LEARNING WRIT LARGE
Three major interests of Jean Shepherd span his grammar school and high school days and remain essential throughout his life: reading, ham radio, and music. Libraries and books occupied his mind on broadcasts many times. The prestige associated with the written word may have been a cause for him to have agreed to have his short spoken stories transcribed, augmented by himself, and published in print. On one occasion, he included these thoughts:
“…reading should be introduced to somebody as a thing that gives infinite pleasure. And it does, there’s no question about it. Reading is one of the great un-celebrated human pleasures. And nobody says much about it.”
Shep’s next kid stories involve his passion for reading.
SITES TO BE SEEN 1 of 2
I like to get as close as possible to my favorite artworks–authentic stuff I’ve read about and seen in pictures. So I much enjoyed traveling around Europe in 1966 and Peru in 1980 seeing the unencumbered real things.
I was lucky—I got to see some stuff before later visitors had much lesser experiences. Here, in this and a second artsy, is a partial gallery of some of those lesser experiences, replete with fences, bullet-proof glass, stanchions, and damnable gluts of tourists that art lovers, nowadays, are forced to endure. (I hope that at least a small percentage of those tourists will be inspired to appreciate some fine art. Yet, years ago, someone I know made her first trip to Florence, Italy to visit family. I asked her how she’d liked the great Italian Renaissance masterpieces in the Uffitzi Gallery. She said that she had not gone there, but while in Florence she’d gotten some great buys in leather handbags.)
(15,000 years ago and older)
Formerly one could walk up to the entrance and be escorted into the authentic caves.
Now, for conservation reasons, one can only see replicas at Altamira and Munich,
of the caves at Madrid’s Anthropology Museum.
(about 2,000 B. C.)
Formerly one could walk among the stones and touch them,
but now, bring binoculars.
As close as you can now get.
(See frustrated tourists along the pathway below.)
MACHU PICCHU’S INTIHUATANA (SUNDIAL STONE)
(Inca era, about 1500)
One could not only approach it but caress it when I was there in 1980.
One worshiper sat sun-bathing on it for hours.
Some years later a film crew, making a beer commercial, dropped a piece of equipment on it and broke off a bit of the top. Now one sees it from a slight distance—too far away to touch it.
Closest view now available.
Having the necessary rope barrier
is a travesty, undermining the intimate connection between
the site, the stone, and the surrounding environment.
(This post is the introduction to the chronologically earliest of my Shep’s school stories. It should have been posted preceding those stories, but I got the sequence wrong in my listings of drafts, so, in the list below under 1. ELEMENTARY MATRICULATION, story numbers 1, 2, and 3 have already been posted. My bad!)
Part 1 of Shepherd’s kid book concerns little Jean starting school–in kindergarten and early grades. Each part of the book begins with a short introduction, followed by the accompanying stories.
1. ELEMENTARY MATRICULATION
1. First Day of Kindergarten
2. Left-handed Disability
3. Decayed Tooth, Balsa Wood, and Silly Putty
INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST THREE KID STORIES
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.
“In hoc Agricola conc” would appear to be a spoken shrug of the shoulders.
DOING IT FROM WINDOWS
“Hurling invectives” is a funny/hostile activity Shepherd did from time to time, but hardly any have been described/recorded by his listeners. The best known reference in the media is the one where, in the film “Network,” the TV broadcaster tells his listeners to open their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Also, with a small variation, Ronald Reagan, in a political speech, quoted this phrase from the film.
More importantly, wherever they may have gotten the idea,
Twisted Sister’s most popular song is, “We’re Not Gonna Take it!”
They yell part of “We’re Not Gonna Take it” from windows:
“Razzmatazz” is a less frequent Shepherd saying, but it refers to a very important aspect of his early-career interest in jazz and his continued jazz-related improvisational monologs.
Final set of Shep’s words from my large spreadsheet
just perfect for printing and taping together.
[See previous blog posts for first three parts.]
Other important Shep material forthcoming!
LITTLE JEANIE IS NOW ATTENDING
THE WARREN G. HARDING SCHOOL
Decayed Tooth, Balsa Wood, and Silly Putty
I made my debut in show biz in an oral hygiene pageant. I played “Bad Breath.” No, no, I’m wrong! I’m just being rotten here. Actually, what I played was “Decayed Tooth.” They had me all dressed up in a “Decayed Tooth” costume. Dawn Strickland played a toothbrush, Jack Robinson played a squeezed tube of toothpaste, and Alex Joshaway played “Mouthwash.” I’ll never forget it. The lavish reviews came out the day after in the Warren G. Harding School’s Daily Bugle.
Our school, by the way, was the result of some of the aftermath of the Teapot Dome Scandal. One of the local contractors had a big balsawood surplus. It was the only school I ever knew anywhere that was built out of balsawood and silly putty. I’ll never forget the day it burned down.
Unfortunately, none of us was in it. Just realize how little you understand what fate plays in your life. How many of you ever had a school that you went to burn down? This is an unsung dream to most kids. And yet they don’t really want it to happen. There’s a certain amount of affection connected with the old dump. A certain amount of “Gee whiz! Wow!” You feel like you belong. You walk up the steps and somehow you feel warm. Especially if you’re there on time that day and got your homework done. And then there’s other days—your guts are sweatin’ and you arrive at school with a terrific feeling of incipient disaster. That any minute now everything in the room is gonna hit the fan. A lot of stuff in the room is gonna hit it and you’re gonna be right in the way of it. It’s the love/hate syndrome.
This was one of the problems that we went through in America in the 1960s. Millions of people both loved and hated America. Anything you owe a debt to you hate, ultimately. The thing that you’re always involved in personally—the thing that cradles you, figuratively, and gives you your place in the world, you will always hate for it. And, at the same time, love for it.
[END OF PART 1]
Although I’ve seen hundreds of original great paintings in museums, most of my viewing over the decades has been looking at reproductions in books. I know from comparing the original with the image in the catalog of the exhibit, that there is a difference in several ways, not only in scale, but in the accuracy of color. Considering the scores of art books I own, I have recognized but accepted these differences, and, in truth, forgotten the color differences. I suppose this is a psychological lapse, accepting what can’t be avoided if I want to frequently see and feel some presence of great art.
Landscape painting, compared to pictures with people, has contradictory responses from me. I tend to consider landscape somewhat lower on my scale of values. Yet I have the highest regard for landscapes by Cezanne and Turner (seascapes), and Van Gogh among my personal group of favorite paintings. And, although Vermeer is one of my favorites, his few landscapes didn’t appeal to me until one of them surprised me greatly. And the same thing happened to me upon seeing a Van Gogh I’d seem many times in reproduction. Seeing the originals is a different world.
VIEW OF DELFT MAURITSHUIS, THE HAGUE
Having noted it many times in reproductions, I’ve immediately turned the page, never giving it a thought. Just a nice view of a city seen from across some water. Then I encountered the real thing in The Hague museum. I was stunned. It was a living, breathing entity! In part it may be the tiny dots of sunlight paint that Vermeer scattered throughout. It must be in such details, only visible in the original, that he captured life. The rapture. I’ve never seen such richness available in reproductions.
THE HARVEST VAN GOGH MUSEUM, AMSTERDAM
Having seen it many times in reproductions, I never gave it any special thought. Just a view of farm-fields from a distance (although this reproduction does have a lot of vitality!). This, despite my great enthusiasm for many of Van Gogh’s landscapes. Then I saw the original. Glowing, vigorous, a rich aliveness–the fullness of bright life, the breath of all human and vegetative activity, a living entity in the summer sun. I do not know where that life comes from in the original. I only know that it is there. The rapture.
I can’t capture such joy here.
Technology can’t capture such joy in reproductions.
But most of the time it’s our only option.
How many other reproduced paintings lose their values thusly?
I can only provide pixels of reproductions of reproductions of reproductions.
None of them are like the originals, so you just must believe me!
“Keep your knees loose” is certainly another major saying of Shepherd’s. Especially as it also expresses a major part of his overall philosophy—emphasizing that in reacting to all of life’s potential successes and potential failures, flexibility in one’s response is crucial!
FINAL SET OF SHEP WORDS TO COME
I had never drawn with my right hand in my life. “Waaa,” I’m struggling away there and I can’t draw with my right hand, I’m a left-hander. I’m drawing terrible. All the other kids are drawing great butterflies and pumpkins and I’m drawing this rotten, lopsided butterfly with my right hand.
The next day she begins to teach us how to letter. We’re lettering a big A. Well, I grab that great big black crayon with my left hand and I start.
She says, “No! Uh uh, Jeanie, your other hand now. Your other hand!”
By the end of the first week we are having our daily exercise on how to draw A, B, C. Every time I start out with my right hand my nose starts bleeding. “Waaaaa.” Miss Mead says, “Alright, come on, put your head back. Now there. Let’s go down to the washroom and put some cold water on your neck.”
My nose is bleeding because I’ve got that crayon clasped in my right hand. But by the time I’m in the second grade, I can write, I can draw, I can do everything, with my right hand.
I’m right-handed. But for one thing. I am an ambidextrous batter. In those days “switch-hitter” was not very popular in the grammar school playground. I would come up to bat from whichever side of the plate I approached. Guys began to needle me about it: “Hey, you don’t know how to bat!” From that I began to develop a hang-up. I couldn’t decide whether I was right-handed or left-handed.
So I’m sitting in the back of a cab being driven by a left-handed cabbie. I’m reading out loud to him that “Left-handers tend to be logos in the bogos.” And that, “Left-handers tend to be non-compos mentis.” I’m sitting there in this cross-town cab with a left-handed cab driver, and I’m a phony right-hander. And both of us are gripped by the iron hand of fear. Is it true what they say about Lefty Gomez? Is it true what they say about me?
N. Y. TIMES ELEPHANT ART
How I Discovered Only One Elephant.
I was looking at the front page of the Sunday Review.
Interesting image of a herd of elephants.
My designy responses to the image: I like the attractive look of their dark-gray mass; the small, scattered bits of white between some animals stand out, disturbing the grayness; refocusing my view to where darkness meets the pure white of the page. I see that the right rear legs of these perimeter elephants are all at the same angle; so are the left legs; the tails are identical; so are the ears, etc. The entire composition is made up of a single repeated elephant!
Why had it been put together this way? Maybe the illustrator couldn’t find a good shot of a group of elephants running away in a pack? What a great moment when he realized he could computer-manipulate what he wanted, bit by bit—with one elephant!
Did it occur to him that this way, the image could also make a comment, a statement that on the subject of Trump, the G.O.P. was single-mindedly a one-animal herd? By my thinking about the “design” elements–rather than just focusing on subject matter–am I being too cold in my technical attitude, and then unrealistically intruding my subjective self? Is it the inevitable consequence of my designy, artsy fartsy-ism? Is that bad? Or, discovering the one-ness of the elephants, have I recognized the statement illustrator Nicolas Ortega had made in his graphic design?
My artsy fartsy-ness coming to the fore, I searched for and found the artist’s email address and asked him about this multiple graphic/artsy mystery. He responded. (I make some cuts and adjustments related to his English usage-as-a-second language.)
… working for an important newspaper like The New York Times, all people involved: the art directors, the illustrators, really give attention to every detail in the conceptual process and in the production process….people understand or misunderstand the visual codes (based on their experience) than how the illustrator does, so you cannot be ambiguous or vague in the codes you use…. time here plays an important role of executing ideas: you normally have 24 hours to make an illustration for a newspaper.
….between the art director in charge and me, a lot of back and forth of ideas and execution. I think at the end, the idea of the elephants running away from “a mouse” was a beautiful metaphor that matches perfectly with the article’s idea. But as the article talks also how Republicans are turning to the center just not to be with Trump, we needed something that represented that. (That’s why, basically, Trump is on the right, and the elephants are running to the left). Technically, I found a way to do an elephant stampede in an easy and fast way–there’s no more explanation than that.
So, the symbolic use of the repeated elephant was caused by time-restriction convenience, and the layout refers to a simple, political, Left vs. Right political orientation? I’d hoped he’d give more content details, but I didn’t feel I could pressure him for elaboration.
Besides, I’d realized that with the entire page, which includes the text, I’d viewed the human figure as part of that text block–I hadn’t seen the Trump figure as simultaneously part of the fleeing elephants as it needed to be–for me they were fleeing the entire text block, which is a bit different.
A major slip-up, either on the final layout of the page, or on my viewing of it.
How many made my mistake?
Indeed, graphically, the figure of Trump is essential to the entire visual effect.
Neither does the idea that the elephants are running politically Leftward
come across for me.)
I adjusted the layout using primitive cut-and-paste
with a scissors and tape.
(With proper computer tools, I’d tweak it more.)
The herd stampeding
away from Trump by eb.
Maybe the entire herd should be further to the left!
The first interior part of my Shep booklet contains three of Shepherd’s best-known sayings, beginning with the most important one of all: EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD. The self-contradictory implication seems typical of Shepherd’s way of thinking.
Several well-known people have done parodies of the Longfellow poem, “Excelsior.” Shepherd commented in several different ways on his references to the saying, but, considering one of his well-thought-out comments where he says that “excelsior” refers very closely to his own life while noting the Longfellow poem, and also, the way I describe his usage in Excelsior, You Fathead! (see pages 214-217. For the poem itself, see the front section of EYF!) The one aspect I hadn’t realized at the time of writing the book is that the response to the phrase, being “Seltzer bottle,” probably refers to the fact that there used to be an Excelsior Seltzer bottling company.
Next set of Shep’s words coming soon.
(Now that Shep’s kindergarten story is completely posted, this is the first portion of the next story–when he gets to first grade.)
I’m reading in the newspaper that psychologists find that left-handers really are kookier, that there is a much higher percentage of nutty left-handers than there are nutty ordinary people, and there is a little pang of fear that runs through my mind when I read that because, when I was in first grade, I was a left-hander.
All the way through kindergarten there was no reason to be left or right-handed—all you did was pile blocks on blocks and throw sand in each other’s eyes. We didn’t go beyond quadratic equations in my kindergarten, so there wasn’t any reason to do much writing. But I’m a natural left-hander at that time—I just walk around and I scratch left-handed. I’m the only left-hander in my house. There I am, a little left-hander.
I had been in kindergarten, which was in a little building separate from the main school. It was what they call a “wooden portable,” a little building with a bunch of kids in there for kindergarten. And finally I am now about to go into the main McKinley School brick building.
The day dawns bright and clear, a beautiful, early September morn and I am out of kindergarten now, ready to begin this fantastic adventure of the big school. I arrive in first grade. One of the worst, unbelievable, rotten periods of my life came right at that beginning of school in first grade.
I’m all excited because this is the first time that I have a desk. I had seen pictures of kids in school and they always had desks, so I wanted one. In kindergarten we didn’t have a desk, we all just shared a common sandbox.
Here I have a desk. The mothers depart and we’re about to begin the first activity in the first grade. We’d been given a bunch of crayons and the first thing we were to do was to draw a picture. Up to this point I had been famous in my family as being a great drawer. “Gee, Jeanie is a great drawer,” so I’m sitting there drawing a butterfly, when our teacher, Miss Mead, who to my eye seemed to be about five-hundred years old, is walking up and down the aisles. She leans over my shoulder, reaches down, takes the crayon out of my left hand, and puts it in my right hand. She says, “Now, you’re supposed to draw with that hand.”
(More of this story to come.)
Jean Shepherd, master raconteur and wit, in his several decades of radio monologs, entertained and enlightened radio listeners with his commentaries, anecdotes, and stories. Frequently sprinkled among his talks were various words and sayings for which he became known.
In the spring of 2001, after I’d begun listening more and delving deeply into his radio broadcasts, I put together nine of his better-known sayings and, for my own benefit and for those who might be interested, I described them and organized them into a CD jewel-case-sized artists’ book.
One side of the large, folded paper sheet contains these nine sayings along with my short interpretations of the background and meanings, superimposed on a grayed-out reproduction of the best-known, iconic image of Shep broadcasting. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah, November 30, 1966.) For those inclined, the complete set could be printed out and attached to form the front of the sheet as I produced it. The back side of the sheet contains, in enlarged-type, just the nine sayings themselves along with the enlarged image of Shep. As some time has elapsed since I made this booklet, I might alter it slightly, but I’m still satisfied with it.
First, here is the opened-out case with the back, spine, and front.
This view: the back shows one of the sayings.
SAYINGS WITH DESCRIPTIONS TO COME
Ohhh! And that night–that night—I threw the first tantrum I ever had in my life! Do you remember when you were a kid throwing a tantrum? I remember. I remember being on the floor screaming and rolling under the daybed. I was not going to go back! That is what this tantrum was about.
My mother said, “Did you like it?”
I said, “No.”
She said, “Well, you’re going back tomorrow.”
I said, “Tomorrow!?” I was not used to having to go back. I said, “No, no,” and I started to fight, yelling and hollering and screaming, and next thing you know I was under the daybed. I remember my old man reaching in under the daybed and dragging me out like some kind of a rat, crying and kicking.
And that was the first day of school. I hated every day of kindergarten. Every day of that lousy sandbox. And then, two days later they started to give us not only a nap but we also got graham crackers and warm milk! Next thing, I figured they were going to bring the nipples in with the bottles.
I don’t know whether girls felt this way, but the one thing boys didn’t want to be was babies. And that first day of school has remained always in my mind. And no matter how old you are, or how much of a kid you are, you look really carefully in that vast file of trivia, that garbage heap of memory, and you will find your first day of school. That first major trauma of the official world.
END OF SHEP’S KINDERGARTEN
“Goodbye, Norma Jean,
Though I never knew you at all….”
–Elton John & Bernie Taupin.
Marilyn Monroe was the ultimate movie star. She was the ultimate sex symbol. She rose to the ultimate celebrity status in: American sports; intellectual acclaim; political power. She married Joe DiMaggio, married Arthur Miller, had liaisons with JFK. I’d never been attracted to this sex goddess/sex symbol-kind of woman.
I know that type.
Too much lipstick. Too much gaud. Too artificial. Not my kind of person.
Marilyn and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” are forever linked in my mind because, as I sat in an upper tier of a small off-Broadway theater-in-the-round in the Martinique Hotel opposite New York’s Penn Station, awaiting the start of a revival of that play, in walked a man and a woman. She wore casual slacks, a casual scarf on her head, and no makeup. They sat opposite us in the first row. It was Marilyn and Miller. The audience recognized them and everyone considerately left them alone. The lights lowered and we saw the play. The lights went up and they were gone. She had been devoid of gaud.
Years later I encountered The Last Sitting,
Bert Stern’s book of photos of Marilyn,
the images shot just weeks before she died.
It has some attractive sweet-sexy images–and I was surprised
by most of the photos.
[Note: Xs made by M. M. Color images greatly cropped from book.]
I was stunned to see how real and lovely she was.
I never knew her at all.