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I was upstairs looking for stuff. I went into the bathroom and there was the medicine cabinet. I opened it up and there were these fantastic bottles. There must have been twenty-five bottles of stuff in there. All kinds. I was always fascinated by capsules—they looked like celluloid jelly beans or little Mexican jumping beans. Bottles—yellow, green, purple labels. They said “Take two a day,” or “Take one after every meal,” with all these prescriptions typed out. So Schwartz and I were looking at the bottles.
The elicit urge! I can understand why kids try all kinds of drugs and stuff. Because the first thing I did, I opened up a bottle of yellow ones. They were beautiful yellow ones, and I took one. Went down easy. Schwartz said, “Gimme one of them red ones,” and he took a red one. Then there was a bunch of little capsules with all kinds of colored little bee bees in them. Red, green, and blue bee bees! So I took three of those. Schwartz tried one of the purple ones that was for the “Fit.” I saw, way on the top shelf, they had one of those flat, round, cardboard boxes and it had prescription numbers and I opened it up and there were flat, sort of pastel things in it. “In case of hives.” So I took a half a dozen of them. Both of us were sitting there on the floor eating those things like candy! We must have eaten a few dozen things of various colors. There’s no explanation I can give why it didn’t kill us.
But all of a sudden, way down deep in my gut I felt a feeling which to this day I have not forgotten. It felt like there was an exploding grapefruit down in my gut. I don’t know why a grapefruit, but there was a certain very sour taste that came up at the same time, that kept growing bigger and bigger and exploding larger. Some bizarre chemical reaction, and bubbles started to come up out of my mouth. I saw Schwartz, and I don’t want to describe him, but both of us were lying on the floor screaming and yelling for about half an hour.
And then it passed. And what do you think we did? Opened up the medicine cabinet and started again. People never learn!
End of Shepherd’s morality tale.
Fertility dolls of the Ashanti people of Ghana, Africa, are said to be placed in the waist band of women to promote pregnancy and a healthy baby. (The flat head apparently provides a more comfortable and secure position.) They come in many varieties, most with a fairly simple cylindrical base, and a small percentage with carved lower body and feet. Many examples (that seem to be “authentic”) I find to be badly carved and ugly. Like so many ethnic arts, they also come in the rather common form of cheap stuff made for sale to tourists and other un-initiates—and to many who mistakenly think they have something authentic.
Opening Page Images From Google.
Most Seem Authentic to Me.
Three with Carved Bodies. And one not “Pretty,”
but Probably Authentic.
At right, two on Permanent Exhibit at New York’s
Museum of Natural History.
Three Examples on the Right Have the
More Frequently Occurring Cylindrical Base.
I own one such doll, which I bought in a Parisian antiquarian shop on the Left Bank in 1966. I’ve believed it was an authentic piece, made for local use, then acquired by someone who sold it to the shop, and thus it came into my possession—but I’ve always wondered a bit if I’d been deluded. So, when the American Museum of Natural History began installing a temporary display of African Art loaned by the British Museum, I entered the exhibit in progress and encountered a doll that looked much like mine. The next day I brought mine in and showed it to an authority on African art, the British Museum curator overseeing the installation. He said that the doll in the exhibit was his personal property, and that mine seemed to have been made by the same carver as his—thus authenticating mine.
My Ashanti Doll.
Another example of Shepherd telling a story as a metaphor—especially in an era when youngsters were experimenting with drugs to a larger extent than before. He once commented on the air that life was full enough with exciting possibilities without having to resort to drugs.
I think one of the most exciting parts of anyone’s house is the medicine cabinet. It tells so many sordid stories. Subtle secrets. You go into this guy’s house. You’re visiting the head of the English Department. You’ve been invited to the faculty tea and you’re upstairs and you’re supposed to be washing your hands. You open the medicine cabinet and look. There’s a bottle that says, “IN CASE OF FIT, take three times quickly and say SHAZAM!” Signed Dr. Gumpock. And you wonder who’s having a fit! What kind of fit?
Well, there was this old house—there’s always a house that people have moved out of in your neighborhood. Kids are always drawn to them, and this one time Schwartz and me got into this place. We’re running around in this empty house. There were papers on the floor, an old apple core in the corner and a busted chair, a Sears Roebuck catalog and a pile of old newspapers, a broken comb, that sort of thing.
You know that secret sense of being in a house that isn’t yours? There must be a certain excitement, a satisfaction, of being a burglar. Break into somebody’s house, walk around in it. You open the refrigerator. They’ve found that almost all burglars open the refrigerator. That doesn’t mean that they eat anything out of it, but they open the refrigerator. It’s one of the basic things—it represents food—life, there it is.
More Pharmaceuticals to Come
“Small stone figurines, or conopas, of llamas and alpacas were the most common ritual effigies used in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia. [Usually thought of as having been made during the Inca period—before Pizarro—but some may be much more recent.] These devotional objects were often buried in the animals’ corrals to bring protection and prosperity to their owners and fertility to the herds. The cylindrical cavities in their backs were filled with offerings to the gods in the form of a mixture including animal fat, coca leaves, maize kernels, and seashells.” (Brooklyn Museum)
Canopas depict camelids—not the Eastern Hemisphere camels that vary depending on the number of humps, but the South American kind—alpacas, llamas, and also vicuna and guanacos–two forms which seem not to have been depicted in canopas).
One encounters some of the long-necked llamas, but seeming, more frequently carved, are alpacas, carved with stringy hair usually indicated from their throats and down their chest. (The “suri” variation of the actual animal, at least today, have this hair all over the body.) Many carvings are about four inches long, but can be somewhat bigger or smaller. The few reaching 5” long seem to have increased majesty about them. In the Peoples of South America Hall of New York’s museum of natural history, the Inca section has a well-done larger example.
Suri Type of Alpaca and What is Probably a Suri Canopa
I’ve been interested in canopas for decades, so I’ve encountered and printed out scores of photos of them from ebay and by googling. (With two spelling variations, one has to search both.) I have three examples– a small black alpaca, an even smaller one with stringy hair covering its body, and a rather rare, multi-colored carving that had been decapitated in what is thought to have been a ritual “killing.”
My Canopas (and, on Right, a Coiled Netsuke Rat).
Most frequently seen are alpacas in black stone. Rarities occur in ceramic or wood. Some specimens still retain pieces of the offerings in the cavity, and some have not had the 500-year-old dirt removed from crevices in the stone carving. Many variations appear in shape, details, and color. As sculpted objects, I prefer solid black with a body that is a rounded but somewhat flattened rectangular shape, and a distinctly shaped mane down the front which is nearly flat–only slightly rounded–and with well-sculpted facial features. Variations in body shape and in the treatment of the mane make a considerable difference in overall effect, as does the angle of the neck and head—more upraised gives a more stately effect. Some are two-headed!
On the subject of llamas, note the poem
by whimsical American poet Ogden Nash:
The one-l lama,
He’s a priest.
The two-l llama
He’s a beast.
And I will bet
A silk pajama
There isn’t any
* The author’s attention has been called to a type of conflagration
known as a three-alarmer. Pooh
I said, “A picnic! What do you mean a picnic? At night?”
“Yep, they say there’s a picnic down at the forest preserve. Let’s go.”
So I got my bike out of the garage and got out on the road behind Schwartz and Flick and Bruner, peddling off into that fantastic maw—through this enormous, swirling cloud of mosquitoes, dripping sweat behind us as we went, heading to the forest preserve. The first time I ever went to a picnic that began at night.
We arrived at the preserve and there was just a great big banner across the front, and it had a symbol on it. No letters at all. We drifted down the gravel road. And there was a kind of excitement—Oh, a picnic at night! It was a quiet picnic. There was no band playing. In every picnic we went to there was some kind of a cockamamie band. Either it was the Greek-American accordion players or a Dixie band—they always had Dixie bands. Once in a while some of them would show up with a bunch of guys playing little round things—that was the Croatian-Americans. They had these black suspenders and puffy sleeves. But this picnic had no band at all. Nothing.
Through the woods we could see some lights ahead of us. Orange lights bobbing up and down. And then we saw. Are you ready, friends? Are you really ready? I couldn’t believe it. There in front of us was a whole strange, shifting mass of people like some mirage. There were big ones and little ones maybe a foot high or three feet high. There were some big, tall, skinny ones. But they all looked alike. Great crowd of them moving past a long table that had food on it. They had potato salad and it looked like boiled hot dogs. We would not stay long enough to find out.
I said to Schwartz, “What the heck is that, Schwartz?”
Schwartz said, “It’s a picnic.”
Flick said, “Yeah, come on, let’s get some. Flick was the dildock of the crowd. He was always ready to go. If tarantulas were having a picnic, he’d be there. He didn’t care.”
And Bruner said, “Aaaaa, I’m scared!”
I said, “What is it?”
Schwartz said, “It’s the Ku Klux Klan!”
We were at the yearly picnic of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK. Have you ever seen a crowd of Ku Klux Klanners moving around in the woods with their capes and robes and those long pointed hoods with the two little black eyes? With the big cross on the chest?
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
In music, variations can be thought of as repetitions of a theme
with one or more musical aspects changed, either slightly or drastically.
Over the years I’ve found that I especially respond to variations on a theme in art, humor, and other areas. My understanding is that it was rather popular in music of the 17th century. Beethoven and Brahms were enamored of the idea. In the 20th century, Maurice Ravel “had long toyed with the idea of building a composition from a single theme which would grow simply through harmonic and instrumental ingenuity.” First performed in 1928, his “Bolero” is widely known for its obsessive repetition. (However, the extraordinary ice dancing in the 1984 Olympics by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, using five-and-a-half minutes of “Bolero,” doesn’t do skating variations at all, but performs continuously different and elegant moves.)
Hokusai, my favorite Japanese woodblock-print artist, was obsessed by Mount Fuji as a religious focus, and, in 1831, portrayed it in his color print series, “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” (contains 46, not 36 images), and in 1834 produced the three-volume monochromatic book set in black, white, and grays, “A Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.”
Best-known color prints from “36 Views” and
two double-page and two single-page images from “100 Views.”
My shi shi netsuke, displayed in sand,
including ivory from 18th, 19th, and 20th century.
Also some loose-leaf pages with photos of a few variations.
Picasso, among his obsessions, created many images of the Artist and his Model and Artist with Created Work, especially in color, and in his 1930s series of etchings for Vollard.
An oil, and a crayon image. In the oil on the left,
I like the way he simultaneously depict the model posing,
and as the painted image on the canvas.
Two etchings in the Vollard series.
Some humorists and cartoonists I enjoy also delight in variations on a theme. I especially remember the cartoons of Sam Cobean, who was very popular in the 1940s and early 1950s. Best known are his variations showing the thought balloon above the head of someone who is imagining the person he is viewing (usually imagined naked).
The New York Times of August 11, 2017, in its arts section, has a short piece on Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings. They provide a short, additional “variation.” (Note that the first and last renditions shown are very similar, and the second, third, and fourth are very similar to each other.) For me, his sunflowers are metaphors for a larger obsession Van Gogh had with the sun itself–its intense brightness, color, heat, fire (the flowers’ petals are flamelike), and life-giving power itself. I show part of the article, plus my favorite Van Gogh depicting the sun.
It’s very hard to tell your mother where you’ve been when you’ve been a gate-crasher at a Greek-American picnic. I get home, where I’m living in a family of strictly meatloaf and red cabbage. Our idea of a real foreign dish was to buy a can of sauerkraut. That was foreign food. A really racy desert would be when my mother would put canned peaches in strawberry Jello.
A week goes by and I’m riding my bike and looking for action. Flick shows up on his bike and says, “Have you seen the signs down at the forest preserve?”
We ride like mad Friday morning to see what this week’s attraction is. Great big sign: AMERICAN LEGION PICNIC SATURDAY MORNING. THE EDWARD W. GUMPOCK POST 422.
Crack of dawn we’re in line with all the cars going in. By ten they’ve got this Dixie band blowing and people yelling and hollering like you’ve never seen unless you’ve been at an Indiana American Legion yearly picnic. It’s a sickening sight. Running around, they’ve got bags of water, squirting them at each other. They’ve got shock-sticks and they’re shocking people. They’re wearing hats that look like banana splits with badges all over.
In gigantic tubs they have millions of hotdogs—and giant steins of beer. Four thousand gallons of mustard. They’re handing out all kinds of stuff and we’re on line, me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner. Free hotdogs, four bottles of pop and fifteen Eskimo pie bars. We get on the back end of the line and start through again.
The band is playing and yelling and hollering, and four trips into the food line later, I remember seeing Schwartz get off his bike and go under the table. I could hear him heaving for an hour. We get in line again. You don’t want to waste all this good stuff. This is some picnic. We go all the way to seven o’clock before we start to wind down. The band has marched away. They’d tapped all the kegs.
LOLITA, NABOKOV, & BUTTERFLIES
Lolita (1955), that farcical, crazy romance, never happened in that novel’s “real” life. Not to Humbert and not to Lolita. It all occurred in Humbert’s psychotic mind. I realized this the second time I read Nabokov’s book–after I’d read his Pale Fire, published in 1962. At that point I understood that Nabokov’s view of art and the artist is that the artist, because he/she creates an unreal world, is somewhat akin to an insane person. Charles Kinbote, the creator of Pale Fire’s bizarre, main story, is an obvious example. It’s clear that the bulk of the book is a phantasmagoric unreality in the mind of its “author.”
With Pale Fire’s mad protagonist in mind, I reread Lolita more carefully, curious as to whether this theme also propelled that book’s meaning. It does. The major part of the book is the Lolita and Humbert story in the form of Humbert’s “diary.” Lolita begins with a Foreword by a John Ray, Ph D., who describes Humbert Humbert as “demented,” having been in need of a “psychopathologist.” He writes that Lolita “will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles.”
Nabokov has perpetrated an artsy legerdemain. Regarding my references to very detailed dates in the book and in what way they prove my hypothesis: Nabokov was clever and meticulous as to details, and an enthusiastic trickster regarding literature’s highways and byways. And he did not state facts loosely or make mistakes.
In Lolita’s foreword, John Ray writes that Humbert Humbert died “in legal captivity” on November 16, 1952. Some 200 pages later, in the main story, Humbert, in his “diary,” claims to have begun his writing (the basic Lolita story) 56 days before, in a psychiatric ward. (I, and most people, seeing the various dates in the text, would simply skim over them as inconsequential details. But I, with simple mathematical addition and subtraction, being especially curious regarding Nabokov’s possible strategy in providing a basis for hidden significance, pursued the dates as clues. I found that, as Humbert had died on November 16, that would have put him beginning his diary on September 21, yet he describes his activities of killing Quilty, his nemesis, as happening several days after that—when he was already incarcerated.
In my letter, I described my interpretation to Nabokov (in care of his secretary, including my copy of Pale Fire for autographing), that as Humbert was already incarcerated before he claims to have begun his story about Lolita, his writing of this diary was a total fabrication of his demented mind. I received my copy of Pale Fire back un-autographed (she wrote me that Mr. Nabokov did not autograph his books), and with no response to my discovery regarding Lolita.
• • • • • • •
Vladimir Nabokov’s uncle, Konstantin Nabokov, appears in a mural in the main entrance of the American Museum of Natural History. Vladimir, in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, describes him and his goatee in that mural at the Portsmouth Treaty with Teddy Roosevelt. Vladimir, as a renowned butterfly collector and authority of the butterfly type now known as “Nabokov’s Blues,” sometimes visited the Museum.
At the Museum, in an entomologist’s office on some sort of design business, I happened to glance at some high cabinets–on top of one was an old cardboard box with a hand-lettered title, NABOKOV’S BUTTERFLIES.
Recreation of Title,
Altered by eb.
(Once in a while I enjoy
a bit of recreation.)
I’m a kid. Nice hot summer day. About two miles away from us is this forest preserve. You know what is it a forest preserve, right? Like a big park.
One day, me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner see this great big sign, tremendous sign near the park. Had arrows all over it. It says, THIS WAY GREEK AMERICAN PICNIC. So Schwartz says, “Let’s go to the picnic!” We ride our bikes down there and we hear yelling and hollering in this huge forest preserve. We follow some more arrows and there is a guy handing out buttons and pins. He yells out, “The kiddies are already here! Come on in!”
You can hear the band knocking it out, people running around and hollering and yelling and eating. Dancing and yelling. Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and I fit right in. Guys are crawling in and out of the weeds drinking ouzo, the Greek wine that tastes like turpentine. They’re handing out the free moussakis. We’re eating ourselves silly. Dancing with the Greek girls, the whole bit. We become more Greek than any Greek at the picnic. All you have to do is snap your fingers once in a while, holler “Opa, opa! Oh! Oh! Opa! Opa!” It’s exciting.
We went down there about two o’clock in the afternoon and we don’t get out of there until about nine at night. Those picnics go on and on and on. Boy, what a fantastic time!
That was the first time I ever tasted Greek food. They had rolled up things in grape leaves, very good stuff. I must have eaten seven pounds of these. I had about six pounds of feta, hundreds of things wrapped in grape leaves, a lot of moussaka, and all kinds of stuff to drink it all down. A great afternoon!
TO THE EDITOR
Like so many, I’ve written my opinion to The New York Times—and twice, my thoughts have been printed. As might be expected, both times the subject has been artsy: a defense of nature’s carefully evolved, stylized playground; and a defense of a depiction of a film protagonist as an incipient artist-in-the-making.
It’s my understanding that plastic grass is commerce’s answer to domed-over baseball stadiums—the domes are to prevent rained-out games, and, because real grass won’t grow without nature’s help, Astro Turf was the answer. The New York Mets had just surrendered to the artificial, so on April 28, 1984, The Times ran an op-ed article:
Pseudo Turf at Shea?
No Hit and a Big Error
By Michael Takiff
“…baseball’s herbicidal charge into the future, which began in the Houston Astrodome nearly 20 years ago.”
“The advantages of artificial turf to baseball are minimal, the detriment profound….and it doesn’t have to be mowed—just reglued once in a while.
“But the evil non-weed upsets the game’s fundamental historic proportions, which have served so well till now. Its weapon in this attack is its surface: Slick and hard, it dramatically distorts the movement of the batted ball….
“Baseball is prized for the sum of its parts, and to exaggerate one is to shrink the whole.”
Toward the end of his well-argued defense of real grass, he comments, “Remember baseball, our delightfully anachronistic national treasure.”
On May 6, two letters to the editor appeared commenting on Takiff’s essay. The first, longer one, by me. And I remain amused by the choice and sequence of the letters—my heartfelt defense of nature’s symbolic and stylized reality, followed by a militant advocacy of an un-natural, hard-surfaced, dystopian futurism:
In 1963 I attended a preview showing of the Alain Resnais film Muriel (a follow-up to his Last Year at Marienbad). The film’s translated subtitle is “The Time of a Return.” It depicts a woman and her son’s obsessions with the past. The woman sells antique furniture from her modern apartment (surrounding herself in her home with these reminders of times past, and maybe reminding her of an old love affair), and her son, who is obsessed with the torture in Algiers, by himself and his fellow-soldiers, of a young woman named Muriel. The young man spends his time taking moving pictures—somehow trying to capture and maybe, in some way, understand his world and his past. Considering that the film’s title refers to the son’s obsession, it seems logical that he and she are the major focus. He is a coming-of-age artist. After seeing the film, I immediately wrote a review of it for my own amusement, beating all the regular critics before the public opening reviews. In part:
The story is mainly his. His way of coming to terms with the past and present is to record the present (which, of course, immediately becomes the past). He makes movies, he records on tape. Even during a fight in the apartment, he does not attempt to stop it—he films it and sends for the tape recorder. The artist reacts to his environment by recording it and transposing it into art….
Films such as Muriel, Truffaut’s 400 Blows, and Fellini’s 8 ½ are a good sign. They are statements that the film artist (auteur) insists on being placed on a level with the novelist and other artists: that film art in its highest is not to be made by committee but by a single creative artist.
Muriel’s protagonist at work.
The Times main film critic, Bosley Crowther, wrote damning comments about Muriel in the 11/3/1963 Sunday Times, including:
“…I’m sorry I have to say that this one is, for my money, New Wave at its sorriest….a deliberate attempt to enclose a romantic mystery story in utter obscurity….the whole thing is anti-cohesion, anti-emotion and anti-sense….After this cinematic folly, Mr. Resnais had better back up and start all over again.”
I mailed my comments to Crowther, and in disagreement, other irate readers also responded to him–the following Sunday he answered with a put-down column defending his opinions, titled,
EXPOSING THE OBSCURE
Readers Explain (Or Do They?)
Some Difficulties in New Films.
He quotes some of the responses, including part of my letter (which he edited to make me seem even more pretentious than I thought I was. Plus, he spelled Bergmann wrong and mistakenly placing my Richmond Hill home in Staten Island instead of Queens, NY.):
There are a lot of strangers yelling from the stands, and then, the worst thing, we are now in the middle of our season and they are printing our box scores in the paper. I come home and my old man says, “Hey, what do ya mean, O for four? O for four, and it’s in the paper! And you guys lost twelve to two!”
“O for four! I’m coming out next time. And by the way, we’re going out the back and I’m gonna show you how to hold the bat.”
Aw, gees, O for four. Every time I get the bat I’d see that reporter from the Hammond Times sitting there. Shepherd is taking his cuts. I’m gonna bunt, I’ve got to get on base somehow. First time in my life I ever lay down a bunt just trying to get on base. O for four!
Organization has really begun. There was a group of kids who loved that organization, and another group of kids slowly began to infiltrate Troup 41, and they had nothing to do with the rest of us.
By the end of August, one by one, guys start to drift away from that organized ball team. One by one they start to show up in Mrs. Striker’s empty lot. “Hey, Schwartz, here you go, Schwartz, catch this one in your ear! Here it comes!” Schwartz yells, “Aw, come on, don’t bounce ‘em on the plate, will ya, fer cryin’ out loud!” And from five A. M. in the morning till ten at night, me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and Emdee and all the other disorganized stragglers play our games.
The Amber Room
Amber is a sort of fossilized tree sap that has solidified to the state
of a soft stone-like substance that sometimes contains
trapped bugs and other stuff. It is studied by scientists
and made into decorative pieces by craftsmen.
In 1995, I and another museum designer, along with his wife and a museum preparator, traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia to study amber artifacts and amber paneling for a temporary exhibit in New York. In Tsarskoye Selo, the royal summer palace outside of St. Petersburg, elaborate panels covering the walls of a room in the palace had been given to Russia.
But during World War II the panels had been removed for safe keeping, and somehow lost, stolen, or destroyed. (Recent, unconfirmed reports claim the original, lost panels have been located.) For decades, Russian craftsmen, using photos of the original room (see above), had been reconstructing the panels. Our museum scheduled an exhibit about amber, featuring artifacts and a couple of the reconstructed panels, along with some of the craftsmen, working on amber artifacts for public viewing within the exhibit.
We stayed in a luxury hotel in St. Petersburg and were conveyed to the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo by limo, met with the craftsmen, and were given a tour of the almost completed replica of the amber room.
Catherine Palace, Tsarskoye Selo
We walked the streets of St. Petersburg, went to a Russian ballet performance, and twice visited the Hermitage, the great Russian art museum. We bought souvenirs.
Amber necklace and owl.
We brought back proof that we’d really been in Russia.
Our Tipper-Gore-in-Russia Experience
As we’d walked toward the Catherine Palace for our Amber Room tour, we heard through the bushes, a small Russian band playing for us, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The director of the palace met us and apologized that he could not give us the tour because Tipper Gore, Vice-President Al Gore’s wife, was there, and he had to show her around—we got the tour from a lower functionary. Back in St. Petersburg, in a nice restaurant for a meal, we noted several men in black suits wearing ear pieces at another table. Must be guarding someone important! From a table in the back, dressed in slacks, blouse, and scarf, out past us walked Tipper Gore. Later, as we strolled along Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main thoroughfare, police on foot blocked our way and herded us onto the sidewalk—we watched as a black limo drove by. Looking out a window, waving at us, was Tipper Gore.
in Congress a decade before,
confronting nasty music by the likes of
Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, John Denver.
(Denver complained that a radio station blocked his song
because of the final word in “Rocky Mountain High.”
This was the era when The Rolling Stones were told not to sing
on TV, the line “let’s spend the night together.”)
Our country was still in a rather restrictive mode, but Russia was
in the midst of a birth of political freedom, so we felt safe there.
Small Part of Our Exhibit.
PART 8. CURIOUS HAPPENSTANCES
A couple of morality tales here deal with crashing picnics and medicine-cabinet invasion: is a picnic always just a picnic? Is the medicine cabinet try-out actually a morality tale? How is thinking to do a good turn for the old man a prelude to disaster? And why is speaking in public an early problem for this eventual genius of broadcast radio? In a story about kids’ baseball, Shepherd suggests that organization is not always a good thing.
I will never forget the day that we organized the Cleveland Street Irregulars ball team. One of the worst things that I ever had happen to me as a kid, happened as a result of baseball. This is a story about the first creeping encroachment of “little league-ism” beginning to sneak into the world.
This is not a story about baseball—I do not come from a tennis background, I do not come from a polo background, I come from a slugging background. Where a man is measured in how he fields a bad hop. You notice the wide spacing between my two front teeth, and you notice how they overlap? Well, three straight ground balls on a hot afternoon one day produced this interesting denture problem I’ve got here.
I’ll never forget—one of those terrible moments we all live in our world, most peoples’ world, really—a world of frustration, sad defeats, little, tiny, momentary victories. One summer, we were just about at the freshman-in-high-school-period. We’ve got enough pizzazz to understand just a little of this world around us, but not enough pizzazz to understand that there’s a world around us. That touch-and-go moment.
I didn’t know much about Northwest Coast art other than liking raven rattles. But, in 1988, I was assigned to produce “Chiefly Feasts,” a large traveling exhibit that would begin in our museum and go to several other venues. The Kwakiutl is one of the tribes located from upper Washington State and north on the west coast of Canada—Native Americans commonly known for their totem poles. The potlatch is a competitive ceremony in which powerful leaders enhance their prestige by giving (and, at least in past times, sometimes destroying) objects of value. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict described it thusly in her Patterns of Culture.
As always, working with a curator who was an expert in the exhibit’s subject matter, I began my design. Our museum arranged for me to travel to several Northwest Coast exhibits to get a sense of the material and how it’s previously been presented—museums in Chicago, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, and Alert Bay–a small native-American town in northern Vancouver Island. The museum paid travel, food, and accommodations for me, and our family paid for my wife and son.
Allison and Evan,
Orca Inn, Alert Bay.
Although most exhibits consist of cases containing artifacts, I wanted to give a sense of environment and materials, and, reportedly, the Kwakiutl preferred something less confining than many cases—I designed a series of wide, low, open, cedar-plank platforms and cedar-paneled walls. Cedar is a common Northwest Coast construction material, especially for ceremonial buildings. All protected by a low rail that also supported some of the exhibit text, and with a security system that would sound if anyone entered the platform area. This open approach, and the overall sense of an appropriate setting, was rare and more complex to produce than the usual exhibit. Of course, the platforms needed to be disassembled for shipment and re-installation in the other museums’ exhibit spaces.
With the exhibit installed, I visited our Museum shop and bought a Northwest Coast artifact, though I believe it was created, not for indigenous use, but for non-native collectors. Despite that, I find it intriguing and elegant. It’s a combination of: what appears to be a stretched animal-skin drumhead; rattle (with pebbles or other small objects inside); and whistle (blown from the end of the bone handle). I believe the black hair is from a horse, but I have no idea about the animal skin and white feathers. From our museum’s carpenter shop I scavenged left-over short lengths of cedar to form the backing for the piece in our home. The image is of a raven holding the sun in its beak, just having opened the box in which the sun was held.
“Most important of all creatures to the coast Indian peoples was Raven. It was Raven—the Transformer, the culture hero, the trickster, the Big Man (he took many forms to many peoples)—who created the world. He put the sun, moon, stars into the sky, fish into the sea, salmon into the rivers, and food onto the land; he maneuvered the tides to assure daily access to beach resources. Raven gave the people fire and water, placed the rivers, lakes and cedar trees over the land, and peopled the earth.” –Hilary Stewart, in her 1979 book Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast.
Raven is thus similar to the Greek mythological figure, Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods (especially from our Renaissance onward, a symbol of human mentality/creativity, etc.).
My replica of a raven rattle,
as is typical in these carvings,
has a small box/sun in its beak.
Some of the great traumatic experiences of my kid life were with my father’s failures, often with fireworks. Fireworks are sneaky. You know, they have Roman candles that come in various sizes. Some of them have four or five shots, some of them will have ten, some of them will have fifteen and then you get the big bazooka-style Roman candle. These are the big ones. They use them for cannonading the next mountain.
We usually had about fifteen of these in stock, and by about midnight of the Fourth of July we would have sold maybe ten and we’d be left with five of these fantastic, five-dollar Roman candles. They were about five feet tall, about three inches around. They have straps and you hold this son of a gun behind you, and there’s a technique in shooting Roman candles.
My old man was a pure showoff. The kind of guy who was noted at the party for a thing he called “the snake dance.” Just a wiggle. He wore a lampshade. He was one of that kind. So, everything he did, he always said, “there’s a style to it.” He would play pool and do the shots behind his back. “Watch this!” He was a real pool shark. He would hold a bowling ball in one hand, turn around and throw it behind him—boom—right in the pocket. He was always tossing baseballs over his shoulder and catching them behind his back.
When he had Roman candles, this is the way he would do it. He’d light it, he would hold it down low, he would count to himself, and as soon as the fuse was about gone, he would start moving it around in a circle, he would feel that ball coming up, he would sort of move forward, bump his fanny to the left and down again like he was helping them, putting body English on them as they went up! He was pitching with the Roman candles.
Well, the whole neighborhood would gather around to watch him shoot his fireworks, because nobody had anything like the amount of money’s worth of fireworks he had. He had, in retail, maybe two or three-hundred dollars worth of fireworks left. A gigantic box. About midnight he’d start firing out in the alley back of our house. Nobody ever thought of even going into a field to do this kind of thing in those days. There were houses around and the windows, the people, the wash hanging out, and he’s shooting off this heavy artillery.
So he is standing out back there this night. One of the great, absolutely unparalleled moments of my life. And also, one of those things you feel so terrible about because your old man has really flubbed. Really done an awful thing.
Everything has been going fine. Big pinwheels he’s got. He’s got great American flags that fly up in the air and come down on parachutes. Everything’s going. Finally he takes out the Roman candle, which he always loved more than any other kind. He lights it. Everybody’s waiting. Choooo! Off goes the first one, a big green ball goes up and everybody goes “Oooooooooooh!” At the third ball, just as my old man is winding up, that Roman candle shoots backward—right out the back end of this thing comes a ball—Woooooops! like that, right up his sleeve and right out the back of his shirt! He spins around, another ball goes out the front and then quickly two of them come out the back! He is going on like he is insane. He throws the damn thing, it flies up and goes into Flick’s backyard, right in the middle of the geraniums. Boom! Boom! Out both ends. He turns around and he screams bloody murder— his pongee shirt is on fire. “My shirt! Oh no, my shirt!”
He runs up the alley and we can see him trailing smoke and flames. He runs down in our basement and turns on the hose. People are pouring water on him and then rubbing goose grease on him. What has to be pointed out is that nobody worries, it’s just natural in the fireworks world. That attitude toward infernal destruction.
Five minutes later he’s out in the backyard shooting off rockets, shirt hanging out, shirttail tattered, one sleeve missing. That is a picture of an American celebrating something—but who knows what?
[End of Part 7]
People kill animals on the endangered species list and sell parts of the cadavers to people who don’t care if the animals go extinct, as long as they have some piece of them that gives an illusion of their own importance. The federal government, when it finds such stuff, confiscates it at the port of entry, stores it securely, and eventually destroys it.
In 1982, I was assigned the design job of putting some of this confiscated material on display. The parameters were: no available exhibit spaces to put the temporary exhibit, so it would need to be installed (inappropriately and awkwardly) in the bare center of one of the Museum’s permanent halls–Oceanic Birds; and the material on display would have to be absolutely secure from theft.
The norm would have been many exhibit cases with plexiglas bonnets built to house the artifacts, creating a crowded grouping of boxes with no effect except a jumble with inadequate space for the public to move around (with a potential for pilfering). Always looking to incorporate an appropriate sense of environmental ambience in my temporary exhibits, I chose to create one massive enclosure exemplifying the security area one might find at a port of entry’s stash of confiscated materials–chain-link fencing, including a chain-link top.
Entranceway to Exhibit– Teaser
For access during installation, a sliding chain-link entrance door, with the largest padlock I could find for it at a local hardware store, also suggested high-security. (Nothing was stolen.) As pedestals for artifacts, I used the large wooden shipping containers in which the materials had arrived at the museum. Big black and white photos of endangered animals provided some backdrops. The chain link and shipping crates provided a stark/ironic contrast to some of the items such as the fur coats.
Our museum director (who was frequently generous with his praise for my designs), at first apparently taken aback by my unusual approach, wrote:
Congratulations on the “Confiscated” installation. It worked out very well, and produces a substantially more interesting and striking show than the one I saw in Cleveland….
The concept you chose as the basis for the design, while simple, was also elegant.
While readying my “Confiscated!” essay, I noted that the Tuesday, 7/11/2017 New York Times Science Times presented three full pages of color images of animal remains confiscated by the U. S. government in its unceasing effort to stop illegal trafficking:
“So send your name and address to “Worm, W-U-R-M, Worm.'”
So, the business is booming, guys are calling up, and one day, I come home from someplace and my mother says, “There was a man here to see you.”
I say, “Man? Come on, it’s supper time. I can’t mess around now.”
She says, “No, he wasn’t looking for worms. I don’t know what he wanted.”
“Man? What? He didn’t want worms?”
“No, he just wanted to talk to you.”
I didn’t think anything of it. I figured it was some guy who was embarrassed talking about worms to my mother. Some guys are very sensitive about buying worms. They don’t come right out and say, “I buy worms.” It’s a kind of a sensitive issue.
I came home that night, suppertime. I’m sitting there and little did I realize—the doorbell rang—it was the beginning of the end of my business. Every time I think of it, it just bugs me. I’m making dough hand over fist. And I’ve got money sticking out of my shoes. I’m even doing stuff like buying two fielder’s mitts at a time. Well, the doorbell rings, my old man gets up and goes to the front door. I hear him say, “Wait a minute, I’ll get him.”
I walk out to the front room and he says, “There’s a guy here to see you.” It was just a man to see me, to see the kid that’s growin’ the worms!
The guy says, are you Jean Shepherd? Is this your worm business here?”
I say, “Yes.”
He says, “I’m here from the tax department and I’d like to talk to you about taxes. I want to know whether or not you…”
I say, “What?! What? Taxes?”
He says, “Yes, I want to leave these forms with you. Have you filed employee taxes and all that sort of thing?”
My old man is hiding in the kitchen. If there’s anything that scared my old man out of his mind it was just the mention of the word “taxes.” He always was afraid that one day they were going to “foreclose.” I don’t know what it was they were going to foreclose, but boy, the word “taxes.”
The man says, “I’m going to leave these forms with you. And, by the way, I’d like to have some estimates as to what you’re going to clear this year and do you have all the receipts and expenses and so on?”
I say, “Yes.”
He says, “I’ll be calling next week.” And he leaves the house.
I go back to the kitchen and the old man is sitting there at the table and his face is white. He says, “I knew something was gonna happen. You’re just gonna have to go out of business. Can’t mess around with it anymore. I’m not going to get involved with the tax people. And I’m not goiong to have people coming around here and investigating the taxes and all that stuff. You’re just going to have to go out of business. Forget it.”
My mother is crying. My kid brother’s hiding under the daybed. He senses there’s trouble.
I say, “Gee, dad….”
“No, I’m sorry. The next thing you’re going to have lawyers and you’re going to have employees striking, they’re going to be burning down the house, there’s going to be pickets. I don’t want any of that stuff. Now cut it out. That’s absolutely. If you want to go into the worm business when you get older, when you grow up, that’s up to you. But you’re a kid. I’m not going to have any problems.”
I can see he is secretly glad to see it’s going down the drain. Because it is getting to the point I am thinking of giving my old man an allowance. Have him work around my work business once in a while, on the weekends. I can see he’s glad it’s all over.
So, the next week when the man comes, my mother says, “He’s not doing it anymore.”
The guy says, “He’ll have to pay taxes on what he did.”
She says, “Alright, but he’s not going to do it anymore. You see, he’s taken the sign down.”
I remember taking that sign down. What a trauma that was. I don’t know whether many of you guys have ever actually gone out of business. You know how terrible when you see it happening right in front of your eyes. I took the sign down.
You know what I had to pay in taxes? To this day it’s a legend in our family. After all the dust had settled, and all the writing and all the forms had been filled out. I had my money in the bank and I was saving money to go to college and all that stuff. I had to pay three-hundred and eighty-six dollars. Three-hundred and eighty-six dollars! My worm business had made roughly five-hundred bucks. That’s how much money I had in the bank. I’ll never forget how great that was—that five-hundred and fifty dollars. And I paid off the three-hundred and eighty-six bucks. I was left, after two years of running around and hollering, with about one-hundred and fifty bucks profit.
I never went back into the worm business. I retired at the top of the heap. That’s right, I’m the guy who scaled the heights. There was no bigger worm man in all of Lake County. People were coming from as far away as Chicago and Milwaukee to buy my works. The legend of my worms themselves—the quality—was so high, that guys were coming all the way up from Tippecanoe and Clinton Counties to buy those fantastic worms. And now that I look back on it, I was one of the great men of his day.
These days I give advice to young worm men who are coming up. And for those of you who would like to go into the worm business, I’ve turned out a little pamphlet entitled, “The Worm and You—There is Big Money in the Ground.” For those of you who would like to know how to raise worms, and would like to entertain yourself by feeding your worms on a quiet night. By the way, they make wonderful pets. A worm never bites. Never bites and you do not have to get ‘em licensed. Furthermore, they’re very loyal. So send your name and address to “Worm, W-U-R-M, Worm,” care of this publishing house. But no phonies or pretenders–you’ve got to be serious!
(So much for worms!)
Another Shep kid story comin’ up next time.
TURNER & WYETH
(another artsy idea)
Mid 19th Century
Do older artists start to go blind and is that why they begin to produce works that are rougher/sketchier–or are they just getting tired of “realistic” responses to their environment and want to be more expressive of their feelings? I think it’s usually the latter. Maybe I feel this because I, with my more “modernistic” schooling and exposure to recent art, appreciate more expressionistic work. After all, art schools yearly churn out thousands of graduates who can approximate photographs on their sketchpads and canvasses.
Two artists whose more expressionist work I’ve come to recognize and appreciate more in recent decades are J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). The exhibits responsible are the Museum of Modern Art’s “Turner: Imagination and Reality” of 1966 and the Whitney Museum’s “Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth” of 1998.
Turner, being an early 19th century artist, was amazingly abstract in many of his paintings—those that I especially like. For me, the emotion and turmoil he created are overwhelming! In ”Turner: Imagination and Reality,” Lawrence Gowing writes:
Turner’s work is never without a figurative reference….It offers, perhaps, pictures of everything rather than of nothing. But eventually no single touch of paint corresponded to any specific object….seems to us like the return to a primal flux which denies the separate identity of things.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Mid-Late 20th Century
As for Wyeth, in my early adult years, I summarily dismissed his work as “realism.” Until I saw the major exhibit of his original work in 1998 at New York’s Whitney Museum. I realized that, formerly seeing reproductions of his work, as had been almost the only way I’d been familiar with it, I hadn’t realized that much of his abstract approach to large areas of his pictures had been obscured by the reproduction process—or my lack of closer study. Or the infrequency of reproductions of his more modernist pieces. In addition, seeing a large group of his works together, I realized the strong, quirky, strange, forceful and modern sensibility of many of his compositions. A good source of reproductions giving a clue to his “abstraction” and odd compositions is the catalog to the Whitney exhibit, titled “Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth.”
Some idea of this modernist aspect in Wyeth is revealed in that catalog’s chapter, “Terra Incognita” by Adam D. Weinberg, where I quote parts of two paragraphs:
Wyeth’s expressionist realism is the least acknowledged and exhibited aspect of his work, perhaps because its seemingly crude and often defiant lack of refinement is not what his audience wants or expects. Perhaps too, critics can more easily pigeonhole and demonize Wyeth by ignoring the existence of such expressionistic works….
It is not implausible to associate some of Wyeth’s expressionist watercolors to the specific, even if their specificity is emotional rather than scenic….
The compositions and the large areas that, by themselves seem to be non-representational smudges, add up to a persistent proclivity to display an expressionist approach.
Frequently, Wyeth’s compositions seem strangely quirky and askew—yet for me they’re startling and satisfying. So many of Wyeth’s paintings have large swaths in them that seem to realistically represent areas, but, on close study, can be appreciated as major, abstract smudges—that might conservatively and inappropriately be thought of as being described by a 19th century cartoon of Turner at work:
This is not some occasional effect in Wyeth’s work. My impression is that it represents scores of his infrequently seen oils and hundreds of his infrequently seen water colors. The guy’s a modernist in disguise.
So I’m peddling along, nine-feet tall, and I’m throwing the papers and making the collections. Two-and-a-half-hours later I arrive back at George the Greek. Flick is sitting on the floor working on his book. Schwartz is over there working on his, and Martin is over there. Shepherd walks in, striding in there ten feet tall.
George is back around by the candy counter. He says, “Hey, Shepherd!”
“What’s up, George?”
“Don’t give me that ‘what’s up’ stuff. What did you do to the guy at ten fourteen Arizona Avenue?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just tell me what you did to him.”
I said, “Nothing, George.”
“What do you mean, ‘nothing’? That guy called up here, he dropped all the papers and says he’s never gonna buy another paper from me again. That guy’s been on our route for twenty years! What did you do?”
That was big, fat, rotten, stale-beer Charlie of ten-dollar-bill fame. Now, I ask you, friends, who won that battle? Ultimately? Let’s put it this way. There are some people who win an occasional skirmish. There are even some people who win an occasional battle. But then—there are those—wondrous, favored few—those beautiful, wondrous, favored few—who win the wars.
Friends, I’m a guy who has won quite a few skirmishes. I’ve even taken a battle or two. The previous, true, paperboy story is a salute to misspent youth.
End of paperboy story. new kid story coming next.
My previous ARTSY post completes all the 121 short illustrated essays on my life in the world of artsy-fartsydom. There may be more if some come across my old and frustrated mind.
Since late March I’ve sent book-queries to four major people in the art-and-literature field who I thought would find my artsy idea interesting and quirky enough to respond.
Since late March I’ve sent queries to five New York literary agencies I thought might be interested.
So far I’ve gotten no responses from any of the above. Maybe somewhere over the rainbow.
It’s a good thing I do my stuff for my own amusement.
Anything more would be gravy.
(I really do like gravy an awful lot.)
I still have 19 transcribed Shep Kid Stories ready to post. The next one is what I consider to be one of his best–it’s about him being “The Worm King.”