Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Alligators Always Dress for Dinner

Virgil and I, we really liftoff at Christmas. Holidays have a way of flexing your party muscles and keeping them in condition. It's the time of the year when you might just be inspired to adopt a baby, design a curriculum, or go sailing in some saltwater bay. But when the time comes to open presents, that's when when we both go a little feral, reverting to a wild state. This end-of-the-year holiday blog has been inspired by a Christmas present I got from my friend Jane.

It's a book with the title "Alligators Always Dress for Dinner: An Alphabet Book of Vintage Photographs" by Linda Donigan and Michael Horowitz, a couple who live with their dog, Benny, in the woods of southern Vermont. Combining the alphabet with an assortment of illustrative vintage photographs seems to open up unlimited, over-the-top possibilities for zaniness--none more so than the "A"-is-for-alligators" photo that appears on the cover.

Virgil immediately zeroes in on the two devilish alligators captured in this surreal diorama. While the alligators exchange knowing glances and play to the crowd, the gentleman in the business suit tries somewhat petulantly to get his bowler hat back from the snatcher. Where could this image possibly have come from?

Turns out, it's "From old friend Harvie and his pair of pet 'gators keeping warm during the winter of 1904--in Florida." The image has been cribbed from an old postcard! It seems that in the early 20th century, vacations became part of the lives of working people for the first time--and Florida was a popular destination. By now, Virgil is so excited, he is untying his moccasins and loosening the ribbons from his braids. "Relax," he tells me, "with maybe a little schnapps and a sandwich. Just stretch out while I tell you another surreal story about a man who can ride a unicycle backwards and slice apples in the air with a samurai sword."

Virgil is referring, I discover, to Ashrita Furman, a 67-year-old man and part-owner of a health-food store in Queens, who is the world's leading practitioner of something known as "Guinnessport"--undertaking challenges designed to get you into the Guinness Book of World Records. Amrita Furman, it seems, has set more world records (367) than anybody else. Unbeknownst to me, Virgil had snuck-read all about him in one of my recent New Yorker's.

So I checked out the profile by Alec Wilkenson for myself, and Virgil is absolutely right, of course--this man's exploits will certainly make you whistle over the creek and pound your bare feet on the cold terrazzo. They might even cause you to go bald overnight.

Last June, Furman climbed the mountain above Machu Picchu on peg stilts; in 2005, he covered a mile stretch of The Great Wall of China on a hop ball; and in 1993, he climbed to the snow line of Mt. Fuji on a pogo stick. Furman has also jumped underwater in the Amazon River on a pogo-stick for three hours and forty minutes--and in each case, he set the world record for fastest and longest. I didn't even know people did this kind of stuff!! Twenty-seven thousand jumping jacks done in six hours and forty-five minutes. Walking thirty-three feet in the world's heaviest shoes, which weighed three hundred and twenty-three pounds. Walking, once, in New York, nearly ninety miles with a milk bottle on his head.

But it was really one of Furman's rivals--a widely known French Guinnessport athlete, Michel Lotito--who got my attention, it being Christmas, and therefore the time for culturally ordained overeating. This man cut into pieces and then consumed eighteen bicycles, fifteen shopping carts, some televisons and chandeliers, two beds, a computer, and a single-engine Cessna. In his lifetime (he died a few years ago), he is thought to have eaten nine-hundred tons of metal. Not to be outdone, Furman once tried eating a tree in Queens, having heard that someone had eaten an eleven-foot birch. Can you top this?

Yes, according to the hosts of a new reality show in the Netherlands known as "Guinea Pigs," in which the two co-hosts agreed to indulge in a little cannibalism. They each had tiny pieces of their flesh surgically removed (one from the belly and one from the backside) and then it was sauteed and served up to be eaten. "It is weird," said one of the men, "to look into the eyes of a friend when you are chewing on his belly." You better believe it!

Maybe we all need to rethink our Christmas menus. I mean, Mama Standish's cranberry relish just doesn't play against a metal breakfast of champions, does it? Eating, it turns out, can be a really dangerous edge, if you happen to find yourself up for it. As for me, I'll stick with relish, but I won't speak for Virgil, who has been known to sometimes relish human flesh.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Wonderbread of Civiliztion

In case you've wondered where I've been these last weeks--MIA from my tiny perch in the library stacks of the vast blogosphere--the truth is I've been doing something as ancient and essential as wrapping Christmas presents, even while avoiding the national nervous breakdown known as presidential politics. (Although I confess to secretly reveling in the moral undoing of that world-class liar, Herman Cain, who I think hoped he would be the last cookie left in the jar. Not--unless, of course, he returns as Newt's running mate for VP, and if that should happen, remember you read it first here, but do not blame me.)

There have, of course, been moments of anxiety interruptus: joy at eating a braised breast of duck with a friend at The Blue Apron; excitement at seeing the new movie "Hugo" in 3D with another friend; and a surprise revisiting of the life and work of Carl Andre via Calvin Tomkins' profile of him in The New Yorker. It's been years since I pondered whether or not Carl Andre pushed his then wife, Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, out of the window of their Spring Street apartment in New York City. The doorman (Tomkins reminds us) heard a woman cry "No, no, no!" just before Mendieta's body slammed down into the street below. At Andre's request, there never was a juried trial, and eventually Andre was acquitted by a judge who claimed there wasn't enough evidence to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Andre had committed a crime.

Reading about this again recently reminded me that I once met Ana Mendieta when I visited Iowa State University to give a lecture many years ago. She was not yet famous. The professor who brought me there to speak was living with Mendieta at the time, and I was invited me to their house for dinner. Mendieta cooked us the most delicious Cuban black bean soup, and then showed me pictures of her seemingly premonitional work--imprints of her own body lying in sand, as if she somehow had intuited her terrible fate.

Seeing Martin Scorsese's film "Hugo" last week has led me intuitively to want to write a few words about my old friend, James Hillman, who sadly died in his home in Connecticut on October 27th. I think he would have loved this movie. It is based on a children's book about an orphaned boy who lives in a train station in Paris in the 1930s, snitching broken toys from the toy maker's repair shop and hot croissants from the bakery. If the movie has any message, though, it has to be this: if something in the world is broken, it behooves us to fix it. That is our human purpose, and what gives life its meaning. But it is the way the movie mixes it all up and becomes a monumental tribute to the human imagination, that reminded me so much of Hillman and his work.

Like Scorsese in "Hugo," Hillman was committed to the human imagination as the primary activity of the psyche and as the motor force of civilization. Hillman dedicated his life to the "anima mundi," to instigating a return of soul to the world. And, as his good friend Thomas Moore observes in his prologue to excerpts from Hillman's collected writings, "The Blue Fire," Hillman sought to re-vision psychology by moving it away from emotional personalism and its focus on individual suffering, towards a larger consideration of the life of external objects, and the suffering in the world and in nature--attending to which he considered the true work of the soul. As in the movie, Hillman's work often studies waterworks, streets, railroads, buildings, show business, ecology, bombs, work, education, and architecture.

Here is a wondrous example from "The Blue Fire" of Hillman's ability to "mix it all up." In this particular riff, he humorously channels Freud and Nietzsche, in an almost comic-strip parody of their ideas that quickly becomes, in Hillman's hands, a send-up of the byzantine ways of civilization itself. You really need to read the entire excerpt, but as I say, Hillman knew better than anybody else how to mix it all up:

"When Nietzsche said "God is dead," he had just been served a slice of wonderbread by his sister, and his mouth crammed with an unswallowable gulp of the stuff, she misheard what he was trying to say. Never imagining that a diseased mind like her brother's could make an intelligent comment about what he was eating, she transcribed his remark on the demise of bread as yet another of his attacks on deity. Poor Nietzsche. He was never understood."

"In the same way, some decided that my book on wonderbread ("The Future of an Illusion") was a deliberate attack on the illusion of salvation in "white Christian civilization."...But these critics, as always with my work, missed the point. I was not out to get salvation. I was only trying to save bread....The illiusion we call bread has no future. Nor does the civilization that comes wrapped with it. As long as the prayer goes forth daily to Mister Muffin Man in the Sky to give us this day our daily bread, our flour mills will go on grinding and bleaching, our loaves knowing neither ferment nor crust, and our sandwiches dwelling forever in the house of gumminess and goo...."

"I offer no recipe for bread...But advice I do have: if you would live s long as I, if you want a future that is not illusion, get a nice loaf of Jewish rye. Enjoy!" [Cookbook, 174-177]

Unmistakably, at this point in time, we are witnessing the end of the age of Wonderbread. If you ask any Wall Street Occupier, we may even be facing the end of that illusion, civilization itself. People are becoming aware that their future has been seriously foreclosed. In the current non-trickle-down economy, everyone would love to find, hidden behind that empty cookie jar, one really nice loaf of Jewish rye. True to the spirit of James Hillman, it would be a gift, not from the Muffin Man in the Sky, but from a sympathizer at the local delicatessen.