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JEAN SHEPHERD Ham Radio, Mark Twain & (97) ARTSY–ELEGANT FUNCTIONALITY

One of my favorite Shep stories. Part 1.

I discuss it in my Excelsior, You Fathead!

One Night on Forty Meters

A lot of people have wondered—how is it you grow to be a sorehead. How is it, say, James Thurber grew to be James Thurber and not, say, Moss Hart, who never was mad at anybody. I mean—just wanted to make dough.  And how is it that Mark Twain, for example, grew to have that funny look in the eye? He did. And I’ll tell you one of the reasons why he grew to have that funny look in the eye. Mark Twain, at one point was a riverboat pilot. Now, there aren’t many things that are more irritating, frustrating, and that teach a man more realism, that convince a man of his basic—inadequacies—and also convince a man of how small he is than to be a riverboat pilot. Because the river’s always sneaking and changing, and it tears the bottom out of the boat about every third or fourth day, sinks everybody on hand, and drowns them all without even a wink.

Well, after a couple of years of this, you come East, and you just don’t look at the world the same way that a guy living in an apartment in Brooklyn looks at it. Just not the same. Sixth Avenue does not swallow you up often. Just doesn’t do that. And very few Staten Island Ferries are lost in the storm.  Doesn’t happen often.

Well, as a child, I had just such a thing happen to me. I became embarked on a course that was every bit as rocky, every bit as frustrating, every bit as maddening as the thing about learning how to be a riverboat pilot.

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Astrolabe/Skeletonized Watches

My design background, that relates the form of objects to the way they work, has given me an appreciation of how elegantly some objects are designed to function; among them: musical instruments, watches, and astrolabes.

WATCHES

Modern digital watches and other timepieces move one’s mind in a straight line from past to present to future, one mechanized digit to the next. They negate one’s understanding of history and that life itself not only moves forward, but contains a sense of return, just as the Earth returns around the sun with the seasons, and each of us, in some sense, repeats the life of ones forebears. Generations: birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and death. (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana)

A traditional watch with hands that go around give one a sense of ever-returning astronomy (Earth around the sun and seasons return in our lives): life doesn’t just march forward, but, in many ways repeats itself, just as history does.

Because of my enjoying to know how things work, I’ve been fascinated by skeletalized watches—the kind that have transparent fronts and backs showing the gears and other mechanisms that make it go, including the large mainspring that, every morning, one winds tight—its slow, controlled unwinding turns everything and makes the watch keep time. One can see the escapement mechanism jog back and forth from the front side. When winding, one can see, on the back side, the main gear turn.

Some skeletalized watches are described as “automatic,” which means they remain wound up—presumably run by battery—but one that must be wound daily gives the entire experience and understanding of a real gear-operated timepiece!

Most people, seeing high-priced skeletalized watches for sale in ads think they are all very expensive, but I’ve found that there are thousands of new ones for sale on ebay.com for well under 20 dollars. (Search for them under the inaccurate term “skeleton watch.”) They seem to keep good time for about 3 or 4 years, and then they die–so one buys another; in this way, skeletonized watches are also sort of like time and life themselves.

*

ASTROLABES

I don’t know how I discovered astrolabes. Here is an Internet definition:

An astronomical instrument for taking the altitude of the sun and stars and for the solution of other problems in astronomy and navigation: used by Greek astronomers from about 200 B. C. and by Arab astronomers from the Middle Ages until superseded by the sextant. [Apparently Europeans imported the arab astrolabe and subsequently designed their own versions.]

The astronomical sophistication and technical/esthetic beauty are extraordinary. The top circular face can be rotated to the proper orientation—the small pointed parts locate specific stars. Because the stars/sky change some orientation depending on where in the world one is operating the astrolabe, a half-dozen or so engraved sheets are stored inside and one chooses the right one depending on one’s location. On average, astrolabes are about 6″ diameter, although some are smaller and others quite a bit larger.

There are scores of variations. I have books and articles

devoted to astrolabes in general,

and collections of European ones in particular.

 Chaucer wrote a detailed description of them. A decent, original one costs many thousands of dollars. I have a very nice replica, with limited complexity, from the Franklin Mint, for about $50:

My replica.

*

Years ago I saw a Christie’s auction house ad for a very fine example and it said one had to phone for an appointment to see it. I phoned. They must have assumed that I had the tens or hundreds of thousands to bid on it. In a private office, the astrolabe expert brought it out all in one piece and let me fondle it. Then, to my surprise, he disassembled it and let me examine the separate parts. When finished, I thanked him profusely. But I didn’t return to bid on it.

ASTROLABE (DATED 1462)

“The Property of a Gentleman.”

This is probably the astrolabe I fondled,

possessed for a moment,

but do not own.

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JEAN SHEPHERD ham radio–Lightning story end

Last of Shep’s ham lightning story

Ever since that time, on hot quiet July nights, when those faint flickers of lightning play among the cumulonimbus—yes—I realize there’s a hell of a lot out there to be scared of, kid.  A lot out there.  There are evil, dangerous forces.

And so, tonight, we must salute an old man named Sullivan, the only guy who’s ever been hit four times by lightning and survived.  He knows something’s after him.  He knows it’s big, too.  And he knows it can strike at any moment.  Sullivan, I know just what you feel like.

And by the way, my mother, to this day, believes it was the power supply that caused the disaster, and that she always knew I’d get a shock.  And I sure did.

Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy,

it gets ahold of your soul and gnaws at it

and never lets go.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories Ham Radio–Struck by Lightning-more & (96) ARTSY INTRO

That’s all I remembered.  For at least thirty seconds.  Suddenly I come to and I’m sitting across the room next to the daybed.  My yellow polo shirt is scorched and my fingers are black.  For an instant I didn’t know what happened.  I thought maybe my power supply—I was always afraid those cheap electrolytic condensers I had were going to go up.  That’s what I thought happened.  I looked.  My rack and panel is gone!  Gone!  I mean gone!

My mother has rushed into the bedroom and she’s standing looking at me sitting there and I remember her words.  She says, “I told you you’d get a shock!”

Then I realized what had happened.  I had been hit by lightning.  Lightning had destroyed my entire rig.  And more than that!  There was a crack that went down from the ceiling all the way to the floor and the wall had been pushed out.  It was as though somebody had driven a truck inside of my room and it had run into the wall and pushed it out like the bow of a shop.  It was bent out!  I was sitting there stunned.

My mother saw the crack.  She said, “What are we going to tell your father?  We’re going to tell you father you broke the house.  You broke the house!  I told you you’d get a shock.  You broke the house!”

That was exactly what I did.  I had broken the house and as a matter of fact, the crack went from the second floor all the way to the basement.  The house was broken.

My old man came home and he flipped!  He said, “You did what?  You broke the house!”

I said, “Yeah, dad.”

Well, we only rented that house.  That night we moved out.  You don’t stay in a house when you’ve broken the house.  We never went back.

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*

Is all this stuff true? Absolutely! Down to the last detail! There is not one bit of “fake news,” There is not any of the fictional bastardization scrambled unbeknownst into what should be matters of fact alone. Everything is true as presented. I swear! Someone, please, give me a lie-detector test!

*

I think of myself as just a regular guy (and a lucky one) whose parents encouraged me to pursue artistic and literary endeavors, who happened to be born in the capital of the art world, who read a lot, who went to schools that focused on art and design, went to lots of museums and art galleries, got a creative job in a non-profit cultural institution, chose to spend most of his left-over small income on books and artsy stuff, and, through listening to a guy on the radio who seemed to be my personal, intellectual mentor, got several books about him published.

What is art and what does it mean? Art is about who makes it, what you call it, how you look at it, and what some expert may say about it a century from now. Art is how it affects your mind and emotions. Art is about some new and intriguing expression regarding the artist’s perception of the world—in a way that’s personal to that artist and simultaneously true for the rest of us. Art expands our perception about what it is to be alive– and in and of our world. Which is to say that art is very serious and very important.

What can one say about art that hasn’t been said? Especially by an amateur. I took a freshman college lecture course on the history of art. Does that qualify me? (No) I’ve read books about art and I’ve collected scores of books about it. (No) I’ve got some art too—you know, Picasso, John Marin, Hokusai, cheap netsukes, African and New Guinea and pre-Columbian art, and good repros of a cool Henry Moore and Paleolithic “cave art.” (And I once touched Mr. Spock’s wax ear. Golly, that’s not art! But maybe it’s artsy?) All that qualifies me to be a high-level artsy-fartsy-ist, especially when I pay enough attention, or when I unexpectedly create my own engagements with our abiding, essential, coexistent, and alternate world we call ART, when I know how to recognize a good artsy situation, grasp it, and know how to spin it and deal it with word and image.

Although not a recognized “expert” in any field of the arts, I surmise enough to relate to many artsy subjects, and my wide-ranging interests nudge me to detect and delve into aspects worth pursuing. The pejorative “dilatant” suggests someone with superficial interests—that’s not me. “Amateur” is someone not paid to be engaged with his subject, and also (based on the origin of the word), one who loves his subject—that’s me!

For most of my life I’ve been a timid soul, but sometime a couple of decades ago, I decided that I was missing too much and that I should unchain my conservative self a bit and be more like an inquisitive kid. A bit childish. (Picasso said it took him a lifetime to be able to paint with the sensibility of a kid.)  Physically, I’m still timid—but I speak of the life of the mind and its unexpected happenstances. In a very minor experience at the end of a Carnegie Hall concert, I had the temerity to sneak onto the end of a line of folk who seemed to have some special sort of entre–and found myself behind-stage and into the dressing room, face-to-face, with the star of the show, the girl singer of my long-ago adolescent fantasies. Maybe this minor encounter is a useful metaphor for my whole artsy fartsy kit and caboodle.

My quirky commentaries are about some art that we have hanging around our house (or, like the “Venus de Milo,” just hanging around in my mind out there in the world)—that, for me has some unexpected backstory wandering through my consciousness, often based on an unexpected encounter. (Aren’t life and art strange and wonderful?) My decades of work at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and my widespread interests in the arts, has led to encounters I sometimes find in the arts I love. This book’s short commentaries aren’t meant to delve deeply into the essence of any art, but they describe unexpected experiences and little epiphanies that surround some basic fascinations.

An unexpected encounter in an art magazine led me to write and have published, a letter to the editor that eventually led me, purely out of curiosity, to discover in Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings, a repeated-by-him, obvious, important painterly aspect I’ve not found described elsewhere in writings about his work. Strange, wonderful. All those Cezanne experts had to do to realize what was in front of them as I did, was line-up  some of his images of the mountain and look with my innocent artsiness and they should have gotten it!

Emerging from my love of art and its essential force in my life, unexpected ideas and the passions they arouse never cease. One might describe Artsy Fartsy as a focused self-portrait in art. A kind of artsy autobiography. ‘Nuff said.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories Ham Radio–Struck by Lightning-more & (95) ARTSY INTRO?!

So I’m working away and I call a CQ—which means I’ll talk to anyone I can get.  My mother comes in.  She did it every time I was on.  She had the radio going on the refrigerator and she could hear the beeps coming in there.  She had this cheap radio called a Knight, and it had this knight with a silver visor and all that stuff.  She comes in and says, “Would you please, you’re making that beeping sound and I’m trying to hear Bing Crosby.”  As she goes back in the kitchen again she says “Be careful now!”

“Aw, comeon, will ya, ma.  For crying out loud.”  Typical smart kid.  I thought I knew everything.  I did.  I knew everything.  I could send and receive CW at about twenty-five words a minute at the time, I built a class C final, and here I am, I’m using a cell 6L6 buffer doubler, and I’m driving a dipole on 20.  You know, I mean, this is no ordinary kid.  No kid ever considers himself an ordinary kid anyway.

I’m on the air with my CW and I had a beautiful style, what they call a “Lake Erie Swing.”  I stand by and sure enough, right on my frequency a guy comes back.  He’s calling me, and he signs his call.  He is in Denver.  So I come back to him.  I give him his report.

I notice a few drops of rain coming down right outside my open window—it’s wide open because it’s warm with all of my equipment going on, and I have feeders that go right out the window and right up to the roof.  I can see it’s real nice, a great day, just beautiful.  So I come back, I’m giving him 579X, his report, and I just tell him my name and as I raise my finger from the key, a gigantic blue flash!  BOOOOOOM!

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What if ARTSY FARTSY were more than just some non-Shep stuff

added to the bottom of some shepquest posts?

What if they were all short chapters of what I hope would be

a published book (if I can find an agent/publisher)?

What would the beginning of such a manuscript be like?

?!

[front matter]

semiconsequential encounters

in a world of art that matters

by

E u g e n e  B.  B e r g m a n n

(not an artist)

?!

[dedication]

To all the many art lovers of the world who have something

unexpected and worthwhile to say regarding their passion.

?!

[epigraphs]

“Artsy-fartsy individuals tend to be unemployed and enjoy finger-painting.”

“Something supposedly highly cultural,

but to the regular sane person merely pretentious.”

–Artsy Fartsy definitions found on the Internet

?!

[Introduction, part 1]

Adventures in Artsy-Fartsy-dom

Self-Portrait Artsy-wise

My Artsy Fartsy comments are not intended just to describe the art and other scattered matters I like. Most anyone could do that about their own interests. My intent is to describe the quirky nature of someone (yours truly) involved with art and related creations in unusual and informative contexts that surprise and delight (me). I neither seek out these artsy matters, nor expect them. I just try to keep my eyes and mind open so that I might recognize and react to unexpected and tangential relationships with the arts I love. Sometimes these encounters result from: a special attitude regarding collecting; comparisons and contrasts; other experiences that whack me on the side of the head and demand attention. For me, these very short encounters add up to a worthwhile miscellany, a cluster of mini artsy interactions.

In John Aubrey: My Own Life, its author Ruth Scurr quotes Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, regarding his life as a collector: “I have the strangest luck in it: things just seem to drop into my mouth, as though I were a baby bird.” I suggest that, rather than objects of interest accidentally falling into his mouth, he, like me with my artsy fartsy experiences, kept his eyes and mind open regarding his wide-ranging interests—he was active, an intellectual seeker, and had a penchant for enjoying sometimes more-than-accidental happenstances.

Do these artsy fartsys matter much? I believe my modus operandi encourages a way for approaching and appreciating art as well as life in general, and I hope others will find my artsy fartsys quirky, entertaining, and enlightening.

[More Artsy Fartsy book intro to come.]

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories Ham Radio–Struck by Lightning & (94) ARTSY Billboards

STRUCK BY LIGHTNING

I’m going to tell you about the time I was knocked down by a bolt of lightning.  On this July day, it was a Saturday, and my old man was working a half a day.  The house was quiet.  We lived in this five-room house.

The front bedroom, which was on the front of the house, was my bedroom, my own thing.  It was right on the corner, so there was a window on my left and on my right.   I had put posters all over the walls and I had my amateur radio rig there. In the corner of the room was my desk, which was my great pride and joy.  I’d built my amateur radio rig on the top of this desk, on a rack I had built out of angle iron.  My whole life revolved around that amateur radio transmitter.  Up on the roof of the house I had an antenna, a twenty-meter dipole, just stuck up there.

On this beautiful Saturday morning, it’s the beginning of July and our school vacation has just begun.  I am sitting at my desk and I’m on twenty-meter CW at the time. The band is very lively with a lot of stations on.

Now, around my house, as in the case of all kids versus their parents, there is a great gap between my mother and me and my old man and me.  It is always thus.  In the front bedroom I am doing what they call, “Making all those noises.”  Anybody who’s ever played with amateur radio as a kid, always hears, “Would you cut out all that noise up there, we’re trying to sleep!”  And, “You’re making that sound on the radio again!  Will you stop it!”  It’s always called, “Making that noise.”  Well, of course, what you were doing was involve yourself in worldwide electronic communication.  You weren’t “Making that noise,” which was way above and beyond the ken of anybody else in my family.  My old man’s technical knowledge stopped short of how to use Simonize.  My mother’s technical knowledge consisted of how to get the most mileage out of a Brillo pad.

And so I was sitting in there doing this mysterious thing.  And I was always on the defensive about it.  They couldn’t understand what all those beeps were.  My mother would see all this stuff—I had rectifier tubes that would glow blue when I put my key down.  They looked spooky to both my father and my mother.  It not only looked very spooky but it looked unbelievably dangerous.  Which, incidentally, to tell the truth, it was.

Let’s face it, I had a power supply that delivered fifteen-hundred volts at two-hundred mil.  That’s quite enough to knock the front end off of your house any time it wants to do it.

So I’m sitting in there working away with my rig on this day and my mother’s out in the kitchen.  Every time I got on she would look in my door and say, “Now, be careful.  You’re going to get a shock.  Be careful with that.  And stop making those beeps so loud.  Can you turn it down?”  And she would go back into the kitchen.  She always thought I was going to get a shock—playing around with electricity.

Well, I had gotten my share of shocks and, I might add, RF burns —Radio Frequency—which is another story.  When you’re tuning up a section network and you start getting an arc off of the knob—I got an RF burn one time that caught me in the thumb and burnt me all the way down to my ankle.  It bore a hole in me.  So I had my share of it, but I never told my parents about it.

(More lightning to come.)

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TORN BILLBOARDS

In the early 1960s, with graffiti and all other kinds of mayhem burgeoning, I noticed some billboards that were torn in—shall I say—“interesting and artistic” fashion. Either by wind and rain or by human intent. I began photographing them. The one that first attracted my attention and led to my fascination, was the “I got my job through The New york Times” poster in the subway. Note his job. I returned with my camera, and so began my extended interest.  To point out the obvious–for me, finding stuff to photograph involves two aspects: one is having an eye for good possibilities, and the second half is closing in on and, from the entire scatter, shutting out the excess and forming a strong composition. All billboard photos shown I took circa 1963-6. I did not tear or in any other way alter what you see here.

Under highway overpasses, on subway platforms, elevated platforms. I began using a tripod. A subway cop stopped me, saying I needed a permit to photograph in the subway. I got one, and though it lasted only a few days, that didn’t curtail my artsy activity.

At the time, I didn’t realize that a couple of known photographers had done torn-subject photos before I got the idea. But they were somewhat different—many of mine tended to have a rather bold, abstract expressionist look. I had some of my 35mm slides converted to color prints. Surprisingly, the color translated well to prints. I sold a couple at the Greenwich Village Art Show in 1963. I showed a selection to Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski. He liked my photos and wanted to show some of them in a slide show he was putting together—that show never happened.

John Szarkowski as quoted on the Internet

“Photography is a contest between a photographer and the presumptions of approximate and habitual seeing. The contest can be held anywhere… “- John Szarkowski

“The study of photography touches the broader issues of modern art and modern sensibility.” – John Szarkowski – In B&W Magazine.

I framed some photos and keep others in a portfolio,

which I glance at maybe once or twice a decade.

Here are more.

“A photographer’s best work is, alas, generally done for himself” –John Szarkowski

[Might we equally say the above about one’s thoughts and writings?]

My good friend, Riff, suggested I photograph his eyes with the “HE PEOP” torn poster.

He didn’t like being photographed, but, surprised that I included his whole upper body, he accepted that my image of him included his hands and arms.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories-The Joy of My Life & (93) ARTSY–Flutes

THE JOY, THE LIGHT OF MY LIFE

· – – –      · · ·

Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy, it gets ahold of your soul

and gnaws at it and never lets go.
morse-code-2

I will tell you this.  That I am now on CW.  I’m a kid.  I’m about fourteen years old.  I’m a ham and my whole life is connected with this stuff, and of course I’m also involved in other things.  I’m playing football and I’m playing second base and I’m going out with Dawn Strickland, the whole scene, the whole fruitcake of existence.  And connected with all of it, of course, and somehow weaving through it in this tapestry, is back home in the front bedroom we did not use—my “shack.”  My special place.  I’d bought an old table from the Salvation Army for a dollar.  I cleaned it and polished it and put formica on the top.  Had a little vise on the side.  I had desk drawers and compartments with resisters and condensers, everything.  A clipboard for my log sheets.  I had a four-and-a-half-foot metal rack I’d bought, and in it I had a ten-Watt transmitter that was the joy, the light of my life.

And every night, when all the other kids were walking around picking their teeth and looking out of the window and yelling down the hot air register, I would be in the front bedroom in my shack with my CW key.

· – – –      · · ·

Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy, it gets ahold of your soul

and gnaws at it and never lets go.

· – – –      · · ·

I walk around the streets with Esther Jane or Helen Weathers or Dorothy Anderson, a car would go past and I’d hear the horn.  Someone would send an obvious obscenity—he doesn’t even know he’s doing it!  I laugh and say to Dorothy, “Did you hear what he said!”

She’d say, “What?”

Of course the word got out that I was kind of a nut.

· – – –      · · ·

Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy, it gets ahold of your soul

and gnaws at it and never lets go.

· – – –      · · ·

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FLUTES

I’m fascinated by flutes but know little about them. Only the varied looks and styles that create the sounds. I once visited a flute convention in a midtown Manhattan hotel’s large exhibit hall. Hundreds of unseen flutes filling the air with abbreviated melodies like hidden cross-currents, conversing flocks of twittering birds. I bought a cheap, used, Western, student flute. Because one has to split one’s breath of air across a thin edge, for a beginner it ain’t easy to elicit a sound, but I once learned to play “happy birthday” on it.

*   *   *

Western Orchestral

The standard, Western style (its configuration of seemingly complex but efficient key-system created in 1847 by Theobald Boehm, a clever fellow ), nowadays usually metal, is played in symphony orchestras. The side-blown, or transverse flute, held horizontally, left to right in front of the body, one blows across a hole near the left end to elicit sound. That sculpted hole has  a French name–the embouchure.(Knowing nothing about flutes, I have to look up these details.)  Many other flutes, especially non-Western one, are end-blown. I have several of each type. For our music wall, I made oak display racks with plexiglas tubing for my flutes.

The top one, from the desert coast of Peru, is two-thousand year-old bone, scribed with a simple fish motif. (End blown.)

Below it, the very short orchestral one of reddish wood with silver surrounds for the holes is an elegant little job that’s actually a piccolo I bought for its looks. (Side blown.)

_______________________

The dark one with the pointy-looking face on its left end is baked clay with sculpted, anthropomorphic décore, pre-Columbian Mexican— not a flute, it’s really an extended whistle–you just blow into it past the fipple. Lookitup! (End blown.)

Next is a modern Peruvian quena. (End blown.)

The flute that’s half pale blue is ceramic that I bought at a crafts fair because I liked its looks. (Side blown.)

The black, 19th Century flute has outrageously long key-arms, which is why I bought it. (Side blown.)

The silver-plated student flute, one-up from the bottom, is a sad, mottled gray because it’s not polished. (Side blown.)

*   *   *

Non-Western flutes, such as the Japanese shakuhachi, and the traditional Peruvian flute, are blown end-wise through a specially carved opening. Fingertips, not metal keys, close the sound holes.

Shakuhachi

*

REPAIRS

(Remembrance of Injuries Past)

The elegantly colored boxwood, 19th century flute, I bought from a flute dealer, his private stock displayed in his up-state barn. It has four short keys and  open sound holes–it’s a transitional symphonic form. This flute has an old crack, fixed with a series of small cords or metal clamps, then filled with a dark adhesive, forming a rather stark and decorative repair.

In the middle is the Western student flute, that has only been polished once in 20 years.

I took a one-semester adult night-course in making a bamboo shakuhatchi. It soon split open—making it impossible to play. I filled the crack with white, flexible caulking but that opened. Only the strongest pressure keeps the shakuhachi crack tightly sealed. Visually, despite being grossly inappropriate to the natural bamboo material, I’ve held it airtight with metal hose clamps. They are ugly and strange. But I’ve learned that sometimes functional, quirky, and ugly needs vanquish attractive form.

These fartsy flutey clamps amuse me.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Listen:

The sound of a flute is the sound of human breath.

I commented to a craftsman of keyless wooden flutes regarding

an elegant physical effect I enjoy. I’d surprised him

as I was the only person he’d ever heard say this:

With fingers covering the holes, I feel

 life’s breath gently caressing my fingertips.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I play no flute even half-adequately.

I simply look and contemplate.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–HAM RADIO & (92) ARTSY–Suzanne Farrell

Finally the day came.  It was a Saturday and I went up to Chicago to take my exam.  There were maybe two-hundred other guys in there, all grownups.  I was the only kid.

All of us filed in and they sent code to us in earphones.  They sent three minutes at thirteen words a minute.  You had to receive and send a minimum of thirteen words a minute, and you had to get out of that three-minute segment of tape, one solid minute that was error-free.

I’d been preparing for this moment for about a year and a half, sweating it out ever since that first day down watching Laurence at his receiver.  And they started to send the code.  Just like a duck in water, getting ready to swim.  I not only wrote down one solid minute, I wrote down every character they sent in the entire three minutes!  Perfect.  It was like nothing to me.  It was just a fraction of the speed that I’d been working on.  The examiner came back.  He took a look at my paper.  He said, “You sure you never heard this tape before?”

I said, “No, first time.”  I’m a kid of about thirteen.

He said, “Boy, that’s beautiful,” and he checked it.

Well, from that minute on I realized that I had my calling.  And CW and all the ramifications to CW have always been part of my world.

A lot of people are probably bored by this subject because they don’t know and aren’t involved in it.  But the fanaticism that CW people know is a fanaticism that only a fly-caster, who ties his own flies, understands.  It’s of that order.  It’s the same order of esoterica as a guy who has spent fifteen years pursuing a specific postage stamp.  It’s a very intellectual, a totally mental pursuit.  Others cannot quite understand it because it so intellectual and mental.  There will be times when I’m walking along the street and I’ll hear a door squeak, and the door has said something to me.  Just that sequence of squeaks.  And I’ll hear horns blowing….

End of “Dots & Dashes, More Ham Radio to Come

“Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy,

it gets ahold of your soul and gnaws at it

and never lets go.”

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Suzanne Farrell

Suzanne Farrell is one of the great 20th Century ballerinas, star, late in the career of George Balanchine who, with his vigorous choreography, saved and advanced ballet for the twentieth century and beyond. One year in the 1980s I had a season ticket to the New York Ballet and saw Farrell dance several times, in addition to seeing her many times in videos.

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Farrell and Balanchine

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A Ballerina’s Foot.

Visual Proof of the Blood and Pain

Given to the Dance.

•   •   •

ALMOST BRIEF ENCOUNTER

I once knew a young woman who was studying to be a ballerina. That is tough stuff. One has to be obsessively devoted and endure much loneliness and pain. To encourage her I asked her to sign for me a pair of her ballet slippers that were no longer usable. I kept them for years, even after she gave up the struggle—she switched from ballet (which requires food-avoidance for thinness sake), to studying to be a pastry chef. She gained too much weight quickly. When we recently moved, I no longer kept the ballet student’s slippers. She is gone. Suzanne Farrell, retired, has her own highly regarded ballet company. She maintains and nourishes Balanchine’s choreography.  She lives, Balanchine lives.

Decades ago, driving my VW downtown in tight-packed, rushing, lunch-hour traffic on a quick personal errand, passing within a block of Lincoln Center, home of Farrell’s NYC Ballet, there on the curb, obviously waiting for a cab, bundled up in a fur coat, was, I’m almost positive, Suzanne Farrell. Despite being in the middle lane, somehow I’d have pulled over, made a turn, gone several blocks around, come back hoping she’d still be there and she’d have accepted my offer of a ride anywhere she’d care to go but I couldn’t and didn’t. There she would have been, sitting next to me, and if she’d said a word I’d have driven her downtown and to Tierra del Fuego.

At intermissions during my subscription-season,

I’d visit the ballet shop at the New York State Theater.

I was told that when dancers wore out their slippers,

they autographed them and

gave them to the shop to sell.

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Signed Suzanne Farrell Ballet Slippers

We Have on Our Living Room Music Wall.

Why do enthusiasts get a thrill out of cherishing such things that once belonged to a renowned celebrity? Logically/objectively, I don’t know. Seems childish, like possessing, as I do, signed first editions. But these cherished slippers were not just touched by her, they were worn by her numerous times, they held her dancing feet that had sweated and bled, moving with elegance, strength, and grace. Seeing these slippers I see her moving to Balanchine’s genius.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–HAM RADIO & (91) ARTSY–Plastic Harmonica Collection

In the meantime, I have acquired a short wave receiver and I’m sitting there copying code off the air.  A kid can learn languages incredibly fast.  Even much faster than a person of eighteen or nineteen when your language skills decline abruptly.  Here I am, I’m thirteen, and code is coming to me so simply, it’s like absorbing the air around me.

I am now thirteen and I’m working in a vacuum.  I don’t know how good I am or how bad I am.  I’m sitting there writing this code down until I finally get to the point, at the age of thirteen, when I’m copying press-wireless.  That’s international press telegraphy.  I’m writing full-length news items like:  “Dacar.  It was reported that…”  I’m transcribing this endless stuff.

My old man would look into the room and he’d say, “Will you cut that out!  Just relax once in a while.  Come on, get out of there, all that beeping is gonna hurt your ears,” just like your mother would say, “Don’t read so much, it’s bad for your eyes.”  I couldn’t stop.  Every day when I’d get home from school I’d turn on my receiver.

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CUCKOO ! PLASTIC ! HARMONICAS !

The Eugene B. Bergmann

Plastic Harmonica Study Collection

Inspired by Pratt Institute industrial design professor Ivan Rigby,

who once commented to his design class that

the Statue of Liberty and all Christmas trees are ugly design.

Also, a tip of the ARTSY hat to Claes Oldenburg,

creator of the Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing.

•    •    •    •    •

I am the Founder/ Owner/ Director/ Conservator/ Curator/ Tour-Guide of what seems to be the only-in-the-world-collection of a major-musical phenomenon—plastic harmonicas. True, I’ve Google-encountered a very few cuckoo harmonicas that date back a century, but they are painted metal and are not, in my opinion, on the same level as my modern plastic beauties.

Most specimens arrived in the collection in the early-to-mid-1980s. Nearly all were manufactured in Hong Kong. As curator of the entire collection (jumbled one atop the other in a small, clear, acid-free shoe box), I’m pleased to report that I’ve kept a record of my acquisitions.

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Note that several were purchased at a high-end toy store (no longer extant) opposite New York’s museum of natural history; the sea crab was bought at New York’s South Street Seaport; the lobster claw bought one summer at a general store in Maine; and the boxed mouth organ was acquired at New York’s Upper East Side “Come Again Erotic Emporium.”

Regarding quality of sound, although these specimens are seldom played, the curator reports that one should note (he intends no pun) that when one blows, not one of the instruments in the whole damn collection elicits sound through all openings. The non-plastic specimen made of chewing gum has not yet been tested but one would not expect even a tasteless squawk. As for the failure to function, the Cuckoo! Plastic! Harmonica! Museum’s Founder/ Owner/ Director/ Conservator/ Curator/ Tour-Guide doesn’t give a damn. In fact, he has been quoted as saying that “partial lack of any tone at all is rather endearing and quite a relief.”

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In some of the harmonicas, the holes are at the wrong end for propping up and viewing. The smiling one’s holes are at the back so the smile faces the viewer. The crab’s holes are on the bottom. The banana and the watermelon wedge each came with its own zippered pouch. The only subject in the collection that has two separate items is, maybe significantly, corn.

Donations of instruments are gratefully accepted (plastic only please). If insisted upon, we will reimburse you–based on place of origin, condition of piece, condition of package material if present, rarity, and percentage of playable notes. Cost to the Museum not to exceed list prices of previous acquisitions: $0.40-$4.50 adjusted to 1980s dollar values. The entire staff here at the Museum is especially interested in acquiring plastic harmonicas of giraffes, reptiles of all sorts, and of penguins and other flightless birds.

Free tour by knowledgeable and exuberant Tour Guide available for the complete collection of the Cuckoo! Plastic! Harmonica! Museum as well as for the nearby “Shep Shrine.” The box holding the “mouth organ” will be opened only upon written request—must be 18 or older. Combo-tour lasts well under 4 hours and 30 minutes. Expanded, late-night tours every July 26 only.

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•    •    •    •    •

The Eugene B. Bergmann Object-Simulated-Harmonica Study Collection

has no insurance policy, no guards, no alarm system, nor can it be located on any map or tourist guide.

The not-for-profit collection does not accept government or philanthropic subsidies.

No Public Hours.

Viewings By Appointment Only.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–HAM RADIO & (90) ARTSY–La La Land

More “Dots & Dashes”

So, by the age of thirteen I would sit in class in eighth grade and I would send code to myself by the hour, as I’m reading something—say, a geography book—I wouldn’t read it, I would send it to myself.  I’d actually hear it in my head.  The dots and dashes of the words.  As a CW man, it got to the point when all of my world was bound by the sound of this language.

I was heading toward getting an amateur radio license, which had become an unbelievable hang up for me.  I would carry my technical question-and-answer manual with me in every book I had.  I’d be sitting in a study hall, supposed to be studying history, and stuck in there was my orange and black Q and A book, and I’m constantly thinking, ask yourself as if you didn’t know it:  What is voltage regulation?  Give me a definition of poor voltage regulation and a definition of good voltage regulation.  And what percentage of deviation in voltage regulation is allowable under the law?

All the rest of the kids around me were living such an innocent world.  They were going to movies and watching cowboy pictures, and I was concentrating on voltage regulation.  I was concentrating on:  Give the technical difference between a Class C amplifier from a Class B1 amplifier.  Which is the more efficient?  Why is a Class C amplifier used in RF applications and a Class AB amplifier is not used in RF applications?

It just began to pack my head all the time.  At night I was lying in bed trying to go to sleep and I would hear in my head endless coded groups floating in out of the air around me.  I’d hear commas for no given reason.  How would you like to spend an hour in bed quietly trying to go to sleep and you’re hung up on the sound of a semi-colon?  That, friends, is fanaticism.

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 La La Land

Los Angeles has never interested me. It’s a land of goofy fads, Beach Boys adolescent sun and serf and sand, and the sidewalk where celebrities stick their hands in wet cement. It does have, nearby, David, a lifelong friend I hadn’t seen in decades, and his wife. Eventually, they’d take me to see a special Picasso exhibit, the Getty Museum, Venice, and a place to dip my big toe in the Pacific.

I was visiting La La Land, all expenses paid, on a Museum business trip to study a traveling exhibit I’d be designing for our museum. I’d stay with my good friend David and his family.

But, to be sure I’d see two important sites, as I got in the taxi upon arriving in La La, I asked the driver to take me to those places before he dropped me off where I’d be staying.
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Eventually the driver found Simon Rodia’s

Watts Towers and he waited while I  looked.

      •  

Then the driver got me to

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.

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From the Hollyhock garden, unexpectedly,

distantly, I saw the SIGN!

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I hadn’t cared to see it but I couldn’t un-see it.

Besides, I admit, I am also a tourist.

Yes, some of us ARTSY folk are New York snobs.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–HAM RADIO & (89) ARTSY Sculpted Landscapes

If anybody else had introduced me to short wave and to code, CW, I’d have said, “Aw, come on.  What’re you talking about?”  But because this guy played basketball (In Indiana, incidentally, basketball not only is a major religion, it is the major religion.  All others sort of fade off down into the distance—Baptist, Catholic, and of that religion I can only say that there are people who are major priests of that religion).  A recognized center is like a bishop—he’s near the Pope.  The next ones are forwards.  Forwards have a certain romantic quality about them.  Then there is the guard, who, to me, is the most romantic of basketball players.  He generally brings it up from the back court and sets the play.  So here was Laurence, a recognized comer, man.  He was a top freshman forward and was going to be in varsity next year.  He was already approaching the god-status as a freshman.

The fact that he sat there and he talked on the radio—with code—knocked me out of the box.  So I began to get into this thing.  And it began to obsess me.  I must say I understand religious fanatics.  Once you’ve been a fanatic, you can understand a fanatic.  You can’t talk a fanatic out of being a fanatic.  There’s no conceivable way.  It envelops you.

MUCH MORE HAM TO BE SERVED!

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Sculpted Landscapes—Golf Links

An unexpected pleasure for me, is my recent discovery of a special kind of golf course called “links.” Most courses seemed designed by bulldozing most of the landscape and smoothing it out for well-mowed grass of “fairway” and “green,” the natural “roughs” only allowed to survive along the edges, where golfers fear to go.

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(Nature ground down and 

mowed into a green-striped cloth-imitation.) 

But a special kind of course, based in Scotland, the land that created golf, is situated between arable land and sea—the link between them where (because of the sandy nature of the earth there, I believe) crops won’t easily grow.
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Thus, the design accommodates itself into these primitive-appearing landscapes where groomed grass becomes an integrated part of the rough and nearly untouched primeval growth. There is an accommodation, a fusion between Mother Nature and Man’s Hand. The land, even the grass-covered part, is irregular, crude nature not altogether subdued. The wind is strong, the carved out sand traps reinforced like ancient fortifications to prevent them from sifting away into themselves.

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Golfers of all skill-levels, from beginners to top professionals, tend to find these playing fields recalcitrant because of their unexpected, inhospitably dystopian incivility. On the rare occasions when I watch on television, it’s not to see the play, it’s to admire the designer elegantly working with–and not against–nature. The British Open is played on links. It’s a joint activity played in a creation where expert humans interact with a stylized, slightly rough-hewn, and robustly alive nature.

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(I’ve never in my life played golf.)

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