She says, “Alright, if you want us to call you Gene, we will call you Gene. That’s a very pretty name. Eugene is one of my favorite names.”
So we move on down the line, calling out our names. It is going downhill. School is not panning out. We’d been sitting in school for about an hour with the song and the names, and she talks to us a little bit, and then comes the crusher! The total crusher! Miss Bundy says, “And now, boys and girls, it’s time. What do you think it’s time for?”
I figure we’re going to get to it now. I put my hand up.
She says, “Yes, Eugene?”
I figure she’s calling on somebody behind me.
She says, “Yes, Eugene? What do you think it is time for now?”
This is my first effort at class response. I remember because this became a family story. She says, “What are we ready for?”
And I say, “Reading! We’re gonna read!”
She says, “No, that is not right. We’re not going to read, but would you like to read?”
I say, “Yes!”
She says, “We’re a little young for that here yet. But no, we’re not going to read.”
I can see the other kids looking at me. I’m already embarrassed. I booted my first question. Oh, it’s terrible to boot your first one. It’s only the beginning of a whole lifetime of it. So I kicked the first one right out the window and we’re all sitting there dumbly, looking up at her in the sandbox. I am knee-deep in sand.
And she says, “Alright, boys and girls, I’ll tell you what it’s time for. What is that all of you have at this time of day at home? Right in the middle of the morning? What do you do? That’s right, you take a nap!”
Aaaaaaaagh! A nap! Ohhhhh! Oh man, if there’s anything, from the time I was hatched out of the egg—if there is anything that bugged me more than a nap, I’d like to know what it is. A nap! And here I figure that I am getting out of all of that. Now I am in school, now I am with other people. I don’t wanna take a nap!
So Miss Bundy rolls out blankets all over the floor and I watch her as she rolls them and all of us lay down on the floor in kindergarten with the shades drawn. And just lay there. A nap. This is school. This is school! And I can’t sleep. I never took a nap in the morning and all of a sudden I’m taking naps in the morning! I’m a little kid again. I’m lying there looking up at the ceiling. Schwartz is lying next to me. He’s looking up at the ceiling. And I hear him say, “Rats!” Yeah, rats!
We just lay there looking up at the ceiling. A nap! That moment, that moment of oppressive boredom, that moment of irritation, of having been had. That tremendous sense of disappointment. No reading. No desk. No books. Nothing but sand piles. Naps. Little girls. And a big fat lady banging on the piano singing, “Oh-I-am-here-in-school,” bonk-bonk-bonk. “How-I-love-school. Oh-oh-it-is-fun. How-I-love-schoo-oo-ool.”
STAY TUNED FOR THE LAST OF SHEP’S KINDERGARTEN.
ARTISTS’ BOOKS IN CD JEWEL BOXES
Of the dozens of artists’ books I’ve designed and made, a dozen or so have been in a format to neatly fit into CD “jewel boxes.” The clear plastic cases give them a finished look and protect them.
A couple of them consist of colorful layouts accompanying some of my gathered poems on related subjects. One is my tribute to El Lissitzky’s book, For the Voice. One is a reference to composer John Cage’s printed work, one a miscellany regarding my commuter trips on the Long Island Rail Road (which refers to poet Blaise Cendrar’s poem about his trip on the Transsiberian Railroad.) One’s a simple popup related to poet Stephane Malarme, who had been quoted as saying that all the world exists to be put in a book (words to that effect). One’s especially relevant to “fatheads” everywhere.
Another is just a bit of fun using some of the many ads for erotic services promoted in the back of the weekly Village Voice—it suggests censorship in the act of shredding with a wide-spaced set of shredding blades. As I used the actual newspaper ads, all copies of this book will slowly grow brown and brittle, and eventually crumble irredeemably to dust.
The last one consists entirely of an apparent book that one finds is not a book at all, but just the supposed front and back covers glued to a thin sheet of cardboard-like material called “foamcore,” which is basically plastic membranes filled with air. It’s an artists’ faux book.
Miss Bundy walks over to the windows and opens one. I remember this moment. It’s a kind of blur. She says, “Now, boys and girls, the first thing we’re going to do, we’re going to sing a song. How many of you like to sing?” I just look up. Sing a song? I didn’t sing, I don’t sing.
“How many of you like to sing? Ah, I see, well that’s very good.” Some of the kids have their hand up. There are always kids who have their hand up instantly. Little did I realize that that was the thing that was going to plague me all of my life. In every crowd there’s five people who have perpetually got their hand up.
“Now, when I play with you on the piano, I want all of you to sing the words that I will sing. Listen to me as I sing, and you repeat after me what I am singing. Won’t that be fun?”
Miss Bundy was a big, fat, round, jovial lady. Later on (I didn’t realize at the time, of course. She was just a big round fat lady to me.), but later on, I learned she was a beloved kindergarten teacher and one of the most respected in the whole area. And she loved kids. So she sits down at this piano and she starts to play. She goes bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp. Bomp. “Oh-I-am-here-in-school.” Bomp-bomp-bomp. “Now let’s sing it, boys and girls. Oh-I-am-here-in-school.” Bomp-bomp.
I notice instantly that all the girls are singing. The boys are sitting.
She says, “Now, come on, all of you. Come on, all the boys, too. All you boys too, let’s go. Nice. Here we go now.” Bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp. and she’s banging away at the piano. Well, she plays this song and I am in total misery.
First of all I am embarrassed. I don’t know why I am embarrassed. I didn’t like to sing in front of all the other kids, ‘cause I couldn’t sing good. I sit there and I see this kid, Schwartz. He’s sitting there, too. He’s looking mad. There’s another guy named Flick. She’s playing the piano.
A BOY NAMED ?
Then, after the piano playing is over, Miss Bundy says, “Now, boys and girls the next thing we’re going to do. I would like to ask all of you. Each one of you in turn. I want all of you to say your name. Say your name so all the other children will know your name. Won’t that be fun?”
Won’t that be fun? That was always bad news. So she points to this little girl. “Ester Jane.”
“Oh, boys and girls, did you hear what she said? She said that her name is Ester Jane. Isn’t that a nice name? Ester Jane. That’s a very pretty name. Are you named after your mother or your father?”
“Very nice name.” She works her way down the line and finally she comes to me. And this is the first of a long series of traumas that begin. She says, “What is your name?”
“Ah, isn’t that nice. Now you see, his name is Eugene. Isn’t that a nice name.”
“Yes, but you see, Gene is short for Eugene. And you can all call him Gene if he wants to be called Gene. But that’s a very pretty name. I once knew a man named Eugene. In fact, I would like to read to you a poem someday, by a man named Eugene Field who wrote a very pretty poem about a little toy soldier. Are you named after him? Is your father’s name Eugene?”
A FAMOUS GENE A FAMOUS JEAN
I never heard the name Eugene in my life! My name is not Eugene. Jean. J E A N, Jean. What was going on already, I thought. I’m falling behind in school—over my own name! I’m lousing up over my own name!
Monday morning we got up and I’m having breakfast and I’m all dressed up! Which was totally unusual for a kid. I’ve got my brand new, go-to-school clothes. My kid brother was sitting there at the breakfast table and we were both eating the oatmeal and he was mad.
And out we go. It was a beautiful sunny day. We went next door and knocked on the door and Bobby Twinerman, all dressed up, came out with his mother and we went down the street. There were a lot of other kids on the street with their mothers. We went along to the William McKinley School.
The next memory I recall was a lady—not my mother, but a lady now—was taking me and Bobby and we were walking along a hallway. She had each of us by a hand and my mother had disappeared. Now there was a moment of trepidation. We were in school, there’s all kinds of kids. I was figuring she was going to take us to where the school is, that room with the desks, and there would be this blackboard, there would be pencils, and we would read and we would do all these groovy things. She took us to a door and opened it, and there was another lady wearing a purple dress and with hair that was all fuzzy on top of her head and she had glasses. This lady took us right into that room. And that was the beginning—the beginning of the whole life.
That was actually the beginning of life itself. That was the first room, the first cube, that section of air, that little contained bit of space that I was to occupy. And all the other Clarences of the world beginning at that instant, were beginning the world of an official life. Offices, schools, auditoriums, all the things we occupy outside of our own little private world of home. The official world, those buildings, and those buildings will pursue us all the way to the end of our life. Those official places. This is the very first one.
I stood there for a second, and the lady said, “Why don’t you go down and get in with the rest of the kids. Now here, this is Jeanie,” she called me and from that day on I was plagued with that. “This is Jeanie and here’s Bobbie.” It was our first day of kindergarten.
And I remembered. I will always remember. And, in fact, vividly remember—the intense shock and great wave of disappointment. There were no desks!
There wasn’t a desk in the entire room! They never show pictures of kindergarten in magazines. It’s always the grade school they show. I didn’t know that. To me, school was school. This was kindergarten. And there were sandboxes.
Sandboxes! There were little girls sitting around cutting stuff out! There were thousands of kids all sitting around playing in sandboxes! And Miss Bundy took me over to a sandbox and said, “Here, I want you to meet another little boy. His name is Schwartz.”
Little did I realize that this was a life-long thing that had started. And there was this kid sitting in the sandbox looking mad too. I didn’t know what to do sitting in the sandbox. All the while other new kids were being brought in from the “induction center,” or whatever it was. About every couple of seconds another kid would come in with a stunned look on his face.
They brought in Helen Weathers. “This is Helen Weathers. I want you all to say hello to Helen, all of you,” and Helen sat down. They brought in Ester Jane. They brought in Flick, the whole bunch. It was our whole crowd at the beginning, but none of us knew each other before that. A whole big neighborhood. And so, sitting there in the sandbox I remember this terrible feeling of disappointment. I don’t know whether I played with the sand. I just remember being disappointed. I didn’t want to come to school to play in the sand.
Found in Translation—Part 1
The New York Times Magazine, November 22, 2015 had an article about Christopher Logue, an English poet who has been translating Homer’s Illiad into English. The thing is, the poet does not know any Greek.
Logue does it by reading all the existing translations into English and, having gotten from a producer of the BBC who was looking for a better translation for use on the radio, a word-for-word translation for him to work from (a “crib”). They hoped for something closer in meaning/style to the original than all the previous translators put together. Logue had found the previous translations boring and not poetic and not as powerful as what he feels that Homer had created.
(I remember the raconteur and wit, Alexander King, on TV once say that he had translated Ovid’s love poems into English without knowing any Latin, only seeing other translations. He claimed he’d gotten praise for his translations as being the best of Ovid ever!)
The problem of translation, I believe, is that a word-for-word version doesn’t work because of differences in grammar, sentence organization, alternate meanings of the same words and metaphors in the two languages, the conflict between direct meaning and the poetic niceties of rhythm, sound, and such. Different translators take different tacks and come up with results that never satisfy everybody.
This really struck me because I’ve done something similar with French (that I don’t know), and Spanish, which I know enough to carry on a conversation and surprise Spanish-speakers, but not enough to be a fluent translator. I also use a Spanish/English-English/Spanish dictionary.) I’ve done these “translations” as they relate to my interest in artists’ books.
A THROW OF THE DICE
One of the earliest of what I consider an “artists’ book” is an extended poem by French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, “Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard” (1897) “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance.” Experts are confused by the use of words and by the designed layout. They haven’t definitively figured out what the poem and its integral layout means. I think the layout may have something to do with a ship heaving to and fro in a storm.
One might say: “We speak our writing always not for comprehension easily.”
I know no French except parlay vu and silver plate. For whatever reasons I now forget, I decided to do my artists’ book of it in English. (I believe I was just intrigued by how the poet designed the look of his text.) I would study the English translations I could find and put together, based on them, my own “better” English version, which I would then arrange into my own artsy designs; one full-size book, and another version fitted into a CD jewel case in eleven double-page spreads. Seen here is my artsy jewel case cover (back/spine/front) and my “translated” version of the page shown in French, plus my next “translated” page.
Well, I remember the first time. I remember that first, that very first day that I went to school. Your very first day is there with you, too. For an eight-year-old kid—that milestone that he went through is just as far back in his memory as if you’re ninety. Now that’s hard to believe. But it’s true. It is definitely true.
So there I am, see. I remember it so vividly. By the time you go to school you’re already formed. You’ve got your ideas as to what school is about because you know you’re going to go. Everybody talks about school. You’re going to go to school. “Oh, are you in school yet, Jeanie?”
“Where do you go?”
You know that you’re going to go to school one day. I happened to be the oldest kid in my family, so I was the first kid to go to school. My brother was younger. And so, I’ve got all these ideas about what school was about. And I even remember my image of what I thought school was going to be. I had seen pictures of classrooms—with desks. The desk itself was very very attractive to me. The idea of having a desk—little kids love desks. They love to sit at their own little thing. Pile stuff on it. And have their desk. We never lose that, by the way. Oh, there’s nothing that a man likes better than his desk. His place where his little business goes on. Just sitting at it, sending out the bills. Desks have always had a mystical importance in peoples’ minds. And this goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.
So I’m this little kid and I can remember—the idea of having a desk, being in school with all these kids. And I always pictured school too, to have something to do with reading. I was an early reader. And I was a fanatical reader. I could read well by the time I was about four so my whole idea of school was that I would go to school and we would read and I’d have this desk, see. And every time they have pictures about school in ads, what do they always show? They always show pencils and tablets and they always show a kid standing by a desk wearing a little jacket or something, back to school special and so forth. They show blackboards and someone drawing a picture of a teacher. In all the years I went to school I never saw anybody draw a picture on the blackboard that said “teacher” under it. This is one of those continuing myths, that they always have this blackboard with a stick figure that says “teacher.”
I had all these ideas about school. All excited. Now the school that I was going to go to was about three blocks down the street from us. It was a big brick building that sat on the corner. It was the William McKinley School. I see a lot of kids running around out there, and, of course, being a little kid, they all looked like big kids to me, and a couple of kids in the neighborhood who were older than I was, who were already going to school. They seemed to occupy a world that was so exotic and exciting. Not going to school, at home, all I did was fool around. You play and just fool around. So the big day finally arrived. It was one week after Labor Day and all that Saturday we went out shopping and my mother bought all kinds of stuff for me for school. Boy, I was all excited. My kid brother was bugged, because I was going to school and he wasn’t. We walked around stores and my kid brother yelled every five minutes that he wanted one too—whatever I got, he wanted. My mother saying, “Look, he’s going to school, you’re not going to school.”
“Waaaa!” Even then, he was becoming the world’s greatest whiner. He was working on it.
CEZANNE AND JOHN MARIN
While contemplating Cezanne’s use of one or more deliberate strokes of paint near a mountain top in order to hold that mountain and its surrounding sky into the painting’s overall composition, I was reminded that John Marin, in the 1920s and into the 1950s, frequently employed prominent strokes all over his skies as major compositional elements, related not to nature but to the designed picture. (The catalog of one of his gallery exhibits is titled, “Between Realism and Abstraction.”) Cezanne, in his advance toward abstraction, had inspired subsequent artists into the modern era where all of a landscape painting could become an equal part with the rest. Marin sometimes pushed his skies dramatically in that direction:
Then, I found a number of Marin landscapes in which he placed
significant marks near the tops of his mountains.
Response to a cloud associated with the mountain top?
Homage to Cezanne and his use of such strokes near the tops of his renderings of Mt. St. Victoire?
I don’t know.
Three of John Marin’s Watercolors.
To my delight, in the painting below, by making use of the unpainted
white watercolor paper, Marin created a “stroke” by omission!
Can you remember—now think very hard—your absolute first day in school? You had one. If you say you can’t remember it’s because you’re really not concentrating. You did have a first day and it did make an impression on you. I can guarantee you that. Now the trick is to get that impression out so you can look at it. It’s like a pair of socks that you’ve lost in your apartment. Just because you can’t find them does not mean they’re not there. The trick is finding them.
I see the signs all over: BACK TO SCHOOL SPECIALS. Back to school. The sudden impact of—the bureaucracy, the organized, the communal world—that was outside. The thing that makes this such a traumatic moment in most peoples’ lives is that this is really their first personal involvement, where they have to take a place in that official world outside of the home. The average kid—he has his little thing going in the house, in his life. He sits down at the table and they give him his food, he eats his meatloaf, he goes out in back and plays with his friends. He’s got a little thing going. And all of a sudden a big finger comes out of the sky and points at him. “The time has come. Your time has come.”
Up to this time, all the other people in the family have been marching out. Every day the old man goes to work. Maybe there’s a sister of brother in the family who has always gone out and done this thing. It’s a mysterious thing that happens away from the house. They come back at night. All of a sudden, through the window comes a mysterious, ephemeral, ghost-like hand that points at little Clarence. Just points right at him. He’s sitting there eating his meatloaf and cabbage. Big hand points. “We want you.” And he looks up and says, “Who, me?”
“We want you. It is your time, Clarence.”
And Clarence is driven by vast forces of life, time, death and truth, history, convention—all of it. It’s all tied up in one big ball of wax and Clarence is about to really—experience—the first—major—irrevocable—total—complete milestone of his life. And from that day on—from that day on, oh, Clarence is swimmin’ in that same old, big ol’ river with the rest of us. Yeah, with the dead toads and catfish, the rushes and the mud, Clarence is swimmin’ in that great old riba, that riba called Mankind.
He has stopped bein’ a kid. He has moved out of that old mess and he is now one of us. Yeah. Sometimes Clarence drags his feet. Other times he tries to swim on his back, blow bubbles up at the sky. Then there are times he says, “Well, I’m gonna dive way down near the bottom and see what it’s like down there at the bottom.” And he dives down there. Then he’s gotta take a breath so he comes back up. And he floats along with all of us. Just drifting on down that great, big ol’ riba.
We’re not talking about nostalgia, friends. Get it out of your skull. Stop it. We’re not talking about the old days. Get it out of your bean. Stop it. We’s talking about L-I-F-E-E-E—life. There ain’t nothin’ like it. It’s the only thing we all got. And it’s the best thing we all got. You look up at that old sky once in a while and you say, “You know, there’s one thing that you gotta say about me: I’m walking’ around. And there’s a sky over me and I can see it. I can feel it, I can smell it. “
MORE FIRST DAY COMING
CEZANNE’S “ANGRY PATCH”
One day decades ago I was calmly—but with much interest—reading an article in a widely read American art magazine about one of my favorite painters, when I got on my emotional hobbyhorse. The author was obviously an authority on art and an admirer of Cezanne, but I was dismayed when I encountered his comment regarding a major painting:
“Cezanne…must have had moments of inattention, even of exasperation, in front of his canvas in the heat of Provence. What else explains that angry patch, quite out of tone, on the sky (E) ?”
Detail From Magazine
Showing their (E) Indicator.
I wrote him a polite but firmly reasoned letter in care of the magazine and received a letter from him appreciating my well-considered thoughts, but still disagreeing with me. The magazine printed parts of our exchange, including this by me:
That is not an angry stroke but a consummate stroke of genius which, in Cezanne’s composition, culminates the movement of the eye up into the painting through a series of dark areas of diminishing size. Without that “angry” stroke the light mountain peak and sky would visually blend and the eye not move up the “realistic” picture to the peak….that dark stroke of genius ties the light band of sky to the rest of the composition.
The magazine also printed part of his disagreement. Although the article’s author didn’t suggest that Cezanne or any other artist was “crazy,” many people probably think that artists, if not crazy, tend to be overly emotional—irrational. I recognize that creators sometimes get mad or angry, but I doubt that they let that emotional state detrimentally influence their art.
It’s my understanding that Cezanne’s method of painting was a carefully thought-out process of checks and balances, where a brushstroke was followed by a stroke in another part of the canvas calculated to re-establish the compositional balance that the earlier stroke had altered. A carefully planned and executed intellectual organization.
I pursued my thinking about the matter and studied many other reproductions of Cezanne’s paintings of his La Montagne Sainte-Victoire. A good number of them feature dark brushstrokes in the sky near the mountain peak! Why? Certainly, in that same location, not all could be angry patches! Are they all, along with the thin dark line of paint at the peak of this particular painting, a help in tying the peak to the rest of the darker composition? Details, details! See some details below. I’m convinced that this was part of Cezanne’s strategy.
Details–of the Painting in Question and Some Other Cezanne
Mt. St. Victoire Paintings with Dark Patches/Strokes Near the Peak.
Pursuing the matter further, I found that there’s an atmospheric condition which causes clouds to sometimes form near mountain peaks. “Mountain-induced Cumulus” and “Mountain-induced Stratiform.” Pardon the technical jargon—I’m only interested in the atmosphere up there if it affects an artist’s work: “Orthographic stratus clouds form as winds flow up a mountain and down the other side. [etc.]”
A Lenticular Cloud in New Mexico.
Sometimes, Instead of a Cloud,
He Used Tree Branches.
Am I arguing over an esthetic pebble annoying me in my idealistic slippers? I don’t think so. Given that all of us, including the greatest artists, sometimes emotionally lose it in their lives—but, that an irrational slash of paint by Cezanne was a faulty artistic response is not right. Especially as this particular painting is one of his acknowledged masterpieces. I believe I’ve shown that the critic’s analysis is an honest-but-total misunderstanding. Cezanne’s strong painterly statements are accurate responses to nature’s clouds, and are esthetically successful, albeit forceful, responses to the painter’s problem of what must be a commonplace landscapist issue—a sky that is not pulling its own pictorial weight in the upper stratum needs a painterly assist.
Self Portrait, 1895,
of Dark Paint Strokes
Above His Dome.
[Searching through several erudite and weighty volumes in my bookcase of reproductions and analysis of Cezanne’s work, as well as the Internet, I’ve found no reference to his frequent darker strokes by the peak of his revered mountain. Very strange! Do I need to skim more thoroughly? Surely others—more perceptive and knowledgeable than I–must have noted the relationship between Cezanne, the peak, and the clouds transformed into painterly patches.]
Usually Jean Shepherd simplifies his early schooling by beginning it at Hammond, Indiana’s Warren G. Harding grammar school, named, he more than once declares, “after America’s worst president.” Yet, in the opening stories he’s going to the William McKinley School because only after the first years of his schooling did the family cross the border from East Chicago to Hammond with its Harding School. There, Shep’s grammar-school life will be firmly affixed to the disreputable Harding name while colluding with humor, truth, and irony in his cooked-up kidhood stew.
Here is Jean Shepherd’s early life as a grammar school kid. Shepherd reminds us of the power of all our memories and the significance of kindergarten as the beginning of a lifelong and near-universal human experience in the larger world of which we are a part. He probably would not have blushed to hear the opening story described as a metaphor and one of his masterpieces.
Even in its first days, kindergarten is not what little Jeanie envisions. Life among organized humanity is a struggle between the carrot held out and authority’s reins. He is restricted from expressing his true being, even at this young age—in his first encounter with school he is committed to indentured servitude in a sand box. Despite his inclination, he will be forced to join the right-handed majority, and in his first performance on-stage, he will embody dental recidivism.
First Day of Kindergarten
I was a little bit nervous a couple of days ago. The first week in September, right after Labor Day. It’s a kind of trepidation. Do you feel this? The other day I was walking through Woolworth’s and I see these signs all over: BACK TO SCHOOL SPECIALS. And it hit me. Just a tiny tingle. It’s one thing that binds us all, regardless of sex, race, you name it. We all had a first day of school.
Most of us, no matter who we are, spent probably a good third of our lives in school. A very important time of our life. From about the time we were five or six to roughly our late teens or early twenties. Now that is the formative time of your life. When you’re molded and formed. Not only formally in the sense of being taught geography or how to read or being taught formal education. You’re also formed of strange little, almost unspoken, unconscious things deep down inside your gut.
So what always started a week after Labor Day? School started. That was a whole nervous moment. Most of us were going from one grade to the next. And we had a new teacher. A whole new ballgame. You were going to see kids that you had not seen all summer. Maybe some of them had moved away and other kids would come. It was a time of real transition and you were both nervous and excited at the same time. Because we’re always drawn toward these things and at the same time we’re scared of change.
MORE FIRST DAY COMING
Shepherd’s kid stories appear sprinkled throughout his radio career. There might be a kindergarten story told in the 1970s and a high school story told years earlier. Those that previously managed to appear in print are mostly found in his first two books of compilations in 1966 and 1971, individually self-contained as short stories that don’t conform to any special order in the book, though he referred to these groupings as “novels.” Yet, just as his army stories can be arranged into a rather rough and ready sequence to present an almost continuous, novel-length form, so his kid stories I’ve gathered here can be ordered into groupings, into a rough chronology according to phases of the life, not of “everyman,” but of “everykid.” We find in the stories, a portrayal of Shepherd’s fictional alter ego from early childhood toward adulthood, a coming-of-age opus which comprises a “novel.” Through his understanding of his experiences in these childhood stories, he will go forth as an adult into the world beyond Hammond, Indiana, recognizing his own wider possibilities. Maybe what we have here is truly a novel? Another bildungsroman?
What an extraordinary how-do-you-do! Here, waiting to be devoured is a banquet-full of stories. This book delivers courses in just about every one of the interests and enthusiasms that master chef-Shepherd cooked up individually over decades, and serves them neatly together from soup to nuts. Enjoy scarfing down every morsel while laughing yourself silly. Definitely a reader’s feeding frenzy.
My goodness, it’s almost as though ol‘ Shep planned it this way!
(Coming next=Kindergarten Part 1.)
WARJA LAVATER 2 of 2
SKETCH BOOK: THE DISOBEDIENT
For Me, This Book is Her Masterpiece
In addition to her many individual books composed with symbols in abstract shapes that tell the story nearly without words, she created a continuous history of the artist as a seeker, looking within oneself as well as acting in the exterior world (the culture of his/her time). This is also a “laporello” book with continuous images, page-to-page throughout, but the pages’ inner edges are bound at the spine. The story begins with black pages–a cave–then the eyes open and the history of art begins, with a short narrative, strung-out pathway, in French, English, and German continuing up to modern times, in several dozen pages.
Warja drew and inscribed my copy on the day we met at the Museum.
(Below is just a sampling. The white cover has somewhat discolored with time.)
Shepherd claimed that he created some of his stories as metaphors, and indeed, we can find them in many of his kid stories. Not all of his kid stories have morals to teach us, yet more of them do than we first suspected. Those morals can lurk inconspicuously even in the most innocent-seeming kid story. In addition to metaphors and frequent disasters that were incorporated into A Christmas Story (which you can discover yourself, dear movie-watcher), one might consider his story, found in this collection, of kids popping pills from a newly discovered medicine cabinet as a comment on the1960s drug culture. Then there’s Shepherd’s story of being defeated in a Morse code contest, entwined in an exquisite monolog with the dangers of Mark Twain’s treacherous Mississippi—a mighty, metaphorical river of life with hidden impediments. It’s one of Shepherd’s masterpieces in this book, and it deserves reading and re-reading.
Many of his stories are simply humorous. Most are funny, some are educational, and some merely show us what life is really like for a kid. Which is another way of saying that they show us an intriguing point of view regarding life’s little realities. Expect some disasters. Disasters descended from the heavens, disasters perpetrated by fellow-kids, and disasters self-inflicted. Many provide morals of sorts–education is what life is about, and is indeed, a major attribute of many Shepherd stories about kids. While he makes us laugh he tickles the better parts of our minds.
WARJA LAVATER 1 of 2
I became interested in artists books (which I’d never heard of before), when, in MOMA’s bookstore, I pulled off the shelves a small boxed book depicting the story of William Tell. Other than the opening titles for the symbols used, it didn’t have words—only abstract compositions manipulating the symbols into simple and elegant story-telling. The creator was Swiss artist, Warja Lavater. I eventually bought a couple dozen of her books from various sources, most of them accordion-fold so that, when opened out, they show, left to right, the entire colorful imagery of the story. Articles about much of her work refer to her “folded stories,” “images as words,” and “pictograms.”
The stories are so well-depicted in symbols that, with some general idea of the fairy tale/fable, one can usually understand what’s happening just by the way she tells it with color/shape/composition. I’ve been struck by the esthetic effect as well as by the ability to tell a story without words. Introductory text in an exhibit of her work described her thinking:
Convinced that the imagination of the reader must be allowed free reign, Lavater declared that “fairy tales must not be illustrated.” In order to provide these tales with the open flow and ambiguity of oral narratives, Lavater developed abstract pictograms to represent rather than illustrate the characters and main features of the stories. In New York’s Chinatown, she came across folding books—leporellos—that allowed for a continuous flow of images, uninterrupted by the cut of pages as in traditional bound books.
Many of her small books of fables and similar subject matter are 5”tall X 4” wide, that when opened form a continuous artwork over 9’ long. (It’s only practical to show just parts of several. Many of her complete books are still available for sale through the Internet.)
Red Riding Hood with its Opening Symbols
William Tell Aiming at the Apple William Tell has Pierced the Apple!
On his Son’s Head. Soldiers Hold
Back the Crowds of Citizens.
Through her agent, Warja and I met at the Museum, where she wanted to see and discuss with me my earliest Invertebrate Hall exhibits that use graphic layout to help diagram the information. We both recognized, that in our approach to conveying information/story, we shared an affinity.
In these tales, beginning with his earliest remembrances, we are engrossed in his life as a kid—and knowing Jean Shepherd’s unpredictable turn of mind, we should not be surprised to find that sandwiched among slices of Midwestern delights and travails, in his first public performance in grade school he portrays a decayed tooth. Unpredictably yet crucially, we learn of the traumatic moment near his final days before adulthood that remains the supreme metaphor for his insufficiently-educated college years–when he first sits down with tiny fork in fist and is forced to confront a plateful of snails. It’s probably in an otherwise uneventful, sophomore college year that he’s not only served (oh, horror-of-horrors!) that dreaded escargot, but that he also encounters in a dingy Cincinnati garage (oh, joy-of-joys!) a fabled Bugatti.
Shepherd told so many kid stories that, even a decade-and-a-half before he stopped inventing them and went off the air, comic wit Henry Morgan, in 1960, obviously deluded into thinking the stories were meant to be realities rather than fictions, complained that, “He talked about that youth of his in such detail that I suspect it lasted about forty years.” Shepherd could do that, not because of a memory for true occurrences, but because of his unbounded imagination in creating stories about what he knew it was like to be a kid. Contained herein are dozens of these stories heard by listeners on transistor radios late at night under covers and preserved by some enthusiasts on audio tape, but which no one before has ever seen on the printed page.
Jean Shepherd had some strong ideas about getting along in the world. He definitely believed that kids should go to school, and as we’ll see, he had the highest regard for libraries and books, but he believed that kids—and adults—learn some of their most important lessons from actual experience. Whether it’s in the army, traveling the world, or just being a kid, what one does and how one understands the experience, may be all-important. He was sort of a practical guy like other important Americans such as educational reformer John Dewey with his “learning by doing” pragmatism, and Walt Whitman who, in “Song of Myself,” proclaimed:
“You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
Whitman, Dewey, and Shepherd—what an educational triumvirate! Reading Jean Shepherd’s kid stories here is a thrilling education for all of us. Listening to his renditions on the radio, one appreciates the humor, the wit, and his story-telling mastery. Yet, being able to read them at our own pace, contemplate them, and even reread if so inclined, our appreciation of his insights, his commentary on the life all of us experience, and his humor, become increasingly manifest. We find that these stories have a wider scope and a wider relevance to life itself than we may have suspected. Jean Shepherd is even better than you and I have realized. His stories are also literature.
MORE KID STORY INTRODUCTION TO COME
Back to the making of my permanent Reptiles and Amphibians Hall, Ray helped with the large Komodo Dragon case that contains three of the monsters and a putrid wild boar they were beginning to gnaw. We needed a few flies on the boar for ambiance. Ray explained that he could prepare some real mounted flies, but, despite dipping them in poison, tiny insects endemic to just about all exhibit cases would eventually gobble them up, so he suggested making the flies of plastic. To save time, and because they couldn’t be seen close up, he would construct them very schematically—don’t observe them with a high-powered telescope.
(Parenthetical info. To obtain the proper grasses for the exhibit, a botanist at New York’s Bronx Botanical Gardens contacted for us a scientist doing research near Komodo Island in Indonesia. The scientist sent a large wooden crate to our Museum and we eagerly opened it to see the imported grasses. Our coordinator, Rose, brought some of the grass samples up to the botanist in the Bronx, who said they were of the right species, but of the two sexes of grass required, only one sex had been collected, packed, and shipped. I don’t remember which gender was missing for our habitat, but several months later we received a crate-full of the other sex. After being dried, chemically preserved, and spray-painted in fade-proof colors, the two sexes are now permanently cohabitat-ing.)
Komodos, Dead Boar, Ray’s Plastic Flies, Two Sexes of Grass.
Ray’s talents and special interests helped in one of the last cases to be completed–on the subject of the relationship of amphibians, reptiles, and humans. The curator wanted to show how the amphibs and reps sometimes serve a good purpose by eating poisonous spiders. With a painted plastic lizard in hand, Ray built a small mockup corner of a garage with bricks, wood, and debris. He put it in a well-sealed container with food and water to sustain his very own pet black widow spider while she did her work. As Ray had her well-wrangled, she wove a web in the mockup corner. He removed her, killed her, and cast a replica out of her, positioning it in the web. In the large exhibit case, the small scene can be admired, complete with painted, plastic lizard about to pounce on painted, plastic black widow posed astride the actual web she (while real and alive) had woven.
Other strange-but-true Reptile Hall exhibit details:
The previous hall had displayed two enormous turtles swimming, but for our hall, the curator wanted the two sea turtles on the sandy shore in egg-laying mode, requiring cutting off all eight plastic legs and repositioning them for on-land activities, and, because only females lay eggs, the previously swimming plastic male had to be reconfigured in a tail-region sex-change.
To demonstrate the four differing modes of slithering, four different live snakes were prodded by the curator into moving in their appropriate manners on boards covered with sand to receive the distinctive moves (for example, a “standard-kind-of-snake” vs a “sidewinder”). Of course, in time, the sand-sculpted snake-tracks would have gently sifted down to in-distinguishability. So a preparator, with very diluted white glue, sprayed the tracks so they became immovably rock-hard. Last snake-track issue—although the three heaviest snakes had made deep impressions, the least-heavy had made a shallow track that, because of the overhead case lighting, was invisible. I called preparator Ray Mendez and explained the problem. He arrived in the Hall and, on that shallow track, with very diluted black pigment, painted in the appropriate shadow. Four painted, plastic snakes positioned on their tracks completed the scene.
A Sidewinder and its Track
Another lighting problem presented itself. Set in a small habitat, a plastic frog with open, very large, bright-orange roof of mouth, which mother nature designed to intimidate potential prey, failed to demonstrate its protective coloration because the orange lay in shadow. I remembered an old museum-exhibit-accessory used from time to time. I had a preparator position a very small round mirror–hidden by a well-positioned dead leaf just in front of the frog–angled so the overhead lighting reflected up into the now well-lighted, orange mouth.
Most museum visitors can’t possibly realize the sneaky techniques used in exhibits that seem so straightforward, unless given a guided tour by someone with an insider’s view of the artsy tricks-of-the-trade. However, during the very special guided tour of the Reptile hall I gave Allison (my eventual bride) on our second date, I hadn’t known of her extreme distaste for snakes. But she never said a word. Not until a year later, our marriage safely accomplished, did I learn of her successfully stifled subterfuge.
I haven’t talked much about snakes since.
THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JEAN SHEPHERD, HUMORIST
“This is a kid story, so you can turn your radio
on again, call your friends, because
Shepherd is telling a kid story.” –Jean Shepherd
For many fans of Jean Shepherd’s writings and radio broadcasts, his kid stories, first improvised on the air and some published in print, are their favorite part of his work. Shepherd was very proud of how some of those stories were woven into the hilarious and justifiably loved A Christmas Story. Narrated by him and based on some of those stories from two of his books, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters, this 1983 film is a constant reminder of how popular his stories about kids remain to this day.
So nothing brings such a shiver of anticipation up and down our spines as can even one newly encountered Shepherd story about kids. Only a portion of his radio stories ever made it between book covers or into the pages of decades-old magazines. Many others remained heard but not seen–until now. The book you hold in your hands as you quiver with anticipation, contains dozens of funny and mind-tickling fictions Jean Shepherd told on the radio about life as a kid. Previously unpublished, they contain unread, essential chunks of kid-life—never before in print!
The fundamental enthusiasm of Jean Shepherd’s creative life was his need to communicate to us his thoughts and his experiences through the medium of ham radio, broadcast radio, television, film, public appearances, and the written word—especially as those brainstorms burst forth from his fecund and irrepressible sensibility in stories. Stories focused in varied directions, but especially in army life, his travels, and childhood.
MORE KID STORY INTRODUCTION TO COME
An ingenious preparator in the Exhibition Department was Ray Mendez, an expert in the life, times, and making-exhibits-about small animals, including amphibians, reptiles, various invertebrates, and naked mole rats.
(Among Ray’s non-Museum interests was studying and making habitat exhibits for tiny mole rats–with them, he was one of four guys with strange interests portrayed in the 1997 film, “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.” As film reviewer Roger Ebert put it: “Consider Ray Mendez. Here is a happy man. When he learned of the discovery of the naked mole rat, he felt the joy of a lottery winner. There are not supposed to be mammals like this. They have no hair and no sweat glands because they live always in a controlled environment — their tunnels beneath the African savanna, where they organize themselves like insects. Mendez lives with mole rats in his office and creates museum environments for them. That means he has to ask himself a question no scientist before him has ever asked: What makes a mole rat happy?”
Also, away from the Museum, he got moths to perform as required in the film “The Silence of the Lambs,” earning himself credit in the film’s end-titles as “Moth Wrangler.”)
For a temporary Museum exhibit, I supervised the design and installation of a half-million army ants in an enclosed corner of the Museum’s main entrance. How does one collect those ants? The curator and his assistant, Ray Mendez, flew to Panama with a generator and a vacuum cleaner. They sucked ‘em up and they brought ‘em back alive. The public gawked. The New York Times, on October 1, 1974 reported the news.
A couple of weeks into the two-month exhibit, a Museum guard left the main entrance door
open and cold wind killed off most of the army.
(Reminds one of Napoleon’s disastrous winter defeat in Russia.)
Charles Joseph Minard’s map—Napoleon with army of 422,000.
Crossing into Russia, on left in wide tan, June, 1812.
Army moving to right toward Moscow’s winter, dying.
Ever-narrowing black, army returning to border on left,
What then? Ray returned to Panama with his generator and his vacuum cleaner.
Sucked up a few thousand more to soldier-through till the exhibit’s closing.