unclear and discomfited about where the parameters of this responsibility might lie.
What they [the Japanese] could do was everyday life. And emotion. It was these emotions that entranced Kipling when he first saw netsuke in Japan on his travels in 1889.
Did he [the author’s ancestor] fall in love with the startlingly pale hare with amber eyes, and buy the rest for company?
It is not just things that carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina. I thought I had this clear, two years ago before I started, but I am no longer sure how this works. Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed, the way that a striated stone tumbled in a river feels irreducible, the way this netsuke….
The author, opening the protective glass door of his netsuke vitrine, uses that vitrine itself as a metaphor–a kind of opening up this personal memory-gatherer for his stories/netsuke. He includes a photo of a vitrine in the book, but it’s distant and fuzzy, so one cannot see any of the contents. And he comments :
Netsukes cannot knock around your salon or your study unprotected….The vitrines exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them: they frame things, suspend them, tantalize through distance….But the vitrine—as opposed to the museum case—is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric.
The night I returned the library book, I woke at four A. M., wrote a dozen notes to myself in the dark, and knew that I was possessed. Obsessed with the how, what, why of this book. Photocopies I’d made of some of the library book’s pages were not enough—I had to possess, tangibly, the entire volume in my hands. I bought a paperback and deposited it in my own netsuke vitrine. (Its cover has nine tiny photos of netsuke, including, below the title, a small one of the hare.) Now I hope I possess enough of the story. As de Waal’s netsuke evoke his family’s life, my small netsuke collection might represent an example of my artsy life. Here is my mixed-bag vitrine:
* * * * * * *
Eduard de Waal’s evocations of his family uses strong, forceful words about the idea of their netsuke as metaphor, but I believe he recognized that photos of the little sculptures amid the text would make them too visually tangible and thus distracting focal points–among the book’s interior illustrations, there is not one of a netsuke—not even of the one that gives title to the book. I searched the Internet and found images and short videos of de Waal discussing the book—they include a photo of his hare:
Nancy takes one of the snails and says, “Oh, these are so wonderful.” She takes one out of its shell and I see how she does it. She takes this little fork and she fishes one of these things out, and it looks strange, you know—like a little black snake or something. She pulls it out and puts it in her mouth—“Oh!”
Here is this beautiful girl. What am I going to do? I can’t chicken out.
So I say, “Oh, they look very good, hee hee.” I’m feeling sick inside. With the little fork I fish the little thing out. I put it in my mouth. I go, “uuushup!” I taste it. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! It is fantastic! It is fantastic! It is fantastic! It is so good I can’t believe it!
Then I go the other way—I make a total pig of myself. I eat all the snails up so quick—kiwkiwkiwkiwghkiw! I mean, they’re gone!
And then the lesson hit me. I looked around. I saw all these other people—they’ve been doing this all of their lives! They weren’t surprised at snails. And it began to sneak up on me—what other terrible stuff did I learn at home? What other things do I think are awful? Just because it was back in the kitchen that way, you know? I ate the snails.
Late that night, lying in the dormitory room, I felt those snails—you could taste them. There’s an aftertaste. And I began to suspect that night that there was a fantastic, unbelievable world out there. And I was just be-gin-ning to taste it! Just beginning! God knows where it would lead!
ARTSY, WHAT ARTISTS SEE, ANTHONY BOURDAIN
From pure abstraction to almost pure representation.
A representative sampling.
* * * * * *
My Artsy Fartsy is an illustration of the variety of peripatetic experiences
I’ve had in the world of art.
* * * * * *
WHAT ARTISTS SEE
I recently encountered What Artists See When They Look At Art, a book illustrating short, illustrated essays by artists discussing art they especially respond to at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Peripatetic experiences. The comments are often unexpected, yet perceptive. Maybe artsy. The book’s introduction comments: “[The artists] know how to unpack a work not only analytically but also emotionally. They have a way of making it personal. Some of them speak about an epiphany,…”
* * * * * *
In the early morning of June 8, 2018 I was shocked to tears
when I learned that Anthony Bourdain had died.
I’d not known anything about him when, a couple of years ago, I encountered his CNN television series, PARTS UNKNOWN. I became fascinated by this former chef traveling to “unknown” places to indulge in the local cooking while casually conversing about the customs, social issues, and distinctiveness of matters particular to those with whom he was sharing a meal. The meditative cooking-and-travel combo intrigued me with its unusual form and content. It was as though the food ingredients themselves, and how they were prepared into the mix, represented a concoction of that particular culture that was special to it. He seemed a kind of perceptive—not a casual—flaneur, but I didn’t realize the special connection I had to his way of encountering the world, until that morning when I heard the eulogies and commentaries.
The New York Times essayist James Poniewozik wrote (6/8/18, appearing in the 6/10/18 paper edition) in the first and last parts of his elegant tribute:
Anthony Bourdain understood that eating was simply a way of taking the world inside you.
Mr. Bourdain, whose death was announced on Friday, took a lot of the world inside him in his 61 years on Earth, as a chef and a culinary enthusiast. As a TV host, he shared it with his audience. His globe-trotting, globe-eating series were full of wonder, humor and lusty eating pleasure. But above all, they were about people, for whom food is the most intimate form of expression.
…. He presented learning about the world as an obligation and an unbelievable adventure, something we’re ridiculously lucky to be able to do.
More than a travel guide, more than a food host, Mr. Bourdain was an evangelist of the senses. We’re each given a vehicle, the body, to explore the world, and a set of instruments — touch, smell and especially taste — with which to take in information.
It’s painful to know that Anthony Bourdain’s trip has ended. But he left behind one hell of a travelogue.
In PARTS UNKNOWN, the introductory visual of Bourdain’s television series, sets the mind to the strangely cubistic, yet realistic collage of audio and visual assonance to come. The introduction’s vivid red, jagged lines and unexpected effects alert us that we are about to see a travel adventure infused by a quirky and artsy sensibility. Unexpectedly, we’re being taken to parts unknown, to parts we thought we knew, and we’re in for an occasionally wacky but intelligent and informative exploration that is, in its essence, an artistic representation. An artsy form I hadn’t known existed. Such a deep humanity, grabbing me by the scruff of the neck, so that “art” might seem for it a slightly lesser descriptive term.
Through Anthony Bourdain I’ve come to realize that I may
never again be able to receive, process, and write about
the world of art in the same, simple, prosaic way again.
Bourdain and President Obama
discussing food and the world
over beer and noodles in Hanoi.
A recent Internet exchange:
Eugene B Bergmann Bud, thank you for your comment. Bourdain’s death has affected me more than have those of other heroes of mine such as Hemingway, Picasso, Mailer, etc.
Bud Painton You’re welcome, Gene. The fact that this is the way you feel in comparison to the mentioned immortals for whom you held great regard speaks volumes.
Eugene B Bergmann With his extraordinary projection of his humanity, his sensibility, I feel such communion with him–and, with this, in his death, I am reminded so forcefully of my own mortality.
We move into the next room and we’re all sitting down at this big, beautiful table—white tablecloth and the crystal and linen and all that. I don’t know what’s going to happen here. And then it comes!
Nancy, sitting next to me says, “Have you had any of the fresh escargot this season yet?”
I say, “What? Oh yeah.” Well, yes, yes, it’s a good season, hee hee.” You know, faking it all the way. And the next thing I know, in front of me is this plate of something which had always been rumored in our house that people somewhere, someplace, ate. And we never really believed it! And whenever it was mentioned they ate these things—“Oh, ugh!”
A plate of snails! With the little forks. Oh my God, snails! Snails! Ugh! And instantly inside of me—my meatloaf insides are immediately saying, “Oh, ugh, oh my God, this is all incredible!”
COMPACT LIKE A COILED RAT
What’s an authentic, what’s faux, a good netsuke, a bad netsuke? Right after World War II, Americans in Japan could buy from destitute Japanese, a handful of authentic netsuke for a couple of dollars. Today, ebay shows over four thousand “netsuke” for sale, most inaccurately described –and indeed, most of them faux, made for the innocent/ignorant/unwary. It’s difficult to find even a fairly decent one on the market for under $500 dollars. The faux (tiny, realistically carved recently made objects) can be gotten for under ten dollars and maybe (outrageously), for a couple of hundred. Among the easily discernable indicators are descriptions of “cute” or “bunny rabbit.” I confess that some of my early purchases are modern faux. (there are a few quality, modern carvers.)
Good netsuke are usually considered as having been used with traditional Japanese attire, and thus, are generally compact, so that outlying parts can’t easily break off during normal wear. Coiled unto themselves, some in a near-fetal position for self-protection. For me, an ultimate example is the often repeated style of a coiled rat. They were frequently made by the very highly regarded carvers named Masanao (18 and 19th century). Some can be encountered by googling “Masanao rat.” Here are a few, varying in ear shape, front toe positions, tail configuration, etc.:
Masanao 18th and/or 19th C.
My much less expensive copy is said to have been made by the modern,
last-of–the-family-line of Masanao carvers:
I’ve managed to buy a couple of inexpensive, older, authentic netsuke. A couple have pre-20th century dates attributed by major auction galleries. Occasionally I’ll encounter one that I’m rather sure is “real” based on a couple of attributes: style; some wear-and-tear through normal use (minor wear and patina are often a positive attribute).
The evolution of netsuke appears to have begun when people used some found object such as a tree root to use as a toggle that keeps the hanging object on a cord from slipping from the sash to which it’s attached. The esthetics of choice evolved over two centuries to the myriad subjects chosen and carved. When I encountered a netsuke made of the stag antler part between it and the deer’s skull (called the “pedicle”), I recognized it as an interesting example of an esthetic form harking back to netsuke’s natural beginnings. I believe it’s “authentic” because no modern carver-for-mass-market would waste his time on such a non-commercial effort–it’s not a cute little, realistic statue. Here are both sides of it:
The saw marks, and the metal flower motif on both sides
for the cord’s attachment hole, are the only non-natural elements.
I say, “Yeah, hi, Nancy.”
She says, “Here, would you care for a—James, please.” And James comes over with a big tray of drinks. There are these tall, skinny glasses, you know, the long, skinny stems? I had never really held one of those glasses, so I grab it and it tips over! Instantly! And down it goes, all over the floor. She says, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
And with that everybody’s rushing and running round. So James says, “Excuse me, sir.” He brushes off the furniture, where I spilled all the goo-goo all over it. I take another one of these things, and I’m walking around. It’s a martini, see.
I had never had a martini before. The only thing my old man ever talked about in the way of actual drink was, “How about some booze?” Now we didn’t ever have any actual names for these drinks—it was just called booze. And—then he had a thing—once in a while when he was really putting on the dog—as he would say—he would have a thing called “a highball.” Now a highball means that you put booze in a glass, and then you pour in ginger ale. That was what a highball was.
So I’ve got this thing—a martini, see, and it tasted terrible—like I’m drinking some kind of strange chemical. Ohooo! Wow! Has this little olive bobbing up and down there. I like the olive, so I reach in and took it out and I crunch—it is the first olive I’ve ever seen in my life that has an almond in it! So, whole new things are opening already. I’m walking around with these people, and suddenly they all move like a herd of cattle. They say, “Oh—it’s time for dinner. Oh oh oh oh.”
And she said “Oh, don’t bother to dress, or anything like that, you know.”
I said, “Yeah, fine.” I didn’t realize the import of this at the time—“Don’t bother to dress.” So, that night I put on my J. C. Penny sport coat and I put on my Sears Roebuck pants and I had on my new shirt. You know, the one with the pearl buttons that light up. And I have on my tie that my Aunt Glen gave me for graduation from high school, and so I went walking down towards this place.
As I walked, the houses got bigger and bigger, and the lawns got broader and broader. You knew you were really in the big time when the house was so far back on the lawn that you just saw nothing but trees and this winding driveway. They had white pillars in front of the door and they had this big brass knocker that you just go bonk! Bonk! And it was shaped like a lion. You grabbed this thing, you dropped it—clunk! Clunk!
This guy comes and opens the door. And I say, “I was invited to dinner.”
“Of course, come right in.” And in I go!
He says, “Shall I take your hat?” My hat! “Your coat, please.” If he takes my coat I’ll have nothing.
So I say, “No, that’s all right.”
I follow him, and now I’m in this room. These people are all standing around. There are about maybe fifteen or twenty people, and here is Nancy and her sister, Dolores, but Nancy is something else, man. So here’s Nancy, and she says, “Oh, Jean! How wonderful you could come!” And so, she comes running over and she kisses me! See, this was not in my strata of society. One doesn’t do these things, you know. This whole idea of just running up and kissing somebody—we had to have a big thing like a game of post office or something—to pull that one off.
So she comes right over and she kisses—“Oh! How good of you to come!” And she kisses me.
I’ve written previously about Shepherd’s college-days-stories.
What follows are the two entire stories as I transcribed them.
PART 11. EXTRACURRICULAR EPIPHANIES
Jean Shepherd seldom talks about his college days. Sometimes he claims to have graduated, but this is probably not so. At some point he probably does spend some time in college, very likely beginning with a special army program in Maryland before discharge. And half a century later he receives from Indiana University an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
College is part of the experience of encountering life within the somewhat cloistered environment of school—one is still a “kid.” We consider among his kid stories, two important college experiences. Like a child, he is still encountering important knowledge which provides impetus toward maturity and learning about the world. His thinking and sensibilities are evolving—these life-altering changes occur while at college but outside the classroom. These two extracurricular epiphanies conclude The Education of Jean Parker Shepherd. They involve a plate of snails and a Bugatti.
* * *
I was going to college and of course I was barely scraping on—my end was tough. I had this one suit, this one sport coat. And so I got to know a couple of people there. One night this girl, very elegant girl with long blond hair, said, “Would you care to come to dinner tonight—my home? We’re having a few people over, and I think it would be kind of fun.”
I said, “Yeah.” You know, I’m always very glib with my adlibs. “Yeah.”
So she said, “Have you ever been out to the place?”
I said, “No, I haven’t.”
She gave me this address in the town where the school was. And I knew nothing whatsoever about it.
I said, “Okay, I’ll be there.”
A one-off before continuing with Shep’s kid stories.
How would Shepherd have reacted to spam?
When camping in the wilderness, I enjoyed it un-canned and fried hot.
As of May, 2018, wordpress.com, my blog provider, has protected me from lots of spam: “Akismet has protected your site from 21,600 spam comments already. There’s 1 comment in your spam queue right now.” They also give the opportunity to see a fraction of these in the “spam queue.” I suppose it’s for me to decide that they are indeed spam. Yes, they are.
One consistent trait is that they never comment on anything specific in the blog, but just use generalities, yet seem aimed at enticing a direct response. I never respond. Another attribute of these phishing expeditions is that, although they’re written using English words, any member of the grammar-police as I am, can easily see that the results of the word mash-ups are not the product of your normal English language user. The results provoke a smile and shake of the head. I thought others might find a few of them amusing. The following have been directly copied/pasted:
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Next, further Shep Kid Stories.
He says, “Well, I’m marrying Stella. And you’re invited. We’re getting married the Monday after graduation.”
I say, “Bolis, you don’t know her. Gee, she looks like a nice girl, Bolis.”
“It’s good. Nice girl.”
I say, “Yeah, very nice.”
And Bolis says, “Yes, I believe she is a very nice girl.”
“Bolis, how’d you get together?”
“My mother and father got together with her mother and father and decided we should be married.”
I say, “Oh. She never knew about you?”
“Oh, yes, I guess my mother and father must have spoken to her mother and father about us, but, we’re going to be very happy.”
And I was ushered out into the darkness. With my baseball glove in my left hand and my baseball in my right. But, I will say one thing—I was wearing my White Sox cap a little straighter.
I walked out into the darkness. I could smell the spring flowers just beginning to bud. Overhead the sky arched with a million stars, and somewhere, a mile or two over the horizon, the Great Lake that we had bathed in and played on lo these many years, sent a soft fragrance of spring through the air. It was then that I knew—our scragging days were over forever. Forever and ever.
[END OF PART 10.]
Final 2 stories to come. Shep the kid develops into a man.
DON McLEAN BREAKS A STRING, ETC.
Don McLean’s “American Pie” is one of my favorite songs.
(I also very much like his “Vincent” and “Dreidel.”)
I’ve seen him perform live three times.
One of those times was in a small church basement in Manhattan, where there must have been a hundred or less in the audience. I had my sheet music of “American Pie” with me and asked him to sign it. At first the pen didn’t work and, to get it started, he squiggled twice on the page—and I winced—he was marring it! He then signed it with a flourish beneath. So I have his signature, his flourish, and his two authentic squiggles.
The first time I’d attended a live concert of his was at Carnegie Hall in 1973.
Another of my major memories was his television performance on Austin City Limits (1982?). The You-tube of the song doesn’t have the purity and finish of the official recording, and it’s blurry, but it has the vigor of a live performance and McLean’s reaction to a damn string.
With backup instrumentalists, he began singing “American Pie.” In the middle of it, one of his guitar strings broke but he kept singing–while wrenching out the broken string, picking up packets of replacement strings, installing a new one and tuning it. So without having hesitated he continued singing and playing his restrung guitar to the song’s conclusion.
It was a glorious moment in the immortal life of “American Pie.”
He did this so smoothly and seemingly unperturbed—with what I refer to as
total ARTSY FARTSY aplomb.
I remember another moment.
In the era of CD audios I bought one of his “greatest hits.”
In it, disc producers had truncated “American Pie.”
I guess 8 minutes was too long to fit with the rest on the disc.
I flung it into the garbage and bought a complete version.
I say, “Yeah.” I’m standing here with my baseball glove and I’ve got a baseball with tape on it. Which is even more embarrassing. I didn’t bring my Sunday baseball, the one without the tape. My tennis shoes, my sweatshirt that says Bluebird Tavern number 12, I’ve got my White Sox cap on sideways.
Bolis says, “Would you care to have a glass of wine?”
Wine! What is this?! I’m still vaguely deciding whether Nehi Orange is or is not better than Ovaltine.
“Would you care to have a glass of wine? Sit down.”
So the four of us sit very stiffly. Mrs. Rutkowski, Stella, Bolis, and me at the kitchen table, and all the while I can see the people having this party. I can see a long table with turkeys and stuff all over.
Bolis turns to me and says, “I’m glad you came over tonight, Shep. I’m very pleased. This is a very important moment of my life, and this is the night that I met Stella, and we’re pleased that you’re coming to our wedding.”
This is the night he met Stella! They’re gonna get married! I lean over to Bolis while Stella and his mother are talking in Polish. I whisper, “Bolis, what’s this all about?”
He nudges me. Five minutes later, Stella and Mrs. Rutkowski go out to the guests, and there’s only me and Bolis in the kitchen.
I said, “Bo, what is this about?”
WATCHING FOR A TELLTALE LIMP
Among recent New York Times photos that seem to be more eye-catching, quirky, and dramatic than they used to be, is the recent front page image of the Saturday sports section. It’s a photo of (part of) the Preakness favorite, Justify, the article describing the potential problem with a leg. For me, the 10” X 10” image, is a very good and clever way to graphically make an attention-catching statement—nothing but four legs in the air going over a watery place on a practice course. What an extraordinary picture!