Personal Essay

September 2, 2014

Provenance

By Florence Newman

FloChildOne summer when my friend Ellie and I were ten years old, we had a secret hiding place behind the trunk of a big oak tree that bordered Tom’s Creek Road, the street where I’d lived all my life. At the time, the road was a rural lane running out from the Blacksburg town limits into the countryside. On the vine-covered embankment beneath the tree, we had cleared a patch of dirt amid the weeds, an elevated alcove where we could crouch, invisible to passersby. If being the sole possessors of a private hide-away were not enough, we were thrilled that our spot lay only a hundred yards or so down from a small family cemetery and that it was backed by a wrought iron fence surrounding the overgrown gardens of the undoubtedly haunted Victorian house at the corner of Tom’s Creek and Price’s Fork Road.

Bones2As we explored our diminutive domain on hands and knees, Ellie and I soon began finding bones: rib bones, vertebrae, even two or three skulls. They belonged to cats, which had long since shed their fur and flesh. We arranged the bones skeleton-style in rough approximation of cat anatomy and gradually added to our collection: fragile leg bones and tiny crania with pointed snouts that must have been mice, bird wings with bits of tendon and feather still attached, big soup bones sawed off at one end. Like good scientists (we fancied ourselves archeologists), we categorized and curated our discoveries on the dusty ground and conferred seriously, in whispers, about what we would do with them.

(Click images for larger versions.)

The fate of the collection was decided for us, and our secret world shattered, one morning when I awoke to the sound of heavy equipment on the road outside. The street was being widened and bulldozers were already gnawing away at the bank where the oak tree stood. I grabbed as many cardboard boxes as I could carry and ran down to the ruin of turned earth and broken branches, no doubt astonishing the county workers who weren’t expecting a small girl to scramble up and disappear into the bushes they were about to uproot. I threw handfuls of bones into my cardboard boxes, heedless of genus, species, or physiology, and hauled them back to my house. By the end of the day, the huge oak had been felled and chopped into pieces, the embankment had been leveled, and the verge had been cleared for a wider expanse of asphalt and, eventually, an actual cement sidewalk.

Throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, the bones remained in boxes in my basement. I’m not sure why Ellie and I never spread them out for display again. Perhaps the mystique was gone (especially after the old lady in the corner Victorian died and Animal Control came to empty her house and yard of dozens of feral and half-feral cats); perhaps my mother forbade it—although it’s a testimony to her tolerance that she let me keep them as long as she did. Even if I didn’t go through the boxes, however, I couldn’t throw the bones away, because I knew their provenance. Not, of course, the precise location where we had found each of them (we weren’t that good scientists), but their origin in that special place under that particular tree during a specific year of my childhood.

“Provenance” is a term usually associated with works of art or bottles of wine. Establishing the provenance of a painting—the artist, the time and place of production—often enhances its monetary value. For oenophiles, provenance has recently become associated with terroir, the idea that the soil, climate, periods of sun and shade, and other indefinable characteristics of the place the grapes were grown gives a wine its unique essence: the wine made from grapes grown on one side of a hill in Bordeaux tastes slightly different from a wine made from grapes grown on the other side. We don’t necessarily need to know the provenance of a painting or a Pinot Noir in order to appreciate them for the pleasure they bring us. But we also don’t doubt that the origin of a thing matters—or that everything comes from somewhere. Nihil ex nihilo, “nothing comes from nothing,” according to the ancient Greek philosophers (and more memorably, Fraulein Maria in The Sound of Music). Every being on earth, living and non-living, came from some preexisting time, place, and substance. Provenance. Terroir. Whether red blood still throbs in its veins (or ever did), whether it has been reduced to bleached bones (or was always inorganic material), each terrestrial creature emerged on and from the earth.

Celestial bodies like the moon, on the other hand, seem suspended outside of time and place, ungrounded, lacking provenance. So we invent stories to explain where they came from. The Chomoru people of Guam, for instance, believed that the sun and moon came into being when Putan, the first man—who dwelt in the ether of space and happened to be omnipotent—felt he was about to die and instructed his sister, Fu’una, on the disposal of his corpse. When the time came, Fu’una, having inherited her brother’s limitless powers, carried out Putan’s last wishes:

With his body, she made the earth;

With his breast, she made the sky;

With his right eye, she made the sun;

With his left eye, she made the moon;

And with his eyebrows, she made the rainbows.

                                                (roland.web.gu)

Medallion2One Aztec creation myth holds that Coyolxauhqui, daughter of the earth goddess, Coatlique, conspired with her four hundred sisters and brothers to kill her mother, but at the last moment Coatlique gave birth to a fully armed warrior, Huitsopochtli, who saved her from her attackers, then cut off Coyolxauhqui’s head and flung it into the sky, where it became the moon. In another tale from Aztec mythology (there can never be too many), the gods held a council at which it was decided that two of their number should sacrifice themselves in order to resurrect as the sun and the moon. Two towers were constructed, fires were lit at their bases, and the chosen ones, wearing crowns and feathered robes, ascended to the platforms. After four days, they cast themselves into the flames and were consumed. The other gods waited beside the towers for another four days, until the sky filled with a terrifying red glow: the blinding sun appeared on one side of the sky, and the moon, equally bright, appeared on the other. To dim the moon’s brightness, one of the gods seized a rabbit and threw it onto the face of the moon, etching its shadow on the luminous sphere.

Modern astronomers and physicists tell their own stories: the moon was blasted from the Earth by the impact of a giant protoplanet; long before that, stars and galaxies were formed when atoms of hydrogen, helium, and lithium coalesced under the force of gravity; some 14 billion years ago, a single point contained all the matter in the universe, until a sudden, violent expansion—the Big Bang—sent primordial bits and pieces spinning into the void.

We have no stories for non-being, for what existed prior to the Beginning: we literally cannot imagine it. In our minds, one body inevitably begets another. Nihil ex nihilo. To everything its provenance. Scientific American recently reported that one of Saturn’s rings has apparently spawned a “moonlet,” as particles on the ring’s outer edge, drawn together by gravitational pull, have congealed into the seed-pearl of a future moon. The moonlet may grow large enough to migrate out of the ring and become a separate satellite of Saturn. Or it may be pulverized by asteroids plowing their oblivious course through the cosmos. Or it may disintegrate on its own into ice crystals that drift slowly apart, like disembodied vertebrae relinquishing their bonds.

Copyright © 2014, Florence Newman

FloHdshot2Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years.  A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers.  She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden.  She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.

Doodlemeister is looking for first-person observations up to 1,500 words on any subject for this series. If need be, we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story about something interesting you experienced, or simply thought about, please contact us by e-mail at jimscartoons@aol.com


Cat Nip

March 27, 2013

Zen photography thought for the day: Inside the vertical there may be a better horizontal. When it comes to photographic composition, I prefer the “arty” method — that is, I carefully arrange the image in the view finder of the camera before the shutter is tripped, then exhibit the result full-frame. But I’m no stickler. I know that sometimes a well planned composition is simply not possible, and a crop or two may save the day.

My idea of a good photograph is one that elicits an emotion in the viewer, either positive or negative. The crop above was selected with the idea of pure “joy” in mind; and to intensify that feeling I “zoomed” in on the original (see below) to eliminate unnecessary details and emphasize the dynamic lateral movement2 of the woman’s head out of the top left side of the frame. Whenever possible I like to have important elements “bleed” off the edges, which adds to the drama.The extreme crop keeps the eye of the viewer where it needs to be, focused on the expressions of both the young lady and the cat; it prevents the eye from wandering up or down, right or left, forces it to remain close on the interesting blur of the woman’s head and the sharper head and body of the animal.

The original image was one of those “just shoot and hope for the best” deals that happen so fast you’re happy if you get anything at all. With animals and kids you can forget about careful composition or re-staging an action, so the crop becomes a useful salvage tool. This image makes me smile each time I see it — and the way I decided to crop it, I think, enhances the playful feeling. The idea is simple: Make it easier for the viewer to share the joy that I felt the first time I saw the image come to life in the developing fluid.

This is an edited re-post from 7/23/08

Copyright © 2013 Jim Sizemore.

Today’s Gag

April 2, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

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Chast On Steig

September 14, 2011

As it happens, two of my favorite cartoonist’s are Roz Chast and William Steig. Here we find them together for — as far as I know — the first time. (And what a team!) I lifted this piece from the “Drawn!,” website (to which you can link from the sidebar on this blog). “Drawn!,”  in turn, picked up the item from The Paris Review blog, where it originally appeared on September 1, 2011. (You’ll find a link to Paris Review by tapping Ms. Chast’s name, below.) If you love these two artists, you’ll enjoy — and learn a bunch of interesting stuff —  from this short essay.

Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies & Clowns

September 1, 2011 | by Roz Chast

I first noticed William Steig’s covers and cartoons around 1970, when I was a teenager and would page through my parents’ New Yorker magazines. His drawings didn’t look like the rest of the cartoons in the magazine. They didn’t have gag lines. There were no boardrooms, no cocktail parties with people saying witty things to one another. His men and women looked as if they were out of the Past, although I wasn’t completely clear as to what era of the Past they were from. Sometimes the drawings made me laugh, and sometimes they didn’t, but I always wanted to look at them. I had a sense that these cartoons were made by someone who had had to create his own language, both visual and verbal, with which to express his view of the world.

His subjects? Animals, both real and imaginary. Also cowboys, farmers, knights on horseback, damsels in distress, gigantic ladies and teeny-tiny men, grandmas, clowns of indeterminate gender, average joes, families, old couples, young couples, artists, deep thinkers, fools, loners, lovers, and hoboes, among other things.

Blue Moon

Steig’s drawings seem to flow effortlessly from his mind to his pen and onto the paper. I doubt he ever looked at a blank sheet and thought, “I have nothing worthwhile to say today,” or “I can’t draw a car as well as Joe Shmoe, so why don’t I crawl back into bed and wait for the day to be over.” Steig gave himself permission to be playful and experimental. One of the many wonderful things about looking at his drawings is their message, especially to his fellow artists: Draw what you love and what interests you. Draw it how you want to draw it. When we are children we do this instinctively. But somewhere in our passage from childhood to adulthood, the ability to be truly and fearlessly creative is often lost. To quote Pablo Picasso, Steig’s favorite artist, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered

William Steig produced more than fifty books, from early collections like Small Fry (1944) to children’s books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and Shrek! (1990), which he wrote and illustrated late in his career. Unlike many artists who find a style early in their lives and then spend the rest of their careers perfecting it, Steig changed his style over the years. His work from the forties and fifties is fairly conventional. In the drawings of his middle years, his style is more angular and geometric. And in his last decades, his line becomes very fluid and playful, and there is an explosion of color, especially in his children’s books.

Steig, who was a follower of Wilhelm Reich, was deeply interested in psychology. Much of his work looks at society from an outsider’s point of view, observing with humor and compassion the compromises we make when we grow up and try to conform to society’s expectations. His earliest collection (and one of my favorites) was About People (1939). Each page contains a drawing representing a different emotional state, with a caption written underneath in his handwriting. Some combinations of drawing and title are fairly obvious, like the man sitting in a chair calmly smoking a cigarette. Behind the chair is a huge octopus with four tentacles wrapped around the man. The caption is simply “Poise.” But some of the drawings are not of people at all. One contains a roughly drawn spiral, and in the center of the spiral is a black blot with a tiny white dot in the middle. The caption is: “Father’s Angry Eye.”

Self-Contempt

These are not your typical cartoons, and especially not typical of cartooning at the time. They’re offbeat. They’re also about something otherwise intangible: actual emotions.

Hostess

Steig’s interest in psychology continued with Persistent Faces (1945), which explores a variety of visual types, like the “Hostess,” who has alarmingly twinkly eyes and teeth, and a worried man’s face, captioned “Straw in the Wind.” The Agony in the Kindergarten (1950), which he dedicated to Reich, is filled with drawings of children and accompanying statements like “I need that kid like I need a hole in the head,” and “Stop asking so many questions.” Perhaps Steig’s most famous cartoon of this period is “Mother loved me but she died,” from The Lonely Ones (1942). These demonstrate Steig’s ear for language, and also demonstrate his ability to look at life through a child’s eyes.

Just a Dream

Steig was an exceptionally gifted colorist, and he used color in a luminous, instinctive, and expressive way. Even when the goings-on are terrifying, as they often are in Rotten Island (1984)—my favorite of all of his children’s books—they’re never depressing. His dark colors are about a gleeful darkness, the darkness children feel when they know their most trusted adult is going to tell them a spooky story. The color isn’t over-fussed or second-guessed or muddified.

Steig loved pattern. Rugs, sofas, chairs, wallpaper, ladies’ dresses, and men’s shirts were all miniature canvases where he could make up designs—diamonds or flowers or spirals or something that looks like an upside-down banana peel. Even a sky could be patterned with lines or brick-like shapes or decorative cloud puffs.

Carnival

In the preface to his collection Dreams of Glory (1953), Steig writes, “We can laugh at the pretense and pose and foolishness of an irrational ideology and at the same time feel the pity and love—for a living being—that should be ingredients of all humor.” Sometimes I think of the Cartoon World as a big house with a Magazine Panel Cartoon Wing, a Newspaper Daily Strip Wing, a Graphic Novel Wing, an Underground Comics wing, a Superhero Comics wing, an Animation wing, and lots of other wings I don’t know about yet. Steig’s drawings throw open a bunch of windows and let in some fresh air, for which I am deeply grateful. He saw the world of human beings as absurd, hilarious, terrifying, mystifying, and infinitely worth observing.

Roz Chast’s cartoons have been published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Scientific American, and Mother Jones. Her next book is What I Hate: From A to Z. A longer version of this essay will appear in Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies, & Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig.


Today’s Gag

May 16, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

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Today’s Gag

April 18, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

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The Ice Man

November 23, 2009

A Brief Memoir
By Jake Jakubuwski

Today it is hard to imagine horses on the streets of Baltimore, but when I was a kid they were so common that no one took any real notice. It was not unusual to hear a horse plodding up our alley with its harness bells tinkling, and the steel banded wagon wheels making a metallic racket all their own on the Belgian block pavement stones. Most often, the fellow driving the wagon was the “Junk Man,” looking for old newspapers, magazines, scrap metal, used clothes — anything that he could turn into cash. Also, of course, there were the “Arabbers” — hucksters that sold produce from their colorful (bright reds, yellows and blues) horse-drawn wagons. Like many kids in Baltimore, I used to work for the Arabbers. The pay wasn’t the greatest, but it was usually enough for a movie and a candy bar, and, perhaps, a Coke.

When we were living on Light Street, in South Baltimore, even the ice man delivered his ice from a horse-drawn wagon. Ice man? Yeah, ice man. In the late 1940s there were still lots of folks that didn’t have electric “Frigidaires,” but they did have thick-walled ice boxes, and the ice in them needed to be replaced on a regular basis. The ice man would come every other day or so, driving his wagon loaded with huge blocks of crystal-clear frozen water, a heavy canvas tarpaulin thrown over it to slow the melt. And you could hear him coming because, besides the clangor of his wagon wheels, he had his own chant to alert his customers. Slowly moving down the street or up the alley (with a dozen kids following behind, trying to snatch a piece of ice out of the wagon’s bed, the shards being viewed by them as a cool summer treat) he’d yell: “EyeEESE-mannnnnn! EyeEESE-mannnnnn!”

Many residents had signs with changeable numbers on them in their front window, so the ice man could tell how much the customer wanted. If you needed ice and didn’t have a sign, you could just holler and tell him how much. A dime’s worth? A quarter’s worth? Or, maybe a fifty cent block, if you thought that would be enough to make it through the weekend. The ice man would stop his wagon (shooing the kids away from the back ) and begin using an icepick to hack at one of the larger blocks to give the customer whatever amount they were willing to pay for — 25, 50, 75, even 100 pounds. After chopping the larger block to the proper size, the ice man, or his helper, would grab it with a large pair of black tongs and, using a burlap bag on his shoulder to help protect him form the cold, he’d leverage it onto his shoulder and carry it into the house and put it in the icebox.

During the winter months, we didn’t need to buy ice because our family had a window box. That was a box with a wire bottom to allow for drainage that hung outside of a window on the shady side of the house, in which we stored our eggs, butter, milk and other perishables. The window closed down on the top of the box and had a door in the front so you could easily get to the stored items. Folks that didn’t have a window box often had an open back porch where they would keep perishables in a crate, or other container. On top of the container would be a piece of wood with a brick or stone or piece of scrap iron holding the “lid” down so that stray cats and dogs — and any other free-roaming urban creatures — could not get at the goodies.

Our ice man came around even in the winter, too, with the difference being that he now delivered coal. If you had a coal stove or furnace, as we did, he’d back up to the basement window (or coal chute if you had one) and shovel the coal into the coal bin. Then, suddenly it seemed, when I was about eight or so, the ice man showed up driving a truck — the end of an era! The ice/coal truck had a large wooden body, and when delivering coal in the winter it backed up to the coal chute, the man raised the bed of the truck with a crank and the black lumps of energy ran out of the truck like a noisy, dusty river.

It was only a couple of summers until we had a Frigidaire and didn’t need the ice anymore. I guess a lot of folks in the neighborhood bought Frigidaires as well, because I have no memory of the ice man making his rounds after that.

Copyright © 2009 Jake Jakubuwski.

Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label. (And to read about Jake’s adventures as an “Arabber’s” assistant, see a short piece on the subject posted September 14, 2009 on this blog.)