Sunday, August 31, 2008

My Own Shadow of the Lost

So I was walking out to my car when I saw it, like some Hiroshima blast shadow of what had been lost. Where my old barbecue grill had been sitting for multiple years unused was a shadow, dark oval remnants of wheels and light gray outlines the barrel and tongue.

For some 20 years I had used this old grill to entertain hundreds with pork shoulder smoked for 24 hours at 200 degrees until it fell apart at the touch. I had used it to train up hundreds of college guys about how one went about cooking pork shoulder to Memphis in May International Barbecue Competition standards. To learn how it was done, I even became a certified MIM Barbecue Judge.

So as boys are want to do, my young friends have grown up become men, developed families, and bought their own competition quality grills which are state of the art, bright shinny, and new minted, all bells and whistles. So my big grill which was built in Mississippi during the 1960's which sits on a Covair chassis--talking about antiques--had been passed by, replaced and left unused. Even so, I used it a good deal over the years to cook for events at our church, but even that wore thin as I grew older.

So I up and sold it last week: hence the shadow on the asphalt. So it goes in our lives. Things are discarded. Pets come and go. People we love leave us, and all we have are the shadows they left behind: their photos preserved in an album in the bottom drawer of the dresser perhaps. Sometimes we have their household gods: antique tables, wonderful old chairs, collectible pictures, old plaster carnival collie the kids played on when they were tykes.

Sometimes I find I have the shadows they had collected too: things from Aunt Mable, Great grandmother Ralston or cousin Earl. The favorite squeak toy of the last furry friend. There are even shadows I have been commanded to treasure, like the huge butter bowl cut from the trunk of a huge old growth tree from upstate New York, or the silver demitasse spoons given to my mother-in-law during her first 12 years on the planet..

My wife and I have a house full of these wonders jettisoned from my parents' home, from her parent's home. Then there are the relics of our 40 year careers teaching classes at the university: a sizeable library of books we have kept and collected over the years, used for teaching, research and just personal edification. We have a row of old CPUs I have not recycled because of all the undeleted financial files in their hard drives. We have tchatzhahs collected from trips here, there, abroad and even from the garage sale next door. There are framed posters, engravings and woodcuts: shadows trailing memories of what we were,where we have been. There are boxes of old vinyl records from the Sixties, tapes from the Seventies and Eighties, DVD's from the Nineties, and even some older records of Caruso and the Big Bands.
Shadows. I seem surrounded by shadows. Everywhere I look there are shadows. There is an antique mall down on Summer Avenue called Bozos I sometimes visit where there are isles and isles of shadows, cleaned up, polished, refinished and offered as "decoratish" [a term art collectors use to denigrate art used merely for decoration, something to match the color of the couch or rug perhaps. Motel art].

Often, as I walk amongst this debris of other lives and homes, I thank God I do not own all that stuff, that someone else owns it, has to shift it about, keep track of it.
Sometimes, though, I suspect we long for shadows: we long to curl up in these shadows, hide from the light, find comfort in the familiar darkness. I suspect they feed some deep need for connectedness and continuity generation to generation.

Sometimes there is a light such as the young require where everything is new and bright. Sometimes some of us have a fear of shadows: we surround ourselves with chrome and glass, bright Swedish rugs and leather, fresh flowers and abstract paintings.

I still cringe when I hear the HTV realtor intone the dreaded words: "It's very dated, isn't it?" It is as if to say "too many shadows around here, let's bring in some light." Sometimes people walk into our library home eying the rare books, prints and antiques and wonder how we can live in such a museum.

My wife and I have come to that age where we are beginning to shed these shadows. To lighten the load so we can move faster, learn to stand in the light before we slide into the ultimate darkness of our pine boxes.

We have given the rare books and prints to our Alma Mater's research library. I am cataloging our trade collection of some 10,000 scholarly books for dispersal to this library, that library or for sale. I have sold my big grill. We are planning a big garage sale. I am told we should learn how to navigate E-Bay.

We need a shadow shovel.

We need to reduce the shade somewhat without seeming to betray those who entrusted their treasures to us.

I had not thought I would miss the old grill so much. For years it was so fragrant of hickory smoke and rendered pork fat soaked ash that it was a pleasure just to walk by it. But it is actively back on the barbecue circuit, smoking and reducing pork shoulders to nurture another family and their circle of friends.

So perhaps that's the secret as we emerge into the light. Perhaps we need to find good homes for our sturdiest shadows and for the more frail shadows like that squeak toy some other container of words to shield them from the light of what is to come.

Gutenberg's End: Brian Dettmer's autopsy of the book

So books lose their worth. is full of used books on sale for 1 penny. Last week I bought a first edition of David Sedaris's book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, for 17 cents. This is a first edition, pristine, beautiful dust jacket. It originally sold for 24.95, now it's worth 17 cents.

Thrift stores all over the city have bales of encyclopedias, old dictionaries and cast off bibles. Romance novels, detective novels, science fiction, nature non fiction, travelogues, biographies, professional handbooks, works of theology, and law books all sit cheek by jowel gathering dust, cast offs from some use me once toss me aside kind of ink and fiber economy.

Even hardback books published just last year are offered for a dollar. Students are losing their ability and desire to read books. Young professors claim that all the world's knowledge is swimming in the air around us in this Wifi enabled environment and refuse to pay for new text books. Aging print addicts moan that the world is changing, that we are losing 500 years of culture.

A world is coming to an end.

A new world is being born.

Wikopedia writes; "Dettmer's early art work incorporated codes and language, such as paintings based on braille, Morse Code, and American Sign Language. He then began to make work by repeatedly pasting newspapers and book pages to canvas and tearing off pieces, leaving behind layered fragments. In 2000, Dettmer began to experiment by gluing and cutting into books."

"Dettmer's current work involves the alteration of preexisting media to transform the physical form and/or to selectively remove and reveal content to create new works of fine art. Dettmer explains: 'Old books, records, tapes, maps, and other media frequently fall into a realm that too much of today’s art occupies. Their intended role has decreased or deceased and they often exist simply as symbols of the ideas they represent rather than true conveyers of content.'"

"When an object's intended function is fleeting, the necessity for a new approach to its form and content arises. A large body of Dettmer's current work is created by altering books. Dettmer seals, then cuts into older dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, science and engineering books, art books, medical guides, history books, atlases, comic books, wallpaper sample books, and others, exposing select images and text to create intricate three-dimensional derivative works that reveal new or alternative interpretations of the books."

"Dettmer never inserts or moves any of the books' contents. An early example of Dettmer's unique altered books is his 2003 work, New International Dictionary which is an original 1947 unabridged dictionary sealed and carved by Dettmer to expose images within the dictionary. In more recent work, Dettmer has augmented his artistic process by folding, bending, or rolling one or more books before sealing and cutting them or, in some instances, sanding them."

Something in me reacts in the way Maplethorpe describes the response we have to Pornography. In the Whitney Museum Catalog of his work (1988) Ingrid Sischy records in her essay, "A Society Artist," his thinking about his sexual pictures. Maplethorpe says: "I would see a young kid walking down 42nd Street and then go into a magazine storefront, which were places I didn't know anything about. I became obsessed with going into them and seeing what was inside these magazines. They were all sealed, which made them even sexier somehow, because you couldn't get at them. A kid gets a certain kind of reaction, which of course once you've been exposed to everything you don't get. I got that feeling in my stomach, it's not a directly sexual one, it's something more potent than that. I thought if I could somehow bring that element into art, if I could somehow retain that feeling, I would be doing something that was uniquely my own".

We are drawn to it, we want to push it away. It is this push-me, pull-me feeling I get when I look at Dettmer's autopsies of books. The dead body of print has been laid out on the artist's slab. His knives and saws have exposed surfaces we had not seen, altering permanently the artifact.

It is like the stories we hear about Ruskin who took scissors to his copies of William Blake's prophetic books to create greeting cards from the pretty pictures, leaving the "obscurant" text on the floor, mutilating treasures we now regret are lost.

How many times do we go into the Print seller's shop and see books reduced to framable art one page at a time? How many times to we go to the antique shop and see vellum sheets from Medieval song books sold one page at a time? I imagine that in the 18th century there would have been pages of the Gutenberg Bible on sale in the print seller's shop, too.

So the book is being reduced, expanded, transformed, made into wall art, into yet another look pretty. Better a meditation on books and their cultural value to us, I suppose, than pulping them and turning them into toilet paper.

Here is a video of a Detimer exhibition which in some odd way feels more like a wake than an art exhibition.

A writing Sample

Recently, I bid on a contract to write a series of articles at 250-350 words on Weddings. My bid seemed reasonable given my experience and credencials, 20 cents a word. I lost the bid as someone bid one cent a word. So then the company came back and offered 1.2 cents a word or $5.00 for a 400 word article. The problem is that after I pay taxes on such a deal, I might as well be working for free.

So on the off chance that there was a possiblity they'd see quality was not something to be achieved at one cent a word, I offered to write something. Here is what I wrote as a sample of what they might expect in the series. This is a work of fiction, a writing sample. No connection to the living or the recently dead is intended or proposed.


Weddings have become the American equivalent of the Kwakiutl potlatch extravaganza where to achieve high status the chief of this Northwest Indian tribe would give away everything he owned in an elaborate ceremony. Nowadays, however, it is not the wedding guests who are the recipients of such largess, it is the florists.

For example, I recently attended a wedding which was a world-class pink rose fantasy. The bride’s nosegay itself was a wonder of nine different pink roses. Bride’s Dream, Baby Blanket and Bill Warrnier were mixedwith Brother Cadfel, Bow Bells and Bridal Pink which were in turn surrounded by a halo of Dainty Bess, Dear One, and Emily.

Down the center isle of the church was a regular Winterthur of rose arbor from which hung masses of only the most fragrant pink roses: Applause, Clair Martin and Colette. At the end of this aromatic fantasy stood a pair of wire columns from which clusters of First Love embraced the couple as they took their vows. And, of course, the Bride’s maids each carried nosegays of Runner-up.

The Bride’s niece, little four-year-old Amanda Rose, strolled down the center of this over-arched aisle scattering tiny handfuls of Wedding Dance, a miniature climber known for its complete lack of thorns. Not to be out-done, the Ushers and Groomsmen each sported a boutonniere of Minnie Pearl from which hung a little white sales tag on which his name was penned.

In the midst of all this pink, one red rose, The Fourth of July, graced the tuxedo of the Bride’s Father. How this red rose got by the pink censor was anyone’s guess. Perhaps as the guy who was paying the bill, he had clout to wear what he chose.

One might imagine such an extravagance of roses would challenge the imagination of any florist, but not this wonder who continued the pink rose theme into the reception hall where the tables were draped in pink satin, chairs were adorned with pink bows and centerpieces contained bursts of Harmony, Kathryn McGredy and Johann Strauss.

Nothing, however, prepared the guests for the center table on which the Wedding Cake sat. There an ice sculpture of cupid contained dozens of Sexy Rexy and the miniature rose, Jenifer, layered within the frosted elegance.

Wedding Guests waltzed in the midst of this rose laden celebration never imagining the prowess of the florist who had commandeered the product of 46 different gardens tended by local rosarians for these nuptials between the president of the Rose Society and his bride who had just won the 2008 Memphis Rose Show Championship.

McCain's Oil Guilt~the Enron Loophole

Well now isn't this special. The Enron Loophole shepherded by Phil Graham has cost us all thousands of dollars, brought us to the brink of bankruptcy, and allowed speculators to steal millions of dollars form us.

Ok now it is time for us to sit up and pay attention to yet another way the friends of The GW Bush Misadministration and John McCain are looting America.

Do not let McCain get away with this. It is time for us to pay attention and start voting our own self interest.

When will we get tired of allowing Republicans to Loot America? Are se so stupid that we can be bamboozled again about who and what is causing this bogus increase in gas costs.

I have just finished reading WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES [Little Brown and Company, 2008] by this Sedaris fellow. What a hoot! I would usually pick up the book as I lumbered off to sleep and before long was in just the wrong state of mind for sleep: uproarious laughter. A new Clemens he's not really, but close. He really is not bitter enough to be Clemens. I think one thing about his style is his out honesty about his life and what happens to him and those he loves. There are limits of course. There is no sex, no politics and no discussion of religion. That is to say nothing that would offend his readers. So come one come all, all ye conservative republicans--who apparently buy books too--as well as liberal democrats--who have less money to buy books these days because of guys like McCain and Graham. and their Enron loophole. I know, I know . . . off topic.


Anyway, I have to order the rest of his books and pronto too. Beginning with this list:

Barrel Fever (1994)
Naked (1997)
Holidays on Ice (1997)
Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004)
Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (editor, 2005)
When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008)
Santaland Diaries & Seasons Greetings: 2 Plays (1998)
The Book of Liz (2002, with Amy Sedaris)
Audio recordings

The David Sedaris Box Set (2002)
Live At Carnegie Hall (2003)
When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008)
But in the mean time as the UPS man prepares to block my door with these boxes, I am comforting myself with his YouTube recordings which are just as much fun, only I wish they were technically more proficient. More than several are pretty static filled. There are the radio recordings I really love. You all need to go listen with me to these wonders at

What a great idea for his kind of droll observations.

The Youtube presentations are amazing. I love the Santa in Holland pieces. This is so Sedarisish, a perfect example of what I love about his writing

Bear with me while I assemble the three parts of this reading.

Here is part three: