Shoebox

June 12, 2010

Louis Daguerre

One afternoon when I was adrift in the fourth grade we were told to save shoeboxes. A request so nonacademic I recall the strangeness and mild excitement of it. A shoe box was a commodity in my child’s world, it could store dozens of items, dying birds, mice on loan, left over model car parts, garter snakes, baseball cards. A shoe box was a practice safety deposit box for seven year olds, only surpassed by cigar boxes, the actual safety deposit box of nine year olds. My endless afternoon of faded mimeographs adding fractions, or dividing with remainders was strangely relieved and exotically distracted by this request. 

At home I asked for new shoes in hopes of finding the perfect box,
even though it meant an embarrassing visit to Smith’s Boot & Shoe. Smith’s local fame traded on those miniature red cowboy boots so popular in photographs of flash stunned cowbabies and never purchased by my parents. My dear hyper-conscientious parents worried openly about my thinning feet. Like so much of childhood, without preter-parental vigilance any normal detail of life could go arwy and leave one ruined. Dad wore a AAA , and I was expected to de-develop appendages nearing nearing pipe cleaners or bird feet when my growth inevitably surpassed my father. The singular hope I had to avoid podiatric disaster rested in the proper implementation of  The Brannock Device. The Brannock was steel and black device not dissimilar to the style of the medical devices already falling out of modernity in doctor’s offices. Ostensibly two simple slides on a calibrated metal tray, to my parent’s mind the Brannock would only be operated by the trained and experienced hands of the city’s oldest shoe clerk, Mr. Smith himself. While waiting for the great man’s attention I was allowed to tarry aimlessly at the fluoroscope x-raying my feet in science fiction green images, but this was a sales diversion for those incapable of utilizing the time-trusted, stinky sock polished tool that remained in its shadowy autoclave beneath a row of chrome legged chairs. I would be properly measured, shoe toes would be squeezed by all, calculations made on my growth, break-in and wear, fashion ensemble options, social engagements discussed for the next year and then another pair of kick-my-ass brown oxfords would appear.  After Mr. Smith laced them properly and slapped either side of the leather, I paraded glumly past the unattainable boots, slip-ons and metal clasped rocket shoes.  My parent’s chanted in chorus “How Do They Feel?  Nevermimd That… How Do They Feel?”  My humiliation at the shoe store ended with another pair of shoes exactly like the pair I wore in except for the scuffs. They paid and glowed to other parents and strangers having saved my feet from ruin.“He needs a sturdy shoe. He’d come right out of loafers. Look how hard he is on shoes. Is that as narrow as you have in stock?”
 

This was the price of a shoe box. 

I was never encouraged to read; I was expected to read. Pointlessly, silently, endlessly. I began nearly every book in the child/adolescent section of the Market Street Library. I don’t think I finished many. They were wonderful places to depart into, but quickly they were predictable word list  practices or tediously teaching moral lessons.  But for my birthday, my mother took me to Strouss Hirshberg Department Store where I was permitted to pick out any episode of the The Adventures of Tom Swift Jr. . It would be mine, no due date, no overdue fines. It had less to do with me as a budding bibliophile, than my mother’s competition with her sister.  Her son ,Tommy, had a neat row of Hardy Boys in his bedroom next to the desk that was expected to serve him in solving the mystery of getting to college.  My cousin and I were mother shoved forward to resolve imaginary perspectives of moral dilemmas of the future; would the world be one dominated by fraternal detectives or junior scientists? Although I had neither science or math aptitude  nor interest, I choose science.  At least  Tom Swift Jr. promised titles with New! Exciting!  Adventure! Adventures, like Mr. Smith’s rocket boots, I would encounter only ocassionally in  passing. The cover of Tom Swift Jr. and His Flying Lab ranked highest in my estimation as the kind of book to be carrying in 1958. Although I never flew the lab out of my bedroom, it had cache. It was a “hard” sciencey book, and a coup to have friends observe next to my Classics Illustrated comic books and Revell model of Dracula (one of the few models ever I did complete). To me the entire series of Tom Swift Jr,’s didn’t hold the interest of a Popeye cartoon, yet Tom and I had a few things in common. We were both named after our fathers, had blonde crew cuts and striped tee shirts…after that. He was a rich, industrious inventor called to solve problems all over the world; I had three pairs of shoes, chronic boredom and stacks of unfinished pale blue worksheets hidden all over the bedroom that were always threatening to become problems. 

Of course it was a diorama book report. Of course it was on  Tom Swift.

Modern dioramas (excluding Bonsai) were first created by Louis Daguerre, a genuine inventor, who also developed the photographic process that bears his name, Daguerreotype. In 1822 he set a London theater proscenium with a series of artistically painted moving sets with diaphanous apertures  that gave spectators views of other slowly moving sets overall giving them the dual illusions of perspective and verisimilitude. It was the 3-D, IMAX of its day. It only took a hundred and thirty-some years for Daguerre’s Diorama to devolve into shoe boxes in the hands of fourth graders.

My classmates were busy gluing World War II army men behind bushes
they had swiped from their brother’s train sets. Girls had doll house furniture, tiny chairs, miniature stoves, even shrunken families mired in mucilage. I spent my time creating a private stratosphere on the back of my oxford’s box. A world of crayon blotches and scribbles raced from one corner to the next like meteors avoiding the pasted down cotton wool that had become the non-phonetic parlance for “cloud” in fourth grade. My crayola frescoed box seemed the perfect backdrop to fly a three story atomic powered scientific lab…except I didn’t have a clear conception of what such a vehicle might look like. Rather than look up a corraborating description, I dutifully crumpled page after page of notebook paper trying to invent a flying lab. Finally surrounded by piles of three ring refusee’, I drafted a detailed pencil cartoon, that had it not been a flying lab, might otherwise have been an extraordinarly accurate rendering of shale. What my drawing skills lacked in sophistication were cruelly magnified by my even more limited facility with scissors. The flying shale became even shalier. I glued it midway  in the box to present the illusion the great ship was cruising just beneath a thunderhead on its way to foil communist scientists.  However, what I had attempted to convey as Tom Swift flying past a cotton cloud,  looked more like the business end of a sheep doing its business.

Do I even need to say it was the night before?

Inspired I started on Tom Jr., whom I felt more familar with from his portrait on the binding. Blonde crew cut, toothy smile, yellow and blue striped tee shirt, blue dungarees folding down into legs that I folded down into gluing tabs (sans shoes) and fixed to the front of the box looking to me remarkably like a dimensionalizied illustration on a cover of the book…like a set from television commercial.

I went to bed with a pleasing exhaustion I would come to know more over time,
the weary slumber of a man who has escaped disaster by his own wits. Nothing in Tom Swift or the fourth grade came anywhere close to that pleasure of having prevailed over my own flawed past…I experienced self confidence, then fell unconscious. 

Does the obvious need explanation?

Do I need to detail the way a whisper transforms into a titter, and a titter, a laugh, a laugh, laughter? My classmates all assumed I had drawn myself , just without myeverpresent  glasses, presiding over two scatological blobs captured in a box of smeared scat.  “Tom Swift and the Flying Lab” , I proceeded with my pathetic report just as Tom would have, confident in the ability of the heroic imagination to invent, to outwit sneering villains, and escape disaster at twice the speed of the sound of snickers.

Shoebox
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The little house

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homes

My mother died last Christmas. I sold my parent’s house in Youngstown, Ohio this July. The process of selling the house entailed several trips back to my hometown. Most of my life there for eighteen or so years seemed to be mixed states of paralysis, acquiescence and rebellion. Time has been extraordinarily cruel to the former Steel Capital of the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys (also Murdertown, USA).  For three shifts a day it was artificially brilliant, genuinely crazy and the food was extraordinary. I still have a few friends there, but for the most part my visits are like wandering through my own fallible memory. As I drive through town I find only the places where things should have been that are now empty lots, or worse. The criminals I knew have been replaced with criminals I recognize, but don’t know. Only the violence doesn’t seem to have diminished. Homicide has always been one of the town’s parochial talents.

Youngstown was where I was born and raised, and where most of my family lived out their lives. It was predictable as the mill whistles, but it didn’t feel much like home. Probably I have the most feeling of familiarity on a tennis court, but that’s just a lifetime of habit, long afternoons and the reliability of painted lines. I’ve lived in quite a few places since I left my hometown, slums, communes, townhouses, apartment complexes, basement rooms, dormitories, sublets, suburbs and the neighborhood I live in now. I’ve traveled around, tried my hand at being a slumlord, been hustled on land contracts, bought and sold vacation properties, actually paid off a couple of mortgages—even returned to visit my Grandfather’s village in Italy.  But home has been elusive. For the last twenty-five years home has been wherever my wife was; the location still doesn’t matter much to me. Home is where I’m responsible for the repairs, or at least waiting around for whomever I’m going to pay to do them.

There always seems to be something nervous and obligatory about my entire concept of home.

 It’s a concept or feeling that seems to be made of unequal amounts of desire, memory and geography…more like Never Never Land than the house in Houston (which has more than a dusting of Peter Pan about it) where I keep my books, nap with the cats and have my bills sent. Kitchens feel most like home to me. Places where I’ve simmered winter soups, cleaned fish, rolled out pastas, or turned out a five or six course meal speak back warmly to me. I genuinely long to cook for people I’m fond of…I embrace all of it from the shopping through to the putting away leftovers. Some of my qualities of home begin there. There’s something about a crowded, slightly frenetic kitchen filled with laughing and shoving that resonates the best of home from childhood and has not abated as I’ve aged. The old expression is ‘hearth and home’. But my hearth also needs a dishwasher, a Kitchenaid mixer, German knives, stainless steel pots, cast iron pans and specialty devices my mother used to shake her head at amusedly.

I never knew anyone who actually had a familyhome. As I grew up no one’s home ownership extended beyond their childhood. Even the wealthiest of my friends could only drive me past where their grandparents used to live. It was Eisenhower’s America, people wanted to get out to the suburbs, away from where they worked, into tract neighborhoods with matching trees and ornamental fences. Unexpectedly housing developments appeared that adapted bits of Victorian culture and mores, like the obligations of appearances and denying any reference to the physical existence of work. Salesmen in polyester ties and short sleeve shirts sold split level dream parlors and promised garden terraces reminiscent of Jane Austen whom they’d never read. Suburban communities aspired to be a constructed existence of manners and denial, where all the stains and embarrassments of the working class were simply willed away.  Much of the tragic current real estate collapse began with those sales pitches—not the convoluted intricacies of subprime derivatives, but the belief that with the right property you could leverage your way out of your own life.

Although the war in Viet Nam and rebellion marked my generation, what defined the people I knew in high school was raw ambition. I didn’t know anyone who was satisfied. Everyone expected to go to college. Everyone would leave home as soon as they could—even if it meant running away, getting married or joining the army. Not because our parents were bad people, most of the parents I knew growing up were kind and worked terribly hard. But they demanded their children do better than they had.  In spite of the variety of languages, customs, religions and ethnicities each family translated that message—and we got it. We weren’t escaping anything as much as going somewhere else. The differences between our collective bus and Ken Kesey’s infamous Electric Kool-Aid International were ours wouldn’t say “Further” it would say “Better”. It would be driven by a realtor instead of Neal Cassady, and the key to expanding our mind would be in the lockbox hung on the back door. There wasn’t much separation anxiety in our generation. I got luggage as my high school graduation gift—and I was glad to use it.

The year I was born there were 186,000 people in Youngstown, the year I graduated high school the population had dropped to 139,000, currently there are 73,000. The cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Albany, all show similar (but not as drastic) declining demographic trends. During that time period while the US gained nearly 120 million more people, many citiesin the East and Midwest appeared to have been evacuated. Not to dismiss the realities of the recessions, changing economy, and psycho-sociological cultural shifts—a great many of us just left home.  We put down payments on seemingly aboriginal suburbs springing up where you could get “more home for your money”, be near beaches, mountains, deserts and drink in the clubhouses of thousands of ubiquitous new golf courses. We went off to college, or moved away for work and couldn’t bear to come back—except to visit.

For a while during this Spring I owned three homes, in three states Texas, New Mexico and Ohio. I lived in a realm of overextended worry, that an unobserved roof leak or random band of drug addicts could lurch me into scenario after scenario where subcontractors continually ask “Sir, could you come here and take a look at this…”.  For those few months I had exceeded even my own wildest dreams of property ownership, and like most wild dreams it turned dsitorted, tricky and wierd. I didn’t sleep through many nights, I ground my teeth and stopped shaving regularly. I gathered caches of hand tools in each house and shambled regularly through the nuances of product location in Home Depots in all three locales.

 The chief signal of my existence was a lamp attached to an automatic timer.

By mechanical illusion I could simultaneously awaken at 5:55 AM in three time zones and later begin switching off lamps between 9:30 and 10:20. I arranged for people to park in driveways, trim trees and in other ways pretend they were me, or my simulacrum living there. I was constantly somewhere else and relaxed nowhere.

Now I’ve sold my mother’s house. When she and my father purchased it in 1964 they could have traded it for 10 brand new Oldsmobiles. The selling price I was happy to accept would hardly purchase a single new car now, even if Oldsmobiles still existed. Where I’ve been living and traveling between, I have  favorite motels, melancholy private routes and some particularly dreaded restaurants on the road. I’ve learned to live within the light of my own illusions. Like hypnogogic Dorothy Gale spinning between the lessons of one world and the next I recite my affirmation.

”There’s no place like home. There’s no place…”

Desert Reformation

July 11, 2009

P1000773

The lives of Georgia O’Keeffe have been one of the Twentieth Century myths that nearly surpass her work as a source of speculative interpretation. Her dramatic relationship with Alfred Stieglitz (among others) flavors our view of her early paintings. Her desert blooming beginning in 1929 leads us in a different direction of interpretation. Currently the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is celebrating the return of “Jimson Weed” from its loan to the Bush White House. “Jimson Weed” is a painting made near the end of her first great outpouring of work reflecting Northern New Mexico. Celebrating both the loan and the return bring a new vision of Georgia O’Keeffe as a de-re-constructed American is still another appellation added to a complex artist who both profited by and denied definition.

 Santa Fe is an old, cantankerous and flexible city, having been a Tewa pueblo, the Spanish capital of the Kingdom of New Mexico, a Mexican territorial city, a US territorial city, a Confederate fortress and currently the State capital of New Mexico.  It’s older than Boston and has enjoyed and endured many more rebellions.  Now it seems to have become an imported re-vision of Southern California—a gorgeous artsy retirement community to contemplate the Zen of well invested power, without many distractions of urban responsibility.  It has all the pretentiousness of a second marriage or an imported suit. I like it a lot. The police are civil, the street people are colorful and not odiferous and nearly everything is so expensive I hardly buy anything but, postcards, books and lunch.  

Indeed it was after lunch that I found a parking citation on my car, “Flipper” with 17 minutes left on the meter. By good fortune a passing Traffic Enforcement patrolman helped me resolve this injustice to everyone’s satisfaction, which brought Carol and me to the O’Keeffe Museum in good mood for a promenade. One of the admirable things about the O’Keeffe Museum is it’s small and relatively expensive. Enormous museums, while an art bargain, are so demanding on my eyes, memory and patience that I seldom visit without either headaches or disorientation.  My $10 admission worked out to roughly twenty-five cents a painting—peep show prices. But I find that admirable—show me anyone paying more attention to an image than a person watching a peep. I’m not prudish—I’d appreciate that level of attention and pleasure for my work.

I spent the largest share of my time in the last gallery studying the newly returned “Jimson Weed”.  First to put it into my private perspective, then wondering what subconsciously attracted the Bushes to request this particular painting for their private dining room in the White House. “edges of verdigris—pale green at the center—sharp edges  away—darkening bloom—edges hint at withering—bloom about to begin rotting—thick fragrance” Those were the notes I cribbed on my admission ticket stub.

The difference between a high quality art print and the original is viewer’s inter-relationship with the color and scale. I studied O’Keeffein books, museums and under the tutelage of a wonderfully affectionate roommate in another decade. Perhaps more than any modern artist other than Frida Khalo, it’s important to share the same air as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Her scale (particularly her flowers) and painterly qualities are lost even in the best reproductions. By chance I saw a show “Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own” on a break from a conference in Canada. This presented the three artists (Emily Carr, a Canadian Modernist nature painter) as contemporaries and developed a visual conversation by proximity. Lovely. In that close gallery context the difficult, seeming redundant struggle of these three artists to establish an independent geography of self in which to operate became apparent to me. Not a where, but a where they were.

Which brings me back to the prodigal “Jimson Weed”.

I can appreciate the desire and opportunity to live with great art, even temporarily. If could borrow art from any American museum I’d do it to0.  But there is the latest version of Georgia O’Keeffe, returned from the White House slightly altered—even more G-Rated, sexually redacted, PTA approved—a painter of the still life of the purity of the Western Myth—an abstractionist of “Little House on the Prairie Chapel”—an image at once appropriate and sincere as the prayers of a reformed Texas land man harvesting the high plains desert—more purified than President Carter’s sister, Ruth Stapleton, who converted Larry Flynt. Things change. After six years of near kitch in the private dining room, Georgia returns to Santa Fe more docent friendly for her term of government service.

Now the brochure blurbs and little museum film point out, “sometimes a flower is just a flower” and remark that there has been too much confusion about sex and Georgia O’Keeffe…perhaps you’ve never really looked at a flower. Defensive and accusatory.  Although feminist criticism made a similar claim, that O’Keefe’s paintings were merely projected with sexual undertones by Patriarchal Freudian art critics like Edmund Wilson and Lewis Mumford. (For a more detailed study I recommend “Georgia O’Keeffe” by Roxana Robinson.)  Now the work has been PoMo Christian sanctified by belief and public policy.  Myopic gardeners and school boards are safe to be in the same parlor with the once scandalous Ms. O’Keeffe—even dress up like her (tastefully).

 But I’ll strop Ockham’s razor and suggest that a person who posed for over 300 nude photographs for Alfred Stieglitz (who was married to another woman at the time), had affairs during her marriage to Stieglitz (who also had numerous affairs), traveled easily in the relatively bohemian art world of both Jazz Age New York City and the Mabel Dodge Luhan salon of Taos may have had at least a subconscious sexual dimension in her art.  Perhaps it’s not as pornographic as Wilson and Mumford inferred, maybe not Freudian patriarchy—but at least Jungian dreamy. And what’s wrong with that? Why does Georgia O’Keefe need to be neutered? Who could think that denying the libidinous drive of her contemporaries like Pablo Picasso or Diego Rivera would improve the value and appreciation of their work? As the thousands of galleries in Santa Fe attest, fine art is a free marketplace—not a museum. Meaning is calculated by what a salesperson can convince the buyer to believe it’s worth, not aesthetic orthodoxy—and that’s still a relatively intimate relationship. And in the end I’ll have to defer to Ms. Bush’s taste, if “Jimson Weed” matched the newly redone wall covering, I hope she enjoyed it.  Pleasure is pleasure.

So now I’m not sure if the celebration is about “Jimson Weed” being in or returning from the White House…I think that ambiguity might have annoyed and amused Georgia O’Keeffe as well—even if she has been child proofed.