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Even to this day that scene goes on and on and on. The irises are out there growing. The chain reactions that we make in our lives. And every time now, when I pass a salesman in the hall, without fail I have that funny feeling down in the pit of my stomach. I have the feeling that somehow, I can’t explain it, that somebody is going to sentence me to go back to selling seeds again. Somehow it’s still out there, those doors—knock knock—“There’s nobody home I hope I hope I hope I hope.”
By the way, kids, that preceding lecture will be filed under “Real Education,” as opposed to the education you’re actually gonna get.
THUS, WITH A SHEP-LESSON-TO-BE-LEARNED, ENDS “SELLING SEEDS”
NEXT KID STORY FORTHCOMING
BOOKS Intro and Chapter 1 of 1
As a Boy Scout, Second Class, for the reading merit badge I began my list of books read, passed the test and got the badge. I kept up my have-read-list for about sixty years, and found that, over the decades, it averaged roughly three books a month read. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, various fiction and non-fiction titles, and lots of books on art and literature. I’ve written several unpublished novels and over 150 poems, of which two were published in a poetry journal.
When I’d already begun my fascination with books as a kid, I didn’t want to be an astronaut or a baseball star, I wanted to be a librarian or win the Nobel Prize in literature. I did neither, but I’m married to a librarian, and between us, spread throughout the house, we have about 7,000 books, some featured in our headboard.
Our King-size Headboard
Although I continue to read, my books-read list numbers fell calamitously. Now I read very little “great literature” (historically acclaimed novels)—I’ve been too busy researching and writing all my stuff about radio humorist Jean Shepherd. Regarding this current obsession, I’ve two published books and several articles in periodicals, and nine separate descriptive folders included in boxed CD sets of his recorded programs for syndication, and posted over 400 illustrated blog essays about him. Shepherd came along, probably, just in the nick of time to satisfy my need to read and write, as well as providing a birthplace to accommodate my ARTSY essays.
BOOKS–WRITING AND READING
In my own defense for not keeping up my pace of reading, I’ve written and designed
the potential covers for three unpublished novels:
The fictional story of a young American man who is convinced that he’s the modern return of Jesus. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters synopsizing chronologically, the entire history of the Earth in what I see as a vast outwardly spiraling evolution. (Outrageous.) Never published.
Inspired by my disastrous marriage to a young woman from Granada, Spain. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters—of my life. A young American fellow, inspired by reading about the Spanish Civil War, joins with Spanish terrorists in Granada to kill the Crown Prince. (Rageous. Dramatic.) Never published.
Inspired by my anthropology-based sojourn in Peru. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters—of my life. A young American exhibit designer bests (is sort of responsible for the deaths of) several American anthropologists, thus gaining the love of a young American woman. (Never published.) Except for no-cost self-publication.
Yes, the fictional protagonist of each of these extravaganzas seems like me. The true/fiction nature of my novels was inspired by the influence of two books that did similar things with truth and fiction: Moby Dick, and John Dos Passos’ U. S. A. Trilogy. And inspired by Carlos Baker’s critical analysis, Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, in which Baker describes how various real-life interests and experiences of Hemingway became the inspiration for aspects of his novels.
A Designed “Poem”
About Designing a Poem
Eventually, all readers and writers have got to try poetry. I read some, I understood little. I read books on what poetry means, how it’s written, and how to write it. I wrote over 150 poems, some not too bad. I got two published in a serious Canadian poetry journal:
Oh, Yes, and Poems Published in
The Magnetic Poetry Book of Poetry
The company that produces the kit with little magnetized words to be made into word-groupings to stick on refrigerators, devised a contest for a book based on poems that only use words from their kits. They published two of mine, one of which has a typo. (Discover below!) Decades later, the book can still be found in book stores, meaning that these two poems of mine have probably been read by more people than any poems by great American poet Robert Frost. (Holy moley!)
A Magnetic Poem
While in my poetry-writing phase, I encountered a poetry-writing contest at a crafts fair.
“In a few minutes, write a poem on the special star-filled paper provided.”
Tribute to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Worthy of my egotism as are the above mighty efforts,
I’m most proud of my multiple published and unpublished works
about that great American humorist,
Jean Parker Shepherd.
WORDS ARE WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Jean Shepherd Remembering A Great Reading Experience
And all of a sudden as I read, I could see the sun coming in through the venetian blinds. And I’m gone. The sun is quietly moving like a golden finger along the floor of time. I’d never read anything like this before. I could see the leaves on the hills I had never even known existed. I could smell the fall air. And down below the town, the river dark like some great, vast, prehistoric monster. And a curtain going up in my mind. Creeping. And the show was about to begin. And everything changed. Trumpets blew.
From that day onward I have not been the same as I was the minute I opened up that first page. I never read anything in my life that was like this. It was some vast organ playing somewhere and the words rolled on and on and on and on. It wasn’t that they made sense or not sense. They were beautiful. Great crashing waves of words rolling over the rocks.
And that great river flowed on, the web of life to unsung, untold, unopened doors. The stones. A leaf dropped. And from that minute on I realized that there was nothing ever in this world as more—as even remotely as powerful as words.
Words are what it’s about. The one thing that makes us different from the giraffes and the turtles. I could not understand why Miss Easter said they didn’t give this to kids! The one group they should have given it to was kids.
This writer played upon the line, upon the language of some demented and some fantastically talented, insane dancer on the keyboard of an incredible wind-pipe organ of the gods, of the stars. Tom-toms booming in the distance. And I remembered the name of the book. Always, forever. He spoke of a stone angel, its sword pointing skyward, holding a stone leaf, the wind blowing over its stone arms and form. Look Homeward. Look Homeward, Angel. You Can’t Go Home Again. The Web and the Rock. Yeah!
Did you ever read any of those? Look Homeward, Angel. Now, who I’m talking about here is Thomas Wolfe, the original Thomas Wolfe. The real one. And the only reason I brought all this up—you know I have to say that that one book—I didn’t understand anything, I didn’t know what it was about. I think really great literature, you don’t have to understand what it’s about. You feel it like music. It’s a felt thing.
Here I was, about ten years old. It was a fantastic trauma, it really was. I remember taking this book home and reading it under the covers at home because of this rule that you had to go to bed at this certain time, and I had a penlight which my Aunt Glen had given to me for my birthday. This little fountain pen-shaped flashlight. So I was hiding under the covers reading Look Homeward, Angel. I didn’t know what it was about. I just knew I couldn’t stop reading it. It changed me forever really.
IT CHANGED ME FOREVER REALLY
MUSEUM CAVE ART
What I refer to as “cave art” is the art in which I’m in greatest awe. Of the primitive and surprising elegance and intelligence with which it was created. It is where we have come from in our world of art, it is the instant in human history when sophisticated art was born.
I refer to the great cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, and the great carvings such as the Venus of Willendorf. I visited northern Spain’s Altamira in 1966 when the public was still openly admitted. I remember how the guide instructed each visitor to lie on a flat, table-like rock in the cave, where, as he told us, the original painter must have lain while painting the image just an arm’s length above.
Over the years I collected replicas of a number of pieces, including the pieces I exhibit standing: two Cycladic female carvings and the Guennol lioness, about 3.5″ tall of about 5,000 years ago Mesopotamia, which I saw and first became aware of when it was exhibited just a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum. I immediately rushed to the Museum Shop and, as I’d hoped, found a replica for sale. I bought it and went back to the original on display, took out my replica and held it up to compare. It was very good. I have it displayed unsupported, just held up in sand, so I can grab it and hold it whenever I have the desire.
I arranged most of the smaller pieces in a long, glass-covered box, these artifact replicas nestled in fine sand. On the left are the two Venus of Lespugue replicas, the black-and-white of how it exists today, with a reconstruction of how it must originally have been. The rest are venus and animal figurines.
So one can imagine how excited I was when our Museum managed to gather a large collection of replicas on loan from European museums for a temporary exhibit showing them in their historical and intellectual context. Of course I visited the display numerous times.
So one can imagine how excited I was when, a couple of years later,
our Museum managed to gather a large collection of
on loan from various European museums for a temporary exhibit!
Before the objects were put on display for the public, I entered the exhibit space and spoke with one of the anthropologists in charge.
“I know that I can view the objects as much as I like once they’re in cases behind glass, but could I see them without the barrier of plexiglass hoods, with nothing but air between them and me?”
He took me into the locked vault where the pieces were being stored before installation. He locked the door behind us. He unlocked a large metal cabinet. I noted that there was thick carpet on the floor and the nearby tables—in case some anthropologist dropped one! He pulled out a large flat tray. There they were!
“Wow!” I said. “This is the thrill of a lifetime!”
“Would you like to pick them up?”
“Me?!” Not even with gloves! “Pick them up”?
He smiled and nodded ascent.
I picked up the Venus of Lespugue. The original. In my bare hands. And gently fondled it.
I picked up the bison licking its flank. The original. In my bare hands. And gently fondled it.
I picked up several other originals, all over twelve thousand years old
that I’d only seen in photos in books.
Tears in my eyes, I thanked him profusely. “I cannot believe it!”
“Consider it a perk of working at the Museum.”
The Library and P. G. Wodehouse
But little did I realize all the while, my true vocation was sneaking up on me. I think your true vocation often sneaks up on you. There isn’t a point in a guy’s life when he decides he’s going to be a Bowery bum. One day he finds himself sitting in the cart and everyone has gone to work. Next day he finds himself for the first time in his life sitting on the curb. Everyone’s walking by him. It just sneaks up.
At this time, all of us kids in freshman high school were reading serious books, official books. We had a reading list that included such beauties as Wuthering Heights, such unforgettable stuff as Silas Marner, Lady of the Lake, great stuff like that. I think one of the reasons why kids hate reading most of all their lives, is the stuff that they have to read. Oh, did you ever try to finish a book by Edith Wharton? Anybody who does that could well have been in their time a six-day bike racer had they stuck with that too. But there I am. I’m not anti-intellectual, but when you’re fourteen years old and suddenly find yourself deep in Henry James, that is heavy going. The mire and the muck get rather deep.
I’m sitting there in the library and it’s a hot spring day. I could hear the ping-ponging of tennis balls out somewhere on a court. I took this book off the shelf and it was the same author that guy had told me about. The same author who had done nothing for me weeks, months, years before! I began reading this thing. At first I sort of went, yeah—yeah—yeah—and then it hit me. My god, have you ever been so embarrassed by something that hit you when you were sitting in a crowd? I started laughing in the study hall and I couldn’t stop laughing.
I was laughing like I was out of my mind! And people started looking over, “What’s the matter?” And I could not stop laughing. I just couldn’t! The hero of the book is climbing down a drainpipe of a house where he is spending the weekend, and he is bored out of his skull. Suddenly, below him, he sees this police officer who goes “Hoy! Hoy! Hoy there!” He tries to climb back up, the rain is coming down, the officer keeps saying “Hoy! Hoy! Hoy there!” And at that point it just hit me deeply. Every third or fourth line just absolutely cracked me up. And I was about fourteen or fifteen.
The character was Bertie Wooster and the book was Leave it to Jeeves and it blew my mind! I enjoyed Leave it to Jeeves so much that the next one I read was Leave it to Psmith and from that time on I was dead. The author, of course, was P. G. Wodehouse and I read everything this guy wrote. From that time on, to me, writing—as a writer—writing and performing has always been directed toward being funny.
“From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. It was not that I had any particular message for humanity. I am still plugging away and not the ghost of one so far, so it begins to look as though, unless I suddenly hit mid-season form in my eighties, humanity will remain a message short.” ―P.G. Wodehouse [P.G. Wodehouse: Portrait of a Master by David A Jasen, New York, Mason & Lipscomb Publishers 1974]
In addition to outdoor creations such as Stonehenge, some great paintings and sculptures have also been co-opted by weather and people so that they are no longer visible unsullied as they once wore.
Three’s a crowd.
BOTTICELLI’s BIRTH OF VENUS
Birthing a la smart phone in Florence.
Those of us who visited “Guernica” dozens of times at New York’s Museum of Modern Art were the lucky ones. When I first saw it after it had been sent to Spain, it was shown behind bullet-proof glass and with armed guards (for fear of old Franco-philes). Sorta took the esthetic edge off the experience. It can now be seen in Madrid unencumbered by glass, moldings, and Guardia Civil.
It’s only right and proper to mention that Michelangelo’s “David,” until it was brought inside to the Galleria dell’ Accademia for safety in the 19th century, had been outside in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio for hundreds of years. (Those who think they see the real thing now in the open Palazzo see only a replica.) So, many deluded ones have never even seen the real thing. (A cover story in the NYT Magazine of August 21, 2016 notes, among many other unpleasant facts, that “David” has possibly dangerous cracks in the ankles!) As for those who have seen the true creative hand of Michelangelo in the Accademia, neither I nor anyone else now alive has seen it where it should be truly appreciated—out there with the destructive rain, snow, pollution, falling furniture, and pooping birds. Sometimes preservation is a necessary evil.
The Library: My Whole Life’s Work was About to Begin
Sure enough, I go back to the library and this author had a lot of books. So I took one out. At first I didn’t quite understand it. But I stuck with it. There was something about it. I couldn’t quite figure what it was but there was something that made you keep reading. So I read two or three of these and backslid rapidly into the Oz stuff for a while, and then I found myself a freshman in high school.
I’m sitting in the study hall, which was also the library, and I was bored so I walked around and found more books by the same guy as before, so I took one and sat down. Little did I suspect that in the intervening years, something had happened to my head. You don’t know when you’re maturing. All of a sudden something makes sense that didn’t before. I’m sitting there not realizing that my whole life’s work was about to begin.
I wonder how many of us can actually trace our lives back to the point where we began to think about what we ultimately really would do in life. At one time I had desires when I was about ten. Yeah, it was that damn library! Every time I’d read a book about something that really got to me, really scored deep down in my soul, well, I decided that’s what I wanted to do!
For example, I read two or three books that were written by deep sea divers. For a while I couldn’t stop reading about deep sea diving. And then another thing got me. Movie stunt men. Particularly movie stunt flyers. I took a book with pictures out of the library and read about this. The captions said things like “Me flying a fighter plane through a barn” and “One of the most exciting moments in my early career—me leaping out of a dirigible.” Wow, man! So I decided I was going to be a movie stunt flyer.
WELCOME TO THE LIBRARY
You talk about what real influences are. I was influenced by books. Being a member of the library was always a big thing for me as a kid.
I remember one time, one of the great early moments of my early life was—we had this teacher see, so she decided that our third grade Warren G. Harding School class would take a walk. It was a nice spring day and the birds were singing. We went for a specific walk, not just to look at birds and grasshoppers. Everybody in line, alphabetically, holding hands, and up in front was Miss Robinette, leading us down the street to the library. That’s something none of us kids ever really did. We never went to the library at that age.
There, sitting behind the big U-shaped desk was this lady who presided over the library. She had a bunch of assistants who walked around with little carts full of books and they had ladders they climbed up to put books on the top shelves, but really, the chief of the library was Mrs. Easter. I never saw Mrs. Easter before but she had the same kind of cache as a teacher. She was an official person. Miss Robinette walked up to Mrs. Easter. Apparently it was all prepared. Mrs. Easter said, “Oh, they’re here. Boys and girls, I want to welcome you to the library. We’re going to show you what the library is like today.”
She took us all around the library and showed us all these books and magazines. She showed us how to use the library! You could look up a book. “If you wish to read, say, Raggedy Ann and the Camel With the Wrinkled Knees. You look up under Raggedy Ann. You see, the books are listed under the author’s name.” We’re all standing around. Boy, this is something! We all went through the various sections and she showed us how to pick a book. Or you can come up to the desk and they get the book for you.
Then she really laid a fantastic surprise on us. “I’m going to issue to each one of you a library card.” From that moment on it was fantastic to be able to go in there and get a book. To me that was like having a life-time pass to go see the Mets or something. “All you have to do is pick out the book you’d like to read. You can take one this afternoon if you’d like.”
At that point I had been into one of the great early things that really hung me up as a kid. I couldn’t get enough of them! I absolutely could not! The Oz books. And they had a whole mess of them. I had only one OZ book, which had been given to me for Christmas a couple of years before. And I had read it about twenty-eight times and it was the only Oz book I had ever seen. It was called The Wizard of Oz.
I couldn’t believe that they had a whole bunch of them! It never occurred to me that there were others in the series. As a kid you don’t think that way. So I picked out an Oz book and from that point on I was an inveterate, total, hung-up customer of the library. I read every Oz book. All the way! They must have had ten of them, maybe fifteen.
One day when I was about nine, I was coming home with this Oz book. This kid, Johnny Anderson, had been at the library with me and he was a couple of years older. He said, “Why do you read that stuff?”
I said, “What? It’s really great!”
He said, “Listen, I’ve really got some stuff that you should really read. You want to read something really funny?”
He showed me this real grown-up book. It didn’t have any pictures in it. By the way, one of the great human transitions is made when you move from a book that is ninety percent pictures and gradually move to a book that is ninety-percent words and then one that has nothing but words. That’s a great milestone. Many human beings don’t make that milestone today.
He had three of these books with no pictures that he had just taken out. “I’ve read everything this guy’s written. He’s fantastic.” At a certain point in your life you don’t think in terms of reading an author. A kid doesn’t know who writes the Oz stories—or care. But he said, “I’ve read everything by this guy.” Wow, a whole new idea!
Years ago I mocked my seriousness with “Devoted to Art and Ice,”
written in an amateur’s attempt at the poetic form called a villanelle.
How pretentious and snobbish can one get? Especially if one doesn’t have the authorized status of a doctorate in the Philosophy of Art?
Disparaging concrete Mexicans in the front yard, pink flamingos, Major League Baseball fields mowed to look like green serge suits. It’s folk art.
And I still say the hell with it!
LEARNING WRIT LARGE
Three major interests of Jean Shepherd span his grammar school and high school days and remain essential throughout his life: reading, ham radio, and music. Libraries and books occupied his mind on broadcasts many times. The prestige associated with the written word may have been a cause for him to have agreed to have his short spoken stories transcribed, augmented by himself, and published in print. On one occasion, he included these thoughts:
“…reading should be introduced to somebody as a thing that gives infinite pleasure. And it does, there’s no question about it. Reading is one of the great un-celebrated human pleasures. And nobody says much about it.”
Shep’s next kid stories involve his passion for reading.
SITES TO BE SEEN 1 of 2
I like to get as close as possible to my favorite artworks–authentic stuff I’ve read about and seen in pictures. So I much enjoyed traveling around Europe in 1966 and Peru in 1980 seeing the unencumbered real things.
I was lucky—I got to see some stuff before later visitors had much lesser experiences. Here, in this and a second artsy, is a partial gallery of some of those lesser experiences, replete with fences, bullet-proof glass, stanchions, and damnable gluts of tourists that art lovers, nowadays, are forced to endure. (I hope that at least a small percentage of those tourists will be inspired to appreciate some fine art. Yet, years ago, someone I know made her first trip to Florence, Italy to visit family. I asked her how she’d liked the great Italian Renaissance masterpieces in the Uffitzi Gallery. She said that she had not gone there, but while in Florence she’d gotten some great buys in leather handbags.)
(15,000 years ago and older)
Formerly one could walk up to the entrance and be escorted into the authentic caves.
Now, for conservation reasons, one can only see replicas at Altamira and Munich,
of the caves at Madrid’s Anthropology Museum.
(about 2,000 B. C.)
Formerly one could walk among the stones and touch them,
but now, bring binoculars.
As close as you can now get.
(See frustrated tourists along the pathway below.)
MACHU PICCHU’S INTIHUATANA (SUNDIAL STONE)
(Inca era, about 1500)
One could not only approach it but caress it when I was there in 1980.
One worshiper sat sun-bathing on it for hours.
Some years later a film crew, making a beer commercial, dropped a piece of equipment on it and broke off a bit of the top. Now one sees it from a slight distance—too far away to touch it.
Closest view now available.
Having the necessary rope barrier
is a travesty, undermining the intimate connection between
the site, the stone, and the surrounding environment.
“In hoc Agricola conc” would appear to be a spoken shrug of the shoulders.
DOING IT FROM WINDOWS
“Hurling invectives” is a funny/hostile activity Shepherd did from time to time, but hardly any have been described/recorded by his listeners. The best known reference in the media is the one where, in the film “Network,” the TV broadcaster tells his listeners to open their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Also, with a small variation, Ronald Reagan, in a political speech, quoted this phrase from the film.
More importantly, wherever they may have gotten the idea,
Twisted Sister’s most popular song is, “We’re Not Gonna Take it!”
They yell part of “We’re Not Gonna Take it” from windows:
“Razzmatazz” is a less frequent Shepherd saying, but it refers to a very important aspect of his early-career interest in jazz and his continued jazz-related improvisational monologs.
Final set of Shep’s words from my large spreadsheet
just perfect for printing and taping together.
[See previous blog posts for first three parts.]
Other important Shep material forthcoming!
“Keep your knees loose” is certainly another major saying of Shepherd’s. Especially as it also expresses a major part of his overall philosophy—emphasizing that in reacting to all of life’s potential successes and potential failures, flexibility in one’s response is crucial!
FINAL SET OF SHEP WORDS TO COME
The first interior part of my Shep booklet contains three of Shepherd’s best-known sayings, beginning with the most important one of all: EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD. The self-contradictory implication seems typical of Shepherd’s way of thinking.
Several well-known people have done parodies of the Longfellow poem, “Excelsior.” Shepherd commented in several different ways on his references to the saying, but, considering one of his well-thought-out comments where he says that “excelsior” refers very closely to his own life while noting the Longfellow poem, and also, the way I describe his usage in Excelsior, You Fathead! (see pages 214-217. For the poem itself, see the front section of EYF!) The one aspect I hadn’t realized at the time of writing the book is that the response to the phrase, being “Seltzer bottle,” probably refers to the fact that there used to be an Excelsior Seltzer bottling company.
Next set of Shep’s words coming soon.
Jean Shepherd, master raconteur and wit, in his several decades of radio monologs, entertained and enlightened radio listeners with his commentaries, anecdotes, and stories. Frequently sprinkled among his talks were various words and sayings for which he became known.
In the spring of 2001, after I’d begun listening more and delving deeply into his radio broadcasts, I put together nine of his better-known sayings and, for my own benefit and for those who might be interested, I described them and organized them into a CD jewel-case-sized artists’ book.
One side of the large, folded paper sheet contains these nine sayings along with my short interpretations of the background and meanings, superimposed on a grayed-out reproduction of the best-known, iconic image of Shep broadcasting. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah, November 30, 1966.) For those inclined, the complete set could be printed out and attached to form the front of the sheet as I produced it. The back side of the sheet contains, in enlarged-type, just the nine sayings themselves along with the enlarged image of Shep. As some time has elapsed since I made this booklet, I might alter it slightly, but I’m still satisfied with it.
First, here is the opened-out case with the back, spine, and front.
This view: the back shows one of the sayings.
SAYINGS WITH DESCRIPTIONS TO COME