Category Archives: Oddments

The Kindness of Strangers

Every large city has parks or plazas where people in difficulty congregate. Some go there to commiserate with others who feel down and out; others go there looking for escapes from their pain. Drug deals clearly take place in these parks; it’s not unusual to find drug paraphernalia scattered around in some of them. Of course, not everyone who frequents such parks goes to them to break the law; people who gather there are looking for different ways to feel connected with others, to pass the time, to lessen their boredom or frustration or pain.

I rarely see women in these parks. It is easy to imagine that the men who spend their time there often feel disenfranchised and powerless, so when they gather in parks or plazas they often posture in front of others, commenting on the women who pass through their midst, calling out to females in the cars that drive past and generally making us feel, if not unsafe, then at the very least uncomfortable. There is a noticeably macho atmosphere in such places, so showing respect to women is less common there than are displays of sexual attention and bravado.

In Seattle, there are several downtown parks like this where a woman walking alone during daylight hours might feel uncomfortable. When I walk past them I don’t feel endangered, just conspicuous. When women walk by, all eyes turn to us. The men there make comments when I walk by, just as they do to most women who pass within a half block.

Last weekend I was in the part of the city that gave the world the term “skid row”—what is now Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle was originally a “skid road,” a path along which timber workers skidded logs in the 19th century. This part of town boasts many attractive Victorian buildings converted into art galleries; it also has many bars and missions that serve the large numbers of homeless and poor people in the area. While I was in a Pioneer Square building, I became flooded with difficult memories. I was so overcome that I needed to walk outside to avoid drawing attention as my face crumpled and tears began to well up in my eyes. There was no nearby alley to duck into, no public restroom, no bench to sit on or doorway to enter that wouldn’t expose me to strangers who would notice my distress. But there was a park a half-block away, and I walked toward it in hopes of finding an open bench where I could sit for a few minutes until I regained my composure.

This park is an open plaza without much in the way of benches since public seating tends to encourage homeless people to look for a place to sleep, and city governments tend to discourage such behavior. The only place I could find to rest that wasn’t taken was a large flowerpot with a rim big enough to lean against. I saw that there were clusters of men in the plaza but I assumed that if they saw me with my head down they wouldn’t bother to speak to me. I was wrong. One tried to make conversation with me from a distance but I didn’t look up from my handkerchief. He sounded slightly offended when I didn’t respond, as if he thought I’d entered his territory and then hadn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge him. He came closer and made another comment, this one about my looks. It was not unkind but not what I wanted. I realized that I’d entered his turf and I was the odd one out in that situation, and that if I didn’t respond in some way I might attract more attention or hear negative comments about what might be seen as my arrogance or contempt. So I wiped my eyes and looked up.

I said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble today.” With that, he and another young man walked up to me and immediately said how sorry they were, and how they hated to see me crying. One walked close to me, and as he spoke I saw that he was missing his two front teeth. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old; the other, taller man was about the same age. The toothless man said to me that he wished he could cry, but that he couldn’t anymore; he had clearly seen so much pain that he felt all cried out. I wiped my eyes and told him I was so sorry that he was hurting. He thanked me and nodded. I said, “There must be a lot of pain in this park, huh?” And he and his friend nodded and said, “Oh yeah, a lot of pain.” Then he said that I needed to know that things were going to be getting better, and that there were people who were going to be there for me, and he spread his arms wide, swooped in and gave me a big hug. I told him I wished things would get better for him soon and that I hoped he’d find comfort. Then he smiled and walked away, and his tall friend came closer. He said that he could see that I just needed to have faith, and that he could tell that things would be better for me soon, and he blessed me. I said “Thank you, sir, for your help. Bless you, too.” He said he was glad he could be there for me, and he wished me well as I walked away.

I keep thinking about those exchanges, and how for those moments in time, our ages, our races, our genders, our economic circumstances made no difference to us. These young men saw me hurting and came to comfort me. I acknowledged that their attention was kind, and they gave me respect and courtesy. They treated me not like an outsider who didn’t belong but as a human being who deserved dignity and help. In many places in this country they would be reviled and assumed to be thugs or criminals because of their appearance, but the men I spoke with were gracious and gentle. They’d seen trouble and understood sadness, and they didn’t judge me or assume that my difference in personal circumstances made me undeserving of sympathy. Our exchange was all about honoring the humanity and dignity in each other, recognizing that we have no right to judge what causes others pain, and that we can all do something to help others to bear their burdens. I felt a little embarrassed showing pain in their presence because it’s not hard to imagine that the circumstances of their lives have brought them more suffering and frustrations than I am ever likely to know. But not for one moment did I feel that they judged me unworthy of their compassion, nor did they ever show the slightest bit of disdain or outwardly assume that my troubles were less pressing than theirs.

These young men showed empathy in its purest form. They didn’t ask why I was sad; the reason didn’t matter. They didn’t need to figure out whether I was worthy based on my situation. To them I was worthy of help simply because I was a human being. They gave me, a total stranger, the most beautiful gifts they could: honor and compassion. Merely acknowledging the people around me in a public park elicited such kindness from them. I’m grateful that they were there for me and that they reminded me that my troubles were temporary, and that there are good people all around us.

At the end of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois descends into madness, and as she is being led away to the insane asylum, she famously, pitifully says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Don’t we all?

Even those of us in penthouse suites or gated communities, ivory towers or walnut-paneled boardrooms depend on the social compact to keep strangers from breaking down our doors or threatening us on the street. To stay safe, warm, well-fed and employed and to get around and go where we must we depend on strangers not only to avoid harming us but to go out of their ways to help us do what we need to do. We worry about violence and tut over stories of criminal behavior that we hear on the news, but for most of us, being a victim of crime is an uncommon occurrence. We are sheltered, we are lucky, we are, most of us, trying hard not to hurt others or be hurt ourselves. We all depend upon the kindness of strangers. We just don’t realize how much effort is made by others every day to make room for us in a world that is more theirs than ours. We are each only one of seven billion, after all, and nearly all the others in this world have less invested in our health and happiness than we do. Yet, we we live alongside each other and make way for the needs of strangers every day.

This weekend two kind strangers proved how much invisible goodwill surrounds me. I was humbled by their kindness, but also elevated—by looking up into their faces I became part of something greater than myself. I felt disconnected and hollow when I walked into their park; they reminded me that even on Skid Row, one can find connection, beauty and mercy.

The Odd and Intriguing St. Vincent

Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping?
If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me
What’s the point of doing anything?
What’s the point of even sleeping?

—from “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent

Annie Clark, who goes by the stage name St. Vincent, is an art rock musician who, like her sometime collaborator David Byrne, former front man of Talking Heads, is strange but appealing, disconcerting yet compelling. Clark is known for lacing her lyrics with multiple meanings. She says, “I like when things come out of nowhere and blindside you a little bit. I think any person who gets panic attacks or has an anxiety disorder can understand how things can all of a sudden turn very quickly. I think I’m sublimating that into the music.”

Clark grew up in Texas and still maintains a home there as well as in New York City. As a teen she was a roadie, then the tour manager and finally the opening act for her uncle, jazz guitarist Tuck Andress, and his wife, jazz singer Patti Cathcart, whom those in the Bay Area know as the popular duo Tuck and Patti. Clark’s stage name comes from the Nick Cave song, “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” which refers to the hospital in which poet Dylan Thomas died, and it’s also a nod to her great-grandmother, whose middle name was St. Vincent. She occasionally appears on the television show “Portlandia,” and her music has often been compared to that of British art-music stars Kate Bush and David Bowie.

In an interview in The Quietus, St. Vincent explained the thoughts behind “Digital Witness,” saying “Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behavior. We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll, which is going to show itself more and more as we progress. In some cases, we have this total connectivity via the internet but if we are not careful it can actually disconnect us more than we know. I’m curious as to what that is going to lead to.”

Let Us Be Tender, Too

Sunrise-Detail2

“Sunrise” (detail) by Laura Grey

You never know what’s truly going on in the hearts of the people around you, or how much trouble or sadness they may be carrying. They may smile or joke, they may look happy or appear productive, but we all carry our burdens around with us, and some of these are much heavier than they appear. We may be private or shy or feel unsafe letting the world see how fragile, hopeless or sad we feel. Life can play horrible tricks on us, and our lives can be turned upside-down in a heartbeat, yet often we walk on, trying not to let others see the extent of our wounds. So let us be gentle with each other and ourselves. Let us give each other the benefit of the doubt. Assume that others’ lives are tougher than we know, and try not to judge others too harshly when they respond to us with more upset and sadness than seems reasonable. Life is unreasonable; hearts get broken; people are tender. Let us be tender, too.

Maybelle’s Copper Fixation

Maybelle's copper fixation

Maybelle hovered over her dishwasher, pleased that she’d coordinated her dress and apron so successfully with her assortment of Fiestaware. Of course the dishes were already clean when she’d arranged them in the appliance, but she so loved the constantly-changing array of cheerful colors that she enjoyed moving them from cupboard to washer to table multiple times throughout each day. And now that the colors were staggered just so and each plate was nestled against its neighbor for a morning nap, she had time to indulge in her special pastime: caressing her copperware! How it gleamed in her hands, reflecting her inner glow and bringing a satisfied blush to her cheeks. This was the life she’d always imagined. In her kitchen filled with metal cabinets, red Formica counters and fruit-themed wallpaper, all she needed to do was don her favorite hostess apron and lifelong happiness was guaranteed. Wasn’t it?

Print ad image circa 1955.

Reading Between the Lines—An Imaginary Romance Novel Excerpt

Bert & Myrtle

Bert and Myrtle caught each other’s eyes as they absentmindedly ran their fingers over the wares at the beach resort gift shop. Bert fell into a reverie as he imagined a private walk on the beach with the statuesque redhead in the jaunty giant-potato-chip hat. A connoisseur of oversized headgear, Bert longed to present the alluring stranger with the stunning conical striped straw hat currently enjoying her favors—nothing piqued his interest more than a carrot-top in a clown cap. Of course, Myrtle thrilled to the sight of a man in a spotted goldenrod shirt, and the hint of matching tortoiseshell hornrim spectacles in his breast pocket made her light-headed. She found herself terribly distracted by the way he clutched the blue wooden toy to the front of his elastic-waisted plaid shorts, and she wondered dreamily how a toy effigy of Paul Bunyan’s sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox, had ended up on a Mexican beach? So intrigued was she that Myrtle had to steady her trembling hand against her elongated torso, hoping the straw handbag resting against her slim hip set off her figure to good effect. But just then Gunther entered the shop behind her—would he spoil all the fun?

Image by Philip Dormont, late 1950s.

Low-Key Lustre, Elegant Beyond Price: Women’s Magazines of the Sixties

Beauty Shop

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I recently purchased a great selection of vintage magazines dated from 1960 to 1971 and I’ve been enjoying stepping into the past each time I sit down to read them. My latest vintage magazine adventure has been with the June 1966 issue of McCall’s, the long-running popular women’s magazine. It’s been fun to compare it to the Good Housekeeping magazine from 1960 I wrote about a few weeks ago. In just that six-year span, the advertising copy grew much more florid, less concerned with keeping a perfect household and more concerned with personal sex appeal. I don’t know if it was the popularization of the birth control pill in the early 1960s that caused the subsequent cultural obsession with sexiness that sprouted in the 1960s and 1970s (as many social historians suggest), but the move from wanting a sparkling oven and a perfect meatloaf for one’s husband and children to the quest for bouncier hair, more luxurious nails and more kissable lips for an unnamed man is quite pronounced.

I love the over-the-top ad copy: “Suddenly everyone’s all eyes (and sighs!) over [Max Factor] Shadow Creme. The new glowy-eyed eye shadow that slips on like a dream, because it’s cream!” Adjectives morph into ad-copy-ready verbs to try to add youth and vigor to a phrase: with dreamy creamy eye shadow one can “sleek on a shy narrow line of color.” Or how about the nail polish which will apparently change your life with its heart-stopping, eye-catching beauty? You don’t just brush it on, you slither it on. Not slather, slither: one must apply it sexily, with the thrilling undulations of a snake. Yes, with Revlon Crystalline Nail Enamel, “Even before you slither it on, you’ll see the big difference. . . . On your nails it glows with a soft, low-key lustre. A quiet kind of chic. You’ll be smitten with the deep, velvety quality of it. The plushness. The cover. The delicate—but definite—color. Elegant beyond price.” I’m practically having palpitations just thinking of it.

Not getting enough action, you brown-haired beauties? The problem is with your makeup: you need Clairol Flicker Stick. “This is only for the brunettes who rather enjoy having their hair mussed occasionally. The very first lip gloss for Brunettes Only. Give your lips a lick of something new.” That’s wildly suggestive compared to the ads of 1960 and before. Another rather bold ad features a photo of a man in a business suit with his head and one hand both cropped away and his other hand holding a telephone. The focus of the photo is the man’s crotch, which is shown splay-legged sitting on an office chair. The headline? “If your husband doesn’t lift anything heavier than a telephone, why does he need Jockey support?”

The ad goes on to say that “During a normal day, a man makes a thousand moves that can put sudden strain on areas that require male support. Climbing stairs. Running to catch a bus. Bending. Reaching. Simple things, yet they are the very reasons why every man needs the support and protection that only Jockey brand briefs are designed to provide.” Otherwise, what, he might get a wedgie? Or lose his ability to sire a child because he ran up the stairs too fast? They seem to imply that his very manhood is in peril should he wear the wrong underpants.

The fashion emphasis by 1966 is on younger, fresher, livelier styles. The concern isn’t so much about using the latest and greatest (and shortly-thereafter-to-be-determined dangerous) drugs, pesticides and cleaning agents around the house in an effort to be more chemically controlled and germ-free, as had been so popular in 1960. By 1966 there was more of a desire to spend money and time on disposable products that made living more convenient and fun. The hedonism index rises dramatically during the 1960s, and there’s more of a desire to consume new, specialized products and live for today without concern for the cost or waste involved. There’s definitely a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of jonesing for the latest, hippest disposable new thing.

For example, paper napkins and towels and coordinating tissues and became popular, and having one’s scented, dyed toilet paper match one’s scented, dyed facial tissues was a must. Ads offered bright, bold bath towels with garish flower power colors and patterns, then showed coordinating Lady Scott bathroom and facial tissue with colored flowers printed onto the paper in Bluebell Blue, Camellia Pink, Fern Green and Antique Gold. It’s a “color explosion in towels and napkins.” “Pop! go the colors of Scotkins—newly pepped-up to bring zing to table settings” and “gay bordered towels.” Don’t forget to “Scheme your tables with the vibrant new designs in the first cushioned paper placemats by Scott.” Scheme your tables?

Best of all, “Color explosion flashes into fashion with the paper dress!” For $1 plus a 25 cent handling fee you could buy a paper shift dress in a red and white bandana print or a black and white op-art geometric design. Original “Paper-Caper” dresses, still folded in their original envelopes, are now quite collectible; one of the bandana print was recently available on eBay for $25; another auction house is asking $150 for the op-art version. “Dashingly different at dances or perfectly packaged at picnics. Won’t last forever . . . who cares! Wear it for kicks—then give it the air.” Campbell’s soup cashed in on the disposable dress craze while demonstrating their pop art cred: they sold their own Andy Warhol-inspired paper “Souper Dress” printed with images of Campbell’s soup cans. Each sold for $1 plus two Campbell’s Soup labels in the sixties. Want one now? Ebay recently listed one with a starting price of $749; it sold for $1,125. Missed out on that one? Don’t worry; another has been listed for sale for $2,000.

Paper dresses were available in very simple styles, which were much like most fabric dresses of the day. Most women did at least some home sewing in an effort to economize, and almost all girls were taught to sew and cook in school, so essential were those skills deemed for females of the day. Many dresses were shapeless, boxy shifts, easy for any home sewer to whip up with a pattern bought at the nearest department store. My mother, an accomplished seamstress and knitter, never stopped with simple shifts; she made me wonderful pintucked blouses, perfectly tailored little coats, intricately cable-knitted sweaters and lovely dresses. We spent many happy hours in all the department stores’ sewing sections from as far back as I can remember. We visited the fabric departments of five-and-dimes like TG&Y (which was affectionately nicknamed “Toys, Garbage and Yardage”), popular stores like Mervyn’s and Penney’s, and slightly tonier establishments like the Bay Area’s Emporium-Capwell stores. Every good department store had a fabric section with a wide variety of materials, notions and patterns. Nowadays it’s hard to find fabric stores that aren’t superstore fabric-and-craft chains, and sewing is a niche market attended to by specialty stores only.

I don’t mean to get too personal, but do you remember spray deodorant? Wet and smelly, it got all over everything, spewed fluorocarbons into the air and ended up wasting a lot of product due to overspray, but it was oh, so popular in the sixties and seventies. But how do you market something like that to women? Like this: “Slim, trim, utterly feminine, hardly bitter than your hand . . . new cosmetic RIGHT GUARD in the compact container created just for you.” “Elegant . . . easy to hold, Right Guard is always the perfect personal deodorant because nothing touches you but the spray itself.” What a prissy little product, huh? And for those not-so-fresh moments that can’t be discussed in polite company, there was Quest, “a deodorant only for women.” It was a powder that “makes girdles easier to slip into,” among other things.

Having a separate female version of a product with prettier packaging was very popular: all sorts of spray cans and discreet boxes featured what looked like miniature wallpaper designs, floral themes and delicately drawn feminine profiles of wispy women who appeared unaware that they were being watched while they sniffed daisies (which are rather stinky flowers, actually).

I wish I could still send a quarter to Kotex for the fact-packed booklet titled “Tampons for Moderns.” One can only imagine the bouncy, well-groomed young women in the line drawings that must have illustrated the booklet, which I see in my mind’s eye as having a turquoise cover bearing a confident-looking brunette wearing a fresh white dress. (Such products are often advertised by women in white to emphasize their fresh, clean, pure quality and the idea that you won’t be the unclean mess you’ve been made to think you are if you’ll just use their products.) The booklet must have read a lot like the brochures and booklets I got at school during the seventies, full of “gee, it’s great to be a woman!” ad copy that played up the ease with which one could stay well-groomed, pretty and presentable even when afflicted by the horror of the condition that could barely be hinted at but which every female experienced. A “really, it’s not so bad!” tone lay behind every phrase and the subtle instructional nature of each conversational paragraph was supposed to allay concerns. I think it actually emphasized the unmentionable quality of the subject matter: this stuff is so important and secret, the text implied, you need official instruction books to deal with what every woman from time immemorial has gone through—but we still can’t address any of it head-on.

Before reading this magazine I’d forgotten just how popular hairpieces were in the sixties. They were quite common accessories and supplemented many women’s wardrobes, often with rather ridiculous results. Remember, many women still went to the hairdresser for weekly perms, blow-outs, cuts and curls and slept with their hair in hard plastic or itchy metal-and-nylon brush curlers or pincurls every night, spraying their coifs afresh with new coats of sticky Aqua Net hairspray each morning and avoiding washing their hair for as long as possible between beauty parlor visits. Adding fluffy, braided, curly, straight or poufy switches, falls or wiglets (don’t you love that word?) to the mix wasn’t a big stretch. Long hairpieces, braided or twisted, or fluffy poufs added onto the top or back of a hairdo weren’t uncommon; teasing hair up into domes, small head hillocks or B-52-large beehive cones was a regular thing. I remember women with hair that rose a good four to six inches above their heads and never moved, no matter what the weather did. Women only entered swimming pools without bathing caps in movies; public pools wouldn’t allow a woman or girl to swim unless a rubber cap, often covered in ridiculous colored rubber “petals” that came off and floated in the water, completely covered her head.

Of course, a women’s magazine couldn’t be simply about making oneself prettier for one’s man. A good housewife also had to feed him (using lots of prepared food products) and heat or chill the leftovers in appliances that came in sexy new colors and promised easy-care features. The Admiral Duplex Freezer/Refrigerator ad features eight—count ’em! eight!—exclamation points on one page, so you know it must have been a sensational product. With this fabulous appliance’s automatic ice maker, there’s “no filling, no slopping, no mess.”

But what to feed a hungry man on a hot summer night when you don’t have time to whip up a big batch of sloppy joes with Shilling’s or Lawry’s sloppy joe mix? Meat-laden salads! When housewives of the sixties grew tired of the same old coleslaw, Best Foods Mayonnaise had the answer: hollow out a cabbage, scallop the edges of the emptied cabbage head (with kitchen shears, apparently) and pack it to the brim with coleslaw into which you’ve mixed canned tuna. Or maybe you’d prefer to dollop cottage cheese, celery seeds, shredded carrots and green peppers into your coleslaw? Cottage cheese was plopped on everything in the sixties and seventies, as I remember. The iconic healthy breakfast depicted on TV shows or in ads always included a half-grapefruit with a mound of cottage cheese astride the fruit flesh and a maraschino cherry popped gaily on top. Why anyone would want to consume those three items at the same time was always a mystery to me. What if you’re not into tuna slaw or cottage cheese and cabbage? California coleslaw includes crushed pineapple and quartered marshmallows. To wow the guests at your next picnic, serve this candy-sweet coleslaw in a cabbage cut to look like an Easter basket, complete with orange peel “bow,” as shown in the ad, and you’ll “perk up wilted appetites.”

Of course, not every woman alive in the 1960s was a housewife. Many, like my single mother, worked, whether out of pleasure, necessity or both. But the jury was still out on whether those who didn’t strictly need to work to pay the basic bills had either reason or right to do so. Paying women less than men for equivalent work because it was assumed that their work wasn’t essential to their family’s income was common; refusing to promote them or extend them personal credit that wasn’t cosigned by a husband or other man was also an everyday thing. When my mom bought her own house with her own savings in 1970, it was quite an accomplishment and unusual among the people we knew.

This issue of McCall’s has a letter related to an article about working women published in a prior issue. A reader writes of having worked steadily her whole life out of necessity, but angrily derides the choices of women who work out of a desire to serve, for career fulfillment or for personal satisfaction. “I have nothing but contempt for the wives of prosperous men who, in their own boredom and greed, take jobs away from those who really need to work.” She can’t see the validity of working for personal satisfaction or from a desire to help others or to extend one’s world beyond one’s husband’s sphere. These opposing arguments played out regularly in the court of public opinion (and in courts of law) throughout the next couple of decades as women fought to be allowed the same access to education, employment and advancement without respect to whether they had as much “need” to work as men.

When the woman of 1966 worked too hard and felt depressed over her inability to get ahead on the job, whether at home or out in the world of paid employment, what could she do to find the vim and vigor she needed to get through the day when her get-up-and-go and gotten up and gone? McCall’s had the answer for that, too. Anacin, then a popular over-the-counter headache medicine (and still available at drugstores today), was touted as not just a pain reliever but a mood elevator in an ad with the headine “Casts away gloom, depression . . . as it relieves headache pain fast! Anacin has a combined new action that actually casts away gloom and depression as headache pain goes away in minutes. . . . [F]ortified with a special ‘mood-lifter’ or energizer that brightens your spirits, restores new enthusiasm and drive. With Anacin you experience remarkable all-over relief.” Wow! How did this remarkable wonder drug effect such miraculous changes? What super-effective secret ingredients were at work? Anacin’s remarkable active ingredients amounted to nothing more than aspirin and caffeine. Yes, taking two cheap aspirin and a few cups of coffee would “cast away gloom” and relieve headaches just as quickly. After all these years, now you know.

Sunday on the Pot with George

Sunday on the Pot with George

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog .]

We’ve all seen ghastly paintings and prints at garage sales and thrift shops—sad clowns, unflattering portraits, homely florals and trite landscapes—and wondered not only why someone could have considered hanging them in the first place, but also who in the world could have wasted time making such things?

Most bad art is regrettable but forgettable, something we look past rather than at. But some masterpieces of bad art are so remarkably awful, so tasteless, awkward or outlandish that they deserve to be displayed in all their horrific glory. Pieces that bad deserve to hang in a museum of bad art. Happily, there is such a place, just outside of Boston.

The Museum of Bad Art is an actual physical place and is also a wonderful virtual space with its own highly entertaining website. Established in a Boston basement in 1993, MOBA moved to Dedham, Massachusetts, and has expanded and grown into one of the most entertaining sites on the Web. Their collection runs the gamut from shockingly bad portraits to awkward landscapes to disturbing animal pictures. MOBA’s website states, “The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”

Oh, they’re special all right. An early acquisition and one of two masterworks in the collection is “Lucy in the Field with Flowers,” a vivid and stirring portrait of an elderly woman whose head looks uncomfortably like Norman Mailer’s. Lucy prances through a field of flowers, her legs arrayed as if seated but her body clearly in motion. Her breasts sway in opposite directions under her bright blue dress, which appears to be floating off to one side for no apparent reason.

The Athlete” features a discus thrower described by MOBA’s curatorial staff as “A startling work, and one of the largest crayon on canvas pieces that most people can ever hope to see. The bulging leg muscles, the black shoes, the white socks, the pink toga, all help to make this one of the most popular pieces in the MOBA collection.” I’m also quite fond of “Peter the Kitty,” a painting found in a Salvation Army store, which is, I agree, “Stirring in its portayal of feline angst. Is Peter hungry or contemplating his place in a hungry world? The artist has evoked both hopelessness and glee with his irrational use of negative space.”

Of all the pieces in the collection, my favorite has always been a pointillist tour-de-force done in homage to the genius of George Seurat, whose “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” was the inspiration for the beautiful Stephen Sondheim musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” MOBA’s “Sunday on the Pot with George” features an rotund older gentleman wearing naught but Y-front underwear sitting on top of what is either a chair swathed in thick blue folds of fabric, or perhaps a melting blue toilet. George’s sagging flesh drips slowly toward his nonexistent feet in cascading red and peach colored blobs of paint, the canvas sizzling and jittering before our eyes. The painting has a lively, psychotic quality. I love it so that I’ve enjoyed it in book, calendar and notecard form—items from the MOBA online store make excellent holiday gifts!

Much as I love the images, the oh-so-serious “interpretations” of the pieces are equally enjoyable. Here’s the caption from a pastel and acrylic piece titled “Inspiration“: “The organ master stares, transfixed by twin mysterious visions: the Neanderthal saint in the setting sun and the Gothic monk proceeding out from the cathedral’s sanctum, each framed by a halo of organ pipes, reminiscent of #2 pencils.”

MOBA truly lives up to its tag line: “Art too bad to be ignored.”

The Little Guy

Short people

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

You’d be shocked if a coworker said she could gauge the intelligence of a member of your company by the color of her skin, wouldn’t you? If your child’s teacher said Muslim kids aren’t trustworthy, you’d notify the principal at once. If your favorite cafe’s owner said he disliked gay people, his blatant bigotry would ensure that you’d never eat his risotto again. You’re careful not to stereotype people in wheelchairs or wheatgrass juice drinkers, lesbians or limo drivers, Estonians or the elderly. You see how ridiculous it is to ascribe personality traits to whole groups, or make generalizations about ability or behavior based on so little information. You expect your friends, family and coworkers to show the same respect to others that you do.

So, why are so many otherwise sensitive, multiculturally aware folks so willing to put down the little guy? Why does society hold such contempt for short men? Why are smaller-than-average fellows passed over for jobs, relationships and pay raises at higher rates than other men? And why are jokes and snide asides about short men being less confident, virile or capable so pervasive?

Easy laughs at the expense of men who are mere inches shorter than average are commonly accepted in daily conversation, in ads, in TV shows and films, at work. Even the rare man who shares my own height of just five feet two inches is only 10% smaller than a man of average stature in the U.S., and most men who are publicly berated for being short come within 5% of average height. Why do we ascribe so much social importance and status to such a small variance in size?

My own height is below the 25th percentile for American women, so I’ve always been aware of society’s preference for taller people. But as a petite female, I sometimes benefit from stereotypes about small women. Short women are often assumed to be cuter, nicer or more approachable before people even get to know us. Our stature is less threatening, so strangers often assume our personalities will follow suit. Because people expect us to be friendlier, meeker and weaker than average, they might let down their guard more easily with us and be more willing to help us. However, they also condescend more, sometimes assume we’re less capable or even less intelligent, and not infrequently they offer assistance we haven’t asked for and don’t want, sometimes insistently, as if being smaller than they are means we can’t be trusted to gauge our own strength and ability appropriately.

In study after study, the majority of men say they much prefer dating women who are smaller than they are. Shorter-than-average women make men feel bigger and stronger in comparison with taller women. Tall women definitely find it harder to find men who are comfortable dating them, and they say overwhelmingly that they prefer to date men even taller than they. They then hear fewer comments about their height and get less attention for sticking out in a crowd. But tall women also have a lot of positive characteristics ascribed to them. They’re assumed to be more capable and powerful in social, academic and business settings, so they earn more money as a group than their smaller sisters. There are various advantages to being taller than average, of medium height or even shorter than average height for women, and men of taller-than-average height gain noticeable benefits in social, financial, academic, business and governmental realms. But short men? They’re at a social disadvantage across the board.

Surveys of attitudes reveal that people both perceive and treat people of shorter stature as inferior. This is particularly notable in the business sphere. International university studies have shown that short people, male and female, are paid less than taller people, with disparities similar in magnitude to those ascribed to race and gender gaps. Tall people have significant advantages when it comes to hiring, pay, promotions and prominence within their companies. A 2005 survey of the heights of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs revealed that they were on average six feet tall, approximately three inches taller than the average U.S. man. Fully 30% of these CEOs were six feet two inches tall or more. Ninety percent of CEOs are of above average height.

In the U.S., taller candidates have the advantage in electoral politics, though heightism isn’t a problem in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is just over five feet seven and former President Dmitry Medvedev is just over five feet five inches tall. France’s former President Nicolas Sarkozy is just over five feet six. He is married to the former model Carla Bruni, who is five feet nine inches tall, and throughout his tenure this fact was constantly remarked upon throughout the world. Endless jokes were made about his power being enough of an aphrodisiac to make up for his lack of height, which many assume would otherwise make him appear weak and sexually less desirable. As if a man’s attractiveness, sexual skill or ability to be a good husband had anything to do with his height!

Shockingly, heightism has been cited as one of the underlying causes of the Rwandan genocide, in which approximately one million people were killed. One of the reasons that political power was conferred on minority Tutsis by the exiting Belgians was reportedly because Tutsis were taller and were therefore seen by the Belgians as superior and more suited to governance than Hutus. That’s a horrifying price to pay for baseless prejudice, isn’t it?

Why do a few inches of height matter so much that over 90% of women say they wouldn’t want to date someone shorter than they are? Why do men and women find being of short stature so risible? Film and TV directors often elicit laughs by having a short man make an entrance in a scene when a man of power, action or attractiveness is expected, playing off the audience’s expectation that a charismatic individual must be tall. Think for a moment about how often people laugh at the mere idea that a short man could be considered worthy of their admiration, just as people used to laugh at the idea of showing respect to women, black people or gays and lesbians.

Much loved actor Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones and was so moving in the film The Station Agent, has made a career of playing bright, serious men with dwarfism in a world in which people make constant assumptions about their ability, their personalities or their manhood based on nothing more than height. The brilliant economist Robert Reich met Bill Clinton while they were Rhodes Scholars; he went on to be Clinton’s labor secretary and is now a professor at UC Berkeley. He is a particularly witty and pleasant fellow, and is quite willing to make jokes about his four-foot-ten-inch stature. He has to be a good sport about this; it is cited as a relevant fact about him far too frequently. Reich is wise to let this roll off his back; when short men show fatigue or frustration at the frequent comments and stares, the public that so enjoys razzing them about this inane fact is all too quick to turn nasty and attribute a panoply of bad characteristics to them based on, yes, their lack of height.

We’ve all heard that short men are supposed to be prone to the Napoleon Complex, or Little Man Syndrome, an alleged type of inferiority complex said to affect men of short stature who attempt to overcompensate for their height in other aspects of their lives. Yet this supposed syndrome or complex does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Ironically, Napoleon Bonaparte was, at five feet six, taller than the average European man of his time. Yet how many images have you seen of Napoleon depicted as unnaturally short, and how many times has that trope been used for comic effect? He and countless men of less-than-average height have been depicted as angry, pompous and much shorter than they are, and the negative characteristics ascribed to them are often assumed to be related to a burning desire to overcome supposed embarrassment and self-hatred brought on by their height. Interestingly, research by Britain’s University of Central Lancashire shows that the supposed Napoleon Complex (described by them in terms of the theory that shorter men are more aggressive and try to dominate those who are taller than they are) was not in evidence in their experiments. In their studies, taller men were more likely to lose their tempers and be aggressive than shorter men. The Wessex Growth Study, a community-based longitudinal study conducted in the UK, monitored the psychological development of children from school entry to adulthood which found that “no significant differences in personality functioning or aspects of daily living were found which could be attributable to height”; this functioning included generalizations associated with the Napoleon Complex, such as risk-taking behaviors.

Think of how often this cliché appears in television, film and especially advertising. When people need visual shorthand to express negative characteristics, isn’t it remarkable how often they resort to using height as a signifier for social, sexual or business failure? The primary villain in the popular animated movie Shrek is Lord Farquaad, whose most notable physical characteristic is his extreme shortness. He is repeatedly made the butt of jokes about his stature, even in his presence, despite his power and authority. His every entrance is made more ridiculous by his attempts to conceal his lack of height. The idea that his dastardly and grandiose gestures are all efforts to compensate for shortness (or his supposed lack of virility) is not only alluded to tacitly but is explicitly mentioned numerous times. His small stature is, if you will, visual shorthand meant to allow the audience to detest and dehumanize him so that he can be made more hateful and ridiculous in our eyes.

Michael J. Fox has been an extremely popular actor and public figure for over 35 years. He is talented, likeable, attractive and witty, and his articulate and impassioned advocacy for stem cell research brings a huge amount of attention and funding to his cause. He suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, which often causes embarrassing physical tremors and even difficulty speaking, but he has been willing to brave the snide remarks and derision of people like Rush Limbaugh in order to help his others, no matter how difficult or exhausting public speaking are for him, and no matter how much travel and public scrutiny and exhaustion aggravate his symptoms. Yet, despite his remarkable efforts, which have allowed his foundation to fund over $450 million worth of research to help people with Parkinson’s to live better lives, public figures and private ones continue to make jokes about his height and caustically remark on his shortness, as if his size should in any way impact our ability to take him seriously.

Tom Cruise’s having had several wives taller than he is has gotten nearly as much press as his dismaying affiliation with Scientology, and has garnered much more press than stories of his actual acting talent or business acumen. His over-the-top demeanor and outspoken behavior certainly merit attention and even, at times, derision, but why is his height alluded to alongside descriptions of his behavior, as if the two were related? He is one of the most popular, lauded, influential, powerful and wealthy men of all time, yet there is usually a derisive smirk on the faces of commentators and poison in their prose when they refer to him. How many times have you heard journalists laugh because a shorty like Tom Cruise thinks himself worthy of the amazonian goddesses at his side? And how minuscule, how lilliputian, is this allegedly tiny and unworthy human being who thinks he’s man enough to stand next to Katie Holmes (who is five feet eight) or Nicole Kidman (who is five feet ten)? At five feet seven, he’s two inches shorter than the average U.S. male. Two inches. The width of a small lemon. But because he dares to fall in love with women who are taller than he, he is castigated and verbally emasculated by media outlets on a nearly daily basis. How ridiculous is that?

For the fun of it, consider the following list of shorter-than-average famous men. Consider their accomplishments, personalities, their talents, their influences on culture. Think about whether they fit general stereotypes of short men. Then consider whether you have unwittingly bought in to these stereotypes, or carelessly perpetuated any of them. It’s so common, and so easy to do. But it’s not fair. It’s time to stand up for the little guy.

Five feet tall: David Ben-Gurion • Andrew Carnegie • Danny DeVito • Fiorello LaGuardia

Five feet two: Buckminster Fuller • Paul Simon

Five feet three: Mohandas Gandhi • Martin Scorsese

Five feet four: Ludwig van Beethoven • Mel Brooks • Elton John • Pablo Picasso • Rod Serling • Auguste Rodin

Five feet five: Harry Houdini • J.R.R. Tolkien • Lou Reed • Armand Hammer • Gus Grissom • Sammy Davis Jr.

Five feet six: Alfred Hitchcock • Bob Dylan • Peter Falk • William Faulkner • Elijah Wood • Dustin Hoffman • Spud Webb • T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

Five feet seven: Martin Luther King, Jr. • Stephen Spielberg • Robin Williams • Mario Andretti • Bono • Doug Flutie • F. Scott Fitzgerald • David Eckstein • James Cagney • Salvador Dali • Al Pacino

The World of a 1960s Housewife

Good Housekeeping

[Revised from an article published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I’ve been enjoying my recently purchased cache of vintage magazines from 1960 to 1971, taking one issue or another with me to read over lunch, in waiting rooms, etc., over the past two weeks. I’ve marveled at the extent to which the content, the writing styles, the focus of advertisers and the willingness to talk candidly about social issues altered over the course of the decade.

The transition from the height of the Cold War in 1960 to U.S. immersion in a hot (and by then very unpopular) war in Vietnam in 1971 is fascinating. During this period, women’s magazines changed more than they probably ever have in a single decade since the Depression. In 1960 they were filled with home-centered fantasies and prescriptive articles telling how to be the ideal wife and mother with perfectly starched aprons, a fresh darling dress and matching heels, an adoring husband and well-fed children who loved your latest Jello creation. By 1971 they were covering serious, formerly unmentionable subjects like sexual problems, psychiatry and psychotherapy, rising drug use among youth, and other hot-button social issues and political stories that would never have made it into a women’s magazine a decade earlier. Of course, there were still articles with titles like “17 New Designer Patterns for Fall” and “The Foods that Make You Prettier.”

I was surprised to notice how many of the products advertised in 1960 would be found to be downright dangerous in the following ten to twenty years. The archetypal housewife of 1960 had the specter of The Bomb looming over her life and she was trying to use modern chemistry and technology to provide a cleaner, whiter, safer life for her family. How ironic, then, that these fresh technologies and newly synthesized chemical compounds would be the cause of so much unnecessary suffering.

The oldest of the magazines I picked up last month is an issue of Good Housekeeping from May 1960. The very first page of the issue has an ad for Ipana toothpaste touting their new germ-killing ingredient, hexachlorophene. Immediately, I remembered the brouhaha caused by by hexachlorophene in the early seventies, when it was discovered that the potent germ killer, chemically related to herbicides, was toxic and could cause cerebral swelling and brain damage in humans. We had pHisoHex, a very popular facial cleanser, in our house when I was a child. I remember when it and other products containing hexachlorophene were pulled from the market with much alarming media coverage in 1973. The product is actually still sold and used to prep skin for surgery and to fight infections that haven’t responded to other treatment, but packaging warns against excess hexachlorophene absorption and the possible dangers to the central nervous system.

I didn’t have to look far to find another dangerous product being marketed to anxious mothers with sick children. Page 4 features an article for St. Joseph Aspirin for Children, a delicious treat I remember from my childhood. Tiny orange-flavored aspirin tablets for children were chewable and so tasty, the company had to invent child-proof caps (which I remember opening for my grandmother because she didn’t have the dexterity I did). Kids ate them like candy. (I know I ate more than I needed.) Of course, by the 1980s it was discovered that Reye’s syndrome, a severe illness which can cause acute encephalopathy, can be caused by giving aspirin to children. When this was known and NSAIDs like Ibuprofen began to be recommended for children’s use in place of aspirin, the number of cases of Reye’s syndrome dropped dramatically across the country. Plough was a smart enough company to change their marketing for what had been called “baby aspirin” to take advantage of the discovery that small amounts of aspirin taken daily could help ward off strokes in older people with high blood pressure. The company now markets the same product to older people who don’t have the risk of contracting Reye’s disease that children have.

Though not an advertisement, I do have to give a shout-out to the column “Foods with a Foreign Flavor,” which featured “Three festive recipes from Colonial America,” which is, of course, completely contrary to the point of having a column about international foods. Best of all was the recipe for Maple-Nut Whip Pie, which included as a primary and necessary ingredient a package of unflavored gelatin, which, as you may know, wasn’t a product found in Colonial American kitchens. A whipped cream pie based on gelatin and egg whites whipped into a near meringue—no recipe could be more authentically early-American, could it?

Warner’s, still a major maker of women’s undergarments, featured a lovely layout of mannequins wearing scary bras and girdles to keep women’s bodies completely jiggle-free. My favorite set? Probably the “Most famous Double-Play” high-topped girdle with built-in garters (remember, pantyhose hadn’t been invented yet) in the elegant blue pearl colorway, with “Matching pantie” and “A’Lure” bra. The ad exults, “Happy you! Your hunt-and-fret days of girdle choosing are over!” Each girdle offers some new fresh Hell of discomfort so that you might fit more snugly into that Jackie Kennedy-knock-off skirted suit made of fatteningly bumpy chenille that was so popular at the time. “Some with midriff-shaping Sta-Up-Top! Some with hip-slimming side panels; all with flattening back panels!” Because every woman wants a flat behind, right? Huh. This was an era when a natural wiggle was the sign of a loose woman, and a woman who wore a dress without a slip was an absolute hussy. The ad claims these products had “All-over slimming made magically comfortable,” but I remember trying on my mom’s girdles when I was a girl, and they were tighter than compression bandages and lined in horrible rubber ridges. In hot weather, rubber compression ridges pressed into the skin. I can tell you, there was little less magically comfortable than those horrid, tight, hot, constricting monstrosities. They were better than rib-crushing corsets, but a far cry from today’s comfy undies.

Girdle

Berlei high-line girdle ad from the 1960s

The Equitable Life Insurance ad on Page 21 features a serious, carefully dressed woman in a kitchen doing deep knee-bends next to the stove while her husband and son sit at the kitchen table ignoring their cherry-topped grapefruit halves to ogle the hot mama who has kicked off her shoes and is earnestly working to keep her fine figure. It’s like a scene right out of the wonderful AMC television series “Mad Men,” set in the early 1960s in the Madison Avenue ad world, where a woman’s job was to get and keep a man, and where men teach boys early to look at women, even mom, as objects of desire and little else.

Do you remember Fizzies, the tablets dropped into plain water than created instantly carbonated drinks? Kids loved them, and most of us tried to get our moms to let us have some to suck on without water so we could feel the effervescent action directly on our tongues. Page 24’s ad promises “Fizzies are FUN to make and drink—and so GOOD for you!” I had to wonder how they could make this claim about the “sprizzling, sparkling goodness” of their product, which was “as up-to-date as the newest jet.” It turns out “Mothers prefer Fizzies, too—they’re two-ways better for health. No sugar—safer for teeth—won’t destroy healthy appetites.” Hmm, no sugar? They wouldn’t be sweetened with saccharin, the earliest artificial sweetener, would they? Why, yes, they were. And saccharin was the focus of yet another health scare in the early 1970s; in fact, the USDA attempted to ban the substance in 1972, as another artificial sweetener, cyclamate had been in 1969 after causing bladder tumors and cancer in rats. Cyclamate had been used in an earlier formulation of Fizzies. Saccharin was and remains banned in Canada while remaining the third most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S.

The popular and attractive opera star Roberta Peters is featured in two different ads in this issue, one for St. Joseph’s Aspirin, the other for Murine eye drops. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream magazine featuring a coloratura soprano diva to sell anything at all nowadays, the art form is so much less popular among the general public. Roberta Peters was a well-known figure then, not only on the stage but also on TV and radio. Even though the average American lived on modest means in a modest home or apartment with much less education than is normal now, there was a greater ease with an interest in classical vocal and orchestral music at the time. Leonard Bernstein‘s Young People’s Concerts featuring classical music interspersed with Bernstein’s captivating commentary were televised from Lincoln Center in New York City to the rest of the country for a decade beginning in 1962, and they were enormously popular, helping people of all ages to become conversant with the classical canon.

Skipping recipes for curried fruit bake and a jeweled Bavarian (a dessert that includes raspberry “gelatine,” port wine, eggs, scalded milk and heavy cream, ugh), I find an ad for Velveeta, the “pasteurized process cheese spread” of my childhood that seems to have been melted all over everything. There’s an exciting frost-free Frigidaire (and if you don’t think a frost-free freezer isn’t exciting, you’ve never had to defrost an iced-over fridge and deal with the resulting puddles all over the floor) and a woman in pearls wearing a spotless white blouse and no apron while she cleans a filthy oven. Such fantasy. My favorite product name in this issue? That would be the cream deodorant with this straightforward moniker: ODO-RO-NO.

Hey, are you old enough to remember bad home perms? Girls whose moms had left the permanent wave solution on their heads so long they ended up looking like frizzed-out poodles? Here on page 153 is Bobbi, a home perm kit that you put in at night and don’t wash out until morning. Trying to sleep while wearing hard plastic perm curlers all night is one thing; having that horrible-smelling chemical stew sitting on your head for eight hours and breathing it in is another. On page 157 is Come Alive Gray, the hair color for women who like their gray hair. Add a brilliant pearly glow, enjoy a gleaming silver, or “add lustre . . . with rich, smoky tones.” I remember these different shades of gray on old ladies: lots of slightly lavender, blue or even pink hair was popular for a time, and the ladies sometimes dyed their poodles to match.

Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper sports a head full of home permanent curlers in the film “American Hustle,” which takes place during the perm-crazy 1970s

Ah, doilies! I’d forgotten how popular they once were. Paper doilies under every cake, plastic doilies under Hummel figurines (because “Your ‘best’ looks better on plastic Roylies”), even crocheted lace doilies on backs of chairs to keep the hair oil off the furniture (that’s why they were called antimacassars—to keep the macassar men’s hair oil off the brocade). And Brillo pads! They were once so popular before nylon scrubber sponges came along to save us from quickly rusting soap-imbued metal mesh pads that stabbed one with loose, sharp aluminum points. By 1960, Brillo pads contained “Jeweler’s Polish” and produced a “richer, livelier lather.” Yes, lively soapsuds.

“Live Outside and Love It!” You can with Hudson pesticide sprayers and dusters. Wear your pretty spring dress and spray DDT all over your roses while your husband teaches your daughter to putt six feet away and your son sits at Dad’s feet, looking up adoringly. All of that is charmingly illustrated in Good Housekeeping. Of course, in 1960 gardeners had no idea that DDT was so extremely toxic that it would be banned in 1972, and so persistent that it still shows up regularly in the blood of people today. In the United States DDT was detected in almost all human blood samples tested by the Centers for Disease Control in 2005. It is still commonly detected in food samples tested by the FDA.

Make light work of chores indoors by playing your new miniature radio with six transistors. This tiny beauty is only four by six inches and costs just $39.95—that’s in 1960 dollars, when the average income of a four-person family was $5600 per year.

Isn’t it odd that not one but at least two tuna canners wanted to compare their tuna to chicken last century? I knew of Chicken of the Sea, but had you heard of Breast-O’-Chicken Tuna? And have you tasted Pretzel Meat Loaf? Yes, meat loaf made with the lavish inclusion of crushed pretzels, “catsup” and canned mushrooms. There’s a recipe on page 215 you won’t want to miss. (Urp.)

What other hazardous materials can I find advertised here? Well, there’s a baby powder that’s almost certainly made of talc, which contains asbestos and has been proven to raise the risk of ovarian cancer in females who have used it in the genital area. Nowadays pediatricians recommend avoiding talcum powder and suggest using powders with a cornstarch base instead. A few pages later is a hot steam vaporizer, the kind I scalded myself on numerous times as a kid. The glass got so hot, the steam burnt my fingers or legs as I neared it, and the whole thing had a rounded bottom so it could tip and spill nearly boiling water and hot liquid Vick’s Vapo-Rub (which was melted in the well on the top and sprayed into the air, leaving a fine petroleum-based film all over the windows and, it turns out, irritating the lungs as well). Thank goodness for today’s cool-air humidifiers.

Next page? Mothballs! Very toxic, made with naphthalene, they can cause all sorts of bad side effects with increased exposure, and can cause death when eaten. Why would you eat a mothball? Ask all the little kids who’ve tried them! A few pages later we find insect killer spray (very likely DDT-laced). Anxious about the hazards in this big, crazy world? Why not zip up your home interiors with a coat or two of SatinTone paint? You can slather this (probably lead-based) paint on the walls of your baby’s room.

Honestly, this magazine is a minefield of health and safety disasters just waiting to happen. It’s a wonder how much we’ve learned in the last fifty years about environmental toxins, hazardous home-based chemicals and healthy eating, isn’t it?

Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me

clown

 

I’ve never cared much for clowns. I don’t have coulrophobia (fear of clowns), though this fear is apparently surprisingly common. I just find pretty much everything they are and most of what they stand for annoying. I don’t hate them, but I avoid them when I can, and I’ve been sorely tempted to buy myself a “Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me” T-shirt. Apparently many of my fellow Americans agree with me.

My beloved Uncle Steve is the exception to my anti-clown rule. He finally retired from his recurring role as Tidy the Clown in the annual Redwood City (California) Fourth of July Parade after 25 years of clowning around in public, and I must say I did enjoy him. But he was a gentle clown who pushed a bottomless garbage can down the street, popping junk into it and leaving a trail of trash behind him as the debris went right through the bottom of the can. When he’s a clown, the joke’s on him, and the audience gets to giggle at his cluelessness.

Steve’s alter ego, Tidy, recruited elementary school kids to be his clown sidekicks every year, and the result was charming and sweet. Tidy stuck flowers into piles of pucky left by the horses of the mounted police that went before him, and only approached people if they seemed open to it; he’d never force himself on a child. He’s more the sweet, Chaplinesque Little Tramp sort of clown, not the barrelling, bamboozling, freakazoid clown one finds on, say, ice cream cone packaging. (That is one horrifying dude.) I can make exceptions for someone like Tidy, but in general, keep Bozo and his ilk far away from me.

The sort of clown my uncle represents is endearing and enjoyable, a sort of old-style, mid-20th-century, fun-loving clown. But nowadays such cuddly clowns are rather rare. The cheerful, perky clown toys of the past have given way to more garish and ghoulish representations in the general media.

The general idea of the American clown, a white-faced social misfit clad in oversized and odd clothing, ignoring people’s personal space, attacking them with seltzer bottles or squirting flowers, and using them as the butt of public jokes as a way of seeking attention, pretty much sums up the worst of American behavior in one self-parodying, campy, over-the-top package. It’s nearly everything I hate about our embarrassingly accurate national stereotype: garish, self-absorbed, pushy, willing to trod on other’s toes, thinking our needs are greater than everyone else’s, ever ready to laugh at others’ humiliation but in a touchy, bad-humored funk when the table is turned and the joke’s on us.

To be fair, clowns of other cultures (e.g., buffoons like Pantalone and Arlecchino in the commedia dell’arte tradition, or Britain’s Punch and Judy puppet versions of clowns) are also caricatures with distinct, overscaled features, costumes, and gestures, all of which predate the founding of the United States by many years. I’m being unjust in blaming American culture for the American clown tradition, I know. They come from a long and, to my sensitivities, annoying tradition of making the audience the straight man, barrelling over others for laughs, and making light of humiliation and slapstick violence. It’s the sort of thing that Roberto Benigni did in his Holocaust-lite Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser, “Life is Beautiful,” a few years ago—much to my disgust and dismay.  For a description of the film that agrees with my take on it, see David Denby’s review, “In the eye of the beholder,” published in The New Yorker, March 15, 1999.  I found nearly everything Benigni did in that film either offensive, maudlin, self-aggrandizing, disrespectful, or embarrassing—or all of those things rolled into one.

I’m not actually a humorless prig; I can cackle and guffaw with the best of them, and I laugh so hard I snort more often than I care to admit. I can enjoy dark humor, tacky humor, vulgar humor, but I can rarely appreciate or enjoy slapstick physical comedy or farce, unless they’re so bizarrely irrational (e.g., my beloved Monty Python) that it’s impossible to empathize with the person playing the butt of the joke. Otherwise, I usually become uncomfortable when the laughs come at the expense of someone else’s pride, safety, or happiness. Even when the straight man is set up to seem an unpleasant sort who deserves his comeuppance, I generally don’t like seeing others derive happiness from the suffering of others. But then, I don’t appreciate most light romantic comedies, either. I can watch “Six Feet Under” or “The Sopranos” all day long (gimme that angst!), but ask me to watch ditsy women trip over themselves to get the attention of pretty boys with great abs for an hour and really, I’d rather floss my teeth or weed my garden, thank you very much.

Of course, I’m not alone. A quick search of eBay will find you scores of scary clown puppets, figurines, and posters that the sellers recognize as distinctly creepy. A walk through the aisles of your local Blockbuster shows DVD covers emblazoned with killer clowns in the horror section. “The Simpsons” even featured an episode in which Bart is so frightened by the clown-inspired bed Homer makes him that he stays up all night chanting, “Can’t sleep, clown’ll eat me.” This is apparently the genesis of the refrain now printed on T-shirts worn by proud coulrophobes across the nation. (Leave it to Matt Groening to explore odd undercurrents of our nation in such a fun and funky way.)

I don’t know whether it’s worth it to resurrect cheerful, inoffensive clowns, since even they had elements that have scared children for centuries; outsized features, crazy make-up, and disturbingly child-like behavior coming from an oversized adult are just odd. I prefer my comedians to take the forms of everyday people, I guess. I like my fantasy worlds to feel as close to a world I can believe in as possible, so I can get lost in them more easily. Some like fantasy characters and scenarios to be as outlandish as possible in order to feel truly immersed in another world and way of thinking, but I’d rather have some emotional connection to fictional characters so that I can care about them and identify with them, and for me, that usually involves making them feel as much like realistic human beings as possible. I also prefer it if they don’t step out of their boundaries and squirt me in the face with a shot of seltzer water. I’m funny that way.

[Originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]